One day, during my freshman year at BYU, I was sitting in a general elective class while the professor stood, rolling his eyes at the auditorium full of students who were wailing and gnashing their teeth after a difficult exam. He simply said, “Look, you can’t give smart people an easy test.” That was one of the few proverbial light bulb moments I’ve had in my entire life. Ever. It’s a good thing I didn’t skip class that day because I actually learned something.
And then I promptly forgot all about it, because, I’ve recently realized that I’m always praying for things to be easy. The implied requests in a lot of my prayers are: “Dear God, I pray that everything will go well and happen according to my plans, please, please, please?” “Dear God, will you just make me perfect now so I can be done learning from my mistakes?” “Dear God, can I just avoid the hard test that has ‘no clear answer and no prescribed pattern for resolution’? Can my problems in general just go away, and would it be okay with You if I just slept in today and didn’t have to do laundry?” God probably rolls His eyes at me all the time…
I have to appreciate learning from the hard test. So says Elder Bednar in his BYU commencement address, “Learning to Love Learning”:
I believe a basic test exists of our capacity to learn and the measure of our love of learning. Here is the test: When you and I do not know what to do or how to proceed to achieve a particular outcome—when we are confronted with a problem that has no clear answer and no prescribed pattern for resolution—how do we learn what to do?
He then relates the story of Nephi’s willingness to accept the hard test of building the ship. I like his subsequent commentary, which reminds us that we can, and we will navigate the “uncharted territory” of whatever hard tests we encounter:
Nephi was not a sailor. He had been reared in Jerusalem, an inland city, rather than along the borders of the Mediterranean Sea. It seems unlikely that he knew much about or had experience with the tools and skills necessary to build a ship. He may not have ever previously seen an oceangoing vessel. In essence, then, Nephi was commanded and instructed to build something he had never built before in order to go someplace he had never been before.
Now I doubt any of us will be commanded to build a ship as was Nephi, but each of us will have our spiritual and learning capabilities tested over and over and over again. The ever-accelerating rate of change in our modern world will force us into uncharted territory and demanding circumstances.
My most recent work-in-progress-triumph over uncharted territory involved packing up my Utah life—which was comfortable, predictable, and boring, but full of job security—and moving to a state in which I thought I had no ideal job prospects. I wanted to use my teaching degree but found it surprisingly difficult to find a job that would allow me to teach middle or high school kids how to write coherent paragraphs and revive the art of putting periods at the end of their sentences. When I couldn’t find said job, I thought something was wrong with me, and I may or may not have been a little depressed for a while. I did find part time work teaching at a university, but I wanted to teach 200 12-year-olds all day! On the days when I didn’t have to go to the university, I shuffled around the apartment in my pajamas and I made multiple batches of cupcakes and ate them all myself. I stalked people on Facebook. I consumed entire boxes of Kleenex and drenched our throw pillows in soggy tears. I even read the news for a while.
I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. I had a master’s degree, experience, more credentials than were necessary… I was applying to schools that posted ads like this: “Seven English teachers needed, no experience necessary, bachelor’s degree preferred. Convicted felons discouraged from submitting applications.” What was wrong with me? This was one of those times Elder Bednar was talking about when there were no easy answers (a time when I also happened to be praying only for easy answers). I never imagined NOT teaching middle or high school and having to go through any of this.
The only thing I could think of to do with all my extra time was to get more active in Relief Society, which distracted me from all thoughts of teaching middle school. Through my service in RS, I met an older woman in my ward; she and I shared similar interests in art and design. After her kids grew up and moved away she went back to school for graphic design—just because she had always wanted to, and because she had finally found time to do it. Yay for her, I thought. And then I moved on with my life. It wasn’t until a few months later that, as I thought of her, and after I had changed my prayer strategy from asking for easy to asking for ways to overcome the hard things, that I was given this answer to everything: “RISD is right around the corner, go there, learn to illustrate children’s books.” The answer surprised me because I swore I was done with school, but since RISD really is just around the corner (kind of) and since I used to dream of going there but gave up on it before even giving it a chance, I said, “Ok.”
I was surprised how easily things fell into place to make it possible to continue active service in RS, to keep working part time with a university schedule that’s a greater blessing than I realized because it allows me to be a student again. I know going to RISD means even more uncharted territory; I don’t know how to be an artist and wonder whether I have the discipline or courage to wander through this new space I’ve never been before. But because this is where I was directed to go, things will work out one way or another.
The moral of this rambling story: how does anything get done without divine intervention? God told Nephi, “Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee…” (1 Nephi 17:8). God waits for us to ask for the strength to pass our hard tests, and then He points us in the right direction, if we are willing to see.