08 September 2010

The imaginations and thoughts of the heart

At the time, I was the high council speaker assigned to deliver a Sacrament talk to the singles branch in our California stake. The stake was an accurate reflection of the multi-cultural California population. As I was speaking, I noticed a young man sitting by an attractive Asian young woman, whispering something in her ear. I found this quite distracting. Being an educator by profession, I know the importance of only one person speaking at a time. When this happens to me in seminars or in the classroom, I simply stop talking until the guilty parties have done the same. So, true to form, I stopped talking. The young man also stopped conversing. It worked! But as soon as I resumed my talk, the young man once again leaned over to whisper pretty things in his friend’s ear. This pattern was repeated several times until I had completely lost all composure. I stopped in the middle of my talk and approached the Branch President and explained that I simply could not concentrate with the young couple flirting back there. The Branch President calmly explained that the young man was interpreting for a visitor from Japan.

I frequently used this embarrassing episode, slightly changed, to illustrate presentations at work on interpersonal communication skills. A decade later, I attended a seminar called Crucial Conversations (based on the book by the same title). In the seminar, I learned that we cannot experience a negative emotion without it being first preceded by a story or narrative we tell ourselves. Negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, pride, and envy, then, can only take place if preceded by the corresponding self talk. This workshop provided me with an “aha moment.”

My frustration during the Sacrament Meeting talk had grown as I told myself that these individuals were being rude, interrupting, and not paying attention while they flirted. Soon after this new discovery, I had the perfect opportunity to put to work my new found knowledge about the power of telling ourselves the right story.

One night I had a long layover from an international trip and I found the darkest and most quiet spot in the airport so I could sleep. I was very pleased with myself as I had discovered the perfect spot, and I proceeded to arrange everything for my well deserved sleep. But it was only a few moments later that a couple found the same spot, sat next to me, and began to chat.

I like to sleep in total darkness and in a silent place. I was quite stressed over this change in circumstances. How could I sleep now? How could these folks not notice I was trying to sleep? Why did they have to choose this part of the airport? And worse, why sit so close to me when the waiting room was quite large?

Gladly, I remembered my seminar and decided to tell myself a more productive story. Every family reunion has an uncle who manages to fall asleep despite the fact that everyone is laughing and talking. In our family, that “uncle” is me. So my new self talk went something along the lines of: “Pretend you were in a family reunion and everyone around you is gladly talking and you are so tired you are falling asleep. So, are you tired or are you not tired? If you are tired you will fall asleep; otherwise, you will not.” Well, I was exhausted and managed to quickly fall asleep.

I have been called to teach the family relations class in our Llanquihue, Chile Branch. I teach these classes as Sunday evening firesides. Along with each lesson, I like to introduce an interpersonal negotiation technique. At the previous fireside I had spoken about the stories we tell ourselves and had given class members the assignment of turning a negative story they had to confront during the week, into a more positive one.

My wife and I also had to carry out this assignment, and we pondered and exchanged a number of such stories from our past. On Sunday, my wife shared an event with the class that took place earlier in our marriage. At that time our four children were very young and very active and made a huge mess of the house. There was a sister in the ward that had been married about the same length of time but seemed to be the perfect housewife. Not only was her house in perfect condition, but she managed to keep herself trim, too. She had one child and my wife thought that she was being selfish, and had chosen to only have one child so that she would have time for the gym and to keep everything nice and tidy. My wife was called to be her visiting teacher, and on one visit this young sister broke out in tears because she was not able to have more children. My wife explained that she had permitted herself to become envious of this sister and had created the type of story that allowed for that.

I also had the opportunity to reflect on this subject in ways I had not done before. I came to the realization that self talk is behind both negative as well as positive attitudes, and furthermore, that all sin—both of omission and commission—requires that we tell ourselves a story. In the language of scripture, negative self talk is sometimes referred to with such words as the vain imaginations and thoughts of the heart. These, then, are all the excuses we allow ourselves for not doing that which is right. Or, for any sort of negative thinking. No wonder we read in Mosiah that we will be judged not only by our deeds and by our words, but also by our thoughts (Mosiah 4:30).

It is easy to think that our thoughts are somehow disassociated from our words and acts in some way. That perhaps our thoughts are not such a serious problem. That we can entertain impure or unkind feelings, and that this is somehow natural. It has now become clearer than ever to me that surely, “For as [man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). While we often excuse our unrighteous thoughts, we take these excuses even further when we give ourselves permission, through a story, to say something that is unkind rather than tame our tongue. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but....” Indeed, it is a good thing when we can tame our tongue and not excuse ourselves. But even more important, when we realize that Mosiah is right. Our thoughts, our words, and our deeds are inseparably connected.

It is a difficult challenge to rule our thoughts. We must master our thoughts if we wish to master our tongues and our deeds—if we wish to become more Christ like. It will require a truly pure heart to tell ourselves the type of story that is full of mercy and kindness—and is not judgmental—toward others. It will require a truly pure heart to refuse self justifying excuses.

Joseph of Egypt is such a good example. When the famine came, he was in a position of power over his brothers. Joseph could have entertained thoughts of revenge. He could have sent his brothers back empty handed or made sure they suffered retribution for the abuse he experienced at their hands. Instead, Joseph repeatedly consoled his brothers and suggested they forgive themselves, as he had already forgiven them: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life… to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:5, 7). Joseph picked the best, most generous, of the possible stories he could have entertained.

Every day we make countless choices as to the stories we will contemplate. Sometimes destructive self doubt can creep into our minds. I often worried as to whether I would be valiant and endure until the end. Alma taught us that the true desires of our hearts would win out in the end. That in effect, we decide if we want to be happy, not just now, but in eternity. As I pondered Alma 41 anew, I was able to change my story, and realize that if I truly loved the Lord, all would be well. This brought a quiet reassurance to my heart. When doubt creeps in, I just ask myself if I really love the Lord. The imaginations and thoughts of our hearts, truly, if they are good, can bring us unbound joy. The right stories can also give us the strength to do what is right.



Billikopf, Gregorio. Party Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences (2009).

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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