Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reference Points

I've been privy to several heart-wrenching situations the past week or so, and thankfully, none of them have anything really to do with me other than just my role of being an outside observer.
  • Over the weekend a friend of mine from my cohort started posting on Facebook the travails of her now defunct relationship. It started with a "w...t...f..." and then ended with "is totally heartbroken." She had been dating a guy she met while at the University of Portland, and as recently as last Thursday when I talked to her, was thinking that they were going to get married. They endured an entire year apart, somehow making their long distance relationship work, that is, up until now. She's about 22 years old, and I kind of wonder if this now changes her whole game-plan with finishing the Masters portion only here and then going back to school there so that they could be together. That kind of thing changes everything.
  • While driving home from school last week, I was leaving the graduate student parking lot over by the law building and was driving south on 9th East. I noticed a couple talking on the sidewalk and for whatever reason I just locked in on them as I was driving by. In the short period I was able to watch them, I saw her lips moving and then stop, his face sink as his initial response, followed by his throwing down his bike in despair, walking in a small circle and then crouching down into a squatting position holding his head in his hands. From what I can gather, she probably told him that the milk had gone sour and he wouldn't have anything to eat his cereal with. It's either that or she broke up with him.
  • A good friend of mine said goodbye last week to his fiancee at the airport as she left to start a study abroad for the fall semester (sorry to exploit your pain for my blog, but I have a message to deliver and maybe it'll be useful to you and my 5 other loyal readers).
Now with these in mind, I'll refer briefly to another for instance with which most people can relate. A while ago I remember a friend of mine talking about how her little sister, who was a still a teenager, was being overly dramatic about her love life, and wondered aloud about whether or not she had really any idea about what a real relationship is like. As we all get older, it becomes easy to recognize when people are being "overly dramatic" about a number of different kinds of situations, but these aren't limited to just relationships only. It's just an easy one to identify. For the examples mentioned above, it's easy to look at those and scoff at what might seem to be overly dramatic responses, but in each case the person gains a reference point from which to judge both their prior and future experience.

"All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" is a wonderful phrase that is born from Joseph Smith's experience while imprisoned in Liberty Jail. One of my religion professors talked about how Joseph's experience while in the prison helped enable him to come out like a lion and continue on his way until he was martyred in 1844. Recently, Elder Holland talks about the prison-temple experience that Joseph had and how that transformed him into the person that he needed to become.

What I think is especially valuable about these difficult reference points is that they function as lenses through which we can better grasp, endure, and understand the current experiences that we are having. I'm not normally a visual thinker, but I think this example will help illustrate this point:

As we gain life experience, we become enlarged. I imagine it kind of like this: the band of our soul is wrapped around the four points of each square. With each experience, the points of the square are expanded outward, increasing the capacity that we have to feel and understand. This increased capacity is not only helpful in allowing us to better endure and process future experiences, but it also helps us become better acquainted with our Father in Heaven, and to become more like his son, Jesus Christ. The benefit that we have with these experiences is the growth and depth that we gain, but also the tools and knowledge that we need in the future when we encounter similar experiences.

The other night I was with a friend and a song came on that reminded her of some prior relationship pain that I had mentioned to her before, and she expressed sympathy for what I had gone through previously. Although it was hard to go through at the time, ultimately I'm so grateful for it because I honestly don't know how I would have handled the next couple of years without having what I learned from that experience handy in my backpocket.

The interesting part, is that the experience didn't only apply to other dating disappointments, but the learning generalized to other difficult settings that I had gone through. If nothing else, that prior experience gives me context and a reference point from which I can judge subsequent experiences against.

With 29 years of experience behind me, I have reference points in my life when it comes to family difficulty because of my parents' divorce; I have a reference point when it comes to not only tolerating, but appreciating people I might normally dislike because of my experience serving a mission; I have a reference point for some pretty severe relationship heartache because of what I went through dating Becca; I have a reference point when it comes to physical exertion because of my experience training and running in marathons. In the end, the reference points that we have in our lives provide a guide whereby we gain greater depth as people, and coupled with that depth comes a greater capacity to feel, and appreciation for, the joy that we can experience.

Another friend of mine confided in a close friend of hers some of the mistakes she made in her past, and expected a condemning response. Instead, the friend responded by pointing out that the strength of her position is that because of the difficulties she has gone through, she has had to learn to rely upon and draw from the power of the Atonement, which experience will be invaluable to her as she assumes the role of wife and mother. Related to this point, Elder Hollands teaches us something important in that fireside about Joseph Smith:
But the lessons of the winter of 1838–39 teach us that every experience can become a redemptive experience if we remain bonded to our Father in Heaven through that difficulty. These difficult lessons teach us that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity, and if we will be humble and faithful, if we will be believing and not curse God for our problems, He can turn the unfair and inhumane and debilitating prisons of our lives into temples—or at least into a circumstance that can bring comfort and revelation, divine companionship and peace.
In the end, these reference points give us experience, and the good that Joseph mentions in that Doctrine and Covenants scripture is the comfort, revelation, divine companionship, and peace that Elder Holland speaks of. It binds us together and to our Heavenly Father. It is what allows us to grow to become more like him.