The Unconfined Heart

“The Unconfined Heart,” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 47

The Unconfined Heart

Sometimes our own struggles increase our ability to care.

The last two months of my pregnancy did not go as planned. My sixth baby was due in November. In September, after several bouts with premature labor, my doctor confined me to bed.

I had always believed that if I applied the principles of hard work and self-reliance, I would be able to take care of our needs. I really didn’t like being forced into a situation of dependence. I felt uncomfortable and undeserving. But now someone else’s life depended on my following the doctor’s orders and remaining in bed.

As the days wore on, my self-concept of being independent dramatically changed. I realized that no matter how self-reliant I thought I was, in truth I was very dependent on other people.

I was the recipient of countless acts of service. Two busy neighbors bottled peaches for my family’s food storage. A friend who was gradually losing her eyesight brought over treasured, spiritually uplifting reading material. A neighbor, new to the area with a family and a demanding work schedule, found time to bring us dinner. A ward member brought my children home from school every day. Extended family members cared for my preschoolers. My husband woke at dawn and went to bed in the wee hours of the morning, holding down a full-time job, fulfilling his responsibilities in the bishopric, and taking over both our roles when he was home. The list goes on. Some gave of their time, talents, and resources. Others gave of their inner strength. All gave of their love.

As each person extended love and service, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I found if I took those helping hands gratefully, setting aside my pride, a bridge of love formed between me and my benefactors. The roles of giver and receiver faded in the light of selfless love that developed between us. Service became a living principle, and I felt an overwhelming desire to return to others what I had received. I learned that part of receiving was gratefully accepting that which is given.

“For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.” (D&C 88:33.)

I will always be grateful for those long weeks in bed. During this humbling period of dependency, I developed a deeper and more powerful love for others and for my Savior.

The story of the Last Supper took on greater meaning for me. I had always thought that when the Savior washed his disciples’ feet it was an example of service. But when I read Peter’s reaction, I knew the story also taught of receiving. Peter reacted as I originally had to the service of others when he said, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.”

The Savior replied, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” (John 13:8.)

As those weeks in bed taught me of my dependency on other human beings, I was also made aware of my even greater dependency on the Savior. I realized that no matter how well I lived the commandments, I was still totally dependent on his atoning sacrifice.

During one especially long bedridden day, when I longed to scrub a kitchen floor or sticky face or even run around the block, I suddenly thought about Blanche Scow, an elderly lady in my ward who had been totally bedridden since a stroke three years earlier. Before then, she had been confined to a wheelchair for many years. Feeling a need to draw from her well, I picked up the phone and called her.

Blanche, a mother of four, had been in her early thirties when she had gone into the hospital for minor surgery. The surgeon had mistakenly cut a nerve, leaving her paralyzed. When her alcoholic husband learned of her disability, he left her. That was thirty-seven years ago.

“At first I was upset,” Blanche told me. “But I soon got over it. I couldn’t just give up—I had a family to raise.”

Blanche harbored no bitterness for her husband, her doctor, or her circumstances. “I must be here for a purpose,” she said. “Now that I can’t get into my wheelchair, I have to just keep plugging along. But I have so much to be grateful for. I count my blessings every day. For instance, last weekend my granddaughter came by with her husband and baby. Little children are precious, and they grow up so fast. I have a lot to live for.”

Blanche and I became good telephone friends during those bedridden days. Whenever we talked, she would describe the view from her window to me, detailing the beautiful changes that the seasons brought to the tree outside her window.

“I am so grateful that I can see,” she said with a deeper reverence for nature and her gift of sight than I had ever known before.

As the weeks went by, I knew that I would soon be released from my confinement. Blanche knew that she would remain. But she taught me that nothing can really confine a person’s heart and soul. I knew that, in many ways, she was a much freer person than I.

Our telephone conversations continued after my baby, healthy and beautiful, was born. Blanche seemed as excited as I when I could finally get out of bed. Although we talked many times after that, she never let me know of her pain. She didn’t tell me she was dying.

I planned to visit her after I recovered from a lingering infection that had developed after the baby’s birth, but I never got the chance. Blanche died before I was well enough to go out. Hundreds came to her funeral—people who had been touched by her attitude toward life, people who had found new courage to face their problems after seeing the way she faced hers. Although Blanche had been forced into a position of need for most of her life, her attitude freed her to freely give of what she had. Her wisdom was her greatest treasure. She made others rich with it.

I miss Blanche. Because of her I know that being a giver and a receiver of love is important. At one time or another, each of us will be the server or the one being served. Each depends on the other, and both are indispensable as we work toward our salvation. It is in serving and being served that we learn to love each other.

Sometimes the difficulties we face in this life help us to become more sensitive and gentle, less judgmental, and more understanding of the hardships others face. When I found out that my neighbor had just experienced a miscarriage, my mind immediately recalled a dark July night years earlier when I, too, had experienced the loss of a child before its birth.

I remembered well-meaning friends and family telling me to be glad that the baby had died because it would probably have been deformed anyway. Others had dismissed the incident with comments like “You didn’t get to know that baby,” or “Don’t worry, you’ll have another one.” I remembered feeling that my grief had been summarily dismissed by all around me. Deep inside I had felt an overwhelming feeling of loss. I had wanted someone to hug me and say “I’m sorry,” “I know you hurt,” “I care.”

I wasn’t carrying hot bread when I knocked on my neighbor’s door that day—I was carrying my love. When she opened the door, I looked deep into her eyes. As we embraced, tears came freely to both of us.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

There was an immediate bond between us. She knew that I cared and that I didn’t dismiss her pain. I have since watched her gentle care and concern as she comforts other mothers who have experienced miscarriages.

Coping with our sorrows may not always mean forgetting them. Maybe coping with sadness means living with it—more gently and fully—while allowing the sadness to make us more Christlike. We know that the Savior knows and cares about our grief because he has experienced it. His love embraces us.

Today’s world tells us to seek pleasures for ourselves. In contrast, the Savior tells us that our greatest joy comes in serving others. But we don’t always feel compassionate or Christlike. We don’t always discern others’ needs. Sometimes assignments from our bishops or Relief Society presidents seem like one more burden. But the reward for service is the compassionate feelings we develop when we serve.

I remember feeling burdened when the Relief Society president asked me to look in on a woman on my visiting teaching district. I had already made my monthly visit to her, my children were all ill at the time, and I was tired and worn-out from lack of sleep. I went out of duty—certainly not compassion.

On the way to the woman’s house, I figured that because she was childless, she didn’t realize how easy her life was. “She always exaggerates her illnesses,” I thought judgmentally. “If she had a family to take care of she wouldn’t have the luxury of staying in bed and feeling sorry for herself.”

When I walked into the house, I could hear the woman moaning in her bedroom. I didn’t feel much sympathy. I looked for something to clean, but the house was spotless. I went into the kitchen to fix a meal, but the refrigerator was already bulging with food brought in by other ward members.

I finally walked into the woman’s bedroom and sat down at the side of her bed. She immediately turned toward me and began a long list of aches and pains. I listened impatiently at first, but as she continued to talk, my mind quit judging her. This woman was well off financially. Her late husband had left her secure. She seemed to have few needs. But it suddenly occurred to me that it had probably been a very long time since anyone had touched this woman.

“Would you like a foot rub?” I asked.

“A what?” she responded.

“A foot rub. My mother says a foot rub can do a sick body wonders.”

I pushed aside the blankets, picked up her small foot and laid it gently in my lap. It felt warm and smooth to the touch. I started to rub my thumbs in a circular motion on the arch of her foot as I watched the tense muscles in her body slowly relax one by one. When I finished several minutes later, the woman looked up into my eyes. She touched my hand with hers and quietly said, “Thank you.”

I now felt a new appreciation for this woman’s circumstances. Although they were different from my own, they were equally challenging. She had no bright faces to wake her in the morning, no baby to rock and cradle in her arms.

In our hectic modern existence and with the many demands on our time and compassion, we may sometimes feel like part of a large orchestra warming up before the concert begins. Each individual’s instrument or act of kindness sometimes seems disjointed, out of harmony. But when the Master steps forward, all musicians’ eyes are upon him. And when he raises his hands, we see the prints of the nails in his palms. Then we begin to understand—all our practicing and warming up have prepared us for this moment when we can begin the music of our finest hour. This music, powerful and unified by our compassion, grows from pianissimo to fortissimo, filling the world with a symphony of love.

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)

  • Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard, a free-lance writer, is a Cub Scout den leader in the Spanish Fork (Utah) Sixteenth Ward.

Illustrated by Richard D. Hull