"Miracles are never wrought without prayer, felt need, and faith...they are the natural result of the Messiah's presence among men."
Bible Dictionary

Monday, January 21, 2019

Don't Be A Victim!

When I started working at Overstock, I was fortunate to get put on a project directly overseen by our then VP of analytics. I would make regular progress reports to him - sometimes a daunting prospect during slow or stagnant periods. "Why aren't we moving forward here?" He would ask. "Have we tried this approach? What about another technique?" The cardinal sin was allowing momentum to be slowed down, and he'd ask for any timeline to be sped up. Let's not create the wrong impression of one of my esteemed mentors though. This wasn't the unfair harassment of a bloated executive, rather it was shrewd motivation of untapped potential. "Don't be a victim", he'd say, a typical ending to a talk. "Let's get this done...today!" And so I wasn't. And did.

I came to realize many applications for this advice outside of making sure nothing was stopping me from having my work done in the office. In life there are many, many difficult and unfair circumstances to deal with. Good health can fail, jobs and wealth can disappear, friends and family can disappoint us, or tragically be lost. However, no matter what the situation, it is never the case that there is nothing we can do to resiliently fight back. Even if you have been the victim of a devastating life changing event like me, that doesn't mean you have to continue to be.

Easier said than done. In my case my injury almost eight years ago has had serious, toxic effects on my life. Without the full range of independence others enjoy, I've often been down because of loneliness or lack of opportunity. There have been many days where I've struggled to go through the motions of acting like a cheerful, strong individual while fighting against a literal mass of darkness that threatens to weigh anchor and drown me in despair. My life is hard. BUT, I haven't always done something about it. My options have been limited, but there have been times when I've resigned myself to aa depressing focus on what I can't do rather than fighting for what I can.

These emotions are natural, but in my opinion, one of the most successful traps Satan ensnares us in. Dwelling on the negative and victimizing yourself is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the hope that the gospel of Christ espouses. Wallowing in the many flavors of despair that life so easily brings us can result in paralysis worse than that caused by the hardest of trampoline gym floors. Don't fall prey to this inability to act. Don't be a victim!

Again, easier said than done. But here are three principles I've seen work in my life that I'm continuing to attempt to apply.

1. It's quite easy to set limits on our possibilities. We can define ourselves in certain ways, and then live life inside those boxes. Maybe we believe ourselves not intelligent enough to pursue education, or not attractive enough for love.

After my injury, I faced the reality of living almost entirely without the ability to physically manipulate my surroundings. To this day, I'm essentially limited to weak control over my shoulders and arms. I accomplish my daily tasks using that little strength and adaptive technology like touchscreens and voice control. Despite all this, and to the credit of myself and the army of assistance around me, I made it through graduate school, found fulfilling employment and even own a house now (well, half a house). On this front, I've done quite well in the don't-be-a-victim arena.

2. I'll freely admit that I'm secretly terrified of failure. So much so that I've let it get the best of me and victimize aspects of my life. The worst example of this is my experience with driving. I've had a van that's been outfitted with adaptive controls for my specific needs for years, but until recently made very little progress in actually using it. My attempts to learn to use it went poorly and I became scared that despite the effort and expense that had gone into the van, I would fail. So I stopped trying, evaded questions about progress, and despondently shut the possibility out of my life. Until recently. I decided to stop playing the victim, made some minor tweaks to the driving setup, and viola! Success. Currently that van is in the shop for some tweaks, but I'm optimistic that later this year I'll be able to operate it independently. I'm pleased with this progress, but also can't help but regret the years of playing the victim due to fear of failure that surely withheld opportunities the ability to drive would have allowed for.

3. There are plenty of smaller-stakes circumstances that can victimize us. The most common that I've noticed is timidity: a reticence to offend people or disrupt established procedures to the point that people consign themselves to becoming victims of circumstance. For example, on a recent flight, I noticed my wheelchair being loaded into the plane in a manner that I was positive was going to cause damage. "But what can I do?" I thought. "I'm stuck here in my seat, and the action is happening out on the tarmac. There are lots of people that I don't know with busy agendas I don't want to disrupt, and I would be embarrassed if I became a public spectacle." So I did nothing. And my wheelchair got damaged. Nothing too serious, but it could have been avoided had I not being too timid to get the attention of a flight attendant and demand that my problem be addressed.

The apathy and rejection of responsibility that Calvin's culture of victimhood preaches is incredibly dangerous in both society and individual lives. It plagues social media trends and creates the personal stagnation of Netflix binges. Don't let this take over your life! It's a slippery and unforgiving slope that is easy to fall into due to some of the factors I wrote about above. The negativity and trials of life are legion, but despite these myriad obstacles, there is hope in our Savior. In the words of Gordon B. Hinckley,

“It all works out. Don't worry. I say that to myself every morning. It all works out in the end. Put your trust in God, and move forward with faith and confidence in the future. The Lord will not forsake us. He will not forsake us. If we will put our trust in Him, if we will pray to Him, if we will live worthy of His blessings, He will hear our prayers.”

I've found that when I trust in this promise and rise above victimhood, I empower myself with heavenly aide to deal with my challenges, and life becomes just a little brighter.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Art of Making It

I was thinking about motivational speakers and started considering what I’d say to try and help people. Here goes...the art of how I’m making it through life.

Food is one of the foundations of human interactions. Whenever people get together, there is usually food, and if there’s food, they’re invariably eating it. Food is generally eaten with hands, sometimes with the assistance of forks, spoons, knives, or chopsticks. No brainer right? But if your hands don’t move like everyone else’s like me, you suddenly find yourself a social pariah from this most basic of human interaction.
“Would you like brownie/pretzel/carrot stick Stephen?”, they offer, poised to pass the food in question to me. At some level they must realize I’m going to have trouble with this. Maybe they’re just realizing. “Wait, how does he...?”
Yes!”, I think, “I’d love a brownie/pretzel/carrot stick! Those are delicious foods, and I’d love to join you socially by eating them.”
“No thanks”, I actually say, and force a smile. “I just ate.” It’s a lie, but a believable one. It’s a lie I’ve convinced myself is best for everyone. This way, the person I’ve lied to doesn’t have to concern themselves with how I do actually manage to eat when I’m not lying about not being hungry, and I spare myself some embarrassment. “Of course he’s not being left out of the food because he physically can’t join in!” everyone thinks, “He just chose not to be a part of this.”
And which is worse, really? Food in social gatherings is a lose-lose situation for me.

But does it have to be? I do have a couple more options than I’ve led you to believe. First, I typically eat aided by a Velcro contraption that goes around my wrist and holds a fork in place. Using my trusty splint, most foods are no problem. Second, there’s always the option of asking the person offering me the food to just “pop one in my mouth”. They 100% of the time do have hands that work, so this too, is no problem. The problem lies in asking for assistance. 

I ask for help dozens of time every day. “Hey, can you move that? Grab that? Push that? Open that?” Small stuff that you’d typically do without thinking about twice. But I need help with those things. That is absolutely humiliating for me. Every day I wake up and immediately fight off the feeling of devastation that comes from knowing that I’m facing another day of relying on some unknown set of strangers, friends, and family to get through the basics needs of the day. 

After I finished graduate school in April 2017 I found myself in a difficult position as a fledgling member of the professional workforce. I needed to find a job close enough to home that I’d be able to commute easily because of my limited ability to travel on my own. It’d be a plus if it was an actual career building job, but really I just needed something that would work logistically. I had actually accepted a job offer back in January, but it was way out of commute range and not a long term option. The last several months had been a frantic combination of finishing school, scouring LinkedIn, and interviewing across the valley, but by the time graduation rolled around I had only been successful with school. 
Without another option, I went ahead and started working at the job that was an hour away, and continued to search for anything else. Finally, I got a call from Overstock. They were in a perfect location, and were actually looking for my skillset. Perfect! Unfortunately, they weren’t hiring full-time - the position was for an internship. “Likelihood of converting to full-time eventually?”, I asked. They hedged, saying if they liked someone they like to keep them on. It would be a tryout for a full-time job, with no guarantees. 
So, I took a risk and bet on myself. I quit my stable but untenable employment, took a paycut, and became an intern. And it could not have worked out better. I worked hard, impressed people, and after six months of interning I converted to a full-time data scientist. The work is intriguing, the company is exciting, and my fledgling career is off to an improbable but strong start.

There’s a point to these two anecdotes. I firmly believe, and keep in mind who this is coming from, that no matter what situation you find yourself in, you can make something meaningful out of your life. People like to talk about happiness as the goal of life, and while that’s a great aspiration, it’s finding meaning in life that really brings a lasting satisfaction. But how do you find this meaning? (Read my previous post on Man’s Search for Meaning) Sometimes life deals us a rotten hand and there doesn’t seem to be much of anything meaningful that we’re progressing for. I’ve been there. For the first several years after my accident I bounced around from therapy to school, staying busy but struggling to find real purpose to what I was doing. But I stuck with it. I worked hard. Even though it was unfair, I worked harder than all of my peers: I spent more time laboriously writing out page after page of statistical theory in my clumsy handwriting and slowly tapped out code one character at a time on my computer. Despite my obvious disadvantages, I made it through school, impressed my coworkers, and am now on one of the best possible professional career tracks. 

How am I finding meaning in life despite my limitations? Here are three credos that I’ve applied (with varying levels of success) to my life:

1. Rely on others. Ask for help when you need it. Use the resources available. Eat the food when it’s offered to you! It can be incredibly difficult to admit you need help. It is for me every day. But the people in your life that love you, and even most of the complete strangers that don’t, are for the most part good people. They want to help. So let them. Success is never an entirely individual achievement.

2. Stay in reality. Hard work is hard. There are so many alternatives to doing actual work: distractions that offer us instant pleasure and remove us from the struggles of reality. Reality is often a slog and forces us to deal with ugly trials, but there is no way to progress in life without fighting through them. Put down the phone every now and then, log out of social media, and don’t escape into video games or Netflix. Choose to face your trials head-on, don’t just brush them aside and escape reality.

3. Believe in yourself. This is cliché but it’s absolutely key. For me, I had to learn more about myself in order to gain enough confidence to believe I could make it on my own despite all of my physical limitations. That happened as I fought through trial after trial. I learned what it would take for me, and I realized that after passing through enough adversity I had what it took. That takes time, but if you can believe in yourself enough to not give up, it’s possible. 

And why wouldn’t you believe in yourself? Never forget that we are all literal children of God and have access to divine help when we need it. Every time I’ve been at the end of my rope, I’ve relied on my Father in Heaven and somehow made it through. It’s not always a miraculous deliverance from trial. In fact, it rarely is. Instead, through hard, consistent effort, with a focus on reality and humility to accept offers of assistance, I’ve made it through obstacle after obstacle. And I have faith that I’ll be able to continue to do so.

So if I’ve done it, with zero movement below my chest and no strength in my hands, it’s not too hard to believe you can too, right?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

My Search For Meaning

No matter who you are, there have been times when you’ve felt inadequate compared to your peers. And depending on who you are, this happens to varying degrees. Me being who I am, comparison between rolling and walking is impossible to ignore. It’s as if there’s a siren blaring “Different! Different! DIFFERENT!” in the back of my mind all day long.
I’m always in varying levels of pain. DIFFERENT. I can’t get up and down steps. DIFFERENT. I spend hours every day doing simple everyday tasks, or rely on others to do them for me. DIFFERENT. I can’t run. Or write. Or grab that object. DIFFERENT, DIFFERENT, DIFFERENT. Most of the time, the siren isn’t actually blaring, it’s more of a dull background thrum. But when I see my peers enjoying happiness and excitement from avenues of life that seem closed to me, the siren becomes deafening. And worse still, in those moments it’s not saying different, but inferior...broken…worthless.

At the beginning of the summer, I bought a house. And not only did I buy the house, but I also finished several renovations and home improvement projects (with so much help and free labor from my family). I finished my graduate program last Spring, and at the beginning of 2018 turned a long internship into a full-time job with a great company in a top industry. It’s been a busy couple years, but while these achievements have been satisfying, I’ve had trouble turning that satisfaction into lasting happiness.
It’s like this. It felt like I had been fighting tooth and nail to be invited into a society of successful individuals. After years of struggling, I’m finally not only been accepted into the group, but am to be publicly commended with an award for exceptional achievement. The ceremony is lavish and I am lauded with praise, but when the clock strikes midnight, everyone else moves on to the next party, except for me. They are all beautiful and carefree. I am not invited. Instead, I roll on home and wait for someone to arrive to assist me into bed where I lie, utterly still and utterly alone.
Dramatized, sure, but it’s difficult to otherwise express feelings that are so close to the heart. What is it like being paralyzed? It’s hard. What’s the hardest part? All of it. How do I feel? Sad. Bad. Different.
I didn’t know it at the time (at least not in as many words) but my frustration with life didn’t really come from being disabled. It came from the lack of meaning I found after achieving some of the biggest and longest tenured items on my to-do list. It was my search for meaning.

Man’s Searching for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, has changed my perspective on finding value in life. I’m sure many people have had many different takeaways from this book, but for me it was all about the idea of finding meaning in enduring suffering. During the years Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in a concentration camp, he saw constant pain, oppression and injustice. He saw men that were completely stripped of everything except their base humanity either rise and exhibit the best of the human spirit, or fall into despondency and give up their desire to live. The difference was this: an understanding of their meaning of their life. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”.
And how does Frankl define meaning in life? In three ways. First, you can find meaning in creating a work or doing a deed. Second, by experiencing something or encountering someone, and third, by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
The idea that there is meaning to my constant and unavoidable suffering, as inexplicable as it is, has changed my outlook on life since I’ve read the book. Rather than being troubled by the physical abilities I don’t and may never have, I’m focusing on Frankl’s three tenants of meaning. My life is constant unavoidable suffering. That’s okay. I can handle it. I’ve been handling it for seven years now, and it hasn’t stopped me from creating works and doing deeds. Neither has it prevented me from experiencing beauty and forming and deepening relationships. I’ll admit relationships are difficult for me because I have a hard time fully opening up and relating the depth of my disability. But that’s also okay. I have plenty of life left to find more meaning there.

I know I’m not the only one that struggles to make sense of an often senseless world. Read this book. It has messages for everyone, no matter your situation. Since I finished reading, I’ve been motivated to set and keep goals for personal improvements in all areas of my life. I also feel like I’ve grown closer with the Savior. What else are we here on earth for, if not to learn and grow, despite whatever suffering life may throw your way?

Highlighted quotes from the book:

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.”

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation— just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer —we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now!”

Saturday, April 14, 2018

This Is Me

Seven years ago today was the last time I slept through the night without being bothered by nerve pain. It was the last time I got out of bed without assistance. The last time I made myself breakfast, and ate on my own. And that’s just the beginning of the list of things I lost after my accident later that day seven years ago. These past seven years have contained an endless stream of obstacles, and I’m quite proud of myself for what I’ve been able to accomplish. 

In the past year I finished off several years of higher education and found a job that is already preparing me for a successful professional career. I’m also buying a house and operating with more and more independence. There’s a lot to like on paper, but in actuality none of this means my day to day life isn’t fraught with challenges. Nothing comes easily as a high level quadriplegic, but I do it day after day. It’s not a glamorous life, but it’s the I’ve been tasked with making the best of. So I’ll keep on doing it! If I’ve made it through these seven years, how tough can the rest of them be?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Broken Things

I'm just a few days away from the six year mark of the onset of my paralysis. I'm not much of a poet, but I thought I'd try to express some of the unique emotions and difficulties I go through.

Broken Things

If I wasn't broken, I wouldn't sit when others stood.
If others ran and jumped and played, I'd join them in the fray.

If I wasn't broken, I'd be strong and tall and sleek.
My muscles wouldn't atrophy, I wouldn't be so weak.

If I wasn't broken, I'd do things on my own.
I wouldn't need another's hands, or Siri on my phone.

If I wasn't broken, I wouldn't shiver in the spring.
The summer wouldn't burn me up; the winter wouldn't sting.

If I wasn't broken, my body wouldn't jerk.
Pain wouldn't keep me up at night, nor interrupt my work.

If I wasn't broken, I wouldn't be depressed.
When all my peers go do the things that give life that special zest.

Metal bars around a lion, a bird with crumpled wings.
There's a certain savage sadness to a soul that cannot spring.

Of all the other people, are there any quite like me?
Their lives are free and fun and real, while mine much burdened be.

But though their lives seem easy, I know that underneath,
lie pains and hurts and nasty things that they would like to sheath.

For are we all not broken? We've wandered far from home.
Through times of trial, pain and sin, often do we roam.

But broken things can mend themselves, and learn to live again.
Resilient courage is ours to claim, as broken, mortal men.

And since we all are broken, each can sing their song.
Different parts that harmonize, in heaven's eternal throng.
(Credit: Elder Holland)

My life is tough to say the least, but somehow things work out.
Miracles have buoyed me up, and wiped away my doubt.

Christ my Savior ransoms me, when it's more than I can bear.
For trials can be overcome with fervent, humble prayer.

And though I'm pretty broken, there's wheat among my tares.
I've every blessing that I need...plus a wheelchair.

I love this picture. Not only because the paralyzed man is me, but because of the incredible faith he's showing by attempting to reach the Savior. The man can't move, but he embarks on a risky and dangerous undertaking, trusting that Christ will help him succeed. If there was no miracle at the end of his descent, he would have been stuck on the ground, unable to move and surrounded by strangers. Furthermore, being raised back up on the litter would likely be an unstable contest against the unforgiving jaws of gravity. What an example of faith in the Savior amidst fear and trials! 

There are no days off of paralysis. For the past six years I've been trapped in a body that is not only unable to do things that life necessitates, but is barely able to move at all. But as the years have passed, I've gotten used to it. I've figured out how to get by with the little function I have, and carved out a small place in the world that I know I can be successful in. Most of the time, I'm content with that. Happy even. But sometimes, when it seems like the sun is shining for everyone but me, the weight of what I've lost comes crashing down. It can be a disparaging, crippling burden. My life is not glamorous. It can be frustrating. Humiliating. Disappointing. But it's still my life, and I'm still me. My trials are numerous, and the forecast says they're going to be around for awhile yet. But I know how cope with them and find peace and happiness in the small things of life.

I've heard some people say that they've accepted their injuries and disabilities to the point that they wouldn't go back and change themselves if they could. That's not me. I'll probably never get to that point. Honestly all the trials of my particular injury are just too severe. But that doesn't mean I'm giving up. I'll be graduating soon with a Masters degree in an exciting field (for me at least!) with exciting career prospects. There's still plenty for me to achieve in life! I know there will be more difficult times ahead for me but in some ways, that's just life and I'm not so different from everyone else (even though I am). When those times come, I'll do what I've always done. Rely on my Savior, Jesus Christ. For although it often seems like no one understands the unique pains I experience, he does. Through the Atonement, Christ experienced all the afflictions and brutality of mortal life and can therefore alleviate my pain and make my burdens lighter. I know this is true. I've seen blessings and miracles in my life that can be explained in no other way.

I'll making a significant transition soon, from student to full-time employee. I'm not sure exactly how I'll be able to make things work and have the help I need to be successful, but I have confidence it will work out. I've made it this far! And whether it be one more year of paralysis, another six, or the rest of mortality, I know it will be okay. My Savior has a plan for me, and if I continue to trust in him, he won't let me fail.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Building Faith by Sharing the Gospel

I wrote out what I planned to say in entirety, since I had a firm 10 minute time limit. I had aspirations to lightly refer to my notes and confidently throw my gaze across the crowd and seize their hearts. Instead, the sea of 1200+ faces ended up sucker punching said confidence, and I’m honestly not sure how much of what’s written here actually came out of my mouth. But in a perfect world, this is how it would have gone.

Five and a half years ago, like every other freshman guy at BYU I received my mission call, and I was called to the Buenas Aires North mission in Argentina. And like everyone else, I thought this was the first step in what I think of as the five M's of Mormon maturity: mission, marriage, acadeMics (you got the M there?), eMployment, and last but not least, money.

This is corny.

I'm not sure what order those go in, or where maturity happens (if ever), but that's the traditional path that most of us are somewhere on. And that's the path I thought I was headed down as well. Just three weeks after I got my call the course of my life changed dramatically. I suffered a C-5 burst fracture in my neck in a freak accident at a local gymnastics facility. My spinal cord was damaged severely, and I became paralyzed from the chest down. I don't have time to relate all the details of the aftermath of my accident and my recovery or express all of the emotion that surrounded that time, but it suffices to say that my plans, priorities, and outlook on life changed quickly and dramatically.

I went from worrying about if my hometeachees were cute or not and thinking about how many points Jimmer would score in his next game to hoping the muscles in my chest would strengthen enough to get the fluid that was building up in my lungs out on its own so I wouldn't need a tube stuck down my nose to suction it out. Most painful thing I've ever experienced by the way. Instead of entering the MTC, I spent the next two years in either a hospital, doctors’ office, or physical therapy clinic. Just as soon as I was entering the part of my life full of freedom and growth, it was gone, replaced by a frustrating grind of trying to get my body to do the simplest things, things that I had always taken for granted. Not only was I not going on a mission, but I now had doubts and fears about all the M's on the list. I had always been a great student and quick learner, but how was I going to continue in school without being able to write or use a computer? And what about finding a job? Or getting married?

Time passed, and I have been able to work things out, with the help of so many small miracles. I've been able to get out and live on my own, I'm on the verge of earning my Master’s degree in Statistics from BYU (not crazy!) and I've accepted an exciting job offer. Those were difficult goals to reach, but maybe more difficult was dealing with the emotional demons that have plagued me since my accident.

From the beginning, I felt different, unable to do things that other people were doing, and separated from the rest of the world. These were difficult things to deal with, and at first I tried to cope by denying I was any different than anyone else. I stayed as far away as possible from conversations about my accident and limitations and became frustrated and depressed by feelings of emptiness and difficulty connecting with other people.

Searching for answers, I came across Christ's words to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 12:16 "Therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven" I realized that my efforts to be no different than anyone else was dimming my light and suffocating who I was. Paralysis was a part of my life now, and I needed to own it, despite how debilitating and just plain difficult it was. I also realized that I have a unique platform to empathize with others and share the gospel. I wasn't able to serve a mission, but because of the trials I've been through I have been able to connect with others that have gone through similar things and been left with a broken heart and contrite spirit. So I took a leap of faith and began to put myself out there by sharing my story on social media.

Years ago my family had a blog we would use to post updates on my recovery. I decided I was going to get back on and reboot it and I started sharing the gospel through personal experiences. And just to be clear, I'm not plugging my blog in stake conference.

This is also corny.

Now, I said before that my mission experience has been different than most. While my peers were preaching the gospel, I was literally going through the refiner’s fire and being shaped for a different kind of mission. As I've shared my story and my experiences seeing miracles from God's hand in my life, I've been able to not only connect with others, but also build my own faith.

Clayton M Christensen said "We share the gospel because we know it will help others become better, happier people. But the blessings for us are priceless"

As I've shared the gospel, I've been able to more clearly identify the Saviors hand in my life, and know that he loves me and that I am a child of God. And I've been able to strengthen the personal relationship I have with my Savior, which is truly the most valuable relationship we can build.

If you are looking for a way to grow your own faith and testimony, might I suggest sharing it with others?

As I've done this, I've been amazed at the personal strength and confidence I've gained in the gospel and in myself. The church is rolling out a new social media missionary program, and since my roommate is one of the co-chairs and the meetings are at my apartment, I attend. I know sometimes we feel silly sharing messages of the gospel on social media, and I'll be honest in saying that in the past I've been dismissive of messages I've seen on Facebook but lately I've developed a testimony of it. Honestly, we should all do this. If the excuse to not be a missionary in Provo is that everyone is already a member, isn't sharing the gospel on across the world on the internet the answer? And even if it is just your LDS friends that see your message, don't we all need those messages from other people to help us be converted again and again?

Now, final point, I talked earlier about how I felt different, unable to do things that other people were doing, and separated from the rest of the world and that I had to come to terms with all of these things in order to let my light shine. But as members of the church, don't we all feel these things? Don't we all feel different? Unable to do what other people are doing, and separate from the world? Satan would tell us that these are restrictions, and there is more excitement in life in pushing these restrictions as far as they can go. He would have us fight against these supposed boundaries the church puts around us. However, like my process of coming to terms with paralysis, true happiness comes when we know we are different than the world, and choose to abstain from those things.

As Christ said in Matthew 16:25 "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it"

When we fully commit ourselves to the gospel, we are taking the shade off our lamps and allowing our light to shine unhindered. Not only does this draw others to the light, but it helps us purify ourselves and have a greater measure of the spirit to be with us. I testify that this is true for each one of us and despite the darkness or despair that trials can bring into our lives we are being watched over and guided along. We are being molded into what our Heavenly Father would have us be, and he has greatness and joy in mind for each of us. All we have to do is trust him. And really try. Honestly, earnestly try.

Brothers and sisters, I know of no better way to strengthen our faith than by sharing the gospel with others. It doesn't matter who they are, family, friend, member, non-member. Any dialogue we have about the gospel is a positive thing. One of Satan's most clever lies is that the gospel is just for Sunday, and it's not cool to get preachy outside of church. Don't believe that! It is cool! Share the gospel and others as much as you can. It will be a blessing to yourself, and everyone around you.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Calming the Storms of Life

Early in the first century AD, a small group of men fought for their lives against the unbridled forces of Mother Nature. Although making just a short journey across the Sea of Galilee, they quickly lost control of their small vessel. The unloosed wind and rain and sweeping waves combined to create a tempest that was both singular and deadly. It was, perhaps, a testament to the awesome force on display that the men, many of whom were fishermen by trade, were swiftly reduced to cowering, crying out, "Master! Carest thou not that we perish?"

The Savior had been sleeping, unaffected by the impending doom. He arose, stretched forth his hand, and rebuked the very forces of nature, saying, "Peace, be still." I imagine that he spoke the words quietly, but with an intensity that turned a whisper into a roar. Quietly commanding, and impossible to disobey. And obey the sea did, for the tempest instantly ceased and all was calm.

Crisis averted, Christ turned to his young disciples. "Why", he asked, "is it that ye are so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" For some time, these concluding remarks have troubled me. Did they not call upon the Savior in the midst of their troubles? I imagine they had previously been exerting their considerable skill towards navigating out of the storm. Surely they had done all that they could do, and then supplemented their efforts with an appeal to the divine. Why then were they rebuked?

"Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" - Mark 4:40

The answer of course, is that they were not. Jesus Christ was teaching them the same lesson that he's been teaching me the past five plus years and counting. It's just that sometimes, it can be an awfully hard lesson to learn.

About a year and a half ago, the seas of my life, after so long and unexpectedly being in turmoil, had calmed. Things were going for me, and going well! In doubt for so long, I had identified what I wanted to do with my life, and it looked like I had the means to do it. I had just been accepted not only into a top-notch graduate program, but also for an internship with a high caliber company. And best of all, I was feeling great physically (which is saying something). Clear skies, and calm waters ahead! But that's not life. And the storm hadn't abated - I was just in the eye.

It wasn't that it all went wrong. It went right - in the wrong direction. My internship was a great experience, an intellectually stimulating career builder. But it wasn’t necessarily all that I expected, and I struggled to maintain the excitement I’d found life could offer while living some distance away from friends and family. Nevertheless, I made it through my time there and performed admirably. The sea was still relatively calm, but dark clouds were massing on the horizon. School was starting soon.

School has never been anything new to me; its been a constant my entire life except for the year I took off immediately after my injury. However, since then I had been going primarily part-time to account for my limited physical ability. I knew that wasn't going to be an option in my graduate program, and I knew the course work would be rigorous. So for the first time in a long time, I found myself a full-time student, and for the first time ever I found myself a completely overwhelmed student. The difficulty of the curriculum was compounded by my inability to take notes in class, type more than five or six words per minute, and write with more proficiency than a slow and laborious scrawl.

But I was making it. There were late nights, less than perfect grades (hard for me to accept) and awkward moments. The tempest was rising, but I had trimmed the canvas and stowed extra cargo belowdecks in order to meet the challenge. Until a wave I hadn't seen crashed into me at full force.

I was on my way out of attending a BYU soccer match when I first noticed my right arm wasn't responding the way I was accustomed to. Now, I don't have much strength (understatement) but what I do have is primarily in that arm. Driving my chair, eating, writing, using my computer and phone, everything. But as I attempted to drive my chair out of South Field, I found that I could barely manage. My arm felt sore and weak in unprecedented ways and I was fraught with worry and frustration during the slow, jerky trek back to my van.

Looking back now, I’ve realized that the symptoms had been building for some time, but I’d been stubbornly refusing to admit that anything further detrimental could possibly be happening to me. My muscles had been spasming with more severity for months and my ever-present nerve pain had been getting worse. The diagnosis was the development of a syrinx in my neck, essentially a build-up of spinal cord fluid that was putting pressure on my spinal cord and slowly causing my worsening symptoms. To put this in the stark perspective that only numbers can offer, there are about 282,000 people in the U.S. living with a spinal cord injury. Of those, 13.3% are classified as complete tetraplegia (my condition, which characterizes the high level of paralysis and low chance of improvement), and of those 3-4% develop a symptomatic syrinx. You don't need to be a statistician to work this one out, but I'll tell you that that amounts to me being one of about 1300 people in the U.S. with a similar prognosis. That's about a .0004% chance. It's impossible to say how often a syrinx develops in the middle of masters' coursework, but it's safe to say that in the span of a few months a storm the like of which few others ever see had developed in my life.

Surgery was the only option. And it was surgery of an intensive nature that was not without risk. Worse still, there was a minimum period of two weeks through which I would be incapacitated. So treating my insidious and progressive condition would have to wait at least two months until there was room in my schedule for it to elbow Christmas break aside. The hit on my strength slowed my pace on assignments from turtle to snail pace. I was already barely keeping my head above water at times, but at this point the storm reached its zenith.

I don't think I can adequately explain how difficult things were for me at the end of that semester. I lived a day and an assignment at a time. Nonessential tasks like part-time work and most of my social life were dropped. Were there still good times, miracles, and the invaluable support of friends and family? Yes, yes, and undeniably yes. Did I smile throughout most of it? Probably. But for better or for worse I tend to play most of my issues close to the chest.

Like Christ's disciples, I turned to the other passenger on my boat, the Savior. "Master", I cried, "Carest thou not that I perish?" Unlike the storm on Galilee however, not every tempest in our life is dispelled immediately. Some burn intensely and then are suddenly quenched, while others wax and wane throughout our lives, raging fiercely and then softly retreating. My trials are generally of the latter nature, and knowing this, I asked my Father for the same thing I do every day. Simply, the strength to endure. The response I received was the same that the disciples of old heard. "Why is it that ye are so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" There was no rebuke, or impatience with my weakness. Only love, coupled with a gentle reminder of who I was. I am a child of God. My Father in heaven has blessed me tremendously, despite my many trials which at times can be overwhelming. My journey through life of late hasn't been smooth sailing, but when is it ever? For anyone? It has not included miraculous healing or even substantial improvement, despite my fervent longing for such blessings. But that's okay. Jesus Christ is in the boat with me, sailing through whatever life may bring. As we trust in him, he will not let us fail completely. For has he in the past?

This was the same lesson that Christ was teaching his disciples so many years before. It's a tough lesson to learn and once learned sometimes even harder to maintain, because when the storms of life rage fiercely it can become tempting to think we stand a better chance with one fewer passenger. Fortunately, no matter where we are in life, he will never give up on us. Our Savior wants so desperately to help each of us, individually, that he died for our sakes. Because of this sacrifice, the very creator of heaven and earth can and will guide each of us through the storm, if we just allow him on board.

I know that this is true. But he doesn't lead us around the storms of life, rather, it's a course straight through them. My first semester of graduate school was full of trials that had both everything and nothing to do with actual school work, but it was not impossible. I didn't fail. (Except for one test. Complete disaster.) The surgery went well, I was able to recover some strength, and 2016 started with calm seas. Of course, more trials came up pretty quickly. But that's life right?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Flavors of Pain

I recently read a book.
To anyone who knows me that shouldn't be much of a surprise. I read a lot, and this was one of six books I've finished since school got out, plus the Unbroken audiobook (does that count as reading?). However, this book is worth mentioning because unlike the entertainment-value fantasy series I usually read, there was a lot of substance to this one. It is called The Alchemist, a allegorical story of a young man who loses everything, and then gains it back with interest in pursuit of his "Personal Legend". According to the story, the Personal Legend is what each of us has at the core of our being. It's our unshakable desire to achieve "something" in life. We may not know what it is, or think it to be impossible, but it is there nonetheless. There are a lot of takeaways from the story, and I fully recommend it, (it's only about 100 pages!) but one idea really struck me as something to write about. There is one character who knows what his Personal Legend is and has the means to achieve it, yet for whatever reason, doesn't. Do we see this in our lives? Are there opportunities for us to progress that pop up, ready for us to take advantage of, that we instead let pass by? There are plenty of reasons why we let this happen, but they all have one commonality: they are excuses, and one of the challenges we all have in life is figuring out how to overcome them.

There are plenty of things to be afraid of in life, but I've thought about it a lot and have come to believe all of our fears can be summed up in one word - pain. We fear things that hurt us. Things that have hurt us in the past, or might in the future. And sometimes it sure seems like life is out to get us - in 17 different ways at once, with contingency plans A, B, and C ready to go as we move past one trial just to face the next. That's often how I feel, but I'd have to say that one of the aspects of myself I'm most proud of is my ability to press on despite the onslaught of challenges. As this is my blog, I thought I'd share a few of these personal painful challenges and the only way that I know how to deal with them. 

Physical pain

Spinal cord injuries aren't clean afflictions by any means. There are often a lot of fun little side effects ready to manifest themselves when the paralysis itself isn't enough. Like nerve pain. I live with constant pins and needles in my feet and neck. The intensity varies from invisibility to unbearability (not a word), but aside from taking medication, all I can do is grin and bear it. It's amazing what we can get used to and subconsciously cope with, given enough time.

Pain of loss

Some pain, however, can't be pushed aside, no matter how much time has passed. The loss of function in almost all of my body is one of those pains. Similar to physical pain, the severity of this pain waxes and wains, but never goes away entirety. I don't think I can even express through words the intense agony this pain inflicts, and the misery it leaves behind. I can't possibly describe the resulting feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy. Paralysis has affected every aspect of my life. There are no days off, and no relief from the immobilizing vicegrip that has settled over me. This pain...is excruciating.

Pain of missing out

FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. It's a real thing, and it's ravaging through a college town near you, keeping scores of young twenty-somethings awake well past a decent bedtime. Except for me! I'm incredibly responsible, possessing copious amounts of fortitude that allows me to throw off the chains of immaturity that binds my weaker peers. Knowing the great importance of keeping a sharp schedule, I get to bed early! Every night. Because getting to bed isn't something I can actually do on my own. It takes assistance, and assistance is a job, and jobs operate on a schedule. A schedule that means when it comes to late night activities, I miss out. Of course, I also miss out on lots of nature excursions, sporting events, and active games. These are things that I used to absolutely love participating in. Heck, everyone loves being able to independently go about their passions. It's part of life, part of being human! Except now...it's not.

I have a great appreciation for the things I am able to accomplish and experience despite my challenges. I'm currently independently working a great job where my coworkers appreciate my abilities and I'm planning on moving back to Provo next Fall to finish school. I have a great support system that is dedicated to go to bat for me and make life possible and better. I wrote a whole post on this awhile back (the one with the memes). But this post is about pain. And this section is about the pain of missing out. That's the pain that twists in my gut when I'm alone, not able to join in with everyone else. It's the brief flash of pain that accompanies the realization, in the cases that I can attend the activity, that things will have to be done differently for me, or I'll have to be in different seating. The pain of having missed the opportunity to serve a mission, and do a hundred other things. In those moments the good things don't seem as good. The voice that whispers, "What if you had never gone to that tumbling gym?" seems deafening. And the pain seems to consume everything else.

So there's three pains that I deal with constantly. Really I probably covered more than that with the way I got rolling in that last section, but either way that's enough from me. I started thinking about all this after reading this part of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. (So maybe there's more than just entertainment value in my books) :

"Growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you’re just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.
Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind—graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There’s the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn’t give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life as they grow and learn. There’s the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.
And if you’re very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last—and yet will remain with you for life.
Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don’t feel it.
Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it’s a big part, and sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it’s part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you’re alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another."

We all have different kinds of pain in our life. There's rejection and betrayal. Failure and embarrassment. Loneliness hurts. And so does transgression. But no matter what our flavor of pain it is, it does make us stronger. Pain changes us, and helps us progress through life - if we have the courage to continue fighting for our Personal Legend.

Sometimes though, when the pain is severe, the promise of future betterment doesn't mean much. The hurt, isolation, and loneliness can be intense. And in those moments, the only tried and true successful strategy I've found is reliance on the only person who has perfect empathy for us. It's my Savior, Jesus Christ, and through the Atonement he has literally felt it all. All of the pains I have and will experience, as well as yours. The strength that this reality can bring is very real, and has helped me through many dark times. I've been through a lot of challenges and will continue to fight through more, but upon reflection, with the perspective Christ's Atonement provides, I've realized how much that pain has helped me develop into a better and stronger person.

"And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people...and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities."
Pain is an interesting thing to deal with. We are all racked by it, but often have a hard time expressing to others the depths of our anguish. Personally, I often worry that the alien nature of my pain to others, along with its constant presence, makes it hard for me to really connect with others. I wear my pain like a suit of armor, and I can be hard for me to let my guard down and really admit how hard things can be for me. One thing that I've discovered however, is the ability to truly emphasize with those who are going through similar trials. Empathy is a rewarding and therapeutic feeling to impart. And finally, I've found that when I do put myself out there and share my pain with others, it's always a positive experience and I'm blessed with an outpouring of support. Thanks to you all for helping me keep going. Here's to relying on the Savior for the strength to overcome pain, and courageously continuing on our life's journey to find our Personal Legend, and with it, true joy and happiness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Why I'd make a terrible cat burglar

For my internship this summer, I have to obtain a government security clearance. As such, I've filled out several different forms and input piles of personal information into government websites. So in the unlikely event you're contacted about me, please say something nice!

Most recently, and memorably, was the fingerprinting "adventure" I suffered through. Fingerprinting is (crossing my... fingers) the last step in obtaining the security clearance. To have them taken, I went with my Mom up to Salt Lake to the Northrop Grumman office, an appointment having been made previously. It turns out the ink method is now archaic, and prints are all digital these days. Which I'm sure is great in terms of ease and efficiently for 99% of the population, but it also turns out the print machine is rather picky and requires a perfect image to validate the fingerprints.
Well, what if you can't actually move your fingers into the required positions? Or what if your joints are really tight and like to involuntarily clench up? That makes those perfect images pretty difficult to capture. And by "pretty difficult" I mean four pairs of hands, a full hour of effort, and a handful of swears (not from me, I promise!) It was a little bit of a spectacle I'm sure, but hey the prints finally got taken and are presumably acceptable.

Ironically, if you think about it the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Why would I need to be fingerprinted? My hands and fingers would be useless in committing any kind of crime. If anything I should have had tire marks put on file - that's what will really identify me at the crime scene.

No deep message on this one. I just thought I'd share and encourage you to laugh at these kind experiences rather than be frustrated and annoyed! It makes life much brighter.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hard Work!

I keep a running "to-do" list on my phone. It's a pretty simple organizational strategy - when I hear or think of something I need to do, I'll make a note of it. The list will include emails to send, calls to make, medications to refill and pickup, etc. I don't even consider schoolwork here - that's separate.
Currently, there are 20 items on my list. 13, for 65%, are directly disability related. And honestly that's a little low for me, I'd say on average that list runs 75% disability tasks. The point is, there is a lot a lot more to my disability than sitting in a wheelchair. There are doctors, home health aides and nurses, medical supplies, and medications. Insurance, Medicaid, vocational rehab, and other disability programs. BYU's disability center, notetakers, professors, and testing centers. These are problems to be solved that before my injury I never would have expected. These are headaches, endless back and forth trying to obtain disability accommodations, or retain Medicaid. It's a lot of hard work! But I've learned a lot these past couple years as I've taken more and more responsibility for these things on my own (my parents are great and still help a ton).
Hmmm...this isn't really going anywhere interesting. Instead, let me tell you about how I'm preparing for my internship this summer. It's with Northrop Grumman, a government contracted aerospace security company. They're at the Hill Air Force base in Clearfield (45 mins north of my parents) and I'll be doing some analysis on missle reliability data. I'm excited to really see some interesting statistical problems and get into a potential career environment. However, like most things for me, it's not quite that easy.
There are two major obstacles to work out for me to be succesful at my internship. First, transportation. I'm really close to bringing my van home, but it's going to take me awhile before I'm driving independently, wherever I want to go. The goal is to have that down, 100%, by the beginning of next semester. In the mean time, I'll have to figure out an alternative to get to and from work.
Second, being able to work and getting through the day. Obviously, I can't just sit down at the typical intern workstation and be productive. I'll need a special setup for a desk, computer, and phone. Additionally, I'll need help with lunch and bathroom stuff in the middle of the day.
Plenty of obstacles. There's been a lot to figure out. But it's nothing that a lot of hard work, many many prayers, and a dedicated support system can't work out. I'll have family to help me commute, and I may move up north with my little brother once his school is out. The great country we live in provides for workplace accommodations and non-discrimination due to disability, and after a meeting with 7 or 8 different people at the office on Wednesday, I feel confident I'll have what I need to be a productive intern.
That's generally how things go for me. I can still do almost anything I want to, but it ends up taking lots of planning to get the pieces I need in place. It can be frustrating not being able to immediately see how things are going to work out, but if there's one thing I've learned (and continue to learn) it's how to walk by faith, trusting in my Heavenly Father to consecrate my best efforts and help me tackle the challenges as they come. He's been there through all of difficulties of the past four years, and I have complete faith that he'll be around for the next four and beyond.