For years, the tears have been of gratitude and disbelief. Somebody liked one of my books? Really? It has always been easier for me to endure bad reviews than it has been to believe the good ones. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve kept every positive stroke I’ve ever received. Since the release of Counting Blessings, my mail has increased ten-fold and the tears have increased many times that. But now I mostly weep because so many of the letters break my heart.
In the last weeks alone I have heard from a young mother with incurable cancer, an elementary school teacher who thinks of suicide, an abused teenager, and an elderly woman who fears dying alone. That these women reach out to me—a stranger—is touching, humbling, and absolutely terrifying. By the end of their letters I love them like sisters, never mind that we have never met. Often I must kneel at my computer chair before I can respond. More than once I’ve fasted, pleading for words of comfort, desperate to offer sound counsel when my poor advice has been sought.
If my in-box is any indication, life is tough all over. I’ve struggled myself lately with a surgery and ongoing infection. The merest threat this week of further chemo left me weary, weepy . . . overwhelmed. Since the cancer was diagnosed I have been trying to press on for all I am worth, scattering sunshine like a veritable maniac. And yet all around me people suffer. Sometimes they die. There is a point to all this, I know, but it is too often hard to see through tear-filled eyes.
I went to bed last night weighed down by the stories of struggle and hardship and pain and anguish and hopelessness we all encounter on a daily basis. Despite the heat, I pulled the sheet over my head and decided I’d never get up again. Ever. (If I chose to live past morning, the pit bull could bring me food; she knows where we keep the Ritz crackers and bottled water and is not above helping herself in a pinch.) I’d had it. No more trying to bear another’s burdens. A pox on compassionate service. The heart-rending mail could go unanswered and somebody else could arrange the funerals. Wasn’t my shoulder blistered from wheel-pushing? Hadn’t anybody noticed that where He seemed to want me to go was mostly around in circles? Quite obviously, I murmured to the cat, whoever wrote that song with “all is well” in every refrain had been out in the sun too long. Without his hat. All is not well in Zion and I would have defied anybody to prove otherwise.
I am no Lehi--if this is not already apparent, it soon will be--but I did dream. Being a lifelong Scouter, I dreamt I was with a group of family, friends, Cub Scouts and strangers, about to embark on a very long hike. An incredible man stood to introduce the guides and present the route. Everybody loved him for his goodness and admired him because he knew the way better than anybody else anywhere—he’d forged the paths, in fact. He explained that there were three places one could stop to camp and he himself would meet us at each site. One more simple instruction followed. Unlike a recent day camp, the guidelines for this excursion were not long, nor complicated, nor rigorous. All the instruction there was was contained in just four words. Ever prepared, I pulled out a pencil, scribbled on a scrap of paper, and tucked the counsel next to my compass and official Cub Scout knife.
We were off and it was marvelous fun! The morning was sunny but cool, and the terrain was easily traversed. Sure, there were rocks to climb and streams to cross, but they only added to the adventure. Before we knew it we were at the first campsite. I fear I lack creativity, even in my dreams, because the spot was the place in the Dells where I recently took my Cubs fishing—right down to the bright blue sky, gorgeous red rock formations, and natural lake that would give temple reflecting pools a run for their money. It was tempting to set up camp there. A few people did. I couldn’t imagine anyplace nicer, really, but fingering the note in my pocket, I soon gathered up my Cubs and pressed on with almost everybody I knew.
It was afternoon now and the sunny day had turned hot. The ground was not as level and the path was not as smooth. Almost everybody stumbled. Grumbled. Groused. As skinned knees, twisted ankles, and painful sunburns became the norm, some of our group turned back to the lovely site we’d left behind. I didn’t blame them. Perhaps I even wanted to follow. But, hey, we were Scouts—and there was still the instruction to consider. I kept hiking, helping the boys as I could and often being helped myself.We made the next camp by evening—bruised, maybe even a little broken—but triumphant and happy to have arrived.
This mountain meadow had all the first site’s beauty a hundred times over. I was all for pitching a tent, making s’mores, and staying forever. I’d just rolled out my sleeping bag when the beloved man’s instructions fell from my pocket. I read the four words then looked around. Some of my loved ones had already started up the next path. Some were clearly staying put. A guide urged me to decide—stay, go—but commit one way or the other. Since the Cub motto is “Do your best” and the best was clearly yet to come, I rolled up my bag, grabbed the hand of the nearest Wolf, and ran to catch up.
It wasn’t fun anymore. For one thing, it was nightfall. The guides’ flashlights always worked, but mine only worked sometimes. Mostly I stumbled in the dark, banging into things. Painful things. More than once I lost my way and had to search for a guide’s pinprick of light in the distance. The path wasn’t hard now, it was impossible. (In college I hiked down the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, since what goes down must come up, I also hiked the other way, ruing every awful step. This was deja vu.) I was tired, sore, sorry that I hadn’t stayed at the beautiful campsite farther down the mountain and . . . frightened. Mostly I was frightened. Even if I could keep putting one foot in front of the other, which was doubtful, there were terrifying drop-offs to my left. While there was a railing drilled into the mountainside to my right, my palm was so sweaty it kept slipping off. Worse, there were too many people looking to me when I couldn’t see the way myself. Worst, they were hurting and I didn’t have anything in my meager first aid kit that could help. Many, many people turned back now. I didn’t want to go back, but I couldn’t go forward.
I sat down.
It was then the instructions appeared in my hand. Under the starlight I re-read the four simple words: Endure to the end. Not: Enjoy the stroll, but be sure to quit before it gets tough. Not: Give it your best shot, that’s all anybody can expect from you. Not even: Keep going until you can’t stand it a moment longer. He’d said: Endure to the end. Since I wasn’t dead and I wasn’t at the highest campsite, this must not be the end. Even if I didn’t believe I could bear the journey a moment longer, let alone make it the whole way, apparently I could.
I got up.
If I were Lehi, I’d have made it to a tree-filled campsite, partaken of delicious fruit, and told you all about it. If I were Paul, I’d be able to assure you that “eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” But the truth is, I didn’t dream the end. Another truth is that what I did dream was so vivid, and the feelings associated with it so intense, that it was victory enough to have been standing—shaking, exhausted, still terrified but standing—when I awoke.
I got out of bed this morning and rummaged around in the closet for shoulder pads and a canvas tote. A little later in the day I will take my bag outside to refill it with sunshine—all it can hold. Perhaps Brother Clayton was not as addled as I’d supposed. While all is certainly not right with the world, at least not all the time, God is yet in His heaven and all is well in the grand scheme of things. That the end is not yet is not a trial. It is a blessing . . . an opportunity . . . a sacred responsibility.Perhaps I can press on, after all. I will keep trying at least . . . if you will.
Note: This was first posted on Six LDS Writers & a Frog. You can click on the link to read the comments that followed.