Dealing Successfully with Change


Changes in life are of many kinds: good and bad, sudden and gradual, trivial and earthshaking. They may be internal, like growing up or growing old; or external, like losing a loved one, or leaving home. Change is an inseparable part of human existence, and those who can never reconcile themselves to its reality will find themselves dwelling in a perpetual fantasyland.

As a missionary in Great Britain, I learned something about the need for change. From time to time Elder Hugh B. Brown, who was then our mission president, would gather us around him and talk about what the future had in store for us. His message was that we should never stop moving forward, intellectually or spiritually. He challenged us to continually break out of the confines of our own limitations and to cast ourselves in a larger mold, more nearly in God’s image.

He reminded us that we were invested with possibilities beyond imagination just waiting to be realized. Some very creative opportunities would pass us by, forever, if we remained satisfied throughout our lives with only doing the things and thinking the thoughts which we had done in our infancy, or if we refused to push our minds beyond those tired platitudes that ofttimes substitute for thinking.

One of President Brown’s most famous similes was this: Just as an oak tree is involved in an acorn, so an acorn may become an oak tree; by the same token, just as godhood is involved in us, so we may become a god. He made it clear, however, that not all acorns would become oaks, but only those that broke out of their tough shells and reached for the sky. Likewise, we could never achieve godhood unless we set our sights on something nobler than the foothills of mediocrity and started reaching our hands up to God.

I have had the opportunity of knowing some of the world’s great achievers. It is interesting that their one common denominator is the drive to keep on learning. They always retain a certain quality of teachableness long after reaching the age when most men’s minds have become set. These achievers have the knack of being able to absorb the most important of whatever is said to them, even though it may not be what they want to hear. This is a rare quality indeed, which probably accounts for the fact that there are so few of them.

However, the type of changes that lead to growth are the result of far more than the capacity to change our minds in favor of something better. They also involve building up new mental and spiritual concepts; improving skills, such as speaking or writing; acquiring better attitudes or emotions—or suppressing undesirable ones. Often a man has waited until middle or old age before learning how to establish a really meaningful and loving relationship with his wife. What a pity that he had to wait so long, but what a blessing that he finally did what he should have started doing on his wedding day. For a person to say, at age seventy, “This book has added something wonderful to my life, and I am now putting its teachings into practice” marks him as a real achiever. Having to change one’s style of thinking, vocabulary, or mannerisms in mature life can be bruising to the ego, and totally beyond the inclination of many to even try. Would that people could only realize that their imperfections are not chiseled in granite!

On the other hand, we need to understand that not all change is good. The dynamics of human experience can result in pushing us down as well as up. The battering ram of evil never stops hammering at our bastions of inner defense. Deceptively, this is often done in the name of “progress.” What a mistake it is to throw away a golden idea or a sacred commitment just to be fashionable or to prove that we can move with the crowd.

Abandoning commitments that have proven to be unusually burdensome has always had its appeal. Many candidates for the celestial kingdom have forfeited their right to the greater blessings of heaven by traveling this perilous route. History is filled with Esaus who have sold their birthright of high moral principle for the pottage of cheap pleasure and broken pledges. The challenge to the Latter-day Saints is to accept the changes that lift them up, to avoid the changes that drag them down, and to cultivate the spiritual perceptiveness to distinguish between them.

There have been times in my own life when I have had to brace myself against pressures pushing me in the wrong direction. I once served as ambassador to the Malagasy Republic. This posed a problem, since alcohol was considered by diplomats as one of the tools of their trade. The conventional justification was that the conviviality and relaxation associated with a cocktail party enabled a diplomat to exchange information with his foreign counterparts, which would be more difficult to do in a formal atmosphere. However, I had no desire to do the wrong thing for what some may have felt were the right reasons. So our family continued its lifetime practice of total abstinence, and, to my knowledge, no international incident resulted from our actions. In fact, my abstinence afforded me a number of opportunities to discuss my religious beliefs with my associates.

On one Fourth of July we had a big reception at the embassy in Tananarive, to which the President of the Malagasy Republic was invited. The scenario called for a toast by the American ambassador to the health of the president and the prosperity of his country. This little ritual had been hallowed by many years of observance, and its performance on this occasion was mandatory. I therefore informed the president beforehand that my toast would be with sparkling mineral water. To my surprise, I received word back from him that he would respond to my toast also with mineral water. This was absolutely unprecedented.

Such challenges can be overcome because we have some control over them. There are others, however, that are not subject to our control.

Some changes come into our lives as unbidden guests, drawing after them murky clouds of unhappiness and desolation. We may be forced to deal with drug addiction in a family member or friend, or with the deviate behavior, divorce, child abuse, incest, criminality, immorality, psychiatric disturbance, illness, or death of someone close to us. We may even find ourselves the innocent victims of physical assault. Such challenges are not of our choosing, but our suffering is not diminished in the slightest by that fact.

Though our emotions cry out in righteous protest, in our quiet hours we realize that these intrusions into the stability of our lives are the result of choices made by others and are the price we have to pay for the right to live in a world of moral freedom of choice, where good and evil are forever opposing each other in an ongoing struggle for supremacy. This does not mean that we accept these evils, or accept them as inevitable. It means only that we must be prepared to suffer for the privilege of living in a world of imperfect but autonomous human beings with whom we are interconnected by ties of love and affection.

Since we are often powerless to avert such changes brought about by others, our approach must be not so much how to avoid them, but how to cope with them. It is more a matter of acquiring healthy mental attitudes that enable us to understand these changes, adjust to them, and help the one with the problem rebuild in the wake of disaster.

Developing such attitudes prepares us to purge ourselves of negativism toward others and about our lot in life. These attitudes also help us recognize the reality of our experiences in life. We are then better able to receive the Lord’s help in accommodating ourselves to these realities and in taking affirmative steps to build our lives on a new and stronger foundation. The purification wrought by our suffering gives us the strength to make this possible.

It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore this proposition, even superficially. One or two simple guidelines, however, may be helpful.

First of all, in an age of “instant-everything,” our society must learn once more the virtue of patience. In the face of deep disappointment, we tend to become too discouraged, too soon. There may be something we need to learn that hasn’t yet sunk in. Maybe we should complain less and listen more. One plain fact of life is that we often think deeper and learn faster when we hurt. It sometimes takes a disaster to turn our minds and spirits into the sponges required to absorb the things that God is waiting for us to learn.

Furthermore, we must remember that the Lord has placed innumerable resources at our disposal, and he expects us to use them. In addition to the Spirit, the scriptures, and statements by the General Authorities, there is a vast library of scholarly literature discussing the problems here referred to. True, some of the secular literature is unacceptable, but some of it is in harmony with revealed gospel truth. Our prayers and the resulting impressions can help us find sound truths and recognize wisdom in all the disciplines of human study. The Lord seems to be reluctant to give us instant answers to a problem when we do not do our part in studying the problem ourselves. Captain Moroni may have said it best: “… do you suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we … do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?” (Alma 60:21.)

The Prophet Joseph Smith well understood this principle. There was probably no man in modern times who received more direct revelation from the Lord; yet we do not find him asking the Lord for enlightenment which he was perfectly capable of obtaining himself. His personal interest in Hebrew and Greek is a good example. The Prophet did not expect the Lord to give him the ability to read these languages. Since studying Hebrew and Greek was something he could do, it is something he did do.

May this example not go unobserved by those who find themselves wrestling with seemingly insoluble problems.

Another suggestion is that we not fall into the trap of oversimplification. It is human to want our solutions quick, easy, and simple, but that isn’t the kind of a world we live in. The answers to our problems are not always a matter of plugging a standard solution into our lives.

As a bishop, I have reached a number of conclusions regarding the scope and complexity of the subject of change, having counseled with a number of people facing the dissolution of their family ties. One conclusion I have come to is that it is difficult to make easy judgments on those who are required to pass through this ugly ordeal. From one perspective, they may seem to carry a certain culpability for the impending tragedy; but upon closer examination, their record may not show the blemishes previously thought to be there. They are therefore required to carry a double burden: their divorce, and the undeserved imputation of self-guilt for their marital failure. The participants in this drama are far more sensitive on this point than those on the outside might surmise. A wise counselor will avoid immediately offering clichés. In this, one of the most wretched and difficult periods in the life of the sufferer, what is needed is not judgment, but love, reassurance, acceptance, and constructive suggestions.

I recall a particular woman who found herself in the above-described situation. I knew her to be as blameless as is possible for an ordinary and fallible mortal to be. Her loyalty to the Church and her love of the Lord were beyond question. In this case, I emphasized the particular love and tenderness which the Savior had for those who carried an extra burden in his service. I felt impelled to reassure her that nothing in the world could diminish the intensity of God’s love for her, and to impress upon her that society was not necessarily judgmental, that she would emerge from this experience with her honor untarnished and her sense of self-worth rejuvenated. I counseled her to participate actively in the various programs of the Church, especially those tailored for those who encountered sudden changes in their lives, and to dip into some of the worthwhile literature on the subject in order to expand her understanding of the problems involved.

Above all, I urged her to call upon the Lord for strength and wisdom and patience, with the assurance that her prayers would be heard and answered in the Lord’s due time and according to his desires.

I pointed out to this good woman that afflictions come to us in various ways, but if our life is acceptable we should never regard them as evidence of divine displeasure. The following verse was comforting to her, and may be comforting to those whose faith is tried in extraordinary ways:

“My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom” (D&C 136:31).

Adversity is no excuse for losing faith. On the contrary, there are many historical examples where faith has been intensified in direct proportion to the intensity of affliction. When the storms of adversity begin to howl, the Lord’s people react by wrapping their faith, like a warm mantle, more tightly around them.

And so the painful changes and vicissitudes of life, instead of breaking down the orderliness and goodness of the universe and its Master-Creator, are actually stepping stones to glory, an assurance that our yearning to attain perfection may one day be satisfied.

David S. King, United States alternate executive director of the World Bank and father of eight children, serves as director of the Church Hosting Committee, Eastern Region, and lives in Washington, D.C., Stake.