“Knowing My Eternal Self,” Ensign, Aug. 2004, 60–63
As we grow older, we each seem to notice a particular birthday that makes us realize our vulnerability to time.
For me, it was when I turned 40 and thereby became “the same age” as my mother. You see, in my mind her age had been frozen in time, remaining the same as it was when I married. Facing that 40th birthday, I suddenly realized I must seem as old to my children as my mother had seemed to me then. “But I’m young!” I wanted to explain.
I feel similarly today. Others carry the role of being older. I am still that same young person I was when my mother was 40.
I am, but then again I’m not. In fact, my life is a kaleidoscope of changing roles as I focus and refocus on an array of diverse concerns and endeavors. Dark spots of trial and sorrow are balanced with bright colors of happiness, hope, and laughter, reflecting a life that is different from day to day and season to season.
Amid these kaleidoscopic changes of life, who am I really?
I glimpsed part of the answer some years ago while attending my 30-year high school class reunion in a distant state after having never been back since my graduation.
It was as if I had gone back in time—back to when my identity was not tied to the lives of 10 children or a husband or a variety of community and Church activities; back to a time and a place when I was not Sheila Olsen but Sheila Sorensen.
With a sense of discovery, I found that my “friends of the heart” of those days, separated as we had been by distance and time for 30 years, were friends of the heart still. In fact, almost as if I were understanding it for the first time, I realized that in addition to being Sheila Olsen, I am also Sheila Sorensen, the girl who recited “Birches” in speech class years ago.
This new perspective helped me better appreciate an experience I had with my grandmother many years ago. At the time she was quite ill, though she later recovered. Anxious to preserve every possible memory, I drove to visit her in the nursing home, taking with me an old photo album with pictures that needed identification.
She was old and thin, more frail than I had ever remembered her, but her mind was still active. In a faint voice she identified a girl in one picture as someone who had dated my grandfather before my grandmother met him. As we talked, her voice became increasingly weaker, and I could hear her only by putting my ear close to her lips as she haltingly spoke.
“Yes,” she whispered, remembering those years of courtship, and suddenly, as 74 years were transformed into yesterday, I saw in her eyes a 17-year-old girl. The sparkle in her eyes belied the weakness in her voice: “She wanted him … but I got him!”
Who was my grandmother anyway? If you had met her then, you would have seen the white-haired resident of a nursing home who filled the tiny space surrounding her bed with pictures, flowers, and books, reflecting her vibrant personality.
But what of young Dollie Copen growing up in the West Virginia hills, joining her family on the veranda of a summer evening to talk and sing … or the beautiful young woman with black hair down to her waist, courted by Frank Sorensen of Mendon, Utah, … or the hardy farmer’s wife, toiling at his side to homestead the wilds of southern Idaho, turning out eight loaves of bread at a time from her coal-fired Monarch range and doing laundry on a washboard … or the Relief Society president remembering, in her 70s, to care for the “old folks” on her block (in their 80s)?
Just as surely as I am Sheila Sorensen from the high school speech class, she was Dollie Copen, the carefree young girl, as well as Dollie Sorensen, the busy young wife. And she, no doubt, was as bemused to be 91 as I was to turn 40.
In each of our lives we carry with us a variety of roles, reaching back into time—perhaps even further back into time than the limits of our mortal experiences enable us to see.
I have often felt, when entering the temple, a sense of “coming home”—a reunion, as it were, with the divine. Could it be because beyond the kaleidoscope of roles which form the sum of our existence in this life, there are other facets to our person that harken back to eternity?
“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,” says scripture. “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was” (Prov. 8:22–23).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote of the premortal existence: “All the spirits of men, while yet in the Eternal Presence, developed aptitudes, talents, capacities, and abilities of every sort, kind, and degree. During the long expanse of life which then was, an infinite variety of talents and abilities came into being. As the ages rolled, no two spirits remained alike. Mozart became a musician; Einstein centered his interest in mathematics; Michelangelo turned his attention to painting. Cain was a liar, a schemer, a rebel. … Mary and Eve were two of the greatest of all the spirit daughters of the Father. … And so it went through all the hosts of heaven, each individual developing such talents and abilities as his soul desired.”1
While we were yet developing, one being, Jesus Christ, progressed above all others. If there are two spirits, “one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all” (Abr. 3:19).
What did the Lord do with the great abilities, experience, and intelligence that He possessed in such superior measure? The answer has immeasurable impact on each of our lives, and it gives sobering insight into the focus we should have:
“I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me. …
“Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:13–14, 27).
Who, then, am I really?
A clue was there, at my class reunion.
Before I was Sheila Olsen, I was Sheila Sorensen, and I still am. But before I was Sheila Sorensen, I was a daughter of God, and I still am.
And my loving Father has sent His Son to mark the path and lead the way and every point define.2 At times I may wander off that path, but through repentance and a changed heart I can cast off the weaknesses that impede my progress and can resume my journey with faith.
And the ever-changing challenges of my life can work together for my good as I focus on the Lord’s plan for my salvation.
As with us all.
“All of you need to drink in deeply the gospel truths about the eternal nature of your individual identity and the uniqueness of your personality. You need, more and more, to feel the perfect love which our Father in Heaven has for you and to sense the value he places upon you as an individual. Ponder upon these great truths, especially in those moments when (in the stillness of such anxiety as you may experience as an individual) you might otherwise wonder and be perplexed.”
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985), “The Role of Righteous Women,” Ensign, Nov. 1979, 103.