RELATIONSHIP LESSON FROM HORSES
I love horses. I mostly grew up in the city and my ranch raised father decided I was missing out on the education in hard work he had received as a child. So he sent me to work on my grandfather's ranch with my uncle David the summer I turned 12 years old, and I continued to do that every summer until I was 18. I was horseback 16 hours a day. At age 11, I learned to get up at 5:00 in the morning, catch and saddle my horse, and be working by the time the sun came up. By the time I was 13, I could cut and corral cattle as well as my uncle.
During those summers I would usually have two horses, and I would alternate them every other day so they would have a day off between work days. During that period of time, I got to know about five horses really well. Each one had its own personality and style. My least preferred mount was a tall and beautiful sorrel named Lad. He was beautiful, and a great cow pony. But he was mentally ill. When I would call the horses in, all the other horses obediently came in, knowing they would be fed grain. I always had to go out and catch Lad in the pasture. When I saddled him he would blow up his belly so the cinch would not be tight. A mile or so down the road I would always have to get off and tighten the cinch. Before I discovered that trick of his, I had the saddle just slide off to the side and fell off a couple of times. Whenever I went to get on him, he had his ears pinned back like he was angry and stepped around nervously like he wanted to buck.
Lad did buck with me a number of times. Typically, if I held something out to the side of me, he thought it was a ghost or something dangerous to him and would start bucking. The first time it was a water jug I was handing back to my dad. I didn't last three jumps before I was bucked off. I can describe the other incidents, but you get the general idea. Typically, I never got to ride Boots or Smokey when my brother or cousins were around, because I was the more experienced rider and knew Lad better -- and he was by far less gentle than the other two. Sometimes I hated him.
The biggest problem I had any time a horse started bucking was that I would freeze with fear and spend all my energy trying to get the horse back under control. I always try to keep control and stop them from bucking in the first place. But once they start bucking, I have to control myself before I can control the horse. If you talk to great rodeo cowboys, they can tell you that they simply accept that the horse is bucking and, in fact the harder he bucks the higher they are likely to score if they can stay aboard. They focus on themselves and the things they can control (body position and movement). They focus on reacting to the rhythm of the horse and getting into that rhythm with him. They aren't fighting the horse. They are working with him. You know what? Once the horse knows he can't beat you, he realizes that bucking is futile and he stops wasting his energy bucking.
Much like Lad, most of us in this group have experienced traumatic events or relationships in the past. We are likely to overreact as a result of that. Much like the 12-year-old me, we are tempted to try to control our partners to prevent chaos from erupting and destroying our lives.
Like a bucking horse, when a trial appears in my life, it usually feels like chaos unleashed. I instinctively try to seize control of it. However, if I relax and focus on the things I can control, I generally see that there is a rhythm to it. It is not chaos. If I accept that the horse is bucking and get in sync with the rhythm of it, I can ride it out. If I fight it too hard, I am likely to get bucked off.
Relationships are like that too. If my partner feels fear (which most do at some point in a relationship) and pulls away from me, I might be inclined to react with fear and try to seize control by arguing vociferously for why she is making a huge mistake. So what is she going to do? She's going to buck harder. (I have learned this from experience.) What if I accept that this is where she is and try to get in rhythm with it? We are more likely to ride it out. We are likely to build trust and both of us will gradually realize that no bucking is necessary.
Life and relationships can be like riding a high spirited horse. You can't take them for granted and they can surprise you in all kinds of ways. But remember, when it feels like chaos is breaking out, it probably isn't. There's actually a rhythm to it. If you can get in sync with that and work with it, life goes better and relationships go better.
ON THOUGHTS AND ADVERSITY
In 1 Nephi 17:1, Nephi described the adversity he and his family went through as they traveled in the wilderness after their exodus: "And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness."
Yet his prevailing thoughts were overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. Immediately following these words, Nephi exclaims:
"And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings. And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness."
(1Nephi 17:2-3.) It is amazing that Nephi was so positive under these conditions, while Laman and Lemuel murmured in dissatisfaction and misery. This scriptural passage fits the promise given by President Monson that, "The Lord shapes the back to bear the burden placed upon it." As a single parent, you may have felt the miracle of receiving unnatural strength to bear the burdens of parenthood alone. You may have been given miracles that allow you to feed your children better than you thought you could while being both mother and father in some ways. Your ”wilderness" is no less real than the one Lehi's family wandered in.
The truth is, most of you mid-singles are survivors. You have figured out how to survive trials and trauma. Your bigger problem, in many cases, is figuring out how to thrive and be happy. And make no mistake, they are entirely different skill sets.
Your brain is wired for survival. It stays on alert for danger. It does not distinguish between physical and emotional peril. In fact, it desperately wants acceptance and belonging. In primitive times, being rejected by your tribe would probably mean starvation and vulnerability to predators and the elements. Your brain knows this and intuitively responds with fear when you are rejected by someone you may have offered love (or to possibly create love). This survival instinct is very powerful, and it has a tendency to override our happiness. It often keeps us survivors stuck in anxiety. Happiness depends, in no small degree, on being able to switch off that survival instinct in situations that do not truly require it. If you are like me, you may have found that all of your prior success in life was based on fear. I think I got through law school and motivated myself to study by fearing failure. That is one example. There are thousands. If you try to find a deeper and more healthy source of motivation, it can feel like giving up your security blanket. You may cling to your anxiety and pain even harder for awhile.
Nephi demonstrated this skill when he focused on the blessings of the Lord, and showed faith in Him to take care of his family in the wilderness. The result was that he could relax into his situation, celebrate the blessings of the Lord, and create inner peace that his older brothers could not. Nephi demonstrates this positive quality again in the same chapter, stating, "notwithstanding we had suffered many afflictions and much difficulty, yea, even so much that we cannot write them all, we were exceedingly rejoiced when we came to the seashore; and we called the place Bountiful, because of its much fruit.” (1Nephi 17:6.) He "exceedingly rejoiced" notwithstanding great afflictions.
We often hear people say things like, " I am not a pessimist. I am a realist." They will then go on to paint a very gloomy picture of life or their circumstances -- not even realizing that most of it is interpretation rather than fact, and it's just a story they are telling themselves.
What kind of stories do mid-singles tell themselves?
"There are no good men out there."
"Women are all drama queens and crazy."
"Dating is hard and it's not worth the struggle."
"No one finds me attractive."
"I am past my prime and not beautiful / handsome anymore."
"Men are only after one thing."
"All women want is a guy with money."
"Being a single parent is hard because you're totally on your own."
"I have no time to take care of myself, because my whole life is about other people."
We could go on, but this is enough to illustrate the point. Are these Nephi kinds of words, or Laman and Lemuel kinds of words? Do these beliefs lead to happiness or to misery?
Let's try on some different beliefs:
"God has a loving plan for me, and everything I've suffered is taking me to a better place."
"My losses have prepared me for a better love."
"I have many friends in my life, and there are plenty of other people who are willing to be my friends and lend mutual love and support."
"There are many good single men in the church."
"There is an abundance of amazing women in the church."
"Most people want to love and be loved, aside from material things."
"Sex is a beautiful and holy part of married life, and I eagerly await the arrival of this gift."
"I owe it to myself and my children to take good care of myself, and to show love and compassion to myself as a child of God."
Which of these thoughts is more elevating? Which is more calculated to lead to happiness and peace? Do you feel more peace when you believe that you are on your own in a cruel world, or when you believe that a loving God has a plan for you, and you are surrounded by friends who love and support you? You might even ask yourself which of these sets of beliefs is more in harmony with how the gospel sees us as children of God with the potential to become like Him. Nephi understood that gratitude for God's blessings, and seeing them as abundant, created more joy and light.
As mid-singles, many of you have learned to survive. You have already won that medal. You have learned to survive by feeling anxious and fearful, and trying to solve everything that is wrong. Now, move into the light and learn better how to be happy and thrive by shifting your thoughts from fear and lack to abundance, joy, and love.
During my mid-single years, I often heard the phrase "I hate dating." I even heard it from people who were actively making an effort to date -- maybe even especially from those people. If I asked the reasons, I heard disparaging comments about the opposite sex, feelings about having hearts broken in the past, negative comments about "playing games," and comments about how "phony" and "contrived" the process is.
In one way or another, all of these comments come down to fear. These include fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, fear of emotional pain, fear of invalidation, fear of being deceived by a partner and hurt, or fear of not being able to "play the game" right and win the prize. Inevitably, dating is an emotional risk and it feels unsafe. (It's also exciting for the same reasons.)
How do we confront these fears and make dating more joyful and less fearful?
1. The Apostle John wrote, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18.) Isn't this true? It may have been written 2000 years ago, but it is true in 21st century dating that "fear hath torment." I am suggesting that the primary remedy for fear and torment is to love your dating partners. You might be thinking, "I don't know her yet. How can I love someone I just met?" I'm not suggesting getting carried away with romantic feelings and making commitments when you have barely met someone. I'm talking about genuine, Christlike love. Care about him or her as a person. Ask authentic questions about his or her life. Focus on the other person instead of your own fears. Focus on getting to know him or her and discovering what is special about that other person. Focus on finding genuine ways to build him or her up. Focusing your attention on the other person's gifts and goodness is the way to love him or her, even early in a relationship.
2. Focus on authenticity and be vulnerable. For some of you, this will trigger thoughts like, "but my ex-husband was a narcissist," or "I can fall in love easily and I need to remain suspicious to protect myself." No, you don't. That is fear talking. It is a fear of being vulnerable. You can never build high enough walls to protect you from getting hurt again. The best way to see who the other person really is, is to cultivate an authentic relationship, not a guarded or contrived one. As Paul wrote, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." (1 Corinthians 13:1.) Do you know any "sounding brass or tinkling cymbal" people -- who are very impressive talkers but void of real love? Such hearts are exposed in an authentic relationship. If you are only playing games and keeping your own defenses up, the other person will do the same thing and you will have a superficial dating relationship and not really get to know the person at a deeper level. That's how you get fooled. Take the lead in creating an authentic and vulnerable relationship. That is your best defense against marrying a narcissist. Focus on love and the fear of being fooled will dissipate.
3. Drop the excuses. If you think the dating process is "phony" and "contrived" change it. There is not some big governing body that sets the rules for dating. "How it works" is determined by the two people involved. Our social customs are not so rigid as to prevent authenticity and vulnerability. When you are dating, you and your partner make the rules. If it ends up being phony, it is because you made it that way. Honestly, it is such a relief to drop the pretense and stop trying to impress, and just have a real conversation with another real person.
I've heard every excuse in the book for why people don't date, and I know it's not for me to judge any individual. I only encourage you to seek for the things you really want. For most Latter-Day Saints who understand the plan of salvation, I think an eternal marriage is our highest aspiration -- second only to our relationship with God. As President Kimball said, "Honorable, happy, and successful marriage is surely the principal goal of every normal person." So why do many of us pretend we don't want something that we fervently do want? Fear. We do it in many areas of life. If you don't get that job you really wanted, you might be inclined to tell people, "I didn't really want it that much anyway” to make it okay. Any other time we are not chosen for something we really want, we make it okay by saying "I didn't really want it." For many of us, we tell ourselves that we don't want to get married because that's safer than getting our hopes up and being disappointed or embarrassed. So we make excuses instead. As Jesus said:
"Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God. Then said he unto him, A certain man made a great supper, and bade many: And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready. And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come." (Luke 14:15-20.)
"I have to focus on my kids right now."
"I have to get my business up and running first."
"My church calling takes all of my spare time."
"I am not good at marriage."
Instead of making excuses, admit what you really want. Be authentic and real. If you are afraid of getting hurt, say so. It will feel a lot better than pretending you aren't interested, playing hard to get, or telling people you are apathetic or don't care Of course you care. You are talking about your eternal destiny. Confront your fears with love and not with walls.
Three years ago today, Cathy
and I were married! Despite all of the fear and trauma that comes from broken marriages in the past, we chose each other and promised to be together forever. Getting married is a tremendous act of faith in God and in another person.
I can say, without hesitation, that I am grateful she said "yes" and I would do it again. I chose someone with whom I could build an intentional marriage at mid-life, and that's a beautiful thing. I want the same joy for every one of you that is willing to try again!
I love you Cathy! Thanks for saying YES!