November 21, 2006 Observation:
On Halloween, October 31, 2006, I listened to President Gordon B. Hinckley speak to the BYU student body at their weekly devotional. I was impressed that at age 96 he was still able to speak with such intelligence and clarity. It was his opening remarks that caught my attention. He said that on one occasion, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was asked what books he had read that had influenced him the most. Emerson replied that he could no more remember all the books he had read than the meals he had eaten, but they had made him what he was. As I reflected on what Emerson said, as quoted by President Hinckley, it struck a chord within me as being a true statement. I suppose all of us are shaped, not only by the meals we eat, but by the books we read.
I have been blessed in my lifetime to have been exposed to some of the greatest books ever written which certainly have shaped my thinking and even my behavior I believe. My mother introduced me to many great books as a young boy, and then I met Dr. Nan Grass while attending BYU, who for an entire two semesters, five days a week, taught me to love the great literature of the English language in her marvelous course, "Major British Authors". Through her guidance I began to love the writings of Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Browning, Lord Byron, Matthew Arnold, John Milton, John Donne, Chaucer, and a host of others.
And then, still a young man, I came to Southern California in 1970 to be the institute director at the Institute of Religion at California State University at Los Angeles. I was able to determine what I would teach and one of the first classes I chose to teach at the Institute level was entitled "Presidents of the Church". At that time there was a very meager lesson manual for that course which was a great blessing because it forced me to read a biography on each one of the presidents we would be discussing. This began a passion that I still have to read biographies of great people. I would read the biography of one of the Church Presidents and then around the dinner table each evening I would tell my little children stories from the lives of the prophets. They were a very receptive audience and came to know a great deal about the presidents of the Church. Little did they know how much they were helping me to teach my Institute class by trying out stories from the lives of the prophets on them.
The lives of these great men, along with the great literature I had been reading, shaped my thinking and inspired me to always want to be a better person. I am always looking for good biographies to read. How blessed I have been to not only read the biographies of great Church leaders, but also of men like George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and many others as well.
Since my accident and loss of physical mobility I have also come to love history, and through my reading have witnessed the building of the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Transcontinental Railroad, been on the Lewis and Clarke expedition, circumnavigated the globe with Magellan, experienced the incredible year of 1776 and Washington's crossing of the Delaware, seen World War II through the eyes of a "Band of Brothers", and on and on it goes. How dull and boring my life could be if it were not for the magic of reading.
Through my reading one of my favorite historical characters has become Theodore Roosevelt. I am just amazed at this man. I think my subconscious self would like to be like Theodore Roosevelt. I have read three major books on his life and am just finishing a fourth that I picked up at Costco (not a bad place to find a good cheap paperback). It is written by a lady by the name of Candice Millard and is entitled "The River of Doubt". Roosevelt wanted to run for a third term as president of the United States but the Republican Party didn't want him. The Republican Party was backing very strongly, Howard W. Taft, at the time and therefore Teddy formed his own political party which became known as the "Bull Moose Party". Because of the third party Teddy formed, the Republicans lost the 1912 presidential election. Teddy was used to winning and when he lost the election by a substantial margin he went into an unusual depression. Shortly after the 1912 election he was invited to South America on a speaking tour, and his family, thinking an exciting adventure would help his depression, encouraged him to accept the invitation. He accepted on the condition that he could also do some exploring. He was 55 years old at the time. This book about his adventures and adversity in traveling down a river ("The River of Doubt") in Brazil that no one had explored and was not even on a map is exciting and reveals so much about the character of this great man. He suffered greatly in the vast Amazon rain forest -- 1913-14 -- and died a few years later, much younger than he would have had he not taken this trip.
Theodore Roosevelt had traveled extensively in his lifetime. He led his Roughriders up San Juan Hill in Cuba, had fought grizzly bears, had a big cattle ranch in the Dakotas, and was tough as nails. I think his trip to Brazil tempered him somewhat and taught him a great lesson about life as evidenced by a statement he made near the end of his life. "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." [Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, 1858-1919]
Having studied his life, this statement appears to me to be so untypical of this adventurous and vital man. However, I believe any human being who learns to do what he can, with what he has, where he is, has discovered one of the great keys to a happy and fulfilling life. I believe I have tried to adopt Roosevelt's philosophy into my own life since my accident. I haven't always been successful in doing so, but those days that I do all I can, with what I have, where I am, are rewarding and fulfilling days.
At this Thanksgiving time there are a multitude of things I am thankful for, but very high on the list is being able to read. Although my body is mobility impaired, through the magic of reading, my mind knows no limits. Through reading I have become acquainted with some of the greatest people with the best minds that have ever lived, and have vicariously experienced many of the world's most important events in history. Isn't it incredible what 26 little letters can do?
"... and be content with such things as ye have..." [Hebrews 13: 5]