Last week I spent my birthday doing one of my favorite things: Sitting on the beach, book in hand. The beach? Corolla Beach, Outer Banks, North Carolina. The book? “The Wright Brothers,” by David McCullough.
I figured that choice was apropos, since I was sitting just a few miles up the beach from Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers made their historic flights. (If you get a chance to read the book, or visit Kitty Hawk, I highly recommend both.)
One of the things about the book that was interesting to me is how the Wright brothers spent a lot of time watching birds to figure out how they were able to fly. So much so, that the locals thought that those two grown men, standing on the beach for hours at a time, staring at birds, were a little “off.”
I found myself watching the birds more closely than usual, and taking an occasional picture.
One of the lines in the book that caught my attention was this simple quote from Wilbur’s notes:
“No bird soars in a calm.”
The brothers determined that one of the key components to successful flight was the principle of “lift.” Who better to describe the principle than Elder Uchtdorf:
“In order to get an airplane off the ground, you must create lift. In aerodynamics, lift happens when air passes over the wings of an airplane in such a way that the pressure underneath the wing is greater than the pressure above the wing. When the upward lift exceeds the downward pull of gravity, the plane rises from the ground and achieves flight.” (link)
I’m sure that all of you, like me, have spent time sticking our arms out of car windows to let the wind treat them like airplane wings. As I was reading and thinking about lift, it occurred to me that, even as children, we already knew the basic principles the Wright brothers were trying to understand.
The definition of lift, and the idea that no bird soars in a calm, presents an interesting paradox: Without pressure, there is no flight, birds cannot soar, and airplanes cannot fly. The wings have to have something to push against, or they don’t do anything. That is why you don’t see helicopters dropping tourists on top of Mount Everest – there is not enough air at that altitude to provide any kind of resistance against the rotary wings.
Pressure is all around us. It is pushed on us from society, friends, family, coworkers, responsibilities, church, money, etc. We apply it to ourselves. Pressure is part of life, but do we embrace pressure as the very thing that gives us lift?
Sure, we covet calm. (I’ve enjoyed a lot of calm this past week.) But does the absence of pressure help or hinder our personal growth? I would suggest that without pressure, we are unable to soar as well.
Another word for this opposing pressure is “opposition.” President Dallin Oaks said, “Opposition in the form of difficult circumstances we face in mortality is also part of the plan that furthers our growth in mortality.”
The prophet Lehi talked about the importance of opposition to his sons in the Book of Mormon:
“It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” (2 Nephi 2:11)
Without pressure, there would be no lift. Without opposition, there would be no growth. It is essential to our growth and eternal exaltation, but why do we hate it so much?
A second thing in the book that got me thinking was a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, called “The Winds of Fate.”
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the self-same winds that blow
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the ways to go.(link)
Interesting thought, that the very same wind can take us two entirely different directions. Sad, but true. The way we adjust to deal with that impartial wind will determine our destination. Again, Father Lehi saw this play out with his sons: They all experienced the same pressures and challenges, but the winds carried them to wildly disparate places.
The opposing force of a wind against a sail can facilitate progress to where we want to go, or take us someplace completely different. Or it even capsize us.
Yet the winds and storms of life are not usually appreciated – they are usually dreaded. Often we will do most anything possible to avoid the winds and the pressures of life. Yet the irony remains: How we respond to those very winds and pressures make us who we are, and determine where we will end up.
This raises plenty of questions like..
• How can I use the pressures around me to lift me, rather than bring me down?
• How can I set my sails so the winds will take me where I want to go?
• How to I find a sense of peace even when the opposition around me is necessary for my growth?
Guess what? I’m not even going to try to answer these questions here. My answers might be entirely different than yours, and besides, I don’t pretend to know all the answers.
But I do have some good news: In two weeks we have General Conference, where God’s chosen leaders can give us counsel on how to set our sails, and how to find peace amidst the necessary pressures of life. Soak it in.
As for the idea that a bird can’t soar in the calm, I acknowledge that I often seek out the calm rather than figure how the pressure can lift me up. It seems counter-intuitive to look at opposition as a blessing, but so it is. “He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious” (D&C 78:19).
Flight is a miraculous thing. It is beautiful, whether it be a bird or a gigantic airplane. The one thing they have in common is that they are designed to use the opposing pressure they encounter to soar. It is the only way they can.