A few weeks ago I was on a plane traveling to visit my parents. The woman in the seat next to me struck up a conversation with me. She told me she was a nurse in a hospital. Then she asked me The Question. It was an ordinary question I had been asked a thousand times before.
“What do you do?
I had always had an easy response to that question. In the early days the answer was, “student”, then “account representative”, followed by “marketing”. More recently I was able to say that I was in my dream job, recruiting and developing new hires for the company I had enjoyed working for since graduating from college.
But that day on the plane I didn’t know how to answer the question. The truth, which I did not share with my seatmate, was that one day earlier I had turned in my employee badge and walked out of my office for the last time with tears streaming down my face. Like so many others, my company had to reduce their headcount to save costs and my job had been eliminated.
I still don’t know how to answer her question—or the many questions that have since come from caring and concerned friends: “What will you do?” The short answer I always give them is, “I don’t know yet.” But there is a longer, more meaningful answer.
What I do now is wake up every morning and decide which of two invitations I will accept for that day.
The first invitation that presents itself every morning is to spend the day in fear and worry. This is the one that I am naturally drawn to because worrying has traditionally been a signature strength of mine. I am very, very good at it. And there is certainly plenty to worry about. What will I do? Should I stay here or should I relocate? If I do relocate will I be able to sell my house? Unlike so many others, I am blessed to have sufficient finances to weather this situation—I think. Then worry intrudes: given the spiraling economy do I know for certain? The worry continues: since most of my close friends were people I met at work, how am I going to form relationship networks in the future?
And two of the most nagging questions of all: Have I achieved my purpose in life or did I wander off course somewhere along the line? How do I determine my purpose for the balance of my life?
Accepting—even embracing—the invitation to fear and worry was initially my default position. Certainly it is reasonable to ponder all of those questions—to analyze options, to prepare to take the action steps that will carve out the future. But I’ve learned there is a significant difference between those activities and constantly ruminating on challenges, seeing them all through the eyes of apprehension. Running that endless loop in my head leads to feeling overwhelmed, depressed and hopeless. It is the opposite of faith.
Occasionally that first invitation offers a little variety. Instead of focusing on questions for the future, it suggests I review the past. It invites me to be angry towards the managers who chose to eliminate my job. It beckons me to question whether or not I could have made different decisions or taken different actions to avoid this outcome. Certainly there are lessons to be learned and I’ve reflected upon those. But I’ve come to understand that looking backwards to blame others or myself and constantly asking “what if…?” doesn’t lead to anything productive. It causes me to feel angry, sullen and discouraged. It places me firmly on Satan’s turf.
The past is to be learned from but not lived in… And when we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead, we remember that faith is always pointed towards the future. Faith always has to do with blessings and truths and events that will yet be efficacious in our lives….
Some of you [are] having thoughts such as these: Is there any future for me?… Will I be safe? Will life be sound? Can I trust in the Lord and in the future? Or would it be better to look back…? Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store for each of us and that Christ truly is the “high priest of good things to come.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Brigham Young University Devotional, “Remember Lot’s Wife”, January 13, 2009)
A Second Kind of Invitation
The second invitation available to me each morning is presented in a quieter voice. This one says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
This invitation invites me to calm down. Know that He is in charge of the universe. Know that He does not take goodness away. He gives. Perhaps He does not give in the way that I would have asked for. Perhaps not in a way that is yet evident. But I know that He will accomplish His purposes with me over time and His purposes are ultimately always for good.
When I accept this invitation my time is spent on more productive reflections. Instead of looking backwards to what I used to have and lost or looking forward with anxiety, I am encouraged to contemplate the many blessings I have been provided with that can serve as resources to build the future.
In pondering this invitation I’ve also come to recognize that the Lord orchestrates more of our lives than we typically appreciate or understand. For example, back in 2002 He brought a mentor into my life. We live several states apart and the chances of us ever meeting was so slim that I have to accept that there was divine providence in bringing him and his wife into my life as friends. He lives on a much higher spiritual plane than I do and my visits to their home and e-mail conversations have offered me incredible tutoring on God’s purposes and desires for my life. And yet I had always felt that he was casting pearls before swine. Intellectually I valued discussing the concepts. But frequently I wasn’t yet at a point where I was motivated or able to change my thoughts and actions to move to the next level of spiritual development.
A String of Pearls
And yet, here in 2009, when I’ve felt as if a major part of the foundation of my life has disappeared beneath me, it’s as if I have looked down to discover there is a necklace around my neck lovingly strung with those pearls of insight I was given. They were gathered for my use by a caring Heavenly Father who knew I would need them and orchestrated events over the past seven years in preparation for my time of need. In that second invitation I find both gratitude and hopefulness.
I once received this in an e-mail from my good friend, Wally Goddard.
What is really clear to me is that we are responsible for our reactions to every challenge. I can let a negative person I interface with make me negative.
Or I can see her negativity as an invitation to more gracious and determined positivity. I can see her negativity as a customized invitation from God to be a better saint. If I choose to snub the invitation, God will give me more opportunities. Day by day, year by year, He will keep inviting me toward saintliness and godliness. Often I react as natural man. But God will never relent. He will continue to invite patiently, wisely, and lovingly.
My challenge involves circumstances rather than an individual, but the same principles apply.
I’m still working on taking responsibility for my reaction to this challenge. I still have difficult days. But I glimpse the opportunity. I can let this situation cause me to feel victimized and fearful. I can view my world as being out of control. Or I can see this situation as an invitation to be still and know that He is God. I can view being thrown out of my job as a customized invitation from God to develop more faith in the path that He will create for my life—one I might not have been open to if I still had the comfort zone of my former role. I can view it as an enticement to lean more on Him than on myself. I can be grateful for the orchestration of my life that He patiently, wisely, and lovingly provides.
So in answer to The Question, that’s what I do these days. I am trying to respond to the second invitation.