You Are Here for a Unique Purpose
That was beautiful. I’m glad we actually got to hear the choir before me. They’re much more talented. I sound better on paper than in reality, so just demystify all that stuff. You can talk to my kids.
I’m going to talk about some things today that have been really impactful in my life, but I always feel a little bit of hypocrisy standing in front of groups like this because I certainly do not have my life figured out. The things I talk about are things I continually strive for or work towards, and I’m a work in process—like all of us, I think. We’re all on a continuum. All of us have great strengths, and we also have weaknesses. The older I get the more I understand that people, for the most part, are just doing the best they can. And that’s where I am.
And my mom is in the audience. She was referenced earlier. She’s somewhere out here, and she was just a great role model for me, and I’m really grateful for her.
So I’m blind, right? You see the cane; it gives it away. I’m going to talk a little bit today about some of the experiences I’ve had going blind and what that has meant to me in my ability to raise a family, my professional career, and my life in general. I have a great life. I’m happy, and I’m blessed, and I think life is a beautiful, abundant place to be. And part of that is learning to deal with some of the fears and anxieties that we have pop up in our lives and making sure that those don’t dominate how we live. We all have them, right? We all have some part of ourselves that we feel insecure about. We’re not sure if we’re good enough. We have fear. What if we can’t do it? What if we don’t make it? Those things can really distract us from the ability to engage and live a fully abundant life.
Now, the things that I’m going to talk about are lessons I’ve learned and that I continue to learn as I get older and refine them. So, I’m going to talk about, depending on time, six to seven things. But let me talk about the first. This idea is very simple, but I’ll tell you what the concept is after I tell you the story.
I started going blind when I was eleven. It was progressive; I lost a lot of my vision on my mission, and then later when I was back in Maryland with my husband and son—at the time it was one son. And I had a lot of shame about carrying a cane around. Why would that be? Because when you carry a cane around, you cannot be inconspicuous, right? You cannot be stealthy. People see you; they notice you. Blindness had a lot of negative stereotypes for me around helplessness, vulnerability. Some of the people I knew at the time who were blind were folks from Social Security. I did not want a life like that. I had a lot of fear around that, and I saw myself as visually impaired. That is such nonsense. I was fooling myself—I was going blind. And that’s not a reality I wanted to fully accept, and the consequences of going blind.
So I did a lot to avoid that. What I would do—I had this sneaky little trick. At the time, as I lost more and more vision, I knew I needed help. At the time I was using what I call radar foot—trying to put my foot out to feel the stair in front of me to figure out where I was. That wasn’t always very successful, so I started using a portable cane. This is a straight cane—it’s long, it’s hard, and I can walk fast with it. But I have a portable cane. I travel with it now in case this one breaks when I am traveling. But it goes up—you just pop it and it goes about this big.
So I would keep that in my little backpack, and then as I got to stairs, I would pull it out and then use my cane to go down the stairs and then put it back in. Can you imagine what people watching me must have thought? “That crazy blind woman—are you blind, or are you not blind? Make up your mind!” So I would sneak it in there like I was fooling someone, and I was doing that. So one day I was coming home; I had been at the gym, and I was walking back home and just minding my business. I walked this path that I had always walked a million times, and apparently, unbeknownst to me, I had walked into an entire construction site. And if I had been using my cane, probably people would have alerted me or I would have picked up with my cane that the environment and the terrain were different. But I kept on my way, and all of a sudden, what do you think I fell into? A manhole. I fell right down into a manhole.
Now, the good news is that it was winter, so it was filled with freezing cold water to break my fall. The bad news is that it was filled with freezing cold water to break my fall. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life. And I fell right into it. And I got out of that—called my husband to come pick me up. I was humiliated; I was embarrassed. I was freezing cold. And I had a really big wake-up call that day. I had been living a lot of my life in avoiding who I was. I didn’t want the stereotypes; I didn’t want people to stare at me. I didn’t want to face the reality of who I was becoming as a blind person. I had done a lot to camouflage that. And in doing so, I had abnegated the best part of who I was, which was me. I had hid it and covered it up, trying to conform to what I thought everybody’s expectations for me were, right?
To be blind is to be very different, and sometimes in a culture where we are supposed to be perfect and look a certain way and be a certain way, to be different is hard. There is a great quote I once heard: “We’re all born originals but die copies.” I do not think we were put on this planet to all be the same. I fundamentally believe in a concept of a body of Christ where the fingers and the hands and the eyes and the feet all play an important role in making a whole body.
I had to come to grips that I wasn’t like all of you. I was unique and different, and that was okay. And so I decided at that point to start to face what I needed to do and learn to be successful as a blind person. Up to that point, I had done a mission, I had graduated from school. I had just gotten a job, but I was struggling to keep on top of stuff because how I had to interface with reality was really different. And I had to make a choice that I could live life on my own terms or I could live by all the expectations I thought that everybody else around had for me. It was a turning point.
There is a great quote—there’s a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson called Self-Reliance that I love. And he says it is a “great man . . . who, in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Who are you? Why are you different and unique? You’re here for a unique reason and purpose. You bring something to the table that nobody else can bring. And in my discussions on Capitol Hill or with the governor or with legislators, I’ve come to find my voice is important. I may be different. I may bring a unique perspective to the table, just like everybody else does. And everybody’s voices are equally important and valid and necessary to come to great solutions.
I’ve come to treasure and appreciate my uniqueness rather than be ashamed or concerned about it. And I’m sure each of us today still struggle with parts of ourselves that we don’t think live up to what we think they should be. They don’t meet social stereotypes of what we should look like or be like or sound like. But my hope for all of us is that we can learn to embrace those parts of ourselves and understand the contributions they can be.
So that’s the first concept—that you learn to be yourself. That’s a lifelong journey. We change. Who I am today is different from who I was twenty years ago. But don’t hide from it; learn to uncover it, reveal it, embrace it, and understand how that uniqueness can benefit you and those around you.
The second lesson—so I decided I’m going to go in and really start to deal with all this stuff in my life, and I had the opportunity to go to very intensive training for blind people, The Boot Camp for the Blind. It was four months, residential—some people go for six months to a year. And the whole entire time you wore sleep shades. I do have a little peripheral vision in my left eye, so I can see some movement, and light and dark. The training there is to help beat out of you any bad perceptions you have about blindness. So during the training, you learn how to build furniture with power saws; you have to learn how to barbecue, you have to learn how to travel—you know, orientation, mobility, wherever you need to go. And one of the things for graduating is they put you in a van with blindfolds on and they have music going, and they drive you around and they drop you off someplace—you don’t know where, and you have to get back to where you started, and you can only ask one question along the way. The question is, could you be parachuted into China and find your way back home eventually? That’s the goal.
To get ready for that, every day we would practice orientation and mobility skills. So I would go out with an instructor, and they would teach me skills and principles like we learn here in the Church, true principles, and let them govern themselves. I would learn the principle, and then we would go out and practice it. They would stand back to let me figure it out for myself and make sure I wasn’t getting into too much trouble.
One day I was at a park across from the training center, and it was a park that was a mess. Any of you who have been to the airport in Minnesota, it was kind of like that—it was a crisscross of paths, and it was impossible to find my way out of. I’d been walking and kept getting stuck. I finally just got so frustrated and so overwhelmed by the experience that I just stopped. I stopped walking. I stopped making progress because I didn’t know how to get out.
My instructor at the time—Tony Cobbs, who I will always be grateful for—came up from behind me, and he made a very important observation, comment. He said, “Kristen, you need to learn to walk through your confusion and your fear. You’ve got to learn to walk through your uncertainty.”
It was so impactful for me. He went on to say, “Kristen, you’re not going to get any more information by standing still.” Essentially, what he was telling me is that walking into the unknown is where we gain new information and new knowledge. Sometimes we want to play it safe. We go into careers, new endeavors, new friends, new home situations—all of you are figuring out what career to be in, what your jobs are going to be, your friends, are you going to be married or not married—a lot of unknowns in our lives. The ability to walk through our uncertainty and our fear is a key to a successful life.
I remember the important times of Peter in Matthew 14:22–32. He’s in the boat; Christ comes down, fourth watch, a big storm. You’ve got Twelve Apostles in the boat, big storm, Christ comes out. Is it a ghost? No, it’s not a ghost; it’s Christ. Christ says, “Come out.” Peter has the courage to get out of the boat. Yes, he falls, but do you know what Peter did that none of the other apostles did? He walked on water. Even if it was only for two steps or three steps, he walked on water. He learned more about himself that day through walking on water and falling than any of those other Apostles did.
Do we have the courage to move out of our boat? To walk through uncertainty? To take a step in the unknown and have the courage and faith to know that this journey is about learning and growing? Sometimes we will fail; sometimes we’ll learn difficult lessons. But that is the purpose. And we can start developing a comfort level with that, to walk into the unknown. We can solve problems that seem unsolvable. We can take on big challenges that seem impossible to surmount. We can try new things without the fear of, what if I fail? So what? You get wet. You dry off.
So lesson number two—learn to walk through your fear and your uncertainty. It’s a lesson I continue to learn as we walk through big issues in the state about roads or water consumption or infrastructure or education. Big problems that we don’t all have the answers to. But I feel confident that if we work hard, the next step that we need to take will be revealed as we work hard. Okay, that was the second lesson.
The third lesson is this idea of redefining what we perceive as a weakness. We talked earlier about the idea that we all have weaknesses or challenges; we all have insecurities. Sometimes, though, I’m concerned that characteristics that we have are simply just characteristics, and we are wrong in our assumptions that they are a weakness.
Remember in Ether 12:27, the Lord talks about bringing forth your weakness and He will make it a strength? I’ve always wondered about that. Is it that God suddenly takes your blindness and makes it go away? Does He take that thing of yours that you think is a weakness and a bad trait, and change it? Or do we learn to redefine it?
A young boy named Tony, a blind child who was the age of seven—a good mentor of mine, Dr. Schroeder, was working with Tony—Tony was trying to learn to be an independent blind child, and like any child, he wanted to learn to play tag, to play along with his peers like any kid. I have a son who is 11—our youngest right now. That’s what boys do—they chase each other. Tony wanted to do it with all of his friends.
Dr. Schroeder, who is one of the most competent blind people I ever had known, had high expectations for people. He was trying to figure out how he could help Tony play tag. He went home that night to think about it, and to his chagrin, Dr. Schroeder realized that this is maybe one sport Tony would have to sit out. This was one thing he couldn’t do.
He went back to talk to Tony the next day. Luckily, Tony spoke before he did. He said to Dr. Schroeder—he called him Fred—“I figured it out. I know how to do this.” He had taken jars and filled them with rocks, and given each of his friends a jar of rocks. And they agreed upon the boundaries of where they would run, and his friends would run with the jars so he could hear where they were. Simple, low-tech solution to the problem.
Tony hadn’t bought into the idea yet that blindness was a weakness and a problem. He hadn’t been brainwashed that it was a tragedy and the end of your life. He had redefined—more importantly, he hadn’t defined yet—what blindness was, what it meant. Blindness, like anything else I have, is a characteristic. I’m blonde; I’m 5'5". I’m not going to share my weight with you. I like chocolate. There are certain characteristics of me.
Sometimes, out of the gate we set up our characteristics as a weakness, and I tend to think if we can learn to redefine them and use them as a strength, these characteristics actually could be strengths. You think of Tony—Tony became a creative problem solver. He didn’t ask if the thing could be done; rather, he asked how, because he assumed that it was possible.
Sometimes, in our lives we have a lot of rules. If I were thinner, or taller, or smarter, or richer; if I had a boyfriend, if I had a husband, if I had a girlfriend, if I had a wife; if I had this job, if I had more money, if I had this house—blah, blah, blah, blah, blah—then I would be happy. Then I would have what I want. If this part of me would change, then I’d be okay.
I don’t think that’s how this world works. I think we’ve been given a unique set of characteristics, and the question is, can you define your characteristics in a way that they are an advantage to you?
When you look at the people of Alma in the book of Mosiah, who were held captive, and they prayed for relief, God didn’t relieve their burden. He just made them stronger to carry it. Redefine the parts of yourself that you’re hard on yourself about, you think are wrong or should change. Figure out what advantages those bring to you.
Could blindness ever be an advantage, do you think? Absolutely. I don’t care what people look like because you are all beautiful and handsome to me. I don’t care about PowerPoint presentations, right? I don’t care about them. I don’t get messed up about all of the audiovisual stuff or PowerPoint problems. There are advantages. There are disadvantages, sure, but the question is, how do you choose to define yourself? I assert that most of those things about yourself that you think are weak actually could be strengths if you can redefine them—at least not the disadvantages you think they are.
One time when I was running for Lieutenant Governor with Governor Ehrlich, there had been—he was the governor of Maryland at the time—there had been significant flooding, and he was in a helicopter flying over and looking at the flood. And he got down, and one of the reporters said, “What did you think of the floods?” And he answered. And then the reporter said, “But Governor Ehrlich, your Lieutenant Governor candidate is blind. How would she have ever done this and assessed the floods?”
He said something so insightful. He said, “There are many ways to get information other than your eyes.” He understood that blindness is simply a characteristic that I needed to work around. So figure out what you’re pulling yourself down about, what you’re so hard about yourself on. Then you can redefine that. That’s the third lesson.
Another big lesson for me has been this idea of self-advocacy. And it was a hard one for me. What I mean by that is, when you are blind, you sometimes need help. And when you feel like you are the recipient of services, or charitable service, even with the best intentions it’s sometimes a hard position to always be in. How do you ask for help from somebody when you know you are inconveniencing them but also dictate how you want that help to be delivered?
I remember in high school when I was starting to lose vision, I was using magnifying glasses, and I finally got this big TV screen to sort of magnify stuff, and it was just a nightmare. My mom was great, and we were trying to problem solve how I could access this material. And it got so difficult to read that she said, “Why don’t we hire a friend of mine?” She was super well-intended, and she could read to me. I remember her reading to me, and her reading what she thought I needed to hear. And I was so grateful for the help—how was I going to push back and say, “Could you re-read that? Could you skip that paragraph? Could you read that faster? I don’t need that information; I need this information.” How could I take control of my life when somebody was helping me?
The idea of self-advocacy sometimes is a hard one because in the Church we are taught to be mild and meek, and to serve, and to be peacemakers. But I would also submit that we are also asked to be bold and truth tellers. We’re also asked to make a difference and to have an impact. And that requires that those unique skills that we have, that we’re able to use them.
Part of self-advocacy, I’ve seen so well when I study the life of Christ. He would, after serving the multitude, leave the crowds to pray by Himself. He would stand up to the Sadducees and Pharisees and draw a line in the sand, what was right and what was wrong. He would give statements to His Apostles about what was appropriate and what was not appropriate. He was bold and meek.
I’ve had to learn that combination as I’ve gotten older—that it’s okay to ask for what you need. And it’s not a selfish thing if it’s done with the right heart—which is asking, “What are my unique gifts and talents? And how can I best bring them forward? And what help do I need to bring them forward?” And it’s okay to ask.
Now, in my situation, being blind, that’s sometimes different, right? I need help getting transportation or rides to work or whatever. To my son this morning, I asked, “Do I have my black shoes on, or my ruby shoes on?” Because they feel the same, and I needed to make sure. So stuff like that I need to check, and I’m glad he can tell colors now. It wasn’t very helpful when he was two. So those things I need help with.
But my assumption and my guess is that a lot of you—maybe not in blind ways—feel like there are things you need in your life, if it’s in relationships, or if it’s in friendships, or from your instructors in school, or what you need to be successful. And sometimes we feel uncomfortable having what has been coined “crucial conversations” because we are not sure if we are worth it. We’re not sure if our contribution is worthy of somebody’s assistance. I encourage you to challenge that assumption. Your contribution is not just important but necessary for this world to be a better place, and that you advocating that your needs are met—in your responsible, respectful, generous way—is an appropriate way for you to be able to have your voice be heard.
A couple more life’s lessons learned: so we do need help, and I used to see that as a weakness—that somehow I was stronger if I could just do it all on my own and be self-sufficient. One thing I love about our religion is free agency and self-sufficiency. We talk it, we preach it, we live it, and I love it. And we also need each other.
It was mentioned earlier that I did do the rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon. It’s about 26 miles in one day; it’s a pretty intense hike, about a 5,000-foot change in elevation. And to do that, I needed help. So what we did, some of the folks that I hike with—Don, in particular; he is just such a good man. He is serving an LDS mission with his wife now in Hawaii—he would put a bear bell on the back of his backpack, so as he walked, I could follow him and keep track of where he was on the trail. When trails got very narrow and I was tired or it was a little sketchier, he would take a hiking stick and tie it to the back of his backpack so I could actually grab onto it and I could perfectly center myself against his backpack. So that I knew I was centered on the trail, just so I felt a little more grounded while hiking.
I needed help on that. Likewise, when we were toward the end of the trail, we had some people who were really struggling physically, and we as a team stood back to encourage them and walk with them step-by-step so we knew everyone on our team made it to the top. It was a great experience for me, and I know in my career right now I’ve had some amazing opportunities. And so many of those opportunities have come because I have had amazing teams surrounding me—people who I love and respect and admire, and they debate with me and they encourage me and they challenge me. And my team is a huge success; I mean, any success I’ve had was a team—at home, with my kids, with my family, with work—it’s all team.
It seems like such an obvious concept, but the older I’ve gotten, I have become so, so clear that for all of our success in life, we need each other. So, part of it is advocating for yourself and knowing it’s okay to ask for help and you’re worthy of it. And two, being okay to assist others when they need it. Because at some point on the trail, you are going to need the bear bell. So make sure you’re willing to give it to somebody else when you’ve got it.
Final point for today. Actually, point five—I have a point and then a half a point. The final point I want to leave is this idea of chunking it. We have so many opportunities in this life—abundant opportunities. My challenge is prioritizing. You talk to my mom; I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be a forest ranger, I wanted to . . . It’s endless. There are so many things to do in this life. But when we go to do things that really matter, like you guys finishing school right now, whatever those things are you are tackling in your life—they can seem a little overwhelming.
I just came from a three-hour meeting up on Capitol Hill where we were talking about the future of Utah over the next 40 years as we look at doubling our population. How are we going to manage that growth and economic prosperity? Big challenges. A little overwhelming almost.
I’ve learned something really important in my life that helps us take the steps into those areas that seem so difficult. So I travel. I travel a lot. And I travel by myself very often—not all the time, but it’s not uncommon for me to travel by myself. And it used to be really scary before I had all my travel training, the idea of traveling by myself. In fact, not too long ago, I flew to Japan by myself and was a little nervous because as long as I can communicate with somebody and ask questions I can figure it out. But what if they don’t speak English?
I have to chunk things, so this is what I do when I travel. My first goal is just to find the gate. I have a goal; I know where I am going. At the end of this month, I’m traveling to Washington, DC. I’m taking my son with me. I know the goal; we’re going to go to Washington, DC. All right. But if I had to know all the details of how I was going to get that figured out before I left my house, I almost wouldn’t go. Because generally speaking, as a blind person there is a lot of unforeseen stuff you can’t plan for, you don’t know about. You’ve just got to figure it out as you go.
So my first goal when I get to the airport is just to find the gate. Not a big deal; pretty simple. Next goal: I just find my seat. Not a big deal; that’s the easiest part. The biggest thing is that the plane safely lands. I can’t control that. But the plane safely lands. My next goal is that I’ve got to find baggage claim because if I can find baggage claim—usually I do carry-ons, but if I can find baggage claim, that’s normally where the exit is, so then I can find taxis if I need a taxi. Then I find a taxi stand and I ask questions along the way. I listen for cues; there are lots of contextual clues, and I ask lots of questions.
I find the taxi, no big deal. I give them the address, like if it’s a hotel, and I get in. I listen to where I think the front desk is, or the concierge, and I find that. I check in, and then I’ve got to figure out how to get to my room, which normally I just ask a direction and I can normally figure it out. And the biggest challenge of the entire trip is how to figure out the thermostat because hotel thermostats are all like touchscreens nowadays. I have to FaceTime my husband to have him look at the thermostat for me. But that’s the biggest challenge because I’m always cold. I’ve become like my mother. I’m always cold.
If I were to leave my house that day—when I went to Japan, I got off the subway, and the subway was not where I expected. I thought I was getting off right at the airport, and I was not in the airport. And I just was surrounded by people who didn’t speak English, and I thought, “I have got to just chunk this because I have no idea how I am going to find the airport.” And I was, and I chunked it. And I found a guy from Singapore, and he was awesome and he showed me how to get there. And it all worked out. I’m here. I’ve never been permanently lost.
So the point is, in life there can be big things you want to take on, and we should! We should think big, and we should have really ambitious goals in our life. Or simple goals—whatever your goals are. But sometimes we stop moving forward because it feels so overwhelming. If we can just chunk it and know—one of my favorite scriptures is in Matthew 6:34: give no thought for tomorrow, for today is the evil sufficient unto itself.
I kind of paraphrased that, but bottom line, there is enough to worry about today. Do your very best today. Work hard. Excel. Focus. Deliver. Do what you need to do today, and then the next step will be revealed to you. Just like walking through uncertainty, you’ll take the next step and the next step will open up. In this life, we want plans and we want certainty. We want forecasts, and we want perfected economic models. Blah, blah, blah. Life is uncertain. We don’t want to face that reality, but it is. Things will happen that we don’t expect. The question is learning to move through it, to chunk it, to have teams, to know that you are advocating for yourself to get the help you need to be successful, to learn to be yourself, to redefine what you may perceive to be a weakness as a characteristic, and then acknowledge that characteristic that you have and decide what you are going to make out of characteristic.
I leave you with this last little piece. I’ve been really touched when I’ve been studying the history of the Apostles. Christ lived in the middle of uncertainty, in a turbulent historical context: with Romans overseeing the Jewish culture, the Sadducees and Pharisees—but what I found so fascinating is that He brought together Twelve Apostles with such varied and different backgrounds. He brought Peter, who brought Andrew—his little brother, who constantly was being compared to Peter—Andrew was always called “brother of Simon Peter,” his whole life. He was never just Andrew; he was Peter’s brother.
He had James and John, who were known as the “sons of thunder.” At one point, those guys even went to the Samaritans, and they weren’t happy how the Samaritans had greeted Christ, and they said, “Christ, how about if we bring down fire upon them?” And Christ was like, “Not a good idea. But number one, you can’t even bring down fire, so what are you talking about?” So not a good idea. But they had a few anger issues.
Then you had Simon the Zealot. The Zealots back there were the militant groups that wanted to overthrow, even by force, the Roman Empire. The only people the Zealots hated more than the Romans were the tax collectors, the Jewish tax collectors, because they saw the Jews’ tax collectors as surrogates for the Roman Empire, betraying their people by collecting taxes for the Roman Empire. So Christ brings Simon the Zealot, and then guess who else He brings? Matthew the tax collector. I mean, honestly. Can you imagine the diverse group He brought together for a mission?
I say that because differences are okay. Embrace those differences in each other. Have tolerance for those differences in each other. See the best in each other. Give one another the benefit of the doubt that we’re all trying our best as we muck through this life. And learn to have that same sense of grace and generosity for yourself.
I believe fundamentally that this life is a miracle. It’s a miracle to take advantage of, to embrace, and to find a contribution here to make. And I say these things with you in Jesus’ name, amen.