You can’t heal the people you love.
You can’t make choices for them.
You can’t rescue them.
You can promise they won’t journey alone.
You can loan them your map.
This trip is theirs.
Be gentle with yourself — it’s hard work to
be present to the freedom of the Other.
I believe we go through much of our pain as we are tutored in the sacred work of learning to succor one another. Once learned, our commission is to do so. It is the most humbling experience I know — a knowing that all we can do is “drop the rope ladder” into the abyss of another’s pain. We cannot climb it for them. To attempt to do so is a form of pride. The message we send is that we believe they cannot be successful in climbing it themselves. This is the lie our pride would have us believe.
When my sons were in their teens, I was concerned with how to help them through their struggles. I was reading in Alma 29:1-2:
“O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of my heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance to every people”
Then, in verse 3:
“But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.”
That’s when I wrote a note in the margin of my scriptures: “If I could learn it, so can they… Let them.” That thought hit me with power and I’ve been learning how to “let them” ever since.
I can shine a light into their darkness, but I cannot tell them what to see. Life is the ultimate teacher for all of us. Agency is a sacred and powerful component in the plan of happiness. The Lord Himself will not override our agency. It was the adversary’s plan to compel everyone to be righteous so all would return to the presence of our Heavenly Father.
Heavenly Father knew the struggles we would encounter in this world. He sent us here on purpose and designed this laboratory of learning to teach us, to refine us, to strengthen us. Part of that means going through difficult lessons, failing, getting up again, learning, persevering with the tenacity that would bring us through whatever besets us. As we long for healing, compassion, gentleness, and forgiveness, we begin to understand how to succor others as they go through their struggles.
One of the spouses in the addiction recovery program my husband and I manage for our stake once admitted, “I don’t automatically go to compassion when I encounter my husband’s poor choices. I go to anger, judgment, shattering of trust.” As I thought about her response, I replied, “At your age, you may never have experienced departing from the core values you hold sacred. Maybe you’ve never made a mistake that deeply injured a loved one, that made their life head down a road of pain and remorse. Maybe for some people, compassion isn’t a natural gift they brought through the veil. Maybe until you desperately need compassion for your mistakes, you won’t understand the value of compassion or the soul-wrenching need to be bathed in compassion. Compassion is always appropriate. Always.”
I came across a journal entry I made in 1983. I was capturing the events surrounding my oldest son’s interview to be called on a mission:
“Ordinarily a young man is interviewed by his bishop and stake president on a local level and at their recommendation, a letter is issued from the Presidency of the Church calling them on a specific mission. Because of my son’s background of being abused and the resulting acts of immorality he experienced, it was necessary for him to be interviewed by a General Authority. This was just a few weeks before we were scheduled to have a stake conference and there would be a General Authority in attendance. The time was close at hand to see if he was indeed “ready” to be called on a mission.
My son had expressed to me that he wished he could be called to New Zealand because of the fact that it was an English-speaking foreign mission. It also would be among many Polynesian people whom he had learned to love when he spent two seasons in Hawaii with the Youth Developmental Services during high school. However, since you don’t get to pick where you go, he felt the chances of going there were very slim.
At the last minute, the General Authority who was scheduled to come to our stake conference had a change of plans, so a different General Authority, Elder Gossland, was sent to our stake. What we learned later was that Elder Gossland was the head of the church missionary department and also the executive administrator over the New Zealand mission.
My son was scheduled for an interview on Saturday evening after the evening meeting. My husband, my dad and I were waiting in the hall for him to get finished. Thirty long minutes passed and he finally opened the door. He was still sobbing and motioned for us all to come in because Elder Gossland wanted to talk to us. For one horrible instant, I was afraid he was going to tell us my son wasn’t ready to go on a mission. I was drowned in sorrow because I knew all he had been through.
As we all sat down, Elder Gossland looked at my son for a long time and then he looked at me. Then he said “I called all of you in here because I wanted to tell you that your son is a remarkable young man. He has been totally honest with me and I want you to know that what he has been through would have totally destroyed most people. I believe it is because of the love and strength of his mother that he is where he is today.” Then he turned to my son and said, “I want you to know that the Lord is very pleased with you and that all of your sins are forgiven you. You are as pure as the driven snow. I have absolutely no reservations about recommending your son for a mission. My only regret is that I won’t be able to be his mission president. Do you have any idea the kind of influences for good your son is going to be in the mission field? He is truly one of the rare ones!”
As you can well imagine, by that time I was emotionally and spiritually wiped out! No mother could have been prouder or felt more blessed than I did. Because of the respect we pay to those called as General Authorities in our church, I couldn’t have felt more blessed if Heavenly Father Himself had said those things, because I believe Elder Gossland was inspired to say what he said.
Me, who had felt so bad, so responsible, so inadequate as a mother, had just received acceptance from the Lord. The Lord had accepted my son — the fruit of my womb, the fruit of my labors. He was prepared before the Lord, was acceptable as a worthy vessel to teach His gospel to others. What greater joy is there?
As we prepared to leave the room, we shared a thrill when Elder Gossland told us he was over the New Zealand mission and he asked my son if that’s where he wanted to go. To which he replied, “Yeah, but I figured I’d never get sent there ’cause I’d enjoy it too much. I figure the Lord will send me where I’ll be humbled.” (In my heart I felt that Elder Gossland and the Lord felt he had already been humbled.) Just six days later he got his mission call to the Auckland New Zealand mission!
What I have learned in the years since then as I’ve watched my sons on their journey to where they are now, being the fathers of daughters and grandchildren, is that they have strength beyond anything I could have wished for them. They have used their agency to learn from life through some difficult challenges and a few rewarding ones. I continue to be proud of the men they’ve become. We are working as a family on the ministry of reconciliation as we pull together to heal the broken pieces. Both my sons are amazing men who have been through the furnace of affliction more than once. I would have liked to have taken their blows for them, and I know that to attempt to do so would send them the message that I thought was stronger than they are and that is not true. If I could “make it” so can they — so I let them!
Like many families, we have children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters that sometimes seem to be drowning in an ocean of pain. Our responsibility isn’t to somehow erase the pain — it’s to love them, pray for them, encourage them, believe in them, and in the case where they are estranged from us for a time, do all those things and be patient.
Working in the addiction recovery program, my husband and I are learning more and more how to allow the gift of the Atonement to function in our lives and the lives of those over whom we have stewardship. Recovery from trauma isn’t a 12-week course — it’s a lifetime pursuit.
I realize I don’t yet fully understand the purpose of suffering and being refined in the furnace of affliction. I just know that Heavenly Father sent us here on purpose, knowing that we would have agency long before we had wisdom. He knew that this was a critical developmental stage — and it isn’t the last developmental stage. He could take all the pain away and He doesn’t. Rather, He strengthens us as we reach for Him. Most importantly, He sent His Son to redeem us and bring us home.
Sonja lives with her husband, Dale, on Anderson Island, Washington. She and her husband are Church Service Missionaries serving in the Addiction Recovery Program, focusing on pornography and sex addiction. She is also a certified life coach and teaches "Life Skills for Emotional Self-Mastery" in her stake twice a month. She does not teach you only to process something traumatic done to you in the past; rather, she helps you learn to feel it, heal it, and LET GO of whatever you still do to yourself and to others in order to cope with what was done to you in the past.