I can't bear it (and that's okay)
A few months ago, I watched the movie Unplanned, the true story of Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson's conversion to pro-life. She had spent her entire career working on the administrative side of things, but when they were short-staffed one day, she was asked to assist the doctor in the procedure room. That's when Abby finally confronted the gruesome reality of abortion.
That moment broke Abby. And it broke me, too.
After the movie, I distracted myself and tried to go through the rest of my day normally. But as I rocked my 3-month old to sleep that night, I could distract myself no longer. That powerful scene (you can watch it here) played itself in my mind over and over again. I held my sleeping baby boy tight and cried harder than I had ever cried since childhood. Like Amulek watching the martyrs of Ammonihah being burned alive, I was pained by the holocaust of abortion and wished I could use the Priesthood, call down fire from heaven– anything to intervene against the inhuman war on the defenseless that is abortion.
Sensitive to the world's problems
After a few minutes, my thoughts spread out from the horrors of abortion on to all the other evils and pains that afflict Heavenly Father's children. Abusive homes. Debilitating illnesses. Orphans. War. Starvation. During those few moments in my son's room, I felt acutely aware of the pain, suffering, and evil that afflict so many in the world.
My grief quickly turned to guilt. Why wasn't I this upset all the time? Do I just not care most days? Am I like WWII Germans, willfully ignoring the smokestacks on the edge of town? Why should I need a movie to smack me upside the head and make me pay attention to what's going on all around me?
As usual, the answer came from a servant of the Lord. I recently read Elder Cook's share about his own similar emotional overwhelm pondering the evils of this world, especially abortion. After visiting the Children's Holocaust Museum, he said:
I had a sobering experience… I was overcome with emotion. Standing outside to regain my composure, I reflected on the horror of the experience and suddenly realized that in the United States alone, there are as many abortions every two years as the number of Jewish children killed in the Holocaust during the Second World War…
The intensity of my feeling was about the loss of children… We are so numbed and intimidated by the immensity of the practice of abortion that many of us have pushed it to the back of our minds and try to keep it out of our consciousness.
The Unplanned movie didn't reveal any new facts to me about abortion, nor did it change my stance on the issue. What it did reveal was how, as Elder Cook related, I had pushed abortion and other horrors of this world to the back of my mind. I knew about them, but I intentionally kept them out of my consciousness.
I felt guilty for this. I thought about how Nephi's "eyes watered his pillow" because of his sorrow for his people. I thought about The Three Nephites who, even when freed from mortal pains and sorrows of mortality, nevertheless still "sorrow for the sins of the world." I thought of how Enoch and God both wept over the needless suffering of God's children. God's servants are deeply compassionate. They "mourn with those that mourn." They allow themselves to be emotionally invested and are "devastated" by the struggles of their brothers and sisters. How can I be like them?
That night, I decided to be more consistently and emotionally aware of the problems in the world.
Overwhelmed by the world's problems
This determination impacted my life for days and weeks afterward, but not in a good way.
There is a scene in the 2006 Superman remake where Superman is floating in space, listening to all the sounds of the world: babies crying, alarm bells going off, sirens wailing, and a billion conversations all at once.
Maybe Superman could handle that, but I am no Superman. Keeping the serious problems of the world at the forefront of my mind was overwhelming. Delicious food was difficult to enjoy when I thought about the billions in the world who could only dream of a meal like I just had. My job lost meaning when I remembered I was getting paid to help a large corporation ship mainly frivolous consumer splurge items across the richest country on earth. Even family time with my wife and kids felt tragic when I thought about the thousands of children killed each day in abortions or the millions of spouses in abusive relationships. And unlike Superman, I couldn't well rush off on a compassionate impulse and save the day.
As I tried to keep the serious problems of the world at the forefront of my mind, my everyday life suddenly seemed more empty and hollow in light of all the suffering going on in the world. I could only be mentally and emotionally present for my family, my friends, and my employer when I pushed those important issues out of my mind for a while (even though I felt guilty for doing so).
The blessing of forgetting
I knew something about my attitude was wrong. I've observed that those who have the most vision into the problems of the world are paradoxically also the happiest people in the world. Informed yet happy people (like Elder Cook) are well-aware of the awful situations of so many in the world, yet these problems don't seem to always occupy the forefront of their thoughts and words. So I re-read Elder Cook's words about abortion: "We are so numbed and intimidated by the immensity of the practice of abortion that many of us have pushed it to the back of our minds and try to keep it out of our consciousness."
This time, his words didn't seem like a call to repentance, but more of an explanation. Elder Cook, I, and everyone else push abortion and other horrible topics "to the back of our minds" not because we don't care about those problems, but because we are so "intimidated by their immensity." Abortion and other grave evils are critically alarming to us, but we don't focus on them all the time because we can't handle focusing on them all the time.
I found many instances in Scripture that teach the same principle. A few examples:
- The Three Nephites were freed from all mortal pain and sorrow "save it be for the sins of the world." When the Nephites ripened in iniquity and were fully ready for destruction, the Lord "did take away his beloved disciples," in part (I believe) to shield them from the anguish of witnessing the depravity and annihilation of their people.
- Mormon extends that same mercy to us in the latter days. He tells us he heavily diluted his account of their destruction because he did "not desire to harrow up the souls of men in casting before them such an awful scene," so that we "might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people." (Mormon 5:8-9)
- Even imagining the imminent trial of Gethsemane made the Savior "sorrowful, even unto death." While He suffered in that supreme act of sorrow, His closest friends slept. But those members of the ancient First Presidency weren't sleeping out of laziness or apathy towards their Master. Rather, they were so "intimidated by the immensity" of Christ's suffering that their mortal frames couldn't bear to even watch. Luke clarifies that they were "sleeping for sorrow."
- Christ promised that when the "beginning of the sorrows" come on the earth, Israel will not be able to bear it. But mercifully, "those days shall be shortened" as a mercy– "for the elect's sake, according to the covenant."
Paul's teachings about temptations apply equally well to other trials of life. "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be [tried] above that ye are able; but will with the [trial] also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." When His children's sorrows are too great to bear, He makes an escape.
I believe one escape He provides is the limitations of our brains. Our finite minds can only truly focus well on one thing at a time. So, by necessity, accomplishing everyday tasks requires us to push other concerns– even important and weighty concerns– into the background. Though I had never considered it before, I suppose that this single-focused nature of mortality is perhaps a wonderful gift, allowing us to engage in healthy, normal activities throughout our day, free from some of the consciousness of the problems around us. It's a blessing to temporarily forget.
In the same light, I also suppose that in some instances, it may also be a small grace from God that our memories fade over time, causing pain of the past dulls with age. Perhaps in some cases, the ability to forget may be a mercy from a loving Heavenly Father who wants to shield us from "too great sorrow."
But there is One who can't forget
That Superman scene I mentioned earlier is fiction– there is no tights-wearing alien hovering above the stratosphere, listening to all our problems. But we have someone much better than Superman– we have a Savior. Like the Superman scene, our Savior witnesses every crime, every depravity both in action and in thought. He takes the whole world in. But unlike Superman, our Savior doesn't pick and choose which problems merit his time and attention. Our Savior zooms to the rescue every single time.
You can't bear that burden. I can't bear that burden. This past while I've learned that I can't even think about part of that burden without getting overwhelmed. And mercifully, I don't have to– that's not my job. I can temporarily forget the world's problems because Christ never will: "Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee." I don't need to keep the world's problems engraven always on my mind because Christ says "I have graven [them] thee upon the palms of my hands; [they are] continually before me."
So what is my responsibility to the suffering of the world? My job is to mourn, then move on. My job is to have faith that in a coming day, the Savior of the World "shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain." My job is to help where I can, then stand back and "stand all amazed."