Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Circle of Fire

Introduction: I am reproducing the following document for some former California Roseville missionaries who may remember it, but do not have a copy, or for those who never received one.  It is an excellent essay by Elder Sterling W. Sill about the trials, difficulties and resistance one encounters on the road to a successful life, and what it takes to overcome them.  Probably every culture has some story, legend, or myth which teaches the same message.  It is one of the prevalent philosophies of life found among all people.

We asked our missionaries to read it five times during their mission and to answer some questions about how it related to them at regular milestones of growth and experience during their mission, and finally what advice they would give about its message to new missionaries arriving in the mission.  It was interesting to read how the message took on greater importance and meaning as they grew in experience and maturity.  I hope you will enjoy it too.


Sterling W. Sill

Sometime ago, I re-read that interesting fairy tale entitled, “The Sleeping Beauty.”  It told of a beautiful princess asleep in an enchanted castle surrounded by a protecting circle of fire.  The legend said that whoever awakened the sleeping princess would have her a his bride and would also be entitled to rule the kingdom.  The problem came from the fact that no one could win the prize without making his way through the forbidding circle of flames.

Another version of this story had the castle guarded by a hedge of cruel thorns which grew thicker and more dangerous as the intruder tried to cut through them.

Our literature is filled with this important idea, that the great prizes are always kept under a heavy guard.  The Golden Fleece sought by Jason was protected by a sleepless dragon.  Hercules was required to overcome impossible obstacles before obtaining his status with the Gods on the top of Mt. Olympus.

To some, these accounts may appear to be just interesting stories, but they are much more than that.  And while our day is not especially noted for its belief in sleepless dragons or walls of living fire, yet before anyone goes very far in this life, he discovers that life is a testing, and all of the most worthwhile prizes are still encircled by some kind of protection, designed to frighten away the timid and discourage the unworthy.  The ancient law of success is still in effect, that the sleeping princess can only be awakened by one with endurance enough to get through the flames, and manhood enough to clear out all the obstacles placed in his way.  It is still a standard requirement, that one must kill the dragon before he can rule the kingdom.

Sometime ago a potentially capable  young man told me about his ambition.  He said that someday he wanted to be a United States Senator.  He is now 25 years of age and he had set the date for his accomplishment at age 50.  This allowed him a quarter of a century to make himself into the kind of man he needed to be, to make his dream come true.  He knew that to gain the prize, he must first earn a substantial measure of personal independence and financial success.  He would need to be a man of leadership ability and skill in getting along with other people.

A good character and a stable personality would also be indispensable.  To help him develop these traits he quit his routine job and accepted one with greater challenge.  He was very enthusiastic about his ambition, and felt that he knew where he was going and how he was to get there.  His situation reminded me of the inspiring story of John F. Kennedy.

As a young man, John Kennedy idolized his older brother Joe.  It was Joe, not John, who was the outgoing member of the family and the one most likely to succeed in public life.  Father Kennedy, out of his long experience in political life had encouraged Joe in the thought that someday he could be the President of the United States. Joe had accepted his father’s challenge and had begun working in that direction, willing to make any reasonable sacrifice.  But in the process of completing this military service Joe was killed.

Then the senior Kennedy felt that this responsibility properly fell upon John, the next son in line.  But John was an introvert and it would be much more difficult for him to become president.  But he had great respect for his father.  He also loved his brother Joe and felt that there could be no price too high, if only he could complete Joe’s unfulfilled dreams.  John knew that he would have to change many things about himself and that the process would be difficult.  Substantial personal growth would be necessary.  He knew that he would be required to pass through the fire.  But he wholeheartedly accepted the challenge and said to his father, that he would take Joe’s place and become President of the United States.

A high and holy ambition tightly held, can of itself produce a tremendous power in human life.  And what a thrill even in retrospect to watch John Fitzgerald Kennedy make his way toward his high objective.  He became the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, at a younger age than any of his predecessors in that exalted office.

I could see no reason why my young friend should not also be successful in his ambition.  However, in this I was doomed to disappointment.  Six months later this young man came to see me again.  His enthusiasm had disappeared, his ambition had almost been forgotten.  The industry and courage necessary to qualify him for his high objective were now nowhere in evidence.  To him success was too difficult.  He didn’t get very close to the circle of fire before he decided the heat was too great.

Then almost eagerly he gave up the quest and seemed completely content with the slow moving tempo of his former routine work.  His old job lacked challenge, but it produced no strain on his muscles and made no difficult demands on his personality.  He now preferred a less valuable prize where the heat was not so great nor the obstacles so difficult.  My friend had discovered that the growth process, which requires hardening in the fire, can sometimes be a little bit painful.  In trying to encourage him I told him of an experience I had had many years previously.

One spring, following a winter of school, I got a job helping to clean out an irrigation canal. I was put down in the bottom of the canal on the business end of a shovel handle.  It was not very long before my hands began to feel tender and sore.  They were quite literally encountering their circle of fire.  Naturally I did not enjoy this discomfort, and so a decision had to be made about what should be done about it.

When anyone is confronted with a problem, life usually allows him a choice between a number of alternatives.  No one who cringes and runs away from his problem is ever permitted to marry the princess.  It is also true that if we stop working every time we get sore hands or tired feet or aching hearts, we can never rule the kingdom.  But it is a very interesting fact that if one keeps on using his hands, the skin will not all come off, but instead the soreness will eventually disappear and the hands will become firm and strong, and able to handle the most difficult tasks without discomfort.

I tried to point out to my young friend that the personality, and even the spirit itself, sometimes get such sore hands that they want to put down the shovel.

We sometimes use an interesting word called “tenderfoot.”  I recently looked this word up in the dictionary, and strangely enough it has nothing whatever to do with the feet.  The dictionary explained that a “tenderfoot” is one who is too delicate to endure hardship.  A “tenderfoot” is one who is so sensitive that when the skin of his hands, or the muscles of his personality or the determination of his spirit gets a little sore, he is unable to finish the job.  Very often a “tenderfoot” has great ideas and wonderful ambitions, but because he is not tough enough, to hang on, he turns his back on the thorns, refuses the fire, and loses the princess and the kingdom.

I think that my young friend personifies one of the most threatening problems standing between us and success.  Everyone wants the good things in life—a fine family, an honored name and a sufficient measure of material success.  We fail in so many cases only because we are unwilling to pay the price, or endure the pain involved in growing up.  Someone has said that the Lord always fits the back to the burden.  Under pressure the skin always firms up so that it can pleasantly meet any demands that are made upon it, and so does the personality and so does the spirit.

Jack Dempsey made himself famous for the effective use of his hands.  He made them into fists and then put them under the direction of a fighting spirit.  On one occasion he said that there are two qualities required for any outstanding success as a prizefighter.  One was the ability to give a big punch and the other was the ability to take a big punch.  Assuming one had the greatest ability as a slugger, he would yet be a miserable failure if he couldn’t take a regular diet of punishment.

No one will ever get very far in the prize ring or in life itself who is demoralized by an occasional good punch on the nose.  So frequently in life we hear people say, “I just can’t take it any longer.”  A few discouragements and they drop their ideals, a few disappointments and they abandon their ambitions.  But the great men and women are those who can take it on the chin occasionally without losing their rhythm.

Elbert Hubbard said of Socrates. “He accepted every fact, circumstance and experience of life, and counted them all as gain.”  The bumps we get along the way are all intended for our benefit.  Occasionally life will give us a good kick in the pants merely to wake us up and get us going.  The problems and trials of Socrates were actually wonderful privileges and he was anxious to take full advantage of them.  A very wise man once said, “He who succeeds in evading the unpleasant experiences, cheats himself out of so much life.”

And one reason that my young friend will never be a senator is that he dislikes too many things, and therefore he cheats himself out of too much of life.  He has too great an aversion to hard work, he is unable to make continuous effort on his own power.  He goes down in a heap before too small a blow.  Difficulty was designed as a means of challenging is, it was never intended to remain with us as a permanent condition.  Because my friend is so severely allergic to sore hands and doesn’t enjoy feeling the fire on his face, the sleeping princess will have a long nap ahead of her is she is depending on him to wake her.

Whenever the thermostat regulating the temperature of the circle of fire is set low, it means that that which it protects is of inferior value.  Life has never been known to lessen the guard around the really big rewards.  The little sleepy dragons are only assigned to protect the mediocre prizes.  And seldom does one ever develop the strong firm hands of accomplishment if he never takes them out of his pockets.   How can one be properly advanced above the office of “tenderfoot” before he gets rid of the tenderness not only from his feet but also from his ambition and purpose.  More than about anything else we need some hard jobs to do.  A tough challenge eagerly accepted is better than anything else to raise us to first class rank.  Life has no occupations where limited hours, slow motion effort and mental absenteeism will not cut down our progress in proportion.

For the effect of contrast, just imagine that you were twins.  Suppose that one of you got the easiest possible job, with the lowest standard of accomplishment involving no problems or preparation or ability.  On the other hand suppose that your other self was suddenly placed in the office of President of the United States.  That job would be far too big for you.  You would meet the most severe criticism and the most difficult problems.  The President of the United States can’t turn off his thinking powers just because the whistle blows.  But suppose that ten years later you look on your own situation.  Very likely the “self” that does the easy unchallenging job will still be acting like a “tenderfoot.”  As there is nothing about softness that builds up strength.  Each of your selves will look and act the part of the role he has been playing.  Your worrying hardworking self may still be too small to adequately fill his assignment but he will be a long way ahead of where he would have been.

Challenge, struggle, and worry, conscientiously and intelligently done, cannot help but make a wonderful change in the one who does them.  And just as steel must be heated to be hardened, so all good men are stronger for having passed through life’s circle of fire.  Even the greatest prizes of eternal life and eternal happiness are won by our conquering the difficulties that lie in the way.  The temptations must be overcome and the dragons of sin and ignorance must be eliminated.  Salvation itself means the overcoming of all our enemies and the last enemy to be overcome is death.  The gospel teaches that God himself dwells in “everlasting burnings” and to attain his presence we must pass through the circle of flames.  The poet was speaking for God when he said:

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

The term fire is used in the scripture to indicate a purifying agent that cleanses us of our sins.  The bestowal of the Holy Ghost is referred to as “the baptism of fire.”  The sin and iniquity must be burned out of our souls.  Paul said, “God is a consuming fire.”  And those who become like him must make their way against all difficulties if they would be worthy to rule the kingdom.

Sterling W. Sill, The Way of Success, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), pp. 35-40

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