“The Undiscover’d Country”: Navigating Toward the Future | Chris Crowe

“The Undiscover’d Country”: Navigating Toward the Future | Chris Crowe


In
perhaps the most famous soliloquy in one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays,
the brooding character Hamlet reflects on choice, life, and uncertainty. Even if you have not read or seen the play,
you will certainly recognize the opening line of Hamlet’s speech: “To be, or not to
be: that is the question.” But unless you are a Star Trek fan, you may
have forgotten that later in that soliloquy, Hamlet refers to death as Today I would like to talk about a different
“undiscover’d country”: not death but the future, the months and years—the life—you
have got ahead of you. And, as someone well advanced in years, I
feel qualified to talk about the future because I have been there, sort of, and I am here
today to tell you what I have learned along the circuitous path that led to my future,
which is now my present. If you are anything like I was as a student,
the short- and long-term future often weighs heavily on your mind. To one degree or another, all of these future
events and experiences are undiscover’d country for you, even if you are an experienced
and meticulous planner. You may think you know exactly where you are
headed, exactly how you will get there, and exactly what it will be like when you get
there, but I am here to tell you that, in the long run, you have got a lot to learn. Some of the anxiety related to our undiscover’d
country comes from unrealistic expectations, from living in an achievement culture, and
maybe even from a dose of perfectionism. A couple of weeks ago, Lindsey Leavitt Brown,
an author friend of mine, was speaking to one of my classes. She shared with my students her path to publication,
including displaying the “books” and poetry she had written as an elementary-school student
and the scores of rejections she received when she started her writing career. As a young girl, she knew she wanted to be
a writer, but she did not know and had not learned exactly how to make that happen. The lack of knowledge and the uncertainty
about who she was and what she wanted to be caused a considerable amount of stress and
discouragement because, as she said, “I thought you had to have that all worked out
by the time you were nine.” Well, she now knows she was wrong. Of course, at age nine most of us do have
some idea of what we want to be and do when we grow up, but that dream often changes as
we get older because we change as we get older, our ­circumstances change as we get older,
and our opportunities and abilities change as we get older. It is wonderful and wise—and absolutely
essential—to have dreams and goals, but it is also wonderful and wise to be flexible
enough to allow yourself to adapt to the situations you encounter as you progress through life. Some of those changes occur naturally, some
are a result of our own efforts and strategic planning, and some arrive unbidden and totally
without warning. But I can guarantee that change will come,
whether you want it or not. And I can tell you that the only way to endure
well the inevitable curveballs life will throw at you is to be firmly rooted in the gospel
of Jesus Christ. Of course, personal, academic, and professional
preparation will be invaluable as you chart your way through undiscover’d country, but
the light of the gospel and the guidance of the Holy Ghost are the constants that you
can rely on to help you make the right decisions when you reach life’s inevitable crossroads. That spiritual guidance is the only sure way
to know whether to stop and camp for a while or to forge ahead on the path to the left
or to the right. Let me illustrate—and witness to the truthfulness
of—what I just said with some personal examples. I was in eighth grade when I first heard the
word Mormon. I am pretty sure that I was not aware of any
of my classmates at McKemy Middle School in Tempe, Arizona, who were actual members of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I was aware, dimly, that such a religion
existed and that it was radically different from the Roman Catholic religion I had been
raised in. When I started ninth grade at McClintock High
School the following year, I met my first Mormon. He was a football teammate of mine who talked
long and often about his church and its various—and, what seemed to me, ­exhausting—activities. But aside from being a member of a strange
religion, Walt Denham was normal in most other respects, and he was a great friend. As a Mormon insider, he pointed out that our
school was swarming with other kids from his church. Most of those kids seemed all right or even
better than all right. In my junior year, one of those kids, Elizabeth
Foley, invited me to the annual Sadie Hawkins dance. I was thrilled to discover that such a gorgeous
young woman knew who I was and even more thrilled to go on a date with her. That first date eventually led to another,
which led to another, and pretty soon we were dating regularly. Like Walt, Elizabeth was furiously active
in her religion and constantly trying to drag me to seminary, firesides, Mutual, sacrament
meetings, and any other Church function she was involved in. I have to admit that my interest in those
activities was inversely proportional to my interest in Elizabeth. I absolutely loved being around her just as
much as I absolutely loathed the idea of going to some activity at her strange church. As our relationship matured, she talked more
and more about her religion and about how, someday, she planned to get married in a temple. I told her that as far as I was concerned,
one church building was as good as another, and she explained—or tried to explain—that
it was a little more complicated than that. We kept dating, she kept pitching Mormon activities
to me, and I kept resisting. Not long into our senior year, she broke up
with me because she did not want to risk falling in love with someone she could not marry in
the temple. Her parting gift was a grim-looking black
paperback called A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. I tossed the book into my locker and tried
to forget about it. In an odd twist of fate, around the time that
Elizabeth and I broke up, BYU started recruiting me to play football for them. My dad absolutely hated the thought of me
going to BYU (he was sure they would brainwash me into joining their church) and pushed me
to accept instead the scholarship offer from the University of Arizona. After visiting both schools and meeting BYU’s
brand-new head coach, a guy named LaVell Edwards, I decided to sign with BYU for two reasons:
Provo was a refreshing contrast from the Arizona desert I was living in and, at the time, BYU
had such a weak football team that I thought I had a pretty good chance to see a lot of
playing time. (It turned out that I was right, just not
in the way I expected. In my four years on the team, I did see lots
of playing time; unfortunately, most of it was from the sidelines.) In the end, neither religion nor Elizabeth
had anything to do with my decision to attend BYU. It just seemed to make good football sense. A few months passed, and, as my high school
career drew to a close, I started wondering why Elizabeth’s religion was such a big
deal to her and why she was so deeply committed to it. That is when I remembered that Marvelous-something
book, and I thought it might help me understand what she could not get me to understand. I took it home and skimmed it. Most of the text was way beyond my understanding,
but when I went back through it looking for answers, I came upon a ­passage in chapter
2 written by a boy who related an incredible experience he had had in 1820. When I finished reading that passage, I knew
that this boy—whoever he was—had honestly related an actual experience. He really had gone into the forest to pray,
and he really had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ. His story was true. Well, that led to a whirlwind of events—­talking
to missionaries, going to church, talking with Elizabeth about her church’s doctrine—that
placed me at a crucial crossroad: Knowing what I knew, should I join this church? The missionaries had their own ideas, of course,
but I did not know if I had the courage to take that leap of faith, especially because
I knew that my father would consider it a departure not just from the Catholic Church
but also from my family. So I prayed, and I fasted for the first time. I had my own wrestle with the Spirit, trying
to distill God’s will from my own thoughts and desires. I can tell you that it was the hardest thing
I had ever done. I did not have a vision or a burning in my
bosom or any sort of obvious manifestation that would have made the decision easy, but
I did finally feel the answer. And it was not the answer I wanted. I ended up missing my first two baptism appointments,
and I can only imagine what the poor missionaries were thinking, but my work schedule finally
allowed me to show up at the Tempe stake center on July 2, this very day in 1972, to be baptized
a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It would be a monumental understatement to
say that this decision altered the path of my life, and it is impossible to understate
the role that prayer and the Holy Ghost played in making that decision. Though I did not realize it at the time, I
have learned in the decades since then that when I have taken the time to ponder and pray
about some of life’s most important decisions, I have been blessed to know which path to
take. And it is probably no surprise to you to hear
that the right path is not always the easiest. So I came to Provo in late July, just in time
for twice-a-day football practices and to settle into my dorm and gear up for my first
semester of college, a semester in which I would earn a C− in freshman English. I can’t blame my lousy grades that semester
on football or on homesickness, but I think that part of my problem was heartsickness. Elizabeth had stayed in Arizona to attend
school, and the longer I was away from her, the more I missed her—and I had a pretty
good idea of how to solve that problem. I proposed. She said yes. We got married just in time to move into Wymount
Terrace for my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, my academic record improved
almost immediately, and, thanks to Elizabeth, I stopped taking classes just because they
sounded interesting and instead took classes that would actually lead to graduation. When BYU handed me my diploma in December
1976, they also handed us an eviction notice. I finished my last final exam just before
Christmas break, and we still did not know where we would be living when we had to move
out of Wymount a week or so later. I have to tell you, that caused us considerable
stress. College life had not exactly been stress free. The rigors of football and an English major
(and yes, I am well aware of the irony of my majoring in English after my lowly C−
start) took a lot out of me, and to call our budget “shoestring” would be a gross exaggeration. But the challenging nature of my last three
years at BYU was nothing compared to facing an unknown, uncertain, terrifyingly blank
future—a daunting undiscover’d country. In those gut-wrenching days when I was searching
madly for a job, I realized that, for me, my college experience had been something like
tubing down the Salt River in Arizona. There were bumps and twists and some white
water along the way, but there was also the security of solid land to my left and to my
right and the promise that if I stayed in the river long enough, it would deliver me
to the exit point, where I could get out safely. The problem I was facing in December 1976
was that my final destination was not a crystal pond somewhere; it was a figurative ocean:
vast, deep, and endless. In those dark, terrifying days of drifting
into the great unknown, we spent a lot of time praying, making contingency plans, and
searching for cheap apartments that might take us with a pittance for a deposit and
no advance notice. And we also took comfort in the scriptures,
especially these two: And did I say that we prayed day and night
for a miracle? A miracle came. A high school up in Ogden had a sudden opening
for an English teacher; specifically, a teacher who might want to coach a little. I grabbed the contract before they could change
their minds, and, after Christmas, we moved to Ogden, where we bought a tiny old house
on 29th Street, just below Harrison Boulevard, and settled in to start our grown-up lives. We fully expected to live there for decades. We lasted just six months. Though I loved my colleagues and my students
at Weber High, when a vacancy at my high school alma mater opened up in March, I had to apply. They offered me the job at the end of the
school year, so in July we packed up our meager belongings, sold our little old house, and
moved to Arizona. We bought a brand-new house, got involved
in the ward, started having kids, and figured that, without a doubt, we would finish out
our lives in Arizona. We lasted ten years. In those ten years, while teaching high school
full-time, I went to graduate school part-time at Arizona State University—primarily to
make myself a better high school English teacher but also to take advantage of the salary incentives
that came with a graduate degree. While in graduate school, I started writing
magazine articles, scholarly articles for professional journals, fiction, and even a
little poetry. I don’t have time to go into all the details,
but after a decade of teaching high school English, I wondered what it might be like
to be a college professor—to have a job that gave me more time to write. I applied for a few jobs, heard nothing, and
felt lucky that I had a job I loved at a school I loved. Then came an offer from a university in Japan. A lifetime appointment, even. I was flattered, but the idea of taking my
wife and four little children halfway around the world to a foreign country in which none
of us would be able to read, write, or speak the local language took more courage than
I had. I was ready to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But, knowing how interested I was in teaching
at a college level, Elizabeth suggested we should study it out and then pray about it. So we made pros-and-cons lists, talked with
family and friends and our bishop, and learned what we could about Japan and Japanese culture. After all that, the answer was pretty clear:
No. Nope. No way. “A bird in the hand,” “the devil you
know,” and all that. But Elizabeth pointed out that we had not
prayed yet. So we took turns praying, talking, and then
praying some more. The wall of fear I had of moving to Japan
effectively blocked the still, small voice, so after days of prayer and conversation,
we were still mired in a stupor of thought. And that is when Elizabeth suggested that
we pray harder and more humbly. And that is when the answer I did not want
to hear arrived: Go. We went. And it was hard. Stimulating, soul-stretching, and life-enriching
hard. We lasted three years. After about two years, we started having feelings
that maybe Japan was not the end for us, so I started applying for jobs in the United
States. I quickly learned that in the days before
email and Skype, no one wanted to interview some guy in Japan. So we dug in, assuming that the Lord must
want us to stay in Japan for reasons beyond our own understanding. Early one morning during our third year there,
our phone rang. It was R. Lanier Britsch, the academic vice
president at BYU–Hawaii. A member of their English department had just
left, and he asked if I would be interested in filling the position. Not a lot of prayer was necessary to confirm
that decision! We moved to the fabulous north shore of Oahu
and fell in love with Hawaii, the university, and its wonderful students from all over the
world. We bought a house. We even bought grave sites. We knew beyond a doubt that we had finally
reached our last stop. It would take a tsunami or some other act
of God to pry us from our bright little island in the Pacific. We lasted four years. At the beginning of my fourth year in paradise,
I received a letter from Greg Clark, a member of the English department at BYU in Provo. There was an opening in their department for
someone with my qualifications. Would I be interested in applying? Easy answer: No! But Elizabeth and I felt that we should talk
it over, so we did—with extreme prejudice. Neither one of us wanted to leave Laie. Neither one of us wanted to give up the sun-drenched
beaches for snow-capped mountains. But we studied it out in our minds, made our
pros-and-cons lists, talked to friends who worked in Provo, and made our decision: No. Of course we still had one step left to complete:
we had to pray about it. We had to seek the Spirit and then be sensitive
enough to discern our Heavenly Father’s will through the shouted objections of our
own will. And it was tough. That old stupor of thought settled in every
time we prayed for confirmation, and every morning when we walked the beach at sunrise,
that stupor-y fog got even thicker. But we kept at it until we finally had an
answer. I guess you know what that answer was. It is now obvious from my current perspective
how each of the decisions Elizabeth and I have made in the last few decades led us to
where we currently are. From where we stand now, the destination was
inevitable. But on the front end, when we were just getting
started, we faced the great void of undiscover’d country with little idea of what would come
next. In that respect, life follows one of the key
principles of fiction writing: the notion called “the inevitability of retrospect.” Those of us who like stories, whether reading
them or watching them, would admit that suspense, or the question of what will happen next,
is usually what keeps us engaged. We want to follow a plot filled with wonder
and speculation, and we hope to be surprised by how things ultimately turn out. In the writing of fiction, being predictable
is one of the worst sins a writer can commit. Author and editor L. Rust Hills defined the
inevitability of retrospect. He wrote: When you begin a story and while you’re
reading it, . . . alternatives to the character’s fate and to the plot’s action seem open,
possible, available. But when you’ve finished the story and look
back, the action should seem inevitable. When it comes to real life, though, most of
us feel exactly the opposite. We crave ­predictability. Not only do we want to know where we are headed,
but we really want to know when and how we will get there. In my experience, much of the stress about
my life or my career had to do with facing the unknown, my own undiscover’d country. One stressor related to graduating from college
is the looming unknown. College life has plenty of uncertainties,
but one thing is always certain: next semester you will have a schedule of classes and a
routine that will be somewhat familiar. When you are through with college, that scheduled
certainty evaporates, and you are dumped from a cozy river into the ocean of life with a
distant and seemingly endless horizon. Facing that transition from a stable student
life to the broad vicissitudes of adult life can be terrifying. So, how can you navigate, or prepare to navigate,
this ocean of life, this undiscover’d country that you will enter when you leave BYU? At our stage of life, Elizabeth and I can
take a retrospective look at our lives and careers and see the inevitable steps that
led us to where we now live. We took those steps with faith, like Nephi,
“not knowing beforehand the things which [we] should do.” We learned that our Heavenly Father loves
us, that He has a plan for us, and that if we take the time to ponder and pray, we can
learn His will for us. We learned that such pondering and praying
isn’t easy and isn’t always fun, but it has always blessed us—­especially when
life smacked us with hard, sometimes heartbreaking experiences. We learned that the paths of life are lined
with wonderful, loving people who are willing to help us along the way. We learned to follow Nephi’s advice: We learned that, more often than we would
like, we have to be patient and long-suffering. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, Most of all, we learned that when we center
our lives on Jesus Christ and try to live by His teachings, we will always be able to
find our way—the right way—to the next steps in our lives. Life has taught Elizabeth and me that Heavenly
Father has a plan for us, and I know that He also has a plan for each of you. I know that if you will ponder, pray, and
listen, He will lead you to where He wants you to be. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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