Coping and Mothering: Overcoming Discouragement

I went to lunch several months ago with some friends.  During a side conversation, one friend said to me, “That’s the worst part about growing up: learning about everyone’s problems.”  I don’t even really remember the context of our discussion, but her comment has stuck with me.  It’s so true.  As a child, we have a very limited view of the world at large, and most of my memories are happy and carefree.  As we grow older and our view of the world around us expands, we are exposed to more and more pain, suffering, and sadness– sometimes our own, but often in the lives of others too.

Over the last several weeks, Matt and I have been struggling with watching people we know and love go through some really hard things.  Not just one or two friends, but several.  There are marriage troubles, there are health issues, there are fears and anxieties.  It has made us heavy-hearted, and frankly, a little discouraged.  We want to fix things and we just can’t.  We want to help, but feel so helpless.  It kind of makes us want to hide from the whole scary world so we don’t fall into the same pits, but where and how?  We start to wonder if everyone else on the planet has some deep, dark secret pain going on, and maybe we’re the only people who have “normal” trials, like bad days at work or budget woes or struggling to keep up with the demands of busy lives.  (Does anyone else feel like that sometimes?)  It of course puts your own trials into startling perspective, but it leaves you feeling a vicarious pain for what everyone else seems to be going through.  And even though your own life is relatively “easy,” it’s not easy to watch the pain that’s happening around you.  It hurts.

I’ve noticed it’s difficult to brush those feelings aside and deal with the matters at hand, like helping children with homework or finding socks or making dinner.  They have no idea about the hard things going on in the lives of friends and family.  You certainly don’t want to make it their burden either, but it’s hard to put on a happy face and go on like nothing’s wrong.  This morning, after I got the boys off to school, I tried to get Natalie occupied with her own activities so that I could just crawl back into bed and think.  Rest.  Decompress.  She kept coming into my room every 5 minutes to ask for help with milk or TV buttons or questions.  I was losing patience quickly.  It’s really hard to heal and mother at the same time.  I wasn’t very kind.

I don’t have any real answers to this.  I’m still working through it, but I wanted to share some of the things I’ve been thinking about and learning about in the meantime.  Yesterday, I had a rare opportunity to be in the car by myself in between some carpooling drop-offs and pick-ups.  I wanted something to listen to in the car that would help me focus my thoughts, and I remembered that I had an old general conference CD set somewhere.  I scanned the bookshelf in the office, found it, and grabbed it.  I really wish I had some kind of system in my car where I could just hook up my iPod and listen to whatever I want whenever I want, but I don’t.  And it seems really dumb to invest in that kind of stereo equipment when my van is pushing 160K miles.  Anyway, I had general conference CDs from 1998, and I popped them in and listened while I drove.

This morning I had to go to the dentist, and the CD was still in when I turned on the car.  I heard the end of one talk that was nice.  They had all been nice, but nothing had jumped out at me so far.  Then I heard this talk:  “Overcoming Discouragement” by Elder Val R. Christensen.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

Many of us face significant challenges. Even the great prophet Enoch experienced sadness when he viewed the wickedness of the world: “And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted; but the Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look” (Moses 7:44).

There are at least three steps to take when striving to overcome discouragement:

  1. You can work on changing your attitude toward the problem. Even though you can’t change the circumstances in which you work or live, you can always change your attitude.
  2. You can receive help from those who are close to you—your family, friends, and ward members, those who love you the most.
  3. You can develop a more powerful and complete trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even before he started explaining his three points, I knew that there was truth in them.  I felt the Spirit– enlightenment and hope.

By looking at a problem in a different way, it may be possible to reduce discouragement. I have been impressed with the pioneer story told about Zina Young. After experiencing the death of parents, crop failure, and sickness, she was encouraged with a spiritual experience that changed her attitude. While attempting to seek divine help, she heard her mother’s voice: “Zina, any sailor can steer on a smooth sea, when rocks appear, sail around them.” A prayer came quickly: “O Father in heaven, help me to be a good sailor, that my heart shall not break on the rocks of grief” (“Mother,” The Young Woman’s Journal, Jan. 1911, 45). It is often difficult to change circumstances, but a positive attitude can help lift discouragement.

One morning, several days ago, I got some bad news from one of my friends I’ve been worried about.  I lay in bed in the quiet early hours of the morning and my heart just hurt.  I could feel a real, tangible sadness.  While I thought about that pain, I was reminded of something I’ve taught many times before in a lesson about the Atonement.

“I believe, to use an insurance phrase, we must pay the deductible. We must experience sorrow enough, suffering enough, guilt enough so we are conscious and appreciative of the heavier burden borne by the Savior.” (Elder J. Richard Clarke, in Conference Report April 1993, 10)

In that moment, I kind of got it.  What I was feeling was just the tiniest piece of what the Savior felt when He took upon himself the pains of the world.  It was pain from sin, but also every kind of sorrow.  It is His pain.  Not mine.  Not hers.  It’s His.  He bought it with a price and I need to give it back to Him. I don’t need to keep it.  So, I determined then that all I can do is hand the burden back and then pay close attention to what He wants me to do.  He can show me how to help and how to move on.  So in the several days since, whenever I’ve felt the weight of sadness, I try to replay this same scenario in my mind and let it go.  Here’s another snippet from Elder Christensen’s talk:

I’ve talked about changing attitudes and receiving help from others. Now, let me mention the need to put more trust and faith in the Lord. I once talked to a woman who received help with her discouragement. While waiting for a temple session to begin, she picked up a Book of Mormon to read a verse. Her eyes fixed upon Alma 34:3: “And as ye have desired of my beloved brother that he should make known unto you what ye should do, because of your afflictions; and he hath spoken somewhat unto you to prepare your minds; yea, and he hath exhorted you unto faith and to patience.” The scripture in Alma was an answer to her prayer. The message was simple: the problem she faced was going to take a long time to solve. If we place a little more patience in the process and a greater amount of faith in the Lord, our challenges will find their way toward successful conclusions.

In the Doctrine and Covenants we read this: “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful” (D&C 136:29).

Some of these things will take time to work themselves out.  I have faith that some of them really will work out just fine, but it may take a while.  There may be long periods of down before the up figures itself out.  So that’s what I’m working on right now: finding joy and optimism despite sad things happening around me.  When the talk was over, I turned to Natalie in the back seat and said, “Natalie, I’m sorry I wasn’t very nice to you this morning when I was in bed.  I was frustrated because I just wanted some rest, but I still should have been kind.  I’m sorry.”  She, being the epitome of childlike forgiveness, simply smiled and asked what was for lunch.

Anyway, I’m sorry if this post doesn’t have a cute little conclusion that makes it all better. I’m still working on it, but I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far, and hopefully it can be helpful to someone who’s dealing with or feeling some of the same things.