Book Review Series: Count It All Joy
Guest post by Sarah.
I live in the Australian bush, in a log cabin surrounded by trees. I love where I live. I love the gentle contours of the land. I love the trill call of the cockatoos as they fly overhead in deafening flocks. I love the laughter of the kookaburra as it wakes me at sunrise. I love the lizards, which flit in and out of the cracks in the mortar. Most of all I love the trees – the towering sycamores, the hardy blackwoods, and the spindly gum trees. I especially love the bark of the ghost gum, its blue-pink-brown-grey trunk like a haphazard paint by number. In the summer, the sun heats the oil in its leaves, and when it rains, the scent is released, diffused in the air like some sort of heaven. When there is a summer rainstorm I open all the windows and breathe deeply.
Summer also means bushfire season. We are poised, always ready to run at a moment’s notice, to flee the smoke and heat and fire and find refuge elsewhere. A few years ago, the fire came to within half a kilometre of our house. Several dozen homes and outbuildings were destroyed. Ours was spared. When we returned days later, we saw the blackened earth, the charcoaled trees, and marvelled at the destruction.
Fire is a necessary part of the Australian landscape. It “must needs be.” Within a week, new life was bursting through the burnt ground, vibrantly, almost violently green. Within a month the ground was healed, made whole again, with no sign of the trauma it had endured. Within six months new gum trees were growing, replacing the blackened skeletons. Now, two and a half years later, the forests are whole, the saplings have taken over their rightful place as kings and queens, and there is no sign of the fire which once destroyed our community.
And so there is this: Fire is destructive. It does not discriminate. It will hurt anything in its path. But there is also this: Without fire, the seed-pods of gum leaves will not open, will not drop their seeds to the ground. Without fire, the undergrowth will not be cleared so that new life can take its place. A friend of mine, whose back acreage was burnt in the fires, marvels still at the new life that has come – where once the ground was a wasteland of shed bark and dropped leaves, now there is grass enough to support livestock. It has been made whole again.
The same principle applies in our lives. It “must needs be” that we feel pain. We have been promised it; it is an essential part of our earthly journey. Through this pain we are sanctified, through this pain we can grow closer to our Heavenly Parents. And these things will be for our own good. The atonement has already made us whole – it is ready to replace the burnt wasteland of our souls with something living, something better. It is ready to make us whole again, as soon as we’re ready to let it in.
Twenty one years ago, my sister disowned me. That is the simple truth. If I had been able to see it for what it was, and accept it, I would’ve saved myself a great deal of heartache. Instead, I added on to it: I am unworthy. I am unlovable. She disowned me because she sees some great hidden evil in me, that I cannot see in myself. She is terrible. She is not Christ-like. She is a hypocrite, pretending to be a good Mormon while she has caused this great pain to me. It shouldn’t be like this. She is supposed to love me. She has destroyed me.
None of that was the truth. The truth is very simple: “Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24)
But the next verse is especially important:
And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning” (D&C 93:24– 25). Illusion is more or less than truth, and it comes from the adversary . . . We fall into [negativity] when we assign meaning to a situation based on what we want or think should be instead of simply dealing with what we want or think should be instead of simply dealing with what it is. And what we think should be is always more or less than the truth—the very thing the Lord warned us about after He defined truth for us. (Count it All Joy: Finding Peace in a Troubled World)
The truth is, my sister disowned me, and that hurt. The illusion was everything I added on to that, which made the pain worse: I’m unworthy. I’m unlovable. She’s a terrible person. My mother and father obviously love her more than me because they haven’t disowned her for disowning me. I can’t love. I can’t trust. I am broken.
I spent years living with this illusion. I had forgiven my sister, but I still clung to it, because I was afraid that if I let it go, Heavenly Father would forget that she had hurt me. It wasn’t until last year that I realised: Heavenly Father doesn’t need my permission. When the final judgement comes, He isn’t going to call me in and say, “What do you think we should do with her? Shall we forgive her, or shall we send her into a pit of everlasting torment?” He would make His own decision; and it would be fair; and it would be just; and I would know in that moment that it was as it should be. And so, if Heavenly Father doesn’t need my help, what was the point of holding on to this hurt?
I realised something else, too: That by clinging to this hurt and this pain, what I was really doing was denying the Atonement. What I was really saying was, “Jesus, this is too much for you. You didn’t suffer enough for this hurt, this pain.” When I finally opened my heart to the atonement, I discovered I was already whole. This picture I had of my heart, as a broken and meshed-up jigsaw puzzle, with pieces missing and pieces sticking out every which way, was only an illusion. This picture I had of my soul, as a dreary, dank wasteland, empty and hollow, was only an illusion. My heart was whole; my soul was complete; I was already healed.
Much like The Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day. It grew another three sizes after I read Count it Joy: Finding Peace in a Troubled World by Sherrie Mills Johnson.
This book has a tremendous amount of insight. I especially appreciated the way Johnson differentiates between necessary pain (the hurts and slings and arrows we are all promised we will face) and unnecessary pain (the burdens we place on ourselves with the narratives we tell ourselves about that pain). “The promise of the gospel is that eventually all necessary pain will be turned into joy.” We will be compensated for it; we will be more than compensated for it – we will be blessed for it. But unnecessary pain – the feeling that it shouldn’t be this way; the narratives we tell about ourselves and others; the certainty that it isn’t fair – causes us more pain, without doing a single thing to help us. “If, instead of fighting the truth, we accept the verity of the situation, decide whether we can fix it or if we are going to have to live with it, and do what needs to be done, then we live in a state of internal peace despite the pain we are passing through. After all, it is what it is, and we can count it all joy.”
Even after I’d allowed the light of the Atonement into my life, I still found myself wondering why. Why had my sister disowned me? Ostensibly it was because I chose to fall in love with someone who wasn’t Mormon; but was there more to it? Had I caused it? Had I made it the easiest of options for her, with my behaviour towards her? Even as I searched my conscience and found it clear, I could not escape the question: Why? (I want to point out that I am not a perfect person. This is my truth. If she were here to tell her truth she could easily point to a few dozen – possibly hundreds – of childhood squabbles and hurtful words. Still, there is nothing that is disownable. It is the stuff of normal sisterhood.)
Johnson answers this question: We have celestial spirits, living in a telestial body on a telestial world. It is a condition of the fall that we must live in a telestial world, even as we struggle with the dissonance that it is not what it should be. “Dropping our expectation that everyone and everything should live celestial law now brings peace.”
In short, my sister disowned me because she is a telestial being. I am, too! Sisterly love is a celestial law. It’s an expectation; but it’s not a reality in this telestial world. By dropping my expectation that she should love me, I can find peace.
As I read Johnson’s book I came to realise that by asking the question, I was still stuck in the narrative. We all write a narrative of our lives. Every time something happens to us, we tell a story about it. Johnson gives the example of spilling a glass of milk and breaking the glass. That is the truth; that is all that has happened. At that point we have two choices: we can clean it up, or we can leave it. While I will admit to having a friend who is so averse to cleaning up that he has let his daughter’s vomit stay on his bedroom floor for three years, and chooses instead to walk around it, I think it’s a safe assumption that most of us would clean it up. If we left it at that, we’d be fine. But instead we build a narrative around it: “I’m so stupid and clumsy. I can’t believe I broke that glass, now I won’t have a matched set and I’ll have to limit the number of guests I have over so that all the glasses match. I can’t believe I wasted all that milk. No wonder we can never get ahead financially, I’m just too wasteful. This is going to make me late for my next appointment. What else is new.” Suddenly a simple mistake becomes a self-indictment: You didn’t just spill the milk, you’re stupid and clumsy and wasteful and financially foolish and chronically late and doomed to be a social outcast.
None of that is true, of course. It’s just the story we tell ourselves.
For years, my narrative was: I am deeply flawed and horribly unlovable. There is something horrible inside of me, which everyone else can see, but I can’t. My sister saw it, and it was so horrible she didn’t want to be near me. But she shouldn’t leave me, she should help me fix it. She’s a terrible person for leaving me with this burden all on my own.
It wasn’t true. And it was exhausting! It was exhausting to tell this story, it was exhausting to carry it around with me, it was exhausting to find little pieces of evidence to add to it – a holier-than-thou post she’d written on someone else’s Facebook page; the way a friend looked at me; a fight with my husband.
Negative storytelling causes all kinds of vexation. When I begin to spin negative
tales, I can feel the negative emotions surging inside me. It is a very real vexation,
and I know the physical and spiritual damage vexation causes. . . . Some of the
worst stories we tell, however, are not about other people; they are about ourselves . . .
As you listen to the stories you tell yourself, if you find you are telling negative stories
about yourself, change them. You don’t have to think that way. You are a son or daughter
of God. You are a divine being.”
And that, my friends, is when I started to bawl. After half a lifetime of telling myself a certain narrative, to have that lifted from me! To be given permission to change my own narrative! “You don’t have to think that way. You are a divine being.”
I could let go, not only of the pain and the hurt, but also of the feeling that I was, as I told a psychiatrist only last month, a f***ed up mess. I’m not! That’s just the story I tell myself – but I can tell myself another story instead.
“You write a story of peace or a story of pain, but you write it.”
And so today, this is my story:
I have been hurt, but I have been healed. I have a great capacity for love. Today I love the world entire! I love the echidna I saw on my walk three days ago. I love my neighbour who is going through chemo. I love the wonky branch I saw sticking out of a tree that looked like a penis. I love my sister.
I love myself.
I know I’ll be hurt again. That’s life – none of us escapes without our portion of heartache and sorrow. But I also know that there is a way through the pain. I know that by focusing on the truth – the situation as it is – and not adding to it, I can find joy. I know that this is a telestial world; and that if I let go of my celestial expectations, I can find joy. “If we can fix those things, we should; if we can’t, we can accept them as telestial truths and then deal with them in the most celestial way possible.”
If you have ever been hurt – if you are struggling to let go of a grudge – if you want to rewrite your own narrative – read this book. If I wasn’t already done with my Christmas shopping for this year, this would be my go-to present for everyone on my list. As it is, I think it will be the go-to present for everyone on my list next year.
This is a part of the Exponent Book Review Series and Cyber Monday Giveaway. By making a thoughtful comment on this post, subscribing to the Exponent, or making a donation to Exponent II by sending a PayPal donation to firstname.lastname@example.org, you will be entered into a drawing to win one of many books being reviewed! Check the intro post for information and terms. Entries accepted until the 5th of December 2015.