Change out of Control

Last year, if you can bear to remember, I spoke on the assigned subject “Breakthroughs I Would Like to See.” This year I was given two minutes to decide on a title, and being in a panic I “Change out of Control.”

What can we say about change except that it is inevitable? What can we do about it? Direct it or control it? One thinks of those signs at the airport, “Low-Flying Planes” –what can you do about it except duck and drive on? They fly low anyway. We can always assume that we want change to be for the better, and since we can’t avoid it we should do something to assure that it won’t be retrograde or even disastrous. But in so doing, we should be aware that some things should change as much as possible and some things as little as possible. While you can’t avoid alterations in your person—appearance, size, voice, gait, and so forth—as you progress through the infamous seven ages of man as stipulated by the insight of a Solon1 or a Shakespeare, you would like your better qualities to hang on for a while and defy time. Actually they do: steadiness and durability are the marks of the highest and best qualities of character, as in God himself, who exhibits no “variableness neither shadow of changing” (Mormon 9:9). Your visible attributes, on the other hand, will change inevitably, but those are not the qualities that concern us. As civilization declines and “seeming” becomes more important than “being” (to use the Greek formula and the Roman example from the Satirists), we do everything we can in a forlorn effort to keep our appearance from changing, which means making all manner of concessions to truth and integrity as we become increasingly vain, giddy, shallow, and superficial, ever more dependent on exquisitely commercialized products. We are told by Madison Avenue that without advertising something terrible happens, which is nothing. Well, is that bad? What the ad-men really mean, of course, is that nothing happens to make money for them, but whether we advertise or not, things are always going to change.

If we can’t stop it, can’t we at least speed it up or slow it down? Can’t we direct it? One would like optimum conditions to be permanent, for from the best of possible worlds any change must be away from the best. Must it be so? Can optimum conditions in one situation be different from optimum conditions in another, so that we can have a whole string of optimums, each leading to a better? Believe it or not, that is what they used to teach us in school. We were taught that change is inevitable and that it is evolutionary, which in the 1920s made an ever-progressive and unbroken march of ever-advancing optimum conditions. No evidence for this was required—it was axiomatic, so we naturally assumed that the evidence for it must lie all around us; if the medium is the message, any change is in itself progress. Noise and bustle, smoke-darkened skies, and arrogant billboards were all signs of progress. If one objected to the foul stench of a paper mill, one was immediately challenged and rebuked: Are you against progress? What a happy world that was where change was the first law of nature, and all change was good!

We are told in 2 Nephi 5:27 that the people “lived after the manner of happiness.” Does that mean in a world without change? Times and seasons, conveniences and techniques inevitably change, but there is something that does not need to change, and that is that state of mind we call happiness. Nephi’s people made adjustments and did not depend on the adamantly immovable euphoria of such jubilant spirits as Pippi and Pollyanna; those moppets had a point—the irrepressible sprites made their own happiness. This point was not lost among the well-to-do who advised the unemployed and the hungry to rejoice in their adventurous situation and examples of life on the brink. The torch was taken up by Little Orphan Annie, whose temperament and juvenile image, along with her rigid philosophy, have defied change for fifty-five years.

The unchanging, standard, permanent ideal of a safe, secure environment cannot possibly exist if we are going to have the one quality that adds interest and beauty to the scene, and that is variety. Mountains and hills, great rivers and small streams, just as surely as they impart that variety and beauty to the scene, are going to effect changes. Some students have complained that having to live on a Urim and Thummim, a sea of glass, no less, must be infinitely boring. How wrong they are! The face of the Urim and Thummim is no featureless flatland; rather, as Abraham found out, it can give you more dimensions than you can even imagine. It is true, you have to exercise your mind in that environment, but where would you not wish to do that? If you want scented breezes over purple seas, the Urim and Thummim will gladly oblige; if it’s towering mountains you want, you can have them, too. Whatever it is you yearn to experience, that marvelous instrument can put you into the picture, if you only know how to operate it. This is not entirely facetious; after all, we have already anticipated the miracle in the device to which almost all Americans resort daily and nightly in order to retreat into other worlds, and the ease with which they can shift from one station to another is a bedizening pageant of high and low living that bids fair to make change—mindless, restless, ceaseless, frantic —in very truth the dominant feature of our existence.

Mormon doctrine presents the Latter-day Saints with a challenge: What will they be doing in eternity? Many find themselves stuck in a strange predicament. They imagine the eternal family as the typical young household with a number of little children that can never grow up. Yet many a patriarch had sons and grandsons whose ages surpassed his own; are they always to remain daddy’s little men? So what will we do forever? The movie studio imagines something like an eternal family reunion held in the city park with everybody sitting or standing around in old-fashioned nightgowns in an exchange of insipid smiles and small talk. After twenty minutes of that, anyone would settle for inferno.

If the question of what we will be doing in eternity stumps us, it should. That’s the whole point: if we knew the answer wed have little enough to look forward to. The only way to know what fun lies ahead on the other side is to experience it, because, as Paul tells us, as long as we are here we can’t even begin to imagine what any of it is like: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of men” (1 Corinthians 2:9). No use trying to figure it out; you will just have to wait and see. And the gospel invites us to move toward the unknown.

If I cannot guide or direct an activity that I cannot even imagine, how can I have any control over change? I must have some in order to prepare for what is to come. And sure enough, there is a means of taking charge of change. It is the same way in which one can control a jet plane or a violin: by following instructions. As you practice an instrument, you begin to make your own adjustments, important changes, but only to the degree to which you have learned from your teachers; he requires you to make certain often awkward and uncomfortable changes as you learn the new positions on an instrument, but after that you make your own.

But why do we make so little progress in this life? Because, of course, we all peak and then decline and depart as a new class comes along to go through the same frustrating process, “and so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot.” That is certainly change.

C. S. Forester wrote a novel about a general whose whole ambition in life was to end up in a bath-chair in Bournemouth,2 because that is what respected and tolerably wounded British generals have done for generations. Faust won all the honors and credentials there were in the learned world and concluded that the next logical step for him was suicide.3 How long  can one continue to be upwardly mobile in the corporation? What comes after the lifestyles of the rich and famous? All the generations seem to go through the same routine, for all are taking the same test and all have been given the same standard orders, which do not change: “I gave unto them their knowledge in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden,” says the Lord to Enoch, “gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32). Agency to act, and knowledge to act by. What more do you need? Either supernatural wisdom or higher instruction. And that we also have—”and I also gave unto him commandments” (see Abraham 3:25). That takes care of everything, and these are the things we don’t change, because one generation is much like another and must be tested by the same standards, “to prove them herewith, whether they will be true and faithful in all things.”

Next in the lamentable but unlamented address of November 7 last came a brief review of major changes in the past over which men have had no control. First of all the Big Bang, which brought total and instantaneous change from a condition of utter singularity to another condition of utter singularity, that is, moving from an everything-and-nothing to a world furnace of photons in a matter of less than nanoseconds. This was followed by a whole series of impossible instantaneous or infinitely drawn out changes from photons to hadrons to leptons to galaxies to stars to more explosions to planets and so, by this declension, to this present veil of tears we all mourn for.4 Neocatastrophism in geology continues the parade of calamitous changes, geological crises in which many forms of life were suddenly extinguished as others just as suddenly popped up on the scene.5 At this point we held up a chart in the current National Geographic that marked the mass extinctions taking place at circa 650,000,000 and 230,000,000 and 65,000,000 years ago and finally in the present age, marked as “man-induced extinction.” If you want change, there is change! Findings in caves show a continuous story of periodic crisis fatal to some forms of life and favorable to others. Such ambitious studies as those of Claude Schaeffer and Samuel Noah Kramer carry the data into human history when the whole race has been shaken up and shifted all over the globe as in the great crises of circa 3000, 1700, 1200 B.C. or the third to fifth centuries A.D. Usually such worldwide human overthrows are correlated by the ancient writers with descriptions of the upheavals of nature and the phenomenal depravity and violence of man. It is an interesting coincidence that the great geological and biological changes of the past were affected by two things—dust and smoke in the atmosphere occasioned by the impact of great meteorites, and radioactivity from outer space, also caused by the impact of the meteorites, which played strange tricks with the possibilities of DNA. Interesting because those are exactly the agents we are now enlisting to bring the curtain down on the present age of man.

America has ever been dedicated to the cult of change, esteeming it a sign of great vitality, exuberance, and hope. I remember in the 1930s with Paxman and others discovered the frontier as a topic for scholarly inquiry. What excitement there was in Berkeley about the prodigal possibilities of the thesis: America from first to last had been frontier! But what we always find on the frontier has ever been a set of rascals, outlaws, con men, and gangs. What do you expect where everything is up for grabs? That is the picture I got from my grandparents. In record time the face of the continent was completely changed. But the finished product was not “America the Beautiful” (you should live so long). Incidentally, Miss Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful,” was a sister of my second-grade school teacher, so we sang a lot about the alabaster cities where nobody ever cries, but that is not what came out of the frontier.

When the West had been liberated and the Winchester had removed the last dangerous antelope and won the West and the bad guys were all six feet under, then came Carl Sandburg and John Dewey. Sandburg wrote of an exciting, vigorous, explosive, progressive America.6 It wasn’t the real America. The greatest vigor displayed in his Chicago was by the mobs in their wars with each other. Dewey was the great apostle of change in education.7 He was going to change everything and make it dynamic, progressive, exciting, and all that, and of course it turns out that in education as in everything else it was just what the fashion designers call running up and down stairs—wearing them short this year and long the next.

Since ancient times, the educationalists have been coming up periodically with the New Education—enlightened, free, emancipated, unhampered—only to be followed inevitably in a few years by the new reform movement calling for more discipline, more basics, more solid study, until the time comes again to discover the new vibrant unshackled order, and so on. I am reminded of a great work by one Karl Joel called Die Wandlungen der Weltanschauung,8 or The Pendulum of the World View. In a massively documented work, he divided world history into two phases that run roughly through the centuries. A century of Bindung or binding together, strict rule, discipline, a time of collecting, cataloging, ordering, regimenting, classifying, and so on, makes it possible to digest the accumulations of the preceding century, which was a century of Lösung, which means loosening, letting go—the creative, romantic, free, and spontaneous spirit in which the arts and sciences alike flourish and bring forth new harvest. We are now in a time of extreme Bindung, so tight that it can probably only be released by something like a big bang.

Attempts to direct and control more serious change can only mean havoc. That is an interesting word. The word havoc can be traced everywhere and is one of the most widespread words in the languages of the world. Furthermore, it always has the same basic meaning. Havoc is something you start which then carries on beyond your control. Mark Anthony shouts, “Cry ‘havoc!’ “9 and then remarks with satisfaction, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt!”10 He knows big changes are at hand, and he doesn’t particularly care what they are, for havoc is what he wants. And so if I launch something without knowing for sure what is going to follow—and who does?—I am wreaking havoc. We live in a world in which men are capable of little more than havoc, since everything is so complicated that the outcome of any project is unpredictable. The nuclear genie is the ultimate and, I believe, inevitable conclusion to this apocalyptic folly.

When I consider the changes I have seen, I recall how often my grandmother used to say (and we firmly believed it as children), “It is a sin to kill a fly; much more to harm a greater thing.” Who would buy that today? Back then the first rule was that life as such was sacred. Today, of course, we don’t think it’s a sin to kill anything at all except the good guys, the ones we happen to like. We get little credit for that, for, as the Lord says, the publicans and sinners like their friends. What merit can we claim in that? Today we accept half of the Ten Commandments: You should not kill your friends, but you get medals for the others. You should not lie, at least not to those you like; the others are fair game. Such a shift in morals gives an idea of how far the ship has drifted in our own day; and now it is caught up in the full current and is racing for the falls with nothing to stop it.

In ancient times when everything was completely out of control, the world turned to special effects to achieve the direction of change or reverse the trend. Constantine used this trick to great effect,11 borrowing the idea from Diocletian, who got it from the East. That is, you got the kind of world you wanted by canvas and paint, parades and shows, and a vast display of ceremonial patriotism. The Roman emperors, to get and stay in office, all had to be very skillful managers. Each one would set the course of empire and promptly lose it, usually by assassination, because it was always up for sale. The real power was money, and so the story then was the quintessential stuff of prime-time TV today. It’s no surprise that one of the best shows from Masterpiece Theater was Robert Graves’s story of the Emperor Claudius.

In the great and irresistible rush of lemmings to the sea, change both unavoidable and uncontrollable, what is the individual to do? What difference can one person make? We are told that the only control in our time must come through repentance, but what difference will it make if one person repents and nobody else does? Well, that’s the story of Jerusalem and the prophets, of the Book of Mormon, and the book of Abraham, and the book of Moses, and the New Testament, and the Joseph Smith story. Each one is a predicament of the one righteous repentant person against the stream. The Book of Mormon is a long list of men who stood almost wholly alone, from Ether to Moroni. The early Christians paid the price, but then, as Duchesne and other church historians observe, Christianity gave up its integrity as the price of survival. “Woe to thee, tide of human custom,” cried St. Augustine, “who can resist thee?”12 He decided it was best and safest not to try, and he took the church along with him, or rather went along with it. But, according to the scriptures, there is security in repentance even if you are the only one, for God will pay attention to you whether anybody else does or not. True, you will seem to pay a high price, but “who loses his life . . . shall save it” (Mark 8:35). If you actually keep the commandments, you will get no lack of attention from both sides, standing out like a sore thumb.

There is a very special pattern of change established for the promised land, and it is set forth in the Book of Mormon. You may easily observe how civilizations in the Old World go on and on and suffer; they are the rafts that can’t sink. Egypt, Greece, India, China, the unchanging East have all paid the price of survival with endless suffering, yet their civilizations are still in place. But it is a different story in the New World, where great civilizations have arisen and collapsed for reasons that students are still wholly at a loss to explain. They just disappeared, and nobody knows why. And I think that is a warning. Recently when I was in New York City, a guide pointed out a new hundred-million-dollar skyscraper, which had just been built with the intention that it would be torn down after another thirty years. Does that suggest a stable civilization? We are proud of not standing still. Joseph Smith noticed that wherever he looked, he seemed to see the words destruction written on everything in capital letters. On the eve of the French revolution, ca ira was the theme—”That’s going to go!” Today the new and improved product is always assumed, and we are constantly bidding farewell to the best that we have now. Good-bye to all that.

Prophecy tells us that things are going to change and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. Certain things are certainly going to happen. Must we therefore resign ourselves to fate? Not at all. There is a vital rule that leaves the door wide open to effective individual repentance and escape. We have Professor Heisenberg to thank for that. He found that though you can predict with absolute certainty how masses of particles are going to act, you can never predict how any one particle is going to behave. That is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which used to be called “the free will of the atom.” The single particle is unpredictable; only the mass is absolutely bound to behave according to the unimpeachable laws of physics.13 In the same way one can prophesy with absolute certainty what a nation or people or society is going to do: you can talk about aggregates and predict the behavior of masses, but you can never deny any individual the freedom to repent and go the other way. “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” The prophets and Professor Heisenberg show us the way out. You do not have to wait for the group to change, for the society to repent, nor do you have to change your ways to comply with theirs; the individual is free to ignore the multitude, and only he is free. Only an individual can repent. Repent is a reflexive verb—you can’t repent somebody else or force anybody else; you just repent. The clear rule for assuring desirable change is set forth in 2 Nephi: “As many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews who will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son” (2 Nephi 30:2).

On the other hand, Satan has his plan for initiating and controlling change in the world, and it is a very effective one. It rests on his manipulation of the treasures of the earth, the economy. In a single thundering speech, Shakespeare shows us how money is the great lord of change, the great change artist. Timon of Athens was the richest man in the city and very lavish in his hospitality and kind to everyone, always willing to help out a friend in need. As a result, everyone took advantage of him and he went bankrupt. When he tried to get loans and help from his friends, they were never at home and could not recognize him in the street. He was dead because he didn’t have any money. So he became a misanthrope and went out into the sticks to dig for roots to keep himself alive. (Incidentally, this is based on the true story of Herodes Atticus.14) As he was digging one day, he struck gold, an enormously rich buried treasure, and so Shakespeare gives us the scene. “Earth, yield me roots! Who seeks for better of thee, sauce his palate with thy most operant poison!” At that moment he strikes the treasure, “What is here?” he says. “Gold! Yellow, glittering, precious gold! No, gods, I am no idle votarist.” He doesn’t want it. “Roots, you clear heavens!” As the treasure emerges he picks up a coin and says,

Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant. Ha! you gods why this? What this, you gods? Why, this will lug your priests and servants from your sides, pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads: This yellow slave will knit and break religions; bless the accursed; make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves, and give them title, knee, and approbation, with senators on the bench; this it is that makes the wappen’d widow wed again; she, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices to the April day again. Come, damned earth, thou common whore of mankind, that putt’st odds among the rout of nations, I will make thee do thy right nature.15

At that point he hears a drum and says, “Thou ‘rt quick, but yet I’ll bury thee: Thou’lt go, strong thief, when gouty keepers of thee cannot stand.”16 He has no sooner found it than everybody, including his former friends, are after it, and fawning on him to get a clue.

Now just consider what a magnificent effector of change Satan possesses in an instrument that will get you anything in this world. It can change the most obvious realities, all moral values—black to white, making foul fair and wrong right; it can reverse priestly devotion and personal loyalty to their opposites; it can turn one’s bodyguards into one’s murderers, as it often did in Rome; it can sanctify the damned and damn the sacred; it can reverse the impulses of natural revulsion to all that is filthy and foul. It is what is now pitting the great powers against each other; and everybody is out to get all of it they can. All this Shakespeare has told us, and, alas, there is not the least bit of exaggeration in it. You can all illustrate each of his points by many examples. The miraculous power of money lies above all in the faith that it can stop the ravages of time. As the vigor of youth wanes, accumulating fortune can guarantee that time’s effects will be minimized. The scriptures also speak of money as the most irresistible of all agencies of change in one direction. They call it a deadly cancer which once started cannot be stopped (James 5:3; Mormon 8:38). It is called filthy and nasty in the letter to Titus (Titus 1:7, 11). In 1 Timothy it is called the great deceiver whose deceptions lead always to ruin (1 Timothy 5:6). Repeatedly in the Book of Mormon we are told that when people “set their hearts upon riches,” their doom is sealed. When the obsession for power and gain overcomes everything else in its final stages, it preempts the whole program of change.

Change out of control? We often hear the quotation from Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”17 Things reach a point where only one more change is possible. “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence, and God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth, and God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them” (Genesis 6:12-13). If men leave room in those great conflicts that rage about the economy for nothing but violence, God will take over, and they will have the ultimate solution to their problems.

I just spent a week with my wife in the Islands. One looks at the palms that have been waving timelessly in tropical breezes, and here at last it seems we have a world that does not change and does not need to change. The natives like it that way, too. And everybody says, Why should it change? Everyone goes there to see the kind of world they would like to live in. Some people we visited were very upset because the last beach where the young people can enjoy themselves and have their church parties is to be sold by the bank. Some considered that progress. The last time I was there years ago, the same thing was happening; they sold two patches for highrises. The highrises went up, and the beaches were lost forever; and now it turns out that if those shrewd men had waited just a little longer, they could have gotten ten time as much for the property as they did. So they lost the money, the beach, the island paradise, and everything else. They thought they were in charge and were improving things by what turned out to be a foolish and ruinous business deal.

May God bring about his own changes while there is still something left to change.

*This lecture was given in the Spheres of Influence lecture series on November 7, 1985, at Brigham Young University.

1. See, for example, Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (Berkeley: University of California, 1919).

2. C. S. Forester, Hornblower Saga: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (Los Angeles: Pinnacle, 1950).

3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I and II, ed. and tr. Stuart Atkins (Cambridge, MA: Suhrkamp/Insel, 1984).

4. Nigel Calder, Violent Universe (New York: Viking, 1969), 133-39; John Boslough, Stephen Hawking’s Universe (New York: Quill/Morrow, 1985), 45-58.

5. Von Otto H. Schindwolf, “Neokatastrophismus,” Zeitschrift der deutschen geologischen Gesellschaft 114 (1963): 430-31.

6. See Hazel Curnell, The America of Carl Sandburg (Washington, D.C.: University Press of Washington, D.C., 1965); cf. Carl Sandburg, The Chicago Race Riots (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1919).

7. John Dewey, On Education, ed. Reginold D. Archambault (New York: Modern Library, 1964).

8. Karl Joel, Die Wandlungen der Weltanschauung, 2 vols. (Mohr: Tübingen, 1928).

9. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act III, scene i, line 276.

10. Ibid., act III, scene ii, lines 253-54.

11. Eusebius, “Concerning the Life of the Most Blessed Emperor Constantine,” chapter X in PG 20:1063-66; for English translation, see Eusebius, Life of Constantine, chapter X in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 1:522.

12. St. Augustine, Confessions I, 16, 25.

13. Heinz R. Pagels, The Cosmic Code (New York: Bantam, 1984), 68-75.

14. Regarding the life of Herodes Atticus, see Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, 2:546-48; for English translation, see E. H. Warmington, ed., Philostratus and Eunapius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 138-251.

15. William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, act III, scene iii.

16. Ibid.

17. Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939 (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 351.