How to be Happy with Setbacks in Life

A road winds back and forth
Image Courtesy IFPRI-Images

It’s football season, and we are engrossed in watching college football, guessing which stars will go pro, and following the careers of our college stars as they shine in the NFL or Canadian Leagues.

Once in a while, a BYU alum will have a long-lasting, record-breaking pro career, but often their careers are cut very short by injury, a failure to adjust to the pro-game style, or inability to stand out from their teammates. I’ve often wondered what happens then — a forced career change while an athlete is still in his twenties, often with a wife and kids.

Yet, these kinds of upsets happen to all of us in some way or another. Those of us who try to live by following the Spirit may encounter other sorts of twists and turns, as our own willfulness competes with God’s will for us.

Even if our faith never fails us, so at least our faith-path is straight, spiritual jostling occurs along the way, creating forks in the road. Twists and turns in our journey through mortality frustrate and bewilder us.  Yet, everyone has them. There must, then, be a purpose to them. detour sign

What Does Your Map through Mortality Look Like?

Recently, I happened upon a brilliant post on the blog of Middle-aged Mormon Man, and he kindly agreed to let me borrow a few of his ideas and graphics. The first graphic is the way we see our lives progressing:   Plan A memeI’m very satisfied with this graphic. This is exactly the way I saw my life unfolding when I was in college. My education would guarantee a prosperous life.  Somewhere along that beautifully straight line a perfect mate would pop up, and then amazing children.  The house, the friends, the cars, the church callings, etc.

MMM’s second graphic, astonishingly, is a perfect representation of how my life has unfolded (how did he know?):   Plan B memeIf my trials had been drawn onto this graphic, they would include health challenges, career challenges, financial setbacks, glitches in extended family relationships, deaths of loved ones, and living in places where we didn’t speak the language.

My spiritual path has not been a straight line, but an undulating one — up and down; thankfully, never in circles. So, if this crazy drawing typifies the life path of practically everyone, then… why? Is there some eternal value here?

Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail

Greg Olsen Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail
The Lord told Joseph Smith that bad experiences can help us. How?

We all have our favorite verses of scripture, but I also have a least favorite, and it is Section 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Paraphrasing (I mean really paraphrasing), as the Lord is speaking to a suffering and complaining Joseph Smith confined in Liberty Jail, He says something like, “If they should pull your arms and legs off, rip your screaming kids away from you, shoot you in the head, and drag your dead body through the streets, it’s all OK.”

Somehow, the experience makes it OK.  I really hate this scripture, and am trying to come to grips with the OK-ness of the explanation:

…know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good (verse 7).

Then the Lord (and this is very much like Him) humbled Joseph and made him sorry for uttering a single word of complaint:

The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? (verse 8).

Finding Purpose in Wandering

San Francisco Medical School
Giving “life” may require something more than a hospital can provide

Here I heave a sigh and realize I have to figure out how our trials can be consecrated for our good, and how twists and turns (and cliffs, really — I know I’ve fallen off a few) can have temporal and eternal value.

Rachel Naomi Remen, a prestigious medical doctor and professor at San Francisco Medical School, was seeking a way to make the practice of medicine more caring and compassionate.  With a few other doctors, she founded a clinic to counsel cancer patients along their difficult journey, part of which was caused by the detours mandated by their illness.

Dr. Remen was raised by intellectual Jewish parents with no interest in things spiritual, but her grandfather was a rabbi from Old Europe, and he had learned how to “give life,” to others, increasing their understanding and their joy.

At his feet, Dr. Remen learned many wonderful lessons.  She continued to glean beautiful truths from all the world’s religions and to use them to help others.  I personally learned so much from this chapter in her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings:

The Path: When I was remodeling my home, I was torn between two ways of creating access to my front door.  One way involved building a flight of steps from the street that opened onto a path leading directly to my door.

From the moment you set foot on the first step, you could see the front door and know exactly where you were going. The other way was quite different.  You come through a gate and climb a short flight of steps to a small landing.  Just beyond this landing is a tree of great beauty.  As you climb, all you can see is this tree.

When you reach the landing, you discover it joins a small deck bordered by a rose garden and passing through this find another flight of steps, quite steep, leading off to the right.  The top step is well above your eye level, and climbing, you see nothing until you reach a deck at the top, where looking to your right you discover a breathtaking sixty-mile view of San Francisco Bay.

Crossing this deck brings you to three gradual steps leading off to the left.  Climbing these you unexpectedly find the little meadow which is my backyard, and rising from it, the exquisite profile of Mount Tamalpais, the highest mountain in our county.

Only then can you see my front door, which is now only a few steps away.  You have been moving toward it steadily, without knowing, all along. 

When we go directly where we want, may we be missing something on the journey?

 In struggling to make this decision I consulted two architects, both of whom told me that one of the basic principles of the architecture of front entrances is that people need to see where they are going from the start.

They agreed that the uncertainty of the second approach would create unease in any guest coming to the house for the first time.  Despite the uniformity of this expert advice, I ultimately chose the second way

Thinking about it now, it seems to me that knowing where we are going encourages us to stop seeing and hearing and allows us to fall asleep.

In fact, when I find myself on such a direct path, a part of me rushes ahead to the front door the moment I see it.  As I hurry to overtake this part, I usually do not really see anything that I pass.

Not knowing where you are going creates more than uncertainty; it fosters a sense of aliveness, an appreciation of the particulars around you.  It wakes you up much in the same way that illness does. 

I choose the second way. In fact, perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different.  I have done many things to achieve a valued goal only to discover in time that the real goal my choices have led me toward is something else entirely.

Something I could not even have known existed when I first set foot upon the path.  The purpose underlying life often wears the mask of whatever has our attention at the time.  The very reason that we were born, our greatest blessing, or our way to serve may come into our lives looking like a new car, a chance to travel, or a cup of the finest [hot chocolate].

The truth is that we are always moving toward mystery and so we are far closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly (Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp. 288, 289, emphases mine).

The Need for Mystery

prayer in nature
One writer suggests we are more alive when we don’t know what’s ahead

Dr. Remen’s message is so profound, that I still haven’t fully comprehended it after numerous readings.  Somehow, dis-ease and uncertainty are of great and eternal value for us.  And as she says, this is one of the values of illness.

When I reflect on the violent and tragic events of today and back through history, I see uncertainty at every turn. And yet, God can make it eternally worthwhile, and eternity is what we are really all about.

We are spiritual beings having an earthly experience. She also gives a profound reason for God’s perceived distance from us, and His refusal to fully define Himself for us. The mystery that surrounds Him draws us to Him. As Dr. Remen says, “We are closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly.”

We Can Grow Spiritually During the Worst of Times

fork in the road
Adversity gives us choices. Like Job, we should choose God

Dr. Remen’s decision to leave traditional medical practice and establish a holistic clinic was because she desired to nurture the souls of the suffering as she worked on healing the bodies of the sick.

She sees many sad endings, but even most of those are imbued with spiritual successes.  The spirit can soar in the midst of suffering and disappointment.

This is the message wrapped in the poetry of the book of Job, and through many other touching verses of scripture. The key is found also in the Book of Job, and that is always to turn toward God in our uncertainty.

People of faith can attest that any trial is made more difficult by spiritual confusion, and yet if we seek help from the Lord, He can give us more than assurance.  He can give us peace.

I have known for years that when we seek God in adversity, He gives us a gift (or many gifts) to help us cope.  Then, when the trial is over, we get to keep the gifts. How priceless these gifts are when we approach the next detour in our lives.

Scenario-Building vs Living by the Spirit

detour ahead

I learned long ago that living by the Spirit brought opportunities I never would have expected.  Detours that would lead to great and unexpected things.

The difficulty is in surrendering and taking the mysterious path. I told Heavenly Father I would go where He wants me to go, but then I’d go ahead and construct a Plan A, as pictured above.

I think we all vary in our tendency to build scenarios, but I was great at it, and I constructed them of steel.  When the Spirit beckoned in other directions, I had to painfully disassemble whatever scenario I had built.  It was so hard. Now I build scenarios out of sticks and am ever-listening to the still small voice to lead me.

If We Turn to God, We Will Travel in the Right Direction

Take a look at the Plan B map again.

Notice that it arrives at the destination you were hoping for, but you arrived with more experience and knowledge, overcoming trials on the way.

And through your experience, you gained spiritual insights that helped you to serve and teach others who are following their own winding paths. Rachel Remen is not a Mormon, but her epilogue to her book refers to the Book of Ether to help her readers visualize this truth. She doesn’t remember the story perfectly, but the lesson she derives is beautiful.

What impressed her was the faith of the Jaredites in leaving their homes to set out “across great uncharted waters to reach the land of promise.” All they had, really, was the promise, and the instructions on how to build their boats, plus the light within them.

This light came from the sixteen stones touched by the finger of the Lord. Dr. Remen found remarkable the image of the Jaredites “sailing through heavy seas in search of freedom, steering only by the light that the touch of God kindles in their souls.”

I’m OK Now, but What about the People I Love?

peace in the storm
As we follow God we should remember, “The wind always blows in the direction of the promised land.”

My daughter called me today and told me how often she hears bad news from friends near and far. These are trying times even when we enjoy prosperity unknown ever in history.

This is the windup period to the Second Coming of Christ, and a spiritual war is raging.  Some of my daughter’s friends are losing their faith; others are losing their marriages. Certainly, we are sailing through heavy seas.

Now, more than ever, we need to trust God. We need to trust that He knows what He is doing. We need to come to an understanding of how much He loves us. We need to realize that it is a Mother Bear Love — He will fight for us and never gives up.

Said Joseph Smith, “Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”

I had a friend who was agonizing over an associate who had joined a fringe cult and lost her faith in Christ.  She prayed fervently for her friend and finally heard God’s voice through the Holy Ghost: “I’m working with her.”

God knows, and indeed designed, that our path through mortality would have twists and turns, some of our own making, some imposed upon us.  He did it for our good. But He is guiding us, propelling us, in a certain direction, always. Said Remen in her book,

In the course of any life time there are times when one has to sail into the unknown without map or compass. These can be times of despair and terror; they can also be times of discovery.

Having accompanied many people as they deal with the unknown, I find that the most moving part of the Mormon exodus story is a single line. Despite the challenges and great difficulties of this sea journey, “the wind always blows in the direction of the promised land.” I have seen many people spread their sails and catch this wind. There is a grace in life that can be trusted. In our struggle toward freedom we are neither abandoned nor alone.

Gale Boyd is the managing editor for She is a Jewish convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has lived all over the world. She has raised 6 Third Culture Kids and is always homesick for somewhere.