Note from Author:  This article is based on Carolyn Allen’s presentation for the Annandale, Virginia Stake Relief Society Women’s Conference held on February 19, 2011. 

My patriarchal blessing calls earth’s journey “the turbulent seas of mortality.” That’s an apt description of earth life, isn’t it?  Maybe that’s another reason why we all like the beach so much: it is symbolic of life – the waves, the ebb and flow of the tides, the vast, incomprehensible size, and often the lack of control we have over it, as our brothers and sisters in Japan are experiencing right now.

My husband Bob is always bringing home interesting things from the newspaper – and finds a lot of life lessons (often entertaining ones!) in the obituaries and stories on that page.  Last night he brought home a reminder of an obituary he discovered exactly two years ago.  (The names in this story have been changed.) 

The notice said: “Dear Jenny:  We miss you so much!  It’s been two years now and you will always be in our hearts.  We remain grateful for your life, but will always ache for the years that were needlessly taken from you.”

How did we know Jenny?  About 12 years ago, our son Spencer, now a returned missionary who will be married this summer, played Little League baseball with an outstanding coach, Rick Jones.  Rick was a very successful retired military officer who was now full throttle into another extremely successful career.  He led his 5th and 6th grade Little Leaguers as he led his soldiers and his business: with high expectations and not a lot of room for error.  The training was excellent, and it was exciting to watch Spencer improve with this no-nonsense coach.  His own sons, tremendous and gifted players, were on the team as well.  Rick had two other coaches  working with him, and the three of them had created a history of winning teams.  He was a very intimidating man.

His wife Jenny was extremely attractive with a warm and loving way.  She was a popular elementary school teacher.  Her gorgeous hair cuts, jewelry, manicures and clothes – even her sports/casual clothes for Little League ball games – were a far cry from what most of us wore.   

Rick would arrive early for practices and game warm-ups with his sons in his black Cadillac Escalade.   Jenny would arrive just in time for the game in her Mercedes.  She was intimidating too, but so friendly and nice that you went out of your way to sit beside her at games.  Often her parents and her hysterically funny identical twin sister would join us and it was all a lot of fun.

Their home for team parties matched up to everything else: very intimidating, yet warm and wonderful at the same time, in an upscale Northern Virginia neighborhood.  It was beautifully designed with lovely furnishings, landscaping, expensive food for the parties, little extras – the works.  It was very hard not to compare your life’s station to theirs. 

The years went by and we had no association as the boys went to different schools.   Two years ago, Bob found Jenny’s obituary:  She was only in her late 50’s!  Shocking as that was, the circumstances were even more so: It seems that she and Rick had been alone arguing about their upcoming divorce on a quiet Monday morning. The fact that they were divorcing was shocking.  They had seemed so happy! A gun had been introduced into the argument.  Rick had called 911 to say that he had been hurt and that his wife was “not breathing.”  She was dead.  No one knows what happened – their family was shattered.    Rick was not seriously hurt, but he now lives the tormented life of only HIM knowing what happened that morning.

Can you imagine?  All those things that seemed so utterly perfect … the message is, none of us KNOW what others are dealing with.  It was so hard not to compare my life with hers – and yet it ended so sadly and suddenly. This was such a reminder that our lives are not our own – even the gifts, be they many or few, are not our own.

Now!  On a lighter note and move forward:  I’d like you to go back and remember your favorite dress or outfit when you were a child.  What it looked like, how you felt when you wore it, the history of it, what it meant to you. Spend some time remembering how very special you felt in this outfit!  I believe if our Heavenly Father could have his way, we would feel like that every day:  Special, strong, beautiful, powerful, one-of-a-kind, each and every day.

What happens to rob us of this great self-confidence?  The world rubs off on us! It tells us in a thousand different ways  what we need to look like and be like.

In an odd, driven way,  it is easy to confuse pursuing personal excellence with being as good as or better than those around us. The media, of course, TV, magazines, etc.  influence these feelings. But even in the Church, which should be a safe zone, things sometimes are even more difficult to cope with!

Even in the Church it’s so hard not to compare our lots.

Several  weeks ago in The Mormon Times newspaper, for example, this was the headline:  LDS People Make Money on TV. There were detailed stories of Ken Jennings, Millionaire Trivia Guy from Jeopardy, someone else who’d won a million dollars on a game show, another guy who had won “Biggest Loser”,  David Archuleta the American Idol star … and a chef who has her own Nationally Syndicated cooking show …

Our own wards are filled with members who seem to have it much more “together” comparatively speaking.  It’s hard not think “See? There’s nothing special about me!  Never has been, never will be …”

As adults, we know for a fact that there is no special dress or magic wand to make everything all better!

What can we do to find the peace, beauty and strength that comes from knowing that we’re one of a kind? That the world is interested, or needs us or wants us in any capacity at all?  We need to know this both for ourselves and in how we reach out to the world and share our lives.  We yearn for this self-assurance!  In addition, as women who nurture others, not only do we want this for ourselves, we want to pass this inner confidence to our loved ones.

Where can we turn for peace with these often troubling feelings?

We can turn to the scriptures and the Savior.  In John 4, Jesus met a woman at the well in Samaria, a despised woman, it is clear, because she comes to draw water alone at noon.  The common time when all the women of the town would have come for water would have been early in the morning in the cool of the day.  She has had a difficult, wearing life. 

Christ asks her for water, which was surprising to her at many levels.

  He was a Jew and she a Samaritan and an outcast. Thus she answers, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

 “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” This request is in preparation for him to tell her that he is the Messiah, the first instance we see of Christ making this announcement.

But the story becomes even more remarkable, because when Christ tells her that she has had five husbands and the with man whom she currently lived was not her husband, her eyes begin to be opened.  Not only is he the Messiah, but she knows because she testifys to everyone else, “He told me all that ever I did.” 

Why does this story matter so much?  She rejoiced, not only because he tells her that he is the living water, but because she discovered that he knew her, individually, and not at a pretty stage in her life. She was living a sordid life of multiple husbands and adultery.  He was well aware of every flaw and defect, yet he came to her as he will come to us, at every low point, even when we have absolutely nothing to celebrate.

She was so excited that she “left her water pot and went and told everyone ‘Come see a man, which told me all things that ever I did:  Is not this the Christ?

In exactly the same way, he knows each of us, and is there, even with all our shortcomings and our sadnesses.  Our troubles, mistakes and our history are what cause us to turn to him. She was very open to his words about everlasting life. Without her mistakes, would she have been so open?  Without our weakness and mistakes – often seen to be negative in comparison to those around us who seem to be functioning or living so much better – would we need him?  Without our trials, would we become who we are meant to be?

A missionary in our ward recently shared the story of tracting in a well-to-do neighborhood here in Northern Virginia. They knocked on the door of a beautiful home where two luxury cars were parked in the driveway.  When the man came to the door and the elders told them they were there to share the message of Jesus Christ, the man said, “Young men, look around my home and driveway. Does it look to you like I need anything from anyone?”  How very enlightening!

When life burdens seem random, I turn to an old favorite of mine that has brought comfort many times.  I have most of it memorized, and when I start to recite it to bring comfort  when others share their troubles with me, I am surprised that most are not aware of it, so I share it with you now:

My Life is but a Weaving

My life is but a weaving
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors,
He worketh steadily.
Oft times He weaveth sorrow,
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not ’til the loom is silent
and the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
and explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
in the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
in the pattern He has planned.
He knows, He loves, He cares,
nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
who leave the choice with Him.

~Author Unknown

Like the woman at the well, we each have defining moments – not in our talents or strengths or achievements, but in our weaknesses and in our problems. When we realize that our Heavenly Father is THERE for us, knows us, and has the answer we need in our times of trial, then we are ready to progress and embrace our uniqueness.  Our personal experiences are our history and make us who we are.

Perhaps you remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. My copy is, believe it or not, in a collection of very special Christmas stories – perhaps because our problems and our difficult experiences are gifts.

The Velveteen Rabbit did not become REAL until he was worn out and frayed.

It was through constant use that his value became known.

Another character I cherish is Pinocchio.  His desire was also to become “Real”  “ A REAL BOY !” he repeated to anyone who would listen.  Yet it wasn’t until he’d lied again and again, been disobedient and gotten into an awful lot of trouble that he was redeemed and became REAL.  For emphasis I repeat: our problems and weaknesses define us and give us reason to rejoice as we accept, then embrace , then progress.

My own history:  As I tell this story, I want you to say a little prayer to remember a time when you knew your Heavenly Father was there and that you were special to him, if not to the rest of the world:

I grew up with some genetic difficulties in my teeth. The 4 front teeth never fell out.  One dentist after another said I was just “slow” but at the end of 6th grade, it was clear it was much more than that.  A dentist discovered an extra set of malformed teeth that was blocking the true permanent teeth from coming in.  (Just the 4 front teeth – the ones that show most when you smile and talk.) (how embarrassing to have your  baby teeth as a 12 year old!) In addition to these problems, I was a source of constant ridicule for other reasons. (“Pig Nose” was my most unfortunate nickname used by many of my classmates – often associated with grunting noises.  Kids can be so cruel …)

The surgery was done just a few days before 7th grade, my first year of middle school. I went to my first day of school with an empty, swollen mouth.

The dentist had said the teeth would come through “quickly – a matter of weeks!”  By Christmas there was no sign. 

One day, some unkind girls came and made fun of me telling me how ugly I was.

When I told my Mom that day when I got home from school, she immediately called the dentist ,and they made a partial plate of those all-important 4 front teeth.  I went to school –with my little false teeth–and it helped for a surprisingly long time.

As a humorous sidenote, but not at the time!  I have to mention the nightmare of losing them on the beach at a Beehive/Scout activity night.  It was traumatizing …  Those awful, 12 year old boy scouts combing the beach for my false teeth, laughing the whole time.

In any event, the teeth did not come through and I wore the false teeth for several years.

  In my junior year (age 16 or so), the dentist said they would never come through if I didn’t stop wearing the false teeth.  That very day he snapped them in half, as I sat in the dental chair, so I could not wear them.

My mind was reeling:  All my friends were getting ready for prom and starting to date.  I was toothless like an old, old lady!  I’ll never forget that appointment.   I kept my tears in check until I got to the car with my mom. Then I cried and cried, My mom, so compassionate,  let me cry and have my feelings and pain. Then she took my face in her hands, and said, “Honey, Honey! People get awfully tired of just looking at a person!  There has to be MORE, and this is your opportunity.”

That night I went to a scripture we had been studying in seminary:  “Ye are the light of the world, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.  Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto ALL that are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father …”  Matt 5:14-6

I was blessed that very night to be able to accept my circumstances, and with that scripture, went ahead with the things in high school that I had thought would be impossible:  a part in the musical, the Spring Honor Band, etc.  No dating, but I did participate.  I told my friends I’d had a “fight with nature”  and expected to win it and have a normal mouth at some point in time.  I was surprised to be elected to be president of a very fun club on campus; this was “proof” of my mom’s philosophy, that they were seeking me for more than my good looks!

Within the next year and a half, the teeth slowly grew in.  They needed braces, so I was thrilled when I had those as well to fill my empty mouth.  Can you imagine a high school senior being thrilled with new front teeth and braces?

After graduation, still with all my braces, our high school band went to Europe (three weeks for $600 – that shows my age, doesn’t it!  It  was 1972) and one of the most darling, popular – and LDS – boys was my dear friend.  As we sat on the bus, traveling through Europe, one day he said, “Carolyn, do you still have your braces? Did your teeth ever come in????”  I said, “How could you possibly not know!!! Of course, the teeth are in, and the braces are on.”  He replied, “Oh, I forgot – just doesn’t matter, I guess….”

And that was proof again!

Now, you TOO have a defining, cross-roads experience.  What is it?  Think about it and find it.  They are our greatest gifts from Heavenly Father!

Even so, we need constant reminders!

Shortly after my epiphany of the light on the candlestick, where I realized I could cope, I was playing the piano at a recital at my piano teachers’ house.  Another girl, when her turn came, had a music book that would NOT stay open.  As she tried to play and keep flattening the book, it was clear she was having real trouble.  I was sitting just a few feet away.  But I’d had a bad day – feeling sorry for myself – and didn’t think about her needs.  I was busy nursing my own wounds. To my surprise, another girl from across the room (it was the piano teacher’s living room) got up, and walked across the room even while the girl was still playing.  This girl, to my embarrassment, was crippled, and dragging a lame leg with a heavy brace, but she had a glow I remember to this day.

She walked across the room and quietly stood at the piano, holding the girl’s book open while she finished playing.  Me –just a few feet away, toothless but with good legs … just sat! I’m still so ashamed of that moment, and my mother’s disappointed glance at me was something I’ll never forget.

We need to remember what we need to remember and forget what we need to forget. Important words! Because it’s so easy to remember what we need to forget and forget what we need to remember!

An obvious, but important truth:  it is not our Heavenly Father’s plan for us to journey through mortality alone, we are surrounded by others who are also finding their way.  It’s impossible for us not be observe their journeys and compare.

Yet to compare brings despair.

Once, while praying about my own circumstances compared with a friend’s, the answer came like a billboard in my forehead: “DO NOT COMARE, DO NOT COMPARE, DO NOT COMPARE:  TO COMPARE IS TO WELCOME DESPAIR!”

My Favorite Parables to help with this:

The parable of the talents: Matthew 25:13-30

Parable of the Laborer: Matthew 20:1-16

Why doesn’t he give them all the same amount of talents?  Why does he pay them all for a full day’s wage?

We don’t know, but in both stories, the estate belongs to the master, and the charge is to increase the talents, or to develop the property for the master.

To me, that says, … my life is NOT my own!  It belongs to my Heavenly Father … if that is so, then I need not compare my journey or gifts with anyone else’s.

It doesn’t matter:  Whether we have a lot of talents, or whether we start early or late, our Father in Heaven knows us and the intents of our hearts.  These gifts, these opportunities – whatever they may be — when we pursue them to honor him and be obedient, then we can release the influences of worldliness and comparison to others.

When we realize that it is the same for others as it is for ourselves, that their lives and talents are not their own any more than ours are our own, then we can enjoy their gifts, and not feel jealous.  With joy we can understand the scriptures

Deny Not The Gifts of God … For They Are Many! (Moroni 10:8) and
To some is given one, and to some is given another … that all may be profited thereby.” D&C 46:12

I encourage you to memorize these key phrases so we will remember what we need to remember, and forget what we need to forget!

In closing, one beautiful primary song tells us these things in a way that we can carry with us each and every day.  I’ve added a second verse to make it even more meaningful:

My Life is a Gift:  Primary Song Book Page 164-165

My Life is a gift, my life has a plan
My life has a purpose in Heaven it began
My choice was to come to this lovely place called Earth
And seek for God’s light to direct me from Birth

I will follow God’s plan for me, holding on to his light and his Love
I will work and I will pray and I will always walk in His way
Then I will be happy on earth, andin my home above

Because this is so, I will not compare
My life to another’s  nor yield to despair
I know who I am, the daughter of a King
With beauty and power,  his praises to Sing