Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Physics Parable

In physics, one speaks of two kinds of balance, or equilibrium. Unstable equilibrium describes a system that is in balance, but that will become unbalanced at the slightest outside influence. Think of trying to balance a pencil on its point: it’s possible to do in theory, but in practice it will fall over every time you try. Stable equilibrium describes a system that is in balance and that will seek the same equilibrium, even if outside influences temporarily unbalance it. Think of a marble resting in the bottom of a bowl: you can nudge it, flick it or bump it to make it leave that position, but it will eventually roll back to the bottom of the bowl.

In my experience, Mormons (and perhaps especially Mormon women) have a habit of reducing the Gospel to an infinitely long to-do list. Pray, read your scriptures, fast, go to church, do your visiting/home teaching, magnify your calling, go to the temple, do your genealogy, pay your tithing, pay your fast offering, bear your testimony, hold Family Home Evening, etc., etc. No one could possibly do all of these things, so success at one is always mitigated by imperfection in others. (Worse, success in any one area may be trumped by the unrealized possibility of a higher degree of success. Sure, you packed home lunches for your kids, but did you bake the bread? Hmm?)

So I was sitting one day in Relief Society, apparently thinking about physics instead of paying attention to the lesson, when I had a thought: “Be a marble.” In other words, don’t let all the little things I’m “supposed” to be doing pull me off balance; rather, see each of them as tending towards the same center of peace and stability, and seek that center by any path.

I had seen each of the little rules of the Gospel pulling me in a separate direction, throwing me off balance unless I happened to do them all perfectly at once. I realized, instead, that they were all pointing towards the greatest commandments of loving God and loving my neighbor. If I did my visiting teaching, but didn’t go on the last temple trip, I didn’t need to beat myself up for it because I had still found a way to offer service. If I went to church on Sunday but I didn’t read my scriptures all week, I had still tried to become closer to God. Each facet of the Gospel wasn’t in competition with every other one. Instead, all the commandments were working together to bring about the same end, and trying faithfully to keep any one of them would help me to follow all of them.


Blogger Johnny said...

I really liked this post. It is a nice analogy to help make sense of the to do list that we are often confronted with. It helps us remain centered on the weightier matters of the law.

6/11/2006 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tracy M said...

I really like the analogy- while I fail miserably when I try and do all the multitudinous things I'm supposed to do, I think I can BE a marble. Thanks.

6/12/2006 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...

Outstanding ideas.

I suppose then actual sin would possibly propel one out of the bowl altogether, and it may take repentance to get back into the bowl. But I like the idea that choices between good and good don't compete in the same way.

Thank you.

6/12/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Katya said...

eric - Or sin could increase the amount of friction in the bowl (e.g., by making the marble or the bowl sticky), so it's harder to roll back to the bottom if you get stuck on the side. I think it would take a fairly grave sin to propel one entirely out of the bowl.

I also like this metaphor because it's possible to overshoot the center of the bowl by focusing on one area to excess.

6/12/2006 03:39:00 PM  
Anonymous manaen said...

Re: "Be a marble" and loving God and neighbor / having charity, Elder Oaks offered similar thoughts in GenCon 10/2000. Here are some of the most relevant parts, leaving out some deeper meanings of his comments:
“In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.
“[…] the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts--what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts--what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.
“I hope the importance of conversion and becoming will cause our local leaders to reduce their concentration on statistical measures of actions and to focus more on what our brothers and sisters are and what they are striving to become.
“Most of us experience some measure of what the scriptures call "the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10; 1 Ne. 20:10). Some are submerged in service to a disadvantaged family member. Others suffer the death of a loved one or the loss or postponement of a righteous goal like marriage or childbearing. Still others struggle with personal impairments or with feelings of rejection, inadequacy, or depression. Through the justice and mercy of a loving Father in Heaven, the refinement and sanctification possible through such experiences can help us achieve what God desires us to become.
We are challenged to move through a process of conversion toward that status and condition called eternal life. This is achieved not just by doing what is right, but by doing it for the right reason--for the pure love of Christ. The Apostle Paul illustrated this in his famous teaching about the importance of charity (see 1 Cor. 13). The reason charity never fails and the reason charity is greater than even the most significant acts of goodness he cited is that charity, "the pure love of Christ" (Moro. 7:47), is not an act but a condition or state of being. Charity is attained through a succession of acts that result in a conversion. Charity is something one becomes. Thus, as Moroni declared, "except men shall have charity they cannot inherit" the place prepared for them in the mansions of the Father (Ether 12:34; emphasis added by Elder Oaks).
“[…] the Master's reward in the Final Judgment will not be based on how long we have labored in the vineyard. We do not obtain our heavenly reward by punching a time clock. What is essential is that our labors in the workplace of the Lord have caused us to become something. For some of us, this requires a longer time than for others. What is important in the end is what we have become by our labors. Many who come in the eleventh hour have been refined and prepared by the Lord in ways other than formal employment in the vineyard. These workers are like the prepared dry mix to which it is only necessary to "add water"--the perfecting ordinance of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. With that addition--even in the eleventh hour--these workers are in the same state of development and qualified to receive the same reward as those who have labored long in the vineyard.
“This parable [of the master of the vineyard] teaches us that we should never give up hope and loving associations with family members and friends whose fine qualities (see Moro. 7:5-14) evidence their progress toward what a loving Father would have them become. Similarly, the power of the Atonement and the principle of repentance show that we should never give up on loved ones who now seem to be making many wrong choices."
Highly-recommended full text is available at:,5232,23-1-138-15,00.html

6/12/2006 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

Katya, thanks for this very interesting analogy. I really like it as well. And it's particularly nice to have someone thinking in scientific terms around here--you add a much-needed perspective :>

6/12/2006 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

"GenCon" is the name of a major conference that occurs every year in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin ..., just FYI.

There are stable and unstable equilibria in economics too. It is a great concept.

One of the key parts of mortality is time, and there is never enough of it. Making peace with that and finding acceptance is important, and I enjoyed this post on the concept.

6/13/2006 05:23:00 AM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

I really like this way of thinking. So many of my decisions seem to be not between good and bad, but between two things that are good.

6/17/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger STUFFellaneous said...

Thank you! Very well said!!!

11/24/2007 09:43:00 PM  

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