Getting Life: Knowing what to keep: lessons from a handcart tragedy

Published: Saturday, July 30 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

LDS youths participate in a handcart trek activity near the Utah Wyoming border in August 2007.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archives

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As members of the Martin Handcart Company crossed Wyoming in October 1856, they faced evaporating food supplies, increasingly difficult terrain and impending winter storms. In an effort to hasten their progress toward the relief wagons they hoped were coming, they took a desperate risk and burned their extra blankets and coats to lighten their loads.

Within days, temperatures plunged and a raging storm pummeled them with 18 inches of snow. They ground to a halt, out of food, out of energy and unshielded from the fierce winds and cold.

I wince to realize what their decision cost them in frostbite, hypothermia, sickness, misery and death. Days before, those heavy blankets and coats must have seemed like the only variable over which they had any control in the complex equation of supplies and needs, weight and speed. But how they must have longed for that lost protection when the storm set in!

Perhaps the handcart companies made a rational choice under their circumstances. Without the benefit of satellite images from the nightly news to warn them, they didn’t expect the snow to fall so soon. But I have been amply warned. There is a “portent of stormy weather ahead,” and I cannot afford to burn through blankets of relationships, spiritual reserves, healthy living or other resources I will surely need, even when they feel heavy at times. Even when I am afraid, I cannot reach my goal any other way.

Nevertheless, as I bend under the weight of life’s demands, supplies dwindling, in a hurry to get through the steepening terrain of my days, something always seems to be slipping off the cart: scripture study, sleep, prayer, healthy food, attending the temple, service, connection with friends, exercise, family time, learning, visiting teaching, meditation. Ironically, time for such fundamentals dissipates in the press of my busy life — sometimes just when I need them the most.

It is true that sometimes I simply must lighten the load, and something has to give. I cannot carry everything with me when my energy is low and demands are high. The gospel helps me make such decisions thoughtfully, prayerfully. I can meditate on a single scripture or covenants while I shower or eat, pray while I drive and make that call another day.

But at times I simply need to make room for the blankets I’d like to slough off, even though they cost me precious energy. If I don’t invest in these things now, I will not have the shelter they provide when the storms rage. Even more, I will not have their spiritual nourishment to strengthen me for today’s pull.

Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times best-seller "The Why of Work."

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