In my last blog post on “owning our stories,” I included a favorite quote from psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “The most beautiful people we have known,” she wrote, “are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
I’ve continued to think a lot about that statement over the last couple of weeks. Life can be painful. Hardship of one form or another escapes no one. The prophet Joseph Smith even taught that such pain and trying experiences—experiences that would “wrench [our] very heart strings”—would be required of us as a means of developing the capacities and qualities of godliness. As a therapist I’ve walked with people through deep pain and difficulty of infinite variety, and as a human I’ve tasted of some portion of that pain and difficulty in my own life. One of the themes I see arise again and again as individuals work through their pain—enough to see the potential sanctifying power of that pain if they turn it over to the Lord and allow it to make them better—is that they can look back on those difficulties as a “blessing” or even a “gift.”
There have been several experiences in my life that, in the midst of them, I would never have considered to be a blessing from God. And now, as I look back to see how those experiences have shaped me into the person I’m becoming today, I can genuinely view them with a deep sense of gratitude. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I’d want to experience them again, but it does mean that I’m grateful for how the Lord has been able to consecrate those experiences for my gain (see 2 Nephi 2:2). Elder Neal A. Maxwell once stated that “the cavity which suffering carves into our souls will one day also be the receptacle of joy” (“But for a Small Moment,” BYU Devotional Address, 1 September 1974).
LDS Apostle Orson F. Whitney similarly taught,
“No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God . . . and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven.”
The poet Robert Bly offered a yet similar thought in his book Iron John:
“Where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be. Wherever the wound appears in our psyches, whether from alcoholic father, shaming mother, shaming father, abusing mother, whether it stems from isolation, disability, or disease, that is precisely the place from which we will give our major gift to the community.”
I love this idea. It’s not so much that our pain and suffering have sanctifying powering in and of themselves, but they do have that potential as we are willing to allow that pain and suffering to turn us more fully to Jesus Christ so He can heal us. As we recall in the Book of Mormon, the Nephites seemed to respond in one of two ways to the afflictions they experienced as a result of “the exceedingly great length of the war.” Many had “become hardened” because of what they experienced, while others “were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility” (Alma 62:41).
There are two video clips I’d like to share here. Both speak so poignantly to me of the gift and blessing and sanctifying power pain and hurt and suffering can have when we maintain an eternal perspective and allow those experience to deepen rather than weaken our faith in and worship of our Father in Heaven and our Savior Jesus Christ. The first is a song/music video by LDS artist Hilary Weeks called “Beautiful Heartbreak”:
The Lord truly does make our heartbreaks into something beautiful. I know this because I’ve lived it.
The other is a video titled “99 Balloons,” in which a young Christian couple shares the inspiring/heartbreaking story of their son, Eliot, who was born with a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. Elliot lived only 99 days. Despite what could have been a faith-shattering experience—why would God allow this kind of thing to happen to those who are trying so earnestly to serve Him?—this young couple elected instead to allow the experience to increase their faith and to manifest the glory of God:
There is something about this video that brings me to tears every time I watch it. Being the father of a little boy, I can’t imagine the pain I would feel in losing my son. And yet, this couple chose to experience and cherish each day as a gift, with God revealing Himself in each precious moment. At the end of this video, they include the words of Job 1:21: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The sentiment of that verse humbles me and leaves me with this deep awareness of how vulnerable my faith can be. Should something so heartbreaking ever occur in my life, I pray to have the faith to speak such words.
One of the greatest lessons my life experiences has taught me is that when we let Him be God, trusting that there is meaning and purpose in all life has to teach us, allowing Him to consecrate all of our experiences for our gain and His glory, He will give unto us “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:3).