Overcoming Discouragement


When a black horizon looms before us, we must boldly move forward.

Overcoming Discouragement

While no one is immune to encounters with discouragement, young people are especially vulnerable to episodes in which reality does not conform to their wishes or intentions. You can close the gap between what you want to do and what you are actually able to accomplish by learning to evaluate situations realistically.

In the Church we always learn to look at things from different angles. Disappointments can be seen either as a prelude to continued failure in our lives or as occasions for great personal growth and even the beginning of truly outstanding performance. My own experience in talking with young people indicates that they have no clear vision of what life’s disappointments can mean to a person as part of the great plan of our Heavenly Father. Believe me when I tell you that I know how discouragement feels to young people. My native country, Holland, was occupied by Nazi Germany when I finished high school in 1942. At the time a new rule was established that you could only register for classes in the Dutch universities if you signed a so-called “declaration of loyalty” to the occupying German forces.

Needless to say, the majority of Dutch students simply refused to sign such a humiliating political document and stayed away from campuses, whether freshmen or graduate students.

There were only two alternatives for young men between 18 and 30 years of age: to leave home, change names, use a fake I.D. card, and go “underground” somewhere in the country or to run the very real risk of being arrested anywhere at any moment and being deported to Germany for slave labor in the war industry with the hundreds of thousands already there from other European nations.

My plans to go to a university were stifled. Everything I had been working towards for so long now was truly unattainable. It is an understatement for me to say that this was a great discouragement. But I overcame it and in doing so learned a great lesson by deciding that if you cannot reach one goal then attain another goal. Sure, I had my moments of self-pity; then I decided to look for other options.

By this time in my life I already had an interest in languages, and so I decided to spend my time studying German, French, and English. I studied on my own, in small peer groups, and listened in clandestine ways to foreign radio broadcasts. This is what I did from the time I was 19 until I turned 22. Learning languages was an attainable goal for me.

After the Allied forces landed in Holland, I joined the Canadian army as an interpreter and translator. My task was completed when the Canadians returned home.

Then the Dutch army sent me to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). This was another disappointment to me. My heart was not in the army, but I tried to make the best of it. I kept up on my languages and I learned the Malay language (now called Bahasa Indonesia).

When I finally became a free man in 1949, I felt like I had spent seven years on hold. But in the same time the Lord had been preparing me in a special way for his later service. I was also prepared for a good business career.

All human beings experience disappointment. If this hard fact of development were not so, it would be very difficult to explain the joy of personal growth that often follows setbacks. Most human beings accept disappointment and more or less content themselves with a situation in which a certain life-style, along with work and human relations, permits them to bear pain and loss.

The problem that young people face is maintaining balance and perspective through the inevitable disappointments when they occur. These disappointments may range from nonachievement in school or poor communication in the home to not being able to withstand the great pressure of peer groups and the feelings of self-reproach when giving in to their wishes.

There is a great need to examine yourself in these matters and ask yourself the old question, “Am I part of the problem, or do I contribute to solving the problem?”

As honest, good, law-abiding young people, you are faced with many temptations and pressures. But as long as you have come to a firm understanding that your anchor of hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ, then you have already elevated yourselves to a level of understanding that will enable you to overcome many disappointments.

Disappointment brings a kind of sadness. I have no illusion that through this article I can make you permanently cheerful because I know with all my heart that it is the Lord to whom we have to turn and he will give us, through his Spirit, a cheerful attitude.

In Proverbs 3:5–6 [Prov. 3:5–6] we read:

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

“In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

And in my favorite scripture, Doctrine and Covenants 61:36, [D&C 61:36] we find:

“And now, verily I say unto you, and what I say unto one I say unto all, be of good cheer, little children; for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you.”

How often I have heard during my travels, after speaking to nonmembers, “You LDS people seem to be such a happy people.” Where do you think that this image has come from? I know the answer. It has come from those who have learned to walk in the light of the gospel and who apply gospel thinking in their lives each day. Hence, the saying, “When you walk in the light of God’s Spirit, happiness follows you as a shadow!”

Some youngsters argue that a person does not have a great deal of choice about the problems he gets or even how to deal with them. May I answer this by saying that many people make their own problems by getting into situations they could have avoided; and if they will walk in obedience to the commandments, they will be blessed with personal inspiration on how to deal with these problems and will be able to gain a conscious control of the situation at hand, the greatest control being the ability to put the best possible face on what could have been a severe disappointment and subsequent complaints.

Everyone can, to a greater or lesser degree, exert influence over events; but that takes personal commitment. Too often, young people expect others to solve problems for them, thereby foregoing opportunities to learn and grow.

We all have successes, and we all have disappointments.

Am I safe to suggest that constant preoccupation with success in life may be of less importance than the role disappointments will play in the development of a person and his ultimate happiness and achievements? Experiencing discouragement can even speed up growth and development. We often see this happen among those who are called to labor in the mission field. The new arrivals quickly learn to overcome personal emotions, more often than not, through loving, inspired counsel of their mission president. They then learn that their thoughts and efforts should not be self-centered but totally in a new outward direction.

The key, however, is to boldly face disappointments and the pains that accompany them. If you deny them or hide them from view, the chances are great that you will become worn out and fail. If, on the other hand, you meet them in a prayerful attitude asking for inner strength to overcome, the original disappointment will turn into an element of great strength and a firm foundation for further growth.

This article would not be complete without examining the preventive aspects of discouragement.

Examine carefully your personal goals. If these goals are unrealistic, then discouragement is inevitable.

Do not start to live in such a way that you think that you can avoid all disappointments. If you do, you will pay dearly for it later.

The key factor in mastering disappointment is the capacity to experience and control the emotions that come through personal loss.

Learn furthermore to examine your own motivations. In fact, the necessity to do this seldom occurs until you experience an impasse in your life. Often you will then see that your disappointment is not only directly connected with the present situation but also with related past experiences, because a current crisis usually reopens problems of the past, and the feelings from past and present tend to merge.

How blessed we are to have loving, competent, listening priesthood and auxiliary leaders on all levels in the government of God’s kingdom on the earth to whom we can turn for competent, inspired help. Through their support and wisdom in the hour of discouragement, a subtle change will take place in your perspectives and attitudes, making you realize the impossibilities of certain goals and wishes but at the same time helping you see alternatives, new possibilities and perspectives.

Maybe it is required of all of us to know that through disappointments in life we may also find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.

Maybe we then discover that we have been mourning losses that were never sustained and yearning for a past that never existed, while ignoring our real capabilities for shaping the present.

Additional readings on overcoming discouragement: Val R. Christensen, “Stress,” in Counseling: A Guide to Helping Others, ed. R. Lanier Britsch and Terrance D. Olson, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co, 1983, pp. 42–51. Abraham Zaleznik, “Management of Disappointment,” Harvard Business Review, Harvard University, Nov./Dec. 1967. D. Olson, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983, pp. 42–51.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull