Let’s talk about boats. I know a story of this guy named Jared. Jared had a brother named Mahonri (muh-hawn-rye). Mahonri, Jared, and their families traveled across the ocean in boat-capsules (that could be submerged in water without leaking–tight like unto a dish, if you will; Ether 2:17). While they were in the boats, “a furious wind” blew towards the promised land, the destination. With these furious winds, the boats “were tossed upon the waves of the sea . . . [and] they were many times buried in the depths of the sea” (Ether 6:5-6). So here these people are struggling to make it across the ocean and there’s a continual storm. Sounds not fun, right? Right. Well, these people had “commend[ed] themselves unto the Lord their God” (Ether 6:4) before the trip and “did cry unto the Lord . . . and they did sing praises unto the Lord” (Ether 6:7 & 9) throughout the journey. These people took up an attitude of optimism even when they faced the danger. But more importantly, they never gave up hope recognizing the power of the Lord over the elements. It was in this attitude that “they were driven forth before the wind” (Ether 6:8).
Neal A. Maxwell wrote that “at the center of our agency is our freedom to form a healthy attitude toward whatever circumstances we are placed in” (Notwithstanding My Weakness, 11). The people of Jared and Mahonri exemplified this healthy attitude as they continually turned to their hope in God to pull them out of despair and help them through the storms. I love the idea of adopting and developing a healthy attitude, not just a happy attitude because life isn’t happy all the time. People aren’t happy all the time. And that’s okay. In fact, I dare say that it’s much better to not be happy all the time. It’s healthier to be sad sometimes, or upset, or calm, or anxious, or worried. There is a certain balance that we must strike in order to have that healthy attitude in life. Granted, that’s not easy to achieve, but it starts with experiencing the spectrum of emotions and exercising our agency appropriately within the realm of those feelings.
I have always disliked the quip about you being able to choose your emotions, so you should choose to be happy. Just be happy. I dislike this because I disagree with it, and I think that people who are easily persuaded are pushed by this myth into an unhealthy emotional state. I am grateful for the friends who didn’t tell me that when I was sad that my cat died. On the reverse, it’s frustrating to cry to someone who responds with, “Stop crying. Be happy. Just stop crying. What are you crying for?” To be honest, I first think that there’s something wrong with me if I can’t just stop crying. Am I emotional? Am I depressed? Am I broken? Here’s what I eventually learned: crying is ok. It helps to go through the grieving process, and I think that the grieving process applies to any significant disappointment. When we find that we’re not as happy as we want to be, we should reevaluate what we think is significant; we should not assume that the tears and frustration are the problem.
Unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning individuals, especially those who are deeply religious, sometimes over simplify experiences of grief with reminders that there is a purpose to everything, this is all part of God’s plan, we shouldn’t need to worry because this is the way it’s meant to be, our loss is heaven’s gain, etc. etc. etc. Those phrases are sometimes helpful, but what’s more helpful in the throes of despair is a friend who is willing to mourn with us who mourn and who comfort us when we need comfort (Mosiah 18:8-10; Romans 12:15). These scriptures are particularly important for this discussion because they not only counsel us to be that person who allows and empathizes with mourning, but implicit is the inevitability of every person to experience sadness, loss, and grief. And that’s okay. He doesn’t say “buck up,” or “stop crying.” First He explains that “Jesus wept” (St. John 11:35). If Jesus can weep, then I think it’s okay for us to weep also. Then He promised a comforter because we would need one. If we need a comforter, then we will definitely be unhappy at some point in our lives. Elder Henry B. Eyring said this: “If we have faith in Jesus Christ, the hardest as well as the easiest of times can be a blessing.” He never says that we can always be happy. He says we can live with “perfect hope and feelings of peace,” and also mentions that we can always feel God’s love for us. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t feel sad and that we can’t grieve.
“At the center of our agency is our freedom to form a healthy attitude toward whatever circumstances we are placed in.” I believe that we can choose to have hope. Hope doesn’t mean that we can’t be sad. If your grandparent dies, please mourn.
You might believe in an afterlife, but that doesn’t mean you don’t miss them now. Your grief is not a measure of your faith (or lack thereof). Your grief is more a measure of your love. But your grief also doesn’t need to overwhelm hope. Hope is a belief in things not seen. I have hope, or faith, that my grandpa who passed away is doing what he loves on the other side even as I feel his loss in my life. Those two aspects need no reconciliation. One is an emotion. The other is a belief. They interact with each other, but do not equal each other.
I will put in a few words for healing. I believe that grief is a good tool for healing. I also believe that the “healthy attitude” that we can cultivate comes from not losing hope and not giving in. Grief doesn’t automatically include failure, purposelessness, or despair. M. Catherine Thomas points out that Nephi had some moments of despair as he cried out “O wretched man that I am!” These feelings of inadequacy and utter darkness are not new to this generation. But the darkness need not be our future. “Moroni taught that despair comes of iniquity (see Moroni 10:22). By iniquity he seems to mean lack of faith in the deliverance offered by the Savior.” There is a Maori proverb explaining how our perspective affects our hope: Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you. There are times when clouds cover the sun and darkness is not our choice. But, when the sun is available and it is our choice to look towards the light and hope or to look into the shadows and despair, that is when we can tap into the center of our agency and form a healthy attitude toward our circumstance.
Remember the boats and the people who were driven forth by the wind? How did they get to their promised land? How did they reach their destination? It was the same wind that brought the storm that carried them to a better place. In the travels they were undoubtedly frightened, but “no monster of the sea could break them, neither whale that could mar them; and they did have light continually, whether it was above the water or under the water” (Ether 6:10). In the storm they had hope. And though they had a right to fear the tempest, they did not give up. I believe that we have the capacity to pull out of the darkest holes of depression and apathy, the bitterest storms. But while we remain affected by disappointment and loss, we are good to mourn as we must. There is nothing wrong or bad in that. As I’ve said before, there’s something healthy in the state of mourning. But I hope that we do not give up while we are in the dark. I don’t know how long we all must individually suffer with the adversities that we’re given, but I believe that the suffering doesn’t have to overpower the rest of our lives. I have faith that just as Jesus Christ was resurrected on the third day after his death, our own bright days of rejuvenation and life will come even after the decay and the difficulty. But if crying right now is what needs to happen, then cry on my shoulder. It’s ok.