Anyway, I figured I could share my talk here, too!
Hello, brothers and sisters, and happy new year! I mean, we're already more than a week into it, but I am the first official speaker in our ward this year, so I wanted to make it a little bit of a big deal. 2020 was really hard for a lot of people--maybe everybody--and I'm pretty sure most of us are glad it's behind us. It earned itself the label of "worst year ever" pretty early on, so I think the majority of us are cautiously optimistic that 2021 has to be at least a little bit better.
It would be nice if, when the date changes, it flipped some kind of switch to clear all the troubles from the old year away, so we could start from the beginning and only worry about the new troubles when they come along. But unfortunately, a date is just a label we humans apply to the earth's position in relation to the sun--it doesn't carry much power other than to help us organize future plans and past histories. The unresolved troubles of 2020 are still around for us to deal with, and that thought can be a little scary. And that starts a vicious cycle, because I think one of the biggest troubles of 2020 is the fear that understandably came as a result of all the other troubles.
I personally have a lot of experience with fear--I was an expert at being afraid as a child. It drove my father up the wall, because he would try to take me and my sisters to the zoo. But the zoo had the reptile house, and the reptile house had venomous snakes. Too scary. He tried to take us to the aerospace museum. But there were planes and things hanging from the ceiling and what if there was an earthquake and the giant vehicles came crashing down on top of us? He tried to take us to the California Science Center (only back then it was called the Museum of Science and Industry). What could I possibly be afraid of there? Mad scientists, of course. ...And now that I think about it as a grownup, there are all kinds of science-related things that I could also have been afraid of, many of which involve explosions.
Anyway, I trusted Dad enough that I was willing to go with him anyway, despite our misgivings. Thinking back on it, I feel like it was a miniature example of the truth behind God's promise to Joseph Smith when He said, "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes." My fears when we went to the zoo and the science center were very real and made those first trips very unpleasant at first. But I endured that adversity, and it wasn't long before the zoo and the science museum were some of my favorite places.
Of course, those examples involve fears that most of us would look at and say are irrational, or involve scenarios that are easily avoided. Even if there are mad scientists, they're not going to be hanging around at a museum designed to educate and entertain children, at least not overtly. So I was able to go to the science museum, see that there weren't any mad scientists around, and decide that I had nothing to worry about. Odds of getting bitten by a cobra at the zoo are extremely small anyway, but we can reduce those odds further by staying away from the reptile house until we have the courage to check it out.
But some fears aren't so easily disproved or avoided. Later in childhood, Athena and I were in Girl Scouts, and, as Girl Scouts tend to do, we went on a fair amount of camping trips. All the girls got together every night for a campfire, and of course this involved roasting marshmallows to make s'mores. One night, the smell of the cooking marshmallows attracted some unexpected visitors—a pair of raccoons. Of course all the girls were eager to get a look at our adorable guests, but wild animals are pretty timid, and the excitement scared them off, much to the relief of the camp nurses, who then gave a brief message about the dangers of approaching wild animals. Especially raccoons, because they might have rabies.
Now, instead of happy to see cute woodland creatures, the entire camp was terrified. I think every troop except ours decided to sleep in the lodge that night, instead of at their campsites. I was brave enough to join the rest of my troop outside, but I was still pretty scared. The beds at the camp were on low wooden platforms to keep us off the ground, and they had roofs to keep off any rain, but there were no walls to keep out any rabid raccoons. It was easy enough to stay away from the threat while awake, but once I fell asleep, I would be vulnerable. I knew the likelihood of being attacked by a raccoon in ,y sleep on a camping trip is probably extremely low, but it wasn't zero, and all of my attention had been directed to that potential threat, and I felt like I needed to be on guard. So of course, I couldn't sleep.
I don't remember what I thought about as I lay there afraid, but I do remember that at one point, my mom—she was one of our troop leaders—came over to talk to me. I don't remember what we talked about, either, but I remember that she pointed out that the moon was so bright that night that she didn't need her flashlight to come find my bunk. When she drew my attention to that fact, suddenly all my fear went away. Mom hadn't said anything to convince me that I was overreacting, she didn't do anything to help me guard against raccoons or change the threat level in any way. All she did was direct my attention to the light.
I think that when we're scared—and sometimes when we're not yet scared—we have a tendency to focus on the shadows. We have to know where they are so we can stay away from them or be ready to defend against them, and of course it's important to be prepared. But when we focus on onlythe shadows, they start to fill our vision, and fear takes over. So we need to give at least as much of our attention to the light, too.
“Light” is defined as “something that makes things visible or affords illumination.” In other words, it helps us see, and it makes things brighter. So in one sense, to focus on the light can mean “to look on the bright side.” By looking around at the bright things—the good things—we have in our lives, we give those things more space in our minds, leaving less room for the shadows and the negative feelings that come with them.
In the other sense, considering light as something that helps us see, focusing on the light can help us look at our fears more clearly and see that they're not as bad as we thought. I'm sure many of us have had the experience of seeing a shadow that looked like something terrifying in the dark, but as soon as we turn on the light, we can see that it was just a chair or a pile of clothes that needed folding. Shining a light on something means revealing more about it, and often that knowledge can help us to be less afraid. For example, one time I was going through a phase where I was extra worried about black widow spiders, and I happened upon an article that explained more about them. It convinced me that I probably wouldn't get bitten by a black widow unless I deliberately sought one out and provoked it. Since I didn't plan to do that, my fears went away.
On the other hand, sometimes we shine a light on the scary thing and it turns out to be just as scary as we thought, or maybe even scarier. The Book of Mormon tells the story of Alma and his people. They had fled from persecution and built their own city where they were free...until the army of the Lamanites showed up. The Lamanites took over their city and put a man named Amulon in charge. Amulon hated Alma, so he made sure Alma and his people were severely persecuted, and he “put tasks upon them, and put task-masters over them.” No amount of extra light shown on Amulon and his people would make them seem less frightening.
So Alma and his people turned to the source of all light, Jesus Christ. They started praying mightily to God for help. Amulon hated this, of course, and he ordered them to stop on pain of death, so instead, they poured out their hearts to God and asked for Him to save them. And God knew the thoughts of their hearts and answered their prayers. In Mosiah, we read, “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage. And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.”
“And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.”
Eventually, God did miraculously save Alma and his people, and you can read more about that in Mosiah chapters 23 and 24. I've actually thought a lot about this story in the last several months, because I feel like the situation we're in now, with the pandemic and the lockdown, has some important similarities. Not only does the virus have us in a form of bondage because of all the precautions that need to be taken, but many of us have extra burdens imposed on us, including but not limited to illness, job loss, and suddenly having to home school children. But I feel like, if we follow Alma's people's example, and turn to the light, pouring our hearts out to God, He will lighten our burdens just as He lightened theirs, and we will be able to hush our fears and be cheerful, even through these extremely trying times.
In fact, when speaking of the need for joy in our lives, President Russell M. Nelson taught, “Saints can be happy under every circumstance. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year! My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.” He adds that, to find joy, “We can start by 'looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith' 'in every thought.' We can give thanks for Him in our prayers and by keeping covenants we’ve made with Him and our Heavenly Father. As our Savior becomes more and more real to us and as we plead for His joy to be given to us, our joy will increase.” And, I would add, our fear will decrease.
But this is an ongoing process, and while we work on it, we’re sure to have times when it feels like the fear just won’t go away, especially when the trials are still going strong. In these times, I think it will help to hold tightly to the promise we sing about in the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” Speaking from the Lord’s point of view, it says, “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will now, I cannot, desert to his foes. That soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Before I close, I want to bear my testimony of Jesus Christ. I know that through His Atonement, which He made because of His love for each and every one of us, He has conquered fear. I still have a few pet fears that I'm learning to let go of, but I know through my own experience that as I strive to get closer to Him through prayer and scripture study, my fears have grown smaller, and I have an easier time finding peace and joy. I pray that we can all look to His light and feel more of His love, so that He can help us conquer all of our fears, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Today I'm thankful for getting to build experience by giving a talk, being done giving a talk for at least a little while, getting to partake of the sacrament today, getting to watch more Repair Shop (now we're out of new episodes ):), and having a fun series to work on tomorrow.