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I grew up high on the western edge of the great Rocky Mountains. My Cache Valley, Utah childhood was filled with hiking, fishing, deer, and snow. Lots of snow. I didn’t think this little corner of the world was very impressive. But when I finally took my husband, who had grown up on the Gulf Coast, to see my hometown, he said, “You grew up like Heidi!” and I filled with pride (the good kind).

In my adolescent years we moved from Logan to the East Bench of Salt Lake City, and again I took for granted the dramatic Mount Olympus, the deep and wondrous canyons, the constant skiing. Thus, when I moved to Los Angeles in the middle of high school I was struck by the odd and unsettling feeling of being completely exposed.  Mountains had always surrounded me like a cozy cloak, the jagged border around my world, even the means of navigation. And now they were gone.

I stared at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, then back to the distant San Gabriels which, compared to the towering Wasatch Mountains, looked more like, well, hills. And I missed my purple mountain majesties.

A year ago I wrote here about Mountaintop Thinking, and explained that mankind is drawn to elevation. Throughout Holy Writ we learn that mountains are spiritual places where prophets ascend to commune with God.  Many of our temples are built on hills and rises, symbolic of this same holiness of purpose.  And without even realizing the celestial tug that pulls them, people ascend heights and conquer peaks all over the world.

But today I want to examine how we, ourselves, mirror mountains when we triumph over adversity, when we turn challenges into strengths. Poet Katherine MacKenett said, “Now every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: What darkness did you conquer in your story? Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.” She’s right. 

Think of the most amazing people you know, and if you look closely at how they became so incredible, you’ll find the overcoming of hardships. Every biography of an LDS church leader is a study in how to remain faithful despite astonishing adversity. And such stories aren’t just about Latter-day Saints. Remarkable leaders of all kinds earn our respect as they exemplify perseverance and victory: Helen Keller, Frederick Douglass, Albert Einstein, Ludwig van Beethoven—the list is endless.

One of our sons is a geologist and speaks enthusiastically about orogeny, or the building of mountains. In one scenario you have an oceanic plate which is denser than a “fluffy” continental plate. As the oceanic one slides, or subducts, beneath the continental one, the top layer of the oceanic plate is scraped off, and you get coastal ranges. Then, as that plate dives into the mantle it melts. Mix that with water and you get incredibly hot magma, which rises to form volcanoes.

Then there’s the method where two continental plates collide. As our son, Richie, reminds us, the Himalayas were formed when India slammed into Asia. The Alps were formed by similar collisions. Sometimes mountains form the way a rug bunches up when ends are pushed together. Other times they result from volcanoes. But all of these processes involve earthquakes.

Isn’t this a metaphor of life?  Sometimes we encounter a challenge that forces us to adapt, to sacrifice, to adjust. We’re scraped and wounded, our lives up-ended. Other times we’re plunged into scorching magma, or slammed with a trial we never expected. 

Sometimes we’re forced to take a stand, to be unwavering in our defense of truth and honor. This refusal to back down, to abandon our principles, can make us majestic. Strong. Towering. But none of it happens without earthquakes. Greatness comes at a price. Whether it’s flawless mastery of a musical instrument, athletic excellence, resolute integrity, phenomenal compassion, or spiritual greatness, it is the result of triumph over adversity.

When I was three years old I found a tiny mound of clay in my yard and dutifully watered it every day, thinking I could grow a mountain. But mountains, and heroic people, are not grown through ease and “watering.”  They result from trials, from the harsh blows of life, sometimes from the very ones we feel are so unfair.  When you feel life’s misfortunes are just too overwhelming to bear, ask yourself what kind of mountain  you wish to be.

God allows bad things to happen to good people because earth life is where he makes us into more than we knew we could be. This wasn’t supposed to be an amusement park with free flowing ice cream; it’s a learning laboratory, a place of transformation. As we draw closer to our Father in Heaven, as we involve him in our lives and turn to him with faith we break through the childish desire for instant gratification and self-indulgence. We find greater fulfillment in building the kingdom. We learn Godly traits as we endure setbacks and sorrows. We find deeper joy in serving, and sometimes rescuing, others. We overcome what looked like crushing obstacles, pressures beyond our imagination. But if we overcome, we become. And what we become are mountains.

Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle.  All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website.  She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.