As members of the Church, we are often reminded to maintain an “eternal perspective,” and are taught so many beautiful lessons about families being together forever. I think it’s such a valuable message that needs to be repeated often, especially when it applies to certain circumstances that remind us that loss of a loved one isn’t forever. But I want to turn things around to expose one flaw of maintaining an eternal perspective that I think affects us today—especially in our modern Mormon culture.
To me, the danger of having an eternal perspective is that it can often make us forget just how temporary each phase of this life really is. It’s the mentality that “someday” we will have time to focus on the things that matter most so it’s okay to put off a lot of those things in the meantime.
It’s human nature to gauge how much of something we have left and then we course-correct to plan accordingly. When a hiker checks the status of her water bottle and sees it running low, she will ration her remaining water more carefully and certainly appreciate each sip more. It is the same with time. When we feel we have an abundance of something, we plan and act accordingly; often squandering away years of time without realizing how valuable and finite those passing moments can be. When we are young we feel like we have our whole lives ahead of us so we naturally live that way. It isn’t until we get much older that we start to value how quickly life really does go by. Sadly, by then it is often too late to go back and appreciate some of the very best moments and most precious opportunities that have already passed us by.
The elusive idea of “someday” often causes us to mismanage our priorities and to focus more on the things that matter less, with less emphasis on the things that matter most. We justify our doing so by thinking that “someday” we’ll get on top of things and somehow make up for lost time. This way of thinking affects everyone—Mormon or otherwise.
Society is constantly pressuring us to put off family. We’re told that if we can just focus on work for a few years that we’ll get the promotion we need so we aren’t stressed about money anymore. The problem is that once that promotion arrives, we have to take on even more responsibilities to justify our additional income and then we end up having less time at home, not more. Then the goal changes to working harder for a few more years until we can have a management opportunity because then we’ll be able to schedule our own hours. Yet, when that day comes, we find ourselves wearing more burdens on our back than ever before, so we push off the finish line again. And again, and again, and again, until finally, we decide that the finish line will need to be when we are finally old enough to retire and collect a pension. It’s a vicious cycle and one that truly never ends. It’s like the donkey chasing the carrot; round and round we go, reaching for something we will never obtain. It’s why grandma and grandpa often seem so much more accessible than mom and dad ever were
In his conference talk “Finding Joy in the Journey” President Thomas S. Monson says:
“This is our one and only chance at mortal life—here and now. The longer we live, the greater is our realization that it is brief. Opportunities come, and then they are gone. I believe that among the greatest lessons we are to learn in this short sojourn upon the earth are lessons that help us distinguish between what is important and what is not. I plead with you not to let those most important things pass you by as you plan for that illusive and nonexistent future when you will have time to do all that you want to do. Instead, find joy in the journey—now.”
The world teaches us that the ends justify the means and that the sacrifices required for success are always worth it. The world manufactures this lie because it defines success by the amount of money we make. That is the world’s ultimate measuring stick for achievement. These days, a big house and nice car are standards for proving that you know what you’re doing in life. We are constantly told that the more money we make the more successful we are, and that such success somehow equals happiness. Not only is that formula false, it neglects to inform its subscribers that in order to achieve that level of success you constantly have to say no to important “distractions” in order to say yes to “success.” And that may not seem like such a big deal because it has become so common in the world today, but if you stop and think about what, and more importantly, who, you keep saying no to along the way—you may realize that you’re missing much of the most important stuff from all of the most important people in your life. I think the first step to rectifying this temptation is to redefine what it means to be successful. To me, the greatest measuring stick of temporal success isn’t how much money I have, but how much time each day I can truly call my own to spend the way I see fit: with the people I love most.
Of course, the only distractions and ambitions in this world aren’t financially motivated ones. We can lose our focus from our Savior and our loved ones with just about anything. Sometimes, even worthy ambitions can cloud our judgment and take time away from more important priorities. In his conference talk “Good, Better, Best,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks describes it this way:
“We should begin by recognizing the reality that just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.”
Society today is obsessed with activities and programs that keep us busy with one “opportunity” after another. Sports teams, dance classes, music lessons, even church commitments can all have tremendous benefit to our children and us in moderation. But too often we become so over-scheduled and distracted by things that are good, that we are forced to neglect the things that are best. When we take on too many commitments and obligations, we have very little (if any) quality time together with our families each day.
In his conference talk “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”, President Boyd K. Packer said:
“There are many things about living the gospel of Jesus Christ that cannot be measured by that which is counted or charted in records of attendance. We busy ourselves with buildings and budgets and programs and procedures. In so doing, it is possible to overlook the very spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often someone comes to me and says, “President Packer, wouldn’t it be nice if … ?” I usually stop them and say no, because I suspect that what follows will be a new activity or program that is going to add a burden of time and financial means on the family. Family time is sacred time and should be protected and respected. We urge our members to show devotion to their families.”
When we are too distracted by work, activities, and programs, we may not have enough hours left in the day to focus on the most important thing of all: building a personal relationship with our Savior, our spouse, and our children. We may raise star athletes or great singers, but what about being great friends with and being there for the people we value most in this world?
A few years ago, David Letterman finally retired after being the host of one of America’s most popular talk-shows for 33 years. He said he was doing so to finally spend more time with his family. Now, just two years after officially stepping out of the limelight, he has announced that he will be back to headline a new talk show for Netflix. He’s justified his return to work with this quip: “If you retire to spend more time with your family, check with your family first.” The lesson: if you haven’t built a strong relationship with your kids when they were young, don’t expect them to care too much about doing so with you when they get older.
We need to accept that no amount of time, not even forever, will give back moments that have already passed us by. We need to recognize that there are phases in life that DO have an end. For instance, in the whole spectrum of eternity, each of your children will only be a baby once. That magical feeling of holding a newborn is a gift for you to enjoy for just a few short weeks. Every year that passes brings with it an incredible series of moments and opportunities too priceless to be missed. From your child’s first laugh to dancing with your daughter on her wedding day. These moments and every moment in between will be over before you know it and they won’t ever happen again—even in Heaven.
Be mindful of the fact that you can only be in one place at a time. Of course you need to work and provide for your family, and of course you want to give your children to participate in activities that will help them to learn and grow and gain new skills and opportunities. Learning how to juggle priorities is one of life’s great challenges and I’m convinced that no one gets it right all the time. We have to accept that we will miss some moments no matter what we do so the purpose of this article isn’t to convince you that you can’t miss any moments; it’s to motivate you to miss less. For me, there is nothing in this world that should be a higher priority than quality time spent together as a family. As President David O. McKay said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
Having an eternal perspective is a powerful and valuable asset to every Latter-Day Saint. It is one of the things that sets us apart from so many. But it’s important to remember that Satan tries to use every good thing in this world against God’s children at one time or another. And procrastination is one of Satan’s greatest weapons. President Spencer W. Kimball was right when he wrote, “One of the most serious human defects in all ages is procrastination.”
The next time you want to say no to a “distraction” coming from a member of your family, ask yourself this: “which distraction is really the distraction here?” You can live the life you hope to have someday by choosing to be present more often today. You don’t need retirement and a pension to learn to finally slow down. Slam on the brakes if you find yourself swerving through life so quickly that you aren’t enjoying the journey anymore. Never let a day pass you by without witnessing the more precious moments from the people in your life that you value most. Never let a day go by without feeling intensely grateful for all that your Father in Heaven has blessed you with. And when you focus on the eternal perspective, remember that each and every moment and phase of life is, in fact, still temporary and if you miss a moment today, you’ll miss it forever. But the reverse is also true: the most beautiful part of having an “eternal perspective” is knowing that if you witness a moment now, you’re able to keep it with you forever.