Editor's Note: You may notice that this post is out of chronological sequence. Last spring I received a hand-written letter from Sam via snail mail with the following enclosed. He asked me to type it up and post it here. Unfortunately I received it at a rather busy time of year, and the task of typing it slipped to the bottom of my to-do list until now. I regret the delay, as this post comes seven months after it was written, but upon reading it I realized that, late though it is, it comes as at a fitting time, as Sam embarks on the final months of his full-time missionary service and prepares to return to the States. Let me add my testimony to his, that the work he is engaged in is focused on no other object than enoblement and exaltation of the human family.
Elder Samuel Mohun Bhagwat
January 31, 2010
I haven’t corresponded with most of you in quite some time. Time, distance, out of sight, out of mind. Still you all hold a special place in my heart and I want to say hello.
It will be a long hello—be warned.
I have been thinking about what you probably thought when you saw this. “Sam has changed so much since I knew him.” That is true. But you are still just as much a friend of mine as the day we saw each other. I’d love to hear from any or all of you. And I think I’ve gained the experience in my new life to answer your next thought: “I wonder why?”
Let me tell you a bit about myself. You probably already knew, actually, I’m a deeply serious person. If something seems important, I’ll involve myself. In high school, chemistry, biology, physics equations, American history, British literature—all of these seemed important in some ultimate sense. At least, they are part of the Quest for Knowledge, and that is definitely important. And I find joy in learning and understanding how things work. So I did it all—captain of the Quiz Bowl Team, math project for Science Fair, you name it. At the same time I had an avid interest in world affairs—it was Important, after all.
Like any other human being, I have a sense of belonging. I want to be part of something bigger than myself. I want to spend my spare time and share my thoughts with those with the same values as myself. I want to know people who understand my hopes, dreams, interests, aspirations, because theirs are similar.
In high school, I remember Friday night hangouts turning into discussions of the teachers we all had together and the assignments they were giving. We always played games like Apples to Apples and Cranium—geek games for the geeks we were. We spent our free time building upon our common bond, I can say that much. The other smart kids who showed their attachment to different values by spending time with other social groups (Dara, Peter, Jason, Amanda, Frank, etc.), I paid less attention to, had less interest in, and (to only a small degree I hope) judged them as somewhat less of people.
I sought out people like Jesse, another Quiz Bowler, with whom I engaged in political discussions for nigh on six months. We bonded over Kafka and H.L. Mencken, and the libertarianism he slowly drew me to. Reading Chekhov’s “The Bet” in AP English Literature, I was drawn to the story of a man who gave up human associations for books for 15 years. It fascinated and tempted me. That was me. That was the society I was drawn to. That was the society I helped create.
Then I went to Stanford.
[A side note: I believe a society can be judged, in large part, by how its members
spend their free time. Therein are their values revealed.]
Still, I was fascinated with ideas. I spent much of my summer simply sitting and reading books about politics, absorbing ideas, turning them over in my mind. Before me, through books, stretched the history of past centuries, with myself as the arbiter of historical truth, intrigue, and mystery.
I continued this pattern at Stanford. I sunk my heart and soul into a four-member class on Soviet history where we learned to read texts: None of the other students seemed nearly as enthusiastic, so I didn’t become friends with them, but the professor loved me. In my dorm, many students were part of a class/program where they read texts from ancient civilizations to modern times and analyzed them; for example I picked up the nickname “Bhagwat Gita.” Soon I found myself wandering down the hall and joining the impromptu discussions of the more ardent and interested students. I grew close to them, and soon joined the program myself.
Here’s the thing. After some time, I continued to eat, but the food failed to satisfy. I remember especially one novel, called Season of Migration to the North. The protagonist, a brilliant Sudanese man, goes to London and secures an excellent job, but finds ultimate emptiness, spends his time seducing women, marries one, and kills at her request, and finally he attempts suicide by swimming into a raging river. The last words of the book is his cry of “Help” after he realizes he wants to live, after all.
The professor at the head of the program acclaimed the book and lauded its insightfulness, how it really captured the essence of life, and so on. But my friends Lillia, Marisa, and I wondered: “is this all there is?”
Oh yeah, friends. Socially, I gravitated to two extremely dedicated and smart dormmates, Lillia and Marisa. The three of us were very close, and decided to live together the next year.
I was of two minds on another matter. The dorms are filled with 19 year olds who suddenly have no restriction on them; the result—at Stanford, too—is what could generously be termed loose morals. Hearing student co-workers, on the way to teach math to small innocent elementary school students, discuss casually, and with explicit detail, their friends hookups, drunken doings, and the like, I was torn internally between disgust and admiration for their blatant disregard for social norms. Externally, silence means consent, and while remaining so by action and by word I encouraged it more than I’d care to remember.
Over time, a thought grew in me. It took a bit of time for my disgust to overcome my admiration for this stuff and the chutzpah it required. As it did, the thought in me matured: this is the pinnacle of Achievement for American youth. The best and the brightest. This is why they exhaust their energy on differential calculus problem sets, engineering projects, and history papers. This is what they do when Friday night comes and they’re finally free of other obligations.
Three words: I want more.
I found glimpses of that “more”—a campus-wide super-soaker game and other events of the fraternity I joined; its real sense of brotherhood. Late night chats about life, purposes, plans with so many of you—Lia, Marisa, Lillia, Sonja, Martin, Josh, Cosmin. Treading so frantically in the waters of college life as I felt compelled to, your friendships were like so many breaths of fresh air. All of you take life seriously but have about you a sense of joy.
I’ll skip the journey (I’ve written about it elsewhere) and go straight to the oxygen tank. This is what gives me fresh air, what feeds and sates my inner yearnings for Importance. I know who I am. I am a son of God, and through awe and amazement take literally the Biblical promises about my, and all of our, potential to become like Him (for the Christians among you see Matthew 5:48 and 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Watching friends become part of that—going with high school friends to college parties, I was caught up a bit. Not to participate in, say, drinking, but to be a part of and feed off of the atmosphere. These were my homeboys—Nice-girl Q’s stories of partying and hookups. Walking with a drunken B. home at 2am, hearing him say, it tastes awful, but you get used to it, watching the beer pong, hearing a tipsy G. say, don’t tell K. [our mutual friend]. Hanging out with K., after the separations of two years of college, and her YouTube videos—wondering what had happened to our closeness. My dear friend H., hearing her sadly/sighingly get used to people describe her as “H. with big breasts.” The thong pictures plastered above my other female friend H.’s bed as a joke.
I love all of you, and I don’t want you thinking, “Okay, Sam turned to religion because he’s a prude and wanted some friends.” And I don’t want you thinking I’m obsessively against booze and sex. Every one of you that has felt the Spirit of God at any time—reading scripture, listening to a sermon, finally understanding something, having a heart-to-heart, serving others—knows the kind of inspired, sometimes excited, genuinely delighted response it elicits in us. My disgust—my sadness and lack of meaning, and wholesale emotional and intellectual rejection of this disorder and licentiousness, of the degraded views of ourselves and others they engender, their lightness with things that are sacred, I believe it was prompted by the same Spirit.
Intellectually, in that program, a landscape of dreary disillusionment—of a prestigious photographer flocked by beautiful women wanting to sleep with him for photos, bored by it all; Charlie Chaplin and a Metropolis plagued by self-destructing machinery (“Blow-Up”); of six play characters in a bizarre incestuous triangle, searching for their other, to complain and plead (“Six Characters in Search of an Author”); of three characters searching for an exit from hell, as a model for life (Sartre, “No Exit”); of a town, under siege from a plague, their hopes growing only to be dashed, having no control over their situation (Camus, “The Plague”). Intellectuals deciding life is pointless, so we may as well help each other.
It’s Saturday night in West Palm Beach. I’m almost 19, working full time for the first time. Now I’m sitting on a the couch in our apartment, listening to “A Tribute to the Prophet” by Joseph Nashville, a musical retelling of the life of Joseph Smith. “The boy, the faith, the prayers, the hate, the persecution, The Spirit, the peace…” remembering my conversion, the words, with strumming guitar and voice rising in intensity: “I don’t know all the answers but I’ll do my best/ To live up to the Rising that won’t let me rest/ Lord help me.” Thinking about my past, thinking about Paul’s analogy in Hebrews of a man traveling in a wilderness of temptation only to finally find rest in the Promised Land. Feeling the emotions well up in me of that summer and those songs and those nights and mornings spent sitting on my couch and letting the music run through me and trigger my emotions and wishes and desire for more.
Remembering: in Chennai on my mission, seven months ago, sitting on the couch of Prahash and Annie’s, with my converts. Listening to Michael and Hemalatha tell how now that they joined this church, their family was serious about God for the first time in their life. Their 18 and 15 year-old sons were actually excited about church. Remembering how Samuel (the 18 year old) absorbed and loved the five steps of the Gospel: faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost, Endure to the end. How energetically he defined and expounded them to his brother Daniel.
Remembering: Standing behind the font, hearing the words from my dear friend and companion Elder Tuscano: “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you…” As Jeremiah, a brother I met on the street, taught, and now I was seeing him dressed in a white jump suit, pure before God, promising to follow Him for the rest of his life.
Thinking of the promises made by God to us, thinking of who God is and that I know who He is—cutting through “I’m already saved” and “God is a point of light, a power behind me” and “you really believe Jesus Christ came to the Americas” expressed in that tone of disbelief and frustration.
Cutting to the fruit, now delicious to me, “This is the great secret: that God who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a man, like unto yourselves….The first principles of man are self existent with God. God Himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because He was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like Himself.” All the intelligences that God sent into the world are capable of enlargement, with “a faculty that may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin; and like the ancients, arrives at that point of faith where he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker, and is caught up to dwell with Him. But we consider that this is a station to which no man ever arrived in a moment.” (Teachings of The Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith p.210, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City Utah, 2007)
I feel home. I am home.
I love you. Come with me.
-Elder Samuel M. Bhagwat