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Commencements

Opportunity in the Unexpected


When each of us began the year 2020, I’m certain each of us expected something very different from how things unfolded. I know I did.

After working relentlessly for ten years at BYU, I had accomplished much in my teaching, research, mentoring, and administrative service at the University. Perhaps maybe too much. As I contemplated the year 2020, I felt prompted to refocus some of my time and energy on my family. I declared to myself that 2020 would be the "Year of Monica."

I was following through well, working and traveling less - helping more around the house and spending more time with Monica and the kids and my parents. I even broke down and let Mealani get the puppy she had been asking for for years. Mealani and I worked hard through January and February to train the puppy well. It was a great few months, and I felt like life would be fantastic if things stayed that way for a long time.

Then in March, the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Suddenly, 2020 was looking NOTHING like we had expected it to look!

We were able to weather the storm. I worked from home, helped kids with online school when possible, and we spent even more time together as a family playing sports, board games, and finding ways to pass the socially distanced days. We settled in and figured that this would last the rest of the school year, and that might be kind of nice.

On April 29, President Russell M. Nelson offered our family a job here at BYU–Hawaii. We gratefully and joyfully accepted, and our lives immediately were turned upside-down. Over the next two weeks, we tried to keep the news to ourselves while preparing to speak with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in the BYU–Hawaii devotional. We also began preparations to leave our life in Utah and move our family of seven to Lāʻie.

2020 was looking NOTHING like we had expected it to look.

As our time to move approached, the state of Hawaii's pre-travel testing continued to be delayed, and it became clear that we would need to quarantine for 14-days to move to Hawaii. All seven of us.

We made our move, and we completed our quarantine. A few weeks later, my father was hospitalized. On August 21st, we flew back to Utah to help care for him so he could pass away comfortably, at home, with his family. After staying for the funeral and assisting with other family needs, we returned to Lāʻie to begin another 14-day quarantine.

2020 was looking NOTHING like we had expected it to look.

Being here at BYU–Hawaii is an incredible blessing and privilege. I have loved every minute of it. I have participated in Zoom meetings with several student groups in the past months, including the New Student Orientation and meetings with several student clubs. I have listened to wonderful spiritual messages in these meetings and answered many questions. Among them have been various versions of this one, "President, what advice do you have for dealing with these difficult conditions?"

Perhaps, for answers, I should be referring them to you, our December 2020 graduates! You have found a way to complete internships, projects, and courses in the midst of disruption and chaos that have not been experienced in the last 100 years. Congratulations. I am so proud of you. You have accomplished and learned so much. Your resilience and commitment to your education and the gospel of Jesus Christ is an example to us all.

So how do we deal with these challenging conditions? I don't have a perfect answer to this question. But there are a few things that I have shared in response.

First, remember that it is ok to feel sad, frustrated, and disappointed.

That is part of life. Don't hide it. Talk about it with people that you love and trust. The COVID-19 pandemic is terrible. I feel deep sorrow over the lives that have been lost, the livelihoods that have been lost, and the suffering it has created for so many. I am disappointed about the many experiences and opportunities that my family and I have missed.

It pains me that the University community is not together right now, sharing leis, hugs, and kisses and throwing shakas and big smiles in celebration of your accomplishments and the bright future ahead of you. This virtual commencement can hardly match the celebration that you deserve on this momentous occasion.

I am absolutely devastated by the loss of my father. I cannot tell you how many times I have cried in my office these last few months- missing him. I know we will be together again, but still just hurts.

It is ok to feel grief. It is ok to cry.

Second, be grateful.

In a message in the Church News, Sheri Dew, the Executive Vice President of Deseret Management Corporation, shared the following quote concerning the loss of her mother, "I'm coming to realize that grieving is a kind of enhanced gratitude."

This message was timely for me; she shared it just before my own father passed away. In the context of that loss, her words were compelling. My tears and emotions were the results of the deep love and gratitude that I have for him. A representation of the good that he is in my life. That loss has reminded me to value the most important people and relationships in my life even more. To be more grateful right now for the beautiful people and experiences in my life.

When we talk about the difficult conditions that we are facing today, we are certainly feeling grief.

Grief over the relationships, conditions, and opportunities lost in this challenging year is a manifestation of the gratitude we have for those things.

When we are able to connect that grief to gratitude, we can change our perspective on the challenges we are facing.

In a video message on November 20, 2020, President Russell M. Nelson said, "Over my nine and a half decades of life, I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.

Does gratitude spare us from sorrow, sadness, grief, and pain? No, but it does soothe our feelings. It provides us with a greater perspective on the very purpose and joy of life."

Third, find opportunity in the unexpected.

The greater perspective on the "purpose and joy of life" that President Nelson promised us could inspire us to see the opportunity that resides in the sorrows and challenges of life.

At some point, as we learn the English language, each of us encounters some version of the saying, "When life gives you lemons, add li hing mui powder."

Is that not how it goes? That is the version for those of us that have spent time in Hawaii. I guess most people have heard the saying this way, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." This axiom is commonly credited to Dale Carnegie, who used a version of the phrase in his 1948 book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

In reading a bit more about this axiom, I was surprised to learn that an earlier version was coined by Elbert Hubbard in an obituary he wrote for the actor Marshall Pinckney Wilder in 1915. Of Wilder, Hubbard wrote, "He picked up the lemons that fate gave him and started a lemonade stand. "

Lemonade stand?!?!?! Lemonade is nice. But taking lemons and starting a lemonade stand is next-level stuff. I've heard enough to know that this version of the axiom fits right into some of the excellent entrepreneurship training we do here at BYU–Hawaii, right?

Each of you graduates has been handed lemons in these past months. President Thomas S. Monson taught, "Our Heavenly Father… knows that we learn and grow and become stronger as we face and survive the trials through which we must pass. We know that there are times when we will experience heartbreaking sorrow, when we will grieve, and when we may be tested to our limits.

However, such difficulties allow us to change for the better, to rebuild our lives in the way our Heavenly Father teaches us.

It also allows us to become something different from what we were—better than we were, more understanding than we were, more empathetic than we were, with stronger testimonies than we had before."

As a result of your years at BYU–Hawaii and the unique challenges you have faced in these past months, you are, as President Monson said, something "different from what you were– better than you were."

To put it in terms of the stated mission of this University, you are leaders with character and integrity. You have developed the spiritual capacity to connect grief to gratitude, thus expanding your perspective of this life. Combined with your secular learning, this makes you uniquely capable of using the guidance of the Holy Ghost to see opportunities to build your future to the benefit of your families, communities, and the kingdom of God.

Your Heavenly Father loves you. Your Savior, Jesus Christ, loves you. Jesus Christ suffered all things. He knows the challenges you are feeling and facing. His teachings provide the path to joy during these challenges. I have experienced this in my life. I know it to be true.

In closing, I urge you to stay true to your faith in Him. When you trust in Him, you will be guided and sustained. He is the truth and the light. I share this in His name, even Jesus Christ, amen.