Monday, January 23, 2017

Les Mis

A couple of years ago I read Les Miserables (the non-abridged version) by Victor Hugo. Inspired by play and comments from friends about the book, I embarked on reading the 1200 page classic masterpiece.

The story of Les Mis takes place in France around the time of the French Revolution. It follows the stories of the fictional characters Fantine and her daughter Cosette, the Bishop of Digne, Inspector Javert, the rich young man Marius, and the convict Jean Valjean. It's a story of poverty, love, mercy, revolution, and suffering.

Victor Hugo commented about Les Mis that as long as there is suffering and poverty in this world, this book will be needed. It has been nearly two hundred years since the publishing of this book and the world has perhaps never had so much change in a mere two centuries. Life is completely different than what it was then but yet the same social problems still exist. There is still heartbreak, distrust of government, revolution, greed, poverty, child neglect, anger, ostracization, and etc. Their lives and stories aren't different from ours at all.

I will not attempt to give a summary of the story but trust you are familiar with the story line enough to follow along with my thoughts on the book. I will discuss the story lines of some of the more prominent characters.

1. Marius

Marius in his very early twenties often frequented a certain park where he noticed a girl. He paid no attention to this girl because she wasn't pretty. A few months go by where he doesn't pass through this park but when he does pass through again he sees the same girl and now she is stunningly beautiful. She may only be 15 but let's not trifle with age in this story. A chivalrous man would go up to a fair lady and introduce himself. Does Marius do this? No! He returns the next day in his fine clothes and walks by again to get another look. Then a few minutes later he walks by yet again just to see if they can make eye contact. Then he finds a bench not too far away so he can casually look at her. He does this for months! He spends hours just going to see her but never approaches her. He starts following her home. During these months he stops working, stops spending time with his friends, and stops doing anything besides stalk this girl. Eventually Cosette's Guardian, Jean Valjean grows suspicious and since he is an escaped convict he moves himself and Cosette.  The girl of Marius's dreams is now lost to him and he goes into a depressed state. After another 6 months he finds out where she lives. So naturally he sneaks onto their property late at night just to possibly see or hear her. Meanwhile Cosette is terrified because she thinks someone with evil intentions is on her property. Eventually he meets her at night on her property and says the following to her.

"I could not go on living the way things were, and so I had to come. Do you perhaps recognize me? I come here at night, but don't worry, no one sees me. I come and look up at your windows, and I walk very quietly so as not to disturb you. I was behind you the other evening when you looked round, and I hid and ran for it. Once I heard you singing and it made me very happy. Does it matter to you if I listen to you singing through the shutters? It can do no harm. But you don't mind do you? To me, you see, you're an angel. You must let me come sometimes. I think I'm going to die. If you knew how I adore you! Forgive me for talking like this, I don't know what I'm saying, perhaps I'm annoying you. Am I annoying you?"

Get this kid a restraining order.

2. The Bishop

The Bishop of Digne is not given much of a story in the play.  In the play, as you may know, the Bishop gives a meal and a bed to the convict Jean Valjean. Valjean in the night steals the bishops silver and gets caught by the police. In a great act of mercy, the Bishop lets Valjean go with the silver. This act ends up being the catalyst that changes the life of Valjean.

Knowing the story of the Bishop as told by Hugo makes this act all the more extraordinary and expected. Hugo spends the first 50 pages of the book telling his story. The Bishop dedicated his life to the service of the people and God. In a position of power and wealth he lived a very humble life. He refused to take on the comforts of his position and used those excess funds to give back to the community. The bishop only kept a few fine things in his life which were silver dishes, utensils, and candlesticks. They were his one last nice possessions. When he finds out Valjean steals the silver his first thought isn't of anger or condemnation but of regret he had not given the silver away sooner in life. It was not his in the first place but God's. When Valjean shows up at his doorstep in the hands of the police the bishop responds

"'So here you are!' he cried to Valjean. 'I'm delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They're silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?'"

After a few words of exchange with the police the Bishop approaches Valjean and says in a low voice.

"Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man... Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."

Knowing that this act by the Bishop was not unusual for him but also was his last fine possession to give away makes the life of the Bishop a marvel and an example to us all.

3. Javert

Before reading this book and having only seen the musical and movie, I was always struck by Javert's death. I am not talking about the the movie death when you cringe as his body hits the river with a dramatic thud but I am more interested in what was going on in the mind of Javert when he decides to take his own life. Why must he kill himself? Why can't he find a way to reconcile his beliefs and recent experiences so that living is a viable option? 

Javert's life had been so fixed on one worldview and one mindset. There was only one world, one dogma, and one truth. When Jean Valjean spares Javert's life and shows him mercy, a new data point enters Javert's life which lies outside his accepted view of reality. The godliness of a convict breaks him. Mercy destroys his soul. His worldview crashes like a stain glass window hit with a brick. But why must it shatter? Javert experiences what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. This state of mind is very common with those of strict worldviews learning new information. 

It bothers me that someone could forsake their own life simply because something doesn't align with how they think the world should be. Are we so dogmatic in our ways that even life itself is less valuable than the perfection of our stain glass window beliefs?

4. Fantine

Fantine's life is a series of tragic events that eventually lead to her death. As a young girl she and her friends spend time with some young men. To everyone but Cosette the relationships were just youthful amusements. Tholomyes though was more than just a summer crush to Fantine. "She had given herself to Tholomyes as to a husband, and the poor girl had a child" The young men leave and Fantine is left to raise a child by herself. The book makes no mention if Tholomyes knew about the child.

As a young single mother struggling to provide for her child and herself she is forced to give her child over to some caretakers. In a unfortunate error of judgment she entrusts her daughter Cosette to the Thenardiers, who show no love to Cosette. Through a chain of tragic circumstances, misunderstandings, and bad luck she has to sell her teeth, hair, and virtue to keep her and Cosette alive. Eventually this downward spiral kills her.

I weep for her life that was filled with so much youthful optimism and ended so tragically. How quickly can our lives go south. May we be less judgmental to those in such circumstances. May we be more helpful, empathetic, and loving to those whose lives resembles Fantine's.

5. Valjean

Jean Valjean is the main character of this book and there is so much to be written about his life that I won't attempt it. His is a story of tragedy, redemption, love, suffering, injustice, contempt, poverty and wealth, and selflessness. Hugo uses the life of Valjean to weave together the raw vicissitudes of life.

If you are not familiar with the story I would recommend watching the movie, seeing the play, or better yet reading the book. My synopsis was quick and lacking in so many areas but I hope it brings new light to you about the story or encourages you to become familiar with the story. It is life changing. At least it was for me.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why doesn't everyone else think like me?

In the midst of a heated political election where opinions are shared freely and openly it has caused me to reflect on the very nature of our own political, social, and economic views and beliefs. In the modern day of social media these views are shared quite ardently. It appears that most things posted are either very in favor or against. It's as if everyone knows the answer or at least knows what the answer is not. Certitude over right and wrong, fact or fiction, best or worst seems to prevail in the rhetoric. Personally I struggle with extremes and superlatives. I don't like them because I find them rarely true. Even standardized testing taught me that superlatives are almost never the correct choice. 

When I see two sides adamantly exclaim they are right and the other side is wrong I wonder if either side is right or wrong. Both sides have sensible people. Both sides have support and rational. Yet they just can't agree. 

I find myself looking at the chaos and thinking, "if only everyone else was rational and thought like I do!"
I'm befuddled by the absurd senseless idiotic ideas and "facts" spread around. Has everyone gone crazy? This is not difficult people! The answer is so clear that I question your very ability to function as a human being!

Sound familiar? 

You probably have the exact same thoughts. So who is right? Who is the sensible one? Who does have the best worldview? As much as I would like to think it's me I know it's not. 

And that is the lesson I hope we can all learn. So many of us are hardened in our position that we lose the humility to accept that we could be wrong. We fail to consider that there are others who are more knowledgeable, rational, considerate, and loving than us. We fail to consider that our belief may be misguided or incomplete. 

Yet so many of us continue to entrench ourselves in our position. We keep going back to the same sources of information to fortify our resolve in our stance. Maybe it's time we seriously consider why someone else would hold the views they do. Maybe it's time to consider that the world you wish to see isn't what's best or right. Maybe it's a good thing not everyone thinks the way you do. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Decision

In the LDS singles ward I live in we recently had a huge influx of engaged couples, including me. So for the lesson in Elder's Quorum the presidency decided that the 5 five or so engaged men get up and tell the process of how they decided to get married. I had the fortune of listening to everyone else's experience before I shared my thoughts. As I listened it struck me how differently everyone approached that decision and how varied the difficulty of that decision was for everyone.


I realized that the revelatory process in regards to getting married wasn't different from the other major life decisions we have made. But marriage is THE decision. It is the BIG decision. So we may naturally stress out about it. But is the process all that different from other decisions we make in our life? What college to go to? What to major in? Where to live? What job to take? For me the decision about what college to go to wasn't really a decision. I knew where I wanted to go. But what major I should do required more thought and prayer. However, I know many who have the exact opposite experience. Some decisions come naturally to us and others require us to seek out more guidance and help. Why should it be different with the decision to get married?

Jill, my betrothed, asked me as we were talking about the possibility of getting married if I had prayed about it. "Ummm...not directly I guess." I had never asked God directly if I should marry Jill. I had prayed every day expressing my gratitude for the simple fact that she was in my life. I had prayed expressing my intentions of where I wanted the relationship to go but I had never asked if that was the right decision. I had prayed for guidance in my life to make good decisions but never specifically about getting married to Jill. I just felt good about the relationship and I never felt the need to ask God if it was the right decision. But due to Jill's question I did ask directly. The impression I got was that I was already on the right path and that I really didn't need to ask because I had already received my answer.

My ability to make that decision came naturally to me. I just knew that is what I wanted. For Jill though it was not that easy. And as I listened to others in my elders quorum tell of their experiences I saw others who needed more guidance than me and some who needed less than me. And I don't think one experience is better than any other. We all experience revelation with God differently and we all face our life decisions differently from decision to decision.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Barefoot Running

Running has become a part of my life the past few years. I have run several long distance relay races, a couple half marathons, and even a full marathon. Doing these events has given me goals that push me past my previous conceptions of what I could do. They also help me get off the couch.

Like any other sport or physical event, injuries happen. Most runners go through several injuries in their life. Most of the time it's just aches and pains that plague them and make running less comfortable. Sometimes the injury will sideline the runner for months or even years at a time. I don't want to have injuries and aches and pains be a part of my running experience. Because of that I have taken up a somewhat radical approach to my training. I run barefoot. Not barefoot shoes. Literally just my bare skin.

But let's tell you the story of how I have got to this crazy habit.

In early spring of 2013 I was at a sporting goods store with some friends. We were preparing for a camping trip to Goblin Valley. One of my friends was looking for some durable hiking boots. While he was doing this I was browsing the clearance shoe isle. I ended up finding this super thin and light shoe. It had great grip on the bottom and I liked the design of it. It looked like it would give me great grip and control but yet be very light and be a minimal presence on my foot. For some reason this idea spoke to me. I then saw the boots my friend bought and they were just a massive brick. I couldn't understand how that would be more comfortable. I bought those clearance shoes. When I got home I looked up the shoes online to learn more about them. Since they were in the clearance section there wasn't much information about them at the store. I learned they were what is called a minimalist shoe. I started learning things about drop, heel strike, running forms, and even a crazy thing called barefoot running. It was all very fascinating to me. But I loved the shoes. They worked great on the hike we went on.

At this point I wasn't a runner. I would occasionally run a mile or two in old basketball shoes but that was it. It was also at this point in time that a co-worker of mine invited me to join a Ragnar team, a long distance relay race.

My co-worker and I started training during our lunch breaks. The first day we ran 4 miles. It seemed like an eternity. Over time I grew a bit more confident in my ability to run 4 or even 5 miles without completely hating every second of it. At Ragnar I had to run eight, seven, and five mile distances. While it was hard, I enjoyed the experience. In a matter of only a few months I ended up running distances I previously thought I would never do. This gave me confidence and sparked the question if I could do more. That race revealed the runner inside of me.

While racing and training for Ragnar I had two pairs of running shoes. The previously mentioned minimalist shoes and a pair of traditional Nike running shoes. All of my training was done in minimalist shoes but my 8 mile run would be all downhill. So I bought the traditional shoes to help absorb some of the punishment of the downhill. I have not run on those shoes since that run. It was painful.

The next year I worked up the courage to start training for a full marathon. During this time I grew more interested in conditioning and overall health as a runner. I started doing yoga, eating a little better, and reading more articles about runners experiences training for marathons. During this time I grew a little more fascinated with barefoot running. I became persuaded by the arguments that barefoot running reduced impact on the joints and was simply a more natural and healthy way to run. I was already emulating a toe strike running style, landing on the front of your foot instead the heel, in my minimalist shoes based on the articles I had been reading. But is barefoot running actually doable? Is barefoot running as easy as the advocates say it is or is it as painful and dangerous as the critics say it is?

So I went out a few times running in only my socks around the park. It was very doable and actually quite fun! I learned a few things first hand by doing it. I learned grass was very comfortable to run in except when an unexpected pine cone showed up. I learned that porous path around the park was a little rough on the feet, even in socks. But overall I enjoyed it and found it wasn't painful depending on the surface you ran on. What I liked the most is how it changed my running form. I was forced to run in a different way because barefoot forces you to run that way. You can't do a heel strike barefoot unless you want to have instant pain. Every step running barefoot required you to make adjustments as you literally felt everything you ran on.

But besides those couple of "sock" runs I never did it again. I still used the minimalist shoes for my marathon and still tried to emulate a barefoot running style but I never went barefoot again.

This year I started training again for a race and I was starting to do some higher miles (for me at least). I got up to 10 miles on a couple of occasions but my legs would be in so much pain by that point that I had to stop. Maybe I just moved up miles too quickly? But then my left outer knee and right hip would start giving me a lot of pain around mile 2 or 3. What the heck? I would have to stop and stretch and then start running again only to have to stop and stretch once the pain came back. It got to the point where I would have to stop and stretch every quarter mile. Something was wrong.

That's when barefoot running came back to mind. During the previous winter I read the book "Born to Run", the bible of barefoot running. I remembered in the book that humans could run insane distances and not have any injuries related to running. So why was I having after only a couple of miles? The author tells the personal story of being injured from running and thinking he would never run again. By the end of the book he is able to run ultra distances. Could I do the same?

The body was designed to run long distances. Why was my body resisting it so much? So I decided to go back to basics. In this case it meant taking off my shoes and running. I went out completely barefoot the next day and ran 4 miles. Not far. I didn't want to overdo it because I had heard transitioning to barefoot needs some breaking into. The great thing that happened was that those knee and hip pains I was feeling before were gone for those 4 miles. I never felt it! What the heck!?! This crazy idea of running barefoot actually worked! So I ran a few more times barefoot but then I stopped.

Why would I stop if it seemed to be working for me? Well for one simple reason. I didn't want to just run around the same park my whole life. I can't run barefoot on most streets. Where I live the streets are a porous asphalt with lots of loose rock and sometimes glass. I can't run on that. The sidewalk system often ends abruptly and there is simply no good path with smooth surfaces for me to run on for longer distances.

So in the end I still need shoes. I will still run barefoot but only in controlled settings. But when it comes to longer runs over multiple terrains I will need shoes. Now to find the shoes that give me the best barefoot feel but with the protection I need. I feel I might go through many different variations over the years.

My story is simply one data point out of many. I fully recognize that my one experience of having barefoot running work for me doesn't mean this is a proven science or technique. However, I think there is little to lose in trying it if you experience pain and injuries from running.

Good luck running!!



Monday, August 31, 2015

God's plan for me

I don't pretend to understand God
and His plan for me
I know He wants me to be happy
but sometimes I cannot see

I make my own plans
based off where I expect to go
but as I have leaned in time
I am taken down paths I do not know

When life appears to go one way
and I fully expect to see it through
I have an unexpected feeling
and I am not sure what to do

The feeling makes little sense
and I doubt it constantly
for it's easy to question
when I don't quite feel worthy

But I follow it anyways
giving up a fruitful way
hoping it will lead me
to a place I long to stay

For a while I venture
and still I struggle to see the destination
My heart shifts to and from
a feeling of confirmation

What does God have planned for me?
Did I read His signs correctly?
Would I have been better off
with my original itinerary?

For now the path is lonely
the future is uncertain
I could have been in a different place
with another person

But I have to trust in God
that He does have a plan for me
and if I just continue
I will one day truly see

I will see the end from the beginning
and all the ways I could have gone
and hopefully I will be grateful
that this decision wasn't wrong

For when life is dark and dreary
it's easy to look back and say
I would have been better off
If I went the other way

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Disneyland! The happiest place on earth!

Disneyland! The happiest place on earth!!!!

Right...?

I recently visited Disneyland. I was able to enjoy the warm California weather, the beautiful scenery, the thrilling rides, the enchantment of the most famous theme park on earth, and the company of good friends. It was a great! Happiest place on earth, right? So why did I often not feel happy? Certainly I had a good time and was entertained but I wouldn't call that happiness. All external factors seemed to be pushing the dial to happy though. What was missing?

Was it the fact that Disneyland was hot, littered with people, charged extortionary food prices, and was encumbered with atrociously long lines for attractions? Yeah I guess that certainly didn't help. Standing in line for hours on end and paying a 500% markup on water certainly didn't add to my enjoyment. Would have I been happier in better weather, cheaper prices, shorter lines, and a hover-bed equipped with all you can eat food and a massouse? I don't know but I highly doubt it.

So is Disneyland really the happiest place on earth? The obvious answer is no. That would be preposterous. But is there a place that is happier? Could it be a sacred places of worship, or individual homes, places in nature, work? I guess it really depends on the individual. The happiest place on earth is...well unique to everyone.

For me that place is not Disneyland. For some it may be. The happiest place on earth for me is the place where I know I am actively progressing in life and serving those I love. These places have been at home, the temple, on my bicycle, on the top of a mountain, at the beach, and other places. But yet these places have also been where I have felt some of the deepest pain and sorrow. So it begs the question if a physical location can be the happiest place on earth for an individual. Again...I don't think so. I believe happiness comes from within, not from a coordinate.

But yet I saw so many happy people at Disneyland. Surely there is something to a place to affects happiness. Do external factors have some control on our happiness? I don't believe that happiness could be as simple as choosing to be happy. It can't be as easy as flipping on a light switch. If that was the case then my life lately looks like a light switch rave party. Why in the world would I be choosing that? And I am sure if you randomly put 100 people in Disneyland for a day and another 100 random people in the middle of a desert sand storm for a day and asked both groups how happy they were you would get different results. Since our external surroundings do affect our happiness, does that truly undermine the idea that happiness is a choice?

To a certain extent, our external surroundings (places we are, people we are with, and things we are doing) are determined by the choices we make in life. So if we are making choices that put us in "happier" places, then yes we are choosing to be happy. And our situations and the places where we are can make the choice to be happy an easier choice to make. It's easy to choose to be happy when you are at the beach with people you love but not so easy if you are stuck in a sewer tunnel with a guy a little too excited about eating you. Some situations make happiness almost a given. As if it is not even a choice. Happiness only seems to need to be a choice when you're not happy. No one ever tells you that happiness is a choice when you're already happy. That is what happy people tell to unhappy people.

I do think happiness is a choice. Happiness is the result of the choices we make in how we live our life and the simple choice to be happy. Those choices, for whatever reason, are easier for some to make than for others. I feel for those who struggle with depression because I know for them it definitely doesn't feel like a choice. It feels as if happiness will never come. I don't pretend to know what depression is truly like but I have definitely had my fair share of moments when it felt like the sun wouldn't shine again. When the simple phrase, "choose to be happy" just felt like a slap in the face.

It's obvious no physical location is the happiest place on earth. I guess I will just work on being in places where I can make that place be the happiest place on earth for me at that moment. Or something like that...

Sunday, July 19, 2015

All will be well!

Dating is hard! That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. But why is it so hard? It's hard because you have to totally give of yourself emotionally and always be at risk to have it not work out. You are at your most vulnerable point when you're dating. You risk everything. Or at least you should be willing to risk everything. You have in your grasp the opportunity to gain the world, a loving relationship. Yet you are always one conversation away from losing all of that. More often than not, you end up not gaining the world. You break up.

I have heard that breakups can be emotionally as difficult as a death in one's family. For when a family member, or even a spouse, dies you still have the promise that you will be with that person again. You can still have the same relationship with them in the next life. With a breakup you have NO promise of having the same relationship with that person ever again, assuming it's a permanent break up. That relationship is lost to you forever. All the goodness and love is...gone. What consolation do you have? That the experience served to make you a better person? That you can maybe find another relationship with someone else somewhere down the road? That isn't super comforting in the immediate wake of the loss. It's hard to accept that you will find someone else mainly because you don't want to find someone else. You still want the relationship you just had.

So you move on. Or at least you try. But you still don't know how to fill that void in your life. Where there was love, service, and purpose you now have emptiness. The pain of that seemingly bottomless void hurts so bad. What is worse yet is that you still don't want to fill it. Somehow you feel that by filling the void you have truly ended the relationship. Your life was about someone else and now it is about about you again, which is far less satisfying. Single life is inherently not as fulfilling as a life devoted to someone else's happiness. Sure being single can be fun and adventurous and one can find happiness there but...it just feels lacking.

How do you go back to your old single life? How do you go back to first dates and nights watching netflix alone? What do you do with your time that used be spent serving another? Where do you redirect your thoughts, your energy, and love? How do you go on? I don't know. I wish there was an easy answer. It's hard to go on when deep down you still don't want to accept that you must go on. You vainly hold on emotionally to that relationship. You simply don't know what else to hold on to.

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on... when in your heart you begin to understand... there is no going back? -Frodo Baggins

Is Frodo right? Is there is no going back? No! You can't. You are forever changed by that relationship. You are never the same. For better or for worse you have been changed. You can't go back to who you were.

Hopefully you have been changed for good. Hopefully the relationship taught how to give of yourself and how to love another person. Hopefully you experienced joy, honesty, kindness, and mutual respect. Hopefully you learned how to practice patience and faith. Hopefully you were able to live beyond yourself.

Even if the relationship was good and the break up was right, the first few days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years are not easy. There is still pain. The pain of the loss is palpable. Sometimes it seems too much to carry at times. It sucks! Plain and simple.

"How can we love days that are filled with sorrow? We can’t—at least not in the moment. I don’t think my mother was suggesting that we suppress discouragement or deny the reality of pain. I don’t think she was suggesting that we smother unpleasant truths beneath a cloak of pretended happiness. But I do believe that the way we react to adversity can be a major factor in how happy and successful we can be in life. If we approach adversities wisely, our hardest times can be times of greatest growth, which in turn can lead toward times of greatest happiness." - Joseph B Wirthlin

In the time of deepest pain, sorrow, and loneliness, you have the opportunity for the greatest growth. How you react is so important. Will you remember the phrase, "Come what may, and love it!"? Will you take comfort in the Lord's promise that all will be well. I promise you that all will be well!

Why will all be well? How could it ever all be well when all seems broken and lost? Because you will CHOOSE to make it well. You will choose to love yourself and sometimes even more importantly, you will continue to love the one who broke your heart. You will choose to be kind, positive, hopeful, and supportive. You will choose to go to the Lord and seek his guidance and you will recognize the hand of the Lord guiding, supporting, and comforting you. He will give you peace and comfort. You will choose to be grateful that you have experienced such a wonderful relationship. You will choose to proactively find new and uplifting ways to use your new found time and energy. You will choose to see the small glimmers of light protruding through the dark tearful clouds of your soul. You will choose to see that this experience will serve to make you better. You will choose to remember Christ's love for you and his immense capacity to comfort and forgive you. God will always love you. Even if someone else no longer does, God still loves you. It's your choice to recognize that love and accept it. It's your choice to make the best of so much pain. It's your choice to be well. That is why all will be well. Because you will choose to be well.

"Each of us will have our own Fridays—those days when the universe itself seems shattered and the shards of our world lie littered about us in pieces. We all will experience those broken times when it seems we can never be put together again. We will all have our Fridays. No matter our desperation, no matter our grief, Sunday will come." - Joseph B. Wirthlin

Yes Sunday will come. Maybe not as soon as you would like but it will come. All will be well!