Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Change the World

“To do well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all man-kind, is the truest greatness”

- Joseph F. Smith


This morning I got an email informing me that my favorite teacher passed away last night.

Mr. K was my High School journalism teacher. He was grumpy as a bear and sharp as a snapping turtle, and I think scared the pants off half the student body. He proudly called himself a curmudgeon, and the word fit him perfectly. Yet underneath his hard exterior was an incredible man, who cared deeply and passionately about many things. He loved to teach and loved to see his students succeed. He wasn't afraid to be honest and you knew that if he gave you praise it was because you deserved it.

It was a common practice in class for him to take some one's essay or news article and project it on the board and then go through and show what was wrong with it and what the person could have done better, as well as show what they did well. The name of the essayist was never announced, but you could always tell whose essay it was by who was slouched down the deepest in their chair or whose face was a flaming color of red.  I'll never forget the first day he tore apart some of my writing.  I wanted to sink into a hole and disappear, but afterward I resolved I was going to be a better writer so that next time there wouldn't be so much for him to critique-- and I did. I got much better,  and learned to accept criticism with grace, most of the time.

My senior year I became the editor of the school newspaper, a job I completely loved, and spent alot of time in the journalism room. Mr. K and I became  good friends and spent hours having conversations about politics, books, history, science, philosophy, Greek, and just about everything else. One of our favorite things was to recommend books to each other, and I have quite a collection on my bookshelf of books he suggested.  In fact, at my wedding reception he signed my guest book by simply writing the name of a new author he thought I'd like with his name underneath.

It was a blessing that several weeks ago a friend informed me that Mr. K's health was deteriorating fast. I knew I needed to write him a note to express how grateful I was for his influence in my life. As I sat down to write I realized there are many things in my life I can trace back to the influence of Mr. K. I won't bore you by listing them all, but just know that his influence in my life was powerful. For example, to this day, I never publish a piece of writing without imaging it projected up on the board of the journalism room and thinking, "What would Mr. K say about this one." 

As I have been thinking about this great man a scripture from Alma keeps coming to mind, "Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass... And the Lord God doth work... by very small means." (Alma 37:6-7)

I am slowly--very slowly-- beginning to realize that the way to really change the world is not by doing big, impressive things but through the small and simple choices and decisions we make every day. Our influence is so much more powerful than we realize, even if our sphere of influence is not big. God just needs us to do our best, to reach out to those around us, to live our lives in good and righteous ways, and then He can magnify our power to change the world. Think about Jesus Christ, He only lived for 33 years and during that time never traveled further than 400 miles (the distance it would take you about 4 hours to travel in a car), and yet look at how His influence has spread and shaped the world. God can do amazing things with the small and simple acts of good and powerful people.

In fact, Jesus taught this when He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened."(Matt. 13:33 It doesn't take much leaven, or yeast, to completely transform flour and water into delicious bread. It is a slow and steady process that changes things at their core, in a lasting and irreversible way. God's way of changing the world isn't a quick fix "band aid" solution, but a long term "healing" solution that changes people, communities and nations from the inside out.

What I am coming to understand is that God very seldom works in big or earth shaking ways. Most often His changes  and His influence is found in the small things-- in the daily habits of discipleship, the selfless service of the family, the soul affirming power of friendship, and the power of small and simple acts of charity. These are the ways in which God brings about His work, and the ways in which we can also make the biggest-- and most long lasting-- changes to the world.

This idea was really brought home to me several years ago when Jon and I spent a semester living in Jordan to do Public Health research. One of our projects focused on smoking and on helping Jordanian universities set up smoke-free campuses. At one university our BYU group organized focus groups of Jordanian students. We led discussions about what sort of problems contributed to the prevalence of smoking, and what they thought could be done about it. At one table I helped at a young man, about half way through the discussion,  began to get very frustrated and blurted out, "Why are you here? Don't you have problems in your own country? In the US you have problems with drinking and alcohol on your university campuses. What makes you think you can come here and fix our problems when you aren't doing anything about yours." 

Those words cut me to my core and for the rest of our trip they circulated through my mind. I realized that all we were really doing (aside from collecting numbers) was to encourage Jordanians to be involved in their communities-- to reach out the people around them, to find like minded people who felt passionate about what they did, and to find ways to help. Nothing really big or earth shaking, just good old fashioned love and neighborly kindness.

Jon and I outside the LDS church building in Amman, Jordan
After coming home from Jordan I realized that the most important thing I could possibly do with my life was to, take my own advice, and to focus my efforts on improving the lives of the people I interacted with everyday. That I needed to bloom where I was planted and to let my influence radiate outwards to others. It was then I fully understood that there is real power in a small and simple life lived well and full of love.

I have tried my hardest to follow my advice, but I'll still admit there are days when I feel discouraged that my sphere of influence isn't bigger. When I wish for bigger and quicker ways of changing and shaping the world. I can very much relate to Alma when he cried, "O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God." (Alma 29:1)
O, that I were an angel... or the president... or famous... or anyone important.

Then maybe I'd make a difference.

But then today I have been thinking about Mr. K and how his small and simple acts friendship and concern influenced me and shaped my life. His life mattered and his life made a difference. Who knows, when the amount of good he did is tallied up in heaven, maybe it would surpass that of some of today's leading political figures who appear to have more influence and power?

What I do know is that even though the flag won't be at half mast today, and I doubt a single minute of television airtime will be dedicated to him, last night the world lost a great man.

His life mattered to me, and to many others who loved him and were taught by him.

He changed the world.

I am changing the world.

You are changing the world, and you don't even realize how much.

So keep it up.


  1. Ah I kinda teared up a little bit and I didn't even know him that well. And have always been terrified by him. But it is cool to think that he had all four Thomas children in his class and pretty much influenced an entire family. And your lesson learned in Jordan is the one I learned in Haiti. I realized that the Haitians that were on the street working hard in their community every day were the ones that were making a difference, not the useless Americans like me who came and cheered them on for the summer. I realized that if I really wanted to make a difference in the world it had to start in my community. I had to be as active at home as my Haitian friends are in Haiti.

    1. Thanks Hil! It is neat to think that he had all four of us. He was a good man. And you are so right about feeling like a cheerleader! Just think about all the power that would come if everyone in the world just took a more active interest in making where they live better.

  2. Good thoughts Heather, thank you. I'm sorry about the loss of your teacher. I know I can be an influence for good in my own little sphere, but boy is it hard to not be a grumpy mommy. And I have great kids too. Day by day, I suppose, with lots of prayer.

  3. I LOVED this! Exactly what I needed today. I don't know you at all - but I am in a FB group that is trying to read the quad in a year and someone recommended doing your "Women in the Scriptures Challenge" with it. I'm so glad I found your blog! Have a great weekend. :)

  4. So true. Thanks for sharing these wonderful thoughts. I too have felt inadequate or frustrated at not being able to accomplish the greater feats of service I see as necessary to change the world. One quote I read recently helped change my perspective on this. It is from Elder Richard G. Scott's Oct. 2014 conference address,"Let the Exercise of Faith be your First Priority". He says by cultivating a habit of daily personal scripture study, "You will be doing something very significant to add to the cumulative peace in the world." If there is anything this world needs right now, I'd say it's PEACE. And if I can contribute to the goal of world peace through studying my scriptures every day, then by golly, that's what I'll do!