What I have always found intriguing about Doc’s thinking and his many books is that they are so utterly commonsensical that their importance is almost too easily lost on us. He kept his wants, his principles, and his thinking simple. And yet, like all great ideas, although they are presented in simple and straightforward language, they hold up against increased scrutiny and probing, revealing more rather than less. In the case of this, his final aphorism, Doc might as well have quoted from the Savior, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” or from the familiar Mormon children’s song the simple declaration, “I am a child of God.”
To simplify our wants brings us back to his first principle, which was to learn to like what doesn’t cost much. But he adds here a social and psychological dimension to our behavior as consumers, helping us to see more comprehensively that what we consume but in the larger sense what we work for, aspire to, and dream of—if we are not careful—can be controlled by what we perceive to be the expectations of others. In other words, while we might have thought that simplification is merely a refusal to be seduced by commercialization, Doc here suggests that at root what we desire from life stems from how we conceive of ourselves and how we understand ourselves in relation to others.
This clearly extends well beyond what we might normally call “peer pressure.” It has as much or more to do with those expectations and pressures that we internalize and normalize almost without thought that are simply part of our social and cultural environments, those habits of thought that have led us to believe, for example, that material possessions themselves hold some intrinsic value from within the possessor. Or that such things as material gain, political advantage, and social difference sustained by habits, social norms and even by institutions or laws, provide adequate measures of our worth. It might not even matter any more who first put us on the treadmill of vanity, since we are the ones willingly and frantically pushing ourselves to run faster in place. If an anthropologist from Mars were to arrive in the midst of our lives and see what it is we spend the most time and money and effort in order to gain, would those observations not reveal the nature of our deepest attachments? Do we not learn something fundamental about our ideas of ourselves and our self worth when we examine what it is we most desire? Which begs the question: What mess of pottage have we willingly traded our inherent worth for? What have we allowed us to distract us from discovering the simplicity and marvel of our most fundamental gifts: the chance to come to know, love, and serve other people, the privilege of relishing the beauties and bounties of nature, the opportunity to work, develop, and learn, and the chance merely to experience life?
I am not an expert, but I have read enough psychology and Dostoevsky to understand that we learn early in life by imitation and conformity but also by intentional differentiation and resistance. We learn to become who we are precisely on the basis of the relationships of family, friends, and lovers and what we learn extends into who we are as citizens, consumers, employees, and neighbors. We learn early how to anticipate and perhaps even to shape reactions in others. We test our limits. We want to know where the boundaries are. We need to know wherein our freedom lies, but almost as soon as we discover it, it is as if we can barely stand to have it. So we often use our freedom precisely to destroy it. We are often more than happy to make concessions that will lift the burdens and responsibilities that come with our freedom. Let someone else tell us what to do. Let others program our lives, determine our worth, and prophecy our future, since the uncertainties of life, the mixed results of our achievements, and the imperfect satisfactions we find are simply too much for us to bear.
What is it that might prevent this abdication of freedom? I believe it is charity, what the LDS scriptures additionally call “the pure love of Christ.” This is the capacity to bear all things, endure all things, to be forbearing, patient in suffering, and uncompromising in the love we offer to others. Nothing other than charity will prove more effectual in resisting the charms, illusions, and vanities that appear to be promised to us on the condition that we simply conform to the likes and dislikes of others. This is not a natural gift. It cannot be bought. It cannot be wrested from God. It cannot be guaranteed. But it can and should be wanted, according to the Book of Mormon prophet, “with all the energy of heart.” And it is bestowed on those who pray and plead for it, who, if we are to listen to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, are those who understand with perfect clarity their insufficiencies. That is, they know what they don’t have. These are not the strong but the meek, not those who believe in what they have attained but the poor in spirit who see what they have failed to find, those who are unsatisfied by the illusions and vanities of this life. We can only come to a deeper happiness, in other words, through a learned patience with sorrow and dissatisfaction. As others have noted, the phrase “the pure love of Christ” suggests his pure love for us and our pure love for him. In other words, our capacity to keep our wants simple and to not be controlled by the likes and dislikes of others is as much a function of our capacity to feel and accept Christ’s pure love for us as it is our willingness to strive to obtain and demonstrate that love for him. When we have finally learned to want what is best designed for our deepest happiness, Mormon promises, we will “see him as he is.” So we might have begun with a desire to imitate a higher model of living than those offered by the world but we will have discovered that his Atonement has allowed us become more authentically like Christ, our most vital object of desire, and at the same time most truly ourselves.