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.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THOUGHTS -- AND MID-SINGLES
What causes you the most pain? When I was 26 years old, I lost my little brother to cancer. The loss I felt was deeply painful. He was only 17. There was some feeling that "it wasn't meant to be this way" because he was so young. But, mainly, it was honestly just feeling the pain of his loss. I also had the thought that some of the light had gone out in my life and that life would never be quite so sunny or hopeful again.
The pain of losing my brother was, in some sense, inevitable. I could, perhaps, choose thoughts that made it go away. But, in a larger sense, I would not have wanted it to go away too soon. As President Nelson said, "The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life." Who wants to do that? So, we can choose pain when it serves us. I think it serves us to grieve after the death of a loved one. However, the thoughts that I would never feel so sunny or hopeful again did not serve me. Any sense that he was "too young to die" was a judgment about how something went wrong, the cosmos was out of balance, and I was suffering because if it.
Mid-single Latter-day Saints almost universally suffer from deep disappointment over how things turned out for them. During, and for years after, my divorce from my first wife, I was plagued by thoughts that:
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
We were married for time and all eternity, not to separate when things get tough.
I didn't get married to get divorced.
We made Covenants in the house of the Lord before God, angels, and witnesses.
We have two children who are deeply hurt by this.
Whatever benefit this is giving us is not worth the price.
It is not right for me to be deprived of my children as much as I am.
I should not have to pay money to support someone else's unrighteous decisions.
God does not approve of divorce.
Taken together, in some sense, these thoughts all add up to the idea that, "it wasn't supposed to be this way." And that judgment, in all of its forms, will keep us in pain as long as we carry it. It is one thing to feel the pain of loss when your marriage ends. It is quite another to burden those thoughts further with a lot of judgments about things you cannot control. I hope this gives another level of meaning to the truth that, "with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged." (Matthew 7:2.) This is certainly the truth. Our judgments of our own situation -- about how something is out of place or wrong -- are guaranteed to keep us in pain far longer than if we just allowed ourselves to experience the authentic pain of loss, unladen with the idea that it was supposed to be some other way.
Let's try on a few other thoughts and see how they feel:
Things are as they were supposed to be.
Wherever I am now is perfect for me.
My situation is the starting point for a happier life.
God has a plan for me and does nothing that is not an act of love.
God allowed me to experience this loss to make room for more love in my life.
No other person can permanently deprive me of my joy or of my exaltation.
I love my children and will continue to love them even more actively when they are in pain.
It is a privilege to support and care for my children in whatever ways I can.
God's love is in, around, and through me. There is an endless supply of it available to me whenever I need it.
Can you see how this list of thoughts is elevating, where the former list is heavy and overwhelming? Both lists are thoughts about the same situation, but they are different interpretations. Consider what the Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
”[T]ruth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come; And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning." (D&C 93:24-25.)
Truth is what IS, not what we think should be. It is not the judgments we make about what might be superior or preferable. How we think about our circumstances will determine whether we are happy or miserable. Joseph further taught:
"Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light." (D&C 93:31.)
How do we receive any truth? It is through our "agency." We may have physical ordinances like baptism, but they mean nothing if they do not reflect an exercise of "agency," where we receive that truth in our thoughts. Think of that metaphor of light and darkness. "That which is of God is light." (D&C 50:24.) Moses saw the difference between the glory of God and the glory of Satan, and told Satan that his glory "is darkness unto me." (Moses 1:15.)
Light represents thoughts that are elevating. It represents illumination and clarity. It represents hope and vision. What does darkness represent? It represents chaos, confusion, a lack of vision, and being unable to see our way home. It represents fear of whatever danger might be lurking out there that we can't see. Darkness is heavy. Any work performed in darkness requires more effort because we can't see what we are doing.
My plea to you is not to think your way out of all pain. Pain is part of the human experience and sometimes gives meaning to the love we feel. The point is really to keep it in its proper place. Make it authentic pain, and not the result of the judgments we make about something being wrong or out of place. Pain with all sorts of judgments hanging on it will last longer and hurt more deeply and get us stuck and unable to move forward. So my plea is to embrace the light with your thoughts. We have all kinds of thoughts. Not all of them reflect light and truth. Many of them are laden with judgment. Choose to keep the thoughts that are elevating and invite more love into your life and into your heart. That is the way of happiness.