Friday, May 29, 2009

Jacob's Talk Given at Church on Jocelyn's Birthday

“The Purpose of Trials” 5/17/09

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jacob Thomas, my wife is Veronica and we have two girls, Jocelyn and Natalie. I’ve just about finished my first year of medical school here. People always ask me two questions when they meet me for the first time, so I’ll save you the trouble and give you the answers right now. The answers are 6 foot 7 and no. So what are the questions? How tall are you, and do you play basketball.

Last August when we moved here my dad and my brother were able to come out and help us move in. My dad was as healthy and full of energy as he always has been, even though he was 60 years old. He has always been the person in our family that was NEVER sick, and seemed to be invincible to me growing up. However, in the short time since then he has become almost bedridden and must use a walker to be able to walk even short distances. About a month after coming to help us move he passed out on an airplane, and they thought it might have just been from being in a stuffy, cramped space, but shortly after that he started having tingling sensations on his left side and other neurological symptoms. A CT scan showed multiple lesions in his brain. The doctors’ first impressions were that he had lymphoma, a type of cancer, but a full-body scan, several biopsies and lumbar punctures have all failed to find any sign of cancer. Each time my parents awaited results to know if it was cancer they got ready for bad news, but each time there was no cancer found, but the fact remains that he has several lesions which are growing, and new ones are popping up. They have ruled out every common cause for his symptoms, and after about 8 months at one of the top ten neurology hospitals in the U.S., he is still officially “undiagnosed”. They have tried several treatments and now he has started a general chemotherapy to try and stop whatever it is from growing. This situation results in my parents being in a state of constant anxiety from living with an uncertain future and uncertainty of what they are even facing. This has been a major trial in their lives, and certainly a year ago we never would have expected to see my dad in such a weakened state.

We thought it was funny that when Bishop Bucey asked me to give a talk, he gave me the topic of trials, because ever since we moved here it has been a non-stop barrage of trials and unfortunate news in our family. Aside from my dad’s poor health, my cousin and his wife were in an awful plane crash in which they survived but both were severely burned, another young couple in our family with three children under 6 years old got divorced suddenly to all our surprise, my friend Ethan from Arizona passed away due to complications of Muscular Dystrophy, and my Aunt was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. How is it that things like these can happen? All of these people are good people, yet they suffer so much. What is the purpose of our having trials? I asked my parents what they have been feeling going through their current hard times, and they said in unison “we have trials to humble us and to help us have compassion for others”.

We read in Alma 7:12 “And he [The Savior] will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” Through our trials we can gain comfort in knowing that Christ has taken upon himself all of our pains, and completely understands how we feel during our trials. Elder Wirthilin said in his last conference talk “Because Jesus Christ suffered greatly, He understands our suffering. He understands our grief. We experience hard things so that we too may have increased compassion and understanding for others.”

I recently saw an example of a person brought to humility through the trials in her life. Throughout the year we have had a few patients with major health problems come in to share their experiences with us to try and help us understand what it is like to live with poor health. One woman came in to talk about her kidney problems. She has had a difficult life because of her health. She has had to be on dialysis for the past 20 years with no hope of getting off of it. She received a kidney transplant once, but it was quickly rejected and so she has no chance of receiving another donated kidney. Dialysis is a very difficult treatment to deal with. For the past twenty years she has gone three days a week for about four hours each time for her treatment. Often the treatment will leave her feeling very sick, so really only the days in between treatments does she feel ok. Travel for her is only possible if she can find a facility to continue dialysis where she is visiting. All through this she has maintained a wonderful attitude. One thing she said that stuck out to me was, “When you consider the alternative (death), it’s really not that bad.” I could see her humility when she said that. She knew that she had a very difficult life because of the treatment she has to go through, but she remains grateful for the life she does have. It takes a lot of humility to be grateful in a situation like that. You can look around and see that so many people have it easier than you, still have their health, have more money, have more of whatever else. It takes humility to not be jealous but to accept what the Lord has given you and be grateful. She said many of the other people she knows going through dialysis constantly struggle and do not wish to continue. Her story got me thinking about what could be the difference between people that have the will to endure and those that wish to give up. I think one thing that makes a difference for this woman is how much she values her life and how grateful she is for the life she had, even though her life was difficult.

Now, for anyone that has been through a difficult trial, you know it’s not always easy to stay positive and be grateful. Elder Wirthilin brought up an important point in his last conference talk. His talk was titled ‘Come what may, and love it’. This is what his mother always told him when he was having a hard time. He said, “How can we love days that are filled with sorrow? We can’t—at least not in the moment. I don’t think my mother was suggesting that we suppress discouragement or deny the reality of pain. I don’t think she was suggesting that we smother unpleasant truths beneath a cloak of pretended happiness. But I do believe that the way we react to adversity can be a major factor in how happy and successful we can be in life.” I feel like this is an important point to remember for ourselves and for when we are trying to comfort others. It is normal to feel pain and to be down during a difficult trial, and it won’t help to pretend like it isn’t hard or pretend that you’re ok. Often people don’t need a lecture on how they should have a positive attitude and be grateful, rather they need someone to understand how they feel and to feel the pain with them. Elder Wirthilin continued “Learning to endure times of disappointment, suffering, and sorrow is part of our on-the-job training. These experiences, while often difficult to bear at the time, are precisely the kinds of experiences that stretch our understanding, build our character, and increase our compassion for others…If we approach adversities wisely, our hardest times can be times of greatest growth, which in turn can lead toward times of greatest happiness.” Again, we must remember that we have the power to choose how we will react to adversity. Our choices will determine how a trial will affect us.

President Monson shared a story of another humble woman who remained grateful through her difficult life. He said “Many years ago I was touched by the story of Borghild Dahl. She was born in Minnesota in 1890 of Norwegian parents and from her early years suffered severely impaired vision. She had a tremendous desire to participate in everyday life despite her handicap and, through sheer determination, succeeded in nearly everything she undertook. Against the advice of educators, who felt her handicap was too great, she attended college, receiving her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She later studied at Columbia University and the University of Oslo. She eventually became the principal of eight schools in western Minnesota and North Dakota. She wrote the following in one of the 17 books she authored: “I had only one eye, and it was so covered with dense scars that I had to do all my seeing through one small opening in the left of the eye. I could see a book only by holding it up close to my face and by straining my one eye as hard as I could to the left.” Miraculously, in 1943—when she was over 50 years old—a revolutionary procedure was developed which finally restored to her much of the sight she had been without for so long. A new and exciting world opened up before her. She took great pleasure in the small things most of us take for granted, such as watching a bird in flight, noticing the light reflected in the bubbles of her dishwater, or observing the phases of the moon each night. She closed one of her books with these words: “Dear . . . Father in heaven, I thank Thee. I thank Thee.” Borghild Dahl, both before and after her sight was restored, was filled with gratitude for her blessings. In 1982, two years before she died, at the age of 92 her last book was published. Its title: Happy All My Life. Her attitude of thankfulness enabled her to appreciate her blessings and to live a full and rich life despite her challenges.”

I wanted to say one last thing about how trials help us to understand others. Unfortunately I think that sometimes after going through a hard time it can be easy to feel like others have it so much easier than you. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation. Say you just sat through four hours of lectures, barely had time for lunch, spent three hours in the dissection lab hunched over because you’re a foot taller than everyone else, then went to a group activity to present a case for a couple hours. On top of that you have a test the next day that you’ve barely had time to study for. When you get home your back is sore, your brain is so numb you can barely see straight, and in the back of your mind you know you still have to study for a couple more hours that night. You walk in the door and your wife sighs and says “I’ve had a rough day!” What you choose to reply to that statement is the most important choice you will make that whole day.

Now, on the other side of that story. You wake up at 6:25 a.m., you just fed your four month old baby a couple of hours ago and you were hoping that she would sleep just a little longer because she already woke you up two other times that night, and yes, your husband slept right through it… So you get up sleep deprived and start changing your baby’s diaper, then you hear your toddler start whining in the next room. She didn’t sleep well either because she is teething. After breakfast your husband rushes out the door to catch the bus. You look at the house and it’s a mess, there are dishes to wash, a baby to feed, and you’re still in your pajamas. After getting ready you realize it’s pouring outside. Now you have to figure out how you will carry two kids down the stairs while holding an umbrella and diaper bag to get the kids in the car to go to the doctor. You all ended up getting soaked anyway. You come home, put the baby down for a nap and feed your toddler before putting her down as well. Right when you think you’re going to have a break, your baby wakes up after only sleeping 20 minutes. You’re still sleep deprived, the house is still a mess, the sink is full of dishes, and you need to get started on dinner. While trying to get dinner started you have to hold your baby or she will cry, your toddler is whining and wants your attention, and then your husband walks in the door looking exhausted.

If you are either of these people it is easy to feel like you had the harder day and the other can’t begin to understand how hard your day was. This is where true humility and Christ-like love has to come in. Christ understands exactly how we feel every second of every day. It’s hard for us to completely understand how others are feeling, but we must try to have that love and compassion and humble ourselves enough to care less about ourselves and just be there to help each other.