My favorite childhood memories are beautiful and vivid: exploring colorful canyons of the vast Utah wilderness, climbing tangled cottonwood trees, and roasting marshmallows over crackling, smoky fires. I remember playing Capture the Flag under a deep summer sky filled with shimmering stars, and the way the grass caused my body to itch and sting under the steamy water of a post-night-games, mother-mandated shower. I’ll never forget playing G.I. Joes and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars with my neighborhood friends, and on that note, my “first kiss” in 5th grade as I role-played Leia with a neighbor boy who role-played Han.
If I think casually about my childhood, it flashes before my eyes in hues of rustic golds, deep forest greens, and enchanting ambers—rich colors that remind me of how blessed I was to grow up under the roof, with the family, in the place that I did. But if I spend time digging deep into the caverns of my mind and heart, I see things in darker shades. I see Christmas Eve’s where my alcoholic father would stumble up the stairs at three in the morning. I’m heartbroken by the memory of lying in my bed with the thought that most children hoped to be awoken to the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof, not their inebriated father passing out on the kitchen floor. I can conjure up the very moment I learned my parents were divorcing: I remember the restaurant, the table, the day, the temperature, and how the air, once filled with the sweet and savory smells of our dinner-to-be, instantly became repulsive and thick and nauseating. I remember how sad and scared and angry I felt, and how I had no idea how much sadness and fear and anger I would carry around for years to come.
If I spend time digging deep into the caverns of my mind and heart, I’m nearly paralyzed with the sad and confounding understanding of how truly unfair life tends to be. How unfair it is that my angel mother lived with an abusive alcoholic for more than 25 years. Or how unfair it is that most of the teenagers I work with will live their entire lives sincerely unsure of whether there is a single soul who truly loves them without condition. Or how unfair it is that 49 families will never again get to hold their daughters and sons and brothers and cousins who were shot in cold blood on Saturday night in Orlando. Yes, this world—treacherous and dark and manically cruel—is inexplicably unfair.
I spent a year and a half of my life working as a field instructor for a therapeutic wilderness program. Essentially, I lived in the woods with a bunch of teenagers society deemed “troubled” and helped them to search for themselves. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I woke up and shuffled out of my sleeping bag onto a blanket of newly fallen snow. I walked into camp, sat down by a nearly diminished fire, and pulled out a New York Times article a friend had printed for me to read that week. In it, the author described the religious philosophy of Pure Land Buddhism and summed up her own experience with enlightenment in just a few words: “Life is suffering—and yet.”
I’ve thought a lot about those words since then—about the “and yet’s” in my life, the lives of the teenagers I work with, the lives of complete strangers. And yet.
I cannot see or speak with my father after 6pm because he’s usually too drunk to carry on a productive conversation. And yet, I know that he loves me, which is more than millions of people on this earth can say with confidence about their own fathers.
My mother married a man whose incapacity to love severely damaged her own ability to find and experience it, and yet, I’m confident she wouldn’t trade those years for anything, because they brought her my brother and I.
The teenage girls I work with are angry because they’re currently locked up in rehab against their will, and yet, they eat three meals each day that they didn’t have to pay for with drug or prostitution money.
The world is a horrible place where people decide to blow up buildings, and mutilate women simply because they are women, and open-fire on elementary schools. And yet, the Red Cross holds blood drives, and Facebook releases “Stand with Orlando” picture filters, and the sun still rises every, single morning.
If I spend time digging deep into the caverns of my mind and heart, I’m nearly paralyzed with the sad and confounding understanding of how truly unfair life tends to be. And yet.
Cheryl Strayed once wrote that,
“The best, sanest people on the planet know that life is long, that people both change and remain the same, that every last one of us will need to [mess] up and be forgiven . . . and that all roads eventually lead to the mountain top.”
If I counted the days I spent as a child feeling afraid, or alone, or confused as to why I was born into the conditions I was born into, I’m quite confident they would outnumber the days filtered in gold and green and amber. And yet, I can barely remember them. Mostly, I remember my parents teaching me how much freedom and peace I can feel high on the tops of mountains. I remember deafening desert thunderstorms and Return of the Jedi and that I was taught to believe in God fervently and with great faith.
Yes, this world—treacherous and dark and manically cruel—is inexplicably unfair. And yet, we’re going to be OK. Not because our brains have the truly amazing ability to forget about terrible things, like shootings and poverty and alcoholism. And certainly not because those terrible things are going away anytime soon. But we’re going to be OK, because OK is just about always where we end up. And the sun will rise, and we have each other, and God is real. And all roads eventually lead to the mountain tops.
Disclaimer: I wouldn’t trade my childhood for any other. It was and continues to be an incredibly transformative experience filled with the challenge and heartache I needed to build a lasting, sustaining relationship with God. My faith is rooted in trial and our ability to overcome it with the love and compassion of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Additionally, with Father’s Day upcoming, it seems fitting to add that my dad is an amazing man whom I love, and after many years of introspection and a lot of work, I have a wonderful relationship with him that I cherish deeply.