February 24, 2009, Observation:
Victor E. Frankl wrote his landmark book, "Man's Search for Meaning" in 1945, having lived through the Holocaust and witnessing the deaths of his immediate family and extended family as well. I read his book for the first time as a college student and it had a great impact upon me then. What he said struck a chord with me and rang true. Now, based on 20 years experience of living life paralyzed from the neck down and on life support his words are even more profound and meaningful to me. If you have never read the book you must do so and if you read it many years ago you owe it to yourself to read it again.
His insights and reflections regarding those who were able to survive the death camps of the Holocaust are timeless and applicable to anyone who has faced seemingly impossible circumstances that life has brought their way. There are many individuals, like those who lived in the death camps, who share similar experiences: paralysis, cancer, heart problems, multiple sclerosis, marital and family problems, financial problems, etc., but who react to them in different ways. In the death camps, there were those who simply gave up and died, while others survived and eventually went on to live happy and productive lives. The same is true with the less dramatic experiences that so many of us share in common. There are those who simply give up in the face of their adversity, while others, being faced with the same adversity, seem to actually grow stronger, and in many cases, survive the seemingly non-survivable.
In the short paragraph below, Frankl identifies something those who survived the death camps had in common, as opposed to those who simply gave up and died.
"A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."
My understanding of what Frankl is saying is that if we know that family members need our love and that we are loved in return, and if we have some work, some significant project (at least to us) that we have a desire to complete, then we will be blessed with a desire to live and press forward regardless of the seemingly impossible odds we are facing.
I know this has been the case with me during the past 20 years. Because of the love and support I have received from our family and because I still feel I can contribute in my own unique way in strengthening and blessing my loved ones, I have a great will to continue to live. I also have projects and work, goals to achieve, that make me excited to get up each day and go to work. I would imagine the worst day of my life would be that there was nothing to get up for and to accomplish. I haven't faced that day yet, thank goodness.
As insightful as Frankl's observations are regarding survival, I believe he left out the most important ingredient which is faith and hope. Several weeks ago Jo Anne had me watch a 20/20 program on ABC which she had previously recorded. It was a documentary on survival. There were five or six different individuals whose survival stories were told. Many of these people were severely injured and should have died, but did not. One man lost both legs when a train ran over him and should have died on the spot but was able to keep his wits about him and get help through his cell phone. He continues to live a productive life without legs. The moderator had interviewed dozens of survivors all over the world and discovered a common element in all those who had the will to live and did so. That common element was faith in God. They were all from different religious traditions but they believed that God could help them and their faith gave them the hope and will to cling to life.
Faith and hope, coupled with family love and support and daily goals in seeking to accomplish some great good, will kindle and cause to blaze within our hearts the will to live and be productive.
There are many examples, both negative and positive, regarding what I have written above. I have known four men, younger than me, who have sustained spinal cord injuries that left them paralyzed from the neck down and on life support. All of them had more movement of their upper body than I have and yet each of them died within two years of their accident. I was able to visit with three of them several times in care facilities where they were being warehoused because family members were unwilling or unable to bring them home and see to their rehabilitation. My heart would just break because I could see their potential and yet they were without hope and I believe, in at least three cases, they simply died of a broken heart. In one case, after two years of not being able to get out of bed because of horrible pressure sores, the poor man with his family's support and permission went through the necessary legal paperwork so that he could be disconnected from his life-support system. He was finally injected with a sedative and the doctors "pulled the plug" as he had desired.
There is no way I can describe my sorrow as I have experienced these needless deaths and miserable lives. What contributions to family, friends, and society at large could these men have made had they received the family support they needed, had some great goal to work toward, and had greater faith and hope in a loving and kind Heavenly Father?
Thankfully, there are many more positive examples that we all are aware of. How proud I am of the many individuals I know who, for example, are battling cancer with great courage, or courageously fight other difficult health challenges, who never give up, and bless so many other lives in the process.
One of my favorite historical characters is Winston Churchill. The essence of his life is captured in the words he spoke to his countrymen during the dark days of World War II, "NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, GIVE UP!" Hopefully his words will be the essence of our lives regardless of what circumstances life may bring our way.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Last Sunday Jo Anne and I had a sweet experience that many of you grandparents are fortunate enough to have as well. Our 16-year-old grandson, Garret Jack Stratford, was ordained a priest and we were able to be there to participate in this wonderful event. Garret is a good boy, a great athlete -- starting quarterback on his JV football team -- a good student, and most importantly as I mentioned above, a good boy -- just like your grandsons.
During the course of the evening our granddaughter, Allora Stratford, played the piano for us. She is a gifted pianist and also has been blessed with a beautiful soprano voice. She played a piece she had memorized for a competition -- an eight minute number written by Franz Schubert. It was technically difficult and she played beautifully and with great feeling.
As I sat there listening to her I had a little pang, a nostalgic feeling, come into my heart. One of the things I truly miss in my current physical condition is that I can't play the piano anymore. I took piano lessons from the time I was 12 years old through my sophomore year at BYU where I was majoring in music with a music scholarship. Allora is much more gifted than I was but I had a great love for the piano. In the mission field, although I took no music with me, I was still able to play Chopin's Revolutionary Étude, Franz Liszt's Lebestraum, The Dream of Olwen, and a few others as well all by memory. It always brought me great joy to sit down at the piano and play. I especially enjoyed playing the hymns and singing my heart out while nobody was around to hear me. Although I didn't pursue studying the piano after my mission I dearly enjoyed being able to play up until my accident.
I think one of the things I miss the most from my former life is not being able to play the piano or sing anymore. Don't get me wrong, I am not eating my heart out about that, but once in a while, as when I listened to Allora last Sunday, I get that little pang in my heart.
Sometimes in life, either by accident or by conscious choice, we have to give up something good for something better. I lost so much because of my accident but gained even more because of the unique experience I have been privileged to have over the past 20 years. My situation was forced upon me. I honestly think those who make the conscious choice to give up something good for something better are the truly blessed ones.
Most of the people I know have pretty well mastered many of the commandments like not committing murder, or lying or cheating, and etc. I believe however, that if we are to step up to a higher level and better quality of life our challenge may be not so much repenting of deep, dark, sin, but realizing we must give up something good for something better. Let me give you some examples of what I am trying to say.
One of my heroes has always been Joseph Fielding Smith. I love the following story he told about himself to the youth of the Church. He wrote: "[Late in my life I came to realize] ... How hard it frequently is for some people to give up something they really love and enjoy. I have always loved sports and particularly enjoyed playing handball with my brother David. One day I came off a handball court perspiring heavily and with my face flushed. A nonmember friend of mine, Dr. Plummer, was standing near my locker. He looked at me and said, “Brother Joseph, if you don’t stop that, one of these days you will drop dead on the floor, just as So-and-so did.” It was hard for me. Every day I wanted to play some handball. Whenever I would look out my office window, I’d see the Deseret Gym next door and want to go and play. But I kept my resolve. I visited Dr. Plummer a short time later, and he said, “Brother Joseph, are you still playing handball?” I said, “Doctor, when you told me to quit, I quit, and I have never been back on the court.” ... I enjoyed that game more than I can say. I almost hungered to play, but I had learned that it was not good for me at my age. At that time I gained a little more perspective on how difficult it is for [us] to give up some activity or habit [we] may have enjoyed for many years... I’ve learned from my own experience that when you want to change, really want to change, you can do it." [Joseph Fielding Smith, January, New Era, 1971]
I can identify with that Joseph Fielding Smith experience. Had he not had the discipline and willpower to give up something good for something better; in this case his life, he may never have become president of the Church.
A story written by Karen Nolen, which appeared in the New Era in 1974, is one which should never be forgotten as we think of giving up something good for something better.
"Benjamin Landart, in 1888, was 15 years old and an accomplished violinist living on a farm in northern Utah with his mother and seven brothers and sisters. In late 1892 Benjamin was asked to travel to Salt Lake to audition for a place with the territorial orchestra. For him, this was a dream come true. After several weeks of practicing and prayers, he went to Salt Lake in March of 1893 for the much-anticipated audition. When he heard Benjamin play, the conductor, a Mr. Dean, said Benjamin was the most accomplished violinist he had heard west of Denver. Benjamin was told to report to Denver for rehearsals in the fall and learned that he would be earning enough to keep himself, with some left over to send home.
A week after Benjamin received this good news, however, his bishop called him into his office and asked if Benjamin couldn’t put off playing with the orchestra for a couple of years to serve a mission. We can only imagine what Benjamin must have felt knowing that if he accepted the call and he would lose this once in a lifetime opportunity to play in the territorial orchestra. Benjamin however, told the bishop that if the family could raise the money to support him in the mission field that he would go. When Benjamin told his mother about the call, she was overjoyed. However, when they discussed the financing of the mission, her face clouded over. Benjamin told her he would not allow her to sell any more of their land. She studied his face for a moment and then said, “Ben, there is a way we can raise the money. This family [has] one thing that is of great enough value to send you on your mission. You will have to sell your violin.” Six days later, on March 23, 1893, Benjamin wrote in his journal: “I awoke this morning and took my violin from its case. All day long I played the music I love. In the evening when the light grew dim and I could see to play no longer, I placed the instrument in its case. It will be enough. Tomorrow I leave [for my mission].”
Forty-five years later, on June 23, 1938, Benjamin wrote in his journal: “The greatest decision I ever made in my life was to give up something I dearly loved to the God I loved even more. He has never forgotten me for it.”