Thursday, April 26, 2012

Overcoming Adversity: "These are the times that try men's souls"

As I write this post tonight, Seth is sick with pneumonia.  He has had a minor cold for a few days, then this afternoon, he became lethargic and spiked a fever of 102.5.  I took him to the office and a chest x-ray was done showing an infiltrate in the left upper lobe of his lung.  His oxygen saturations have been ok so far.  These are the types of illnesses that can make children with mitochondrial disease become extremely ill sending them into a metabolic cataclysm.  I feel fortunate we caught it so soon and am hoping and praying for the best.

As I posted earlier today, I would write my thoughts on overcoming adversity later.  Well, here they are.  Much of this is what I shared in my talk in church last Sunday.

Where can I turn for peace, where is my solace, when other sources cease to make me whole, when with a wounded heart, anger or malice, I draw myself apart searching my soul. Where, when my aching grows, where, when I languish, where, in my need to know, where can I run? Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish? Who, who can understand?

This hymn titled "Where Can I Turn for Peace" was written by Emma Lou Thyane during a time in her life when one of her daughter was very ill. These verses ask some poignant questions regarding the adversity she was facing during this time of her life.

Adversity comes many flavors--death of a family member or a friend, financial difficulties, loss of a job or underemployment, divorce, a troubled teenager making poor decisions, addictions to alcohol, drugs, pornography, food; sometimes adversity comes because of harmful actions of others. Maybe you are a teenager and get made fun of because you are different, and just want to be accepted. Sometimes adversity is toxic shame, low self esteem, illness or injury, or the illness of a child.

Whatever flavor of adversity seems to be ailing you, one thing in common for all of us is that we will face adversity in our lives. Some will face more than others. Some will turn to healthy ways of overcoming adversity, others will turn to unhealthy ways. I have had my fair share of adversity over the years, and am by no means an expert in handling adversity the best way. I have sought "other sources" for peace including alcohol, drugs, pursuit of wealth, pursuit of titles and prestige and these "other sources cease[d] to make me whole".  These "other sources" leave you empty and craving something that is unattainable.  These "other sources" lead to a dead end road of unhappiness.

One of the ways I deal with adversity is by looking at others who have had significant trials. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, my mother and father, Lance Armstong to name a few.
Abraham Lincoln battled depression, came from an undistinguished background, lacked formal education, battled self-image problems, had a son die while he was president, and faced the enormous task of keeping the union together.

Quotes by Lincoln:
“With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the Nation’s wounds”
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion”
"The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time”
“My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right”

Lance Armstrong battled testicular cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and brain. His chances of survival were dismal. He refused to give up and continued fighting. He beat his cancer and went on to become one of the most successful athletes in the world. More importantly, he has devoted his life to help others who suffer from cancer and to find a cure.

Those who know me know that I have a few passions in life--cycling, trail running, skiing, the outdoors, history, photography, and science. I have always been amazed at the animals, plants, bacteria, and other species that have evolved to live in harsh environments.

The animals and plants that can survive in the Sonoran Desert with temperatures exceeding 120 in summer months amaze me. This Desert covers over 100,000 square miles and includes 60 mammal species, 350 bird species, 20 amphibians, over 100 reptiles, 30 native fish species, more than 2000 native plant species, and numerous insects.

Backpacking in the Superstition Mountains of the Sonoran Desert northeast of Phoenix 2010.  I took all these photos on this trip

Agave plant

Suguaro cactus

Lichens.  These amazing organisms are found in some of the harshest environments on the Earth--Artic tundra, hot deserts, and in your own back yard.  These organisms are composed of two individual organisms that form a symbiotic relationship--a fungus and and algea or photosynthetic bacteria.  These organisms can not live on their own and each individual organism contributes something so they both can survive. 

Gila Monster--found this rare beautiful creature while Mt.
Biking North of Phoenix


Cholla Cactus
Barrel Cactus

There is a bacteria that lives in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park at 209 degrees fahrenheit, In New Zeeland, there are bacteria that can survive at temperatures 213 degrees fahrenheit--above the boiling point.

Hot springs at Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

The Winter temperature in Antarctica can reach -58 F. Its reputation as the windiest and least hospitable continent on earth is well-deserved. The animals, plants that can live in Antartica with the extremes of cold temperatures are fascinating.

One of these animals is the microscopic tardigrade—which is about the size of a period at the end of this sentence. The tardigrade may be the toughest creatures on the planet and are found in Antartica. When the habitat they favor dries up, so do they, through a process of cryptobiosis, they turn into dustlike specks called tuns. In a desiccated state, they can be blown by the wind until they encounter a moist, hospitable location, whereupon they rehydrate and resume their active lives. During their dehydrated period, tardigrades can tolerate nearly anything. They've been exposed to extremes of both ends of the temperature scale and have survived.

During adversity, we may feel like we've been dropped off in the middle of the desert or in one of these extremes of the environment with no survival guide, map, food, water or shelter. You physically cannot survive these environments without being prepared and having the proper knowledge, tools, food, water, shelter, and skills.

The environment of adversity is an environment of loneliness, sadness, fear, darkness, and uncertainty. It is an environment that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental pain. We may feel like there is no way to survive these environments. You may have felt abandoned by family, friends, and even God. I know I have felt that way. Adversity is an environment that is necessary for all to go through at some level, because this is where we grow.  As Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet, The Crisis: “These are the times that try men’s souls” and “we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Just as God has made a way for these species to survive and adapt harsh environments, God has also given us a way to survive the harsh environments of adversity.

If you follow this blog, you know our family has had some very serious health concerns with some of our children, the most serious of is Seth who has a rare disease affecting his brain called mitochondrial encephalopathy and cerebral folate deficiency which there is no cure or effective treatments for. His body does not metabolize the food he eats the proper way and as a result, high lactic acid levels build up in his body which is toxic and kills cells in his Central Nervous System. We first learned he had problems in late 2008, testing was done, but no one knew what was wrong. In 2009, his condition started to deteriorate. He had another MRI which showed several lesions in the white matter of his brain. We went from one specialist to another trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Finally, we were referred to the Barrow’s Children's Neurogenetic clinic at St. Joseph's Hospital. We waited several weeks for this appointment. Were told if we were going to find answers to his medical problem, this was the place to go.

With much anticipation and hope, we went to the appointment in early 2010. As we sat in the exam room waiting, a group of 8 or so people walked in. The chief of pediatric neurology introduced himself and everyone else. He then said some words I will never forget: "I have looked at your sons MRIs, and I have had all of the pediatric neurologists here at Barrows look at his MRIs. No one has ever seen this before. I have no idea what is wrong with Seth". He then said "I will do everything I can to help and find a diagnosis".

What we were hoping for was answers, and we left with more questions.  We were hoping for some peace, and left in a state of turbulence.  We once again left Phoenix and made the long drive back to Show Low wondering what to do, wondering how long our sweet special Seth had to live.

I began asking some poignant questions?
Where can I turn for peace? Where is my solace? When other sources cease to make me whole, when with a wounded heart, anger or malice, I draw myself apart searching my soul. Where, when my aching grows, where, when I languish, where, in my need to know, where can I run? Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish? Who, who can understand?

Mesa Falls on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Idaho.  Family Reunion 2010

I was stuck in this harsh mental, emotional, and spiritual environment and I had to learn to survive.  There are two common features among all the species of this earth. 1. We are genetically programmed with the ability and desire to survive.  2. Propagation of the species (I will not address this aspect in this post). We will do almost anything to survive.   This was a time when I began to be resentful and question God. How could a loving God do this? There are times in life when you feel like saying forget it all and give up. Although I felt helpless and at times my situation felt hopeless, deep down, I could not deny that I too had been programmed or taught the necessities needed to survive. I was taught these by my loving parents. Deep down, through all of this, I could not deny that I still had hope. Not the hope that Seth would be healed, but a hope that there was a God--a loving God who was aware of my family and our needs.

This was a time when I learned that there was nothing I could do to change my circumstances. I had a sick child, and no one knew what was wrong and how to help him. This was a time when I understood what the Serenity Prayer truly meant: "God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". This was a time when I realized I could not go through this alone. Friends and family reached out in amazing ways, and my amazing wife was the glue that kept our family together. Her positive attitude and her example on doing the basics--living in the moment, turning these problems over to God, family and personal prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, and spending time together as a family.

Doctors went above and beyond to help us. After doing extensive research and with the help of a friend, Dr. Berges, I found Dr. Van der knaap in Amsterdam who was a world renowned pediatric neurologist who specializes in white matter diseases. I emailed her asking if she could help. She said to send her the MRIs. Within a week of contacting her, she emailed me back and told me this looked liked mitochondrial disease. I will never forget how kind and compassionate this doctor was who took time from her busy schedule to answer an email from a complete stranger without ever asking for payment.

Through the adversity our family has faced some difficult answers came. What I wanted for Seth and others in my family may not be the same as what God wants for them. In 1926, John Leclair Belnap was born. A few days after his birth, he died. My grandmother was grief stricken! She had an extremely difficult time dealing with his loss and could not get through it. She went to the Salt Lake Temple and received a priesthood blessing. In that blessing, she was promised she would have another son who would be gifted in music and would bless the lives of many with his gift. On Febuary 19,1928, Parley Belnap, my father was born. My dad grew up on a farm, loved to play sports and showed only minimal interest in music. At the age of 14, he developed strep thoat which turned into rheumatic fever and was sick for sometime. His heart was weakened so much that the doctors told him he could never play sports again. He was discouraged.  It is difficult to imagine being told this at the age of 14.  He then started taking more of an interest in music--especially the piano and then the organ. At the age of 36, he was studying organ in Europe when he received the news that his mother had died. At the end of the funeral, his sister said, there is something that I need to tell you that mom wanted to tell you before she died. She then related to my dad the priesthood blessing that his mom had. This was the first time my father had heard this. At the time he heard this story, he was working on his doctorate degree in music. My father went on to teach organ and music at BYU for over 25 years. Some of his former students are currently Tabernacle Organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I have met so many people throughout the country who ask me if I am related to Parley Belnap.  They will tell me how they know him and how their lives have been affected by my dad.  Our will often is not God's will and the challenge is as Abraham Lincoln said "to be on God's side".
Spencer, me, and my dad in Rocky Mountain National
Park, Colorado.  2007

Four things have been helpful in my life with adversity: 

1. Hope: I understand hope because there have been times in my life when I felt hopeless. Hope is to look forward with desire and reasonable confidence; the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best. Hope leads to faith.

2. Faith is to have confidence in something or someone. This something or someone is Jesus. How does faith in Jesus help someone through adversity?  I have asked this question many times.  The Bible dictionary answers this question for me. “The Lord has revealed himself and his perfect character possessing all the attributes of love, knowledge, justice mercy, unchangeableness, power and every other needful thing, so as to enable the mind of man to place confidence in Him without reservation.

Another reason to enable our minds to place confidence in him without reservation is that Jesus’ life was not easy and filled with adversity. He was tested and tempted by Satan. He was the messiah that had been prophesied to come by many of the Old Testament prophets, and he was rejected by his own people. He overcame the world and its problems. He suffered more than is imaginable. During this suffering, he too needed comfort and help and a loving Father in Heaven sent an Angel to comfort him.

One of the scriptures I heard a lot from my father was Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy path”.

Jesus said: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus has promised " I will not leave you comfort less:
My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.". John 14:18, 27
Paul said: “God hast not given us the spirot of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord...”

3. The ability to endure and not give up. Endurance is something I'm familiar with in a different realm. One of the things that Becky, Spencer, and I enjoy doing is endurance sports. Becky runs marathons and does triathalons--I've lost track of how many she's done. Spencer loves to run and ride bikes, and I enjoy road cycling and mountain bike races. In 2008, I decided to do 200 mile cycling road race in Southern Utah called the Desparado Dual. This race had approximately 8000 feet of elevation gain over the 200 miles. I knew this would take not only physical training, but mental, nutritional, and emotional training as well. 6 months before the race began, I started training. I tried to convince others to join me in this adventure, but most thought I was crazy. I was able to convince my friend Chris (who has since move to Washington D.C. area) to train and race with me.  We road over 2000 miles that summer training.

Chris and me at the start of the race.
Those smiles on our faces didn't last long

My time for the first 100 miles was 5:12 averaging close to 20 mph. This was a flatter section and I was able join with other riders to do a tactic in cycling called drafting where you ride single file as close to the rider in front of you as possible. In this large pack you rotate around with people taking turns at the front with each cyclist taking their turn of about a minute or so then rotating back to the end. I was in a group of about 30 cyclist. With this technique, you conserve a significant amount of energy as you bear one another's burden and help each other out.

The second 100 miles was later in the day with temperatures in the mid 90's. This section had a majority of the elevation gain. I found myself alone for the majority of the race. At times, I didn't see anyone for over an hour. I wondered if I was on the right road. I wondered if my body could take this challenge. I began to think my friends were right and that I was crazy to attempt such a physically demanding race. I began to hope I would have a fatal mechanical problem with my bike so I would have an excuse to stop. At about mile 150, I developed a terrible headache, I was exhausted, dehydrated, and at this point it was all mental if I was going to finish this race. I could imagine Becky and my children at the finish line and this encouraged me. Finally, I made it to an aid station. The volunteers asked me what I needed, offered me food and water, and most importantly, they cheered me on and encouraged me to keep on going. I rested a few minutes, drank, ate then ate some more stretched my cramping legs, filled up my water bottles, and jumped back on the bike (the seat felt like sitting on concrete) determined to endure all the mental, emotional, and physical stress and finish the race.

As I approached the finish line, I could see Becky and my children. They began cheering me on.  I pushed myself a little harder to get to the finish line.  There was something special about having them there waiting for me. I finished with a time of 11:49

There are so many analogies that I have applied to this race with the adversities that I have faced in my life. I have often said to myself, life is like a 200 mile cycling race. There are times when we are in adversity and we seem to be cruising thru it with the help of others. There are other times when we feel alone, on a road we don't know where it is going. We may feel lost and even abandoned. We may feel like giving up. Sometimes you have to just keep moving along one pedal stroke at a time, knowing that someday, somehow it will be over. Then, someone will come to your aid, a loving friend, parents, brother, sister, bishop, wife, or a complete stranger and cheer you on. They will tell you that you can do it, you can make it to the end, will offer you aid in the form of money, clothes, or food, and will be by your side. Their actions may be more in silent, like prayers or fasting. There is one thing I have learned about adversity, and that it is difficult to do it alone.

4. The final thing that I have learned about adversity is it is easy to be a victim and to dwell in a toxic state of self pity. The best way to get out of this trap is to try and be of service to someone else. Just as others have come to me and my family during our times of adversity, it is best if we can forget our problems and help someone else. One of the greatest callings I've had in the church has been the facilitator for the Addiction Recovery Program which is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a prayer at the third step which is a powerful prayer. It reads: "God, I offer myself to thee, to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self that I may better do thy will. Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy love, Thy power, and Thy way of life. May I do thy will always".

As King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon taught: “...when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God". By doing this, somehow, your own burdens become lighter.

I will end this post with where I started. The third verse to the hymn, “Where Can I Turn for Peace” The first two verses of this hymn asks some poignant questions. The third answers these questions. “He answers privately, Reaches my reaching. In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend. Gentle the peace he finds, for my beseeching. Constant he is and kind, Love without end.”

Very calm section of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River several miles upstream from Mesa Falls.  Family reunion 2010

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