Maybe it’s the fact that there’s a baby growing inside of me, but I have thought a lot lately about the potential and possibilities we each bring to this world, and I think that is why a quote shared in this week’s All In episode stopped me in my tracks.
But I know I’m not the only one because my coworker, Dennis, told me he emailed the quote to himself. The quote, shared by our guest Liz Wixom Johnsen, is by President Thomas S. Monson. It says, “God left the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged and the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to man the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of finished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that man might know the joys and glories of creation.”
As is usually the case when prepping an episode of All In, I searched for the origin of this quote for our show notes and found that it came from a 1988 First Presidency Message when President Monson was serving as Second Counselor in the First Presidency. And as I read the article, I found my testimony of prophetic counsel renewed. President Monson’s words felt 35 years ahead of his time and completely relevant to our day.
I devoured the article as, in his true erudite nature, President Monson quotes from incredible writers throughout the message including Carl Sandberg, who said, “I see [life] not in the setting sun of a black night of despair ahead of us. I see [life] in the crimson light of a rising sun, fresh from the burning creative hand of God. I see great days ahead, great days possible to men and women of will and vision.”
President Monson goes on to warn against trends he was seeing in society: “A gradual but continual retreat from standards of excellence,” and “business without morality; science without humanity; knowledge without character; worship without sacrifice; pleasure without conscience; politics without principle; and wealth without works.” He warns against making excuses and instead encourages us to remember that “problems are a normal part of life, and the great thing is to avoid being flattened by them.” I was struck by how we have seen all of his concerns validated over the course of my lifetime and particularly in the last decade. We now live in an age of cancel culture, participation trophies, and polarized political views. Despite encouragement to be our authentic selves and an increased inclination to quit something that becomes difficult or burdensome, anxiety levels have been at an all-time high in the past few years. But the thing that really got me was when President Monson began to talk about computers.
Now, before I share President Monson’s thoughts, let me put this in perspective. I was born in 1989. As I recall, my family had a small Macintosh computer in the early to mid-1990s but it had very little functionality and we didn’t have internet capability. But everything changed in 1998 when Apple released the iMac. My parents got our family a purple one for Christmas and our lives were never the same.
Ten years prior in his 1988 First Presidency message, President Monson quotes an article from Time magazine, which describes the impact of the computer. “These fabulous machines are changing the world of business, they have given new horizons to the fields of science and medicine, changed the techniques of education, and improved the efficiency of government,” Time reported.
But President Monson then poses a question: “Could it be that these machines that can add, multiply, divide, sort, eliminate, and remember will someday be able to think?” As I read this, I thought, “They for sure can.” But President Monson says the answer is definitely no, and his explanation caused me to second guess my initial instinct. He was right—certainly, computers can do incredible things, but they do not think for themselves. “There are limits to human genius,” he explains. “Man can devise the most complex machines, but He cannot give them life or bestow upon them the powers of reason or judgment. Why? Because these are divine gifts, bestowed solely at God’s discretion.”
God made a computer once, constructing it with infinite care and precision exceeding that of the efforts of all the scientists combined. Using clay for the main structure, he installed within it a system for the continuous intake of information of all kinds and descriptions, by sight, hearing, and feeling; a circulatory system to keep all channels constantly clean and serviceable; a digestive system to preserve its strength and vigor; and a nervous system to keep all parts in constant communication and coordination. It far surpassed the finest modern computer and was equally dead. It was equipped to memorize and calculate and work out the most complex equation, but there was something lacking. Then God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Gen. 2:7.) This is why man has powers no modern computer possesses or ever will possess. God gave man life and with it the power to think and reason and decide and love. With such power given to you and to me, mastery of self becomes a necessity if we are to have the abundant life.
“God made a computer once.” It was us. But what is the thing that separates us from all the artificial intelligence in the world? The breath of life. In 2023, have we forgotten this? Do we equate ourselves with the capacity of a computer whose potential is simply based on its model and specifications? Or do we push ourselves, seeking to contribute—to stretch ourselves—and to recognize that because God gave us life, He likewise gave us creative power? Do we realize that as we strive for excellence, we are the ones who, in partnership with God, create the things that will make a difference in our world? If we settle or diminish the power of human potential, how many things that could be never will be?
There was one very important thing that purple iMac couldn’t do, and it was the catalyst for our family switching to a PC in the early 2000s: Burn CDs. In a Harvard Business Review piece about Apple CEO Steve Jobs, this lack of capability in that initial iMac is addressed. “[Steve Jobs] focused on making [the iMac] useful for managing a user’s photos and videos, but it was left behind when dealing with music. People with PCs were downloading and swapping music and then ripping and burning their own CDs. The iMac’s slot drive couldn’t burn CDs. ‘I felt like a dope,’ [Jobs] said. ‘I thought we had missed it.’”
The perceived failure served as the catalyst for a little device that singlehandedly changed the world: The iPod.
In 1984, Apple released a famous ad that for a quarter of a century now has inspired people to create—to believe in human potential for advancement. At the end of the ad were these words: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
So, are we crazy enough to try? We might not invent the next iPod, but each of our individual life experiences and the lens through which we see the world gives us an ability to do something that matters.
The poet Mary Oliver once wrote of God’s creations, “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
That is my question for you. God once made a computer, but then He gave that computer life and it became you. What will you do with your one wild and precious life?