I like listening to my dad tell stories from his time in the army. One thing he observed is that the drill sergeants he had were very much like the drill sergeants you see in the movies: insulting, swearing, and strict almost to the point of abusive. And he saw why. Although my dad was a married, returned missionary with 2 kids when he enlisted in the army, the rest of his group were 18 and 19-year old boys. And they acted the part. The primary goal in basic training is to crush you and try and get as much of the silliness and horseplay out of you as possible.
And the sergeants were good at it. After a few weeks in the military, his group finally got into the groove of things. They started to turn from silly teenage boys into dutiful soldiers. Like Mormon, they began to be “sober.” Like the sons of Helaman, they started to “obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness.” No more slacking. No more goofing off. No more horseplay.
Once the soldiers in his group got their act together, my dad noticed that the demeanor of the drill sergeants changed, too. They gave the boys more breaks. They yelled less. They even started to joke with them a little bit during mail call. They were less harsh, they required less off-the-cuff push-ups. They ordered fewer extra miles in their runs.
But it seems good things can never last. Once those boys sensed a friendliness in their drill sergeant, they started to let their guard down, too. They stopped shining their shoes quite as perfectly. They stopped creasing their pant legs. They started to goof off, slack in their duties, and fall back into their old habits. They started to turn into teenage boys again.
So, again came the yelling, the endless push-ups, and the running. And the extra punishment would sober those boys right up and turn them back into dutiful soldiers again. After a few weeks of excellent behavior, the pleased drill sergeants would lighten their load again. And the cycle would repeat.
Each time his group started getting lackadaisical in their performance, my dad would want to cry, “Guys, stop! Don’t you remember what happened last time? And the time before that? And the time before that? Our drill sergeant is being friendly– please don’t mess it up again! Have you learned nothing? Can’t you just stay sober for a few days without needing the whip cracked over our heads?”
But we humans never seem to learn. I’m as disgusted by Bill Cosby’s behavior towards women as everyone else, but his description of his family’s bedtime routine is a perfect example of this principle:
The same thing happens every night… If [my kids] would [just follow Mom’s instructions], there would be no beatings… I try to warn them. “Please! Do what your mother says, or somebody’s gonna get it tonight!”
And the children kiss me and they pat me on my head and they smile and they look at me as if to say, “Dear man, thank you for your kindness and your wonderful attitude about this whole situation, but you don’t understand. We cannot sleep through the night unless we’ve had a good beating!
And so they go upstairs, and I can tell they’re gonna get it because they’ve started already. “Will you stop touching me! Mine! Mine! Mine!”
Then, after a very long series of misbehavior:
[My wife] makes an announcement that the beatings will now begin by saying, “I have had enough of this!” Now these [kids] have the nerve to look surprised!
Humans are really, really good at forgetting. It’s like our super-power. The Nephites were just like my dad’s army group and Bill Cosby’s kids in this amazing ability to forget. Laman and Lemuel forgot God right after they saw an angel. They forgot Him right after He gave them wives. They forgot Him after He gave them food. And then, while still on the boat “they did forget by what power they had been brought.” That’s right: Laman and Lemuel were on the boat being driven by the Lord when they forgot Him. They hadn’t even finished receiving the blessing before they were taking it for granted and forgetting who was right then in the process of giving it to them!
The entire Book of Mormon is fueled by this repeating pattern: Nephites are righteous, so God blesses them. They start to slack off, prophets warn them, but they don’t listen. God sobers them up with a war or a famine or something until they are penitent and become righteous again. Wash, rinse, repeat. This pattern is often called the “Nephite pride cycle.” But I prefer to call it the “remembrance cycle.” Whether because of riches, pride, or any other reason, it just seems we humans are very good at forgetting the seriousness of our situation in regards to sacred things, forcing our loving God to use some harsh tactics to jog our memory:
And so great were their afflictions that every soul had cause to mourn; and they believed that it was the judgments of God sent upon them because of their wickedness and their abominations; therefore they were awakened to a remembrance of their duty.
Book of Mormon prophets lamented this tendency of the Nephites to forgot the Lord right at the moment they receive blessings:
O, how could you have forgotten your God in the very day that he has delivered you?
– Hel 7:20
Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One– yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity.
– Hel 12:2
In fact, when the Nephites didn’t forget the Lord after receiving a blessing, it was such an unusual occurrence that Alma made special note of it:
And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.
I could see the headlines in the Zarahemla Times: “Nephites blessed, don’t forget God. Historians baffled.”
I wish I could say this tendency to forget God when he blesses us (really, because He blesses us) only affected the extinct Nephites. But unfortunately, we know all too well this is our problem today. Brigham Young taught:
The worst fear I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear… is that they cannot stand wealth.
Pres. Kimball even said countering this forgetfulness may be the most important thing in mortality:
When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be ‘remember.’ Because all of [us] have made covenants… our greatest need is to remember. That is why everyone goes to sacrament meeting every Sabbath day—to take the sacrament and listen to the priests pray that [we] ‘… may always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given [us]’ … ‘Remember’ is the word.
So what’s the antidote to this pervasive tendency to forget God when He blesses us? Here are a few thoughts:
Antidote #1: Live without for a moment
There is truth in the line, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” I think it’s important to not just count our blessings and thank God for them but to also live without them, or at least take some time to imagine life without them. Pres. Monson shared a wonderful story of a family who had recently gotten electric lighting installed in their home, then fell on hard times. As Thanksgiving came, they grumbled about not even being able to afford a turkey and wanted to skip Thanksgiving altogether when their father shut off the electric lights and pulled out the old dim oil lights, reminding them of what blessings they had: “In the humble dimness of the old lamp we were beginning to see clearly again… [Our] home… for all its want, was so rich [to] us.”
I think one of the purposes of fasting is to do exactly that. For many of us, those two meals or 24 hours we spend fasting are the only times all month where we experience anything close to a real hunger. Hopefully, when we break our fast, we don’t dig in ravenously and think, “Finally I can eat!” Hopefully, we take a few minutes to sincerely thank God that He has blessed us with a consistent supply of food and pray for those who do not have what we have.
You don’t have to literally live without in order to appreciate your blessings, though. This week at work, my team was involved in a tense discussion about a struggling project we are working on. Emotions were high in the office and complaints were flying around (some of which were lobbied by me). During this conversation, I glanced out the window of the office and saw a man pushing a gas-powered mower up the steep hill next to our building. The grass (weeds, really) was at least 18 inches long and longer in some spots. The area he was cutting was probably the size of a high school football field. There was a stagnant pond at the bottom of the hill, so there were surely mosquitoes all around him. It was over 90 degrees with close to 100% humidity. Given the nature of his work, I’m sure he was working for a tiny fraction of the salary I earn and receives no benefits. For a few moments, I put myself in his shoes. I remembered when I had done similar work as a teenager. And most recently in Florida after the hurricane.
When I turned my attention back to the team discussion, I had a different attitude. After all, if my worst complaint at work is miscommunication between different departments, I really have it pretty dang good. At that moment, I felt extremely blessed and this complaint came into clear perspective. And I’m sure if I were to talk to this man outside about the conditions in his home country, he would tell me he feels blessed as well to not be in the situation of his friends and neighbors back home.
Antidote #2: Enlarge your memory
God has given us the scriptures to help us remember God even when times aren’t tough:
And now, it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people.
By searching the scriptures, by reading the accounts of the Nephites going through the remembrance cycle and having their memory jogged forcefully every time, we can learn the lessons of the past and hopefully not have to be reminded the hard way. In fact, when Mormon realized his own people were going down the tubes, he wrote directly to us, pleading for us to learn the lessons his own people never learned:
Behold, I speak unto you as though I spake from the dead; for I know that ye shall have my words… Give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.
Well, I gotta go now. My son is making messes again. Some people never learn…