The Red Tin Can

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“The Red Tin Can,” Ensign, Sept. 1996, 58

The Red Tin Can

The gift was simple, but it is a daily reminder that I can overcome an abusive childhood.

On the windowsill above my kitchen sink, among the homemade crafts and lumps of clay sculpted by young hands, sits a red tin can with small white hearts on all sides. The treasures my children bring to me are eventually replaced by newer ones or packed away, but the little tin can has remained constant.

The tin can, filled with my favorite candy, was a birthday gift given to me several years ago by a loving visiting teacher. She had only a vague idea of the battles I was waging in my life and certainly had no idea what a strength her gift would become. “This is only a small thing,” she said as she handed me the can, “but it comes straight from the heart.”

The smell of chocolate reached my nose the minute I lifted the lid. Over the next few days, I savored the candies one by one. I was disappointed when I reached the last one but was surprised to see a message printed neatly on the bottom of the can: Life is full of cans, not can’ts!

I had always known the truth of that message, even as a little girl when the smell of alcohol and smoke filled my nostrils and my father’s hard, disapproving looks made me squirm. I knew it when the sting of his belt crossed my back and even when he held the barrel of a rifle against my neck. I can be happy. I can be safe. I can be secure. I can feel loved. I can have a family filled with love. Those thoughts were an anchor for me through those horrible early years.

As I grew older, however, I began to doubt my childhood dreams. I buried those years of pain and hid their secrets, becoming angry, confused, and bitter. Adding to my despair, when I was 17 doctors discovered a congenital defect that meant I would never be able to have children. I was devastated; it seemed too much to bear. For a time it seemed as if the exhausting resentment and self-pity I felt would devour me.

It was about this time that I made the greatest discovery of my life—the gospel of Jesus Christ—and slowly began to realize that those cans I dreamed of in my childhood could be reality.

After all that had happened it was a struggle to “trust in the Lord with all [my] heart; and lean not unto [my] own understanding”(Prov. 3:5), but a loving Heavenly Father helped me understand that my early challenges would somehow “work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).

The missionaries patiently taught me that knowing the truth and loving God more than I dreaded the pain of an abusive past brought freedom (see John 8:32). I felt like the people spoken of by Alma:

“Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word. …

“And the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved” (Alma 5:7, 9).

I experienced that change. With it came a change in the direction of my life and a change in the way I felt when I thought about the future. The love I felt from our Savior and Heavenly Father helped me recognize I deserved to be loved and respected, making possible the journey away from the painful memories of abuse and disappointment. Once again I was filled with hope and realized that life was, indeed, full of cans.

But even with that corner turned and my stride resolutely set in a new direction, there have been times I have taken a step or two backward, times when I have been unsure of the cans in life. One of the most difficult periods came a few years ago when my brother committed suicide. In addition to being devastated, I was angry, not at him but at the ugly secrets of our upbringing that my brother, sister, and I had never been allowed to acknowledge.

I understood his pain, but through the years I had discovered that it was the tremendous love of our Heavenly Father that made recovery possible. My brother and I had talked about that, but chemical dependency clouded his judgment. He never understood, or experienced the healing power and comfort available through the gospel. I longed to find a cause for an act of self-destruction that defied reason. Even now I cannot think of the loss of my brother without emotion, but given time and the power of prayer, I have learned much about the compassion and purifying love of a merciful Father in Heaven.

Through my challenges, the scriptures have served me well. The Savior promises:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour 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” (Matt. 11:28–29).

What peace there is in knowing that we are never really alone in our suffering or isolated in triumph! What comfort there is in the scriptures and simple words like those at the bottom of the red tin can, words that for me have been like a shield raised to the destroying power of the adversary.

Life is full of cans, not can’ts. My childhood belief in that concept was reinforced when I accepted the gospel. That positive outlook is strengthened almost daily by my husband, who tenderly disallowed the perceived inadequacies I was tempted to use as a crutch. His love and acceptance made such a change in my life! Life indeed seemed full of cans when opportunities for parenthood came to us through other avenues.

Obviously, dealing with the memories of my past wasn’t as simple or easy as remembering a red tin can. There have been hours and hours of prayer, innumerable tears, and much effort. But the little red can has been a constant reminder of life’s wonderful possibilities. There is nothing so disappointing, so traumatic, so painful that we cannot overcome it if we are in partnership with the Lord. The message of the tin can—and most of all the gospel—conveys a glorious truth: life is full of cans!

Photo by Welden Andersen