In the three-act play Our Town, playwright Thornton Wilder writes about the fictional American town of Grover’s Corners. Set between 1901 and 1913, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama highlights the life of Emily Webb.
In the second act of the play, Emily marries George Gibbs, the love of her life.
But in the third act, Emily dies giving birth to their second child; George is left to raise their 4-year-old son. Desperate to experience life again, Emily is granted the privilege to return to Earth and relive one day.
Emily decides to relive her 12th birthday. But the memory of the day is too painful for Emily and she realizes that each day of life is a treasure.
“Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” she laments. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — Every, every minute?”
The lesson Emily learns is one that applies to all of us, who often forget — or don’t make time — to find joy each day.
“This is our one and only chance at mortal life — here and now,” said President Thomas S. Monson in his October 2008 general conference address. “The longer we live, the greater is our realization that it is brief. Opportunities come, and then they are gone. I believe that among the greatest lessons we are to learn in this short sojourn upon the earth are lessons that help us distinguish between what is important and what is not. I plead with you not to let those most important things pass you by as you plan for that elusive and nonexistent future when you will have time to do all that you want to do. Instead, find joy in the journey — now.”
This message can be summarized in a November 2016 Facebook post from the Church: “You don’t ‘find happiness’ — you work for it.”
Our Heavenly Father’s hope for all of us is that we will find happiness. This is articulated in the name of His plan for our salvation — “the great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8). He sent His Son to carry out the Atonement so we can be happy in this life and receive a fulness of joy in the life to come.
The scriptures teach us that we should seek happiness. The prophet Lehi taught, “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:15, 25). And Alma warned his son Corianton: “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).
This year we are studying the life and teachings of President Gordon B. Hinckley in Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society meetings. President Hinckley said even though many people are negative and pessimistic, we can cultivate a spirit of happiness and optimism.
“There is a terrible ailment of pessimism in the land. It’s almost endemic. We’re constantly fed a steady and sour diet of character assassination, fault-finding, evil speaking of one another.
“I come with a plea that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I’m suggesting that we accentuate the positive. I’m asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort.
“Do not despair. Do not give up. Look for the sunlight through the clouds. Opportunities will eventually open to you. Do not let the prophets of gloom endanger your possibilities” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, Chapter 3).
The late Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said during his May 1996 general conference address that sadness, disappointment and severe challenge are events in life, not life itself. “I do not minimize how hard some of these events are. They can extend over a long period of time, but they should not be allowed to become the confining center of everything you do.”
Elder Scott asked us to make a list of things we can do for happiness, such as:
• Ponder the scriptures to understand the plan of happiness.
• Pray with faith in Jesus Christ.
• Love and serve others.
• Receive the temple ordinances. Return to bless others.
• Listen to the prophet and obey his counsel.
• Be grateful for what you have.
• Smile more.
President Hinckley often quoted the words of Jenkins Lloyd Jones, which he clipped from a column in the Deseret News:
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
“Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise.
“Life is like an old-time rail journey — delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride” (Deseret News, June 12, 1973).
That is the message playwright Thornton Wilder communicates in Our Town. He leaves the audience thinking about life and happiness and the privilege of life on Earth. As newly deceased Emily is determining to relive one day of her life, another character — who has also died — offers Emily advice.
“Choose an unimportant day,” she tells her. “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”