“Look to the Future with Optimism,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 22
When King Nebuchadnezzar learned that three young men who had been set over the province of Babylon refused to worship a golden image that he had fashioned, the king grew furious and threatened the Jewish youths with a fiery death.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego hoped for deliverance from God. “But if not,” they told Nebuchadnezzar, “be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:18).
Even in our darkest abyss, we can find hope in the inner light from the Lord. In a world with an increasing number of trials and challenges, things can look dark and stormy from a certain perspective, dampening our mood and outlook. This is especially true for today’s youth. Indeed, it is not uncommon for parents and advisers of youth to wonder how best to assist them in looking with optimism and hope to the future.
As I have thought about this concern, I am struck by the irony that it is likely a concern that easily could have been raised any number of times in history. And for people of every generation, the central solution to the trials and challenges they have faced probably has been the same.
I’m certain that whether in ancient Jerusalem or Zarahemla, in the early days of the restoration of the Church in this dispensation, or perhaps during a time of great crisis in the world, such as World War II, many other persons must have asked themselves how they might have hope in the future.
After a lifetime of watching others, as well as application in my own life, I have concluded that if we want to help lead youth to a life of optimism and hope, we must first cultivate those qualities in our own lives. How do we cultivate those qualities?
The answer lies in our living a gospel-centered life that is full of enriching experiences that strengthen us, draw us nearer to God, and increase our optimism. Out of that optimism will emanate a contagious attitude that will positively influence not only our outlook but also that of the young people with whom we interact. President Harold B. Lee said, “You cannot lift another soul until you are standing on higher ground than he is” (Stand Ye in Holy Places , 187). Here are some specific steps we can take now to place our lives on high ground so that we can lift, even rescue, our youth from feelings of despair and hopelessness about the future.
With Nephi we seek to say, “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ” (2 Ne. 25:26). Our strongest, most heartfelt expressions of faith in our Savior center on his divine sonship and on his atoning sacrifice. Although the divine reality of Jesus Christ is still debated by some churches, there is no doubt among faithful Latter-day Saints that we as a people believe in Christ. But do we individually really believe that Jesus’ Atonement—his suffering in Gethsemane, his death upon the cross, and his Resurrection—actually makes it possible for us, however dark or discouraged we may feel today, to overcome not only our sins but also our sorrows and weaknesses and to be exalted with him and God the Father? Or do we only hear the words, even memorize or otherwise attempt to internalize them, but when faced with our own guilt or discouragement, say, “Oh, that’s all true, but it isn’t true for me”?
Let us rejoice that Jesus Christ’s Atonement really makes it possible for us to truly repent, wipe clean our slate, start over, and virtually begin a wonderful life. Let us rejoice in the knowledge that regardless of any inadequacies we have—or feel we have, or have been told we have, whether real or perceived—the Lord Jesus Christ can make up any difference that may remain after we have done all we can to overcome our weaknesses (see Ether 12:27).
If we really believe what Jesus Christ says about what he can do for us, we can develop sufficient hope in our lives to overcome discouragement and to fill our lives with meaning and fulfillment.
Scripture study strengthens us in several ways. First, information contained in the scriptures deepens and reinforces our knowledge and commitment to truth. Regular scripture study is as beneficial to our spiritual strength as regular exercise is to our physical strength. It is similar to “spiritual jogging.”
Further, when one immerses himself or herself in the scriptures, there is a figurative departure from the world to a place of sanctuary where we can lay down our worries and cares for a time and focus on pure truth, which gives us hope and confidence about ourselves and God.
It has been said that prayer keeps man from sin, and sin keeps man from prayer. Powerful talks have been given and beautiful stories shared about the power of prayer in our lives. I have learned that there is no more faith-promoting and discouragement-chasing experience than to kneel before God and, through the Holy Ghost and in the name of Jesus Christ, pour out our hearts to a loving God who knows us, understands our needs, and desires to bless us.
Happily, Heavenly Father again has sent living prophets—those who are authorized to speak in his behalf—to the earth. He has chosen them and prepared them for a day such as this when we might face discouragement and confusion. God’s chosen prophets will always lead us aright, in the path of eternal life and salvation. Our lives are greatly blessed as we heed their counsel, secure in the knowledge that the Lord entrusts them with a sacred charge to declare his mind and will. As we study the words of the prophets, we have the extra advantage of having some answers to our prayers confirmed by two or more witnesses—God’s living prophets and their teachings.
Some of the most hopeful, encouraging, and optimistic words ever spoken have been the prophetic utterances of God’s living prophets and apostles. They truly can dispel our discouragement.
“We have every reason to be optimistic in this world,” President Gordon B. Hinckley has said. “Tragedy is around, yes. Problems everywhere, yes. But look at Nauvoo. Look at what they built here in seven years and then left. But what did they do? Did they lie down and die? No! They went to work! They moved halfway across this continent and turned the soil of a desert and made it blossom as the rose. On that foundation this church has grown into a great worldwide organization affecting for good the lives of people in more than 140 nations. You can’t, you don’t, build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen” (quoted in Jeffrey R. Holland, “President Gordon B. Hinckley: Stalwart and Brave He Stands,” Ensign, June 1995, 4).
“‘Things will work out’ may well be President Hinckley’s most repeated assurance to family, friends, and associates,” noted Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “‘Keep trying,’ he will say. ‘Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out’” (Ensign, June 1995, 4).
Jesus Christ taught his disciples, “He who seeketh to save his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (JST, Matt. 10:34). This great and true counsel, given in three of the four New Testament Gospels, focuses on our keeping the commandments. Yet it promises us that as we lose ourselves in serving God by serving others, we will find our way to exaltation.
In his farewell address, King Benjamin taught this same great truth to his people more than a hundred years before Jesus Christ’s mortal birth: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
In fact, this general idea is so widely recognized in the world that social counselors everywhere often teach that discouragement and despair can sometimes be overcome by turning our attention away from ourselves and toward serving others. Of course, those with serious depression and clinically diagnosed emotional illness cannot be cured by merely focusing their attention elsewhere. But for many of us, discouragement or a case of the blues can be overcome by thrusting ourselves into a project in which someone else is the beneficiary. Some of the most rewarding work any of us will ever do is that which, when it is completed, we can look back on and can see how much someone else gained from it. In the process, optimism and hope about ourselves and life seep into our souls.
In the early part of this century and for several thousand years before that, much of the work people did was pointed toward ensuring that they had food to eat and a place in which to live. It was easier during those times to look back with satisfaction on one’s work and to see it completed. Generally, life was not easy, yet it tended to contribute to a greater sense of accomplishment as men and women felt pride and joy in the work they achieved with their own hands.
We have need for that same kind of personal fulfillment today. Yet, much of the reward for our work today comes in the form of money deposited electronically to accounts in places we may not often see or visit. Even so, a sense of accomplishment and achievement can come to us through our efforts to create finished tasks that we can look at and enjoy. Gardening, woodworking, quilting, mechanics, and ceramics are but a few of the kinds of hobbies that bring to our lives a fulfillment and a richness lost in the move from agrarian to high-tech societies. In the process of working at our hobbies and skills, we acquire confidence and a buoyant outlook.
A man interviewed on television on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday was asked if he had a secret for his long life. His response was probably not a surprise: “I decided never to retire. Keeping interested and involved in all that’s going on around me has been the only secret I know about,” he said. Of course, there’s no guarantee that maintaining active involvement in things will cause us to live to an old age, but it helps us to be alert and to avoid becoming discouraged and despondent. The Lord has counseled us to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [your] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:27). To be so engaged in contributing to society and building up the kingdom of God brings a sense of satisfaction that cannot help but give us a heightened self-image.
Much has been written and spoken by the prophets of latter-days about the value of keeping a journal. One of the most important reasons for doing so is the reflection it gives of ourselves. Each morning as we dress and groom for the day, part of our routine involves looking in the mirror to judge how we look and how we will be seen by others. A journal is another way of looking at ourselves to see where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
Sometimes, recording our less happy or unsuccessful life events helps us put them in perspective or learn from them in a way that will help us avoid such things in the future. Recording positive and favorable information about ourselves provides a rich store of strength upon which to draw in times of discouragement and disappointment. We gain a perspective that gives us hope, letting us know that through our persistence we can weather our ups and downs in life.
The scriptures counsel us that “if [we] are prepared [we] shall not fear” (D&C 38:30). Our own common sense also tells us that when we take time to prepare well, life goes more smoothly. Hardly anyone would think of running a marathon without training for it in advance. We all know that if we want to do well on a test at school or work, we must study beforehand.
Unfortunately, the frustration, discouragement, and disappointments we face in life are often brought about by our own lack of preparation. Then, having no one to blame but ourselves, we add further injury by becoming critical and unforgiving of ourselves. But if we can train ourselves to think ahead and to prepare accordingly, we will eliminate much of the fear we face in life. We will also find that positive results generally occur, and this significantly influences our mood and outlook and gives reason for our hopes.
Several years ago there was a briefly popular song that suggested, “Don’t worry—be happy.” It advocated taking life a little less seriously and trying not to worry about things we cannot control. Of course, there are things in life that we can and should control. Also, there are things about which we should be concerned. But we need to learn that being overly analytical about life is possibly as detrimental as being lackadaisical. The oft-quoted third chapter of Ecclesiastes gives us a good perspective on when to worry and when not to:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: …
“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance …” (Eccl. 3:1, 4).
Let us rejoice daily for little seasons of time in the good things we do and of which we are a part. Doing this influences our entire approach to life and can greatly affect our outlook.
The Lord has asked us to bring about many good things in our lives (see D&C 58:27). We accomplish this as we serve God, our families, and our fellowmen. Our efforts in these areas reflect our desire to become like him and his Son, Jesus Christ (see 3 Ne. 12:48; 3 Ne. 27:27). Following our Exemplar, we can grow spiritually as well as develop ourselves in other important, balanced ways. Elder Joe J. Christensen of the Presidency of the Seventy has provided insightful comment on this topic:
“‘Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man’ (Luke 2:52; see JST, Matt. 3:24–26). In other words, the Savior developed … intellectually (in wisdom and knowledge), physically (in stature), socially (in favor with man), and spiritually (in favor with God)” (“Resolutions,” Ensign, Dec. 1994, 62; emphasis added).
Most Latter-day Saints are genuinely motivated to acquire the qualities of our Savior. We should be pleased to discover that much of this growth and refinement comes to us as a natural consequence of simply living the gospel. For example, as we love and serve others in Christlike ways, we too are blessed by the Lord with increased love, spiritual capacity, and an overall refinement of our own gifts, graces, and abilities. Indeed, much is added unto us by the Lord if we use our time here on earth wisely, above all preparing to meet God and seeking first his kingdom (see Alma 12:24; Matt. 6:33).
This is important to know because, without hope that the Lord will help us along as we seek to become like him, a self-absorbed effort to improve ourselves could lead to a debilitating, even dangerous, excess (see Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 11–19). Thus the wisdom of King Benjamin’s words that “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. … All things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27).
So as we seek to prepare ourselves for a bright future, let us do so in a balanced manner, putting first things first and trusting that the Lord will bless and strengthen us and compensate for our weakness. Let us also take the time necessary to rest—to simply rest! This counsel is implicit in King Benjamin’s charge not to overdo things. Indeed, appropriate resting is vital to finding balance in life; it rekindles our energies and stores up strength for the road ahead.
In summary, the Lord gave the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery marvelous counsel about how to live in a way that can keep anyone from being robbed of optimism, confidence, and hope:
“Fear not to do good, … for whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap; therefore, if ye sow good ye shall also reap good for your reward.
“Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail” (D&C 6:33–34).
As we parents, leaders, and teachers of youth apply these enriching practices and perspectives in our lives, we will be filled with a contagious optimism that will nourish and bless us so that we will be effectively encouraged. And thus we will be more able to effectively encourage our youth to go and do likewise in their own lives.