Monday the 27th of July, I woke up with an all too familiar shooting pain down my left leg. I had noticed it a couple of days earlier, but hoped it would just disappear. No such luck. As I was on the phone organizing a doctor’s appointment, my father in law Thomas, came upstairs from their ground floor apartment in the house that we share, and asked if I could come down, because there was something wrong with Marit, my mother in law.
There was indeed something wrong. She displayed all the classic symptoms of a stroke, and was rushed off to hospital. They were able to remove the blood clot in her brain, and after a few weeks of being pretty much unresponsive, she is now somewhat awake and alert, but physically she is permanently disabled, in a wheel chair, and paralyzed on her left side.
As for me, and my comparatively minor pain, an MRI was requested, and then performed a couple of weeks ago. In the 6 weeks while I waited, I dutifully attended (and paid for) my bi-weekly private physical therapy sessions, chewed pain killers and tried to not panic. Some of you probably know that I had surgery for a herniated disc that was pinching my sciatic nerve in May 2014. The surgery was a success, I was back at work after a few weeks, and by this spring I was pretty much able to do everything I had been able to do before the first incident, short of long distance running. (Which I miss terribly!)
To say I was not thrilled to be experiencing the same pain again, is an understatement. For a few weeks, my physical therapist was certain that this was not a new herniated disc, but a muscular issue – that could be easily, and quickly resolved. But the MRI proved otherwise, as did the fact that the physical therapy was not working. On the contrary – the pain was getting worse.
So now I am waiting for an assessment at the hospital, to decide whether I need surgery again, or not. Hopefully, it will not take another 6 weeks. But it could. ‘Free’ health care is wonderful, but the 3T’s (Things Take Time) are a very real part of the deal… And because this is a ‘previously known’ issue, my company’s excellent private health care insurance will not cover, or expedite any treatment or consultations. Sigh.
So, with this backdrop – Marit’s fragile health, my father in law’s Alzheimers, another close family member’s mental illness, my mother’s recently exacerbated heart failure, my father’s Parkinson Disease and my pinched nerve – I can safely say that the subjects of pain and suffering have been on the forefront of my mind lately.
As members of the church, we are encouraged to approach our bi-annual General Conference with open hearts and questions we would like answered. I looked forward to hearing our leaders uplift and encourage, teach and preach – but I had not really formulated any specific questions that I hoped to receive answers to.
However, my Heavenly Father knew what I needed, and provided answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.
It started with the Worldwide Women’s Meeting on the 26th of September, and Sister Wixom’s talk about Discovering the Divinity within.
Our divine nature has nothing to do with our personal accomplishments, the status we achieve, the number of marathons we run, or our popularity and self-esteem. Our divine nature comes from God. It was established in an existence that preceded our birth and will continue on into eternity.
One of the first things to go when I’m in pain, is working out, and with no working out, my self-esteem tends to take a blow. I mean, who am I , and what am I worth, if I can’t even be in control of my body, right? Wrong.
And also, when I am obsessing over my body, there is little room for valuing or caring for others. But the answer lies in recognizing first my divinity, and then other’s.
Then Sister Reeves, in her talk ‘Worthy of Our Promised Blessings’, quoted President Packer who said:
‘‘And they all lived happily ever after’ is never written into the second act. That line belongs in the third act, when the mysteries are solved and everything is put right.”
And then she added:
Sisters, I do not know why we have the many trials that we have, but it is my personal feeling that the reward is so great, so eternal and everlasting, so joyful and beyond our understanding that in that day of reward, we may feel to say to our merciful, loving Father, “Was that all that was required?”
Keeping an eternal perspective when times are tough, is easier said than done – and while in the thick of things, it might seem even trite and superficial to say ‘don’t worry – everything will be ok in the next life’ . I have been known to throw my scriptures aside in anger when reading D& C 122:7 :
know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
How can mental illness possibly be for anyone’s good? But it truly is comforting to be reminded of, and to know that ‘No Storms Last Forever’.
Then came President Uchtdorf’s beautiful story ‘A Summer with Great Aunt Rose’. The whole thing is so good, I couldn’t even decide on an excerpt! But basically, the moral of it is that the key to happiness in this life, in spite of trials and disappointment and sorrow, is faith and love.
This last weekend, as I watched and took notes of the Saturday and Sunday Sessions of General Conference, I saw a pattern emerge. Again and again, the words Joy and Christ and Choice kept popping up, together with Peace and Faith and Atonement, woven together to create an intricate design and map for me to follow.
Here are a few exerpts from just some of the many inspiring talks I watched and listened to over the weekend. (I have linked the names to the complete talks.)
When we open ourselves to the Spirit, we learn God’s way and feel His will. During the sacrament, which I call the heart of the Sabbath, I have found that after praying for forgiveness of sins, it is instructive for me to ask Heavenly Father, “Father, is there more?” When we are yielded and still, our minds can be directed to something more we may need to change—something limiting our capacity to receive spiritual guidance or even healing and help. …
When we offer our broken heart to Jesus Christ, He accepts our offering. He takes us back. No matter what losses, wounds, and rejection we may have suffered, His grace and healing are mightier than all. Truly yoked to the Savior, we can say with confidence, “It will all work out.”
I have been a member of the church long enough, and have heard enough sermons on the role of suffering in our lives to know not to ask ‘why me?’ when trials occur. I am fully aware of the fact that I am supposed to learn and grow from them. My response this time around was instead, ‘Ok – I guess there is still more for me to learn from this. But please – just let me learn quickly.'( I suppose one of the things I didn’t learn last time was patience. ) My biggest concern these past weeks has been that I seem to be handling it so badly. I snap at my family, I wallow in self-pity, I turn to the fridge and the chocolate, instead of to the Lord. I waste precious hours surfing the internet instead of reading my scriptures or reaching out to tothers who need me. So I was very grateful to hear the following words:
To all mothers in every circumstance, including those who struggle—and all will—I say, “Be peaceful. Believe in God and yourself. You are doing better than you think you are.”
Yes – I needed to be reminded that the adversary’s most effective tool is discouragement and making me feel overwhelmed and worthless. And again – the key to getting through our trials well – is of course looking outward.
I will illustrate four ways our burdens are lightened as we help each other. …
First—go the second mile.
Second—please smile. Your smile will help others.
Fourth—invite others to come to church
I can do that. My second mile might be very short at the moment, but I can follow my mother’s example and look for one thing each day to to do for someone else. Because I have to remember that in spite of the pain, I still have a choice.
First, no matter how intense the darkness of doubt (or pain or discouragement), we choose how long and to what extent we allow it to influence us. …
Second, we must trust in the Lord in order to develop spiritual strength within ourselves. …
Third, there is no darkness so dense, so menacing, or so difficult that it cannot be overcome by light. …
What is my source of light? Where must I turn?
Our Savior … knows our struggles, our heartaches, our temptations, our suffering, for He willingly experienced them all as an essential part of His Atonement. And because of this, His Atonement empowers Him to succor us—to give us the strength to bear it all. …
… Sometimes His power heals an infirmity, but the scriptures and our experiences teach that sometimes He succors or helps by giving us the strength or patience to endure our infirmities. …
Oh, how I need that strength and patience! But how is it done?
The Savior taught that to inherit the kingdom of God, we must become as a little child. So, spiritually speaking, the first principle is that we need to do what we did as children.
With childlike humility and willingness to focus on our Heavenly Father and our Savior, we take steps toward Them, never giving up hope, even if we fall. Our loving Heavenly Father rejoices in each faithful step, and if we fall, He rejoices in each effort to get back up and try again. …
Outward and upward. Outward and upward.
To effectively serve others, we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant obligation to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes. This expanded perspective will open our hearts to disappointments, fears, and heartaches of others. But Heavenly Father will aid and comfort us. …
Life may get hard, confusing, painful, and discouraging. I bear you my witness that through the companionship of the Holy Ghost, the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ will cut through the confusion, the pain, and the darkness.
But it was the last two final talks that really gave me the answers I needed. I must admit that I was so exhausted after almost 10 hours of General Conference by Sunday evening, that I climbed into bed and saved those last two sermons for Monday morning when I took the dog out.
First, Elder Koichi Aoyagi told of experiencing the 2011 earthquake in Japan and witnessing the following Tsunami, and he also related his 10 year stint of debilitating pain after a car accident when he was 30 years old. I have tried to transcribe parts of his sermon:
When trials like this suddenly come upon us, we maybe question ‘why do these things happen to me?’ or ‘why do I have to suffer?’. For a long period after I converted to the Gospel, I did not have a clear answer to the question ‘Why am I given trials?’ I understood the part of the plan of salvation in that we should be tested, however in reality when it came to this question I did not have a conviction that could adequately answer it. But there came a time in my life when I too experienced a major trial…
…I prayed to God to please heal my pain, but these symptoms lingered on for about 10 years (severe neck pain, headaches and insomnia). At this time a feeling of doubt also began creeping in my mind, and I wondered, why do I have to suffer this much pain? However, even though the kind of healing I sought was not granted, I strived to be faithful in keeping God’s commandments. I continued to pray that I would be able to resolve the questions I had about my trials. There came a time when I found myself struggling with a few additional personal issues, and I was agitated because I did not know how to cope with this new trial. I was praying for an answer, but did not receive an answer right away. So, I went and talked with a trusted church leader. As we were talking, he said with love in his voice; Brother Aoyagi, isn’t your purpose for being on this earth to experience this trial? Isn’t it to accept all the trials of this life for what they are and then leave the rest up to the Lord? … When I heard these words, I felt the spirit of the Lord very strongly. I had heard this doctrine countless times, but the eyes of my understanding had never been opened to the extent they were at this time. I understood that this was the answer I had been seeking from the Lord in my prayers. I was able to clearly comprehend our heavenly father’s plan of salvation, and I understood anew this important principle…
‘…know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.’
That infuriating scripture again! But I should have read further – because in verse 9, it says:
‘Therefore, hold on thy way,…for God shall be with you forever and ever.’
The trials of this earth, including illness and death are a part of the plan of salvation and are inevitable experiences. It is necessary for us to ‘hold on thy way’ and accept our trials with faith.
However the purpose of our lives is not merely to endure our trials. Heavenly Father has sent his beloved Son Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer so we could overcome our trials on this earth…
‘…Hold on thy way’ is a key choice during times of trial. Turn ones heart to God especially when we face trials. Humbly obey the commandments of God. show faith to reconcile ones wishes to the will of God…
…I know that my suffering was for my learning and for my growth. Heavenly Father schooled me to temper my patience, to develop empathy and to comfort those who were suffering. Realising this my heart was filled with a feeling of thankfulness towards my Heavenly Father for this trial.
Put God first regardless the of trials you face. Love God, have faith in Christ, entrust yourself to Him in all things. Moroni promised, ‘And if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ’.
To top it off, came Elder Bednar‘s wonderful tribute to the 6 church leaders who have ‘received their transfers by death to new responsabilities in the Spirit World’ during the 11 years he has served as an apostle. After asking Robert D. Hales what he had learned as he had grown older and been constrained by decreased physical capacity, Elder Hales answered:
Elder Bednar continued:
Physical restrictions can expand vision. Limited stamina can clarify priorities. Inability to do many things, can direct focus to a few things of greatest importance.
Although Elder Bednar was speaking of our senior church leaders, the principle applies to all of us. There was my answer. Instead of despairing over what I cannot do, I can focus on what I can do, and choose to do ‘a few things of greatest importance’.
I have a few theories about why I am going through this trial again:
- I still need to learn patience and empathy.
- I was needed at home at this time, so I could take care of my father in law while his wife is hospitalized.
- I need to be more humble, and not so self-absorbed.
- I need to focus on ‘Coming to Christ’ – as a main priority -not just an afterthought.
- I need to learn to trust in God’s timing, in all things.
- I need to remember how blessed I have been, and how blessed I still am. Nerve pain is not ‘dangerous’. It is uncomfortable and annoying and restricting, but I am not hovering between life and death. It is not permanent. It will not kill me. There are so many others who are suffering so much more than me, and who need my support and comfort and help.
Pain. It is all a matter of perspective.