Life is a lot about loss. As a mother, my heart sometimes aches to hold the babies I lost when they grew up. In a strange way, a mother loses her children over and over. Each age and stage can be a delight – but as a child moves from one stage to the other, the mother loses first newborn, then small baby, then toddler, then preschooler when the child enters school.
But the greater losses are still to come. What parent hasn’t mourned the loss of that pleasant, curious, full of wonder child when he or she moves into moody adolescence – then again when that child move out on his own. With every loss there are gains – but the loss is real nonetheless. Some of us have faced the painful loss when a child dies. I yearn to once again hold the son I lost to death.
Many losses have nothing to do with children. Loss of a spouse to divorce or death, loss of limbs, eyes, hair, mobility, loss of health in general, loss of job, possessions, homes, and other things can loom large in life. At every juncture of loss, we have the choice how we will respond. I’ve heard people say, “If I lose my eyes, I don’t want to live.” Or, “Without my legs I don’t want to live.” or “Without my family, I don’t want to live.” Others – no matter how great their losses – embrace life, and continue to live in an amazingly abundant way.
I recently found in my journal a celebration of a successful object lesson I’d given when I was a Young Women leader. The subject of the lesson was, “It isn’t what happens that counts, but how you choose to react.” My goal was to illustrate that how you react will be determined by what you are made of, and what is going on inside you.
First I picked up a little foam ball in one hand and a soda cracker in the other. Then I clenched both fists, exerting equal force, then opened both hands wide. What a difference in the reaction! The ball springs back immediately, the cracker has crumbled and fallen apart.
Next I dropped the sponge ball and a raw egg in a glass bowl – the ball bounces, the raw egg cracks apart and splooshes all over the bowl. Again, a dramatically different response to the same stimuli – because of what they were made of.
Then I dropped a hard-boiled egg on the carpet and all the girls gasped – expecting it to sploosh too! That demonstration illustrated that with prior preparation we can develop inner resources so we can take let-downs and disappointments. Only our outer shell may crack a bit in crisis – revealing our inner strength, which keeps us intact.
Finally, I put a soda cracker, a sugar cube, and a flat sponge into a bowl of water. These I likened to a weakness or handicap we have to live with all the time. I told the girls to observe what happened to each of these objects, because the differences would illustrate the various ways people can choose to respond to affliction and loss. They watched carefully as the sponge grew as it absorbed water, the sugar cube dissolved and disappeared, and the soda cracker became a soggy mess.
And so it is with life. We can choose to grow through our losses and to develop more substance of character, we can choose to be diminished by them, or we can choose to become a soggy mess. Choosing life is choosing growth in spite of pain. Choosing life is choosing hope and choosing to continue to really live – not just be alive.
Some of My Heroes Who Choose Life
I visited a friend today who is one of my heroes. Debbie has lived her life legally blind and has also been plagued with numerous physical maladies, including chemical depression. She lost two of the three children she was able to carry and could have no more because of endometriosis. She lost a beloved sister and stepdad to death. She lives with chronic pain and mourns the countless hours she is not able to function.
However, there is no one I’d rather spend time with. She is one of the most creative, most expansive, most intelligent women I’ve ever known. She is able to read and work on the computer with equipment that magnifies the words, and she is an avid reader and a fine editor. She works part-time at the psyche unit of a hospital and her ability to work with troubled people is amazing. She creates beautiful picture history books for her family, and is helping her mother sort and scan hundreds of pictures of her ancestors. I could go on and on.
Debbie has, in a very real sense, chosen life over and over again, even when the temptation has been very great to do otherwise. She is a person I greatly look forward to associating with in the eternities. I can only imagine the scope of her activities when she is relieved of the many limitations of her present life. She is one of my heroes.
My friend Joy is another great example. I exercise and scrapbook with her, and she has won my greatest respect and admiration. She lives with great loss in the most gracious way. When she became a mother sixteen years ago, her twins were born so prematurely there was little chance for their survival. Miraculously, they lived. However, she and her husband quickly lost their dream of having healthy boys who would grow up normally.
Kylan is blind, unable to walk, talk, or eat. They have fed him all these years through a tube in his stomach, and still must change his diapers. The other twin, Brayden, functions on a higher level, but both have cerebral palsy and developmental delays.
Joy faces the daily burden of their care as long as they live, but her attitude is amazing. When I asked her what it has been like to care for handicapped children, she said, “It’s been fun! And I have far fewer worries about these boys than my two ‘normal’ girls. I know their salvation is sure.”
Her youngest daughter is Chinese. Her husband found Lauryn when he was traveling in China on business. Six months later they returned to adopt her. But her husband had contracted a virus that attacked his nervous system on his first trip, and over time he became bedfast. His condition is not curable. He lost a thriving business, his ability to provide, his ability to function. He is in constant pain, and only on good days can he get out of bed or go out of the house.
Joy lost the security of her husband’s physical help, and her caretaker role now includes him. She’s also lost the help of her mother-in-law who lives nearby but has developed serious health problems herself and can no longer share the load.
“How do you handle it all?” I asked her. “Only because of the gospel,” she replied. She trusts the Lord’s promises and continues to choose life, to choose to be actively involved. She chooses to take one day at a time, do her best, and rely on the Lord for her sustenance.
She knows that all these losses, all these physical conditions are for this life only – and that she has much to look forward to in the eternities.
Another of my heroes who constantly chooses life in spite of loss is my friend Becky. I met her when she was called as a ward family history consultant. As her stake counterpart, I was responsible to train her and give her ideas. Her husband is the bishop, and Becky is one of the most supportive wives I’ve ever known – even though she must spend most of her life flat in bed. Her legs are paralyzed from a complication of surgery after diagnosis of cancer in her left hip 22 years ago, and she is restricted to only four hours a day sitting upright in a wheelchair because the pain becomes too severe. She has been in this position since she was 25.
At that time she was given three months to live; she was pregnant with her third child and was advised to abort. She said she couldn’t; that if she was going to die she at least wanted to least give her baby life. He was delivered by C-section at seven months and weighed 3 lbs. 9 ounces. This child just came home from serving a mission, and Becky is still going strong. Two miracles of life.
Although Becky lost her mobility, her ability to have more children, and the possibility of serving her husband and children in hundreds of ways at an early age she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She is one of the most vibrant, cheerful people I know. She is able to telephone and e-mail from her bed, and even tends grandchildren! We chose to have some stake family history meetings in her bedroom so she could participate.
Her husband has enlarged and extended her room to provide plenty of room for visitors. He put in a whole wall of windows to make it a more inviting place. Becky has folding chairs for those who come, and plenty of toys for her grandchildren. Although I am no longer Becky’s stake leader, I will always value her friendship and her example. She was my most active ward consultant – hosting training meetings in her home (for which she baked delicious cookies!), calling around and signing up ward members for various workshops and classes, spearheading family history activities. She e-mails me often, and I smile whenever her name comes up on the screen.
Heroes in Books
All my life I’d loved to read of people who have chosen to live abundantly in spite of terrific losses. Former U.S. President John Adams is a great example. David McCullough, who wrote a biography of Adams, said:
Adams lost his wife and daughter, he lost a son to alcoholism, he lost his teeth and hair, he lost friends, he lost all of his power, his prestige, his influence. But he kept going. In fact, curiously, having in many ways been seen as a pessimist, he became increasingly an optimist. It’s in this last part of his life especially that you feel his real fiber. John Adams, a farm boy, became the most widely and deeply read of any American of that bookish time – more so even than Jefferson. At the age of 80, he launched into a 16-volume history of France in French, which he had taught himself on his Atlantic crossings. “John Adams, a Man Worth Knowing,” Meridian Magazine, Jan, 2007)
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl told of the people he lived with and worked with in concentration camps – people who had lost everything except the choice of how they would react. Those who chose hope chose life. The others died.
Choosing Life is Choosing to Trust in the Lord
When I lost a son to suicide, I recognized the reality of my choices more strongly than ever before. I could choose bitterness and despair or I could choose hope and faith. I could blame myself and sink into a black hole, turning my back on life, or I could turn it over to God and trust His promises, His atonement, His love.
Brian’s choice highlighted the reality that each moment we can choose life or choose death. 2 Nephi 2:27-29 speaks plainly of our choice between spiritual life or death as well:
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandment; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his holy Spirit
And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.”
Not a moment goes by that I do not have the God-given right to choose between good and evil, between light and darkness, between liberty and captivity, between joy and misery, between fear and faith, between doubt and trust in the Lord. I take seriously the challenge in Joshua 24:15: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.”