From a personal point of view, the idea of being alone has never seemed fearsome to me, has never seemed something to be avoided. I lived as a single adult long before the phrase “alone, but not lonely” became popular. Rather than occupying myself by worrying about what was not, I have enjoyed my life. But there have been important lessons to be learned—lessons that have come to me perhaps tailored to my circumstances.
The traditional “home and hearth” scenario has not been part of my experience (although it has been elegantly played out in the lives of many of my closest friends), but I have come to know the sweetness of a home in the gospel. This thought brings to mind images of warm, accepting, comfortable relationships—the kinds of relationships the Savior would approve and bless. For me to experience this feeling of home, however, took a series of experiences through which I gained a fuller understanding of what the Lord had in mind when he counseled us to “love one another” (John 13:34).
One such experience came some years ago, when I reluctantly arose before dawn to drive alone on icy roads to a women’s conference. It was an assignment in connection with my work, and I expected a day of hearing the same things I’d heard so many times before. My negative attitude weighed on me, and it occurred to me that a few moments of contemplation as I prepared to leave would put me in a better frame of mind for the conference. I randomly opened the Doctrine and Covenants to section 6 and started reading the Lord’s message to Oliver Cowdery: “Behold, thou art Oliver, and I have spoken unto thee because of thy desires; therefore treasure up these words in thy heart. Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love” (D&C 6:20; emphasis added).
Almost instantly, the beauty and comfort of this verse enveloped my being like a warm glove. What could be more wonderful, more holy, more cherished than feeling the Savior’s arms around me, shielding me from a world of hurt, strengthening me for days ahead, and protecting me from the chill of loneliness?
Then, as suddenly as the feeling came, it vanished. I felt more alone than ever. Where were those loving arms now, that bright circle of love? Why did I feel so alone, so isolated, so out of touch? I knelt and asked the Lord those questions. In response I heard only the echo of my own voice. I headed toward my assignment with a heavy heart.
The conference bustled with bright-eyed women of all ages, each one seeming to anticipate a choice experience that day. I could sense their energy and enthusiasm, but I did not feel part of them. My eyes scanned the crowd indifferently as I walked to my seat.
What happened next has become a permanent part of my spiritual memory bank. As I stopped to let a group of women pass, I heard an unmistakably familiar voice, the voice of a treasured friend, a former roommate who had married years before and was living in Idaho. The sound of her voice calling my name was like a refreshing spring rain on the parched desert of my heart. Three years had passed since I’d seen her, but time and distance seemed to melt away as we embraced. A clear, quiet voice spoke to my heart a message that I could not misunderstand: “I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.” I knew at once that I was being taught an important lesson about the way people love, help, and comfort one another.
Twice more before noon, I unexpectedly encountered beloved friends, long separated from me by time and distance, who shared my joy at our reunion. Each time, as we embraced, I sensed again the message of the scripture that had impressed me earlier: “I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.”
Since that memorable day, I have come to understand how precious encircling arms can be in times of stress or need, and how the Lord often relies on his children to be his personal messengers of hope and love. That’s what life is about: creating a warm, loving environment, an emotional and spiritual home for those who come into our circles of influence in family, ward, or community. As a middle-aged single adult, I have often found myself on the receiving end of such home-building efforts. I have learned, however, that completing the circle of love requires effort on my part.
A decade ago, while living in a wonderful ward in Idaho Falls, Idaho, I developed a serious, long-term illness. The sickness finally forced me to leave my job. As my strength faded, it became impossible for me to serve in my ward callings as a Relief Society teacher and choir director, or even to attend church regularly. Assistance from my family provided the bare physical necessities; but I was nearly bedridden for the better part of two years.
Despite all of its pain and challenges, this time in my life was blessed with an abundance of “home” and “family” feelings. A loving and sensitive Relief Society president visited often, and other sisters checked on me every day of the week. I forged bonds of friendship with each one as we shared feelings of the heart, discussed current affairs, laughed at the small indignities of illness, and generally enjoyed each other’s company. One sister quietly did my laundry, freshened my dogs’ food and water, and brought her grandchildren to visit.
Another made sure that whenever her family rented a video, I saw it before they returned it. Still another made delicious custard for me when I could eat no other food.
During my illness, my Idaho ward family made it possible for me to continue to serve in small but meaningful ways. The Relief Society president asked me to write my in-service lessons so she could read them to the other sisters. I was called to update the annual ward directory, a job I could easily do at home. One sister asked me to write a poem for her lesson on gratitude. When my health started to improve, I delighted in producing slide presentations for Relief Society birthday celebrations. I rarely was able to attend church during my illness, but I still felt right at home in the ward family.
Eventually well enough to return to work, I decided, after much thought and prayer, to seek new employment opportunities in Salt Lake City. The thought of leaving my Idaho ward family grieved me, but I felt sure that members of my new ward would invite me to dinner, fill my needs, calm my fears, and appreciate my talents.
When I moved into a large Salt Lake City apartment complex that autumn, I was taken aback by my new ward. Most of the members were university students who were trying to attend school, take care of babies, and hold full-time jobs all at once. Nearly three months passed without a knock at my door, a telephone call, or any sign that I was needed. Like drifting snow, my feelings of isolation grew deeper as the months passed into winter.
I began to consider my options: attend a singles ward, move somewhere else, make nightly telephone calls to everyone I knew in Idaho, drift into inactivity. But nothing felt right. I was beginning to feel spiritually and emotionally homeless.
Just before Christmas, I decided that I might as well get a head start on reading the Doctrine and Covenants for the next year’s Sunday School course of study. While I was reading late one evening, my eyes became riveted on the verse in section 6 that had touched me years before: “Be faithful and strive diligently to keep my commandments, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.”
In a flash of memory, I relived the despair I’d felt that winter morning years earlier, but this time with an intensity approaching physical pain. Had I come this far in life only to be left alone again?
After long moments of thought, I knelt. But I could think of no questions to ask, no counsel to seek, no comfort to claim. For years, I had been comfortably encircled in the arms of many people’s love. Now, deep in the night, I was alone and had nowhere to turn. What would become of me?
The answer came in one of those communications of the Spirit that is not to be denied: What was to become of me depended on what I had learned about the encircling arms of love I valued so highly. My time had come to serve as I had been served. My joy would be full, I realized, only when I had completed the circle, as difficult as this may seem.
The familiar words of King Benjamin echoed across my consciousness: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
I began in small ways. I joined the ward choir, attended a homemaking meeting, and volunteered to take a meal to a new mother in the ward. Added opportunities came, and within a few months I was serving in callings and deeply involved in ward activities. By accepting every assignment, no matter how small, I was able to become acquainted with the good people of my ward, with their joys and struggles, both evident and hidden. I began to notice a new attitude in myself toward my brothers and sisters, and my new ward began to feel like home. Several months later, when a job opportunity led me to move again, I never doubted that service would be the key to happiness in my new ward family.
Life has brought many blessings and opportunities to me through the gospel. As a single member, I can make choices and commitments that are more difficult for those who have the obligations of a growing family. But I know, too, that the way I set my priorities—the way I use the time that is mine—will ultimately determine my place in eternity. Beginning with small, simple acts of service, I hope to make my way back to an eternal home—back to those encircling arms that have such power to bring comfort and protection to each of us in this life and the next.