There have been select moments in my life when I thought the best parts of it were over. Not that I was dying, but that I was changing, and inherent in those changes was an ending.
With the birth of the new comes the death of the old, and you can’t go to one place without leaving another.
And that leave taking can be terrifying.
It can absolutely freeze you with fright.
I think about that as I have a daughter about to leave for the Army, and another about to go across the country for college. I don’t know their hearts, but I do know mine, and at certain times, it was filled with fear.
In retrospect, none of it was justified. But in the moment, all of it was real. Real, and almost debilitating. Each change led me to a better place, but not until I had paid a price, an emotionally heavy price, for progress.
The two most difficult times were as I became a Mormon missionary and as I entered the Army. In both situations, I was leaving a comfortable setting where I was happy and popular. I had friends and prominence, and I left both behind for worlds I didn’t begin to understand.
Becoming a missionary was a jarring and daunting experience that beat me up pretty good for a few months. I left one of the happiest times of my life for one of the most difficult and isolated. On two occasions I went off walking into the desert, on another I sat and bawled. Each night as I lay in bed I felt suffocatingly trapped, as if there was no me left.
It was hard. It was hard as hell. And it almost broke me.
Ultimately, I learned the ways of my new world. I made friends. I caught the spirit of what I was doing, and though I never lost the claustrophobic sense that I needed to get out of where I was, I came to love what I was doing and everything about it.
There was no miracle moment, no flipping of a switch or opening of my eyes. I just toughed it out, day after day, month after month. I learned to function in the face of emotional distress, and that seemingly lessened the distress.
Three years after I came home from my mission, I went in the Army. I was married, and our first baby was on the way, and I had neither income nor insurance sufficient to provide for a child. So I swore in.
At the time, I was working for a small-town radio station, and had earlier written for the local newspaper. These opportunities had allowed me to make a lot of friends, and establish a connection to the community, and a social comfort. I remember broadcasting a high-school football game on Friday night and leaving town for the Army on Saturday morning. That night, as I walked down the bleachers from the press box, knowing I would not see these people or be this person again, I was almost sick to my stomach with grief. I wanted to run away shrieking.
But I pushed on.
Basic training was difficult, but I was five years older than when I had become a missionary and I was tougher. I paid less attention to my pain and more attention to my environment and I didn’t let anything get to me.
I came to think of it like jumping out of a plane. You just get up the nerve to jump, and then you let the forces of nature take you where they will. All you have to do is get up enough nerve to leap.
There is no point in these stories, except to say that I have known and felt the fear of change and dislocation. It has been paralyzing to me, and a great difficulty.
But it has taught me some things.
Primarily, I have learned faith.
Faith in God, faith in myself, faith in the future.
I have learned with certainty that there is a God who hears your prayers, even in the darkest of nights and most tempestuous of storms. He doesn’t often snap his fingers and make everything all better, but he unfailingly matches our faith with strength, to endure and overcome whatever is thrown at us.
I have learned that I am strong, that I am not weak, and that through persistence and determination I can overcome anything. These traits are not unique to me or even unusually present in me. They are the common lot of humankind, but each man must learn this for himself. And it is a lesson only learned in the refiner’s fire.
I have learned that tomorrow is a new and better day, that the worst of situations passes with time, that each day brings a modicum of healing and improvement. The phrase “This, too, shall pass” is universally true. The pessimist sees in it the disappointments of tomorrow, but I have optimistically seen the opportunities of tomorrow and I have never been disappointed.
Faith in the future means that any pain lessons if it is merely endured.
These are the general things I have learned.
If I were giving advice to someone navigating the shoals of change and fear, I would tell them to tough it out. To never quit, to persist and prevail. To jump out of the plane and have faith that the parachute will open.
That advice is true and good.
Because those are lessons which can only truly be learned experientially. I can tell you, and you can repeat the words, but you can’t truly know it until you face it.
Which means that you must pass through the fire. That you must face your horror and take its tempering.
The knowledge of that fact provides neither you nor me with any comfort. If you are one facing this hurdle, and I am someone who loves you, we each face a certain dread.
I simultaneously want to spare you this passage through the wilderness, and know that it is your only hope for acquiring the strength and faith necessary to conquer life. I know it will hurt you, and help you, but that while the hurt will fade, the help will last forever.
You have less perspective on it, having seen only the pain, not the profit. You know that you must walk this alone, and that though I love you, I am distant.
So it’s just you and God. And while that’s enough, it’s not easy. But nothing good was ever easy.
If you think about it, I haven’t really said anything.
Except that I’ve been where you are, and I know that you can make it through.
And in a few months, so will you.
And that may be the greatest lesson of all.