Resisting the Sirens' Voices

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Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

January 10, 2002 
President Eric B. Shumway
President of Brigham Young University-Hawaii

Aloha. I am very happy to behold this congregation this morning. You are both beautiful and inspiring. Words cannot fully capture the profound importance of your being at this university at this time, and the importance of your taking advantage of every opportunity to learn, absorb, understand, and grow.

Over the years, many students have said to me, in essence, at the point of their graduation, "BYU-Hawaii was my growing up place. I entered a child, I'm leaving a man. I came a prejudiced, self-centered person. I am leaving full of respect for people of all nations. I came without goals or direction. I am leaving knowing who I am and what I must do in this world. I came unsure of my testimony. I am leaving rock solid in my knowledge that Jesus is the Christ and this is His Church and He is our Savior, the Redeemer of the world. I came with my thoughts and desires tainted with worldly pleasures. I'm leaving with a great passion for things that are virtuous, praiseworthy, lovely and of good report. I came feeling that the world owed me a place of comfort and prosperity. I'm leaving with a knowledge that I must earn my way and create my place through hard work and honest effort. BYU-Hawaii has been my training ground and springboard to a happy life. I hope and pray I can carry through." I pray that this can be true of all of you.

As a small child, one of my favorite stories was about the great hero of Greek legend, the cunning and courageous Odysseus. His adventures, recounted in Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey," have been for centuries the objects of almost universal study within Western culture. One story that opened the doors of my imagination was the episode of Odysseus' encounter with the treacherous Sirens, sea nymphs whose enchanting songs lured sailors to shipwreck and death on the rocky shores of their island.

Now Odysseus had been warned by the goddess Circe that since his journey would take him by the island of the Sirens, the only chance to secure his own safety and that of his men would be to take radical safety measures. As Circe pointed out to our hero, the Sirens sing so beautifully and the meadow they sit in is so exquisitely lovely, no man can resist them. Common sense and sound judgment melt away in a rapturous yearning to join these incomparable creatures. Thus, round about these deadly beauties were "bones, of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot."

Odysseus is described in the story as the most cunning and the strongest of men, but Circe insists that his only escape is to plug the ears of his sailors so they cannot hear the singing of the enchanters, and that, if he listens to the Sirens' song, his men must tie him head and foot to the mast. Thus, during the passage, if Odysseus loses his senses his bonds will save him. Or, if he orders his men to turn the ship toward the island, they will not only disobey him, but will tie him even more tightly to the mast.

Many of you know the story. Although he takes all these precautions, Odysseus nevertheless has no idea just how overpowering the temptation will be to him. Precisely as predicted, as his men, their ears plugged with beeswax, row steadfastly by the island, Odysseus is bathed in the fullness of the Sirens' song, intoned with flattery, promises of unspeakable delights, and knowledge that no other earthly creature possesses. They sing out:

Draw near, illustrious Odysseus, flower of Achaian chivalry:
And bring your ship to rest so that you may hear our voices.
No seaman ever sailed his black ship past this spot
Without listening to the sweet tones that flow from our lips,
And none that has listened [but] has . . . been delighted and gone
On a wiser man, for we have foreknowledge of all
That is going to happen on this fruitful earth.

Desperate with desire, Odysseus strains against the ropes that tie him to the mast. Nearly consumed with yearning, he loses all sense and judgment. He signals violently with his eyebrows to his shipmates to turn the ship aside, begging them to untie him, to free him. Fortunately their ears are stopped up. They hear nothing. And the more Odysseus shrieks and begs to be free to join the Sirens, the more tightly they tie the ropes around him, and the more vigorously they row, away from the island and away from danger.

As a child, this story appealed to me principally because of its suspense and adventure. It appealed to me later as an adult because it illustrates, without overt preachment, some fundamental verities regarding our own human experiences. And like so many ancient accounts, especially out of our sacred scriptures, it serves as a commentary and a warning parable as to how we should confront evil in our lives.

When I taught "The Odyssey" as a literature teacher on campus, I often asked students to extract the moral lessons from this many-thousand-year-old story, lessons that seem relevant still in our modern experience. Clearly, "The Odyssey" is not a Sunday School manual, but I want to share some of these student insights.

First, they were quick to observe that desire can and often does overwhelm reason and that much of the evil in the world is clothed in almost irresistible beauty. Its siren call cannot be resisted by simply gritting your teeth and clenching your fist and saying, "I won't do it, I won't give in." You have to tie yourself to something. Odysseus survived by being tied to the ship's mast by unbreakable cords. We survive temptation by being tied to eternal principles and to our Father in Heaven, who is our first allegiance. We are not tied by ropes, but by covenants, sacred promises made in the presence of God and angels; we are tied by prayer.

Other students pointed out that Odysseus survived because, though he was very clever in and of himself, he took counsel. He was humble enough to accept advice, form a plan and follow that plan before the temptation was encountered. Moreover, the plan was made when he was fully rational, not when he was in the emotional extremities of temptation. So many of us encounter temptation in our lives and then fret, "What do I do, how do I behave, how do I get out of this?" Worse, many just go with the flow. As several of my students pointed out, you control the circumstances before the circumstances control you. So if you are tempted to be dishonest or unchaste, there is a plan and a covenant already in place to bind you to the mast of honor and chastity. You don't have to decide on the spot what you're going to do. The decision has already been made.

Here's a little modern story that illustrates how forming and sticking to a plan helps to organize circumstances.

Years ago, my wife's little sister Cindy came to stay with us for a summer. She was a beautiful girl and later became "Days of `47" Queen in Utah. She was instantly popular among a number of local boys who invited her on many activities: to beach parties, on hiking and fishing dates, swimming, ventures on Waikiki. Since she was staying with us, I felt some responsibility for her and worried a little bit because I knew some of the boys she went with had a reputation as "fast movers." I queried Cindy one night after a date and asked what she thought of the boys she was going out with.

"Oh they're wonderful," she said. "They are so fun and humorous. They really know how to show a girl a good time. They'll be my island brothers forever."

I asked Cindy if any had made romantic moves on her.

"Oh no," she said. "They are all perfect gentlemen."

"Oh really?" I said. "And how did you keep these lover boys from pawing after you?"

"Oh that was easy. The moment I got in the car with each one of them at the beginning of the first date, I looked him squarely in the eye and said, 'There will be no kissing.' Of course they were so startled with this out-of-the-blue declaration, they didn't know exactly how to respond. But I smiled and kept my eyes on them, and pretty soon they laughed and said, 'That's cool.' And we had such a glorious time because that little passionate possibility was nipped in the bud in the very beginning."

When you talk now to Cindy, who has a husband and six children and one grandchild, she will tell you that she was never treated better, with more respect, or had more fun than she had in Hawaii.

The story about Odysseus and the Sirens, as other students pointed out, illustrates the importance of a strong supporting cast, friends and faithful colleagues who regarded him enough to disregard his ravings and his temporary insanity. Without true and faithful companions, Odysseus would have been lost.

One of the saddest happenings in the world is when so-called friends stand by and watch a person destroy himself or herself morally, spiritually, or socially. I'm thinking of one student who was involved with an off-campus dating situation with non-students and non-LDS men from across the island who were looking for a good time. These men had neither faith nor morals. After tragedy occurred, alcohol involvement, pregnancy and the abandonment of this young lady, those who tried to piece together what happened discovered that several roommates and friends knew what was happening from the very beginning, but said nothing and failed to seek help for their friend until it was too late. The investigators asked, "Why didn't you help or say something to someone who could help her?" Under the circumstances, the various answers seemed lame and pitiful. One person said, "Well, she is a big girl and has her free agency. It was her choice." Another response: "I felt I had no right to preach to her, I've got my own problems." And another: "I felt like she needed my love, not my judgment." The lamest answer of all was, "I didn't tell anybody like the Bishop because I didn't want to rat on a friend." So as many as six so-called friends stood by and watched her decline, rationalizing their silence all the way, claiming that sympathy was all they could offer her.

Let me hasten to say, however, that in my experience on this campus, in our community, and wherever there are church members, the vast and sincere supporting network of Saints is amazing to behold. I see it among our students, our faculty, and our staff. Much of this support is quick and spontaneous, no questions asked, no expectation of reward, no self-congratulations. We saw this in New York after September 11th last year.

There was a touching event here about a rescue last summer that illustrates how this supporting network so frequently functions. Three of our students were injured in a near tragic automobile accident. The car was completely demolished. The girls were in shock and pain. There was confusion and fear, even panic and humiliation. A crowd began to form around the vehicle as people came running to see what had happened. Traffic was backing up. A fire truck arrived and firemen took charge. One of the girls lay on the ground by the car, another was still in the back seat, and the third was trying to talk to one of the firemen.

You can imagine the tension in the air. Then, out of the crowd stepped a man in a white shirt, who announced to the chief fireman that he was a minister in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and would like to give a blessing to the girls who he recognized were from BYU-Hawaii because of a BYU-Hawaii insignia on one of the girls' shirts. He approached the girl lying on the ground, asked her name, then blessed her in the name of the Lord that she would live and be healed. He proceeded to the girl in the back seat and gave her a similar blessing and then to the driver. The girls themselves had never seen the man before. In fact, none of the three was a member of the Church. But all three later testified to me that the moment he laid his hands upon their heads they felt peace, love, warmth and an assurance that they would be okay. Each spent time in the hospital, but they were all sustained by the comforting knowledge that they would be healed and fully recover.

The driver of the vehicle was released from the hospital first. Terrified and confused she just sat in her room. Far from home and parents, she anguished over her companions. About her darkest moment, she told me later: "I sat in the middle of the floor weeping and praying that someone would be sent to help me." At that very moment the phone rang. It was Sister Shumway, the campus mother, calling to see if there was anything she could do to help.

Help was extended; the girls recovered. The mystery person who gave the blessings at the accident scene was none other than our own Brother Sione Niu. Thanks to his spiritual preparation, his presence of mind, and his courage, the girls were blessed.

Now back to Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens. Other students in my class pointed out the importance of acknowledging the immense power of the adversary and our own unprotected weakness. We must recognize that since no one can escape the siren calls of sin in our society, tying ourselves to rules, honor codes, and covenants is a way of showing our strength. This should be our plan to counter Satan. Some students remembered Jacob's words in the Book of Mormon: "Oh that cunning plan of the evil one" (2 Nephi 9:28). They pointed out that the evil one does have a plan. Imagine that; as we have a plan to resist temptation, he has a plan to destroy us. And where does the siren call resonate? Within our own vanity, our frailties, and our foolishness. As Jacob says:

"Oh the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish" (v.28).

Just as Odysseus put his own cleverness aside to execute the plan that would save him and his men, so must we put aside our own arrogance and pride and humbly hearken "unto the counsels of God" (v.29).

There are other ideas that my students came up with relevant to our situation today. One student said that it was significant that the main purpose of Odysseus' plan was to escape the temptresses as soon as possible. The goal was escape, not simply resistance. You don't hang around. You either remove the temptation or remove yourself from the temptation, whether the escape is from that second piece of pie when you'e trying to be healthy, or from the pornographic site on the Internet when you're trying to keep your mind clean and free from sexual images. Like the alcoholic who claims he can gain strength and resistance by keeping bottles of whiskey in full view on his mantle, so many of us delude ourselves into thinking that only resistance and self control is the key, when in fact escape is the wiser course. It's kind of like saying, "I'll watch this R-rated movie full of illicit sexual scenes, but still keep my mind pure and holy. I will simply resist any temptation to ponder them or replay them in my mind." Foolish thought.

Again can you imagine Joseph in Egypt, tempted by Potipher's wife, just standing there letting her caress him and embrace him, clenching his fists and gritting his teeth and saying in his mind "I'm not going to do it, I'm not going to do it, I'm not going to do it." Seems a bit absurd. Like Odysseus' men rowing their ship as fast as they could, so Joseph got himself out, away from Potipher's wife and away from temptation.

By the way, the story of Joseph and Potipher's wife seems a bit quaint to many modern and post-modern societies in which fornication, adultery and marital infidelity are common, even expected. I've even heard some Latter-day Saint youth wonder if the Church doesn't overdo the subject of chastity--as if the Church invented the law of chastity.

The siren call of sexual indulgence devoid of any real love or responsibility has nearly consumed the world, and countless lives and societies are shipwrecked as a result. Every act of unchastity or infidelity is a version or mini-version of what happened to King David, whose adultery precipitated a thousand sorrows in his family and nation that all his repentance could not redeem.

Another insightful point raised by my students in the discussion about Odysseus and the Sirens was what they observed to be the paradox of freedom. That is, many times in our lives it is our bonds that make us free, if the mast we are tied to is anchored in eternal truth. The students skillfully distinguished between the condition of actual freedom and agency or the freedom to choose. What some may consider oppressive rules, limitations on our freedom, are in fact the means by which we are made ultimately free. The more one is tied to the laws of God, the closer his condition becomes to eternal freedom. The truth shall make you free. Agency is the power and right to choose among options and alternatives. Freedom is the condition of having consistently made right choices.

Dr. Norm Evans conducted a study recently among a large number of our students who failed school or were struggling in the throes of sure defeat. When asked what the major problem was, many students said, "Too much freedom." What they meant was that they were away from home and parents and the constant supervision of teachers and church leaders. They used their agency to choose self-defeating behavior. Listening to and heeding other siren voices, they chose behavior that violated true freedom. Now, they were not free to live and move in the condition most important to them. They were not free, for example, to stay at BYU-Hawaii. They were not free to continue employment. They were no longer free to enjoy the benefits and beauty of this place. They were no longer free to take courses, to associate with friends on campus. Nor were they free to move easily into another school or a good job. Indeed, their freedom was severely curtailed and now so was their agency. So what did they mean when they said their problem was too much freedom? Again, with their freedom to choose they made narrow choices, which restricted and in some cases eliminated their future freedom.

A Tongan student might observe that the central issue of true freedom is captured in a delightful oxymoron within the Tongan word for freedom. That word is tau`ataina, literally the condition of being tied securely and free to move at the same time. The image is of a small fishing canoe anchored on the reef by a long rope. It is tethered so that it may ride easy in the current but not be torn from its moorings and lost.

What are the sirens of our day, those seductive, intoxicating enchanters that promise fun, relief, and excitement, but who produce only shipwrecks, broken dreams and broken hearts? I think we all know. Years ago, Elder Boyd K. Packer developed a talk on the crocodiles in our lives, referring to the crocodiles that lurk in muddy, shallow pools ready to snatch their prey which ventures too close. President Kimball developed the same theme with the image of the python snake, a patient, quiet predator that can slowly entangle and crush a victim in its coils. Only this month, President Hinckley warns the Saints about the Goliaths in our lives, and like David we must overcome those Goliaths by confronting them with faith and in the name of Israel's God which we have taken upon ourselves.

Whether they are crocodiles, pythons, Goliaths, or sirens, we must recognize them for what they are.

The voice of temptation comes in a variety of siren calls. Some of those calls are sexual in nature, in songs, certain kinds of dancing, movies and T.V. One of the most irresistible siren songs these days is about fashion--clothes that do not cover much of the body, or, conversely, clothes that cover the body so tightly and so graphically that there is little difference from the coverless kind.

Many siren songs appeal to the weaknesses of the natural man, such as getting revenge, jealousy, gossip. Many of these calls nurture the sins of pride and hard-heartedness. Some of the sweetest calls of the sirens persuade us to indulge in the sins of self, self-promotion, self-pity. Likewise, there are many honey-toned whispers to be dishonest, promising relief and prosperity, but really shattering our honor and integrity, as a wooden ship is shattered on a rocky shore. As you know, the Internet is an exquisite, virtual meadow full of sirens luring the Internet sailors to moral shipwreck. Interestingly, I did an Internet search on Odysseus for this talk and a siren jumped out right at me. Of course, it was calculated to tempt distraught students who had term paper deadlines. This particular siren advertised where you could buy a term paper on "The Odyssey," only $9.89 a page. So a ten-page paper was only a hundred dollars. Just type in your credit card number and forget your worries about days and nights of reading and searching and writing. Enjoy your school, an A grade guaranteed.

I pray, brothers and sisters, that each of us will tie ourselves to the mast of our covenants and eternal truth. Tie ourselves to the revelations of God, to the scriptures, to our living prophets, to the priesthood, to the temple, to the memory of great men and women who have lived and sacrificed for Zion. Tie ourselves to the testimony of the Restoration and the revelations given through Joseph Smith. Most of all we must tie ourselves to the atonement of Jesus Christ, remembering that he has already paid for our sins. He has paid for them. But we must fully repent to take advantage of that infinite gift and sacrifice.

Finally, there is one voice of superlative sweetness and clarity we must all yield to if we are to survive the siren songs of this world. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit. We must yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. He will speak to us in our mind and heart. Through his power we receive guidance from prayers. Through his love we receive peace out of pain, which I testify to in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.