The same conversation took place aboard many ships. The settings were usually the same, too, either during some quiet moments at the gangway when the ship was in port, or late at night on the bridge when the ship was at sea. It was always an unlicensed seaman who raised the subject, and he directed his remarks to anyone who would listen. Sometimes he would get a response, and sometimes he would not. In the latter case, then, he would just continue talking, making the conversation more of a monologue than a dialogue. But that didn’t matter, because it was always the same thing that everyone had heard countless times previously.
“Man, I’m gonna getta license,” it would start. “I wanna be a mate. The mates got it made. In the engine room the engineers got it made. It be good to be a officer. They don’t gotta do all the dirty work that we gotta do. They be smart. They work with their brains. They gotta think to run the ship. Now the Captain, man, he be real smart. And the Chief Engineer, he be real smart, too. They be the smartest guys on the ship. Kin you imagine bein’ that smart? I gotta long way to go before I kin be that smart. But I still wanna getta license. I gotta study for the thirds. Then I be a little bit smart, and I kin work on it from there.”
These soliloquies, while containing sincere admiration and expressing commendable ambition, were all too often idle ramblings devoid of any real initiative. I knew several mates and engineers who had risen on their own merit from the unlicensed ranks and had become highly competent and extremely knowledgeable Merchant Marine officers. They never talked much about what they were going to do or what they had done. They simply got busy and did it. They were not interested in calling a lot of attention to themselves, but their accomplishments did not go unnoticed, either. Men of this caliber enjoyed good reputations in the fleet. Others respected them and were happy to sail with them. They made good shipmates; in a pinch, one could always depend on them.
On the other hand, those who spoke at length of lofty and noble ambitions almost never pursued them. Like seafaring Hamlets, they delivered their lines and revealed their inner thoughts to their audiences, but when confronted with the requirements that they needed to meet in order to receive a license, their
enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn[ed] awry,
And los[t] the name of action.1
These fellows often reminded me of the parable of the sower. As the Lord told the story:
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold (Luke 8:5-8).
For the man who was “gonna getta license,” the seed was the knowledge that he needed to accumulate in order to take the examinations for either third mate or third assistant engineer. These bodies of knowledge were—and still are—extensive. Learning the required material could not be accomplished quickly or in a haphazard manner. It required a sense of purpose and self-discipline. The sense of purpose would see the prospective mate or engineer through the most difficult subject areas to the end of the program. The self-discipline would hold him to his studies in the face of distractions, and there were always many of these.
Like the seed that could not grow because of either insufficient moisture or too many thorns, the would-be mate or engineer could not grow in his profession because of either insufficient purpose and self-discipline or too many distractions. Not enough of the right thing or too much of the wrong thing never worked for anyone. What could not enable seeds to grow would certainly not permit human growth, either.
Like the license exams in the Merchant Marine, the Church also calls for extensive learning. The reading list alone is impressive: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, the Ensign, the New Era, and countless books and pamphlets of comparable magnitude. Reading, studying, and learning are hallmark activities of the Latter-day Saints. The Lord, referring to temple construction, directed the early Saints to “establish a house of learning” (D&C 88:119). For that matter, the entire Church is a house of learning. Even one of the stated missions of the Aaronic Priesthood is to “acquire as much education as possible.”
In the Merchant Marine, if one wants to grow in professional knowledge and serve in a greater capacity aboard ship, one must read, study, and learn. Likewise in the Church, if one wants to grow in religious knowledge and serve in more responsible callings, one must read, study, and learn. The Church is an institution of learning and growing, two actions that fit together naturally. If one is to grow, one must expend the effort to learn and not merely daydream. Growth requires that there be substance to one’s ambitions, not just wishful thinking. This is as true aboard ship and in church as it is in every other worthwhile pursuit in life. Little wonder, then, that throughout the scriptures and in every General Conference the Lord places such emphasis on learning. Even those who have reached the height of their service—Captains, Chief Engineers, Bishops, Presidents—continue to learn and grow. President Gordon B. Hinckley stated it well in an address at Brigham Young University:
I hope that you will take from this university the habit of seeking knowledge and that this habit will never leave you for as long as you live. A truly educated man never ceases to learn. He never ceases to grow. I hope you young women, as you take upon yourselves the burden of rearing families, will never set aside your desire to acquire knowledge. I hope that you will read to your children. They will be blessed and you will be blessed if you do so. 2
Thus learning is not only a lifelong pursuit for an individual, but a lifelong process for the ongoing life of the family, as knowledge is passed on to succeeding generations. As long as there are people on the Earth, then, there must be learning and growth not only of the individual, but of the entire human family for all of the time that we have here:
We must never cease to learn. We believe in eternal progression and that this life is a part of eternity to be profitably lived until the very end.3
Like the family, then, learning is forever.
1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i:93-95.
2 BYU Devotional, November 4, 1997, in Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume I, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004, p. 498.
3 Op. cit., p. 500.