This is an edited version of a talk given at the Brigham Young University Women’s Conference in April 1988.
Each of us plays our life’s song in a different way. How can we work through our challenges, serve others, and keep our eternal perspective intact?

Different Strokes

We are so much like violins
Frames, with sensitive strings
The touch of the hand
That holds the bow
Determines the music it brings

—Edna Machesny

Throughout the Church, there are sisters who have many kinds of challenges. There are widows, divorcees, singles, and married women. There are women who have been unable to have children, women with rebellious children, women with husbands who strayed, women with husbands that are less active in the Church, and women with husbands so involved with their professions that the family sees too little of them. There may even be some who have almost perfect mates and super children. There are some who suffer from a low self-image and others who are comfortable with who they are and what they can do.

We all have sensitive strings like the violin, but how different is the touch of our hands that hold the bow, and what different music comes into our lives! Wouldn’t it be boring if we all played the same melody? Would there be opportunities to develop individual talents and experience growth and development of character if we experienced the same challenges?

Blessings and Gifts

Each of us has been given blessings and gifts. The programs of the Church offer innumerable opportunities to develop our talents. “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” (D&C 46:11–12.) With the package of blessings and gifts life hands each of us, we have the opportunity to meet challenges and shape our own destiny, knowing full well that divine help is waiting if we will but ask.

Some words from Joseph Smith can guide us: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping the commandments of God.” (History of the Church, 5:134–135.)

Yet we are told “In the world ye shall have tribulations.” (John 16:33.)

So if happiness is the design of our existence, how do we walk through the maze of life if we shall have tribulations?

Lowell Bennion has said: “Be not defeated twice, once by circumstances and once by oneself.” (Jesus the Master Teacher, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1980, p. 11.)

In other words, don’t yield to the temptations to feel sorry for yourself or to blame yourself for the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Self-condemnation is a paralyzing potion. We stagnate when we agonize over what we might have been or what we might have done.

“Patty Perfect” has had a lot of publicity, and she has fallen from favor lately. She is the woman who seems to be able to do everything well but then has a nervous breakdown caused by guilt feelings because she isn’t doing enough.

In East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote of one of the characters, “Now that she knew she didn’t have to be perfect, she could be good.”

We can be good without being perfect. I am concerned about the damage guilt feelings can bring into lives. So many voices call. So many demands are made. When we can’t answer all the calls or finish all the projects, how can we avoid that monster guilt? This little couplet gives a bit of advice:

“I’ll be content if I can just learn
Which bridges to cross and which to burn.”

I can’t tell you which to burn; only you can set your priorities. You have the right and gift of personal revelation to help you make those decisions. But when you have to decide between two right choices, make a prayerful decision and wipe guilt feelings totally away.

You can’t be two places at once, so if you decide to conduct a PTA meeting because you are the president and have to miss a Church leadership meeting, don’t feel guilty when someone says, “Why weren’t you at leadership meeting last night?”

Or maybe your husband unexpectedly asks you to go on a short trip with him, and you have a bushel of ripe apricots that should be bottled. Can you give the fruit away and not feel guilty or envious when a neighbor calls you over to see her shining rows of newly canned fruit?

Looking Ahead

Know that you don’t have to be perfect. We aren’t even expected to achieve perfection in this life, but rather to make steady progress toward it. We are masochists, sometimes, and I think we allow ourselves to succumb to the failed-diet syndrome—you overeat one time and think, “That’s it. I’ve blown it. No reason to stay on the diet now.” When we fall short of the mark we feel we’ve blown it, that we’ll never be able to measure up to everything we’re told to do. So, in effect, we give up. This thought pattern is a very clever and successful tool of the adversary. We must keep trying, but we must be able to forgive ourselves when we can’t do it all. We can make do with our present and look forward.

In the Church News last year was a great story about Sister Lenore Nitsch, paralyzed from her waist down. For forty-five years, as the chief receptionist at Welfare Square, she greeted rulers of countries, prime ministers, heads of universities, and government leaders. Elder Glen L. Rudd said of her, “There is something deeply spiritual about her that radiates over the telephone, and when people meet her in person. People from all over the world have visited Welfare Square; they have felt from her everything the Church represents. You don’t meet her without receiving a spiritual lift. She is a star.”

Yet Sister Nitsch has known much adversity. She was born with spina bifida and not expected to live. Her opportunities for any schooling were nil until she was twenty, when she had a little education. Her only Church experience came during her frequent stays in Primary Children’s Hospital.

When Lenore came to Salt Lake to attend the marriage of her sister, she was determined to be independent and refused to return home to California. She began looking for a job. Disabled and uneducated, she was turned down time and time again. Someone in the employment offices finally said, “If she has determination enough to keep coming, I’ll find something for her, or die trying.” Soon she was hired at Welfare Square. In addition to her service there, Lenore taught Sunday School for twenty-five years, wrote ten road shows, and cared for a sick sister. She sustained herself with pride and dignity. She nourished herself and then nourished others with her faith. Lenore lived by the counsel from James 2:14: “What doth it profit my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works, can faith save him?” (See Church News, 6 Feb. 1988, pp. 6, 12.)

As we nourish ourselves in faith we must also anxiously work at growing and learning. Regardless of our circumstances, the way we face life is in our own hands. Bobby Jones, one of the great golfers of all time, was asked to what he attributed his greatness. He answered, “I have learned to hit the ball where it lies.”

His advice seems simple. But sometimes it’s difficult to start from where we are and go on from there. Some of us may spend so much time wishing that our golf ball were on a nice, smooth patch of grass instead of out in the rough behind a tree that we forget to finish the game.

How can we solve our problems? I’m sure there are as many methods as there are challenges in life. Each of us has different obstacles.

As I was visiting with a friend who is divorced, I asked her what advice she might have. “First,” she said, “never give up. This too will pass. If you look for it, there is always a glimmer of hope.

“There is no divorce without hurt. Your earning power is limited. Widows get a lot of sympathy, but divorcees don’t get much attention.” Though she received help from local leaders and singles groups, her greatest strength came when, she said, “I came to realize that I was entitled to answers from God about my problems if I were in tune. I prayed a lot—a whole lot. And the answers began to come.”

Developing patience is another way to cope with our problems. Paul advised us, “And let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Heb. 12:1.)

When the American hostages came home in 1981 after 444 days of captivity in Iran, I remember what Bruce Laingen, the spokesman for the captives, said when he was asked how he was able to endure it all: “A friend slipped a tiny piece of paper into my hand. On it these words were written, ‘Patience is a bitter cup from which only the strong can drink.’ I had these words firmly entrenched in my mind and they helped me through those dark days.”

With God’s help, and as we help ourselves, our obstacles can be overcome. Optimism, prayer, and patience are important ingredients. My husband has helped many people with these words: “No one is a failure until he stops trying. The direction in which one is headed is the most important.”

Our Role as Women

As women in the Church we have vital roles to fill. The role of motherhood can never be diminished. Generations to come will be influenced by mothers who nurture, teach, and produce honest, good, faithful sons and daughters. Many in the world today tend to look down at mothers and suggest that only those not smart or motivated enough to work stay home. But that’s just not true. It’s a clever ploy of the adversary to try and persuade women that their God-given role is somehow lesser or unimportant. Yet motherhood takes many twists and turns these days. Very few go through life with just the traditional challenges of colic, teen rebellion, and a few fender-benders.

Single parents are becoming more prevalent and their challenges more demanding. But from time immemorial great people have come from single-parent homes. From these conditions can come hope and courage and progress if there is a role model that teaches by example and faith.

As single, married, divorced, and widowed women face problems tailor-made to their situations, they worry that their life pattern may not be worthy of exaltation. But though there is only one path to exaltation, people in many different circumstances walk it. Whatever our circumstances, we must learn the lessons of life. Our challenge is to not be defeated by the package life hands us or by our attitude about that package. What matters is that spiritual growth goes on and on through life regardless of the path life takes. Isaiah promises: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” (Isa. 40:31.) What can be more comforting than to realize that our Father knows and he will help? Yet we have all found out that he helps the most after we have helped ourselves all we can.

A Testimony of Gospel Principles

Our faith is nourished as we learn to fortify ourselves with the basic principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I was reading a recent biography of President Benson, I learned a lesson. This incident concerning his great-grandparents occurred on 19 July 1840.

Pamelia Benson was interested in the Church and asked her husband, E.T., to go with her to a sacrament meeting. A dispute arose between two individuals who were administering the sacrament. Harsh words were spoken.

Pamelia was worried about the effects the dispute would have on her companion. She asked him what he thought of it all. “He replied that he couldn’t imagine the actions of its members altering the truth of Mormonism.” (Sheri L. Dew, Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987, p. 4.)

To me that philosophy is one we should all internalize. The truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ can never be altered by actions of imperfect people. When the truths our Savior teaches become firmly entrenched in our very souls, we will become women of unshakable faith.

“What Does This Situation Require?”

What different specifications we all have for our life’s journey! And though the goals seem similar, the Builder uses very different blueprints to help us build our mansions on high. In the book A Singular Life, Jeannie McAllister writes a chapter posing the question, “What does this situation require?” Though she has a deep conviction of eternal marriage and family, she wonders how, as a single, she fits in. She said that the words of Victor E. Frankl helped her realize that “why” is the wrong question to ask.

As he recalled the horrors of life in a concentration camp Dr. Frankl said, “We had to learn … that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. 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.” (Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logtherapy, New York: Pocketbooks, 1963, p. 122.)

Sister McAllister goes on to say that she replaced the question, “Why is this experience happening to me?” with the question, “What does this situation require of me?” She adds, “I have discovered specific actions, the doing of which has prevented my derailment and kept me pushing along the path, even in darkness. Unmet expectations may be bitter, but I want to be better for my experiences. …

“Asking ‘What does this situation require of me?’ helps me see that I can make choices. I can control my life, even if that control extends only as far as my perceptions and attitudes.” (In A Singular Life: Perspectives on Being Single by Sixteen Latter-day Saint Women, ed. Carol L. Clark and Blythe Darlyn Thatcher, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987, pp. 2–3.)

Sheri Dew, a single sister, states:

“I think it is interesting that in our society we tend to categorize each other primarily according to marital status, when that is only one distinguishing factor. Regardless of which group we fall into, we tend to think we have the hardest set of circumstances with which to deal. We may tell ourselves that no one else can really understand how difficult life is for us—that no one who lives in one of the other ‘categories’ can possibly have as hard a ‘row to hoe’ as we do. But, in fact, we all have challenges, we all face disappointment, we all feel sorrow and pain. The real challenge, I think, is to not focus so intensely on marital status and thereby divide us into little groups, but to learn as women how many things we really have in common, and when all is said and done, what we must all do is work to sink our spiritual roots deep—deep enough that when the winds of life blow (as they most certainly will) we’ll be prepared to face them and to give them the kind of nurturing strength our sex is known for. I know that I much prefer to just be thought of as an LDS woman, rather than a single LDS woman.”

These words of advice are applicable to all of us. The young mother who feels that the days of diapers and dishes will never end, the single woman trying to find her niche, the middle-aged woman with wrinkles and arthritis starting to appear, and the older woman who wonders where she fits in all need to ask, “What does this situation require of me?” Then we can choose a course of action and pray for strength and faith to find joy promised to us wherever we find ourselves on the path of life. When we accept our own situations, we can give a helping hand to those around us.

Strengthen Ourselves, Then Others

We are challenged to strengthen ourselves in the faith and then strengthen others. Ever around us are those who need a helping hand, who need to feel noticed and accepted and loved. Whoever helps a sister grows stronger herself, whoever teaches a lesson has learned more than her students, whoever gives service is the recipient of increased love.

One winter Sabbath my husband and I attended a stake conference. As often happens, a member of the stake presidency took Elder Ashton to greet the Primary children who were meeting separately. My husband spoke to them briefly, patted the heads of a few children sitting close to him, and left with his host to join the main body of the conference.

As the two men were walking down the hall, they heard the running of small feet and a voice calling, “Elder Ashton.” Marv stopped, waited for a little boy to catch up to him, and asked, “What can I do for you?” Looking up at him with hurt in his eyes the young lad said, “You didn’t pat my head.” Marv gave the young man an extra pat or two and ruffled his blond hair a bit, and was rewarded as the Primary child smiled and ran back to his class.

He gave the boy only a pat on the head, but it was just what that little person needed. The child was assured that he was just as important as those on the front row.

One of our important roles as daughters of God is to be “givers of pats.” The touch of a hand, a word of appreciation or expression of love, as small as these things seem to be, can help people reach their potential. Our little day-to-day acts of love and positive encouragement water spiritual seeds and help them grow in all of us.

As sisters in God’s kingdom we can and are obligated to nourish each other in the faith. By showing our love to others we give added hope that we are all loved by Christ. And if we show our love for the gospel, perhaps others will believe enough to plant the seed of faith in their lives.

Though we are encouraged to plant our own seeds of faith in fertile soil and keep them well watered and nourished, none of us does that task completely alone. In addition to the scriptures, great men and women in our lives have pulled some of the weeds from around our seeds and handed us watering cans to revive our wilting plants.

Nourishing others needn’t be overwhelming. I’m reminded of a couple we met who had lived most of their lives on the East Coast. Missionaries had given them the lessons a few times but had never been able to baptize them. When our paths crossed, they were living in Idaho and had just come into the Church. As we heard their story, we asked what had changed their minds. “The quiet living of the gospel by our next-door neighbors,” they replied. “We wanted what they had.”

This sister had a deep love and talent for music that she hadn’t developed since her school years. She was so excited about her first calling—to direct the music for Relief Society. As I recalled her enthusiasm, I thought about how some of us react to a call—“Oh, no, not that job!” Sometimes it takes a person with a new perspective to help us realize that Church calls are more than just a job. God helps us develop our talents which strengthen not only ourselves but others as we share them.

Throughout the world, sharing of a different kind goes on as older couples with a sparkle in their eyes become stalwarts in the mission field. The mission presidents plead, “Send us more couples.” Most live in circumstances much less comfortable than they had at home. But they are sharing talents developed through a lifetime of living the gospel. They nourish the faith of all whose lives they touch.

A year ago we sat at a luncheon with a couple who were on their way to fill their second mission in the Gilbert Islands. Their dedication and enthusiasm were evident even though they knew of the less than comfortable living conditions they would find there. Only as we parted did we learn that just over a week earlier they had lost a son to leukemia. Tears glistened in the father’s eyes as he told us about this outstanding young man. Their faith in the Lord had given them comfort and the strength to carry on. My faith was strengthened by their courage.

Sister Belle Spafford, after at first being shunned by the National Council of Women, went on to serve as their president for two terms. She said, “In my experience in working with non-Latter-day Saint women, in the main women of good conscience but living by man-defined rather than God-revealed truths, I have countless times had to call upon all the courage I possessed in order to stand firm for what I knew to be right. In doing so, I have never lost a friend.”

Sister Spafford respected the beliefs of her associates in that august organization, but she did not adopt them if they ran counter to what she believed. Yet she became one of the Council’s most highly esteemed members. The officers even created new jobs to keep her on their executive board!

Seneca wrote: “Soil, no matter how rich, could not be productive without cultivation and neither could our minds.” And neither can our faith. Day by day, week by week, month by month, we must nourish our faith and the faith of those with whom we associate. It is in this process of learning how to sink our spiritual roots deep and anchor them in gospel truths—and helping those within our sphere of influence to do likewise—that all women share very common ground.

Each of us possesses unique gifts. We can recognize these qualities and develop them by working diligently, by using the opportunities offered by the Church, and by exercising patience and faith. The “touch of [our] hand”—our attitudes, spirituality, and willingness to share—will determine the music that we will play in our Heavenly Father’s Kingdom.

[photo] Photography by Welden Andersen

[photos] Photography by Craig Dimond

Norma B. Ashton is the wife of Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve.