Note: This was posted in response to a query at Mormon Dialogue & Discussion which asks, essentially, “Does hope work?” Is it worth it? Apparently the question was asked by someone who struggles perceiving answers to his prayers and the hand of God in his life. Here’s what I said:
Even hope and optimism betrayed are better than pessimism rewarded. Oftentimes, it’s a matter of perspective. I’m reminded of the story of the identical twins, one an optimist and the other a pessimist. For their birthday, their parents got the pessimist every gift they could think of—everything a boy could want. For the pessimist, all they got was a box of manure (a beautifully-wrapped box of manure, mind you, but a box of manure nonetheless). The pessimist comes slouching down the stairs into the living room, sees the room positively chock full of gloriously-wrapped presents, and grumbles, “Oh, is that all you got me?” Meanwhile, the optimist comes bounding down the stairs, rips open the wrapping paper on his single gift, rips open the box and starts pawing through the manure like mad, repeating over and over, “There’s gotta be a pony in here someplace! There’s gotta be a pony in here someplace!” 😉 😀 Even all of the best “blessings” world can’t change the outlook of a pessimist who’s determined to stay pessimistic.
Sometimes, I’m frustrated by the facts that certain aspects of my life haven’t yet worked out in the way that I’d hoped and that certain of my challenges seem stubbornly to resist resolution. 😉 Yet I cannot deny the ways in which I have been blessed: I cannot deny the subtle yet (in my mind and heart, anyway) unmistakable ways in which I have been told, if not in so many words, “You’ll be OK, Ken. Just trust me. Lean on my ample arm, and whatever it is, I’ll get you through it.” (The questions in my mind that most stubbornly resist answers are these: How? and When?) The challenges in my life can be divided, roughly, into two categories: one physical, the other mental/emotional/spiritual.
Here’s a taste of the physical. (I’m not “comparing notes” with anyone else, and I realize that a multitude of people have overcome physical challenges far greater than mine in far greater fashion; I simply share this so you’ll know where I’m coming from, and I can only speak to what I know). I was born nearly ten weeks prematurely in an era in which that kind of prematurity was a virtual death sentence. (Utah’s first Newborn Intensive Care Unit had been established just the year before, but I was never sent there—perhaps because competent medical opinion figured the trip alone might kill me.) I weighed 3 pounds 5 ounces, “big” for that stage of development—and the “extra” weight might’ve been the only thing that saved me. I have Cerebral Palsy as a result.
As a result of the Cerebral Palsy, I have had surgery on every major muscle in my left leg; have had my left hip reconstructed three times; have had hardware implanted and removed; have spent a total of six months with my lower body completely immobilized in plaster (though not all at once—thank God! ;)); and have used every ambulatory device imaginable, including canes, crutches, braces, a walker, and a wheelchair. In the midst of these challenges, while lying on an operating table waiting to be cut open for the third time in 27 months (after two failed operations, each of which had been followed by six weeks in a body cast), I knew—even though, if anybody had bet on the situation’s outcome, they would have bet against me, and even though many would’ve thought that optimism under these circumstances was foolhardy and naïve (to say the least!)—that when I awoke after the operation, it would be to news of the best possible outcome. To be clear, I knew beyond any doubt whatsoever (good reason for pessimism notwithstanding) that God would guide the hands of a brash young surgeon who dared to defy the weight of medical opinion opposing him, which held that the best course of action was to try, again, what had already failed—twice.
If Dr. Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist of M*A*S*H fame, was right in his assessment that “war is the best enterprise ever invented for separating a man’s brains from his buns,” then I would have to conclude that some of the things I’ve been through are a close second. (With all due deference to people who’ve been in war zones and who’ve been shot at, by no means do I intend to downplay your experiences and your sacrifices, and I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your service. But again, I can only speak to what I know.) And what of the “mental/emotional/spiritual” side of things? I was “mainstreamed” in school from Day One. That proved to be a blessing in the long run because it forced me to engage the world on its terms rather than demanding or expecting that the world engage me on my terms. (I’m still not perfect in that regard, by the way, but I did learn, very early and very quickly, that life isn’t fair, and that I’d better get off my @$$ and learn to deal with it the best I could rather than simply sitting there feeling sorry for myself!)
I was teased, taunted, bullied, made fun of, pushed, and hit; and teased, taunted, bullied, made fun of, pushed, and hit some more. Some days I went home from school determined never to go back. I appealed to teachers for help, often with little success (perhaps we’re better at responding to this kind of thing now than we were then, but there’s only so much even the best teacher can do). One turning point came in fourth grade when a teacher I thought the world of decided he had heard one too many such appeals from me and said, “Look, Ken, you just can’t give a damn what anybody else thinks.” Many might be appalled to learn that a teacher would use that kind of language when speaking to an impressionable fourth-grader. But I think his choice of language was meant to reinforce the point he was trying to make: Look, Ken. You’re better than them. You know it, and deep down, they know it. I can’t say or do anything more to drive that point home to them. And perhaps it was then I decided that if I gave in to the impulse to never go back, I would let them win, and under no circumstances was I going to let them win.
Another turning point came in seventh grade, when a couple of my chief tormentors decided they were going to play “keep-away” from me with one of the ambulatory devices I used for propulsion at the time. Although I knew they were having “fun” at my expense, I also figured this idiocy couldn’t last forever: I’d let them have their fun, retrieve the crutch, and that would be the end of it. My father, who had seen the whole episode (sans audio) from his car while waiting to pick me up, demanded to know what had happened. While I was reluctant to tell him, he’s an excellent interrogator, having learned a thing or two about that in the nearly thirty years he’d spent in law enforcement at the time. I told him, then forgot all about the incident until I was sitting in class several days later and was asked to report to the principal’s office. When I got there, my dad, my tormentors, and the principal were all in attendance. By far, that was the best intervention between me and my tormentors that occurred during the entirety of my elementary and secondary education. Miraculously and mysteriously—apart from a handful of incidents which really were too minor to be called bullying—nobody messed with me after that. Apparently, word got around that you don’t mess with Sergeant G.’s kid. (And for those of you who are wondering, it was the principal who did all the talking during that meeting, while my dad hardly said a word. If you knew my dad, you’d know how rare that is!)
I eventually won over most all of my classmates though—even my detractors. When we graduated from high school in 1988, I was presented with a scholarship which, although modest, was comprised of money taken from the Senior Class Fund—you know, the fund of which Senior Class officers usually say, “Hey, we’re about to graduate. What should we do with all of this money? Maybe we could go to Hawaii or something?!” Yeah. That fund. But they gave some of it to me. Included with the check was a letter signed by 208 of the 280 members of my graduating class. The letter said:
The Senior Class of 1988 wishes to acknowledge you in a very special way. Your courage and positive attitude have inspired all of us. In spite of your physical handicap, you have completed your high school education and you have done it under circumstances in which most of us would have failed. You have been cheerful about it and even joked. There is usually a smile on your face and a greeting on your lips. It appears that life handed you a lemon and you made lemonade. It is unusual for a class to make an award of this type available, but we feel that you deserve it. We admire you and wish you the best of luck in your future. We hope that you will use this $300 check to further your education, because you are a good student and have the potential to succeed.
With our love and best wishes,
The Class of ‘88 1
I won’t bore you with an equally-detailed account of the psychological/emotional/spiritual side of things except to say that no, I didn’t go through all of that—and through a lot of other stuff—unscathed. A lot of the physical scars have faded considerably, while a lot of the emotional scars still are quite evident. But even if you don’t heal, you do learn to deal. I haven’t always been the best at that. I’ve overreacted to some things most people might consider to be no big deal. But a part of the reason for that is because I have little patience on occasions when I think I’m being taken advantage of (even when that’s not actually the case). And because of that, I have a very keenly developed sense—perhaps an overdeveloped sense—of justice. I don’t like it when I think anyone is being taken advantage of, whether the target is me or anyone else. Sometimes I overreact. I have a complicated psychological history: I’ve been in and out (and in and out, and in and out, and in and out, and in and out) of counseling enough to qualify for an LCSW license myself, even without a day of schooling in that area! I’ve been on and off of antidepressants. I’ve been through years of psychosocial rehabilitation. In the profession I’m trying to get into, any one of those things—let alone all of them, might be the kiss of death.
In the face of all of these mental/emotional/spiritual challenges, give me a good old-fashioned physical challenge any day! Tell me I have to have surgery tomorrow, followed by a painful, grueling, seemingly-fruitless post-operative regimen, then take an x-ray or an MRI or a CT scan and tell me the operation didn’t work and I’ve got to do it all over again! Put me in plaster for the rest of my life. Put enough hardware in me to make me into a cyborg. Tell me you’ve got to whack off a limb. Tell me I have something seriously wrong with me, and my only chance of survival is to undergo a procedure with a 1% success rate, and I’ll handle that better than I’ve handled these seemingly-intractable, insoluble professional and emotional challenges.
Yet there have been times, all too subtle and all too fleeting, perhaps, but still there have been times, when God’s voice has been undeniable, just as it was that day on that operating table. My patriarchal blessing says that I’ll “grow to manhood and fulfill an honorable work for which I was foreordained before leaving [Heavenly Father’s presence].” While “all things are spiritual unto [God],” because there appears to me to be a clear bifurcation in my blessing between things temporal and things spiritual, I’ve always understood this passage to refer to something temporal (though I could certainly be wrong). I read Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s “Cast Not Away, Therefore, Your Confidence” (Ensign, Mar. 2001) and it hit me like a bolt of lightning as I pondered the decision to pursue this particular graduate degree. In it, he said:
With every decision, there are cautions and considerations to make. But once there has been illumination, beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you trusted it and prayed about it and lived for it, it is right now. Don’t give in when the pressure mounts. Certainly don’t give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness. Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you.2
When I was set apart for a calling during my (very tumultuous) professional education, the high counselor acting as voice told me that “the Lord is pleased with the course of [my] life.” Several years later, I did initatories for the first time since receiving my own endowment nearly twenty years before when I visited my aunt and uncle, who were serving as Temple missionaries in Nauvoo. Although I had already been denied admission to my would-be chosen profession by the time of that visit, and while a part of me was wondering what I should do as a result, I cannot say that I was inordinately troubled by that set of circumstances or that I was expecting any sort of a “revelation” regarding them. (And I wouldn’t expect this particular passage to hit anyone else with the degree of force and specific significance with which it struck me). Nonetheless, I was completely taken aback by a particular passage in the initiatory when I considered it in light of my intended/attempted professional path and the education I had gotten. I came away from the experience feeling that my efforts had not been in vain, that despite the difficulties I had experienced I would still be able to carve out a niche for myself in my would-be chosen field.
What of the difficulties I have experienced in the course of my pursuit of this objective? I simply have to say, with Nephi, “I know not the meaning of all things. Nevertheless, I know that God loveth His children” (1 Nephi 11:17); like Paul, “[I am] troubled on every side, yet not distressed; [I am] perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 KJV); as Paul told the Romans, “All things work together for the good of them that love God” (Romans 8:28, KJV); as King Benjamin told his people, “[N]otwithstanding [my] many strugglings, which [seem to] have been in vain[,] yet I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made” (Mosiah 7:18).
1. Correspondence, Tooele High School Class of 1988 to Ken K. Gourdin, as published in Ken K. Gourdin, My Story: Lots of Good, Some Bad, and a Little Ugly in the First 32 Years, Collierville, Tenn.: Instantpublisher.com (2003) 90-91.
2. Jeffrey R. Holland (March 2000), “Cast Not Away, Therefore, Your Confidence,” Ensign, accessed on line at http://www.lds.org/ensign/2000/03/cast-not-away-therefore-your-confidence on October 19, 2013.
Update: October 18, 2013 – I posted the following in response to a similar query at the Mormon Dialogue & Discussion Board on October 17, 2013:
There are tons of things I wish I knew that I don’t. As wary as I am of looking at anyone else and attempting to compare burdens it does seem, sometimes, as though there’s some inequity in that regard. In some ways, I have made (and continue to make) life too hard on myself. In others, it seems as though, notwithstanding the thorn-strewn, rock-strewn, seemingly-barely-passable path I walk, I’m in no way responsible for the rocks and the thorns and the near-impassability. In many ways, perhaps life would be easier if I simply gave up and denied what I know. Part of me would really like to do that … in the language of the Book of Job (allegory or not ;)) to “curse God and die [to die at least eventually, if not immediately].” But, difficulty, seeming senselessness, and what I don’t know notwithstanding, I cannot deny what I do know. Like Nephi, I simply must shrug my shoulders and say, “I know not the meaning of all things. Nevertheless, I know that God loveth His children.”