Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Lost Art Of The Plugger

This past week has seen me spending a lot of time in prayer and contemplation about life. A number of things have been combining to cause me to pause and look at where my life is, where I would like it to go, and what I need to do to make that a reality. As I have been pondering these things, studying different aspects of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and consulting with God in prayer two powerful things have happened. First, I gained a new perspective on what it means to have patience. Secondly, the Lord showed me that patience is one of the gifts that I have been blessed with in my life.

I have always been good at school and academics in general. I have never struggled with grasping concepts or with taking tests or completing assignments or even falling behind in any class. I hadn't realized how rare this was until I came to college. Here I met and interacted with many people from vastly different backgrounds who had varying approaches to school work and I have been able to see how much some of them struggle.

One of the biggest clues I had that something was different between me and many of my peers was when midterms or finals came around. To me these tests felt like any other test. I had taken dozens if not hundreds of tests; what made these any different?

And yet here my friends were staying up late and getting up early to study, going to special three-hour-long review sessions and frantically trying to shove an entire semester into one week. I finally understood the phrase "burning the candle from both ends" as I watched my friends prepare for exams.

For me, finals week just marked the end of the semester. For most of them it marked the busiest, most stressful part of the semester. I always felt like I must be doing something wrong, as if I were missing out on part of the experience of college and that it was just too easy. I knew that my classes weren't easier than those of my peers, so I figured maybe I was just incredibly lazy and care-free while at the same time being very blessed to be intelligent.

It wasn't until yesterday that I realized that there isn't something wrong with me in this regards. The key came down to the difference in our approaches to the rest of the semester. My approach is not revolutionary, it's not even that surprising. But what is surprising is how uncommon it is to find.

My approach is this: I put in a great deal of effort during the semester--reading through the textbook, taking meticulous notes, making sure I understand the homework problems rather than just being able to arrive at the right answer--and as a result my preparation for exams comes slowly throughout the semester rather than all at once right before "judgment day".

There are times when this forces me to miss out on opportunities and some of the fun things college students do. My weekends typically consist of me doing homework Friday evening, going to be relatively early, waking up early on Saturday, and continuing to do homework. You see, I learned early on in my school career that it was worth far more for me to make small sacrifices each day and make small, consistent efforts towards reaching my goal (typically earning an A in a given class) than it was to live it up, participate in the "college experiences", and then have to cram and stress and worry that I wouldn't reach my goals.

As a result, finals weeks have been some of the most relaxing and enjoyable for me. Not to mention I have always done well on the tests I take. I have never been worried about taking an exam. There is, however, one exception to this pattern of mine that was quite eye-opening.

This was the one exam I was not nearly so consistent at preparing for. This was an exam where there was no homework leading up to it, no defined syllabus to indicate a study schedule, nothing of the sort. There was just a textbook and a test date.

Unlike all of my other testing experiences, I did not do well in my preparations. I was very relaxed towards the beginning and studied every once in a while when I felt like it. Then about two months before the exam I realized that I only had a little time to not only learn the material but to understand it well enough to pass this crucial test.

So I got more serious. I was more structured in my studying and preparations, but I still passed on studying if a more appealing alternative posed itself. A month later, I had another wake up call when I realized that I had only learned half of the material and had one more month to do almost all of my preparations.

From then I began studying one hour a day, every day, no matter what came up. Then one hour turned into two hours, then three, then finally during that last week before the exam I was studying upwards of six hours a day. When test day came, I had been able to learn everything but I still felt very unprepared.

For the first time in my life I was anxious about a test and the hours from when I woke up that morning to when I began the test were filled with frantic last-minute review and memorization. Oh how I wished for more time! One more week, even one more day would have been enough time to feel a little more prepared! Nevertheless the time of reckoning came and I had to do my best with my inadequate preparations.

I learned from experience with this exam that I much prefer my typical strategy with studying. It is certainly harder to do in the moment and requires a good amount of discipline, but in the end I have learned that the steady, consistent, persistent efforts towards my end goal are much easier than a frantic final push to make ends meet and hope for some miracle.

By now I'm sure you are wondering what this has to do with patience. This sounds a lot more like diligence than patience! That is where my new understanding of patience comes in.

In his talk "Continue in Patience," President Dieter F. Uchtdorf teaches, "Patience means active waiting and enduring. It means staying with something and doing all that we can—working, hoping, and exercising faith; bearing hardship with fortitude, even when the desires of our hearts are delayed. Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well!"

I think that last part captures what most of us think of with regards to patience. It is usually coupled with another word like "endure" or something else which indicates a hardship or challenge. While that certainly is true that this is an application of patience--a very important one at that--I think there is another, less well know but more commonly applied side to this divine virtue.

President Uchtdorf further teaches that patience is "the ability to put our desires on hold for a time" and that it requires "actively working toward worthwhile goals and not getting discouraged when results [don't] appear instantly or without effort."

That is the patience I am talking about and the patience with which I feel I have been very blessed. We don't need to face some big obstacle, some detour or road block in our lives in order to exercise our patience. All we need is a goal and the strong desire to achieve it. In this sense, patience and diligence are very similar and tied quite closely together!

There are many in this world who I would call pluggers. They don't often receive recognition or reward, however they are always there. They are the ones who show up to work each day, who attend all of their meetings, who fulfill their responsibilities. They are the ones who are in control of their lives. They save their money, they look ahead in their lives towards goals and dreams that they have and steadily prepare and save for them. They are not the ones who accrue debt on a whim or who live frivolous lives with no direction. They are the ones who keep plugging along.

These are the ones who exemplify what it means to have patience: to put off desires and appetites now with the faith and the hope of obtaining their goals in the end, the hope of obtaining and becoming something far greater than they have and are now.

We each have our goals and our dreams and our desires that we are working towards in one way or another. Some have not considered the steps they need to take to see these goals and dreams obtained. Others are further along in their lives and are now frantically trying make up for the time they lost as they too casually approached their goals. Then there are the pluggers; the few who have outlined their goals, who have made a plan of how they will accomplish these goals, and then consistently and patiently followed that plan.

This life on earth has been compared to climbing a ladder where each successive rung represents our becoming a little more like God and drawing a little nearer to Him. All of the things that happen to us in our lives are meant to help us rise up to be able to obtain this ultimate goal of perfection. They are like the rung below us, supporting our weight, making the climb more manageable.

However, the process of moving upwards depends not just one the support of the rung below us but also on our willingness to act--our willingness to grab the next rung and to pull up. I believe that one of the ways in which we do our part to reach for the next rung and pull ourselves up the ladder--and thus becoming more like our perfect Heavenly Father--is by patiently pursuing and working towards our goals, whatever they may be.

As we patiently and consistently work towards our goals--particularly toward our goal of returning to our Father in Heaven--our character changes and we become a little more like Him each day. We no longer look for immediate gratification of our efforts, but are at peace knowing that each small effort brings us one step closer to our goals. Our progress is no longer measured by outward results but rather by an inner peace and satisfaction of knowing that we did what we needed to today. We have a clearer perspective on those around us and see more clearly that they are fighting their own battles and have their own individual struggles. We are more willing to forgive, to see pure intent in the actions of another, to love unconditionally everyone with whom we come in contact.

The world needs more pluggers, more people who are willing to put their immediate desires on hold for a time in order to obtain a higher reward. And more importantly, each and every one of us needs more fully to be a plugger, for surely this is one of the crucial steps towards becoming like our all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, perfect Father.

I have many goals and dreams for this life and for the life to come. There will be a day of judgment at some point in my future where I will stand before my God to show Him what I have done with my life. As I think on that day now, whenever it may be, I find far more comfort in imagining my preparations for that day being similar to my preparations for exams.

I would hate to walk to that interview feeling unprepared, frantically trying to figure out the right things to say and hoping by some miracle that He will let me into His presence. I would much rather make the small yet substantial efforts today and tomorrow and the next day and each succeeding day of my life towards obtaining that most important goal.

The progress may be slow but I know that the progress will be there, and that is what gives me hope. Patience is what gives me hope for my future.

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