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Making the most of life's messes

Real solutions to messes are not found, they are shaped, crafted and created with lots of hard work and elbow grease over time. We must be an active participant, not a spectator, in order to make the most of life's messes.
Real solutions to messes are not found, they are shaped, crafted and created with lots of hard work and elbow grease over time. We must be an active participant, not a spectator, in order to make the most of life's messes.
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Summer is off to an unsettling start. A series of events have caused us to feel ill-at-ease. The presidential election hasn’t helped. Many find the choices unfathomable. But it’s more. The long security lines at airports remind us people still want to harm us. Our smartphones ping almost weekly with yet another college campus, military base or workplace shooting. And closer to home, we have witnessed unthinkable crimes to a transit worker, a mother in Magna and a beloved community leader and restaurateur.

In times of need I find comfort in great thinkers and writers. I frequently turn to Harry Emerson Fosdick for inspiration. He was a highly acclaimed theologian, pastor and writer who delivered sermons in the mid-20th century. He died in 1969 but left behind brilliant insights for people of all belief systems. In a sermon titled “Making the Best of a Bad Mess” he made observations applicable to today.

A bad mess can be a lot of things. In Fosdick’s sermon he used the Greek island of Crete during biblical times to symbolize the messes we face today. Crete in 57 AD was full of dishonest, idle and evil people. After acknowledging the problems, the apostle Paul wrote to his young disciple Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting.”

Titus wanted to leave; Paul wanted him to stay. There is a lesson here.

Crete was to Titus what many of our hardships are to us. According to Fosdick, “We have all been in Crete, we are all going to Crete, probably most of us are in Crete now … and we all want to get out of Crete.”

What is our Crete? It’s a deep gnawing of the soul that prevents us from being fulfilled. It could be a broken marriage, a strained relationship with a sibling or a falling out with a child, parent or friend. It could be an addiction, which messes everything up. It could be financial hardship … a failed investment, garnished wages from a past mistake, a lost job or unavoidable medical bills. Or it could be the loss of a loved one. We all have our Cretes.

Fosdick offers a profound and simple principle to deal with the messes in our lives. He says if we look for happiness in our lives, we will struggle to find it. Happiness isn’t about finding; it’s about doing. We are not searchers but doers. According to Fosdick, happiness is not something you find but something you create.

One way to think of this is to make a distinction between mere existence and a full and purposeful life. Fosdick says, “Many people wander into the world and pick up everything they can find looking for life.” We wear the latest fashions, commit to a new diet or exercise routine, travel the world or purchase new toys. In the end, we pile one thing on top of another and never really find contentment. In Fosdick’s words, “Existence is what you find; life is what you create.”

You don’t find a great relationship; you create it through your actions.

You don’t find an end to an addiction; you create it by asking for help.

You don’t find a golden ticket to solve your financial problems; you create a better financial future through your own ingenuity — downsizing, taking on a second job, and paying off commitments, one step at a time.

In a nutshell, real solutions to messes are not found, they are shaped, crafted and created with lots of hard work and elbow grease over time. We must be an active participant, not a spectator. We become more fulfilled not as we ignore Crete, but as we dive into it with full purpose of heart.

We live in challenging times. Each day we face a personal Crete of hardship and worry. The best solution is to devote our creative and hardworking spirits to a better future. Hardship helps us express our humanity. Crete is not our enemy but our friend.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.