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What does it mean to live in 'unprecedented times'?

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Music & the Spoken Word as I was getting ready for home sacrament meeting. It was a celebration of 90 years of the program being broadcast, and as the familiar voice of Lloyd Newell began to share the “spoken word,” he said something that struck me.

It has become popular lately to talk about unprecedented times. And while it’s true that many challenges we face today are unfamiliar to us, there’s also comfort in knowing that similar challenges have been faced—and overcome—in the past.

As the expression goes, a light bulb went off, only this light bulb was not only understanding but an actually brightening of a dark shadow of stress and exhaustion as I began to feel that I—and the world—were not stumbling forward completely blind in this time of great uncertainty and new situations.

The words lingered in my mind while I finished getting ready. I thought of all the people from the early members of the Church to the Founding Fathers to men and women around the world from all different eras who must have said the same words to themselves. Something about the word “unprecedented” in the context it has been used in the media world feels scary, like nobody knows what to do and we are blindly trying to walk through a dark and unfamiliar place. But those two little words, “similar challenges,” suddenly brought light as I realized that when it comes right down to it, no experience we ever go through is truly unprecedented.

“Unprecedented” means that there is no example of how to proceed. Nobody knew exactly how to handle a global pandemic in a world where travel between countries has become so easy and necessary. Nobody knew exactly how to handle all the ramifications of trying to simultaneously keep economies going and prevent people from getting sick.

Yet, what was the precedent the Savior set when he was faced with immense suffering and a yet-unexperienced situation? He continued to spend time with his Heavenly Father, He thought about others, and He did not let fear guide His decisions—to name just a few. Perhaps as we study how He lived His life and reacted to the trials and upheaval around Him, we can begin to see a pattern and precedent for how we can move forward.

 While He may not have given physical instructions of how to best track COVID-19 or a step-by-step guide to recover from economic crises, our Example has personally experienced similar feelings of loneliness, loss, betrayal, frustration, pain, or anything that our current circumstances may be causing us to experience.

"For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men" (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16–19).

A Growing Precedent

Not only has the Savior given us a precedent of how to move forward in dark, confusing, or difficult times, but those who have followed His example continue to grow that precedent. 

For example, stories from Saints Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand, which my husband and I have been listening to for the past several months, have come to mind. Think of the early Saints who were daily faced with the fear of violence, frustration, uncertainty, and feelings of isolation and distance from family and friends they left behind. Those same pioneers faced physical trials not only crossing the plains but when they arrived in the valley—famine, fear of the government, sickness, discouragement, and many feelings we might currently be dealing with, though the causes might be different. Yet how these individuals chose to move forward in the face of these situations only adds to the precedent the Savior has set: We have everything we need to move forward in faith, and no matter how bleak things seem, the Savior is there to comfort us and show us where and how to walk safely through a trial, maybe even with a smile.

As Newell also shared, even as time passes and people, circumstances, technologies, and life all change, “Other things never change. No matter where or when we live, we all need hope and faith. We all need to be encouraged, uplifted, and inspired. We have always needed that.”

There is something comforting to me in knowing in my clouded moments that others have experienced the same feelings. Even if my ancestors, our pioneer predecessors, people in ancient times, or the Savior did not physically live through our specific concoction of a pandemic, financial crises, natural and man-made disasters, death, discord, and unrest, they experienced their own challenges and similar feelings and came through as better, stronger people. Whatever combination of challenges you are facing right now, I hope knowing that they aren’t completely unprecedented will bring you a little comfort and courage too as you move forward toward becoming your own better, stronger person.

Additional reading: 

— “Sunday Will Come” by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, October 2006 general conference

— “He Carried My Sorrows” by Jane Bleak, June 2011 Ensign

— “Jesus Wept, and So Can I: Why We Need to Realize We Don't Always Have to Be Happy” by Julieann Seldon, LDS Living contributor

-—“Our Pain Is Christ's Pain, Too: 3 Insights That Will Change Your Relationship with the Savior,” excerpt from Answers Will Come: Trusting the Lord in the Meantime by Shalissa Lindsay

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Author photo

Jannalee Sandau

Jannalee started as an editorial intern at LDS Living in 2013 and loves that she still has the opportunity to write and share articles about Latter-day Saints every day. At work, Jannalee loves mining Church history for unique stories, and at home, if she isn't spending time with her sweetheart, Matthew, and her active little boy, you can probably find her scrapbooking or playing the piano.

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