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See with Grace

Audio: "See with Grace"
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As a young graduate student, scientist Hope Jahren investigated the chemical composition of hackberry fruit pits, seeking insight as to their hardy survival in various climates. Late at night, alone in a lab, she exposed their material to X-rays. She describes what happened next and how it affected her:

The readout from the X-ray displayed one clear, unequivocal peak at exactly the same angle of diffraction, each time I replicated the measurement. . . . It clearly indicated that my mineral was an opal. . . . I was the only person, in an infinite, exploding universe, who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was, in addition to being small and insufficient, special, . . . because of the tiny detail I knew about creation. . . . I finally knew what real research would feel like. [1]

My own “opal” moment came as I sat in a stark 3x4 cubicle just before Thanksgiving break during my second PhD year. Everyone else had left the building and I worked alone, gathering data from a little investigation of how attentional focus affected my violin students’ bow habits. While they had played a musical scale, I observed what happened when students’ attention was directed away from or toward each of two bow technique skills: (1) using a full bow stroke, and (2) using precise bow contact point on the string (i.e. playing in the best-sounding “sweet spot”).

What you see on the screen is a timeline of one student’s scales during the first of several sessions. The bottom row shows which skill I had directed them to attend to. The top two rows show codes indicating what happened to their bow length or their contact point during each bow stroke, while their attention was directed toward and away from each skill. Red is bad. Green is good.

The data solidified in colors of red, yellow, and green codes along timelines. Usually this is an exciting moment—my favorite of any study—when all the tedious hours of data-gathering coalesce into a result. This time, however, I experienced something different than excitement. I was stunned. Upon seeing the results I was simultaneously confronted with the possible implications of what emerged on my screen. I heard myself gasping the words, “We don’t stand a chance.”

Notice how well the violinist did on bow length when they were thinking about bow length. Notice how little green there is when they were not thinking about bow length, or how many more red ticks there are on the middle line when they were not thinking about contact point.

I was stunned.

What stunned me weren’t the ramifications for skill learning on a musical instrument, though that was a thing too. My mind was caught up in farther-reaching implications. My violin students had been doing a fairly simple (so I thought) activity, within the context of a fairly controlled lesson environment, as designed by a pretty great teacher (so I supposed). This wasn’t even close to the most challenging stuff my students played on their instruments, and yet they struggled to maintain fundamental skills. What then of the possibility of having some chance at being a decent person, a “perfect” person, or even just getting better, in the messy mortal day-to-day existence we pass through, among a constant bombardment of uncontrollable factors?

Ok, let me ask an easier question. Here’s some short-answer free response:

Fill in the blank: “Be ye therefore ___, as your Father also is ___.” Any answers?

What if I told you that this is not coming from Matthew, nor 3 Nephi. I am quoting from Luke. In Luke, Christ does not say, “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” nor “complete” either. Luke relates Jesus’ words as, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” [2]

Luke’s account uses the same phraseology as Matthew, but instead of “perfect,” or even “complete,” inserts the word “merciful,” sometimes translated as “compassionate” or “kind.”

When I had my “opal” moment, in my semi-conscious mind, life’s purpose was to always do right, always be good, never offend. I had been spending time with some who were especially scrupulous, in a way that inhibited them and me from extending self-compassion, or made it difficult to start in on tasks because so much weight was riding on doing them right. Sound familiar to some of you? In our minds, the purpose of existence was to be as close to perfect as possible in every moment and mentally flog ourselves when we were not—even though I was aware of President Russell M. Nelson’s enlightening address, “Perfection Pending,” in which he explains, “In Matt. 5:48, the term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means ‘complete.’” [3] Not “without error.” Unhealthy perfectionism had nevertheless perseverated within myself and those around me.

That “opal” moment evening, my assumptions experienced an unexpected assault, so as to incite the wonderfully uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that is learning. “Maybe,” I said to myself, “this mortal existence isn’t about living a perfect, unblemished life. Maybe it’s at least in part about becoming perfectly merciful—to learn to extend one another grace.” After all, that’s what Jesus extends to each of us.

There is a strong case for making mercy and compassion the quest of our lives. Today we’ll explore the rationale for this, cognitively, theologically, and—grace-fully. In making this point, though, I am somewhat trepidatious. I worry, on one hand, that some will feel that they should permit others to mistreat them, and on the other hand, that some will not reach for excellence in themselves. All of us are deserving of kind and just treatment, and we can all strive to be our best selves—and continue to stretch and grow. It’s why we’re here! On earth. And at BYU-Idaho.

The Lord tells Moroni, “I give unto [people] weakness” and that “weak things [can] become strong.” [4] What exactly might this underlying weakness—and strength—be in our human nature? One candidate, I propose, is the nature of cognition. The way we think, our capacity to act, how we manage our complex world.

A little background on the science of human attention, a subfield within cognition:

We humans are capable of doing highly complex things! We can play sports and video games and paint and solve complex equations. It’s amazing! Consider the work of a Muppeteer.

From my one gig with these amazing artists, I discovered how much they were required to manage simultaneously: they were working the muppet—often coordinating two people on one muppet—coordinating their speech with those hand motions, reciting memorized lines, in different voices, and often improvising and playing off what was going on around them on stage. They were attending to so many things! But how?

This might strike you as especially perplexing because we humans are also only able to focus attention on a small amount at once. [5] Consider how my students struggled to maintain a skill when they thought about a different thing. Or maybe some of you have been confronted with one of the circulating “selective attention tests,” like the one where you count the basketball passes. (Did you count the right number and see the gorilla?). [6] Most do not manage both on the first go. But that is also an important strength. A narrow attentional focus can help us solve problems without distraction.

We can only attend to so much. And that limited capacity, called “working memory” capacity (or what we’re thinking about consciously in a given moment), differs relatively little from person to person. Some, but not much. For everyone, it’s rather small.

So how do those Muppetteers do it? Humans can perform these amazingly complex activities due to another phenomenon called “automaticity” [7] or habit. We develop habits over time, in which their components become bundled through repetition and explicit or implicit practice (with or without awareness—these habits don’t always develop intentionally). Remember how much brainpower it took for you to drive when you first started? (And for those of us who learned on a manual stick shift.) Eventually, driving required less attention because the concomitant skills became increasingly automatized, so much so that we can feel confident enough to eat our burrito and listen to the radio and text a friend all while driving through intersections across town. (Until that moment something unexpected occurs and exceeds one’s attentional capacity, which is why it’s never a good idea.)

Automaticity, or habit, is a reality of existence. It’s how we negotiate our world. We practice skills until they become habitual, requiring less thinking space, and then we layer them on top of one another. It’s how we dance and fix cars and write devotional talks and manage a classroom full of six-year-olds (only a celestial few can do that). It’s also how we can develop attributes such as thoughtfulness or speaking kindly. But if something is automatized, by definition, it is farther beyond one’s awareness. And people develop all these habits within environments (families, communities, cultures) that vary from one another. We all have behavioral mannerisms and jerk responses and ways of doing dishes and assumptions about one another. It’s how humans have survived. And it’s also why we can really end up bugging one another and hurting one another—sometimes in ways that aren’t changed instantly.

Which is why, as the reality of the violin-bow-skill experiment distilled upon me in my cubicle, my own mind was compelled toward mercy. We don’t stand a chance at being perfect—certainly not right away.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute. We have agency! We are free to choose! Lehi says so—and so does that old seminary filmstrip!” (That’s for my colleagues.) Well yes, that is indeed true. But, as with all things cognition, it’s complicated and . . . simple.

The hard reality is, in order to survive one another in this world, we’re going to have to be long-suffering. We’ll need to extend and receive grace. A lot of it. Once again, that doesn’t mean we permit someone to be abused or mistreated. Everyone is deserving of just and kind treatment, and all can become better. To both of those ends, true compassion will inspire individuals and systems to peacefully resist ill treatment for the benefit of both the survivor and the perpetrator. The way to break bad habits? Compassionate consequences, firm feedback. “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” with an “increase of love.” [8] Also, of course, I’m not so perfectly merciful myself. And so I seek your compassion toward my own limited compassion.

So, what of agency?

Have you seen this image by W. E. Hill, “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law”? Do you see the young woman? Her nose? Now her eye? Now look at the other set of eyes, the other nose. Depending on where and how you look at it, you see the person differently. We are able to direct our attention, choosing to focus toward, or away. Agency.

I once surveyed our books of scripture for words related to attention: Look, behold, seek, listen, hear, hearken, turn, stiffneckedness . . . so many verses. Let me just say, have a look. Jacob, for example, encouraged the “pure in heart” to “look unto God with firmness of mind.” [9] The sheer volume of scriptures related to attention and choice leads me to conclude that agency is centered in this cognitive capacity.

And we can also adjust the distance of our focus. As in, “But your mind has been on the things of the earth more than on the things of me, your Maker.” [10] This verse provides a zoom-out attentional alternative, higher or farther. Ophthalmologists recommend frequently taking our eyes away from our devices and looking at scenes farther than 20 feet away. Perhaps we can do that mentally, spiritually. Maybe, for instance, in our daily personal devotional time.

I tried this with my students I was torturing with the violin-bow-habit test. Some of you may have already been rightly critiquing this experiment; it had its limitations. After I had wrapped up the original design, post hoc, I tried an entirely different focus with them: “Listen to your sound.” Instead of directing their focus toward individual elements of bow movement, I later directed students’ attention to a musical goal. And those individual elements started working together to create a beautiful tone. Their brains were able to bundle these skills differently under that more meaningful goal. In research, this “external focus of attention” has been found to be, generally, more effective. [11]

“But I gotta eat,” you may say. “Eventually I gotta make some sort of living. I gotta focus on my classes; many people have given a lot for me to be here.” All true. You are so right. We also need to focus closely on practical details. Skills practice is critical to enable an artist to capture viewers with a sculpture, a poet to cause us to stop in awe, a gymnast to land any one of the Biles-es. Remember, the holistic improvement of sound in my students happened after we had been practicing individual skills for several weeks. And after pursuing a meaningful purpose. It’s not like you can pick up a cello for the first time and start playing like Yo-Yo Ma or Steven Sharp Nelson. It takes work. But for what purpose? What are you trying to say? What are you creating? Whom do you wish to help? Who do you wish to be?

That last question may lead you to a focus on models—how we achieve some of our most efficient learning. We watch a teacher or older sibling and imitate them. Same with role models. Hopefully, positive models, including Jesus Himself. It’s one reason why “What would Jesus do?” is such a powerful question. So, consider taking a step back from the minutia of your current life, instead framing the daily grind with a higher and broader purpose.

Often, the attentional shift we need is one away from self, onto others. Elder Neal A. Maxwell described putting off the self as “heavy lifting”—but worth the work. [12] The ability to redirect our attention is the very answer to increasing our capacity for mercy! Perhaps we might open ourselves up to compassionate curiosity about what another person may be going through or where they’re coming from. Maybe this could help us listen to others we find ourselves pitted against politically or religiously. “Listen louder than you play,” I often encourage my orchestra musicians, as the orchestra teacher of my youth exhorted us to. She gave us an attentional alternative. Instead of being worried so much about our own sound or mistakes or how awesome we were, we found ourselves existing as part of a whole ensemble, in relationship with others. How many problems in this world could be overcome if people were to follow my teacher’s simple admonition? Like Hope Jahren’s opal, each person has a little knowledge that only that individual has that will increase our understanding. If we just listened a little louder.

Jacob, son of Lehi, is someone who raised his people’s sights to a different view of the other. [13] After noting Jacob’s teachings on pride, tribalism, and classism, theologian Diedre Nicole Green summarizes:

On Jacob’s account, every sin in Nephite society results from the failure to see all human beings as equals. . . . Loving one’s neighbor as oneself begins with seeing one’s neighbor as bearing the same essential value as oneself and as deserving of the same treatment. This viewpoint does not come about as a result of anything the neighbor does, says, or demonstrates about herself or her worthiness. Instead, it comes about as a choice to see the neighbor in a loving way in all circumstances—no matter how the neighbor [or roommate or spouse or child or student or brother or parent] may change or seem to change. [14]

Finally, one other angle on seeing with grace: We must negotiate how and where to direct our attention innumerable times daily. We all struggle with redirecting our focus. Maybe you have received a diagnosis related to attention. (Maybe that’s also your superpower.) We’re a neurodiverse group; some of our neurological hardware or software differs from others. Though our inner experiences may vary, all of us need help.

Consider, among your remedies, the help—the grace—received by the Lamanites that Lehi and Nephi encountered after being “cast into prison,” as related in the book of Helaman. [15] Those who were incarcerated and their jailers witnessed divine power in the form of fire and earthquake. They were then “overshadowed with a cloud of darkness, and an awful solemn fear came upon them.” [16] The darkness wouldn’t leave them; it “did not disperse.” [17] They couldn’t see, and they were frozen with fear: “The Lamanites could not flee because of the cloud of darkness which did overshadow them; yea, and also they were immovable because of the fear which did come upon them.” [18] How terrifying this must have been. Then—there was “one among them” who saw through the darkness by turning his attention (he “turned him about”) and could see those who could see: “[Nephi and Lehi] did lift their eyes to heaven.” [19] “And it came to pass that this man did cry unto the multitude that they might turn and look.” [20] But how could they? They were “immovable.” They were stuck. They couldn’t see. “And behold, there was power given unto them that they did turn and look; and they did behold.” [21]

They were given assistance in that which they could not do alone. That is grace. In this case, they had grace to see. That is grace we can all access. And grace we can extend to others. We are called to view one another with grace, and we can be extended grace to see.

May we see one another and ourselves through the eyes of such grace. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (New York: Knopf, 2016).

[2] Luke 6:36, KJV, ESV, NLT, MSG. See also Nicholas J. Frederick, “'As Your Father Also Is Merciful': The Sermon on the Plain and the Development of Mercy,” in The Sermon on the Mount in Latter-day Scripture, ed. Gaye Strathearn, Thomas A. Wayment, and Daniel L. Belnap (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 249–67.

[3] Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1995.

[4] Ether 12:27.

[5] See, for example, John Sweller, Jeroen J. G. van Merrienboer, and Fred G. W. C. Paas, “Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design,” Educational Psychology Review 10, no. 3 (1998): 251–96.

[6] Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, “Selective Attention Test,” Daniel Simons, Mar. 10, 2010,

[7] See, for example, Tracy L. Brown and Thomas H. Carr, “Automaticity in Skill Acquisition: Mechanisms for Reducing Interference in Concurrent Performance.,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 15, no. 4 (November 1989): 686–700,

[8] Doctrine and Covenants 121:43.

[9] Jacob 3:1.

[10] Doctrine and Covenants 30:2.

[11] See, for example, Sun Hee Park et al., “Effects of External Focus of Attention on Balance: A Short Review,” Journal of Physical Therapy Science 27, no. 12 (December 2015): 3929–31,; Gabriele Wulf, “Attentional Focus and Motor Learning: A Review of 15 Years,” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 6, no. 1 (September 2013): 77–104,

[12] Neal A. Maxwell, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel,” Ensign, May 1998.

[13] See Stephanie Spellers, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, Second Edition, 15th Anniversary Revised (Morehouse Publishing, 2021).

[14] Deidre Nicole Green, Jacob: A Brief Theological Introduction (Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2020), 37–38.

[15] Helaman 5:21.

[16] Helaman 5:28.

[17] Helaman 5:31.

[18] Helaman 5:34.

[19] Helaman 5:35–36.

[20] Helaman 5:37.

[21] Helaman 5:37.