Historic painting of handcart pioneers by LDS artist C.C.A. Christensen.
A few days ago, someone I respect and admire shared feelings of failure and lack of self-worth for not being able to handle the pressing burdens of life. They are the common burdens of everyday mortality—conflicts between work and home responsibilities, too little money, too few hours in the day. But to each of us at one time or another, they may seem overwhelming. We may feel that we just do not measure up.
I wish this person could look into the mirror of the soul and see inherent strengths and progress already made. But I know all too well the temptation to feel lacking on the inside—wholly inadequate for life. Nevertheless, I have learned from experience, and I want my friend to know this: You are far stronger and more accomplished than you are seeing right now. You are winning, not losing. You have what is needed to gain the victory.
Each summer Mormon youth throughout the world take part in handcart treks commemorating the 1,100-mile journey of Latter-day Saint pioneers across the Great Plains of the United States. In the 1850s, many converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived from Europe with almost nothing. Thousands of them took part in the westward migration over what was named the Mormon Trail, ending in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Often they were too poor to be outfitted with wagons and teams, so many groups made the trek on foot pulling or pushing two-wheeled handcarts that held everything they owned.
One of the groups, the Martin-Willie Handcart Company, became famous for the tragedy that befell them when they were trapped on the plains of Wyoming in October by an early winter storm. Many froze to death before they could be rescued. But other handcart companies made the trek over the years without the notice of the world in general. Men, women, and children pulled and pushed their handcarts day after day despite fatigue or pain or thirst or debilitating illness. There was no choice but to push onward over rocky, sometimes steep, terrain in burning sun or cutting wind. For more than 100 days, they moved toward and longed for their new home in the West. For some in the lesser-known groups, death on the plains was also the end of the journey. But the company moved on.
Young people who make those commemorative treks today know that after a few days of pulling or pushing their two-wheeled carts, they will return to comfortable homes, to a world with running water and cell phones. The pioneers had only a vision awaiting them—a distant Zion of the future. Perhaps occasionally on their trek they would get a glimpse of its beauty in the mind’s eye or a feel of its joy in the heart. Those were moments to cherish. But mostly, the trek was marked by labor and struggle that must have seemed like it would never end. Some they lightened their loads by throwing out of their carts things that had once seemed precious or important to them.
One pioneer said later that they came to know God in the “extremities” of their trials. A survivor of the Martin company asserted: “The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.” Some would later tell of a day or an hour when they determined that they simply could go no farther. The next clump of sagebrush, the next rock outcropping, the top of the rise was their limit; at that point they would fall victims finally to exhaustion. And then, when they reached that critical point, suddenly they would feel unseen hands pushing the cart, and they knew angels were lending their strength to the task.
When we look back on their sacrifices, we often count ourselves blessed because we have not been called on to endure their tests. But the truth is that we are all, each one of us, engaged in our own trek across the thirsty, trying plains of mortality. We each are carrying in our carts the weight of things that have seemed important or essential in some way. I cannot know all you are carrying in your cart—the weight of pains or weaknesses or griefs—and you cannot know all that is in mine. Perhaps each one of us needs to reevaluate our load. Maybe something that once seemed essential is no longer needed. Maybe something we once chose is actually dead weight holding us back. Maybe we need to throw it out and leave it on the plains. We might need a savior, a redeemer—the Lord Jesus Christ—to help us shed some of these burdens of guilt.
But it is not for me to say what you should get rid of or what you must carry in your cart.
I can only observe the progress of other travelers with regard to where we all began the journey. And I want to say to that person I love, “You can do this. Look back for a moment; see how far you have come. Look ahead. You have already conquered obstacles like these, and you are constantly getting stronger on the journey.”
You are not failing, and you are not alone. Your Eternal Father knows exactly where you are on this trek. He is pleased with your effort, and he can lovingly send help—even unseen help—when he knows you need it most.
For now, keep going, knowing that you are on your way to victory. Your spiritual muscles may be sore and the way ahead may look stormy. But you are doing well, growing stronger, and you have protection that you cannot see. The struggle is not over—but all is well.