|When we find ourselves stuck in the deserts of life,|
how can we find our own oasis of hope?
A young man in my ward—a somewhat-troubled soul who has seemed to have experienced the lion’s share of hardship and disappoint in his life—brought our metaphorical trip to a screeching halt with a loaded, but honest and searching question: What about when hope runs out? What if there is no hope? It was a bleak proposal; my first thought, I ashamedly admit, was “Here we go again.” This wasn’t the first time this young man (and gospel novice—he was only recently baptized) entreated the class with his desperate, yet humble questions.
|It came to me one day that life is like a plot|
of grass, and we are the caretakers.
What I saw was a modest stretch of green, supple grass; in the middle of the grassy lawn, from the height at which my mind’s eye rested, could be seen an ugly, crudely-dug hole, akin to a grave. There were rocks protruding in spots from its dirt walls, and stringy, frayed-out roots exposed and hanging loosely among the stones. The sky above the scene was a terrible but majestic purplish-black, and stormy clouds in the distance seemed to break just enough on the horizon to show the stars glimmering above them; and from the gathered clouds poured a torrential rain.
As this vision in my mind’s eye was displayed before for me, I zoned out of the classroom chatter and went into my own place where this image began to take on meaning, right then and there. Readers familiar with my posts will know that I have a keen ability to conjure up metaphors and analogies, with relatively no effort on my part, that often carry deep meaning to me. As a very visual thinker, these types of symbolic picture-stories make a lot of sense to me. This situation was no different. My mind raced, quickly but peacefully, about what meaning this image and its story could have for me.
|Life with anxiety and depression sometimes|
feels like digging myself into a hole of misery.
Not liking to lie to people, but also wanting to just be polite and concise, when I am really not well, I have just grown accustomed to telling people, “I feel like I’ve dug myself into a hole that I can’t get out of.” It’s more honest, but it’s also easier to play off as normal stress; living around other young people who are working and going to college, it’s not hard for others to relate to what I’m saying. That’s why that hole in the ground was familiar to me because I sometimes picture it hazily when I have to report to others on my wellbeing.
But how did I get into the hole in the first place? I have pictured this at some length as well since pondering the analogy in class that day. It begins with a pleasant, soft patch of grass that can be easily maintained with diligent upkeep and regular, responsible care; we are the gardeners, entrusted with the role of caretaker for this little gem of botanical beauty. I thought the patch of grass represented my life, my existence—this mortal journey from day to day and year to year, in every season—which is nothing short of delicate and complicated, and sometimes vulnerable.
|Tending to my mental health and wellbeing|
is much like caring for a lawn, requiring
My greatest enemy in caring for my little lawn of life—the gophers, maybe? dandelions? anthills?—is my kneejerk reaction to all things that stress me out, or which may stress me out (present and existent or supposed and fabricated): To avoid them all. I’ve recently learned that anxiety is a repetitive process that an anxious person like me goes through when presented with uncomfortable or potentially uncomfortable situations—things that haven’t even happened yet. I avoid the causes of stress to avoid the anxiety of it, which alleviates short-term anxiety, but contributes to much larger and much more destructive long-term anxiety over unresolved conflict (or potential conflict).
It is not easy for me to live my life—taking care of my little lawn—happily each day when watering seems too scary or difficult; when clipping is too tiring and too complicated; when fertilizing and weeding is too agonizing or can be put off for a little bit longer before it really becomes “necessary.” The grass doesn’t need to be watched unceasingly; but it’s good to check in every day to assess how things are going. Get enough rest, eat good foods, get a little exercise and sunlight, and spend time with others. It seems like a simple process, which, if adhered to, can help us to enjoy the grassy space, and be content with it—to have a happy life.
|Avoidant anxiety is probably my greatest enemy|
in caring for myself; as I avoid stress, the weeds
and molehills begin to surface in my life.
After all, isn’t it selfish to always be thinking about oneself? Other people are caring for their lawns just fine, and they have far more troubles or responsibilities than I do. The plague of self-comparison can be debilitating for me. The harder I push myself, the more I actually feel like just giving up; it’s too much to bear, this lawn, my life. And as I neglect my self-care and compassion by refusing to tend my life, the grass loses its emerald sheen, and the dismal brown patches creep in, threatening even more to overtake what’s left of my life.
By not practicing self-compassion, those brown spots spread into my days, my weeks, even into months. Weeds pop up here and there, then everywhere; and pretty soon my life is in shambles. I no longer have happiness in caring for my little plot of grass. Just looking at it makes me ill; it gets easier to talk myself out of repairing the neglect every time I give even a casual thought to picking up a hose or rake. I can’t see how I can possibly catch up with all I have yet to do, and taking a break to breathe and think things out will only waste precious time.
|The brown patches in my lawn of life only grow|
and multiply as anxiety and stress turn to depression.
After all, who decided that I should have this little plot of land for a season anyway? Who would trust a person like me with the priceless vessel of mortality in such a turbulent world? I find myself stuck with difficult choices that could’ve been easier if I had thought them out better. Pacing myself would’ve helped—a long time ago. Doing that assignment for school early or preparing that lesson for church before Saturday night would’ve been helpful—a long time ago. I am faced with the drought of hope, and my choices seem limited—but giving up altogether is the most appealing option.
When work and tasks pile up like this, I can lose all control; it doesn’t matter what it is (but it is usually housework and homework). Sometimes all I can see is the disgusting, unkempt plot of a gardener who should have known better—the caretaker who didn’t care. Sometimes this affects my mood dramatically; I begin to wonder if I even want to be in charge of so much! Do I even want to be in college? Do I even want to have a job? Do I even want to put myself out there and meet new people? Outside of my analogy, in real life, I might sometimes think that death would be a welcome way out, an easy exit plan—do I even want to be alive? How I wish then that I could tear up everything, down to raw, bare dirt, and start over again with fresh sod—heck, I’ll even resort to reseeding the soil myself if it just means all this grief will go away.
Though suicidal ideation is rare for me, I am no stranger to it; it is not something I have ever gotten close to actually carrying out, but the thoughts of ‘leaving it all behind’ are disturbing, unnerving, and almost sickening. The frustration with my situation and the tiresome persistence of even being a human, in some moments, can be debilitating. I beat myself up for what I see as constant failure, and my little patch of decrepit lawn so often becomes a frustrated handful of grass, ripped out in anger. I hate the grass. I hate my life. Anxiety has led to depression and depression has led me to the end of my figurative rope.
|Stuck deep in a hole of depression, hope seems|
lost, and life becomes an unwelcome burden.
I can see myself taking the tools that I once used to care for my little patch of lawn and turning them against myself—faith becomes faithlessness, testimony becomes cynicism, belief becomes burden, religion becomes rejection, and hope becomes hopelessness. And why stop there? How much more hopeless could my situation become? With shovel in hand, I pierce the ground like I am putting to death the enemy of my soul. Then it’s a shovel full of sod, then soil, and soon rocky dirt. With every minute, day, and week that I avoid my duty in caring for the plot—for myself, my life—the hole can only get deeper.
|As stress and work pile up, the easier it is to|
just abandon all responsibility and isolate myself.
This is when the depression is deep, the hurt is powerful, and there is nothing worse than realizing that you’ve brought it all upon yourself. Not to say that I can help the biology that causes my depression; but I can help to avoid the circumstances that cause the crushing dips into its abyss. These are the times when, though I am physically present at school, work, church, or with friends and family, yet I am emotionally detached and psychologically numb. The weak smile I put on for everyone is as fake as Astroturf; a false portrayal that everything is okay. But like the Astroturf, my façade is artificially produced by me to cover difficult emotions, rather than grown from roots of true contentedness with life.
|From the bottom of my emotional holes, my|
view is is bleak. How will I ever get out?
When another of my trespasses is forgiven and forgotten, I can often catch a sudden glimpse beyond the smoky fog of depression, and for a moment, there is some hope! But what can I really see, then, when I have pushed back so much emotion and responsibility for weeks and weeks?—only the rugged walls of the hole that I am now in. As hopeless as this scenario sounds, whether as a parable or my occasional reality, I have learned something from it.
The beauty of this analogy that came to me in my Elder’s Quorum class that day was not that I figured out a way to figuratively claw myself out of the hole. It was not even that someone came along to rescue me by reaching out a strong, helping hand. Neither did I perish in the ground while pitying myself and casting relentless self-blame. The beauty came unexpectedly—not as my present situation improved, but as it worsened.
|The regular storms of life can seem like a watery|
death sentence when you are stuck in a hole.
Back at church, I no longer heard my Elder’s Quorum brethren commenting on our young friend’s question. I only saw myself gazing up from the hole, and the rain coming down in sheets. Simultaneously I also saw flashes of myself bending over my desk under a hot lamp, papers strewn about, as I typed furiously on the keyboard to make a deadline (a typical state of last-minute panic I encounter a lot). As I slip easily into this live metaphor playing in my brain, suddenly I cannot ignore where I am anymore, and I cannot pretend that this isn’t my fault or that someone else is to blame.
|When the courage to simply try strikes,|
the fog of depression disperses just enough
for me to catch a glimpse of hope again.
The anxious attempts at getting myself out of the hole only remind me how deeply I have dug myself. I realize then that perhaps I should have thought harder about my possible solutions before consigning myself to a lifetime of pouting underground. These are the times that I finally care about what I’ve gotten myself into—long after any plausible, relatively-comfortable solutions have passed. I am still in the hole, and it's not looking good, but I continue to try. The water reaches my waist. Not long now.
Sometime after the initial project is started, or I decide that I will go to work or class after all, the anxiety of beginning is gone and the anxiety of finishing is now what fuels me. Once I reach this stage, I am determined to complete my task no matter what it takes. I avoid the clock face, and just try to make it through the day. Those ominous deadlines I’m often racing against make the dread even more palpable. This process includes periodic pauses to breathe deeply, psyche myself up, and offer prayers for mercy. The whole situation is nonetheless precarious, and there is no certainty that I will make it out alive. Will work ever end? Will the teacher ever wrap up their lecture? Will this social gathering ever end? WIll I finish my essay in time? Back in the hole, the water has reached my shoulders, and I still don’t know what will become of me.
|When all seems lost, Christ's grace descends|
gently to buoy me up and out of my darkest places.
But as the water reaches my chin, and I take a final deep breath, the beauty of the storm is realized. Suddenly, my feet are not touching the muddy bottom of the hole, and my head is still above water. I am not drowning! As long as I put forth the effort to tread water, I stay afloat. This is the moment of serendipity, usually when I notice, partway through my task or responsibility that things are working out. Maybe it’s not as bad as I initially thought. I am getting the answers right, I am nearing the end of my essay, only minutes remain of work—my mood is improving, I am closer to finishing what I began—I can see a way out of the hole if I hold strong.
|Even when stuck in a hole, humility and patience|
can help us "tread water" until we are delivered
from the abyss.
If I can just be patient and continue to “tread water,” things will eventually be okay. And sure enough, the water lifts me high enough to finally grasp the edge of that terrible hole and pull myself out of it. Each and every time it leaves me in shock that I actually did it—I finished the essay; I made it through my whole class or my entire work shift; I made it to my date with friends; I finished the semester; or whatever it is that I had gotten stuck in. In reality, my shock is probably unfounded, because I know that the water falling from the sky in this analogy is not a coincidence or just good luck. In my real life, it is the grace of the Lord sent to buoy me up and carry me out of my sorrows and troubles (2 Corinthians 12:9).
|The rain can sometimes be an inconvenience,|
but it is meant to replenish and refine us.
Instantly the doubt and confusion and unfairness of my situation diffused, and I could no longer feel troubled by my present responsibilities. I was touched by the Light of Christ within me, and His grace flowed over me to calm my fears and give me the push I needed to carry on and finish my tasks. And I always did in the end; and on those nights my bed never felt so comfortable as I lay down with the burden of work lifted from my mind and the assurance of continued academic success.
Knowing what I know now about the sacrifice of the Savior and the grace offered through His atonement, I can see that the Lord was with me even before I actually found Him. And still I know He is with me, because I experience this washing over of the Spirit often when I am at my wit’s end, crying out in my heart for help. He answers my pleading by sending the rain to teach me that His love and blessings can reach me even in the bleakest of places. And if we have an eye to see His glory and an ear to hear His voice, He can raise us up out of whatever miserable holes we’ve dug ourselves into (Matthew 13:9-17; Ezekiel 12:2).
|We won't ever be perfect caretakers of our lives,|
but God fills our days with moments that help us
to better appreciate what we've been entrusted with.
Somehow I recognize that if things hadn’t been so tough, my spirit may not have been contrite and my heart perhaps not broken enough to see the purpose of the rain (Moroni 6:2). When all things realign in my life and I see the hand of God in correcting the chaos, I am usually a little more grateful for life—my little plot of grass—and more willing to “act well [my] part” in order to avoid digging more holes (see this video for more). Additionally, the cleansing power of the rain—the refiner’s fire of tests and trials—can nourish and renew us where we have failed to take care of ourselves, giving us another chance to start over and make things right.
|Although we can prepare for life's storms,|
none of us will escape them.
He wants us to get ourselves wet now and again so to better appreciate the warmth and comfort He provides. As the Lord has said in modern revelation, “If they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39). Even though we may not mean to start digging in the first place, inevitably we will all do it, and God can encourage us to make the best of the holes we end up in. I think that’s why He sends rain. He wants us to discover that it is He who sends the sunshine and the storms when He knows that our little plot of life is ready to grow a little more. A favorite quote of mine, from Latter-day Apostle Richard G. Scott (1928 - 2015), reflects upon life's storms in this way:
“Just when all seems to be going right, challenges often come in multiple doses applied simultaneously. … [T]hey are evidence that the Lord feels you are prepared to grow more. He therefore gives you experiences that simulate growth, understanding and compassion, which polish you for your everlasting benefit. To get you from where you are to where He wants you to be requires a lot of stretching, and that generally entails discomfort and pain.”
~ “Trust in the Lord,” October 1995 General Conference; see also Ensign, Nov. 1995, 16-17.
We neglect ourselves constantly, in my opinion. Many of us feel we are the one exception to God’s infinite love, or Jesus Christ’s ever-reaching atonement. When we don’t care for ourselves, our little plot of grass can become dry and lifeless; even if we have not broken the ground with our shovels through our avoidance, our rebellion, our silent pain, or our procrastination, and are still firmly planted on the ground, there is no living happily when our little plot has lost its health, vibrancy, softness, and glow. We are meant to enjoy lying in the grass that we have cared for, and be proud of our efforts to maintain it as best we can.
|A tidy plot is not always a sure sign of an|
expert gardener; when we compare ourselves
to others, we only see what's on the surface.
One trap that I get myself into is to assume that as I sometimes suffer silently, I am suffering alone. I commonly forget that everyone around me is their own caretaker of a plot similar (but not identical) to mine. Maybe their plot is the blue-ribbon-best, or maybe it is sloppy, but healthy. Others might be feeling the prickles of dead grass between their toes and longing for a time when they were better at gardening.
|Our lawns don't have to be perfect to be enjoyed;|
life is never idyllic, but with regular upkeep,
we can be content with the plots we've been given.
And while the sun may seem to shine endlessly upon some from our view, internally some of them are living with darkness, and they are sometimes the ones who keep their plots the tidiest so that no one discovers their pain. Similarly, I have learned that even those whose lives’ seem a little unkempt can still be extremely fulfilled in caring for the plot of grass that they’ve been given, even if they don’t do so ideally.
|God will send rain upon us all, the just and unjust;|
whether we let the rain drown us or discipline us
will always be our own choice.
As I mentally came back into the classroom that day in Elder’s Quorum, my mind was set at ease, while also being alive with personal revelation and wisdom from God, though I did not end up sharing my experience with the others. I do not know why He sends me these parables to help me understand my life, but I am intensely grateful for them; and I expound upon and share them in the hope that they may connect with someone else’s soul or mind in a way that will help them know their Father and their Savior the way I feel I do.
|I have found that life's storms can often be a|
gesture of the Lord's mercy, whether lost
in the desert or stuck in a hole.
I don’t think I really have an answer either to the analogy that was presented in that class of a trip from Point A to Point B. It’s true, as we carry on with life, we make many different journeys; some are more pleasant while others can be extremely difficult. And like stumbling upon a lone mechanic’s shop when you are broken down on a highway to nowhere, or finding a true oasis when you have wandered the Saharas of mortality, I have found that serendipity often comes just when you are about to give up. The Savior’s grace arrives just in time, like “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).
|"Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows|
not that it brings abundance to drive away the hunger."
~ Saint Basil the Great, Greek Bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia
(AD 329 or 330 - AD 379)