Chronic Pain

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Here are brief and powerful words of wisdom from Pres. Boyd K. Packer about not needlessly suffering through chronic pain of sin:

“Guilt is spiritual pain. Do not suffer from chronic pain. Get rid of it. Be done with it. Repent and, if necessary, repent again and again and again and again until you—not the enemy—are in charge of you.” (Packer, How to survive in enemy territory, Ensign, October 2012).

Liberty and Adversity

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Near the end of 1776, the American colonies were entrenched in a war against Great Britain. This was part of the war for independence. Things at that time were not going well for the Americans who were seeking freedom. They had lost a number of battles, forts, and cities, including Fort Washington and New York City. While he watched the battle of Fort Washington, General George Washington was dismayed at the loss of life. At the end of the battle he wept openly. It was a hard loss. The war was a series of defeats for the Americans. The cold fall with so much adversity might have seemed bleak and hopeless. Indeed it was for a number of people but many Americans found new resolve in their adversity. They strengthened their desires for freedom from what they saw as an oppressive government. In the midst of this adversity Dr. Benjamin Rush said, “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to posses most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” (Source: David Hackett Fischer. Washington’s crossing. (2006). Oxford University Press, USA). To quote David Fischer, “It was a time when many Americans resolved to act in a way that made a difference in the world.” The revival in the resolve and hearts of those fighting the war of independence came from their defeats, not their victories. It was in the Americans’ responses to calamity and tragedy that their greatness grew. We don’t show our strength and character in times of ease, we demonstrate it by how we respond when all the world seems to be falling down around us.

How do you cope with adversity? Do you turn tail and run? Do you break down on the side of a highway and abandon your car? Do you end up shattered upon the jagged rocks of adversity? Or do you fight? Do you face the adversity and move forward? Fighting is not always the solution – there are some fights that are beyond us – but when faced with adversity we should strive address it as best as we can. Sometimes that might be by running away, like Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife. For Joseph, his running from adversity led him into greater adversity – being cast into prison. How did he deal with this potential tragedy? He remained true to who he was and became the most important man in prison. Through his righteousness and faith he faced adversity and overcame it, eventually rising to the second most powerful man in Egypt. We can say that Joseph was successful because of his adversity, not in spite of it. His liberty only came through his adversity.

Adversity is an eternal principle. We read in the Book of Mormon: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.” (2 Nephi 2:11). Opposition is adversity. It’s part of the gospel. It’s important for liberty. We also read in 2 Nephi: “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Nephi 2:27). Opposition gives us the ability to choose eternal life or eternal death (spiritual, not physical). Choosing God brings happiness; choosing the devil brings misery. Our choices are important. We need to remember that adversity is necessary, even if it is difficult and painful. Jesus has been there. He understands all our pain.

“If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; if thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; and if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:5-8).

All our adversity is for our good, even if in the midst of it that might seem like a cruel sentiment. I have to add that there is plenty of adversity of our own making that comes from sin or unwise choices but if we repent and if we persevere and if we overcome that adversity, it will be for our good. Not sinning would have been better, of course, but all adversity can be for our good. Having faith in Christ gives us the strength to maintain this attitude and knowledge through even our darkest, most difficult adversities. We can hope against hope. Instead of becoming shattered upon the jagged rocks of adversity we can survive the shipwrecks in our lives. We might be stuck on an island for some time, even the rest of our lives, but we can build a new home there and make the best of whatever situation we are in. That is what the Americans did during the Revolutionary War. It was a war that looked like it could not be won. It was a war between a raw, weak army and a battle-hardened one. The Americans persevered through the dark days and won their freedom. Liberty truly came through adversity.

On Suicide

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I just found out that one of my friends from high school days killed himself. I’ll call him Jacob (not his real name). What started out as a beautiful day quickly turned around. I knew that Jacob had been struggling with some issues (that’s an understatement) but the news came as a shock. While we were not close friends, we kept in touch through Facebook. Now he’s gone. And you know what? It’s not fair. Suicide is terrible, it is tragic. It does terrible things to those left behind. I can imagine the hurt and pain and despair that leads someone to do it but that doesn’t make it right. In some ways suicide is the ultimate form of free will; it is literally taking your life into your own hands and saying, “Thus far and no more.” However, while it is exercising free will, it does so in tragic circumstances. Jacob has gone to the other side. I don’t know what lies in store for him there. That’s between God and Jacob.

I’ve written a lot about death on this site. Some of the deaths I’ve written about have been tragic, others not at all. Jacob is now the third friend of mine who has taken his life. All of those deaths were completely unnecessary. Death comes to all but we need not and should not hasten it along.

While my primary interests are with the brain and with neuroimaging, I also do clinical work, including therapy. I’ve talked with people who have made attempts at taking their own lives. I have an acquaintance who has struggled for years with thoughts of taking his life. He’s told me that while he never made any attempts, there were days and weeks and months and years where he thought about it over and over. Why did he never take his life? He said that he was able to grab onto the bright days and persevere. He knew it was wrong and that it would hurt a lot of people so he did not do it. Plus, he had faith in God that things would get better in the future. Thankfully they have for him.

So what do we know about suicide from prophets? There are two really good articles that address the topic. One was given by Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, the other by Elder M. Russell Ballard, both in the 1980s. Pres. Benson said, “As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression” (Source). Pres. Benson then goes on and provides 12 things we can do to lift our spirits when we feel down even despondent. His suggestions are: repentance, prayer, service, work, health (focus on increasing physical health), reading (scriptures), blessing (priesthood), friends (family), music, endurance, and goals. While his suggestions are wonderful, they should not replace management by a competent mental health professional should that be necessary. However, by themselves, Pres. Benson’s suggestions would do a lot for depression. Many of them are not very different than what I tell my depressed clients but again, psychological and psychiatric care is vital in many cases. I also should add that not all depression is caused by sin but sin can cause depression, which is why repentance may be necessary in some cases. However, there is great power in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, power enough to overcome the deepest, darkest depression.

Elder Ballard’s article, Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not, is particularly powerful.

He states, “The act of taking one’s life is truly a tragedy because this single act leaves so many victims: first the one who dies, then the dozens of others—family and friends—who are left behind, some to face years of deep pain and confusion. The living victims struggle, often desperately, with difficult emotions. In addition to the feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and rejection which the victims of such a family feel, Latter-day Saints carry an additional burden. The purpose of our mortal lives, we know, is to prove ourselves, to eventually return to live in the celestial kingdom. One who commits suicide closes the door on all that, some have thought, consigning himself to the telestial kingdom.

Or does he? What is the truth regarding suicide?”

After noting that suicide is wrong, Elder Ballard provides this quote by Elder McConkie,

“The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve, expressed what many Church leaders have taught: ‘Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.’ (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 771; some italics added.)”

Clearly, there are many things that need to be taken into account regarding the circumstances surrounding a suicide. My friend Jacob was passing through some severe trials – many severe trials. I cannot even fathom going through all he was going through. Elder Ballard talks about this as well:

“I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control?

Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth….

Suicide is a sin—a very grievous one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself. The Lord will look at that person’s circumstances and the degree of his accountability at the time of the act. Of course, this gives us no reason to excuse ourselves in committing sins, nor will the Lord excuse us, if I understand correctly. We must constantly strive to do our best in emulating the Savior in every aspect of our lives. At the same time, however, let us remember that spiritual growth comes ‘line upon line,’ that the key—in the spirit world as well as in mortality—is to keep progressing along the right path.”

In short, we do not know all of people’s circumstances. Yes, many of us were hurt by Jacob’s actions; yes, what he did was wrong but we cannot pass final judgment on him, only God can do that. All that is left for us to do is mourn with those who mourn and provide what comfort we can. We can learn from this experience and try to help others who are struggling.

For those of you who might be struggling with your own despairing thoughts, I say to you, “Hold on!” The darkness is real, the despair is deep and painful, but there is reason to hope. “Hang on, hang on, when all is shattered, when all your hope is gone. Who knows how long? There is a twilight, a nighttime, and a dawn. We break, we bend. With hand in hand when hope is gone just hang on, hang on.” (Guster). After the darkness of night there will be day. If you are struggling with thoughts of ending your own life, please reach out to others.

Also, watch the following two videos to see what prophets have said about hope. Again, competent mental health providers can be extremely beneficial but true and lasting happiness is not found apart from Christ and His Atonement. We can find great hope in Christ. It might not be easy but hope can spring up even during the darkest night.