I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day on the telephone. He is a few years older than me and for a number of years has been battling a lung condition that makes it hard for him to breathe. His body has weakened and it is hard for him to get around at all. He was telling me about the little electric cart he is able to load into the back of his pickup truck, using a special device that has been invented for just that purpose. He is then able to drive around the malls and other stores like Home Depot that he enjoys visiting. His home sits on a fairly large lot with lots of grass that needs mowing in the summertime. He was telling me about the wonderful huge lawnmower he just purchased that enables him to drive about to keep his lawn manicured, and how much he enjoys doing it.
I then began to share with him how much I enjoy my laptop computer and the voice recognition software that allows me to be creative and productive -- something I never thought I would be able to do at the time of my accident. My eyesight is not very good and I was telling him how much I enjoy my 42 inch high definition TV. By sitting as close to it as I can, I can see almost perfectly -- what a joy! We went on sharing other things we were able to do and then he said, "For as bad off as we are, we have it pretty good!" He was absolutely right!
To be able to be content, at peace, and happy, regardless of what life may bring our way is such a great blessing. One of my heroes over the years has been the apostle Paul. He had an extremely difficult life. In describing things he had suffered he relates that he had spent years in dungeons, had come close to death many times, had suffered shipwreck three times, had been stoned, had been whipped and beaten, and had suffered much hunger and cold. He also wrote that he had a "thorn in the flesh" -- some ailment from which he was never cured. (2 Corinthians 11: 23-28; 12:7-8)
With all of this adversity, I find his words to the Philippian Saints remarkable. “... I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content." (Phil. 4:11) Then he gives us the key to his previous statement when he writes in verse 13, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phil. 4:13)
Paul, through his words and his own life’s experiences, teaches us that regardless of what life brings to us, with the help of God, we can find peace, joy and even contentment in our individual circumstances.
However, with regard to the concept of being content, a wise man cautioned us by making this distinction. He said “... We can and ought to be content with the things allotted to us, being circumstantially content but without being self-satisfied and behaviorally content with ourselves." (Neal A. Maxwell, May 2000 Ensign, 72)
I believe the concept he taught is that in all of our lives there will come to each one of us circumstances, not of our choosing, over which we have little or no control. When these circumstances come we must accept them but never fall into the trap of letting our circumstances in life limit our behavior and keep us from achieving our true potential. Paul's life is a great example of this truth.
I took a graduate sociology class at USC many years ago. The only thing I remember about the class is a concept I knew to be true and significant the moment I heard it. It consists of only two words, "Relative Deprivation."
The concept is self-explanatory. Any deprivation we may feel in life is only relative to that to which we have been exposed. Upon learning about this concept, my mind immediately turned to my experience in the western highlands of Guatemala as a young 20-year-old. I spent approximately one year and a half years among the Cachiquel Indians living in the little villages of Chimaltenango, Patzicia, Tecpan, and Patzun. Their level of poverty was just crushing, as was the ever present specter of infant mortality. They grew corn and subsisted for many months of each year on corn tortillas and nothing else. They even burned the tortillas to make a hot drink that tasted as bad as it sounds. When visiting with them after dark in their little adobe, one-room homes, with a thatched roof and dirt floor, we always brought with us our own candles. They couldn't afford candles and when the sun went down they simply went to bed. When we left each home we made sure they had a candle -- a wonderful gift as far as they were concerned.
Although the people in these villages were not that far from Guatemala City, many of them, especially the women, never traveled further than one or two of the adjacent villages. All they knew about life was what they experienced in the highlands among their own families and friends. What is the point? These people were happy! They had faith in God; they loved their families and spent time doing the most important things in life. They worked together, played together, worshiped together and were content in their little corner of the world.
As young North Americans coming from the United States, did we suffer "relative deprivation" upon arriving in and becoming part of this society? In the beginning, we suffered incredibly from this disease until many of the luxuries to which we had grown accustomed faded into the distant recesses of our memories.
Upon returning home, I must admit that it took several years before I could tolerate the affluent society I had grown up in. The longer I was away from Guatemala, however, the memory of my wonderful Cachiquel friends receded into distant memory and I became once again a participant in affluence.
A number of years ago I had to spend a great deal of time in bed recovering from a bad pressure sore. One evening about 6:30 pm, Jo Anne and Jackie (my youngest daughter) got me out of bed and into my wheelchair. I rolled outside to the front of the house wearing my ball hat and 10-year old sandals that looked brand new (I wonder why?). It was a gorgeous evening, nice and warm, with the sun at such an angle that it made everything sparkle and glow in a special way. Jo Anne was working in her little flower garden -- I love to watch her work -- and to me the flowers seemed more beautiful and larger than I could ever remember them. I was so happy to be outside in my wheelchair feeling so warm both inside and outside. It felt good to be out of bed with the promise that within an hour or so we would go to In-N-Out Burger for dinner, the highlight of the week. I can't remember feeling so good, so happy, and so much at peace.
The thought occurred to me that if someone who didn't know me were to walk down the street at that time and see me paralyzed and on life support, with dumb sandals and a ball hat on my head, they may have been tempted to mutter to themselves, "There but for the grace of God, go I!"
In Victor E. Frankl's wonderful book, "Man's Search for Meaning," he shared an important thought. Describing the horrific conditions in German concentration camps, he related how every possible thing was taken from the Jewish prisoners and how immense their suffering was. Then he made a beautiful and true statement. Having lost everything, the inmates came to understand how "... a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys." [Man's Search for Meaning, Pages 61-62.]
In my case, being a prisoner in my own body, no one but me knows how the most simple and seemingly "trifling" things are such a source of joy. For me, it is absolutely wonderful to be up in my wheelchair, rolling around and having some freedom of movement, even though limited.
I think we must be careful in judging another's suffering or joy in life. To do so accurately, we would have to have the power to look into the innermost recesses of each person's heart. Lucky is the man or woman who can be content and experience great joy through trifling things.
By the way, this will be my final observation for a few weeks until we return from our Cruise to the Mexican Riviera.