“Choices and Challenges,” Ensign, Feb. 1995, 59
When our daughter Stephanie was five years old, I took her to register for kindergarten. When we arrived, she was invited to go into a classroom to participate in some games with the teachers and other children. As a former elementary school teacher, I knew the games were designed as tests for placement purposes.
A teacher was sitting just outside the room with a box of crayons and several sheets of blank paper, and I smiled confidently as Stephanie was asked to choose her favorite color and write her name. She can write all the names in our family, I thought. She is so well prepared, there isn’t anything in that room she can’t handle! But Stephanie just stood there. The teacher repeated the instructions, and again my daughter stood still, staring blankly at the box of crayons, with her knees locked and hands behind her back.
In the sweet, patient voice that teachers use when they are beginning to feel slightly impatient, the teacher asked once more, “Stephanie, choose your favorite color, dear, and write your name on this paper.” I was about to come to my daughter’s aid when the teacher kindly said, “That’s okay. We will help you learn to write your name when you come to school in the fall.” With all the restraint I could gather, I watched Stephanie move into the classroom with a teacher who believed my daughter did not know how to write her name.
On the way home, I tried to ask as nonchalantly as possible why she had not written her name. “I couldn’t,” she replied. “The teacher said to choose my favorite color, and there wasn’t a pink crayon in the box!”
I have reflected on this incident many times over the years as I watch my children grow and as I observe life in general. How many times are we, as Heavenly Father’s children, immobilized because the choice we had in mind for ourselves just isn’t available to us, at least not at the time we want it?
Is progress halted when acceptance into a chosen field of study is denied, when a desired job doesn’t materialize, when marriage or children are unfulfilled dreams, when health limitations present unforeseen obstacles, or when money hoped for isn’t there? Are we ever, for reasons that are hard to understand or beyond our control, faced with a set of circumstances that we did not have in mind for ourselves? In other words, what happens when we look in the box, and the pink crayon just isn’t there? It is so easy to lock our knees, put our hands behind our back, and do nothing when things wished for and dreamed about are beyond our reach. But to do so would defy the very reason we are placed here on this earth. As hard as it sometimes is to understand, stumbling blocks are essential to our progression.
Remember what the Lord said: “If thou art called to pass through [some] tribulation … know … that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:5–7.)
I have often wondered how Joseph of old must have felt as his brothers sold him into Egypt. Did he think that the good life was over for him? That he would never again experience joy? What about Abraham and Isaac? Did they wonder why that sacrificial commandment had fallen to them? How did Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah feel as they bore the stigma of being barren, when in those days it was interpreted as a sign of God’s displeasure? How did Lehi and Sariah feel as they fled from their home and friends in Jerusalem to live in the wilderness? And in this dispensation, would Joseph and Hyrum Smith ever have chosen the difficulties they faced?
In each of these cases as we observe the lives of men and women in scripture, it is easy to see that people can triumph over adversity. But in our own everyday lives, it is often difficult to see beyond our own frustrations, to remain focused, or to see the end from the beginning.
As Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wisely instructed us in a conference address: “The path you are to walk through life may be very different from others. You may not always know why [Heavenly Father] does what He does, but you can know that He is perfectly just and perfectly merciful. …”
“Trust Him, even when in eternal perspective it temporarily hurts very much. Have patience when you are asked to wait when you want immediate action.” (Ensign, Nov. 1991, p. 84.)
When our son Tom was twelve, his dream was to be a professional basketball player. Even though he often practiced into the night, he was worried that he wasn’t the best on his team and even more worried that he was too short. I remember one night when he asked me, “What will happen to me if I don’t reach my goal?” We talked for a long time about choices and individual differences, about challenges and how to know when to persevere and when to change direction.
Tom made the high school team, but when it became apparent that there were other things he could do better, he changed direction. The crayon he would have chosen as a teenager just wasn’t there for him. He had to color his life with other choices. At age twelve he thought his life would be worthless if he couldn’t play pro ball. At thirty he feels successful in what he is doing and is happy in his profession.
Life is like that, and what we might want at twelve or twenty or forty-two or even seventy-two might have to be adapted to the opportunities and options that are available to us at the time.
A few years ago my sister and I were walking along the beach when we began a very serious talk about life, its challenges, and our growing ability to handle whatever came to us. “I think I have lived enough of life now that I could handle any challenge given me,” I naively stated. “I think I could too,” was my sister’s quick reply.
Then the question that I will remember forever came from her: “Janet, what would be your most difficult challenge?” I didn’t even need to think. I already knew. “The hardest thing for me,” I began, “would be the death of my husband. I can’t imagine life without Rex.”
“That would be hard,” she answered, “but I think divorce would be even more difficult for me.”
The preposterousness of our fears was interesting. Rex was running marathons and was the picture of health. My sister’s marriage seemed very much intact. We laughed at suggestions that couldn’t possibly become realities.
Just eight months later, Rex lay near death in a hospital, and my sister’s divorce proceedings had begun. Remembering that day and the year that followed will always bring back bittersweet memories for me. My sister and I most certainly would not have chosen those colors from our box of choices, but we had to pull our lives together, working with the colors that were there. Today after her sad divorce, my sister is building a new marriage with a wonderful man, and my life with Rex is rich and full. My choice would not have been to experience what was given me, yet as a result each day is filled with deeper meaning, greater understanding, and new insights. If I could trade it all back now and take the challenges away, I would do so in a minute. I don’t like the fact that my husband has cancer. It is definitely different from the life I had in mind for us. But if I could turn back the clock, would I also have to trade in what I have learned? I wouldn’t want to give that part back. Always having our first choice might mean giving up unknown benefits. A wise man once said, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else.”
Let me share with you part of a letter someone wrote after hearing the story of Stephanie and her crayons.
“I don’t have all the colors of crayons that I want, but I do have all the colors that I need. When I need new or different colors in my life, Heavenly Father will make sure that I have them. I know that he will never give me a challenge beyond my reach or beyond the tools he has given me to work with. I also know that the challenges and trials I have are in reality blessings, and I will be better and stronger for having gone through them.”
I am convinced this is true. God does hear and answer our prayers and help us through life’s challenges because He loves us and wants us to return to Him. Our challenge is to color our lives in the most beautiful way possible, with whatever colors are available to us.