Act as if

I have been searching for a long lost relative of mine. By long lost, I mean a couple of centuries lost. He was last seen in Wales apparently. He was the father of Evan James.

We Mormons do this sort of thing, not because we want to substantiate our claim to an inheritance, or link up with royalty. We think we can do our ancestors some good, and feel we have a responsibility to them for preparing the way for us to be born.

But I confess I’m also curious to know if I have any kinship with William James, a notable philosopher and psychologist of late 19th century America. I rather doubt we are related, James is a common name in Wales. I suspect given my character and disposition, I’m more likely to be related to Jesse James than William.

But William James has intrigued me ever since I read three words he wrote, “Act as if.” They were part of his teachings on how to change and improve your life.

James approach echoed the American “can do” spirit that made, and still makes this country great. He counseled that if you want to add some ability or admirable character trait to your life, act as if you already have it.

Simple but powerful program. Some people to whom I have recommended this have said, “Great, if I want to be wealthy, I’ll act as if I am. I’ll spend money like a drunken sailor, and somehow it will never run out.”

My reply is, “Maybe people who are already rich act that way, but people who become rich do just the opposite. If you really act like them you will manage the dimes and dollars carefully then you’ll have the self control and skill to build the thousands into millions.” Despite their hefty salaries, eighty percent of the NFL football players are broke or worse within three years of their retirement. Lottery winners, show business stars, inheritors of estates are equally famous for letting fortune slip through their fingers. People who acquire money or retain money don’t throw it away.

The same is true of other things we might wish for. If we would have friends, act as if we were a friend, reach out, bring light, help others, and see how your social circle expands. If we would be healthy, do the things healthy people do. No guarantee, but it’s our best shot.

How do we change our actions to better obtain the good things we want in life? We can grab ourselves by the scruff of the neck and drag our mind and body kicking and screaming into a new life style. This works for some people, but it is a tough, uphill climb. Better to make use of the magic of imagination. Picture the new you doing the things that are natural to that person. The greater detail you can paint the better. See yourself in various settings doing the things that bring the life you want. Avoid weighting down your soaring dream with baggage such as, “This in not the real me. I’m being hypocritical. Can’t happen.” Anything can happen inside us. Nobody else has to know what you are creating there.

As you do this, the person you picture will take more and more control over your actions. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” the Bible counsels us. The process from thought, to action, to result was described by David O. McKay, former president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He counseled us to sow a thought and reap an action, sow an action and reap a habit, sow a habit and reap a character, sow a character and reap a destiny.

President McKay’s predecessor Heber J. Grant was a dynamic man famous for conquering his shortcomings and turning his weaknesses into strengths. He went from a frail and clumsy baseball player to a member of the championship team of the Territory of Deseret (later the state of Utah) He turned his embarrassing hen scratch handwriting into an art form with which he supplemented his income with superb penmanship.

Not surprisingly, he admired Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s boot strap theology. He turned one of Emerson’s statements into the unofficial Mormon 14th Article of Faith. “That which we persist in doing becomes easier. Not that the nature of the thing changes, but our ability to do increases.”

As a religious leader, he also counseled that we will not be alone as we tread the long path to perfection. Our Father in Heaven will guide and sustain us along the way. I know of no more practical and accessible program for improving our lives, our conditions, and our ultimate destiny than William James approach, “Act as if.”

A matter of taste

Back in the Pleistocene geologic era when I served a mission in the Tonga Islands for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tonga was the pristine islands they try to portray in travel brochures. On Vava’u where I spent the majority of my mission life was simpler, no electricity, no paved roads, one battery powered radio phone to contact the outside world, if the battery was charged.

Our usual diet was generally unadorned root vegetables, or breadfruit, boiled in a pot over an open fire. Occasionally we had fish, and delicious tropical fruit. Our island had no running water. We drank from green coconuts. Now and then I was treated to such entrées as horse, whale, octopus, or a flying marsupial that resembled a bat. It was nourishing food lovingly given. I enjoyed and appreciated it, but it did take me awhile to get accustomed to it.

On the other hand, once when we were on the “big” island (about 15 by 25 miles), missionary teachers at the Church school invited my companion Viliami and me to a festive tasting of a batch of home made root beer they had brewed. Viliami had never tasted root beer, but after my sales pitch he was salivating. His anticipation lasted right up to the first swallow. He gasped, eyed the outside door, swallowed hard, and got it to stay down. He whispered to me, “It tastes like medicine.”

I sipped a swallow. My long term memory brought up picnics, post football practice cool downs, dates at the A and W drive in, delicious root beer floats. I sipped again using my newly developed Tongan taste buds. Viliami was right. I tasted like carbonated paregoric.

The only Tongan equivalent I could think of was a slimy substance out of the ocean swamps called lomu. It was served to me one night during an evening discussion sitting in a circle in a Tongan hut. I had vowed on my mission I would eat what the Tongans ate. Lomu was my only defeat. I swallowed hard three times. Slick as it was it would not budge. My swallowing mechanism refused to put it down and hold it down. I bolted for the doorway, dumped the mess and returned to our discussion. When I pushed aside the mat that served as a door, I was ready to apologize for not appreciating their gift. But they were all whooping and told me, “We don’t like it either.”

Taste is a matter of taste. I know that even better now. One of the joys of life’s mature years is that my body is not the forgiving obedient servant it used to be. The skimpy sleep, fast food, play-through-the-pain days are nostalgia

I used to say unconsciously to my body, “I know this isn’t good for you, but I like it, so deal with it.”

Now my body replies, “Ok, you deal with this,” and sends some message I didn’t want to get. So six years ago I made the decision to get on the same page with my stomach. I promised, “I won’t eat anything that isn’t good for me.”

Whereupon my body agreed to give me the best service its birth date would permit. The beginnings were rocky. For months I avoided certain aisles in the grocery store as a reforming alcoholic would shun a tavern. I hung out with my friends the fruits and vegetables. I substituted almond butter which is alkaline for peanut butter which is more acid. For breakfast I traded ham and eggs for green vegetables and eggs. I went organic as much as possible and added food supplements for those areas where my diet didn’t provide. I drink water like the diet experts always recommended. At first drinking half this much made me feel like the Titanic on her way down. As in Tonga, it took awhile to retrain my taste buds. But I prefer this diet now. . I wouldn’t go back to my old ways even if I could. This for me feels, and tastes much better.

I have made no converts to my enlightened eating habits. . My children and grands don’t believe me. They pity me. Sometimes they say, “Grandpa, can’t you ever break out and eat the good stuff again?”

I say, “This is the good stuff.”

They look at me sadly, thinking, “Poor Grandpa’s off his meds.”

I say, “But that’s a wonderful side effect. I’m not on any meds”

The nearest I have come to persuading anybody is to tell them, “If you ever decide to or have to change your eating habits from the great American diet, take it from me, if you stick with it, you will prefer it.”

They roll their eyes. I say, “Besides, it’s not as bad as lomu.

The principal of the thing

“The principal would like to see you in his office.” These words used to strike terror in the hearts of students. But not into mine. I knew how to deal with these faculty and admin people. I had been the student body president in junior high school and was now starting an encore of my act as a senior at Payson High. I got elected to most everything I ever ran for. The reason was simple I thought, and still think. Somewhere I got hold of a dog eared copy of a book by Dale Carnegie titled, “How to win friends and influence people.” It made perfect sense to my young mind. Everybody is right in his own opinion. Put yourself on their side of the table. Listen with your heart as well as your mind.

I was as self-centered as the average insecure teenager, but somehow I internalized the truth and effectiveness of these principles. Even with a mind, emotions, and spirit as awkward and gawky as was my developing body, I believed these things. In my stumbling way I usually tried to use them. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I was a half step ahead of my age group in trying to reach out to other people.

As a result I made friends everywhere except with Tink Shepherd. He wanted to beat me up, and eventually did to knock me off my cocky perch.

The handlers of Jimmy Walker were slapping each other on the back the night he was elected Mayor of New York. Then someone asked a momentarily sobering question. “What kind of a mayor will Jimmie be?” Somebody else restored the raucous festivities with, “Who knows. But he’s h___ of a candidate.”

That would have been me. I figured the name of the game was to get elected. It was a popularity contest. Who knew (or frankly cared much) what happened after that. When my loyal constituency began to grumble that we weren’t having the dances and other activities they had counted on, I blamed the dead beats in the faculty and administration.

Knock, knock; “Come in. Sit down.”

Reed Jones was the new principal replacing the gentle gentleman we had worn out the previous year. Among other things, Principle Jones worked as a baseball umpire. He once threw his own son out of a game for questioning one of his strike calls. Even the faculty was tiptoeing around the school since he blew in. What was I thinking? Or not?

An hour later which didn’t seem any longer than a month, Principal Jones called off his verbal attack dogs and released me. He didn’t have to open the door for me. I walked out under it.

The most blistering part of the ordeal was that he was absolutely right. I knew that during the bludgeoning, and even stronger as the memory of it burned into my brain and heart.

That miserable, ugly, embarrassing, wrenching flogging was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I vowed then I would take responsibility for my mistakes, and shortcomings. I would never blame my failures on outward circumstances and other people.

Have I kept that pledge 100% of the time? If I say yes, you will know I have added lying to my sin of passing the buck. But I have tried, and still try. In the words of the immortal philosopher Yoda, “There is no try. There is only do and not do.” I have done and not done. When I have done, I have gained ground. When I have faltered I have back slid. I believe I have inched forward more than I have lost ground. Less often I have been guilty of the greatest of sins which is to be conscious of none. I am now conscious of some. I now either catch myself before I stumble or repent when I do.

So if you don’t like what I have just written, I am disappointed but I can’t blame anybody but myself.

I left my heart (and my money and car insurance) in San Francisco

A few years ago I was driving with my wife Sharon in San Francisco when the street seemed to strike a vague ominous nerve somewhere deep in the old cerebral cortex. Yes there was the sign, the corner of Van Ness and Bush. I recognized the same cluttered street signage and the half hidden red eyeball behind them. This time I stopped. Last time, a few decades previously, I did not, at least not in time. Then I saw the light and jammed on the brakes. Too late. A fast moving taxi scraped across my front bumper and screeched to a stop.
The cabbie hustled back as I got out of the car.
“Whatya doin? Can’t you see the red light?” He inquired at the top mid range of his voice.
Another top range holler came from across the intersection. A driver jumped out of his stopped car and called, “Don’t let him con you. It was his fault. He swerved into you.”
The Three D’s, our music and comedy trio had just finished a show and were headed for the next one. Denis jumped out of the passenger side of the truck and hustled back to see if Dick, and our instruments and equipment were ok in the camper. The gear was all right, but Dick was all gone.
The cabbie called the police on his car radio phone; no cell phones in those days.
With flashing lights, the police car swooshed up. The officer stepped out, “Any I.D.?” he barked.
“Any idee about what?” I said.
“Ok Rufus. Let’s get on your level. What color is a red light? I’ll give you three guesses.”
That’s what he said in my mind; Mr. Hick staring at the lights of the big city. when he should have been driving. Actually the officer checked my license, and said, “Are you hurt?”
I said, “No.”
He then turned to the cab driver, and asked the same question. The Cabbie began to rub his neck, “I’ll have to get checked over. I have pain in the neck and shoulders.”
The officer said to him, “Whiplash?” in the same tone you’d ask an alcoholic if he would like a drink.
“Could be,” the Cabbie said.
The policeman rolled his eyes back ever so slightly. He and the cabbie both knew that “Whiplash” can pay for your retirement if you play your cards right.
The officer then checked the little old lady in the back seat of the cab. Miraculously she had escaped without a scratch or missing a stitch on her knitting. Apparently the earlier models of the human body were built sturdier.
Meanwhile back on the streets of San Francisco a wandering stranger was enjoying the scenery as it spun around in his head. Dick had been changing out of his show clothes. He was standing one leg in his pants and one poised in the air ready to insert into his traveling togs when I hit the brakes. Travel he did. Smack into the front of the camper, and then woozily out the back door.
Denis went looking for him while I entertained the policeman and the cabbie entertained us both.
The next day I entertained the judge apparently with my imitation of a homicidal maniac at the wheel preying on the people of his fair city. Without my incognito witness who had sped off into the darkness, I could only tell what I thought happened. I saw the light too late, and stopped too far into the intersection. The cabbie didn’t show. I assumed he was in intensive care while his life hung by a thread as did his payout from our insurance.
I paid what I thought was a hefty “Welcome to California, now go home” fine. Our insurance paid to fix the cab, and the cabbie, then dumped us. We decided to live with the dent in our front fender.
It could have been worse. Dick found his way back to the camper. And he had succeeded in getting his other leg into his pants before he took his walking tour of San Francisco. The judge didn’t make me the caretaker of the crippled cab driver for the rest of his life.
So, as always, I’m asking myself, “What did I learn from this experience.” 1. Always, always, always look for red traffic lights no matter how carefully they be hidden among the neon signs. 2. Be wary of streetwise cab drivers. This would include any cab driver who has been on the job more than half a day/night. 3. When in doubt, take responsibility for what you have done even if it costs you. You’ll sleep better.