The criterion of the greatness of a man is how he copes with trials during his life. Will they cause him to lose faith in himself, his fellow human beings, and in his God? Or can he rise above even tragedy, giving the rest of us a glimpse of the courage inherent in man.
My next-door neighbor has dealt with tragedy under circumstances as painful as any that can be imagined, and his example should be shared.
To respect his privacy, let’s call him Brother Brown. He was converted to the Church thirty years ago in Minnesota through the example of an LDS school-teacher whose passion for life, sensitivity to people, and later her ability to love him unconditionally prepared him for baptism. They married and had three daughters and a son. Then Sister Brown’s father died and her mother came to live with them.
One bitterly cold winter day, Brother Brown came home from work, announced that the family was going to move to a warmer climate, flew to Hawaii, found a job, and sent for his family.
Brother Brown’s ordeal of faith began on 17 March 1980. His wife, oldest daughter, and mother-in-law were killed when their car was hit head-on by a truck. Its twenty-five-year old driver had been drinking and had moved into the path of the oncoming traffic in anticipation of a left turn which was actually nearly 0.8 kilometer away. He was not injured.
Brother Brown received news of the tragedy by telephone from the police. Weeping and praying for strength, he went out into the street, saw two ward members driving by, and stopped them. He told them of the accident and asked for a special blessing to enable him to cope with the tragedy. That blessing gave him a direct and powerful assurance that the Lord loved him and would make him able to cope with his burden.
Brother Brown almost immediately began proving that promise. At the funeral, he chose to speak, trying to help us accept and deal with the loss and showing us the way by his example. I was nearly overcome by his desire to ease our pain when he was suffering the most.
The last speaker extended the spirit of Brother Brown’s address by calling on all who were present, particularly the grieving family, to fight against any feelings of anger which might arise against the unfortunate driver of the other vehicle.
Two days later, my neighbor faced the harrowing task of sorting the items left in the mangled car. It was an agonizing experience as he faced the awful devastation which had killed his loved ones and had to recall the accident for an insurance company report. Reliving some of the agony he had hoped to put behind him nearly overwhelmed him.
In his pain, that evening he found himself becoming angry at the driver of the truck. He prayed. The negative feelings were still there. But not wanting to succumb to that feeling, he determinedly got in his car and went to the young man’s house, sat down with him and said simply, “I’ve been praying for you—for myself—trying to resolve some feelings of anger that are beginning to gnaw at me.” The driver of the truck looked a little frightened and uncomfortable but said nothing as my neighbor talked with him. When Brother Brown asked him if they could pray together, he nodded reluctantly and knelt down. Brother Brown expressed the deepest feelings of his heart, in a prayer, broken by his struggle to control his sorrow, asking for the Lord to help both of them deal with their shared tragedy. The other man remained silent.
When they stood from the prayer, my neighbor noted that the young man’s face was tense and pale but rigidly expressionless. Brother Brown went to him, put both arms around him, and gently said, the relief of peace in his voice, “I love you. I forgive you. It’s going to be all right. And I won’t let you go until you can let out some of those feelings inside.” The young man stood silently, his face moving, then broke into sobs of agony as he wept out his own grief in Brother Brown’s arms. The man’s wife joined them in this circle of love and told my neighbor, “My husband has been so devastated by guilt that this is the first time since the accident that he’s been able to express himself.”
Brother Brown’s trial of faith is not over, of course. He still has many years of living without his loved ones ahead of him. He still has to cope every day. But this mission of love has helped him rebuild his life. And those who know him have learned in part what it means to rise to the “measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13).