It seems like a bit of an oxymoron to talk about appreciating adversity—all those hard difficult and messy things in life. Joseph B. Wirthlin said something years ago that brought a whole new level of meaning to the phrase. He said: “If we approach adversities wisely, our hardest times can be times of greatest growth, which in turn can lead toward times of greatest happiness.”
Lemon is one of my favorite flavors. In fact, some of my friends and family think I’m a little odd because I prefer a lemon cake over a chocolate one or those lemon-filled Oreos instead of the original ones. I must be mad, right? The thing is, I love the way the sourness of the lemon blends with either the sweet or the savory, making a symphony in my mouth.
Yet as much as I love lemons, I don’t usually choose to nibble on a fresh lemon wedge. Sure, I’ll squirt some in my water, but taking a bite of the pulpy flesh is less appealing. What makes lemons taste so good is what you add to complement the flavor. Mary Poppins might have had it right when she sang about sugar making medicine more palatable. While lemon isn’t medicine, sugar sure takes its flavor to a whole new level.
Often, lemons get a bad rap. We commonly associate them with bitter situations or challenges because of their tart, sour flavor. As the proverbial saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” We know that means to make the best of an unpleasant situation or event, but do we act on that knowledge? How do we actually transform our attitude and perspective to be sweeter?
I love the lesson this phrase teaches us about attitude. No matter what crazy or unforeseen obstacles life throws our way, we always have a choice. We can either drown in despair or make something good out of it!
Have you ever tried to explain the difference between contrasting flavors? One time, I was teaching this concept to a class of three-year-olds. I gave them each a grape, a lemon wedge, and a cracker. Then, I asked them to explain each taste. The sweet and salty ones were easy for them to identify, but they responded with spicy, tickly, and yucky when describing the lemon. Their inexperienced taste buds didn’t have any flavors to compare with the lemon, so their descriptions weren’t as accurate.
Isn’t it interesting how an opposing flavor helps us understand another? For example, we must understand the sweet to recognize what salty tastes like. It’s not a coincidence that without opposition, we could never experience the fullness of life.
Consider the physical change that happens when we make lemonade. When we combine water, sugar, and lemons, they dissolve together to create a blended flavor. If we apply this analogy to life’s difficult circumstances, what ingredients could we add to make them more palatable?
When I contemplate what ingredients I might add to our proverbial lemons, I think of the ultimate recipe for happiness, in which the most essential ingredient is Jesus Christ. Hope in our Savior helps us learn and grow from our challenges and makes them more bearable.
But where do we find hope? How do we create more hope in a world that seems increasingly bleak and full of despair?
The Plan of Happiness
I’m a planner. My family knows I function best when I have a plan in place. I don’t think Heavenly Father is any different. He is the perfect parent, and He didn’t send us to this mortal existence without a purpose and a plan to get us back. After all, it’s His “work and glory to bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life.”1 He wants more for us than just our immortality, our ability to live again. His greatest desire is for us to partake of the ultimate gift: eternal life,2 a gift He knows will bring us more happiness than is within our power to comprehend.
I love the metaphor used by Joseph B. Wirthlin: Immortality is about quantity — how long the dinner lasts. In contrast, eternal life is about quality — what’s on the menu and who’s with us at the table.3
Agency is an essential part of the plan to help us gain immortality and eternal life, with our Savior, Jesus Christ, at the center. We can have hope because of His love, light, and grace. Christ shows us how to use our agency to learn, do, and become all He and Heavenly Father are.
We chose to embark on this adventure — to come to earth, receive a body, and experience life — because we knew it was the only way. We know that the choice made in Eden unlocked our human ability to experience opposition in all things. It was the only way to recognize the difference between the salty and the sweet, the good and the bad, and the joy and the pain life offers.
This agency is a gift that allows us to choose how we will react when the unimaginable happens.
Trusting the Lord
Remember my story of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree? In true Paul Harvey style, here’s the rest of the story. Years later, our grandson was sitting with his mom while she read from the same book gifted to our son over twenty-five years earlier.
Believing they were sharing a tender moment, she said, “The tree is like your mom and dad, who love you so much that we give you all we have.”
Our six-year-old grandson quickly replied, “No, you don’t. I wanted a TV in my room, and you won’t let me have that.”
We all laughed at his response, but it reminded me of the question so many have asked. “If God loves me so much, why doesn’t he give me what I want?”
I don’t pretend to know how Heavenly Father thinks or understand why He does what He does, but I do have faith and feel confident that He loves us. And just like my son and daughter-in-law know what’s best for their son, so, too, does Heavenly Father know and want what’s best for us. He doesn’t withhold blessings or make life harder for us just because He can. His love for us is always of the utmost importance, even when, in our limited perspective, it may feel like it’s not the case.
I think we’ve all had times when life doesn’t align with our expectations or plans. For many reasons, things we’re sure we deserve and sincerely want either happen sooner than planned or later than expected, or differently than we ever imagined. And sometimes they don’t happen at all.
It seems there’s always a never-ending supply of difficulties. It’s true; life is full of challenges, some minor and others more severe. If we were sitting down to chat, I’m sure we’d be able to share several examples.
One of the biggest obstacles many of us face is our expectation for immediate answers. It’s all too easy to forget to be patient and trust in God’s timing.
One of my dearest and most cherished friends has always been an example of having a patient and hopeful trust in God’s timing. Pauli and I were inseparable. We met and immediately clicked as kindred spirits, believing our friendship began before this mortal experience. As young mothers, we raised our little families together.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, my world once again went spinning.
For two very long years, she fought a losing battle. Despite her continual pain, she never lost faith as she cheerfully carried on, reaching out to help others. Her contagious smile and positive attitude had a magnetizing effect. It was common for people to leave feeling better than when they arrived when they visited her.
When we would talk about what was coming next, she would remind me that God was in control, so there was no need to worry. Her gratitude was a healing balm as she regularly saw the Lord’s love and awareness of her needs in the small things, like in the Christmas carolers who serenaded her as she sat by her bedroom window or in the women who gathered to get her scrapbooks caught up, clean her home, and help tend her children.
Toward the end, she was very sick and in a lot of pain. One day, I came to visit, feeling down about what the future held. Her children would soon be motherless, and her husband left to raise them on his own. The burdens of losing her weighed heavy on me.
With tears in my eyes, I asked her how we would live without her. She squeezed my hand and with a warm tired smile told me how. “Help them remember me,” she said. “Teach them about how much I love them. Take care of them while I’m gone.”
Rather than complain about how unfair cancer was, or mourn the life she would never live, Pauli chose a perspective of hope and trust in what she knew and believed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until years later that I recognized similar parallels between Pauli’s perspective and our Savior’s.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ wasn’t fair. His suffering was inexplicable, yet He clung to the bigger plan — the greater perspective. He wants us to remember Him, learn about how much he loves us, and trust that He will take care of us.
We cannot control our circumstances, but we do have complete control over how we respond to what we experience in our lives. I’m not implying that our challenges and trials are of no consequence and easy to work through without pain or heartache. But there is hope because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It is a hope that helps us move forward and find light in our dark places, meaning in our misery, and joy amid our circumstances.
Turning to the Savior and grasping His outstretched arm is always our best option. Of course, taking His hand doesn’t guarantee overnight results. However, He offers an absolute assurance that with God’s timing, answers will come, peace will prevail, and broken hearts will mend.
Okay to Not Be Okay
I wonder if perhaps sadness truly is the best friend of joy. It’s a strange way to think about it, but love shines brightest in those moments of deep sorrow.
I think particularly of how dark it felt just after Pauli died. At the time, our little family had children ranging in age from five to thirteen years old. We were the primary caregiver for my father-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s. My husband traveled two to four days each week. I had significant responsibilities with my church calling. In addition, our children each had their own challenges, struggling with things from learning disabilities, anxiety, ADHD, and addictions. To say my load was heavy was an understatement.
The angels that came in the form of friends to show support and comfort were genuinely a bright light in a dark time. Even though I didn’t always want to be around their joy, they gave me a little thing called hope.
So if you need some time to process grief or sadness or to not be okay, take it. Just remember that what you feel was felt by Christ in the Garden and on the Cross. He knows your heart. And when you suffer, you aren’t suffering alone.
How can we love the lemons, those days that are heavy with sorrow? The truth is, we can’t — at least not in the moment. Loving the lemons isn’t a suggestion to suppress our discouragement or deny the reality of pain. We can’t smother unpleasant truths beneath a cloak of pretended happiness.
Are you chasing the lemon seeds, or are you learning to love the lemons by adding a little sugar to make lemonade out of the sour and sometimes bitter challenges in life?
Appreciating Adversity — How do you rate?
Try this little self-evaluation.
- Think of your most recent trial.
- What do you remember focusing on?
- Was it on how hard the trial was? Or were you see ways you were learning from the experience?
- Do you look back at the situation as a sour and bitter time? Or do you see ways that you added a little sugar to make the most out of a difficult trial?
I believe that appreciating adversity can be a significant factor in our ability to thrive and be happy. If the foundation of our hope is all about chasing after the insatiable, then our unquenchable appetite will leave our lemons sour and tart.
If you enjoyed this, check out my new book
Hoping for Happy: Discovering Joy Amid the Lemons
- Wirthlin, Joseph B. “Come What May, and Love it.” General Conference, October 2008.
- D&C 14:7
- Wirthlin, Joseph B. “What is the difference between Immortality and Eternal Life?” New Era, November 2006.