No doubt everyone would like to be part of a perfect family and live in perfect harmony in a perfect home. Yet no one is or does, since no one of us is yet perfect. Such blessings lie in the future.
Still, while there may be no perfect families or homes in this imperfect world, there are some very good ones. Those who experience such circumstances are fortunate indeed.
Many families are learning to cope with a home situation other than the “traditional” family—often described as mother and father together in a permanent relationship, dad the major breadwinner, mother in the home, the two sharing responsibility for the care and well-being of the children. Divorce afflicts families; single-parent households are numerous; and so are dual-career parents with latchkey or farmed-out children. Poverty, abuse, alcoholism, and drug use are too evident. And many households must cope with physically, mentally, or socially handicapped members.
How can teenagers and younger children survive in such imperfect circumstances and maybe even help to improve them?
I am one who grew up in a single-parent home under very strained economic circumstances. My father died suddenly when I was two years old, leaving my mother with six young children. How she coped with that situation seems a miracle to me now as I watch so many other courageous mothers or fathers struggle with similar challenges. Some have an even more difficult set of circumstances to deal with.
I heard an attractive young lady, a recent convert to the Church, bear her testimony at a stake conference meeting. She had lived in more than a dozen foster homes in her short life and had been turned out from all of them as incapable of being helped. She said through her tears that no one had ever made her feel that she was worth anything. Then she had been given one more chance; an older couple who had provided a home for many foster children had accepted an invitation to try to help just one more.
Now, as she spoke, she radiated both joy and self-esteem. “I am valuable!” she said. “I am valuable! Jesus Christ died for me! I found out in my new family how much I am worth when I learned about Christ and how much he cared for me and was willing to suffer for me. He died for me! I am valuable!”
She is very fortunate. After a young lifetime of bad choices and trouble she is in a home where she is really valued and esteemed and where she has been taught by loving parents her relationship with the Savior. She has begun to know and appreciate him, to find meaning in life, and to develop a sense of responsibility. Her experience reminds me of a statement which hangs, framed, on my office wall: “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he is not born in thee thy soul is still forlorn.”
One of my most memorable experiences was with another young convert to the Church who had found in the home of a Latter-day Saint friend a spirit and a caring family relationship she had never known in her own family. She said that since her baptism things had not materially changed in her home; there was still abuse and argument and conflict and alcohol and foul language and a hateful spirit. “But,” she said, “there is one room at my house where I can go and shut the door and read the scriptures and listen to good music and pray and feel the Spirit of the Lord. In my little room I can have that blessing. One day, if the Lord will help me, I will marry a man and establish a home where we and our children can have the Spirit of the Lord always and everywhere.”
Sometimes there seems to be little we can do to change and improve circumstances that tend to smother our self-esteem and the productive use of our agency. But we must not surrender the possibility that if we are thoughtfully prepared and patiently willing, and if we are faithful and humble, we just may one day make a difference.
If we seem unable to effect a change for the better in others, we must still prayerfully consider the vital importance of our attitude towards our own personal health and well-being—spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional.
One of the most powerful lessons to come out of the incredibly vicious experiences in the concentration camps of World War II was from the quiet heroes who exercised the one human freedom of which they could not be deprived—their capacity to choose the way they responded to the wickedness of their persecutors. That choice for some of them was to bring comfort to others, often giving away their last small piece of bread, and jeopardizing their own lives in so doing. This inner decision permitted those few who made it to retain their human dignity in foul circumstances. The few who managed to rise above their degradation and suffering by exercising their right to choose their attitude were proof enough that “man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate” (see Victor L. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed., New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 76).
And such “spiritual freedom” is exercised not only in concentration camps. In obscure rest homes and institutions and neighborhoods and Boy Scout troops for the handicapped, and a multitude more of unsung places, courageous individuals quietly and unselfishly serve others under adverse, near hopeless, conditions.
Such courage involves faith, faith in a mortal and eternal future, faith that the best in us is better than we know, confidence in ultimate justice and in a loving personal God. It requires faith that though life and the future may seem at this moment to hold little promise for us, yet life and the future still hold significant expectations of us.
On my office wall is another declaration of good cheer from an unidentified source: “To believe in God is to know that all the rules will be fair, and that there will be wonderful surprises.”
Some of those surprises await us in the joy we can bring to extended families, and gain from them; some in activity and service in ward organizations and worship; some in obtaining employment and devoting perhaps unexpected diligence to it; in education available to the willing in nearly every community. There can be wonderful surprises for one who unselfishly serves in helping the handicapped and the needy, the poor and the elderly and the lonely.
Every ward or branch is an extended family, and every ward or branch family has members who are, or feel they are, neglected, unnecessary, not really respected or wanted. The bishop, as father of the ward, would be grateful beyond measure for a few young people who took seriously their membership in the family and made the inner decision to reach out unselfishly and share a little of their time and concern.
I often remember the feeling of sadness and frustration that came when I learned that not far from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City an elderly lady, active in serving others all of her life, was eating cornflakes every meal because she could not shop or cook for herself and had no one to help her. In that same neighborhood and ward family there were able, intelligent young people who were attending classes and Church meetings and planning and pursuing parties and service projects with no knowledge of the needs of others in their ward family. When the facts were brought to their attention, they immediately did something about the situation. Her life and theirs became immediately more happy and harmonious even though she, and some of them, were not living in the ideal family home circumstances they would have wished.
This same happy blessing could be experienced in every quorum and class and Young Women and Young Men group in the Church if all of us would permit this “best in us” to guide our lives. Peel off the outer layers of shyness and self-interest and lack of confidence and invite to the surface the noble instincts and generosity of spirit we all possess as a heritage from our Heavenly Father.
We can start by feeling and expressing to our Eternal Father our gratitude for being part of his eternal family, and part of his great Church family which extends to far corners of the earth, and part of a ward or branch family. The family we were born or adopted into and the future family we will establish should also be of the greatest concern to us.
Those of us who are lucky enough to belong to one of the good, if imperfect, families we talked about before, can thank God and make our best efforts to be a contributing citizen in a home where friendship and values and traditions and discipline exist, and where we can make a significant contribution if we are willing.
Those whose families are not what we wish they were can be thankful to parents who through God’s gift have given us life, and we can do everything we can do to minimize conflict and enhance harmony in our homes. Some small miracles occur where there just doesn’t appear much probability that one young person can make a difference.
I once heard the testimony of a humble man who spoke of an incident that changed his life overnight. He had taken his son to the home of a family who was providing a place for him to stay while he participated in a baseball tournament. The young man seemed reluctant to go with his father to the home of his benefactor, and the father began to wonder if the people had mistreated his son. The boy half cowered behind his father as they knocked on the door. Once they were inside, however, his son was warmly greeted by the host family, and it was obvious he loved them very much.
Later after picking up his son, the puzzled father asked him to explain his strange behavior. The father, who is now a stake leader, weeped at the pulpit as he remembered his son’s answer:
“I was afraid you might forget and swear in their house, Dad. They don’t swear at their house; they are really nice people. They talk nice to each other and laugh a lot, and they pray every time they eat and every morning and night, and they let me pray with them.”
Said the father, “It wasn’t so much that the boy was ashamed of his dad; he loved me so much that he didn’t want me to look bad.”
This father, having resisted a generation of earnest people who had tried to help him find a better way of life, had been touched by the sweet spirit of his own young son.
For me, one of the most authentic portrayals of family comes from the story of Lehi and Sariah and their family.
Lehi, the father, was a wonderful person, as was Sariah, the mother, but each was also subject to some imperfections. Lehi murmured when faced with possible death from starvation or anarchy in the desert (see 1 Ne. 16:20). Sariah became deeply concerned with the safety of her sons and “complained against” Lehi for jeopardizing her boys (see 1 Ne. 5:2–3).
The family had other challenges. Some of the sons were rebellious and became a serious problem during the journey and for the rest of their lives. Laman and Lemuel “did murmur in many things against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them” (1 Ne. 2:11–12; emphasis added).
But Nephi began his account with the well-known words: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents …” (1 Ne. 1:1), an appropriate beginning! Those favored with “goodly parents” can rejoice with Nephi. But what of those whose experience has at least some element of broken homes and broken hearts and single parents and in some cases poverty and abuse and distress?
Notwithstanding Nephi’s good fortune, the remaining lessons of the very first verse in the book reveal that he had been subject to “many afflictions in the course of my days” but that he was also “highly favored of the Lord,” which he explains by saying that he has been blessed with a “knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God” (1 Ne. 1:1).
That is, he had been taught the truth about God and understood the loving relationship of our Eternal Father to us, his children. He had suffered many afflictions, but they were not evidence to him of any displeasure on the part of his Heavenly Father; they were part of living, and spiritually maturing.
Nephi had good and caring parents, yet some of the brothers and other members of the extended traveling family chose different and sometimes evil courses, not those desired for them by the Lord or laid out for them by their parents.
With life comes agency and the chance and responsibility to set our own individual course and to be accountable for it. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson we can learn from Lehi’s family—that we are individually able to choose a course of decency and integrity and wholesomeness; that “I, John (or Julie) will one day be a parent, and I am determined to be a ‘goodly’ one. I am determined that my children will have goodly parents, and so I will prepare myself and choose friends (for friends may be as important as family) who will help me succeed in that effort, and that I will prepare to marry a husband or wife with whom I may share that sacred responsibility.”
Parents owe much to children, and children owe much to parents, and future parents owe much to those whom they will bring into the world. Remember that “all the rules will be fair” with “wonderful surprises.” Leave with your Heavenly Father the questions that may disturb you about parents and families who are not perfect and about “eternal families” and other matters which you cannot accomplish yourself. In God’s good time they will be answered on the basis of God’s love and man’s continuing eternal agency.