“The Quest for Excellence,” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 2
I first read the following words 67 years ago in a college English class: “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” (Hamlet, act 2, scene 2, lines 303–7).
I recognize that these words of Hamlet were spoken in irony. And yet there is so much of truth in them. They describe the great potential excellence of men and women. If Shakespeare had written nothing else, I think he would have been remembered for these few words of soliloquy. They go hand in hand with these words of David:
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Ps. 8:3–5).
They also go with the words of the Lord to Job when He spoke out of the whirlwind:
“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. …
“When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7).
These magnificent words declare the wonder of man. And when I speak of man, I of course speak also of woman. We are all children of God, and there is something of His divinity within each of us. We are more than a son or daughter of Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So who reside in such-and-such a place. We are of the family of God, with such a tremendous potential for excellence. The distance between mediocrity and excellence can be ever so small. As we shall see again when the Winter Olympics come to Salt Lake City in 2002, that difference will be measured in tenths of seconds. The little extra effort we make becomes such a tremendous difference.
I heard one of my brethren tell of a recent visit he made to a prison. There he noticed a young man, handsome in appearance and intelligent in his ways.
My brother said to the prison official, “What is that young man doing in here?”
The reply was that one evening he had taken his mother’s car, had obtained some beer and drunk it, and then, out of control of himself, he drove the car down the sidewalk and killed two girls.
I do not know how long he will be in prison, but I do know that he will never entirely get over his feelings concerning the act that put him there. On such small hinges turn the gates of our lives. Little mistakes, which seem so unimportant in their beginnings, determine the eternal courses we follow.
I want to invite us all to walk a higher road of excellence. Recently I picked up an old book and read Lytton Strachey’s Life of Florence Nightingale. I think books of that kind are not read very much these days. I had read it once before, long ago. But my rereading brought a new sense of admiration and respect for this great young woman of England who made a tremendous difference in her time.
She was born to the upper class, to party and to dance, to go to the races and look pretty in society. But she would have none of it. Even her parents could not understand her. Her great overwhelming desire was to alleviate pain and suffering, to hasten healing, to make less dreadful the hospitals of the day. She never married. She devoted herself to nursing and became expert according to the training then available.
Britain became embroiled in the Crimean War. She had friends at the head of the government and relentlessly pursued and persuaded them until she was appointed head of the hospital in Scutari, where thousands of the victims of the war were brought.
The picture that greeted her here was one of absolute despair. An old warehouse served as a hospital. The sanitary conditions were terrible. The cooking facilities were terrible. Wounded men were crowded in great rooms that reeked of foul odors and were filled with the cries of the suffering.
This frail young woman, with those she had recruited to go with her, set to work. They beat down the walls of bureaucracy. They beat on the heads of the bureaucrats. I quote from Mr. Strachey: “For those who watched her at work among the sick, moving day and night from bed to bed, with that unflinching courage, with the indefatigable vigilance, it seems as if the concentrated force of an undivided and unparalleled devotion could hardly suffice for that first portion of her task alone. Wherever, in those vast wards suffering was at its worst and the need for help was greatest, there, as if by magic, was Miss Nightingale.”
The beds that held the suffering men stretched over four miles, with barely space between each bed to walk. But somehow, within a period of six months, “the confusion and the pressure in the wards had come to an end; order reigned in them, and cleanliness; the supplies were bountiful and prompt; important sanitary works had been carried out. One simple comparison of figures was enough to reveal the extraordinary change: the rate of mortality among the cases treated had fallen from 42 percent to 22 per thousand” (Life of Florence Nightingale , 1186).
She had brought to pass an absolute miracle. Lives by the thousands were saved. Suffering was mitigated. Cheer and warmth and light came into the lives of men who otherwise would have died in that dark and dreadful place.
The war ended. She might have gone back to London a heroine. The public press had sung her praise. Her name was familiar to everyone. But she returned incognito to escape the adulation she might have received.
She continued her work for another 50 years, changing the hospitals both military and civilian. She died at an advanced age, bedridden for a good while, but still improving the circumstances of those who suffer.
Perhaps no other woman in the history of the world has done so much to reduce human misery as this lady with the lamp, who walked through the vast wards of Scutari in the middle of the 19th century, spreading cheer and comfort, faith and hope to those who writhed in pain. Her life was a life of excellence.
My wife likes to tell the story of a friend of hers who, when she was a little girl, was left an orphan. She scarcely knew her mother. As she grew, she wondered about her mother: what kind of a girl, what kind of a woman was she?
One day she came across her mother’s old report card. The teacher had noted on that card, “This student is excellent in every way.”
When she read that, her entire life changed. She recognized that her mother was a woman of excellence. Her whole attitude changed. She took on the aura of excellence herself and became a remarkable woman in her own right. She married a man who is recognized in many communities, and their children have distinguished themselves for their excellence.
I speak of the need for a little more effort, a little more self-discipline, a little more consecrated effort in the direction of excellence in our lives.
This is the great day of decision for each of us. For many it is the time of beginning something that will go on for as long as you live. I plead with you: don’t be a scrub! Rise to the high ground of spiritual, mental, and physical excellence. You can do it. You may not be a genius. You may be lacking in some skills. But so many of us can do better than we are now doing. We are members of this great Church whose influence is now felt over the world. We are people with a present and with a future. Don’t muff your opportunities. Be excellent.
Those of you who are not married are hoping to find a companion, among other things. I could wish for you nothing better than a good marriage, a happy marriage, a marriage fruitful in the sweet and satisfying things of life. Your marriage will not be excellent if it is marred with argument, if it is filled with disrespect one for another, if there is any lack of loyalty or devotion to one another. Cherish your spouse as the greatest possession of your life and treat him or her accordingly. Make it your constant goal to add to the happiness and comfort of your companion. Never permit yourself to let down in your affection, or your respect, or your faith in one another. Be excellent in every way.
You will find your greatest example in the Son of God. I hope that each of you will make Him your friend. I hope you will strive to walk in His paths, extending mercy, blessing those who struggle, living with less selfishness, reaching out to others.
He is the greatest example of excellence in all the world. He condescended to come to earth under the most humble of circumstances. He grew up as the son of Joseph the carpenter. He struggled with the adversary on the Mount of Temptation. He came forth resplendent and beautiful and magnificent to teach the world. During His brief ministry, He brought more of truth, more of hope, more of mercy, more of love than anyone else who has walked the earth. He died on Calvary’s cross for each of us. He arose the third day, “the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20), bringing the promise of resurrection to all mankind and the hope of exaltation to all who would walk in obedience to His teachings. He was the great paragon of righteousness, the only perfect man ever to walk the earth. His was the wondrous example toward whom each of us might point our lives in our eternal quest for excellence.
The prophet Moroni declared, “In the gift of his Son hath God prepared a more excellent way” (Ether 12:11). You have the witness of that faith. You have the testimony of that faith. You have the example of that faith. Let us all try to stand a little taller, rise a little higher, be a little better. Make the extra effort. You will be happier. You will know a new satisfaction, a new gladness in your heart.
Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). That is the great crowning example of excellence. May each of us have a rich and wonderful life moving in that direction. We will not become perfect in a day or a month or a year. We will not accomplish it in a lifetime, but we can keep trying, starting with our more obvious weaknesses and gradually converting them to strengths as we go forward with our lives.
“Look to God, and live” (Alma 37:47). Kneel before Him in supplication. He will help you. He will bless you. He will comfort and sustain you. There will be progress. There will be growth. There will be improvement. And there will be much of added happiness.
If there has been failure in the past, if there has been sin, if there has been indolence, they may all be overcome.
Tremendous is your opportunity to reach beyond the hoped-for goal of wealth and worldly success, though that may have some modest importance, to build and strengthen others, to relieve suffering, to aid in making the world a better place, to pick up and carry the lantern of Florence Nightingale in walking through the pain-ridden wards of the world.
It was said of the Master that He “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). In that process He became the epitome of perfection.
May the Lord bless each of us as we walk the path to perfection that the Lord has asked us to walk—with hope, with faith, and with that charity which “is the pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47).
Some Points to Ponder
You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:
Each of us is of the family of God, with tremendous potential for excellence.
We are invited to extend a little more effort and a little more self-discipline and to walk a higher road of excellence.
Florence Nightingale is an example of one who sought excellence.
For each of us, this is a great day of decision. Let us rise to the high ground of spiritual, mental, and physical excellence.
Our greatest example of excellence is found in the Son of God, to whom we can point our lives.
In our efforts to improve, let us kneel before God in supplication. He will help and sustain us as we seek improvement. There will be progress, and there will be added happiness.
Relate your feelings about the power of seeking progress in our lives.
Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
Would this discussion be better after a previsit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum leader?