When I was a little girl my dad would share insights about human behavior. As a sociologist and clinical psychologist he counseled many people, and without revealing their identities, he’d talk about the kinds of problems people dealt with. I recall him saying that many people in a second marriage admit they basically traded one set of problems for another set. The details might vary, but the level of complaining stayed the same. Obviously there would be exceptions to this rule, but the main point was that we tend to fault-find and criticize just as much with one partner as with the previous one.
Maybe it’s like being late all the time. Even when meeting times change, the same people straggle in the same number of minutes late. Or the story of the newcomer who walked into a new town and asked a fellow on a bench what this town was like. The fellow said, “Well, what was your old town like?”
“Terrible,” said the new arrival. “Unfriendly, boring, judgmental people.”
“That’s exactly what this town is like,” the man on the bench said.
Then another guy entered the town and asked the same question.
“Well, what was your old town like?”
“Fantastic,” the new guy said. “Friendly, happy, wonderful people.”
“That’s exactly what this town is like,” he was told.
And thus we see, to borrow a phrase we all know, you find what you’re looking for. And this can happen in a marriage, in a ward, in a job, in anything. Whether we expect the best or the worst, our suspicions will be confirmed.
It’s the same with adversity. You and I both know people with dreadful lives. Seriously. They’ve had every health problem you can think of, their family is a disaster, they’ve lost job after job. We cringe just thinking of all their trials. We compare them to Job. And yet, some of these people are the cheeriest we know. They focus upon Christ, they magnify their callings, they grow their testimonies, they serve others, and they possess a joy that seems to contradict their circumstances. Certainly there are times when we must grieve, but even then we learn important lessons.
Conversely, we know people whose lives seem virtually charmed. They have none of the losses or setbacks the rest of us seem to endure, yet they’re mired in self-pity, whining about how hard life is. We’re bewildered. This person has nothing to complain about. And then we remember that negativity is not based so much on our situation, but on our attitude.
You’ve seen it with the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people cope better with the quarantine than others. And, really, we all have blessed lives compared to millions around the world. But we meet the same difficulty with different attitudes. Some people try to think of ways to compensate for these setbacks, others become completely undone.
For a long time I had this quote on my refrigerator: “If, indeed, the things allotted to each were divinely customized according to our ability and capacity, then for us to seek to wrench ourselves free of every schooling circumstance in mortality is to tear ourselves away from matched opportunities. – Elder Neal A. Maxwell.”
Maybe this is why, despite the tremendous difficulties we face, we sense there’s something tailored here, something we can learn important lessons from. When trials arise we are often knocked off our game. But we’re wise if we can pause long enough to examine the trial for the lesson we’re to learn, the growth we’re to experience. This does not, incidentally, mean that any of us deserve to be mistreated; we are to summon God’s help to empower us. We can employ self-compassion, stand up for ourselves, overcome weaknesses, and take healthy care of ourselves.
And I know, I know, we’d rather have ease and comfort. “I’m tired of growing!” a friend of mine recently joked. And I think we can all identify with her weariness. But here come the trials anyway, so we may as well wring them for every bit of wisdom they can impart.
It isn’t only the cheery who learn from disasters—sometimes we learn through such severe adversity that we can only seem to catch our breath when the peak of suffering has passed. And that’s okay, too.
This is another reason why service is so good for our own emotional health. When we are constantly helping those less fortunate than ourselves, we see the hardship others have and our own looks less gloomy. Service is wonderful for many other reasons as well, but keeping our perspective is an important one.
Most folks will admit that their prayers are more heartfelt when they have serious problems and need God’s help. Without trials I wonder how many of us would develop that trust and faith in His divine assistance. Or would we coast along, maybe even give ourselves the credit for successes?
And, very often, after spending time with people whose problems seem monumental to us—even impossible—we come home grateful for the bag of trouble we already have. We complain less, we feel gratitude more. So many of our challenges in life loom large, or shrink, depending on our attitude and how reliant we are on our Heavenly Father.
Next time you mentally bemoan your situation, stop for a moment and consider what Socrates said: “If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, whence everyone must take an equal portion, most people would be content to take their own and depart.”
You are singularly qualified to meet the tasks life hands you. Someone else might become utterly defeated by them. But your skill set, your talents, your spiritual gifts make you able to fight that storm and prevail.
In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we’re told, “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Over time this phrase became spoken as, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” which implies that God gives us suffering. What’s really meant is that he will never allow our adversity to mount higher than we can climb with his help. He doesn’t dole out misfortune, but he will intervene when necessary.
And look at the masterpiece He is making of you. Look back at the trials you’ve survived, the triumphs that took every bit of sacrifice you could muster, the grit and resolve you had to develop to meet your challenges. It’s incredible, really (and belongs in a journal entry to give hope to your posterity?). We’re often surprised by the strength we didn’t know we had. How many times have you heard someone say, “If anyone had told me I’d have to go through this, I would never have believed I could do it.”
As the 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi said, “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” I think sometimes we forget we’re being refined in a very hot fire.
Yet here we are. New and improved. And trials are the reason why.
Hilton’s books, humor blog, and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Inter-Faith Specialist for Church Communications.