Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Invasion of the Ants

Jo Anne's birthday is on April 1 -- April Fools' Day.  She was the fourth child born after three brothers, and into a family that would ultimately number ten children.  Being the first girl born in her family, and on April Fools' Day, she truly did fool her parents.  There is no fooling however that Jo Anne has been a source of joy to all that have ever known her.

Of her many sterling qualities there are two that are very special and have impacted my life in a positive way over the years.  She has been blessed with the ability to live life and serve others with "unwearyingness." The word "unwearyingness" does not appear in my online dictionary, but I believe the meaning of the word is very self evident however. It implies never giving up, being firm and steadfast, and enduring well to the end.  I can think of no better word to describe Jo Anne.

Of the many examples I could give to support my claim that she has developed in her life the significant quality of "unwearyingness" let me just share one.  I sleep in a hospital bed downstairs while Jo Anne occupies the master bedroom upstairs.  We have a baby monitor in my room, a receiver in the dining room, and one in the master bedroom.  It works really well and Jo Anne can hear any unusual sound emanating from my bedroom.  Almost every night, usually after midnight when she is in a deep sleep, I invariably need help.  I speak in a normal voice into the baby monitor something like this, "Jo Anne, I hate to wake you up but I really do need your help; it is not an emergency -- don't panic -- but if you could come down it would be a great blessing because I'm not breathing really well."  A minute or two will elapse and then Jo Anne will almost magically appear at my bedside.  At that time in the morning she looks a little scary but she takes care of my need and then invariably asks if there is anything else she can do for me.  She never makes me feel that I am imposing on her or that she is upset because I have awakened her out of a blissful and deep sleep.  She has been doing this for years with "unwearyingness."  I believe one's true "Christianity" is severely tested in the early morning hours when required to leave a warm comfortable bed to see to the needs of another.

The other character trait I will comment on that Jo Anne possesses in abundance is her creativity.  She is never content to simply maintain the status quo.  Regarding my care she is constantly inventing new and better ways of doing things.  She has invented different items that I think could be patented that have made her caring for me and the quality of my life so much better.  Her creativity however, reached its high point the morning of what I call the dreaded "Invasion of the Ants".

It happened one summer morning a number of years ago.  The day and night preceding the "Invasion" the weather was unusually hot.  Ants seem to want to be as comfortable as we do, and so during the hot weather they will seek a cooler environment.  When Jo Anne put me to bed that night, because of the heat, she left my windows open a little bit to let whatever cool breeze was available into my room.  During the night the Ant nation sent out some scouts to find food and a better environment for their friends and relatives.  They somehow sensed that my bedroom window was open and lucky for them they found me.  I'm sure the following conversation took place between the scouts: "Wow, look at the hunk of dead meat that we have found! If we can somehow get it home it will feed everyone for years to come.  It's going to take the entire nation however, to accomplish this feat."  And so during the night the entire ant nation invaded my bedroom and tried to carry me off.  These ants were very smart in that they somehow sensed they shouldn't travel beyond my neck and therefore I slept blissfully through the night unaware of the "invasion."

In the morning Jo Anne came in to turn me onto my back, and when she pulled the covers off she saw I was covered from my neck to my feet with ants.  I must admit she did scream just a tad and then disappeared.  A second later she appeared at my bedside with a big can of Black Flag insect killer, and proceeded to spray me and the ants with a generous amount of this poison.  In a minute or two she had successfully annihilated the ant nation and had almost gotten rid of me as well.  Again she disappeared and quickly reappeared with her little vacuum cleaner (she is a vacuum junkie and always has a wide variety of vacuums on the premises), and using the hose attachment proceeded to vacuum up the dead ants from my body and the bed.  Soon no evidence remained of the massacre of the ants, but the upside, as well as the downside was that for the next week, no insect, pest, or human being would get very close to me. You just have to love a girl with that kind of creativity don't you?

Thank you, Jo Anne, for your "unwearyingness" and "creativity", and by the way, have a happy birthday -- no fooling! 


Friday, March 16, 2007

Healing of the paralytic

Friday, March 16, 2007 Observation:

A few weeks ago in our Gospel Doctrine class I was teaching a lesson about the healing miracles of Jesus using the Gospel of Mark as our primary source. As usual, the poor members of our class were at my mercy as I always select the content we will consider each week.  The suggested scriptural content to be covered invariably exceeds the amount of class time available.  This particular Sunday I chose to spend some time with Jesus' healing of a paralyzed man in Capernaum -- Peter and Andrew's hometown.  The story is well known and is found in Mark 2:1-12.  For some reason Mark's account of the healing of the paralyzed man is one of my favorite healing incidents recorded in the New Testament.  I wonder why? 

News spread like wildfire that Jesus was in town.  His reputation had preceded him and the home he was in was thronged with a multitude of people, making it impossible to even get near the door.  The paralyzed man had four friends that took him on a stretcher to the home, attached ropes to the stretcher and hauled the man up to the roof top, broke open the roof, and lowered him down at the very feet of Jesus.  I like to think that the Savior had a smile on his face as he witnessed the ingenuity and faith displayed by these four men in behalf of their paralyzed friend.  Jesus healed the paralyzed man who eventually left the home -- and in my mind's eye I can see the five of them walking arm in arm down the dusty lane -- undoubtedly rejoicing in the great miracle that they had participated in and witnessed.  They must have talked about this Jesus and who he really was to be able to have performed such a mighty miracle.  Perhaps however, the greatest miracle of all was the miracle of faith, love, kindness, and compassion, exhibited by four friends that brought the paralyzed man to the feet of Jesus so he could be healed.

My focus on this incident is perhaps a bit different from what many others would stress, which would be the faith of these men and the great healing power of Jesus.  To me it is all of that, but also so much more. It is a wonderful and inspiring story of love, kindness, compassion, and friendship, involving four unnamed men and their paralyzed friend.  I have thought that if Jesus were to come to our "village" I have friends, blessed with faith and ingenuity that would get me to the feet of the Savior so that I could be healed, whatever effort it might take on their part.  Having been the recipient of countless acts of kindness and compassion myself during the past 17 1/2 years I have a little feeling for how the now healed paralyzed man must have felt toward his four friends and the Savior. 

The other day Jo Anne and I traveled to Kaiser Permanente (our HMO) in Mission Viejo for Jo Anne to visit the dermatologist.  It was one of my happiest trips to the doctor in some time because it didn't involve me.  Jo Anne's visit didn't last long and we were soon in the pharmacy getting some medication and ointments that had been prescribed by the doctor.  Things weren't moving along quickly in the pharmacy and it was cold in the building so I decided to drive my wheelchair out into the parking lot and face the sun which was shining brightly that day.  Having the sun hit my face is like being under a giant heat lamp that warms up my entire body.  I parked my wheelchair by the side of our van with the unrealistic expectation that Jo Anne would soon be there. 

I imagine I was about 100 yards or so from the building, which is not really smart when you are on life-support.  I had only been there a minute or two when a very large security guard approached me and politely asked if there was anything he could do to help me.  I told him that I was fine and was waiting for my wife to come, an activity at which I was an expert.  He laughed but looked very uneasy and wondered if maybe he could escort me back to the building.  I hated to leave the sunny parking lot but I sensed that this security guard really had my best interest at heart, so I tooled over to the building to see if Jo Anne was still alive and making some progress in getting her medication from the pharmacy. 

Through a large plate glass window that separated the waiting area from the pharmacy I could see Jo Anne standing in line behind a number of other people.  I was grateful that I had a place to sit down and at least was rather comfortable in spite of the cold.  I hadn't sat there very long when one of the pharmacists, a young lady, came out into the waiting area and asked me if she could help me somehow.  She told me she had seen me sitting out there for some time and thought I must certainly need some help.  I told her I indeed looked like I probably did need lots of help and if she could have any influence over the other people in line that maybe she could hurry along the process so that Jo Anne and I could eventually go home before they started charging us rent.  She gave me a big smile as she disappeared into the pharmacy which was now beginning to resemble in my mind, the Bermuda Triangle. 

Shortly after the lady pharmacist had spoken to me an elderly lady came walking out of the pharmacy and saw me sitting there.  As she started to pass by she said "Boy, do you have a rough road to travel!"  I smiled at her and told her it wasn't that bad, that life was really good, and that it was "good to be alive!"  My comment caught her off guard and she stopped to visit with me, eventually leaving with a smile on her face and telling me that I had made her day.  I could also tell you about several other people who offered to get me on the elevator while Jo Anne was registering us at the main desk but I won't.  They were all kind, considerate, and concerned.

It has been a great learning experience for me to be part of a minority group for the past 17 1/2 years.  For much of my life I was fairly "normal" and may not have been very sensitive to the underprivileged, mobility impaired, or those having special needs of one kind or another.  I really can't express how acts and expressions of kindness and compassion from family, friends, and from strangers, touches my heart.  As the years have passed by, instead of my injury making me cynical and suspicious of others, it has had the opposite effect.  There are a multitude of good folks out there of every religious persuasion, nationality, and culture.  I am impressed with the basic goodness and decency of so many of Heavenly Father's children.

"And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four."  [Mark 2: 3]

Perhaps a worthy goal in all of our lives would be to be one of the "four" who made sure their paralyzed friend was given the opportunity to come under the healing influence of Christ.  No one will ever know the feelings of joy and gratitude that must have filled the heart of the healed, formerly paralyzed man, toward his friends and the Savior.


Monday, March 5, 2007

Choices verses Circumstances

Monday, March 5, 2007, Observation:

Last week I had the opportunity of visiting with my 40-year-old nephew, John Michael Stuart.  John was born with cerebral palsy which affected his motor skills but not his mind.  He is bright beyond bright, has read widely and deeply, is currently writing a book, has a master's degree in social work, teaches the temple preparation class in his ward, and serves as executive secretary in the bishopric.  John's life has not been easy but he is a great example to me of one who has not let his circumstances in life, limit or control his behavior in a negative manner.

One of the burdens John has had to bear throughout his life is that those who don't know him, at times mistakenly believe that not only is he physically impaired but mentally handicapped as well.  One can only imagine the anguish this has caused John.  As we were visiting the other day he told me of an experience he recently had at a little post office in the mountains where he and his family were staying.  He needed to mail a letter but because of his lack of motor skills was unable to address it.  He got in line and when it was his turn he asked the postmistress if she would please address his letter for him.  In an angry voice she told him no. She said she didn't have the time or the desire to do so and why would he ask her to do this in the first place.  John tried to explain his predicament but she simply refused to listen or respond in a kind manner to him.  In the midst of his frustration a lady standing behind him tapped him on the shoulder and told him that she would be happy to address his letter for him.  John gave her the address, she wrote it on the envelope, and the letter was mailed.

John was incensed, burning up with anger, boiling inside, because of the way the postmistress had treated him.  When he saw his family again, in telling them what had happened, he started railing on the postmistress, how horrible she was, and how she had offended, and mistreated him.  A family member after listening for a minute wisely said, "But John, what of the lady who was kind enough to help you?"  John said those words were a real wake-up call to him.  He was embarrassed that he had focused his attention and anger on the offense, without once thinking of the kindness of the woman who had helped him.  John's reaction to his negative experience was not unlike the reaction many of us have had as we have been offended or "put upon unjustly" by someone or something at some time in our lives.

Several thoughts have been churning in my mind as I have contemplated John's experience.  One thought is that mortal life could well be described as "Choices versus Circumstances".  We all are subject to circumstances and situations of an infinite variety; being offended and mistreated is just one example.  However, because of the priceless gift of agency we are free to choose how we are going to react to any given circumstance with which we are faced.  One might say, "Why do there have to be people like the obnoxious postmistress?"  The answer to this question and all of the others regarding the difficult things that can happen to any one of us is simply that it is part of our mortal experience and testing.  It is not the circumstances that matter but how we react to them, using our freedom to choose. 

At times we may think that life is unfair, but it really isn't; it is just life!  Some circumstances we bring upon ourselves because of certain choices we make.  Other circumstances come to us unexpectedly and without our wanting them, simply because we are living in a world governed by natural law.  Our bodies are created in such a manner that as we grow old they begin to wear down and wear out.  Because of our mortal bodies and because we live in a world governed by natural law we are subject to a vast array of physical afflictions, potential accidents, and other challenges that can unexpectedly come into any of our lives.  Very few of us are faced with the same circumstances in life, but we all have the precious gift of agency that gives us the freedom to react to our own peculiar and customized circumstances anyway we choose.  There is never any justification to look at the heavens and shout "Life is so unfair!"

My life has taught me that perhaps the best choice we can always make under any given set of circumstances is to be grateful for all the good things we have, show kindness to others and be forgiving of offenses that may come our way.  To be filled with anger, to feel that we have been "picked on", or to be unwilling to "let it go", is to be miserable ourselves and to make those about us miserable as well.

During the 1880s a French writer by the name of Guy de Maupassant, created some 300 short stories that were widely read during his day and beyond.  One of his most famous was entitled "The Piece of String". The story is about a peasant named Hauchecome who came on market day to the village. While walking through the public square, his eye caught sight of a piece of string lying on the cobblestones. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. His actions were observed by the village harness maker with whom he had previously had a dispute.

Later in the day the loss of a purse was reported. Hauchecome was arrested on the accusation of the harness maker. He was taken before the mayor, to whom he protested his innocence, showing the piece of string that he had picked up. But he was not believed and laughed at. The next day the purse was found, and Hauchecome was absolved of any wrongdoing. But, resentful of the indignity he had suffered because of a false accusation he became embittered and would not let the matter die. Unwilling to forgive and forget, he thought and talked of little else. He neglected his farm. Everywhere he went, everyone he met had to be told of the injustice. By day and by night he brooded over it. Obsessed with his grievance, he became desperately ill and died. In the delirium of his death struggles, he repeatedly murmured, “A piece of string, a piece of string.”

 Sadly, the experience of this peasant farmer and its tragic ending is mirrored in the lives of far too many of us.  I am glad that my nephew John was able to use his agency to focus on the kindness of the lady that helped him, rather than harbor in his heart feelings of anger and resentment.  He was blessed because of it. Many circumstances we cannot control or change, but we can always choose how we react to them because of the priceless gift of agency. Choices and circumstances will continue to be the common lot of each one of us.  Hopefully we will never forget that: "... men are free according to the flesh... to choose..." [2 Nephi 2:27]