I clearly remember the thrill of moving to Provo, Utah. The air was crisp and clean, the mountains like towering monuments adorned with nature’s accessories, and the sky above them was stunningly blue in sharp contrast to the Southern California “haze” I was used to. Life was good and sweet. A sense of expectation hung in the air, like every resident was on the verge of something big; yet at the same time serenity permeated the very fabric of the local geography. Living in Provo—at least in the 1970’s—was like living in a time capsule; it seemed that despite its effort the world couldn’t pierce this “Leave it to Beaver” biodome nestled snugly between “Y-Mountain” and Utah Lake.
Every family has a “crazy uncle”—or so they say—and the quaint city of Provo had one too. Perhaps the only oddity that reminded residents of life’s harsh realities was a man whom teenagers had nicknamed “Psyches.” No one knew how old the man was; he looked about 70, but was probably only 50; and he traversed the sidewalks as briskly as a 20-year-old power-walker. He was tall and lanky, wore a plaid flannel shirt, and always had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. A worn-out ball cap covered his forehead. All you could see of his face were his lips, talking to some imaginary companion. The story went that he was at one time a professor; a genius specializing in some kind of brainy subject like quantum physics. One day something snapped and he went crazy, becoming an indigent who walked the streets day and night like a restless phantom. I could picture parents warning their children, “This is what happens when you smoke.”
One of Provo’s main attractions (well, I suppose in a town of 75,000 at the time, it’s only attraction) was Brigham Young University. I loved spending my time on campus as a teenager, and later as an adult. I loved the bookstore, bowling alley, Movie Theater, and cafeteria in the Wilkinson Center. It was great! The bookstore had an old fashioned candy counter with dozens of delicacies encased behind glass. Also on campus was “the creamery,” where ice cream made from fresh cream, produced by fresh BYU cows was sold by freshly groomed smiling college students. It was a happy place.
But even in Provo, if you looked hard enough, there was a dark side. One time I was riding my bike and a man in a pick-up truck began following me. I got scared and rode up to the house of a stranger as if I had intended to bike there all along. When a woman opened the door I told her someone was following me and asked if I could come in and call my mother to pick me up. The woman invited me into the safety of her home, while the man in the truck parked across the street waiting. When my parents pulled into the driveway, the creepy man drove away. I was too afraid to go biking alone after that.
For all the happy smiles, hearty handshakes, and helpful inhabitants, there was a minority of those who were excluded from the pleasantries; people who just didn’t fit in. Who were the individuals on the fringe? Not people like “Old Man Psyches,” although he was certainly on the fringe. It was people who wouldn’t seem that much different from anybody else in California, New York, or Main Street USA. But they were different from the majority in Provo, Utah. Guys with long hair, smokers, drinkers, women in sleeveless shirts, inactive members of the (LDS) Church, atheists, Christians—simply put, people who didn’t quite fit the mold of the general population. My mom and dad became a couple of Provo’s misfits after they stopped attending the Ward. And I’m ashamed to say that I engaged in a sort of discrimination too, as you’ll read in my book. There was a time when I looked down at smokers, drinkers, guys with long hair, men sporting an earring, people with tattoos, Jack Mormons and a list of others.
Lest anyone think I’m pointing a finger at Mormons or Utahans, not at all! Through experience, maturity (I hope), and exposure to circles outside my own, I’ve found that prejudice, pride, and being judgmental is not exclusive to any one group of people. I think probably 99% of the population is guilty of these behaviors at some point in their lives. You’ll find people of every religious persuasion (including atheists) who discriminate against others or are critical and unkind.
Conversely, you’ll find stellar people of outstanding character in Mormonism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, atheism…goodness, the list could go on! The Jewish sages say that man is born with a “good inclination” (the yetzer tov) and an “evil inclination” (the yetzer ra). The yetzer tov is characterized by selflessness; while the yetzer ra is characterized by selfishness.
I’ve heard the following tale many times:
One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, greed, and arrogance. The other is Good – It is peace, love, hope, humility, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about this for a while and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
It’s easy to become cynical. As we experience disappointment, heartache, failure, pain, and loss; or as we watch the news and are confronted with war, poverty, crime, and disaster; many of us lose our “innocence,” that sense of awe and wonder at just being alive. If we’re not careful we can develop the very characteristics we once despised: being critical, scornful, or arrogant. So, what is the answer?
Keep or recover our innocence; being careful to not be naïve. Innocence is that same expectation I felt when I moved to Provo at age 14. It’s looking at others and seeing the good in them. It’s expecting that good things are going to happen. It’s the confidence that you can make a difference in the lives of others. It’s understanding our personal responsibility for “tikkun olam,” repairing the world. And even though as individuals we can’t repair the whole world, we can repair the world around us, starting in our homes. We can make efforts to repair broken relationships. We can reach out to a neighbor in need. We can let someone else take the good parking spot. We can let a person back out of a space instead of zooming around them. We can smile at a scowling store clerk. We can look past offenses (real or perceived) and forgive.
Conversely, it would be naïve to ignore problems or believe that none exist; or to not take precautions in unknown or uncertain circumstances. Or to believe that every single person we meet will have our best interests at heart. What did the Master, Yeshua, say? “Look! As I send you out, it is like sending sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels). It’s imperative we are wise to what’s going on around us and to respond appropriately. And in the way we respond we must check ourselves to make sure our motives are blameless.
Are you out for retaliation? Are you trying to return hurt for hurt? Do you respond to insult with insult? Let me ask you my friend; is that how you want to live? Bitterness and unforgiveness are destroyers of peace. They fester like infected wounds and end up destroying the soul. Nelson Mandela once said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Look around you. What matrix are you living in? Is it one of innocence or one of malice? One of resentment or one of reverence? Are you pursuing peace or pursuing punishment? Evaluate yourself. Take an honest look. Feed “the Good Wolf”—the yetzer tov—and you will be set free.