By: Shawn Gleason //
In our fallen state, our minds are relentlessly bombarded with negativity and adversity. This can be annoying at best, aggressive and debilitating at worst. But it is part of our earthly realities and unfortunately, it shapes the way we interpret the nature of things.
As Elder Charles W. Penrose declared in 1884, “We are here to learn the laws that govern this lower world; to learn to grapple with evil and to understand what darkness is” (Journals of Discourses 26:3). This grappling of course, can be extraordinarily difficult.
One man who experienced substantial darkness over the course of his life was Peter Tchaikovsky, one of the most famous and renowned Russian composers in the history of music. In February 1893, Tchaikovsky began composing what would be his 6th and final symphony. Throughout the composing process, Tchaikovsky would frequently tear up the manuscripts, not pleased with his work. To quote his brother, he suffered “frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create” and this 6th Symphony was an attempt to “to exorcise and drive out the somber demons that had so long plagued him.” After completing the symphony, Tchaikovsky said, “Without exaggeration, I have put my whole soul into this work.” Tragically, nine days after its premier in Moscow, Tchaikovsky died suddenly of a suspected suicide.
I became familiar with this story during a time in my life when internally things were not going so well for me. I had been stumbling through my own mists of darkness, but I’d taken immense solace in the symphonic compositions of musical geniuses whose beautiful and moving pieces kindled my heart. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony was a personal favorite, so when I heard it was to be performed at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, I decided to buy myself a ticket to experience it live.
During the pre-concert lecture, the host shared the somewhat dark history of this particular piece and described the mental state of Mr. Tchaikovsky. When the orchestra began to perform it, I listened intently. Unable to hold back my tears, I thought, how could this man, this extraordinarily talented man, whose art continues to usher in so much light to the hearts of listeners everywhere, feel such darkness? And how did it make Heavenly Father feel to watch one of his sons, one of his creations, suffer agonizing mental disturbances? It was at that moment that I became consumed with the spirit.
(As an aside, I must admit that I rarely feel the searing “burning in my bosom” that others describe feeling so often. I’ve yet to deduce whether this is a personal problem or the nature of the Holy Ghost when engaging with me, but I can attest that in that moment, doubt was nowhere to be found: I was caught up in the Spirit.)
As I listened to the violins weep their somber notes, I felt how much love Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have for this poor and immensely talented composer who lived over 100 years ago. I could feel their sorrow at the anguish he felt as he fought to eradicate the darkness from his soul through his music. His pain was (and is) their pain. The Spirit also bore witness to me this reality: Heavenly Father doesn’t define Peter Tchaikovsky by his struggles or his suicide. He loves him. That’s all. Nothing else matters. This last impression continues to be one of the most precious revelations I’ve received in my short 30 years of life.
We’re put on this earth to learn the good from the evil, and to believe on the words of Christ when he says, “Remember, the worth of souls is great in the sight of the Lord.” Tchaikovsky’s tortured soul holds just as much worth as mine and yours, and all who walk this earth. Christ died for us because our souls are exponentially more valuable than any treasure found on earth. Because I have received a witness of this, I can testify of this truth: the worth of your soul is great.
Fast forward a couple years to me composing a lesson for Relief Society. That darkness I’d felt years previous was plaguing me once again. I struggled to feel direction on how to approach my lesson – a lesson on adversity, ironically enough. What should I say to the women of my ward? And how could I hope to teach with the Spirit when I felt so distant from it?
Whenever I compose a lesson or a talk, I go to my second temple: the Newport Beach Library where I am able to focus with no distraction. The only free evening I had prior to the Sunday I was slated to teach was a Tuesday. I was very busy with work responsibilities that week and knew if I wasn’t able to write my lesson in the three hours I had available that Tuesday night, it wouldn’t get done.
While driving to the library, I felt the minutest prompting to stop at the Newport temple grounds. I argued with myself about how I didn’t have time as I drove down the freeway. But as I approached Bonita Canyon Drive, I reluctantly decided to turn left and go to the temple. I walked the darkened grounds for a while and I prayed on a bench, but I didn’t really feel anything. So after 15 minutes, I got into the car and drove to the library, frustrated that I’d stopped.
Meanwhile, the first movement of Tchaikovksy’s 6th Symphony was stuck in my head. One part in particular rang through my ears over and over. It got to the point where it played so loudly in my mind that I was unable to focus on my lesson. At that, I decided to put my earphones in and listen to it, hoping that it’d leave my mind and I’d finally be able to focus on my lesson.
While listening, all the memories of Tchaikovsky’s darkness and Heavenly Father’s unwavering love for him returned and I thought, “What better way to explain the concept of ‘adversity’ than by sharing a piece of music composed by a man in the throes of exorcising it from his soul?” I heeded what turned out to be the second prompting of the evening and decided to incorporate Tchaikovsky’s story into my lesson. It would be an odd exercise, and it felt very heavy, but I was going to do it.
That Sunday, as I gave my lesson, I described the different types of adversity people feel. I explained the inadequacy Tchaikovsky felt, and then let the women listen to a few minutes of his symphony (video above) so they could feel the weight this man carried. My hope was that the music would facilitate understanding and compassion, while stressing an acknowledgement that God does not define them by their own internal adversities. Somewhat spontaneously I also added that internal adversity is at the root of depression, causes thoughts of suicide, and sometimes horrifyingly enough, causes people to carry out their own suicides.
The lesson went on and I spoke of Christ and his concern for the one. We ended on a positive note and I admonished the girls to turn to Christ and be partakers of his grace.
After the lesson, one of the younger women in the class approached me. She was crying but through her tears she said, “This lesson has been an answer to my prayers, thank you.” Later that day, this girl was on my mind. I was troubled by her obvious heartache and wanting to make sure she was okay, I decided to text her. I will never forget her response:
“Shawn, I was lost for words today. I lost my brother on Tuesday to suicide and it’s been a tough one to swallow. I’ve been praying every day for comfort and asking the Lord what I need to do to make the pain go away. I was terribly scared and lost, and today I felt like [the Lord] was speaking to my broken heart through your lesson. I will never forget my brother as the sweet and selfless man he was. So loving and caring you would never guess he was dealing with an internal battle. I’ve been almost too scared to ask how God felt about those who commit suicide. It comforts me to hear that God loves him no matter what. I just want my brother to get the love he deserves. [I know] the Lord is listening and he understands what I’m going through.”
Aside from my disbelief and grave sympathies for this girl, her brother, and her family, I was left speechless at the concern Christ really does have for the one.
Stephen E Robinson said, “We often think that having faith in Christ means believing in his identity as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. But believing in Jesus’ identity as the Christ is only the first half of it. The other half is believing in his ability, in his power to cleanse and to save—to make unworthy sons and daughters worthy” (Believing Christ, 9).
Though I initially fought the Spirit, I am so grateful I heeded its very subtle prompting to stop at the temple before forging ahead and attempting to prepare my lesson on my terms. When I look back on this experience, my heart trembles at what could have happened had I not taken the time to put Christ first that Tuesday evening, the same evening this sweet girl’s brother passed away. That simple act of obedience put my hardened heart and mind in a place where I could receive the revelation necessary to plan a lesson that would answer the humble prayer of a girl in need. This was God’s grace in action, and I can in no wise deny His power.
“Come unto Christ,” beckons Moroni. Come unto him and love God, whose grace is sufficient for you. Christ has the power to heal our broken hearts, to cleanse us and save us. His capacity for compassion and empathy knows no limit, no matter what your struggles. He knows the nature of our thoughts and as it says in Ezekiel, he understands that dark thoughts will enter our minds. He also knows the struggles we face as a result of those thoughts. But he does not define us by them; they are not reality, no matter how many times our Natural Minds tell us they are. We are not defined by the adversity we face or the inadequacy we feel. We are not defined by our depression, by our divorce, by the inactivity of our children. We are not defined by the number on the scale, by the overdue bills stacking in our inbox, or by our failures at work. We are divine sons and daughters of God, and we can be made perfect through His one and only begotten son.
I close with the inspired words of President Henry B. Eyring:
“The Lord is anxious to lead us to the safety of higher ground, away from the path of physical and spiritual danger. […]As the world becomes darker and more dangerous, we must keep climbing. It will be our choice whether to move up or to stay where we are. But the Lord will invite and guide us upward by the direction of the Holy Ghost, which he sends to His leaders and to His people who will receive it” (“Raise the Bar” Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, January 25, 2005).
I have a testimony of Christ and the harbor that his atoning sacrifice offers us from the hurricanes of life. I know that we are eternal beings with divine identities and that we are not defined by the challenges and heartache that we experience in this Telestial state. We are God’s children, he loves us, and if we can begin to accept that, our lives can be changed.