Surprised by Love

Such is this steep ascent, / That it is ever difficult at first, / But more a man proceeds, less evil grows. / When pleasant it shall seem to thee, so much / that upward going shall be easy to thee / as in a vessel to go down the tide, / then of this path thou wilt have reached the end. / there hope to rest thee from thy toil.[1]

If anyone reading this has reached a point in life when the struggle to rise feels as easy as letting yourself be swept down with the tide, let me buy you lunch.  I’d love to pick your brain. I, too, have had many small experiences with this paradox. Learning to drive, I remember feeling overwhelmed by everything I was supposed to do all at once. “Wait, you want me to hold the steering wheel like so, press the pedals just the right amount, check my blind spot but also watch the road ahead of me?” …and so on. The thing is, humans really can adapt to their habitual actions so that over time, the task requires less and less bandwidth in the frontal cortex and becomes what we call “second nature.” It gets easier.

On the other hand, one of the most compelling things I learned from Professor Michael Call’s seminar on video games and popular culture was the idea of a tight feedback loop, a program that is able to respond to your abilities and make the game more or less challenging depending on your performance. Games, if they’re done right, can hover just at the edge of “too hard” so that you always feel like you are being challenged, but never so much that you give up. Game designer Jane McGonigal argued that video games do this better than real life, and that we ought to pattern our educational and professional environments on that model to achieve greater levels of commitment and satisfaction in our work.[2] I don’t know if that’s possible, or even desirable, but I can’t shake the idea that life’s feedback loop could be a bit more responsive. Regardless, real life certainly seems to follow the video game model more than it does Dante’s Purgatorio. Just when I think I’ve got the hang of something, things get more difficult—a “level-up,” if you will.


I was recently given the opportunity to say a few words at a virtual meeting for IHUM majors. As a senior, I was asked with several of my peers to reflect on our experiences in the program and share a few minutes-worth of what we have learned. In that context, looking out at the Zoom squares and seeing a handful of familiar faces with memories attached, I felt a surge of gratitude and love for these people and this place. Listening to my friends and mentors give a beautiful tribute to a humanist education, and to BYU in particular, I had something like an Our Town moment: an intense desire to have appreciated everything more from the beginning.

And yet, how could I possibly have felt then what I feel now? I was not, then, the person that I am now, and the experiences for which I am grateful are the very ones that transformed me. It was the mental gymnastics we did in Dr. Colson’s “Theory” class, and the compassion we practiced in “Contemporary Issues” with Dr. Handley. It was every culture I learned to speak of with passion and respect, from East Asia and the Islamic world to Ancient Mexico and the Medieval West. It was every opportunity to wrestle with complexity, check my blind spots, and “seek after” what is praiseworthy.[3] When I took that IHUM 201 class in my first semester at BYU, I never dreamed I would still remember the difference between an Ionic and Corinthian capital. (If only I could retain details about my schedule as well as I remember random facts about Greek architecture.) Back then, talking about art felt something like driving that first car, new and exciting, awkward and a little unfamiliar.


Looking ahead, I don’t feel all that different, really. Applying for master’s programs and trying to engage in higher-level research and writing have been just as daunting to me as any other step along the way. In all of our climbing, passing from grade to grade and level to level, it’s easy to feel as though we haven’t ascended at all; life manages to increase its difficulty just as we increase our capacity. In light of Elder Holland’s incredibly moving and sober message last Tuesday, I also have to acknowledge that for many, the challenges of life are much, much greater than anyone could reasonably be expected to bear.[4]

What, then, of Dante’s ascent? At what point does “upward going” become as easy to us as not to move at all? The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t happen in this life—we have so much more ascending to do before we reach the end. But my experience in that IHUM meeting was like glancing in the rear-view mirror and being surprised at the person I’ve become. In the humanities, we spend all this time seeking after beauty and pursuing our passions, yet somehow, I was not entirely aware of my own capacity for appreciation—for gratitude—and how it has grown. Much like C.S. Lewis and the way he describes his lifelong search for joy, I was surprised by love.[5] That, I believe, is the summit to which we are climbing. A moment when we look back and realize that our awkward first attempts at the pure love of Christ are far behind us, and what was difficult once is now an integrated part of who we are. Mormon describes this as a gift that God bestows on true followers of His Son: to become like Him, to see as He sees and to love as He loves in a community called Zion.[6] If, in the world today, that society seems so distant that we can’t see the peak through the clouds, we have at least the comfort of knowing that the further we proceed, “less evil grows,” and the closer we get the more pleasant the journey will be.


This post was written by Joseph Rowley, an undergraduate Center fellow.


[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Purgatory, Canto IV, trans. Henry Francis Cary, 1901.

[2] Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, 2010. McGonigal writes persuasively, but primarily in her role as a game designer who works at a think tank designed to promote games. I felt a strong bias in the research she presents, however, given the strong bias against video games that she was attempting to counteract, I found that her argument left me somewhere in the middle. Not quite enough to convince me, but I’m obviously still chewing on her ideas.

[3] Articles of Faith 1:13; cf. Philippians 4:8

[4] It’s in the face of those circumstances that we wonder if the game is broken: how could everything be allowed to be this hard for some and relatively simple for others? Why aren’t the challenges proportional to the abilities in life?

[5] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1955. Another paradox of Christianity is that in order to find life, we must lose it. It’s possible then that Joy and Love are both things we are most likely to find when we stop seeking for them and instead engage in the lifestyle that produces them.

[6] Moroni 7:48. See also Psalm 14:7; Isaiah 35:10; Doctrine and Covenants 97:19-21.

Popular Articles...

Leave a Reply