Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Glass Half Empty... or Half Full?

"In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters.... accepted God's plan by which his children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection.... The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave."
(The Family: A Proclamation to the World, para. 3)
Life is hard. No one said it would be easy. It comes with trials of all shapes and sizes, and no one is immune from them. In the above phrase taken from The Family Proclamation, the part that causes me to ponder is that we "accepted God's plan." I believe that. This life is a time for us to be tested, to go through the wringer, so to speak, but to also enjoy life even amidst the pain and heartache. But pain hurts; physically, emotionally, mentally. No matter how you look at it, whatever the trial; whether it be death, disability, divorce, you name it..... it is painful. Thankfully, though, we have the promised blessings from The Family Proclamation to help guide us through these difficult times. This is our time, our opportunity to "gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection" and one day enjoy the "the divine plan of happiness."
When I was 22 years old, living as a young, single adult in another state from my parents, my father died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Just two years later, after having been married for only one year, my first-born child, McKenna, died after a nearly four month battle with a fatal lung disease. I had become a daughter, who lost her father, to a mother who lost her baby girl, in a matter of two years. Those were two life-altering events which shaped me into who I am today. But they were not easy experiences to endure. They were heart-wrenching to say the least. Yet I was and am so grateful for the proclamation which promises me that family relationships can be perpetuated beyond the grave.
In the text, Successful Marriages and Families, I came across this quote:
"In many ways, the principle of opposition is an important part of the crucible experience. Many of life's experiences are oppositional in nature and involve learning through contrast and comparison.... Why must there be opposition? The Lord taught Adam that opposition is needed in this life so that the children of God can 'taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.' (Moses 6:55)" (pg. 237).
This section of my blog is sensitive in nature. I will share some very tender and painful experiences from friends of mine that have allowed me to share them with you. I appreciate their honesty and willingness to share the trials they have endured and to some extent are still enduring.
This first story is from a friend who has battled the trial of divorce in her life. In her words she says:

I grew up in Utah always expecting to marry young and have a large family. It's what I wanted. So living the single life all the way to 36 was truly difficult for me. I struggled with the "why" of being alone when it was a righteous desire to marry and have children (and certainly something God would want for me too). By the time I got married, I considered it my own personal miracle. The answer to all my prayers was "yes", and after we married, I felt the burden of years of loneliness lift. Within three months of our marriage, my husband developed a disabling migraine, which persisted for the next 2.5 years. As I dealt with the disability of his illness and the slow failure of our marriage, I once again found myself struggling with great pain. When I finally made the choice to leave my husband--not because of his illness, but because he made choices that destroyed our marriage--I entered what was, in some ways, the darkest time in my life. The irony is that 2014--one of the most painful in my life--has also been one of the brightest, most pervasive and powerful lessons on love.

I have wondered why that is.

In the midst of my divorce, I taught a lesson in Gospel Doctrine, where I ran across this quote: “[The] ability to turn everything into something good appears to be a godly characteristic. Our Heavenly Father always seems able to do this. Everything, no matter how dire, becomes a victory to the Lord. Joseph, although a slave and wholly undeserving of this fate, nevertheless remained faithful to the Lord and continued to live the commandments and made something very good of his degrading circumstances. People like this cannot be defeated” (Elder Hartman Rector Jr. in Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 170; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 130).
I rejected the comments I was hearing from others as I went through my divorce--"God must think you're strong to give you this trial"--and the questions about why I thought this was happening to me. I don't know why it happened to me! I struggled long and hard, and finally decided that sometimes there isn't a "why" beyond the fact my husband made stupid choices and opted out of our marriage. Sometimes bad things happen in life merely because this is mortality. And sometimes bad things happen because we all have agency, and we do dumb things. I believe in a loving Father as God--a father who would never manipulate his daughter into a horrible marriage to somehow make her grow. Could you imagine doing that to your own child?? I do, however, believe that He lets bad things happen to us--whether it be through the natural consequence of mortality or through consequences of our own choices. He may not plan for horrible things to happen, but He also won't always protect us when they do.
Not long after my divorce I read a great book by Rabbi Harold Kushner in which he said the following: "Pain is the price we pay for being alive ... When we understand that, our question will change from, 'Why do we have to feel pain?' to 'What do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless empty suffering? How can we turn all the painful experiences of our lives into ... growing pains?' We may not ever understand why we suffer or be able to control the forces that cause our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what the suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. Pain makes some people bitter and envious. It makes others sensitive and compassionate. It is the result, not the cause, of pain that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive."
It echoed for me another quote I have long loved from Viktor Frankl, "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. ... It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful ... Man's inner strength may raise him above his outward fate."
The reality is that bad things will happen to us. If we get caught up in the why--either in questioning God/growing bitter at him, or (alternatively), assuming we can puzzle out the answer to all our life's trials ourselves--then I think we're wasting our time. It's not about understanding why. It's not about questioning or figuring out our life path. It is about accepting that something bad has happened and then letting go of anger or hurt or bitterness or our need to accuse God of abandoning us. At that point it becomes a chance for us to choose an attitude of humility; to express our trust in God; and to allow Him to make something wonderful of our circumstances. That is the way--I believe--God works. Bad things will come--not as specially-crafted trials meant to test our metal (those may happen, but for the most part, I think just "life" happens)--but like Joseph in the quote from Elder Rector, when we give ourselves and our wills and our trust to God, He can still make something wonderful of it. And we can't be defeated.
So, I guess I would say that my trials have changed me. Not in and of themselves as "designer adversity", but because they have driven me to my knees and to a place where I have had to choose between bitterness and forgiveness; between anger and humility; between sorrow and happiness. It's everyone's choice as to whether their darkest moment will remain dark, or will bring them new light and understanding and eventual happiness.

When I read this experience from my friend, I think again about the part in the proclamation I quoted above, that we accepted His plan and came to gain earthly experience. Life truly is a test for us, and how we react to those tests, as my friend descried above, will help determine whether or not we are choosing happiness. She has and continues to be a beautiful example to me of understanding how to move forward with life, knowing that Heavenly Father is aware of her, hasn't forgotten her, loves her and wants her to have happiness.
The next story is from a dear friend of mine, Vannessah. She is not a member of the church (yet!), but she is, what I like to call, "the most active non-member" of our ward, as she has been coming to church sometimes with and without her children for the past few years. I have come to know Vannessah on a more personal level as we have gone through similar life experiences of losing a child. I asked Vannessah if she wouldn't mind me sharing her thoughts on experiencing disability, death and divorce, as she has been through all three of them. In her words she said:

My attitude towards my daughter's death, my Stage IV breast cancer and . . . uh-hum, three divorces, are kind of fluid. At first, they were all devastating. Time heals a lot, though. I've probably healed less from the divorces than my child's death or my terminal cancer, because with those two I really had no hand in them. But with the divorces I could have changed things, done better . . . a lot of culpability and guilt that will never go away. 


I've gained something from each of these trials. I've always been terrified of developing a serious disease, the thought of treatment, needles, mortality, etc. So it was petrifying when it happened and it took a long time to get my head wrapped around it, and to realize that whatever time I have left is time and I can't be paralyzed. It was, of course, an extra trial that I had to "evict" my husband from the house - which he still blames me for. 

 Losing a child is without-a-doubt the most horrible of trials. 
 It took years to do alright again - little things that others wouldn't see - and I still take anti-depressants to keep "skating" above the tragedy (I know it's there but just like water under the ice, I'm not falling through). I work really hard to make sure I say her name a lot and I never allow anyone to omit her (I have five children, I list her current age with the others when people ask me my kids' ages, etc.). The divorces are an on-going I-beat-myself-up-for-them. I still keep in contact, by varying degrees, with all three, so it's a constant roller-coaster of feelings (in my mind). I've learned that I'm probably not relationship material as much as I look at couples and want the love and partnership they have. 
I generally think my glass is half-full, despite trials. It's life and it's thy way it is.

I love Vannessah! She is a stalwart example to me of someone who has and continues to pull through the most difficult of trials. I love her perspective at the end, "I generally think my glass is half-full." After all she's gone through, to still be able to say that is so encouraging to me. I want Vannessah to also know, that the words from the Family Proclamation are true. I know them to be true because of the Holy Ghost manifesting it to me. Because both she and I have had children that died, I know that we can be with them again someday. Our beautiful girls' lives have not ended, and they are waiting for their mommas to return to them again.

Elder Bruce C Hafen said:

"Somehow our joyful experiences mean more when we are fully conscious of the alternatives and the contrasts that surround us. We prize the sweet more when we have tasted the bitter. We appreciate our health when we see sickness.... These contrasts do not deter our idealism. Properly understood, they only make the moments of the true joy worth waiting for." (pg. 240),

I want to end this post by sharing a beautiful Mormon Message, The Refiner's Fire, that sums up how I feel about this very tender part of the Family Proclamation.


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