When Life Gets Tough
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“When Life Gets Tough,” Liahona, May 2002, 28

When Life Gets Tough

It was 1962, and I was 19. I had been called to serve a mission in México when I learned I had cancer.

Elder John B. Dickson

Cancer? Me? I thought only people in big cities got cancer. After biopsies and close examinations by competent specialists, I learned the problem I was having with the swelling in my right forearm was an osteogenic sarcoma. Translated, it meant I had a type of bone cancer which, in those days, was nearly always fatal, even with the amputation of the affected limb.

Fatal! I was 19; having something fatal had never crossed my mind. I was excited to serve my mission, marry in the temple, have a great family, and enjoy a wonderful life. Still I loved the Lord, and I knew He loved me. Whether He allowed me to remain here or leave this life, it would be OK.

The immediate outcome was the loss of my right arm. The extended outcome has proven to be a lifetime of adventure. As I look back, I can honestly say the loss of my arm, rather than being a tragic experience, has been one of my greatest blessings. I have learned and gained so much from it.

The adjustment was interesting. I had been working in logging and road-building operations in the Pacific Northwest woods, so my body was strong. But I was extremely right-handed, and that greatly-depended-upon arm was truly missed. Although I could formerly throw a baseball farther than anyone on the team, with my left arm I could throw a ball only a short distance. Writing was really interesting. My penmanship could have been improved on by almost any preschool child. Everything was a challenge: tying shoes, buttoning shirts, carrying large objects, driving, shaving, drawing, eating, being stared at, enduring phantom pain, and so on.

Very quickly I came to realize I had much to get used to, to learn, and to relearn. I also realized there was very little I could do about the fact that I had only one arm, and my attitude about that fact—and in life in general—was totally up to me. I was at a crossroads. It was apparent I could cry if I wanted to, or I could handle this and all other challenges with faith and a positive attitude. My happiness and eternal well-being were dependent upon my choice.

The decision was simple. I chose to be positive, creative, very active, and to do everything possible to fulfill my destiny as a son of God, sent to grow from an earthly experience. Once made, this choice was firm and I never looked back.

The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) experienced many challenges and much suffering as he languished in the Liberty Jail. Concerned for the well-being of the Saints and his family in the wilderness, while his own physical condition was very bad, he pleaded with the Lord to know why all of these things were happening when he felt he had understood the process of the Restoration and the establishment of Zion so well. The Lord gave an answer that we can all benefit from during our own mortal experience with so many challenges: “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

As I was learning from my own true-life experience, I stood alone in my bedroom a few days after the operation, preparing to go to church. I held a tie in my hand and thought, Now what am I going to do with this silly tie? I thought about having my mother help me but soon rejected the idea, knowing she couldn’t go on my mission to tie my ties and otherwise care for me. I simply had to fend for myself. With patience, I tied my tie, and although I used my teeth a little, I learned I could do it and do it well. That day a window was opened to my mind, and I could clearly see that with patience, faith, and determination, I would be able to handle almost any challenge I would face.

Over time I realized that same faith, determination, and positive attitude could help anyone through the various tough challenges of life. My own story has to do with a physical problem, but we humans face all kinds of other challenges as well. Those challenges may be about finances, problems in a family relationship, getting an education, feelings of rejection, loss of a loved one, or being misunderstood. The challenges for youth often have to do with temptations regarding the Word of Wisdom, inappropriate language, moral purity, inappropriate entertainment, or Internet viewing.

Let me share four principles that might be helpful to you.

1. Know Your Father in Heaven

Make sure you know of your relationship with your Father in Heaven and the Savior. In other words, make sure you know who you are. Your testimony of the plan of happiness your Heavenly Father has prepared for you will help you understand your eternal destiny and will help you with your determination to succeed on life’s journey. The reason for having and keeping commandments becomes very clear to each of us when we understand what the Lord wants us to become. Make sure you understand the plan of salvation and that your testimony of the gospel is solid.

A testimony of such important matters isn’t free, but it will increase as you pray daily with faith, read the scriptures, and partake of the sacrament worthily each Sunday.

2. Decide Now

Decide now how you will act when peer pressure and temptation arise. At about age 12, I made a personal decision to always keep the Word of Wisdom. Over the years, there were invitations to break that commandment, but the answer “No!” was always kind, quick, and effective. Because I had determined beforehand how I would react when invited, I never felt threatened with the possibility of a bad decision under pressure from my friends.

Nothing is lost with a good decision. Remember, if you haven’t already made up your mind before destructive invitations or temptations present themselves, the probability of making the wrong decision is many times greater.

I am very aware that some of you have not done as I am suggesting and have already fallen into serious errors. Possibly only you or another person or two are aware of these mistakes, yet they are an embarrassment to your soul. Although you want to be right with the Lord, you may not know where to turn and how to fix the problem. I suggest you talk to the Lord in sincere prayer, explain the matter to the bishop or branch president, and speak with your parents. You may anticipate criticism or embarrassment, but I believe you will find love, support, and a wonderful window of opportunity.

3. Don’t Postpone Repentance

Make sure you are not drawn into thinking the way is easy and you can live by the standards of the world and, no matter what, the Lord will bail you out—so you can postpone repentance. Please do not fall into the trap mentioned by Nephi: “And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Ne. 28:8).

The Lord wants us to return to Him, but we cannot return and also embrace the sins and stains of the world. He wants us to be true disciples who are committed to working to be like Him. It requires work and discipline to enjoy the blessings He wants to share with us. When we repent and do our best, the Lord, in His mercy, can help us to be clean.

4. Keep the Commandments

Make sure the Spirit is with you each day as you move through life. The next time you partake of the sacrament, listen closely to the words of the prayers, and you’ll hear a very special promise to those who keep the commandments. It is that they will “always have his Spirit to be with them” (Moro. 4:3). What a blessing the commandments are.

Some think the commandments are meant to restrain or restrict us. In reality, they have been given simply to help us become more like our loving Father, who wants to share incredible eternal blessings with His faithful sons and daughters. He invites us to avoid and not participate in things that wouldn’t belong in a lifestyle He desperately wants to share with us.

A couple of years ago as Sister Dickson and I arrived at the Provo Missionary Training Center to speak with the missionaries, the MTC president asked if I would tie my tie for the missionaries to help them understand that they could handle the challenges that come with missionary service. I considered his request and adjusted my talk to cover some of what has been mentioned in this article.

As I was about to conclude, I invited four missionaries in the front to come forward for a little race at tie tying. One asked if they should use just their left hand, but I suggested they would need both hands. As you can imagine, the missionaries were quite excited when I won.

This article, however, really has little to do with being the fastest tie tier, the best quarterback, cheerleader, or hamburger-eating champion. It simply has to do with knowing who we are, that we truly matter to our Heavenly Father, and that He loves us and wants us back. At the same time, He wants us to be clean and to learn and to grow from our experiences.

Over the years I have handled many challenges in my life, as you will in yours. During the time between those interesting adventures, life has been restful and easy. But any true personal growth has always come when I was working my way through one of life’s challenges. As challenges come, we must look at them as stepping-stones in our development rather than barriers to stop our progress. Come they will, and we must simply win and move on.

Illustration by Sam Lawlor; Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, by Greg K. Olsen

Left: Photo illustration by Judy Norton

Right: Photo illustration by Marty Mayo