Un je-ne-sais-quoi

February 15, 2004 | 21 comments
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Russell mentioned that he is “a doubting, debating, Socratic philosopher.” I’m at least sympathetic. Neither of us would be doing what we do?teaching philosophy of some kind?were that not true. I’m happy to say that the longer I live, the less often I have difficult religious doubts, the more I feel that my intellectual life and my religious life are of a piece. But that has not always been true.

I suppose my doubts have decreased through a kind of habituation as much as any thing, but I’m inclined to agree with Aristotle that virtue is a way of being habituated, so that explanation doesn’t bother me. But there have been times in my life when I have had serious doubts and difficulties with the Church. Sometimes I had difficulty with a leader and, as a consequence, began to have questions about the Church. Sometimes it has been a teaching that bothers me. Sometimes it was just plain old doubt whether there is a God or an after life or . . . . It wasn’t difficult to find occasions for doubt or difficulty.

However, what has kept me going in such times has been my memory of spiritual experiences. I remember the experience that converted me. I hadn’t been reading the Book of Mormon or praying or doing anything else that the missionaries said I should do, but out of the blue I was overcome by a spiritual experience. I knew that I had to join the Church and I knew that it is true, though I wasn’t at all sure what it meant to say that the Church is true. I haven’t had many more such experiences, just enough to keep the original memory alive. I had a similar experience in a testimony meeting in a servicemen’s retreat in Korea and another in Brazil when I picked up my second son from his mission. With one or two similar events, those have been my bulwarks in times of doubt, skepticism, or cynicism. (I’ve written more about memory, if you’re interested.)

One of the most important experiences, however, was my mission. I’m sure that many people, perhaps most, found their missions to be quite difficult. I cannot explain how much I hate knocking on doors or accosting strangers, even more than I hate people I don’t know knocking on my door or talking to me on the street or in an airplane. I am constitutionally averse to chatting with people whom I don’t know unless we are in a formal setting, such as a classroom. No matter how many days I spent contacting people, I didn’t come to like it any better or, frankly, to be much better at it. Given my version of misanthropy, every day was a trial in that regard.

I also found the poverty in Korea in the early 60s overwhelming. I lived there for three years before my mission and returned for another two-and-one-half as a missionary, but I never got accustomed to facing horrifically disfigured beggars, emaciated young children in the streets, or young women sold into prostitution. But I’ve worded that poorly. It isn’t that I didn’t get accustomed to such things. Being accustomed to them wasn’t the goal. I never figured out how to deal with them at all, and I found facing those problems and having no good answers to be hard on me spiritually.

However, in spite of the difficulties of my mission, something about it added needed strength to my faith. Part of it was that I met so many Koreans of profound faith, people who shared their lives and testimonies with me in spite of my poor Korean, my bumbling manners, my ignorance of their culture, my immaturity, and my paralysis in the face of their temporal problems. Part of it was that there were moments in my mission when I knew that something was going on that was far beyond me and my abilities; I knew I was an instrument in spite of myself. Part of it was that I formed friendships with other missionaries that have lasted for almost thirty-five years, friendships that have the Gospel at their center. But even those don’t account for my mission’s importance.

When I was a visiting professor in Leuven, Belgium, I regularly went to a chocolate shop in the town’s main square. There were many such shops in the small city, more in Leuven than in most large American cities. But this shop was particularly good. All of the chocolates were handmade and the assortment was incredible. Janice and I would each buy one or, if we were splurging, two chocolates and savor them. Then we would come back in a day or two for more. The shop owner got to know who we were fairly quickly, and we talked about chocolates: “What is in this one,” “How do you make that one,” and especially “Why are your chocolates so much better than those of your competitors?”

His answer to the last question was that he always includes some flavor in a very small quantity so that when you taste the chocolate you say, “Hmm, dark chocolate, this-or-that flavoring, and yet something else, some I-know-not-what [un je-ne-sais-quoi].” The secret to good chocolate is the I-know-not-what as much as it is the identifiable ingredients. Though eating Belgian chocolates was infinitely more pleasurable and infinitely less important than my mission, it seems to me that both are what they are because of something I cannot identify, some I-know-not-what.

If I list all of the reasons that my mission has been important to me, when I am done something is missing that I cannot put my finger on, a something that made all the difference and that I think has been as important to my life in the Church as anything else.

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21 Responses to Un je-ne-sais-quoi

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 15, 2004 at 7:54 pm

    All the noblest things in life, I’ve noticed, come to a point when one can only, like Mary, ‘keep these things and ponder them in one’s heart.’ Mission’s are like that.

    My wife Sara recently gave birth without any pain suppressants. It was a hard experience but afterwards we were giddy with triumph. We both felt something important had been done. Thinking it over, I realized the feeling was similar to one I’d had on my mission. I had a hard mission, much like yours, Jim. Nothing came of anything we did. We worked hard, from habit and orneriness, true. We spent a long weary time for nothing and we knew it. Very often in the middle of such times a feeling of sweetness would come over me so intense that it brought me to tears. Some may doubt the existence of glory, but I felt it and knew it as a real thing around us. We felt as if we had taken up the cross.

    I shall value chocolates all the more now, knowing what they will remind me of.

  2. cooper on February 15, 2004 at 10:11 pm

    Jim, I have read your name here many times. I never put two and two together. I read your devotional talk a few years ago. It was very good. In fact I quoted from it in a talk I gave in church. The “anchor” reference is great.

    Many of us struggle through the same types of things. I truly believe that it is those anchors that keep us in “remembrance”. Each of us will have a pompous cretin for a priesthood leader, or the gossip in relief society, or the unceasing reminders of suffering all around us. Enter anchor. The simple, clear, pure example that the Lord watches over us. Not in the just the broad sense of the word; but in the individual, close, almost secret part of us that no one else sees. He is there and gives us experiences almost too sacred to talk about to help us “know” and understand his reality.

    Thanks for the talk in 1998, and this most recent post.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2004 at 11:13 pm

    In all seriousness…am I really a “doubting, debating, Socratic philosopher”? On my good days, perhaps. More often however, I fear that I’m merely a doubting Thomas, at best.

    Anyway, thanks Jim. And let me second Cooper’s praise of your remembrance sermon: like most everything you write, it is intelligent, insightful, and wise.

    I wish I could say my memory contains many such anchors, but it does not. (Or at least, if it does, my ignorance or pride prevent me from feeling them as perhaps I might.) My memory of my mission experience certainly doesn’t. I was a lousy missionary–that much I know–yet as the years have passed it has become more and more difficult for me to grasp exactly how I should understand that fact. I used to say it in bitterness or defiance, but now, aside from the occasional bit of cynical humor, I just rarely speak about my mission at all. As I have become who I am, my failures in Korea (and they were many) have become part of my story, and coming to know my own story has settled me and strengthened me as a human being and a saint. Thus it might be said that my (past) weakness has become my (present) strength. But surely that does not mean that my mission experience has become something other than it actually was, does it? Surely it would have been better if I had done otherwise than I did. But I do not know how to articulate that, because if I had done (or been) otherwise, then I would not be telling this story; I would be someone else. It’s a mystery. Which I guess isn’t all that different from saying that there was something “je-ne-sais-quoi” about my mission after all.

    [20 minutes later]

    I should take back what I wrote above, partly; there are a few memories from my mission which frequently return to my mind, though their meaning, and their relationship to my faith, remains unclear to me. One I’ve written about before here (http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000327.html); others I’ve written about elsewhere. Maybe, if I can dig up a copy of an essay I wrote for BYU’s Insight magazine way back when I was a brand-new RM, I’ll post it somewhere and share it.

  4. Julie in Austin on February 15, 2004 at 11:35 pm

    cooper-

    Jim is my hero, too. Just this very morning (and last week in Teacher Improvement, and a month ago in Institute), I shared one of my all-time favorite quotes, and it comes from our very own Brother Faulconer:

    “Assume that the scriptures mean exactly what they say and, more important, assume that we do not already know what they say. If we assume that we already know what the scripture say, then they cannot continue to teach us.”

  5. Chris Goble on February 16, 2004 at 2:14 am

    Jim,

    I appreciated your comments on your mission. Like you, standard mission practices seemed at odds with who I was. Following standard protocol seemed to ignore any of my strengths, requiring me to work through weakness. With the mission in disarray from a few years of hard number chasing, work often ended up being done more for its own sake, not for any visible reward. Unfortunately what I was willing to work through was in no way similar to what those around me would. Being culturally and socially isolated from most of the other missionaries (I hate basketball, and love the freedom of mountain sports) exasperated the normal struggles of a difficult mission. Often times, perhaps like you, I found it a difficult struggle to maintain who I was. There was so much internal pressure to become what I was not. It took a long time to figure out how to create lasting changes, rather than superficial gains. I think some of us can endure hard times so long it is possible to loose sight of the real struggle.

    For me, I often wonder if my anchors are a hinderance to growth. At times, they are so strong I feel yielding to any desire to follow others is an escape. Yet as you point out, what is the essence that makes our experiences more than the sum of their parts?

    I am always amazed at how clear a conscience I have regarding my mission, especially considering how bad a job I did. I can still remember that last day, thinking about my time and wondering if some of my mistakes meant much of my mission was in vain. I am still amazed by the clear feelings and testimony I had then. I felt truly amazed how proud God could feel for something so imperfect. Somehow overt erros and incorrect actions felt as good, as proud, as spiritual, as the most righteous sacrifices. I am still amazed by those feelings. Feelings so contrary to my reason I know I never could have made them up. It is amazing how proud God can be not only of the struggles we win, but also of the struggles we loose.

    So what is the unknown ingredient? Is it the taste of turning a weakness into a strenght? Is it the recongintion that a wrong has, years down the road, turned out to be something that is now right? I think the colour of our struggles add so much. To me the amazing part of life is how the bitter additivies can be made sweet. Not by changing, or forgetting them, but rather by the way God is able to use them. I guess I am just glad that adding a bit of salt to chocolates makes the sugar taste sweeter. It is still salt, but from a new perspective it has sure done something contrary to its nature.

  6. lyle on February 16, 2004 at 12:37 pm

    I once had a dream that I was invited to serve a 2nd mission because I had messed up the 1st one so badly. I was thrilled! Then I learned I had to spend another 2 months in the MTC. About 2 weeks into the MTC dream…I quit and realized I couldn’t do it anymore.

    It has now been 10 years since I began that 1st full time mission. Your posts feed a previously non-existent hunger to return and seek the forgotten memories and the still living friends.

  7. Grasshopper on February 16, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    Chris, I appreciated your comments about your surprisingly clear conscience about your missionary service. I had a similar experience as I finished my mission, and though I still wince when I recall some of my own missionary service, I also recall the clear impression I had of God’s satisfaction with my so-far-from-perfect service.

  8. Jim F. on February 16, 2004 at 2:58 pm

    Russell asks, “Surely that does not mean that my mission experience has become something other than it actually was, does it?” If that isn’t possible, then it seems that repentance isn’t possible. What can it mean that the Lord forgets our sins if it isn’t that the past changes its character, becoming something new?

  9. Chris Goble on February 16, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Jim, I really like the view of repentance you stated. I think it is too easy to fall into the trap that repentance means erasing the past. I am now tending towards a view of Christ’s suffering as being a way to determine if we can still be accepted despite the repercussion of our actions. In other words the suffering was to see if sinners could ever look God in the eye and not feel ashamed of what was done. I don’t believe this is possible without faith that Christ has accepted us and determined for himself if it was possible.

  10. Brent on February 16, 2004 at 4:32 pm

    Clark, what you just wrote blends nicely with some thoughts I have had from Jim’s post on Sunday School Lesson #8. At the end of those materials, 1 Nephi 10:20, Jacob states that because of the great knowledge of the existence of a Savior, we can “remember him, and lay aside our sins, and not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off.” The past is what it is, we cannot change it, but through Christ’s atonement, we can look God in the eye and not hang our head in shame. Some great, though provoking comments by all. Thanks.

  11. Brent on February 16, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    Sorry, I saw “Goble” and wrote Clark, but I was responding to Chris’ comment.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on February 16, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    I wrote, in regards to my (mostly unpraiseworthy) mission experience, and the way my understanding of it has since become part of my own faith story: “Surely that does not mean that my mission experience has become something other than it actually was, does it?”

    Then Jim wrote: “If that isn’t possible, then it seems that repentance isn’t possible. What can it mean that the Lord forgets our sins if it isn’t that the past changes its character, becoming something new?”

    That’s an intriguing question, Jim, and a cutting one. For it suggests, if I understand you correctly, that if I continue to acknowledge the sins I committed on my mission as sins, then perhaps I haven’t actually yet repented of them, which may very well be the case.

    But I think that I don’t agree with you. Specifically, I don’t think I agree that “the past chang[ing] its character” and “[the past] becoming something new” are the same thing. Russell Arben Fox, the only-occasionally-reliable missionary, is not me; I am. Between the power of time and the gifts of God, that experience has been put into, has fused with, a new horizon, one that constitutes my life today. In that sense my mission experience itself has indeed been made new, or “renewed.” But what is such a renewal reflective of? That the experience itself is miraculously no longer substantively what it once was? I don’t see that, since the experience as it was is still present to me. Borrowing from Gadamer, the hermeneutic involved seems to me to be one which insists upon continuity. The Lord has promised us “beauty for ashes” (Isa. 61:3), but that does not read to me like a promise to make the character of the ashes themselves beautiful. If it was, wouldn’t the realization of such a promise paradoxically make any appreciation for, or indeed even recognition of, the realized promise itself impossible, since I would no longer have available to me the ashes from out of which the beauty came?

    I admit I don’t know how best to understand the promise that the Lord will remember our sins no more. For the time being, I think Luther had it basically correct: “simul justus et peccator.” If God will give me beauty for ashes, it is because His love is so great that He loves ashes, not because ashes aren’t what they are.

  13. Chris Goble on February 16, 2004 at 7:25 pm

    Russell, not being a philospher, I am intrigued by your last comment. Am I basically getting your point correct when I interpret it in the following (possibly confusing) way; Past events can’t be changed (become something that they originaly were not) because if they are, it means that they weren’t the orignal thing to begin with. For instance if I put paper money in the bank, and withdraw gold coins, the paper has not become gold. I may consider them identical because of their function, but fundamentally the paper has not changed.

    This is a very good argument, and one about which I am sure I am splitting hairs. However, does this argument apply on a very long ie eternal time scale. Is the idea of change about which you are speaking time dependent? For instance, change makes no sense unless you have an external measure of time. If we use a non time reference (ie from my view an eternal perspective), point time determinations of being don’t make sense. What I am at the start is the same as what I am at the end, although many parts of my being may not yet be expressed from a fixed reference.

    Now I am sure this is a very relative way of looking at things, and perhaps not so useful perspective. It means events are never judged by an external curriculum, rather by what they become. Perhaps this just suits my growing liberalism and change in focus towards motivation as a key factor in sin and growth.

  14. William Morris on February 16, 2004 at 8:18 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this ‘I-know-not-what.’ I served a misison in Romania in the early 90s and both Jim and Chris’s comments ring familiar. For me the difficulty was that for the first part of my mission we couldn’t even street contact and didn’t wear our nametags so any contacting had to be done in some roundabout, devious way — something I was terrible at and terribly uncomfortable with. We were continually asking directions of people to places we knew perfectly well how to get to and were only going there because we needed a destination so that we could ask people for directions. It was a very “Eastern European” experience so-to-speak. Thinks were somewhat better for me when we finally were able to do streetboarding, but even that was difficult for me — instead of getting a handful of contacts, I too often found myself having long conversations with Romanians whose only interest in the Church was academic (if even that). The savings grace I suppose (and something that other RM’s have expressed envy over) is that we didn’t do any tracting. But at least that would have given me some prodding — another door to knock on — instead of walking the streets and parks with a hopeful expression on my face trying to get up the nerve to stop someone.

    I think that this I-know-not-what is a product of many things. Time and place seem so different on a mission. There’s a sense of displacement, but also of being at home [a byproduct, I think, of being so close to the people of the country -- of being in their homes and sharing something as intimate as religion]. I don’t think that it’s quite the same as your typical expatriate experience. Whenever I came in contact with other Americans — businessmen, embassy folks, hopeful adoptees, tourists, missionaries from other religious groups — they seemed to feel their expatirate-ness and to miss America much more than we did. In a way, our Romania was it’s own place, a place separate from that of Romanians and of expatriates. A strange space that was very much rooted in the physical place of the city, its arteries, parks, plazas, shops, residential districts and yet was on a different plane, a spiritual one. In some ways the grimy streets of Bucharest feet to me more like being in the temple than any other place I’ve been.

    Time is different. You feel it acutely in some ways — always another appointment to get to, or if not that desperation of wanting to create appointments, to get work. Or that subtle nagging feeling you have as the months slip away — the sense that you’re time is always about to be up, that you haven’t done what you had hoped to. Of course, at the same time, those months where it seems like the end will never come like you are caught in some eternal present. The seasons seem more pronounced because you are out in the elements so much more. But then again, the year doesn’t really seem to exist because you feel only the lightest touch of the moments of cultural and social temporality [TV shows or movies that are playing, major current events, etc.]. Yes, there are holidays — Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the new year — but even these seem much more linked to their actual meaning than to that particular year. Or at least that was the case for me, and I think the other missionaries I shared them with. Holidays seemed much more iconic, more deeply connected to the rhythm of lives and families and traditions.

    Anyway, this is all to say that I think that a big part of this ‘I-know-not-what’ is the peculiar sense of time and place, of encountering the spirit in some many places and ways and with so many people. Of the sediment that accrues with each experience speaking, teaching, praying. And because the mission is so messy — because golden contacts lose it, because freshly baptized members fall away, because you meet all kinds of crazies, because some people can feel it and others can’t, because you love the members but also can’t stand some things about them — you can’t just add it all up into some quick lesson or feeling or phrase or image or toteboard of succeses and failures.

    Which now that I’ve written all this reminds me of Bela Petsco’s short-story collection _Nothing Very Important and Other Stories_ which I review here: http://www.aml-online.org/reviews/b/B200227.html

    Dang it. I’m always covering ground that’s already been trod.

  15. Clark Goble on February 16, 2004 at 8:30 pm

    I don’t have much to add to what’s been said (except to say that our Mom confused Chris and me all the time, so no one else need worry about it – plus we’re both physicists)

    I think what Russell is getting at it the old neoPlatonic notion of events being related to music. This is used a lot in postmodern discussions as well. Any note in a piece of music has its meaning in terms of the whole. What you think the note means when you hear it isn’t what it means when the music is finished. Thus while we can’t “change” the past, we can change the meaning of the past.

    I know Jim’s discussed that point over on LDS-Phil before. Until the music stops, the meaning of any note is still open. Thus repentance is less erasing a note than changing the role and place of the note.

  16. Clark Goble on February 16, 2004 at 8:32 pm

    Sorry, mixing threads in that last bit. (I’ve not read email or the web for a few days)

    This relates to our differences as well though. Paul of course brings up the metaphor of the body. But in music all the instruments contribute to the whole. We might recognize those instruments in the foreground or the melody. But that doesn’t mean that the whole can deal without the other accompaniments.

  17. Jim F. on February 17, 2004 at 1:52 am

    Clark made my point for me using the analogy of music, but I want to expand a bit. I don’t think the past is what it is apart from its meaning, so I do think that the past changes as its meaning changes. Russell, the changes you describe are part of a continuity, to be sure, but they are part of a continuity that isn’t static. If we disagree, it doesn’t seem that we disagree by much.

  18. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2004 at 4:02 am

    Jim,

    “I don’t think the past is what it is apart from its meaning, so I do think that the past changes as its meaning changes.”

    I agree that the past can (and in a sense does, every day) become part of something new, and that newness gives meaning that wasn’t there before. But would that mean that the “old” meaning has been changed as well? Say I’m an adulterer. Then, I stop committing adultery. Then, years later, I counsel someone suffering from sexual temptation, and I find that my experience with adultery enables to me to speak to sexual longings and complications more richly and persausively than a fellow saint who has never committed adultery, and consequently I help someone avoid sexual sin who otherwise would have given in. My past weakness (adultery) has become a present strength (in counselling others). I can see how that would mean that God has used my adultery, made something new and good out of it, brought beauty out from it. But am I to think that therefore my adultery has, in fact, become good in God’s eyes? (“I guess cheating on my spouse was part of the plan all along.”) I’ve been justified, yes; cleanliness, through God’s grace, has been imputed to me. But have I become clean ex ante? Maybe, but I don’t see how. (Though you may be right that our disagreement is small one; it’s entirely possible that I’m just misunderstanding your claim.)

  19. Kristine on February 17, 2004 at 8:50 am

    Russell, I’ve understood this in terms of God’s different experience of time and sequence. “[Angels] reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.” (D&C 130) If God sees past, present and future together, then in some sense, becoming the kind of person who would not commit adultery again means becoming a person who is not an adulterer. It doesn’t mean that the adulterous act in the past was not wrong, but that it has ceased to be a determining factor of the present personality.

    The best way I have to analogize this (and by “best” here I mean “really juvenile and primitive”) is that God reads the world and its inhabitants like one of those _Choose Your Own Adventure_books, and from any given choice, he can infer the entire rest of the story. So in the moment you were choosing to commit adultery, he saw the whole future of you as an adulterous person. The moment you repented, he started reading (or writing, perhaps) a different novel about you. Is it the same protagonist in either case? I think maybe not–all the New Testament talk about becoming a new person in Christ suggests to me that God is not quite as hung up with the notion of a single consistently animating personality as we are. You still remember the story about the adulterer that was you, and you can tell it to help people, but it’s no longer a story about *you*, properly understood.

    (I don’t know–this starts to sound like the ramblings of someone who has read not enough philosophy and way too much lit. crit. AND who hasn’t slept all night in 7 years and has a more than slightly shaky grasp of what time means!)

  20. Jim F. on February 17, 2004 at 1:25 pm

    Russell, Yes, I think the old meaning has also changed. An adulterer who will repent and help others (which is now what the hypothetical “you” were) is not the same as an adulterer who will continue in his sin. Time has changed what those adulterers were. Of course it is equally true that a former adulterer is not the same as someone who has never committed adultery, though through the Atonement both can be made just before God and God can use the lives of each. If moments of time do not exist independent of each other, then the past moments affect present ones (of course), but more importantly present moments affect the being of past ones. It seems to me that repentance and the Gift of the Holy Ghost do what they do by making me into something I would not have been otherwise and, in doing so, they make my past something other than it would have been.

  21. clarkgoble on February 17, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Russell if I might add to what Jim has said. I think using the metaphor of music is once again apt. The meaning of any individual played note takes its meaning from the whole. That entails that meaning is always with respect to some context. Within the context of my past experience it will always be bad. It may well be that in other contexts it is also bad. But in the context of the whole it can become good.

    This is where I think we often go wrong. We want meaning to be “absolute” in the sense of context-independent. That never can happen.

    Context is very powerful. My strengths can become weaknesses and my weaknesses strengths. I believe that one of the great strengths of the atonement is that unity or holism that it entails within our universe. We start to see the bigger picture and it is that bigger picture that allows us to transcend this earthly limit. Suddenly we see things differently. This affects both our motivations as well as our understanding of *our* meaning. There literally is a radical change in perception. That change in perception is what is entailed in being born again, although clearly it happens both before and after as well.

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