Connections between trials and gratitude

As I’ve experienced incredible difficulty, I’ve noticed something change in my life. 

I say thank you a lot more. 

Some of those who have been most helpful to me might be tired of hearing me say those two words. Often I don’t elaborate of why I am thankful. Those reasons are often too close to my emotional breakin points. 

Sometimes “thank you” is all I can manage. But I manage it. It’s important for me to acknowledge to them that they’ve been helpful. I’ve needed so much help–I’ve needed help in ways I never thought I would and I’ve needed assistance with things I’m not able to do myself. 

As I’ve struggled, I’ve become more humble. I’ve had to ask for help. I believe acknowledging that help is critical, and I’ve had a lot of practice at it. 

Saying “thank you” has helped me keep close to my friends and to Heavenly Father. Please don’t wait until you struggle to say “thank you” more often. It’s not worth enduring the trials I have to learn something so simple. 

Praying honestly

I read a BYU devotional recently that mentioned something I’ve come to learn is very important. Praying openly and honestly is critical to bring change in my life.

I seek healing. I seek peace. I seek understanding of the situations I experience every day.

For me, prayer is a critical part of that. I have to be actively engaged in my healing, and I have to be completely honest with Father in my prayers.

Prayers often reflect my mental state. They are happy when I’m happy, they are dejected when I am dejected, but I always try to maintain a strong portion of gratitude. This is likely helpful, but not the subject of this post.

When I’m most depressed, when the world has piled itself on top of me (or when I’ve dug a hole, jumped in, and decided to fill it from the inside), my prayers often lack honesty. Only when my problems become so insurmountable that I cannot escape them alone (when I recognize how little control I have) do I elaborate the exact difficulties I have to God.

The is also true when things are going well. When I’m doing well, when life is full of blessings, I maintain gratitude, but my prayers are usually less specific than when I’m very troubled.

These things should not be.

Prayer is a method of engaging in honest, specific self-reflection. It has divine implications if you allow it to, but I believe the words of Jonathan Sandberg are accurate for me:

In your prayers, be sure to speak openly, sincerely, and directly to Him who is your loving Father. Sometimes I fear our prayers are too vague and too passive to bring about the spiritual support we need.

God requires us to know ourselves. He knows us perfectly. We must grow to that same knowledge. Even if we don’t like the things we discover and learn, acknowledging them specifically in prayer can be the first step to healing and overcoming them.

Specificity in prayer is important. It’s far more important to say, “Father, help me have the strength to fight through my apathy today” than to say “Uh, please help me to get some feelings.”

“I’m really unmotivated right now. All I do muster the desire to do and execute was say this prayer. Please grant me a little more strength to move forward with __[collecting tax documents, opening the mail, packing my clothes, writing more code]__.”

Praying honestly brings out honesty that is critical to my progress. By acknowledging my shortcomings to myself and to God in prayer, I fulfill the scriptural injunction in Ether:

If men come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness

and I learn more about me. I learn to identify the source of my challenges. From there I can make progress and grow. From there I learn God

[gives] unto men weakness that they may be humble [don’t I know it?]; and [he says] and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

My weakness isn’t yet strength. My weakness might change from prayer to prayer.

But praying honestly, admitting areas of weakness, asking for help, asking specifically, and asking for strength to move forward is necessary to my personal growth.

Our challenges affect us forever

I didn’t ask to have the year I did. In fact, I fervently prayed for a completely different set of experiences. I worked really hard for things that I felt inspired to pursue, things I knew would be blessings in my life. I strove to land a full-time teaching job. I worked to be appointed as a head coach. And I fought tooth and nail to keep my relationship together and make progress toward making eternal covenants with her and God.

Now, none of those things exist in my life. I have no contact with the girl, I don’t teach for pay, and I no longer am the head coach. All those things I worked for, all those things that mattered most have been taken away. To top it all off, I experienced depths of depression I never thought possible, I mourned more deeply than I expected I could, and I quit the things I thought would bring me the most long-term joy.

But my heart is opened. I feel more deeply now than I ever have before. I’ve learned to draw on the pain I experienced and the worries I have about my future to empathize with friends who experience trials and challenges in their lives.

I wrote last week about seeing the people behind their trials. The things I experienced make me better. The long-term perspective shows that I am more like Father than I was last year.

But I am not the things I experienced. I am not a failed teacher. I am not a depressive. I am not a bad coach. I am not a failure as a boyfriend.

Viewing myself as these things limits my growth and improvement. Taking these experiences and recognizing lessons I can learn from them, has shown me to see my friends behind their trials.

The largest take-away is I must actively be pursuing the things that matter most. I value helping others. I value serving. I value following Father with trust and faith.

What I experienced this last year teaches me to be spiritually strong. It teaches me to follow God and be more like Him. I will be forever affected by my experiences, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you, my incredible students

Before I left the high school, I was very upfront with my students about what I was experiencing and why I chose to leave them. I cited many reasons that you read in my post from two weeks ago (On life, unmet expectations, and the impact of depression), as well as a several professional needs that finally solidified my decision.

At the end of that lesson, I asked them to choose a teacher who had the most influence on them while they had been at the school and write to the teacher describing that influence and saying thank you.

The students signed their names to the notes, and I delivered them to the teachers’ boxes before I left.

Surprisingly (perhaps not), many of my students wrote to me. I’d like to use the remainder of the post to thank them.

My dear student:

I wish I could respond personally to your note to me. Alas I am now locked out of any district servers that had access to personal student data.

However, you are the reason I feel I was somewhat successful as a teacher. Thursday night, after the semester ended, I went home and waffled for two hours about whether I should read the note you wrote me.

I finally decided to. As I read your kind, heartfelt words and added them to those of your several peers who also wrote me, I could barely contain my emotions and more than once I had to wipe the tears that blurred your words.

I had a difficult time this semester. You did, too. I’m grateful to have recognized that and said and did things that helped you through it. We helped one another. When I struggled to get out of bed, I knew I had to because you needed me there. You you similarly struggled, I’m glad I provided an environment where you wanted to be.

Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with me. Your stories, your scriptures, your vulnerability are things I will treasure and hold to when times get rough in my future.

Because of what you did for me this semester, and because of what you shared with me in your note, I currently have written on my bathroom mirror: “Do my students proud.” You remain a motivation to me as I go forward to conquer the world before me.

I wish you the best. Please stay in touch. You’re one of only 150. I know who you are, and will remember you when you email me. You made a difference to me: you kept my head above the crashing waves of self-doubt and depression.

Thank you.

On finding peace through self-doubt and assistance

Last week was my last week teaching. For reasons outlined in my previous post, as well as many professional reasons, I felt it was necessary to step away from full-time teaching and focus on other endeavors.

It was a difficult choice to make. My mental state made it hard to believe I was doing the right thing: I was abandoning the students who needed me and the students I knew I could help. I brought them things they had never experienced and never seen before. And I was leaving them to pursue personal interests and money. I was leaving them behind for filthy lucre.

However, there is something to note. I needed to take care of myself. The more time I spent at school teaching, not being prepared, and not able to succeed as I envisioned I should, the more I would have spiraled downhill.

I asked myself all the questions you would have: can you stick it out another semester? You’re teaching all the same classes, doesn’t that make it easier? You’re leaving a consistent paycheck for an unknown future. Why?

To those I say, I considered them all. I included the knowledge that I wasn’t my intellectual best and asked those around me who knew my struggles for guidance. I prayed and pondered and felt I was making the right choice.

I investigated jobs that would be more consistent. For now,that’s not the way I need to go. (I have a potential job offer outstanding, and that might change things; however, I would have to be strongly inspired to know it was the right choice.

For now, I am where I am. For now I am balancing the passion of video games with the creative desire to build a company and a brand.

I have a partner. I have support in the business, and I have someone I can lean on when I don’t have the ability to drive the business forward.

More importantly, I have Partners. I have a Savior who understands my individual struggles. I have a Father who knows what I need to develop into a Son of character and success.

I keep them in mind as I move forward in faith. For that is the only path to true success.

On life, unmet expectations, and the impact of depression

It’s amazing to look at where my life has been and what has changed in the last year.

A year ago, I was studying to be a teacher, dating a great girl, planning on getting married sometime in the summer, running a profitable volleyball club, and expecting great things following those lines.

In March I was hired to be a full-time teacher and head volleyball coach in Salt Lake City. It was exactly what I wanted: education courses are a joke and nothing but common sense and I now had a way to support the family that was starting in the summer.

Then things started changing. Drastically. In May, we broke up and I spent the summer making friends near where I was living. In July, I moved closer to work and left all the social support I developed to that point.

Preparations for school started in August, and I began to mourn the things I didn’t have. I was starting this job that I wanted, but I didn’t have the person I wanted alongside me for this new experience. I didn’t have anyone.

As high school volleyball started, I was overcome with the amount of bureaucracy required by high school beyond what club requires. I was spending more time trying to manage stuff I considered ridiculously superfluous to the sport than I was spending coaching.

And to top it all off I was unable to spend as much time preparing the team as I believed I should.

Life became very, very lonely. I would spend each weekend nearly catatonic, trying to recover from the emotional stress of the week. Nearly every day I threw up my hands, looking heavenward, wondering “why me? Why did this set of things happen to me?”

“Why do I hate going to practice everyday? I love this sport, and I love coaching my players. Why can I not better prepare for my classes? Why do my assistant coach and I always misunderstand one another?”

It was the most unhappy time I’ve ever experienced.

My mind often thought everything would be better if I were only married. If only that one thing had been different, my life would be better.

Going back to school each week was a trial. I loved my students and my players, and I knew I brought things to my interactions with them that no one else could. And that kept me going. I kept getting out of bed each morning for them.

More than one commute each week was spent in tears wondering what was going on and why I was so deeply unhappy.

Every week, the cycle continued: go to school Monday morning, believing there was nothing that could get me through the week; teach a few periods, realize I could make it; go to practice, hate it; on Wednesdays, things would seem doable in the mornings; spend Saturday vegetating; spend Sundays catatonic, not wanting to face the upcoming week; wake up Monday and repeat.

There was no end in sight. There was nothing I could do except continue to endure and hope my life got better.

Two people made a major difference in my life, and I am incredibly indebted to them for their love and suggestions. One was in my new ward and one had been around through everything is experienced that year.

At various times and independently, each heard me, listened to my struggles–as I was willing to be opened and asked for them to be there, noticed when I was struggling, and showed the most incredible support I could have asked for. Additionally, both suggested I seek professional help and go see a counselor.

That was completely out of the question. There was no way I needed to talk to a counselor. Those were for people with real problems–clinical depression, schizophrenia, marital conflict. I didn’t need that.

As I spiraled downward, I gradually became more open to the idea. Spending most weekends in tears wasn’t normal. Was I even myself any more? Was I really convincing myself that what I was experiencing was ok?

At the beginning of October, I broke down. Just after sacrament meeting, my friend in my ward asked me if I was doing ok. To that point, I had been mostly honest when people asked me that question. I frequently answered, “no.” But I couldn’t even choke that out. I just was in shambles, and she just waited, listened, translated through my sobs and tears, and suggested (again) I go see a counselor.

After doing essentially the same thing to my bishop, he suggested the same. (I had visited him and laid out my woes to him frequently in the two months prior, so I think he realized I needed more help than he could provide.)

Seeing a counselor gave me a bit more perspective than I was exercising. While talking with her (and somehow making time for it), I recognized some of the lies I’d been telling myself, primarily: Life wouldn’t be better if things had gone differently. I’d followed The Spirit when accepting a job, when breaking up, when prepping for classes and practices.

Spending my life choosing (and that’s what I had mostly been doing) to focus on what I thought should have been was dragging me down.

Life started getting better. I regained some amount of control over what was going on. Volleyball was still pretty hellacious, and I realized I far preferred teaching.

I resigned the coaching job pretty soon after the season. There are a few reasons beyond just doing too much and not getting along with my assistant as to why I did, but they are less relevant here.

So things looked up.

For a while.

I was teaching, enjoying it, enjoying my students, and enjoying not having additional responsibilities at the school.

But around Thanksgiving, I started realizing I wasn’t exercising my mind enough at school. I needed more. I needed freedom from the shackles of district policy (which for student privacy, I understand) if I was going to continue trying to teach technology and computer science to students.

So the first Thursday of December I rewrote the curriculum for mobile development for the state of Utah, and the next day I wrote a letter resigning my teaching position as of 16 January 2015.

It was a big change. It was a scary change. I didn’t have a job offer, but I had resigned.

It was a massive leap of faith. I have no idea what the future holds. I interviewed pretty heavily during the following weeks (eight times in six calendar days) and was told “no” by all the companies I interviewed with.

I spent the Christmas break taking stock of what I really wanted.

I want flexibility. I want control. I want to enjoy my coworkers. A stable paycheck is less desirable than these things.

A few things I’ve realized:

  • If I were married, quitting my job wouldn’t have been an option. I would have to languish doing something that stifles me at least until the school year ended.
  • Perspective matters.
  • Depression can still hit. My family was here for most of the Christmas break, but because of some thought processes I had, I couldn’t stand being with them for more than a bit at a time. I had to spend most of that time alone just to keep my sanity.
  • I don’t know what the future holds. But Father does.
  • Even in the depths of depression, I can choose to have hope. It’s not easy, and for some people it may not be possible. But I can choose hope, and that makes things bearable when they seem beyond all possibility of enduring.
  • I have a Savior who walks my path with me. He may not be the only one I want to walk that with me, but He is The One who walks with me now.
  • Father sees the end from the beginning. I may not, but I will eventually.

And that gives me hope.

Season of thanks: The Gospel of John

As a Christian, I am familiar with the Gospels and their accounts of Christ’s life.  I’ve read each several times and feel I know them pretty well.  At the behest of a friend, I started reading John four days ago.  To mix things up, I have been reading aloud (I feel the reading experience is much improved when the auditory senses are also engaged).

To that end, I’ve always been slightly disappointed that the writers of the gospel seem to make Jesus’ words easily understandable (to say nothing to Biblical translations that trade beautiful poetry for accuracy in modern language).  However, John has been a relief from that.  John seems to have maintained the intelligence and the poetry with which Christ taught.  When confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus not only teaches them true doctrine, but does so in a convincing, intelligent way.  He leaves no room for misunderstanding nor argument.  He is the master teacher.

I guess the point is I am grateful for intelligent argument in defense of Truth.  Too often I find people that say, “I know it’s true.  That’s enough for me.”  In recording Jesus’ full defense f His actions, John wants to raise the reader to a higher level: he wants us to know why we believe what we do and why Jesus’ teachings are correct.

Season of thanks: Mom

I love my mom.  She’s the perfect example, mentor, role model I could have.  (She wouldn’t agree, but I might be able to convince her a little.)  Some may say it’s cliché to put her as the first entry during my season of thanks, but I feel it’s the right thing to do and it is fitting.

Aside from the obvious “she sacrificed herself to carry and birth me,” she has done far more.  During elementary-school summers, she would sit me down for half the day (it may have only been 90 minutes) and I had to to school work.  I hated it.  I fought it.  None of my friends had to endure that type of torture.  And I made the experience hellish for her.  That’s probably why she stopped doing it.  But I’m grateful now.  I frequently look back and know that my desire to do well in school, my confidence that I will, and my desire for perfection were molded during those summers.

My school teachers were ok with me missing a few math problems or having a few grammar errors.  My mother never was.  I spent hours (sometimes hours each day) going back and redoing my work.  Because I hated redoing so much, I learned to ensure it was done right the first time.  (Some of this mindset continues to today.  The desire to be right is so strong that I never check my answers on tests because I trust I read the question carefully enough the first time and that I did the problem right.)

She also made me play the piano every day for 30 minutes.  I would often slough and do less work, messing with the timer or putting the clocks ahead (I did this during time-outs too because I have no patience.)  I regret it now.  I regret that the choice offered me was to either play the piano or play sports.  Obviously I chose sports, and now I can only sight-read very slowly and can only play what I have repeated over and over and memorized.  But the important thing for me is I learned to appreciate music.  Although she usually chose songs I hated or didn’t know, my mom often played the piano when I was little.  I complained about it, but those songs (“Born Free” and “The Blue Danube”) echo in my mind today.

I didn’t often bring friends home, but she talked a lot with me about who my friends were and why I liked them.  She taught me to choose my friends carefully, to know why they were my friends.  I still talk with her frequently about my friends now.

She taught me something far more important about friends.  She taught me that friends are family, and friends of family are family.  She would often go out of her way to ensure we had interactions with friends.  After grade six or seven, I cooked up a plan with my friend Addison Pica to go climbing (I definitely had a middle school crush on her).  It was mostly due to my mom’s effort with Addison’s parents that the trip worked out.

My mom taught me to love people and want the best for them.  Sometime she didn’t approve of who I brought home–mostly in principle–sometimes in character.  Before my mission, I dated Ruth (Andrews) Chandler for seven months (or six–the timing got strange at the end).  My mom was not keen on the idea of me having a girlfriend.  But she accepted it and worked hard to learn about Ruth and learn to love her.  (For me dating Ruth was the best possible thing that could have happened before my mission.)  I’ve seen this pattern from my mother with other women I’ve dated.

She never approved of one person I dated, despite spending a lot of time with her during several visits.  Looking back, I wish I had been less infatuated with the girl and listened more to why my mother, despite attempting to love this girl, never could.

My mom adopts people.  My best friend during high school was Jenna (Furniss) Ralph.  She had a greater influence on me as a friend than I can express in words, and it may take us until after we die and communication is eased for her to understand why.  To the point, my mom loved Jenna like a daughter.  She learned to love Ruth like that.  My mom thinks of my oldest friend, Maren Kennedy, as a daughter.  Maren is involved in a theatre group back home and my mom always goes and supports her productions, and she always asks me what’s going on in Maren’s life.

This is a pattern my mom has shown since before I was born.  She wanted 12 biological kids (that’s a lot, I know) and I’m grateful there are only two of us.  But she has “adopted” children (especially daughters) since before I was born.

My mother consistently reaches out to love those around her.  She shows Christlike love for them and will serve them however she can.  My mother taught me to value my mind and has been formative in setting me on the path toward a Ph.D.  She taught me to accept and try to love people, even when they might not be what I expect, or someone I would normally love.  She taught me to love music, to love intelligence, to love others more than I love myself (possibly a lot).

Because of her example and her tireless forcings, I am now grateful for her example.  I now try to emulate that example.  She is probably not the mother she expected to be, and she likely regrets some things she did.  But she is the mother I need and should have no regrets about that.  I cannot imagine a more perfect mother.  I am grateful to my Heavenly Father for allowing me to be her son.

_________

Challenge of the day: pray for 10 minutes and only thank God for what you have.