Here is a personal story and a message for this Thanksgiving season:
When I was fifteen years old, I was on top of the world. I lived in Bountiful, Utah, in the same house my whole life. I knew everybody on our street, most of whom were in our ward. I had lots of really good friends, lots of hills for my skateboard, a massive crush on cool girl (Lisa Tucker) and was loving life.
I attended Bountiful High School, where I was heavily involved in lots of activities. I had already competed in the state forensics tournament, (as a sophomore!) and was ready to make a mark the next two years. My junior year was already lining up nicely: I was selected to be on the seminary council, and had auditioned and was already chosen to be in the next year’s mens’ choir and the musical production.
I was loving life…until…
One afternoon, Mom and Dad sat us down and explained that Dad’s work was forcing him to relocate to Scottsdale, Arizona. I was devastated. How could they do this to me? Why would they do this to me?
They explained that there weren’t a lot of options, and they thought a new place might be good for us, and so would continued employment. There were really not a lot of options, so the decision was made to move. Soon.
I was heartbroken. I was terrified.
I went to school the next day and looked up Scottsdale at the library, because there was no Google in those days. I couldn’t believe my eyes: There were pictures of old dudes wearing cowboy hats, riding down Main Street on horses. The town’s nickname? The West’s Most Western Town. Seriously? (Little did I know that Scottsdale is one the country’s top tourist destinations.)
The only positives, in my mind, were that we would have a pool, and that we were flying there, which would be my first airplane trip. That’s about all I could see.
The plane touched down on June 1, 1977. As we walked down the stairs to the tarmac, it was 100 degrees. At 10:00 at night. It was like a blast furnace. This place felt like Hell on earth. The next day we we were driving around, checking out the town, looking at cacti and palm trees. We actually had to stop for a couple of old dudes on horses, wearing cowboy hats, to cross the street in front of us. It looked like Hell on earth.
My first day at Scottsdale High school, I walked past kids smoking pot in their expensive cars. I was stunned to learn that there were only two small seminary classes, no forensics, no men’s choir. None of the things I was looking forward to even existed. There were only a couple guys in my ward that were my age. It was worse than I could have imagined – and I imagined it would be pretty bad.
It was a difficult time for me. I was hurt, lonely and angry.
For the next year I punished my parents for “doing this to me.” I was sullen, lazy, combative. I figured if I was going to suffer, so were they.
Why am I bringing all this up now? Last week we went to a wonderful movie, Belfast, which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a family in Belfast during the violence of The Troubles in Ireland. (Ironically, the writer and director of the film, Kenneth Branagh and I are the same age.) I highly recommend this movie.
One of the key scenes in the film is when the mother tearfully explains to her husband why the thought of moving was breaking her heart. Their home was all they knew! All their friends, family and neighbors were part of their everyday lives. Everyone knew everyone, and the prospect of abandoning those people, and everything they knew and loved, was devastating. The prospect of moving away was frightening.
I understood. Many of those same emotions flooded back to me.
Back to Scottsdale. During the two years I was there, I did make some friends, got somewhat involved in sports and arts, and had some successes. But I always felt I had been cheated, and was quick to remind my parents of that fact. As soon as I was seventeen and done with high school, I beat a hasty trail back to Utah, and attended BYU.
Fast forward to today, right now, as I sit here typing this post:
Moving to Scottsdale was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I am eternally grateful to my patient parents for moving us when they did.
Why now? Because I love my life. THIS life.
Had I stayed in Bountiful, my life would inevitably be different. I would most likely be married to someone else, have different kids, live in a different place, have a different career, and this post would probably not be here. We don’t know in advance how those dominos are lined up, nor how they will fall. There are infinite paths for each of us. I happen to love the one I am on.
What I once saw a source of pain and struggle is now a defining part of my life. It was difficult, but it made me stronger. It forced me to evolve and adapt. It set many things in motion that have brought much joy to me, and landed me where I am now.
Here’s the key: It took years for me to climb out of that pit to get to the point where I could find gratitude for what my parents “did to me.” I carried a lot of that resentment for a long time. Getting past it was a slow, gradual process that evolved over a lifetime. As Elder David A. Bednar said, “Small, steady, incremental spiritual improvements are the steps the Lord would have us take.” Finding gratitude is a spiritual improvement.
Thankfully, I can look back at where I came from, and where I am now, and find that gratitude. I wish I had expressed it better to my parents while they were still alive.
The Lord has weighed in on this:
“And that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.” (Alma 34:38)
“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks.” (D&C 98:1)
“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.“ (D&C 59:7)
“Shalt” is a serious word. It’s a commandment-type word. But asking us to be thankful for ALL things is a pretty big ask. Right?
How does one do that? How do we find gratitude in all things? Especially when we find ourselves in that pit of sadness, anger, despair or struggle?
Personally, I don’t think that deciding to be grateful is enough to get the job done. I think it requires two additional gifts:
As Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinth. 13:11)
For me, as I became a man, I put away the childish resentment that I held towards my parents and my circumstances. It did not happen overnight. It was a slow climb to gratitude. Sure, it would be great if it were a switch, like a lightbulb, but more often than not, it is a incremental process as we gain greater perspective from recognizing how those dominos were actually lined up rather nicely after all.
The problem is, the Lord said to be thankful now, as in today, not in 10 years, or 40 years. That’s where faith comes in. Sometimes when we are in the pit of despair, or are being “acted upon” by forces that we can’t control, we have to put our faith in God. We have to trust him that if we do our best, things will work out as they should, and for the best.
That is tough. When we are in the throes, sometimes it is tough to even see past today, let alone look at the future with an eye of faith.
Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows that one of the most satisfying parts is being able to look back and see where you came from. It’s the same in life. We look at the dominos of our past, and keep trudging forward because we know that the summit awaits us.
I’ll leave it for Elder Uchtdorf to tie a ribbon on it:
“We can choose to be grateful, no matter what.
This type of gratitude transcends whatever is happening around us. It surpasses disappointment, discouragement, and despair. It blooms just as beautifully in the icy landscape of winter as it does in the pleasant warmth of summer.
When we are grateful to God in our circumstances, we can experience gentle peace in the midst of tribulation. In grief, we can still lift up our hearts in praise. In pain, we can glory in Christ’s Atonement. In the cold of bitter sorrow, we can experience the closeness and warmth of heaven’s embrace.
We sometimes think that being grateful is what we do after our problems are solved, but how terribly shortsighted that is. How much of life do we miss by waiting to see the rainbow before thanking God that there is rain?
Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.
Being grateful in our circumstances is an act of faith in God. It requires that we trust God and hope for things we may not see but which are true. By being grateful, we follow the example of our beloved Savior, who said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”
True gratitude is an expression of hope and testimony. It comes from acknowledging that we do not always understand the trials of life but trusting that one day we will.” (link)
It’s something I find that I am better at with more life behind me, but I wish I understood it more when I was a younger man. Time spent being unthankful is time – and emotion – wasted.
May you have a joyous day of thanksgiving, today, Thursday, and everyday.