“Now is the time to be slow. Lie low to the wall until the bitter weather passes. Try as best you can not to let the wire brush of doubt scrape from your heart all sense of yourself, and your hesitant light. If you remain generous, time will come good and you will find your feet again on the fresh pastures of promise, where the air will be kind and blushed with beginning.”
John O’Donohue, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings

The end of the COVID crisis may now be in sight, and we are all anticipating a life that is “normal” again. As the prolonged pandemic persists, a quote from the Irish author and former Catholic priest John O’Donohue asks me to inquire, “[W]ho will we be when ‘the air again is kind and blushed with beginning?’” Scriptures illustrate how periods of collective adversity can bring out the best and worst of in us. For the last ten years I have watched people react on the worst day of their lives as a volunteer with search and rescue teams. Some withdraw. Others lash out with anger, or exhibit appreciation and grace. It is hard to know how we might react when a loved is taken from us in a tragic and public way.

Several years ago, our search and rescue team was called to search for the body of a recently returned missionary who had drowned in the Provo River. Several hours into the search his body was found and carefully taken to a waiting ambulance. By then, his family and friends had gathered by the shoreline. Two things happened that helped everyone at that tragic scene begin the healing process. First, the young man’s friends helped rescuers with the difficult task of bringing the body ashore. Then the family and the friends, about 50 in number, began to sing. It was a slow, beautiful hymn spontaneously sung at a sacred moment. In later conversations with a family member I was told this was a song of gratitude, not just for this young man’s life, but for the rescuers (watch the video here).

But not everyone in the heart of hardship is so full of grace. Not everyone can convert grief to gratitude so quickly. Grace, forgiveness, and pain are all unequally distributed in times of crisis. COVID hardships have been especially tough, because some lost love ones and could not attend their funerals. Others had family members work long hours in high-risk health care and may still be suffering from PTSD from doing so. Some were ill and recovered. Some had career bumps while others had sustained unemployment. Still others were merely inconvenienced by COVID. Each of us now can choose our post-pandemic response. The Book of Mormon gives three common Paths. If we are honest with ourselves, it is likely that we walk them all at various times in our journey through hardship.

Bitterness and Blame

Laman and Lemuel were the poster children of bitterness and blame, but there are many others in the Book of Mormon. When things were difficult they blamed Nephi, who was the closest available target. I am sure the daggers of their verbal assaults pained Nephi deeply. Just seven chapters into the Book of Mormon Nephi said he was, “being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, therefore I spake unto them, saying, yea, even unto Laman and unto Lemuel: Behold ye are mine elder brethren, and how is it that ye are so hard in your hearts, and so blind in your minds[?]” (1 Nephi 7:8). In verse 14, Nephi described how the Spirit of the Lord “ceaseth soon to strive with them.”

The conflict described in 1 Nephi escalates into a full family fight and his brothers bind him, and even thought about killing him until others intervened. In the end, progress is made because Nephi decided to forgive, but the fight persists for years until they arrive in the new promised land, and then goes to scale, from a personal conflict, to a family conflict, to a conflict between peoples.

The “blind minds” that Nephi uses to describe his brothers, and that we can see today as the world exits yet another historical crisis, is a problem of perspective. Nephi could see how the hardships would lead to a promised land. But he could also see there would be further hardships even in the promised land. His brothers, unfortunately, tied their happiness to the absence of hardships.

Indulgence and Neglect

Hoards of young people are returning to Florida and other warm regions to indulge again in the infamous cultural ritual of “spring break.” To a lesser degree, our family is also guilty of indulgence as vaccinated grandparents seek hugs and love from neglected grandchildren. Most would turn to the Israelites’ successful departure from Egypt to have a scriptural reference for the pent-up feelings that follow hardship. In my interviews with wilderness survivors, I found many who thought being found and rescued would mean the end of their ordeal. They planned exotic celebrations, parties, reunions, and even speaking tours. But one insightful survivor said this, “I did not know that after the celebration, after the welcome, after the high fives and hugs, I would still be the same person with the same problems.” It is not uncommon for us to declare the end of an ordeal and then indulge in our relief and neglect our broader future.

At the end of one of Europe’s many bouts with the black plague, an Italian shoemaker wrote:

And then, when the pestilence abated, all who survived gave themselves over to pleasures: monks, priests, nuns, and laymen and women all enjoyed themselves, and none worried about spending and gambling. And everyone thought himself rich because he had escaped and regained the world, and no one knew how to allow himself to do nothing (Agnolo di Tura, Shoemaker, Tax Collector and Black Death survivor, 1348).

Hope and Gratitude

It seems strange to be grateful for hardship, but that seemed to be the case for my grandmother, Hortense Young Hammond, who always saw the glass half full in her detailed narrations that captured my imagination as a boy. Hardship and adversity were the context and not the text of her masterfully told stories that always injected hope in my life. I have early memories sitting under the big tree in our backyard while she told the story of the Mormon migration. She was a guardian of that story because she knew many of the characters. Her parents and grandparents had left valuable property in the Eastern US, endured a 2,000 mile trek, given birth, and in some cases, died because of this forced migration. Her sisters and parents knew Brigham Young. As a young girl, Grandma Hottie, as we called her, overcame gender discrimination to find a place as a student and later as an instructor in the English Department at the University of Utah. During the Great Depression, her college degree brought her to find employment at the LDS Business College, supporting her family while her lawyer husband remained without paying clients. In WWII, she sent three of her four sons to war.

In the 1960s, under the tree on Logan Avenue in Salt Lake City, her stories brought to life for me those heroic and faithful pioneers, who pushed and pulled, and sang as they walked. But in the 1960s, refugees were also flooding Europe, Northern Ireland was in the grips of a religious war, the Iron Curtain and the Soviets were dividing Europe, the memory of WWII and the Holocaust was still vivid, Apartheid ruled South Africa, and the American Civil Rights Movement gripped America.

In this context, Grandma Hottie’s pioneer stories never created characters who were victims. To be sure, her history did not include denial, nor was she unsympathetic. But it was important to her to weave hope and aspiration into grief and dark difficulty.

Some of my grandmother’s stories were true, but she also worked in fiction. Her most common fictional recitation under the tree was the story of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Long before I read or could read that great novel, I knew the story of the priest who, when realizing that Jean Valjean had stolen his silverware, gave him the silver candlesticks as well. Her passionate telling of that story of redemption brought incessant requests from young children for repeat performances.

In her personal life, she suffered gender discrimination, health problems, the death of a spouse, poverty and loss. In her 89 years, she buried her parents, all 11 of her siblings, and her husband.

Forty-five years after my grandmother’s death, her voice still echoes in me. I now realize that the theme of her life and her literature was the same: Hope is what differentiates survivors from heroes.

In my interviews with people who have been lost in the wilderness (Hammond, 2016) many talked about the power of hope sustaining them through a period when death was a distinct possibility. One interviewee told me, “Hope is the anticipation of the ideal future. Hope says things will not only get good, they will get better.”

When We Judge

It is easy for the untouched, the designated rescuer, the therapist, or the church leader to hope that a kind word and a plate of cookies can accelerate others through difficult times. This year, my wife and I were involved in a very serious accident. Six months later, we are still recovering. During our recovery we have had measures of bitterness and blame, indulgence and neglect, and hope and gratitude. I have discovered that when I turn inward, I am more likely to go downward, and when I turn outward, I am more likely to turn upwards, towards the light.

What I take from my experiences is that we should not judge the journey that others take with hardship. It may be faster or slower than we think it should be. It may have certain stages, or lack certain stages, that we might expect. If you read SquareTwo, you know Editor and Founder Valerie Hudson, who is a person I admire. In our discussion about this essay, she wrote these words which warrant unedited quotation:

I remember when my daughter died and people kept telling me how to get over it and move beyond. I did have hope and I did have gratitude, but the feelings of pain and grief were overwhelming and apparently were designed to be. I don't think I smiled for 3 1/2 years. Sometimes I think we do a disservice to others, each of whom has his or her timetable for grief and sorrow, when we urge on them hope and gratitude as if it were a simple matter of choice. It is a matter of choice, but it's not simple at all, and sometimes it takes years, even decades, to get to the point where you can signal hope and gratitude. I later discovered that it was for their own comfort that people kept telling me to get over it. So I guess my only "ask" for your article is that the choice between bitterness, indulgence, and hope is not a one-time thing, nor is it an instantaneous thing. It is a path; it is a journey.

Reframing with Possibility

I saw hope in the dusty streets of the Langa Township in South Africa in 2016. After spending a week in the TSIBA School teaching entrepreneurship to young South Africans, I met one of their most famous alumni. Albert was born in the township and raised by his grandmother, who was raising 17 other children behind the walls of oppressive segregation in what amounted to an economic prison. “During the days,” Albert said, “I would beg for money. At night I would try and get home early because we only had 16 blankets for 18 children in our two-bedroom home. If you didn’t get home early, you slept cold, and most nights we all slept hungry.”

Albert eventually figured out that he could earn money by helping white visitors find Langa residents. Then he started giving tours. By age 14 he was employing other boys and girls to do the same thing. But after completing the entrepreneurship program at TSIBA, he went big time. He started giving formal tours of Langa to tourists. This led to other tour programs, including photo safaris and wine tasting tours. Now he runs one of the largest tour companies in the region, still hiring many of the people he grew up with in poverty.

In the tour that he gave us of Langa, he showed us both his grandmother’s home and his current home that is luxurious by any standards. When someone asked him a question about “being so poor” he quickly interrupted and said, “I was never a poor boy! Never. My grandmother loved me and I had a future before me.”

When we have clearly survived the COVID pandemic, it will be appropriate to be self-critical. Without wallowing in blame, we will need to look carefully at our government, political and medical responses, and find ways to improve. We will need to celebrate without indulgence, and acknowledge the courage we all showed to get through this difficult time. But most of our energy should go to gratitude to each other, to those who kept us safe, well, and who provided moments of joy. If we do that, then we will generate the hope that will make us ready for COVID-20.

Full Citation for this Article: Hammond, Scott (2021) "Will We Survive Surviving?," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 2021), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHammondSurviving.html, accessed <give access date>.

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