Friday, May 25, 2012

"Tell Me Something Good"

One of my favorite authors is Charles Dickens. His opening lines in "A Tale of Two Cities," I believe, captures the essence of what most people have experienced from the beginning of time. "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the season of hope. It was the season of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us."

Life ebbs and flows for all of us. I think the universal challenge we face is while in the midst of those "worst of times," and our "seasons of despair" we all inevitably experience, is to realize it can also be the "best of times," and the "season of hope." It all depends on how we choose to look at and interpret what is going on in our individual lives.

A number of years ago, Barbara Johnson wrote a beautiful little book entitled "Pain Is Inevitable, Misery Is Optional." I believe it was her way of saying what Dickens said in the opening lines of his book. So much depends upon how we choose to look at our life's experiences.

A couple of weeks ago my friend, Larry Barrett, sent me an article written by Michael Jordan Segal. Mike Segal works at a level I Trauma facility trying to encourage the patients who live there, most suffering from serious and life-changing physical, emotional, and mental problems. Mike himself had been shot in the head as a younger man, had been able to recover completely, and has devoted his life since then to lifting and encouraging the patients in the trauma center. Whenever he sees one of the patients, instead of saying hello, or how are you doing, he says "Tell me something good!" One elderly gentleman who was quite far gone looked at Mike when asked that question and in a weak voice said, "Peanut Butter." Mike pushed the gentleman a bit to encourage him to tell him something good about himself. The patient replied, "I want to eat a peanut butter sandwich." He apparently liked peanut butter! Another patient responded to his question by saying, "I woke up."

There is so much wrong with all of us and with the world that I think Mike's question is so very important. I am sure we have all had days when it would take a lot of soul-searching and introspection to come up with an answer to someone who would say to us, "Tell me something good." I was in a rehabilitation hospital a month or so after my accident, flat on my back, and starring up at the acoustical tile on the ceiling and counting the holes. Suddenly my older brother, Darrel, appeared at my bedside and looking down at me said, "Jake, now that you can't do anything, what do you like to do the best?" No, he didn't say, "Tell me something good," but at that time in my recovery the only "something good" I could get out was, "I like to breathe!" My answer was about as profound and insightful as "Peanut Butter," but it was truthful.

The other day I had occasion to be talking to a woman who is having some serious health issues. She is not that old and is really struggling to deal with what is happening to her. During the course of our conversation the thought came to me to try Mike Segal's question on her. I said, "Tell me something good." With a surprised look on her face she thought for just a second and then said, "I can walk." She then began to tell me some other good things about her life. Even if it may have been for just a minute or two, I could tell that her telling me something good made her feel good.

I believe a challenge many of us face is to be able to tell ourselves something good about ourselves. Most of us are painfully aware of our weaknesses and most nauseating characteristics. Especially in our individual seasons of despair, we need to look for something good.

I believe this is why I love so much being able to give patriarchal blessings. To me, a patriarchal blessing is a gift of love that Heavenly Father desires each of his children to have. In the blessing, he reveals to us who we really are and what our infinite potential is as his sons and daughters. I have been privileged to give blessings to nine-year-olds and 89-year-olds and all ages in between over the years. A wonderful thing happens as I give the blessing. Regardless of their chronological age in mortality, they are seen and blessed in that moment as infinite and eternal sons and daughters of God – they are ageless. The Lord, through patriarchs, truly does "tell us something good."

In our "worst of times," it might be helpful to read our blessings to be reminded of how the Lord sees us. The Scriptures are replete with examples of great men and women, who if asked "tell me something good" in the midst of their difficult and dire circumstances, might like Job, whom I have chosen to represent them all, only be able to say, "I know that my Redeemer liveth!" However dark our circumstances may look to us, when asked, "Tell me something good," if it isn't peanut butter, or just waking up, or walking, or breathing, hopefully like Job or Nephi, the "something good" we should always be able to tell is, "Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation." [2 Nephi 4:30]


Friday, May 4, 2012

"Look with Optimism, Work with Faith"

May 4, 2012
"Look with Optimism, Work with Faith"

Over the years I have been blessed by Jo Anne's ability to "look with optimism while working with faith. At times when I may feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and the hurdle before me is simply too high to clear, she seems to always be able to look forward with optimism working hard with unwavering faith to resolve the problem.

I will never forget the night we arrived in Provo for me to speak at Education Week beginning the next day. We had traveled all day from Southern California and it was approaching midnight when we finally pulled into the hotel parking lot. We all were absolutely exhausted from the long trip. We had made arrangements in advance for our medical supply company to deliver a hospital bed to the hotel. The night desk clerk was very sleepy and when we inquired about the bed he had a sickening blank look on his face. He seemed to know nothing about a hospital bed. My heart sank not knowing what we could possibly do without the bed. Jo Anne quickly woke the night clerk up however, I don't think you would want to know how, and he soon found the hospital bed that had been delivered before he came on shift. He got the bed on an elevator and eventually into our room. The bed had some problems – I won't go into detail – but they looked insurmountable to me, and again my heart sank. Within a few moments however, in her nightgown, on hands and knees, with pliers, screwdriver,, and wrenches, she attacked the problem and it was soon resolved. I like to carry that picture of Jo Anne in my mind and in my heart, because to me it captures the essence of her faith, optimism, and practical approach to solving seemingly unsolvable problems. Not only does she look with optimism, she also knows she must WORK with faith.

I am not totally bereft of the qualities of looking with optimism and working with faith, although I don't think I measure up to Jo Anne with regard to those attributes. The Lord has given me many opportunities during my lifetime to exercise my agency to choose to look with optimism and to work with faith when faced with difficulties. I know that all of you have also been given many such opportunities as well. I think it is part of the Lord's tutoring and customized curriculum for each one of us.

A few years ago I developed a bad pressure sore – an infected ulcer – on my bottom. When it was finally discovered, the doctors indicated it would take months for it to heal. The main cure for a pressure sore is not to sit on it which meant I would be in bed, 24/7 for as many months as it would take for the sore to heal. It turned out that it would take almost 8 months for it to properly heal. When I first got the news from the doctors that I would have to stay in bed in order for the pressure sore to heal, I just felt that it was too much. It was hard enough to be paralyzed and not be able to move any part of my body, but now to not even be able to get out of bed was such depressing news I didn't think I could handle it. I was tempted to assume the fetal position, close my eyes, and just lay there in misery with the hopes that soon I could pass on into the Spirit World.  Thankfully, those feelings only lasted a couple of hours.

As I lay there I was reminded of an experience I had on my mission that prepared me, without me realizing it then, to endure and make the most of being paralyzed. After two years in Central America, working most of the time in Guatemala among the Mayan Indians, I became sick with infectious hepatitis. Today I would have been sent home because of the nature of the sickness. I had six months yet to serve, and desperately wanted to complete my mission. My mission president sent me to a private hospital in Guatemala City, the mission had just started to use. Under the expert, loving and competent care of Dr. Herrera I was immediately placed in isolation because I was infectious – no roommate, no TV, just me. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I would be in bed for the next 43 days without my feet ever touching the floor. The doctor lent me a little radio and showed me how to tune in the only classical music station in all of Guatemala I believe. My mission president sent me books to read, including the Scriptures. I prayed, listened to classical music, read constantly, and was blessed with the ability to discipline myself to do so.

The hospital stay was a turning point, not only in my mission but in my life as well. I was blessed to be able to choose to look with optimism and work with faith during those 43 days of total isolation from the world. When I finally left the hospital I had a fire burning within me to teach the gospel. Thankfully, that fire has never been extinguished. The last six months of my mission exceeded anything I could have ever envisioned with regard to teaching opportunities and convert baptisms. Now, many years later as I lay in my hospital bed, paralyzed and unable to move any part of my body, I remembered my Guatemala City hospital experience. I determined that I would make of this experience in bed with an infected pressure sore, a growing and spiritual experience like I was able to do as a young 20-year-old missionary.

My family helped to rig up my laptop computer in such a way that it was positioned above my face so that I could see the monitor, and with my headset and microphone attached to my head, I was able to use my voice recognition software to work on the computer. I would start working about 10 AM every morning and work until around five or 6 PM. I refused to watch TV until after I had completed my work on the computer for the day. It turned out to be one of the most productive times in my life, as a "normal" walking around person, a paralyzed person in a wheelchair, or a paralyzed person in bed. I read the Scriptures, many other good books, researched and wrote numerous observations, and felt very close to the Lord. I learned firsthand once again how important it was for me to exercise my agency to look with optimism and WORK WITH FAITH!

I don't about you, but whenever I happen to watch the news on cable TV or on one of the major networks, this world seems to be so dark, wicked, filled with violence, and desperate people that it can make me depressed. I begin to wonder if there are any good people left, and if there are, where are they, and what are they doing? North Korea and Iran are threatening everybody with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, terrorists seem to abound, the Middle East is a tinderbox waiting to explode, Afghanistan seems to be going nowhere good, the economy is horrible with unemployment skyrocketing. Will the United and when States suffer more major terrorist attacks? Will these attacks involve us or our loved ones -- and what about the price of gas and the Los Angeles Angels paying Albert Puljos more money than any human being is worth to play the game of baseball, and him, during the first month of the season, not hitting one home run and not hitting the size of his hat! What is this world coming to? Also, in this election year we are being flooded by a tsunami of words from politicians, putting one another down, saying mean-spirited things about one another, and not often in a very civil manner.

In reality though, I suppose our experience today is not much different from the experience of people of almost any age. I suppose the Christians living in Rome during the reign of Nero felt things probably were not so rosy, and then how would it have been to have been a Jew living in Germany or Eastern Europe during World War II? There has always been darkness, wickedness, violence, and perilous times for most people from the beginning of time. Peace and security have been the exception and not the rule.

In my reading of the Scriptures, biographies of great leaders, as well as of history itself, I constantly look for principles of an eternal nature that are common threads woven into the fabric of history and the lives of great men and women. One principle I see in the lives of individuals that I would truly consider to have made a major contribution in building and preserving a free society, where men and women and families are able to worship God according to their desires and beliefs, is that of optimism and WORKING with faith. Throughout history, both scriptural and secular, these character traits have been possessed by great leaders, and been powerful forces in helping them to overcome the pessimism and evil of the world.

I personally believe, for example, Winston Churchill was the savior of the Western world as we know it because of his ability to look with optimism and WORK with faith. The essence of his life I believe can be found in the shortest speech he ever gave. In August of 1941 when things were very dark and there seemed to be little hope of defeating Germany, standing before the student body of the school he attended as a boy he said, "Never, never, never, give up!" Through his indomitable spirit, ability to look with optimism and work with faith in a most desperate time for all of his countrymen, he was able to inspire them with hope and the will to fight on.

I am also very impressed with George Washington. I once read a book about his life which was titled, "George Washington, the Indispensable Man!" As I have studied his life as well as that period of history, he truly was the indispensable man. Without him I doubt this country as we know it would have come into being. Like Winston Churchill, he never gave up in the most adverse circumstances. As badly as things were going for the colonists in 1776, the one constant in all of this adversity was George Washington. He never gave up hope or lost his vision of why they were fighting this war. Through this very difficult time of adversity and affliction however, Washington was learning lessons that coupled with his work ethic and optimism, would ultimately enable him and his citizen Army to prevail over the English. David McCullough, in his final assessment of 1776 and of George Washington, wrote: "Experience had been his great teacher from boyhood and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience... Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up... without Washington's leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed." ("1776", pages 262-263, David McCullough)

Of course, Churchill and Washington's are just the tip of the iceberg of great leaders from the beginning of time who possessed these vital character traits. As you permit your mind to wander through the pages of the Scriptures and history, you will, and of course, have already found great leaders with whom you can identify and desire to emulate. Are our days more difficult than theirs? I believe that regardless of the time in which we happen to occupy our space on this earth that there will always be opposition and hard times which must inevitably be overcome with an attitude of hope, faith, and hard work.

One of the most optimistic people I have observed during my lifetime is the former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, President Gordon B. Hinckley. We would do well to follow his great example of working with faith perseverance and optimism in these troubled times it is our lot to experience. "There never was a greater time in the history of the world to live upon the earth than this. How grateful every one of us ought to feel for being alive in this wonderful time with all the marvelous blessings we have.…" [Gordon B. Hinckley, Church News, August 14, 1999] "

I see so many good people everywhere—and there’s so much of good in them. And the world is good. Wonderful things are happening in this world. This is the greatest age in the history of the earth.… We have every reason to be optimistic in this world. Tragedy is around, yes. Problems everywhere, yes. … You can’t, you don’t, build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen [Gordon B Hinckley, from Ensign, June 1995, 4]. It's good to be alive!