In spite of — and often because of — the adversity in our lives, we can grow in remarkable and unexpected ways.
In summer 1964, a graduate student from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by the name of Donald Rusk Currey marched out to the high desert of eastern Nevada and chopped down a tree to see how old it was.1 That would probably not be notable in a sacrament meeting talk nearly 54 years later were it not for the kind of tree he cut down: a bristlecone pine.
Many of you are from the West or, like me, not from the West but you’ve spent a significant amount of time there. You probably know that the climate in the deserts of the Great Basin is harsh: hot, dry summers and cold, brutal winters. Beyond that, bristlecone pines grow at elevations between 1,700 and 3,400 meters (5,600 and 11,200 feet).2 It would seem a difficult environment for many organisms even to survive.
But the bristlecone pine thrives here. You can, of course, generally tell the age of a tree by counting its rings. When our graduate student tree cutter counted the rings of this tree, which has since been named Prometheus, he counted 4,844. Another dendrochronologist (the term for someone who determines the age of a tree by counting its rings) counted 4,862. In fact, because in arid years — which are common in that climate — trees may not really add rings, Prometheus may have been over 5,000 years old.3
Bristlecone pines are by most measures the oldest living organisms on earth,4 and yet they grow in adversity.
Yet there’s life
As a stay-at-home dad for three children, I end up listening to public radio a lot. The past couple of weeks our local public radio station, WNYC, has been reporting on the global refugee crisis. Recently, one of their reporters, Matt Katz, told the story of Twendele, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and his wife, Lukoji, who is stuck behind at a refugee camp in Malawi. They both fled violence in their home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mr. Katz described conditions in the refugee camp where Lukoji still lives:5
Dzaleka Refugee Camp was built as a prison camp for about 10,000 people. But for more than 20 years it has been home to the displaced from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere, with a population that now exceeds 32,000.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that it receives less than a third of the $18 million it needs to care for Malawi’s refugees. Charcoal is hard to come by, so children ask strangers for empty water bottles, which can then be burned and used to cook food. Refugees build their own homes, which lack indoor plumbing, and the camp’s one medical clinic mostly serves the neighboring villagers.
For me, these are unimaginable living conditions. “Yet there’s life in Dzaleka,” Mr. Katz notes, even in the face of such adversity. “People gossip, argue and dance. There are churches, schools and hair salons. Refugees may be forbidden by the Malawian government from working, but an underground economy is driven by barter and cash sent from relatives abroad.” Lukoji makes clothing and sells it. When Twendele lived there, he tutored refugees in French, his native language, and later in English. Twendele really impresses me: “He became fluent [in English] while living in the camp because he won admission to a competitive college equivalency program there. Six days a week for three years he took online classes through Regis University in Colorado, earning a near 4.0 G.P.A. and a degree in liberal studies.”
And, as the story of Twendele and Lukoji shows, even in such extreme conditions there is love:
Some months after he graduated, Twendele fell in love. He remembers the day well: He was playing Scrabble, in French, at a friend’s house when he first caught a glimpse of Lukoji.
“That girl!” Twendele thought. “I want to talk to her. I don’t know where to start, how can I talk to her?”
In adversity there can be hope and one can grow in knowledge and love.
Bonds of survival and friendship
Yesterday, Saturday, 27 January 2018, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Several years ago I read a book6 about an incredible group of French women and their struggle to survive the horrors of the concentration camps. Most of them died at Auschwitz. But those who survived did so not only through remarkable personal strength but also through bonds forged in the face of incredible adversity and extreme conditions of imprisonment.
Before they were sent to Auschwitz, they were imprisoned at Romainville, just to the northeast of Paris. A book reviewer at The New York Times described the situation:7
Arrested and captured as Resistance members, most of the women served time together even before they were sent to Poland, in French prisons aptly nicknamed châteaux de la mort lente (castles of slow death). This experience gave them a foretaste of Nazi brutality, as they were subjected to extreme cold, chronic hunger, the constant threat of torture or execution, the death of friends and loved ones.
But what happened in this prison? How did these women cope? Another reviewer, this one at The Washington Post, summarized:8
The result could scarcely have been planned by the Nazis: “All across the women’s section, in the dormitories, on the staircase, in the courtyard … friendships were born and grew, women separated by age, schooling, class and profession drawn into patterns of affection and understanding by shared stories and similar losses. Grieving for their executed husbands, missing their children, fearful for their families, they talked, for there was not much else to do; and, as they talked, they felt stronger and better able to cope.” Indeed, by the time they had been installed in Birkenau, “friendship between the French women had, if possible, grown stronger,” and it continued to strengthen right up to the end. Of course, there were differences and even rare spats, but these friendships were essential to the women’s lives.
At Romainville and on to Auschwitz, a remarkable thing happened. The women worked together to survive. They organized classes and even plays. What they knew, they taught to each other. If you knew how to knit, or if you knew another language, or if you knew about history, or science, or medicine, or anything, you could teach it to someone else.
These women show that even in the face of adversity love and friendship can blossom and grow.
In our own lives
Most of us will not have the experience of a refugee, and none of us can likely imagine the experience of a Nazi concentration camp. Yet all of us have moments when we feel forsaken and alone. Consider this list — I’m sure all of us can check off at least one of these situations, and most of us can relate to several of them, perhaps concurrently and perhaps right now.
- Unemployment or job loss.
- You have a job, but it’s really hard, or you don’t like it.
- You feel directionless.
- You would like to be married but are not.
- The death of a spouse or another friend or loved one.
- You would like to have a baby but cannot.
- You have had a baby and are feeling overwhelmed or very alone and isolated.
- A child with a disability or developmental or learning problems.
- Your calling at church is hard or not what you expected.
- Feelings of doubt about the church, or about God — is he there, and if he is, does he care?
- Joining the church, or coming back into activity in the church.
- Moving to a new place, or to a new school.
- Serious illness, injury, or disability.
How can we survive or even thrive in the face of such adversity? The example of the bristlecone pine perhaps gives us insight into the answer. The scientific consensus used to be that, essentially, the larger an organism was, the longer it was likely to survive. For a long time it was believed that the oldest living things were the largest living things: the giant redwoods in northern California. And it is true that many of them are very old. But in the 1950s a dendrochronologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. Edmund9 Schulman, did research on the bristlecone pine and turned the scientific consensus on its head. In an article in National Geographic in 1958, he revealed that many of these trees were over 4,000 years old. (The oldest redwoods are “only” about 2,000 years old.)10 A much more recent article explained the significance of these findings: “Schulman’s analysis supported the idea that ‘adversity begets longevity,’ or that the severe conditions in which the bristlecone pine evolved actually helped extend its lifespan” (emphasis added).11
“Adversity begets longevity.” Or, as Lehi put it in his final words to his son Jacob, “… it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so,” Father Lehi continued, “… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.”12 In the previous verse, Lehi connected the possible outcomes of this opposition to the Atonement of Jesus Christ.13
Isaiah explained how opposition in our lives can be turned for our good — how we can thrive in spite of, or perhaps because of, adversity — through the power of Jesus Christ and his Atonement. His words were quoted by the prophet Abinadi in the Book of Mormon at what was likely the lowest point in his own life: imprisoned, perhaps even shackled and chained,14 testifying before king Noah and his priests of their wickedness and the unrighteousness of the people,15 probably knowing full well of his own impending martyrdom.16 His bold testimony of the Savior reinforces the power of Isaiah’s words:17
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Later in the Book of Mormon, Alma the Younger, who was personally very acquainted with the power of Jesus Christ and his Atonement to lift from adversity and wickedness,18 gave up the chief judgeship — the highest political office in the Nephite nation — to devote himself fully as high priest over the church and to correct errors that had crept into the Nephites’ religious practices.19 After preaching in the Nephite capital, Zarahemla, he went to the city of Gideon. On the Savior’s Atonement he taught the Gideonites, “And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”20
In our day
Prophets and apostles in our own day have added their own witness of Jesus Christ and his Atonement to those of ancient prophets. In the October 1997 general conference, Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles testified, “Having ‘descended below all things,’ He comprehends, perfectly and personally, the full range of human suffering!”21
More recently, President Dallin H. Oaks, who just this month was ordained first counselor in the First Presidency, recalled Elder Maxwell’s words and added:22
Our Savior’s Atonement does more than assure us of immortality by a universal resurrection and give us the opportunity to be cleansed from sin by repentance and baptism. His Atonement also provides the opportunity to call upon Him who has experienced all of our mortal infirmities to give us the strength to bear the burdens of mortality. He knows of our anguish, and He is there for us. Like the good Samaritan, when He finds us wounded at the wayside, He will bind up our wounds and care for us (see Luke 10:34). The healing and strengthening power of Jesus Christ and His Atonement is for all of us who will ask. I testify of that as I also testify of our Savior, who makes it all possible.
The Savior carried out his Atonement to enable us to gain immortality and eternal life.23 But its effects are not only to be felt someday — Jesus Christ can lift us up here and now, even in the most extreme of adverse circumstances.24
To me, the stories of the bristlecone pine, Twendele and Lukoji, and the French women, especially in the light of the testimonies of Isaiah, Abinadi, Alma, Elder Maxwell, and President Oaks, teach us to grow where we’re planted and thrive where we grow. And our potential for growth is increased exponentially through the power of Jesus Christ and his Atonement. I testify that Jesus Christ lives, that his Atonement is real, and that he has the ability to make something incredible out of our lives even in — and usually through — the adversity we all face.
This text is adapted from a talk Dustin gave in the sacrament meeting of the Astoria Ward, Woodside New York Stake, on 28 January 2018.
- I don’t know if the fact that he had the authorization of the U.S. Forest Service makes this better or worse. ↩
- Wikipedia, “Bristlecone pine” ↩
- See Wikipedia, “Prometheus (tree)”. ↩
- Bristlecone pines are the oldest non-clonal organisms. There is a grove of aspen near Fish Lake, Utah, whose root system may be 80,000 years old. There is evidence that some ocean-dwelling simple organisms may be biologically immortal. ↩
- Matt Katz, “Unsettled: A Story from the Global Refugee Crisis”, WNYC New York, 19 January 2018 ↩
- A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead, published by Harper, 2011; see my review in Dialann 12.12. ↩
- Caroline Weber, “Sisters Unto Death”, The New York Times Book Review, 13 November 2011, page 43 ↩
- Jonathan Yardley, “ ‘A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France,’ by Caroline Moorehead”, The Washington Post, 25 November 2011 ↩
- I have seen Dr. Schulman’s first name as both Edmund and Edward. After doing a quick search on the internet, I decided to go with Edmund here. ↩
- National Park Service ↩
- Hunter Oatman-Stanford, “Read My Rings: The Oldest Living Tree Tells All”, Collectors Weekly, 13 November 2012. Dr. Schulman’s article appeared posthumously in the March 1958 issue of National Geographic (see “Bristlecone Pine: Oldest Known Living Thing”, pages 354–372). See also Lori Stiles, “UA Scientist Discovered Earth’s Oldest Living Trees Nearly 50 Years Ago”, UANews, University of Arizona, 17 September 2002; and Michael Burton, “Bristlecone Pines: Longevity in Adversity”, The New York Times, 16 June 1974, page 1. ↩
- 2 Nephi 2:11 ↩
- 2 Nephi 2:10 ↩
- Mosiah 12:9 states that he was carried by the people to king Noah “bound”, but it is unclear whether he was bound in some way when he was once again brought before the king. ↩
- Read the story of Abinadi and his words of testimony and prophecy against king Noah and his people in Mosiah 11:20–17:20. ↩
- See Mosiah 17:20. ↩
- Isaiah 53:3–5 (see also Mosiah 14:3–5) ↩
- Read the story of Alma the Younger’s redemption in Mosiah 27. ↩
- See Alma 4:20 (16–20). Alma 4:6–13 describes the problems the church was facing, including this notable observation: “Yea, [Alma] saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted” (verse 12). ↩
- Alma 7:12 ↩
- “Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ”, October 1997 general conference; Ensign, November 1997, page 23 ↩
- “Strengthened by the Atonement of Jesus Christ”, October 2015 general conference; Ensign, November 2015, page 64 ↩
- See Moses 1:39. ↩
- The verb Lehi uses while teaching Jacob in 2 Nephi 2:25, “… men are, that they might have joy” (emphasis added), is present tense, not future tense. ↩