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It's NOT Academic

by Debra Woods


When I was growing up I used to watch the TV show, "It's Academic," where teams of high school students competed against other high school teams in a show of intellectual prowess.  Our high school had a team that appeared on this show with other regional school teams.


You know that old question, most of us have asked, maybe again and again . . .

Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why do I suffer even when I try to do what is right?

And we've heard the answers:

  • "God's ways are higher than man's ways."
  • "there must needs be opposition in all things."
  • "God will not give us anything beyond our capacity to endure."

and on a purely academic level, they make sense.  But in the moment when we are immersed in suffering, or we see innocent people suffering locally or around the world, or it just keeps rearing it's ugly head repeatedly in our lives, though we thought we had put it behind us, academics offer little comfort.

PART I - The Dining Room Table

On Sunday we had a Relief Society lesson by a member of the RS Presidency - the topic was assigned to her by our bishop - it was titled:

"Dear Are the Sheep Who Have Wandered, OR, Faithful Parents and Wayward Children,"

The teacher invited a few people to prepare some comments about their experience with children who have "wandered" from the church.  I am not at all sure the lesson had it's intended outcome - to comfort.  I was unsettled afterward and in a discussion the next day I had with a very good friend who has the same situation, children who have cut themselves off from the church, she shared a story - or reminded me of a story she had told me earlier about a time in her life when she was overcome with grief about her children.  She would pour her heart out to God in the temple and felt no relief.

One day her grown son told her she should get a new dining room table, the one she had used for all these years was not right for the space and had many issues.  She had known that for a long time, but she thought of all the family moments that had happened at that table and believed that her children would feel a real loss if it suddenly disappeared.  Though the Lord had been telling her as well, to get a new table, she felt happy to sacrifice for her children's sake.  

In that moment, she said in a silent conversation with God, "How did you know they didn't care about the table?" 

"I knew because they were mine before they were yours."

It was such a little thing, a small incident, but it packed a powerful punch.

If God knew that simple truth about those children regarding a minor detail of life, a dining room table, which was more than their mother knew, how much more does He know about them?  How much has He been involved in their lives from before they were born?  He knew their lineage, he knew the circumstances they would be born into.  He knew how they would react. He hasn't somehow lost track of YOUR children - they did not slip through the cracks - and most importantly, it isn't about YOU.  He has a relationship with them completely separate from you.

Somehow, a world of understanding came to her in an instant, from such a minor family incident, and she was FREE.  The grief she was feeling was very much tied to her sense of responsibility for her children, they were somehow a reflection of her, and they were suffering due to circumstances beyond their control and the weight of that was such a burden, she wanted to somehow qualify for their redemption - if she was faithful enough, if she prayed hard enough, perhaps she could right the wrongs that were causing their spiritual confusion - maybe she could plead hard enough to get through to God.  But now she understood she had it all backward.  And in seeing that she wasn't the one in charge of her children's lives, or paths, or choices, and that someone much more aware, much more involved, much wiser had their bases covered, she was freed from her guilt, her worry, her agony, the burden that was not hers to bear.

As she reminded me of this story, I realized I did the same thing.  I thought of my children as appendages of me.  That way, I could be responsible for them - in essence, I could control them, if I worked hard enough, if I was good enough, I could somehow make up for the trials of being from a broken home and the impact that had in their lives.

When I tried to control my children, I was saying to both them and to God, their eternal parent, 

"I don't trust you to handle these challenges.  I have to make this right."

In my case, I was also saying:

"Your performance is a direct reflection on me. I can't let you fail.  If you fail, I fail."

I was not taking into consideration that they were not my children first.  They were Heavenly Father's children first, and His history with them was much, much longer than mine.  It has been a privilege to be their mother.  It never ceases to amaze me.  And I guess to be quite honest, I covet my own relationship with them.  I enjoy knowing them.  It is a pleasure predicting what they will say and do - but my knowledge of them pales in comparison to Heavenly Father's knowledge of them.  And who is to say if I or they are the older spirits?

PART II - The Pedigree Chart

I have this very large round wall pedigree chart I bought and started to fill in.  My name goes in the middle, then my parents and each generation radiates out toward the outer edge which is 12 generations, I think.  I actually have several lines that I can trace even farther back than that.  But there are many blanks.  Some are blank because I found it very tedious filling in a round chart I kept having to change my position to be able to write on the radiant lines.  But some are blank because I do not know the names that belong on them.

As I look at my chart, similar to the one pictured, but I know mine has more than 9 generations, I think "Every line represents a name, whether I know what it is or not. And every name represents a real person who lived, married, had a family and life and died.  And every single person on that chart is integral to me being me.  If even one of those people did not live the very life they lived, I would not be me."

So every name is just as important to me as any of the others, whether I know the name or not.  And likewise, my posterity is as important to me - every one as much as any other one, and I to them.  Somehow that visual representation of my generational family reminds me that there were no mistakes.  

If I took a highlighter and with pink I highlighted all the marriages that were happy and honorable by whatever standard we might judge a marriage, and I highlighted in green any marriages that maybe were not so ideal - the fact remains, that every single name on my chart (and yours) is just as important as any other name in making me me, or you you.

So no matter how pink or how green the line is highlighted, there were no mistakes.  We may like to think that the more "ideal" the lineage, the better.  But the miracle is, that before birth, we knew our lineage and the history of our ancestors lives and happily agreed to enter mortality via that family.  No one was ever forced or coerced into their heritage.  We knew.  We accepted.  We were prepared as much as possible.  We understood the ramifications, we, I think, designed them, or at least were involved in the design of them for reasons that made total sense at the time, but which we have completely forgotten.

Makes sense, from an academic point of view.  But, again, down here in the trenches, it is NOT academic - it is fully sensual, sensational, and academics be damned.  Down here in the trenches we can't begin to imagine ever having agreed to much of what we go through.  We desire things, long for things, plan for things, value things from our mortal perspective and what we agreed to before seems alien and sometimes shocking or disorienting and confusing.  It can seem unacceptable, unfair, unwarranted, and in no one's best interest.

It is hard enough to experience our own life, and try to make sense of the illogical, inexplicable, and apparently unfair sufferings, but it is a whole other story to accept the lack of control we have over those we love, past, present and future.

I have often reflected on the romance that lead to my first marriage as a theatrical comedy of errors.  Much of classic theater is based on a situation where people misunderstood, made assumptions, and got themselves into pickles.  Shakespeare used this as the basis for most of his comedies.  As an actress, I guess it follows I would frame my own experience that way - and it was easy for me to see, in-retrospect, that mistaken assumptions on both our parts were the vehicle that drove our relationship, and before we knew it, we were sealed for eternity and expecting a baby and the course of our lives was forever changed, before we realized how wrong we had been.  It in no way felt comic.  It was very ironic.  Irony is a theatrical staple.  It is a literary staple.  Good stories thrive on irony.  But I often thought I'd be just fine with a lot less of it in my own true story.

Some things in my current private life are confusing and difficult to sort through. And I find myself asking that old question - "why is life so hard? Does it need to be?  Couldn't we do with less challenge, suffering, pain and confusion?  Couldn't I????"

The irony is that I am doing what I know is right, and yet the challenges are unceasing.

PART III - The Contract

I have a huge abhorrence for arrogance.  My entire life this has been so.  I despise it when I encounter it.  So strong is my negative response to it that I have to wonder why, from birth it seems, I have such strong feelings about it.  Well, it occurs to me that before birth, the ultimate example of arrogance was none other than Lucifer himself.  Seeing how his arrogance was the catalyst for the war in heaven, in which 1/3 of my brothers (and I'm not sure but maybe only brothers) were cast out of heaven, I can imagine that would explain why I came to earth hating it.

Let's look at Lucifer's case.  He was a son of the morning.  He was one having authority.  He was a gifted and revered leader, beloved, in fact.  This isn't a guess, or an imagined scenario, it is scriptural.  Heaven wept over his fall.

Maybe I related to Lucifer.  Maybe I considered that if even he was susceptible to the destructive lure of arrogance, so might I be.  Maybe I sought for a guarantee that despite my own gifts that would be needed for my life mission, I would never be the victim of that tendency toward arrogance.  Maybe I was presented with options for how to avoid arrogance and chose the ones that would best work for my needs.

And maybe that explains the consistent checks and balances I've experienced in my life, some of which have been very painful, terribly disappointing, and so often, seemingly unfair. Yet, when all is said and done, they have not stopped me from experiencing a measure of joy, or kept me from developing my talents or serving in God's kingdom.

And I picture myself signing a contract that yes indeed, I agreed to these conditions of mortality for the priority role they would play in my life to keep me on course and not succumb to what I considered the most wretched of character traits.

But then I was born, and the veil closed behind me, and the details were lost to my memory, and life here started and almost immediately the challenges started and the initial questions I began my writing today with, soon formed in my mind, and a set of beliefs was developed to explain my experience.  Again and again I have felt like God turned his back on me, ignored my cries, was punishing me for I didn't know what.

And now, from the trials of one of the hardest years of my life, I have prayed and prayed for insight.  I've been broken down in a series of situations in which I was helpless to save myself, so I stopped trying, and in that state, I became teachable.  And the insights come in increments, line upon line, layer by layer, confusion is removed.

Ask and ye shall receive.  Not necessarily in the time frame you might want, but in the time frame you are ready to receive.  It takes both - asking and being ready, and then the answers come and I think, when we hit on truth, like a hammer on a nailhead, the reverberation awakens a kind of memory from before we came to earth when we made the plans, the agreements, the contracts, the covenants, and the spirit confirms it to our soul.  And we can experience a confidence, a peace, that we are on course after all.

Some lessons I've had to learn the hard way, meaning, by making a mistake and suffering the consequences.  Some lessons, not so much a mistake as a blindness. Many from watching others, but the most powerfully from my own suffering.

Remember, Christ suffered all things so he could succor his people.  He had to suffer to understand us.  Do we really think we can be like him without suffering too?  He was totally innocent.  Much of the time, we are not really innocent.  But even when we are, like him, we may have to suffer to become like him.  And watching others suffer gives us the chance to serve, which transforms us, as well as them.

We are lead to believe, in our day and age, that non-stop pleasure, freedom from consequences, cures for everything, are achievable goals and expectations.  No former era offered such expectations.  Not even royalty.  Well, it is a big lie.  And the sooner we realize that, the more grateful we can feel, the more satisfaction we can attain, the more equipped to face life's challenges we will be, and the more ready to be instruments in God's hands.

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