There is no news source you can listen to that will not provide the details, albeit sometimes differently than other news sources, of the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. However, much less is said about what is happening in our homes, the third field of battle in this war.
As families cluster at home, talk inevitably turns to the concerns we all share. For some, the prospect of a reduced salary or lost job could be devastating. There may be the medically vulnerable in close quarters with toddlers to college students. There may be differing opinions about what is acceptable behavior and what is not. In addition, raw nerves can bring up old disagreements that resurface like a latent infection. Whatever problems we are facing, they become less manageable and more daunting when we are pulling apart.
Whatever else we do, this is the time for strong relationships that we may work and mourn and hope and pray together. There is truly a synergistic strength in family, whatever its configuration.
So, what is the answer? It is to be of one heart. We will explore how to get there in a minute, but first, let’s consider the realities of the setting about which that statement was made.
When Enoch was 65 years old, he was called to be a prophet. During his ministry, he built a city for those who repented and were baptized. Called both the city of Enoch and Zion, the inhabitants lived in such a way that we learn in Moses 7:18 …the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.
However, do the scriptures teach us that this occurred in an Eden-like environment? Were there no challenges in Zion? Did it never rain too much or too little? Did the inhabitants never make a mistake? Not only were there obstacles to overcome, the entire example of the City of Enoch would be of little value to us all if it was inhabited with perfect people. The inspiring aspect of the story is not that they had no problems, but that they rose above them. That they must have repented constantly and completely of their sins. That they met trials out of their control by dampening their fears with faith. In the October 1991 General Conference, Neil Maxwell postulated that the citizens of Enoch ‘improved together in the process of time.’ Therefore, they must have been on the road to perfection and did not arrive at the city of Zion in that state.
As inspirational as that is, how do we get from where we are now to that level. This moment, as we are quarantined, how do we overcome all the real worries and strains we are enduring and become ‘of one heart?’
Let’s begin by understanding why difficult times require special attention and then review some ways we can come together.
Difficult Times Require Special Attention
Some miles west of my home lies the section of Interstate 80 stretching across the Bonneville Salt Flats. The road is perfectly flat and straight, and the shoulders tail off gradually to the famous expanse of plant-less terrain stretching as far as the eye can see. I have driven that more times than I can count. It is evident from marks on the ground that many pull off the road and freewheel around the borderless landscape. Were I to vary from between my lanes and drive off the road, I suppose I would encounter bumps, but I would simply slow down and steer myself back into the right place. The rules of the road say, as they always do that I should stay between my lane markers, but the consequence for not doing so is mild and correctible.
A few years ago, we took the great American driving vacation, following a circuitous route around the central US. On our return journey, we drove through the Colorado National Monument. In certain places, Rim Rock Drive hugs perilously to the edge of a canyon wall, ascending straight up on one side and straight down on the other hundreds of feet the ground below. The barriers are low guardrails or intermittent blocks of stone just inches high. The road is likely just as wide as the highway I referenced in the west desert of Utah, or at least wide enough that people navigate it with motorhomes. The rules are identical to driving anywhere – just stay between the lines – and I have shown myself over the years that I am capable of that. Yet, most of that drive my hands sweated from holding the wheel so tight, my head ached from staring unflinchingly at the road ahead, and it was all exacerbated every time my son exclaimed, ‘Whoa! Look at that drop-off!’ All the rules were the same, but the consequence of ignoring them was dangerous, if not fatal.
During times of stress, there is nothing we need to do that has not always been part of a great relationship. Still, the consequences of not doing so are more damaging, and understanding and practicing the rules that build a great relationship need more attention. Not necessarily knuckle-whitening, headache-inducing attention, but a disciplined, focused awareness of our efforts.
So, what is it we should focus on?
1. See Your Companion as God Sees Them
In the October 2018 General Conference, Elder Robert C. Gay told this story:
A few years ago my older sister passed away. She had a challenging life. She struggled with the gospel and was never really active. Her husband abandoned their marriage and left her with four young children to raise. On the evening of her passing, in a room with her children present, I gave her a blessing to peacefully return home. At that moment I realized I had too often defined my sister’s life in terms of her trials and inactivity. As I placed my hands on her head that evening, I received a severe rebuke from the Spirit. I was made acutely aware of her goodness and allowed to see her as God saw her—not as someone who struggled with the gospel and life but as someone who had to deal with difficult issues I did not have. I saw her as a magnificent mother who, despite great obstacles, had raised four beautiful, amazing children. I saw her as the friend to our mother who took time to watch over and be a companion to her after our father passed away.
During that final evening with my sister, I believe God was asking me, “Can’t you see that everyone around you is a sacred being?” Brigham Young taught: “I wish to urge upon the Saints … to understand men and women as they are, and not understand them as you are.”
That story makes so much sense, and yet, why is it still so hard? Consider this: you are driving along, and you look in the rearview, and you see a police car directly behind you with their lights on. What do you feel? Typically, in rapid-fire succession, thoughts such as ‘What did I do? I don’t need this! What is this going to cost me?’ course thought your mind. Now take another situation. You have gotten lost late at night driving in a difficult part of town. Suddenly, your engine sputters and quits, and you drift to the curb. You look up and see several men walking toward the front of your car, and one has a crowbar in his hand. Frozen in fear, you look in your rearview just a police car pulls up to your bumper, lights going. Now, what goes through your mind? Relief.
You and your body reacted differently in each situation because of how you saw the police car – foe or friend. That characterization is decided by something called your amygdala. Located deep in your skull, the amygdala is like a little museum curator. Based on your experiences, it judges every situation indicating if something is safe or dangerous, good or bad, right or wrong. That museum curator has several employees, one of whom is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus makes no decisions; it only takes orders. It lives by the ‘mine is not to question why mine is just to do [and not] die’ philosophy. In good situations, the hypothalamus helps all our executive functions work: planning, organization, reasoning, stimulus control, and more. But, in bad situations, when the amygdala sends up a warning flag, the hypothalamus calls an emergency reassignment of your energies. Reasoning and stimulus control abilities are lessened because your body does not believe they are needed right now. Your heart rate goes up, and more fuel is sent to your large muscle groups. It prepares your face muscles to contract. Amid these and other changes, it prepares you for the condition of ‘fight or flight.’ Not one of these characteristics helps support a calm, loving conversation.
The challenge, therefore, is how you see your companion. Are they the impatient person who lost their temper with you, who did not say ‘thank you’ when you did something for them, who neglected to respond when you poured out your heart full of concerns or needs? If so, then it’s likely your amygdala classified them as a threat and told you hypothalamus to prepare your body for fight or flight. On the other hand, can you see your spouse as that person who is tired and worried about themselves and you? Who is feeling no control over the things happening to them? Who wants to be close to you and God, but is getting overwhelmed and fearful? If so, your amygdala not only says this person is not a threat, but they need you. Logic, reasoning, and compassion go up, preparing your mind and body to be a help. Both sets of characteristics may be simultaneously true. We have the ability to choose where we direct our focus.
God sees us in our most raw and vulnerable state. And he loves us. He sees our mistakes, and even when we are mean intentionally, he knows that in our hearts, if we understood the truth, we would not want to be that way. And he loves us. He sees us make the same mistake over and over again, sees our depression and desperation, and accepts our repentance again and again and again. And he loves us.
It isn’t easy to back-burner our hurts. But, if we can do as President Hinckley’s father counseled him to do on his mission, to ‘forget yourself,’ even for just a minute and ponder how Father in Heaven sees our spouse, we will at least be moving toward the state of seeing them the same way as apposed to away from it.
2. Remember Trials are Part of the Plan
The story is told of the man who meticulously cuts his lawn and then the following Saturday, goes out front to see that it has grown, slaps his head and cries out in frustration, ‘But, I cut it last week!’
The absence of trials is not necessarily a sign that you are living righteously, and the presence of them necessarily that you are not. Trials are part of the plan, intended to develop us and prepare us to live with Heavenly Father again.
In 2 Nephi 11, Lehi counsels his son, Jacob, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.”
‘Well, maybe’ we may think to ourselves. ‘But I would rather learn some other way.’ Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, there is no other way. “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet..” (D&C 29:39). Our personal growth would stall if we were not exposed to troubles.
‘OK,’ we think, ‘I’ll endure it, but I don’t have to like it.’ Like Tevia said in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Its no shame to be poor. But its no great honor either.’ Well, I am not sure we have to like it, but we do have to avoid chafing against those troubles. King Benjamin taught us, “…becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19)
So, if we have come this far in realizing troubles are part of the plan, it is also critical to remember this: there is help for us to endure them. Alma told his son Helaman, “…I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.” (Alma 36:3). And, should we avail ourselves of this help, it may be said of us, as it was by the Lord to Israel, “For, behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” (1 Nephi 20:10).
The good news is it is supposed to work this way. We are being stretched, refined, improved, and conditioned to serve our families, others, and God at greater and greater levels.
3. Remember How Great the Lord has Been Unto Us
Throughout the Old and New Testament and the Book of Mormon, what was one of the most common chastisements people needed when they felt trials had created an unsolvable problem? They were asked, again and again, ‘Do ye not remember?’
As an example, in Mark 8, the Savior feeds the 4,000, after having fed the 5,000 as told in Mark 6, and then later in the same chapter, he and the disciples depart in their ship, and the disciples were concerned when they realized they have forgotten to take any bread. Jesus said to them, “…Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?”
One of the most precious gifts we have ever received was a book compiled by my wife’s parents containing myriad faith-promoting stories that occurred to their family. An infant saved from a near-accident, a child preserved in a dangerous health situation, food that was provided during an extended period of unemployment, and more. As we fear our troubles, my thoughts often turn to that book, and I think to myself, ‘do I not remember?’
Take time to review how you and your family have been blessed in what seemed at the time, unsolvable situations.
4. Keep Your Covenants
Elder D. Todd Christofferson counsels us all: “Divine covenants make strong Christians. I urge each one to qualify for and receive all the priesthood ordinances you can and then faithfully keep the promises you have made by covenant. In times of distress, let your covenants be paramount and let your obedience be exact. Then you can ask in faith, nothing wavering, according to your need, and God will answer. He will sustain you as you work and watch. In His own time and way He will stretch forth his hand to you, saying, “Here am I.” (April 2009 General Conference)
At the time of this writing, our temples worldwide have just been closed to all temple work until the world situation improves. Many are discouraged that they cannot revisit and renew their covenants. We will not be able to do via ordinance, but is there anything stopping us from turning them over in our mind, from studying the principles in the words of the living prophets and the scriptures? And critically important, we need the temples to make certain covenants, but we need to live in the world to keep them.
I had a dear friend who would begin each day silently turning over in his mind his temple covenants and make his plans for the day to live them. He was not perfect, but he was perfecting, all the time. He passed in middle age, suffering from a terrible condition. But his countenance was one of complete peace to the end. He knew he was right with the Lord.
As you seek for peace in these times, to be a support to one another, being right with the Lord will bring you confidence. That confidence will lead to the ability to practice patience and love toward others. And that, in turn, will strengthen your relationship with the Lord. “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God…” (D&C 121:45)
When we do as He asks, he will bless us as we ask to our greatest benefit.
5. Create and keep a consistent routine.
As the youngest child of parents who had me late in life, I got to hear first-hand accounts of life in our country during the Great Depression many others only become familiar with through reading. Born in 1922, my mother was almost 7 when the stock crash of 1929 occurred. Her father was a banker, and soon after that, their upper-middle-class life took a sharp turn. However, during the years of unemployment, her father got up every day, bathed and shaved, put on his suit, and set out looking for employment. In time, he found a job as an assistant butcher in a meat market. Never too proud to do honest work, he approached each day as he had every day in the bank, dressed, on time, and committed. She related what confidence it gave her to watch her father continue to live his life proactively.
It has often been pointed out that this consistency sets a great example for our children. It does, but in times of difficulty, that consistency is as essential for our spouse. One of the most significant sources of stress is a feeling of lacking control. There may be much that is out of our reach as things change, but we can control our routines at some level. If ‘this’ was important to do every day before, whatever ‘this’ is, it is helpful to see that it is still important and practiced now. Scripture study, exercise, breakfast together – anything that reminds us we still own our lives lifts both spouses even when only one is maintaining it.
Years ago, I was a passenger on an L-1011 taking off from Atlanta when we had a bird strike. In the days since the miracle on the Hudson, most of us know what that is. But back then, I had no idea birds could foul the engines of this giant aircraft. As I learned later, at only a few thousand feet, we hit a flock of birds that took out one wing engine and one located in the tail, leaving us with only the other wing engine. We descended and then circled the airport watching fire trucks and ambulances gather on the runway. It was days of the seat phones, which passengers could use to make calls to the ground. The man to one side of me had called his wife and was quietly expressing his fears and telling her for what he thought might be the last time how much he loved her.
To the other side of me was a recently retired pilot who had worked for the airline we were flying on. He seemed serene, and I asked him if he knew what was going on. He gave me his guess, which turned out to be accurate, and assured me that an L-1011 could easily fly on a single engine.
Eventually, we landed without incident and exited the plane, finding several official looking people waiting to get their hands on the plane and move us quickly to other flights.
Why was I unsure what was happening? From the moment we had the strike, to the moment we landed, never once did the pilot come over the intercom, and the only thing we hear from the flight attendant was a brief statement: “Hold on!” as we approached our landing.
I was fortunate to be seated by someone who could give me insight. I was still worried but trusted his greater knowledge.
When we encounter stress, it is tempting at times to close up. We may even feel that we are doing our spouse a favor to save them the concern we are facing. It can help to provide a prologue. For example, beginning with, “I am worried about something. Are you up to hearing it?” Of course, if they are not, wait for a time they are. We find that most times, giving our spouse a chance to rise to the challenge brings us closer and brings us comfort, which is the last point.
To say we will comfort each other is to seek out and understand their needs and meet them there. Comfort comes in many forms: listening, taking on tasks from the one we are trying to help, sharing thoughts, empathizing, even providing diversion as it fits. Often, just making physical contact can reduce stress and bring each other close. And at this particular time, that may be the one thing you cannot do. But we can comfort through other means mentioned above and many other approaches you have developed over the years as the way you show each other you are there.
And a final word on comforting each other: We promised we would. Remember? “Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…” (Mosiah 18:9)
I close with something memorable my mother told me about those depression years. “As tough as they were, they brought out good too. We found we needed so much less than we thought we did to be happy, and we needed each other so much more. And that was a good thing.”
We can do this. Together.