Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Real Learning Moment

I had a class today that could possibly go down as one of the most poignant and meaningful classes I have ever had in my life of schooling. It happened, in all places, during my Management Strategy class taught by Professor Robert J. Jensen. To be clear, this is not a place that I would have expected to achieve any spiritual instruction or level of clarity concerning my own existence, especially considering that I, on this particular day, was running late and had just barely scraping together an assignment I had forgotten to do. My mind was not prepared to receive any sort of instruction spiritually, and my soul certainly didn't seem to request any enlightenment.

But isn't that always the case with these sublime moments? Had it not been for the fact that my brother John had been walking up the stairs at the exact moment that I was about to walk to school, I would have shown up late and not heard this story. Had it not been for the few minutes it took to hand in today's assignment, I would have missed the opening of his story. Had it not been for the class I missed this morning, I probably would have slept during this hour because I would have not had the energy to attend.

As fate would have it, I did attend, and the lecture has impacted me greatly.

What did he speak about? Nothing to do with strategy (at least not initially), but rather on something much more personal and delicate. So often I hear personal stories and think nothing of it, but this time it really struck home. Professor Jensen is chronically fatigued, and not just that, but it is risking his life. Anyone who has had a class with him would agree that he does not look or act like he is sick, but that is part of the magic of this man's life.

When I arrived in class today I was expecting to start off with a discussion about Apple and market share and strategy. What happened instead was my professor sitting on a chair, breathing heavily and looking most somber as he worked up the courage to describe the painful reality of his life. Those who know him understand that he does not appear weak, nor does he give off any hint of wanting to show weakness (a fact he readily admits about himself). So for him, outlining his story required energy and discomfort as he spoke on his own life.

At the age of 20 Professor Jensen had an episode while on his mission in Finland where his adrenaline glands shut down. I don't remember the name of this, but it usually kills a man. After this occurred, his body started to spiral out of control, until this slender man lost over 20% of his body mass. His condition deteriorated to the point where he was sleeping 20 hours a day and only had the energy to eat some food before his body collapsed on him again.

Doctors of the day had no idea what was wrong with him. The church provided the best medical treatment available as he was still on his mission, and they even sent him to a psychologist to see if there was a mental disorder. Nobody ever found something wrong with him.

Eventually he was released from service and he attempted to live life the best he could. Most of his functionality returned, but he never fully recovered from the adrenaline shut down. His energy was still severely limited and he could not gain weight no matter how much he ate. This has been his condition for the past 21 years, a perpetual repression of his abilities, kept there by his ailing body.

For the most part a story like this would make me feel some sort of pity for the man, or at least make me thankful for the fact that I am not him. But somehow, in some inexplicable way, I found myself almost envious of him. I am not saying that I wish to have his struggles, or to experience the soul-crushing disappoint of limited physical capacities to the point where I can't even read after a few hours of work. No, instead I found myself envious of the man he has become.

Professor Jensen's talk was more than just a story about his hardships. He went on to explain how, because of this condition, our class will end come Thanksgiving and he will go into disability to prevent the heart attack he will have if he keeps working. He explained to us that he cares nothing more than to be here and to teach us, to help others to learn the valuable things which he has learned. For good reason was he made a professor at BYU, and it shows in his incredible teaching style and quick wit, and passion to the point of risking death to teach.

He added at the end of his explanation a little lesson that touched me deeply. Perhaps it is because his story was so personal, or perhaps it was because of the genuine sense of love and caring he has for his students, but the lesson he taught next was so filled with the Spirit that I could not help but apply it to my own life.

For Professor Jensen, the story of 1 Nephi has a particularly strong meaning to him. Rarely if ever do I hear a lesson from this book that uses Laman as the figure of empathy, but it was masterfully done with the comparison of Professor Jensen's life to that of Lehi's family. Jensen feels as though he can relate to Laman, he who was in line to inherit all the good fortune's of his father, who probably expected to marry into a wealthy family, and who would hold influence and prestige in his community. Laman had great potential that was unceremoniously ripped out from underneath him. All his days were then spent wandering through hardships, passing through a wilderness he did not wish to traverse. In the end, his anger and outrage led him to sever the relationship with his family, the Lord, and happiness.

In the same way, Professor Jensen had much to expect in his life. He was the valedictorian of his school, a leader his marching band, and had been offered several scholarships to attend college. Sports were never really his thing, but he exceled in many different ways and his future looked very promising. The mission he always wanted to serve was finally happening in the beautiful country of Finland, and he couldn't have had a brighter future. Then he was handed the trial of his life, and was drug into his own wilderness, to trudge through sorrow and anger as he worked his way to the promised land.

What he said after this made me reflect heavily on my own life. He said that he felt angry, angry that his future was now gone, angry that he had to live through this condition, angry that he, like Laman, had lost what he assumed to be his future. But then he had a shift in his attitude and started to think like Nephi. No longer was he angry about what could have been, but now he was searching for what he was to do. Nephi, unlike Laman, did not murmur about the gaping hole of his future, but rather set about building a ship to ferry him across the sea of disappointment. What he found on the other side was the promised land - a literal and figurative place of joy and happiness.

So it made me realize that I, too, have been like Laman. I can't tell you how many times last year I walked home from school so mad at life that my hands would start to hurt because I was squeezing my bag handle too hard. Every day for a long time I would shake my head at the pathetic wreck I saw as my future. What anger filled my soul as I considered what I thought I would have in my life and what there actually was.

Today made me realize that I was looking at a feast and calling it scraps. How ungrateful I am for the blessings I have been given. I realized today that no matter my circumstance - literally, no matter what is happening - my life is wonderful. My life could change more drastically than it has, all my family could die, I could lose my legs, my car could break down, and I lose all my money, and yet life would still be a blessing.

Why? For the very simple reason that life, in all of its glory and potential, is only what we make it to be. Yes, that sounds cheesy and extremely existential, but it is nevertheless true. We can all go about as ants striving to build this gilded tapestry of society we have, with all its glam and glitz, and have accomplished nothing at the end of it all because none of it really shows substance. True substance comes not in the things we build, or the stories we write, or the people we meet, but rather in the shelter we provide, the lessons we impart, and the people we love. Character comes not from accomplishing a goal, but from accomplishing it for the right reasons.

I realized today that I have struggled so much this past year because I did not want it to be the way it was. I wanted life to fit into my definition, into my personal desires and goals. But what good does that ultimately do me? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his own soul? Why did I want my life to be the way it is not? I don't know, it doesn't have any intrinsic value beyond the fact that I seemed to have wanted it that way. My value proposition was out of alignment with true value.

Professor Jensen spoke so tenderly about a part of his life that others may learn from him. I do not think it was his intention to share this experience to make me realize that I had a problem that needs to be fixed today. I do not think he shared this story to enact in me a desire to live a life more full of integrity and charity. But I know he shared it because he knew someone would benefit from his story, and I know at least one man has been affected.

And that was ultimately the most real learning moment I have had this semester.