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When we meet someone, who has lived a long, healthy life, it’s natural to wonder what he or she did to achieve such longevity. Even the best health practices, however, cannot guarantee the length of our life. And yet there are things we can do to ensure the quality of our life—measured not in terms of luxuries but of virtue, goodness, and honor.
“A free society is a moral achievement,” wrote the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a book published just months before his passing. Freedom does not come from economic policies or political power, he observed. It requires morality, which Rabbi Sacks defined as “a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for ‘all of us together.’ It is about ‘Us,’ not ‘Me’; about ‘We,’ not ‘I.’”
In our day, finding answers to questions has never been easier. When we have questions, we simply search the internet—which is now as simple as talking to a handheld device—and we expect immediate responses. And we often get them! But how often do we stop to consider if we are asking the right questions of the right sources—and if we are getting the right answers?
Every life needs aspirations—along with goals to help us achieve them. Our goals can be like the banks of a river, guiding the flow of our ambitions. Making plans and striving to accomplish them helps channel our efforts and energies toward the things that matter most to us.
With a new year on the horizon, it’s traditional to reflect on the year that has passed. And what a year it has been! A global pandemic, natural calamities, social unrest, political turmoil—so many problems and protests, disasters and disagreements have swirled around us. At the same time, we’ve also had moments we will forever cherish. As we look back on 2020, we see good and bad, ups and downs, things we’d like to forget, and things we hope to remember.
I’m standing at Wenceslas Square, in the heart of Prague, near a statue of the Duke of Bohemia, affectionately known as good King Wenceslas. A caring Christian ruler and patron saint of the Czech Republic, Wenceslas has come to represent kindhearted generosity and selfless giving. And because these attributes are at the heart of Christmas, it’s not surprising that good King Wenceslas is also the subject of a beloved Christmas carol.
Some years ago, a group of friends were eating dinner together at Christmastime, bemoaning the busyness of the season. With exasperation and perhaps a little resentment, they spoke of hectic schedules and heavy burdens. After listening patiently, one wise, seasoned woman humbly offered her opinion. “I love Christmas,” she said. “It is the most joyful of all seasons. I love seeing the eyes of little children light up on Christmas morning. I love giving gifts. I love being with my family. We just need to simplify and remember what we are celebrating.”
Sometime after the birth of the Christ child on that first Christmas Day, the baby and His parents were visited by Wise Men from the East. They came to honor the sacred occasion with loving gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Their kind offering gave rise to a tradition that now seems inseparable from the Christmas season: giving gifts to those we love.
People watch for the first signs of Christmas with great anticipation. Favorite holiday carols fill the air. Colorful, glistening lights illuminate the night sky. And wreaths of holly and ivy appear on doors and storefronts. To many people, traditional symbols like these signal the advent of the Christmas season. But how did these traditions begin?
When we express thanks, we are giving a gift: a gift to ourselves, to others, and to our Maker, the Giver of the blessings of life. And those blessings are all around us if we look for them.
Many of us are searching for ways to feel a little better—physically and emotionally. When aches and pains escalate, we feel thankful for modern medicines that can help restore our health. But there is another kind of treatment that some people are calling free medicine, or “a prescription you can’t fill in a pharmacy”: time spent in nature.
At this solemn site, the Normandy American Cemetery in France, more than 9,300 American soldiers are laid to rest. The architecture here, the exhibits, and the peaceful surroundings are all designed to pay tribute to their sacrifice. Most of the soldiers buried here died during the invasion of Normandy that began on June 6, 1944—better known as D-Day.
Every life is different; the only predictable pattern is that all of us experience a mix of joy and sadness, happiness and heartache—usually occurring unpredictably. No matter how carefully we plan, setbacks—large and small—can disrupt our plans. We settle into a good job, a relationship, a neighborhood, and then life surprises us.
Every once in a while, a series of choices, experiences, and circumstances combine to create a person who seems to stand out, someone we naturally look to as a role model. Russell M. Nelson is one of those uncommon men.
Is there such a thing as a “perfect family”? Obedient children, abundantly patient parents, with endless bliss at home—we fantasize about it, because that’s exactly what it is: a fantasy. In reality we all have struggles, seen or unseen, that pull at the fabric of our family. And that cloth knows both tears and tears as we watch loved ones make choices that break our hearts.
Young people are taught that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you can dream it, you can do it. And when we’re young, we believe it. The world seems full of promise and possibilities.
Why is it that so much of life’s profound beauty has roots in heartache and sorrow? There seems to be something about human nature that causes us to reach the highest during our lowest points. We see it when tragedies and disasters strike and people come together to love and help each other in ways they’ve never done before. We see it in sublime art and music, which often enough is inspired by hardship and trial, even as it fills us with solace and joy.
Several years ago, a team of rescuers helped an older couple evacuate their home after a hurricane. Their house, which the husband had helped build, was flooded. The wife had serious health problems that made their situation more perilous. And yet, they were smiling. One of the rescuers asked how they could stay positive in the midst of this difficult tragedy. The woman answered, “That storm can take my house, it can take my car, it can take my furniture and my pictures, but it can never take my spirit.”
So often in life, we are taught by trials. We don’t get to choose our difficulties and challenges, but we do get to choose whether or not we will learn something from them. We can all think of personal trials we’ve had to face—everyone has them. But it’s not often that the entire world faces the same challenge—the same learning experience—at the same time.
Anyone who has ever passed a driving test knows what a blind spot is. It’s that troublesome area just outside your field of vision that can make changing lanes dangerous. No matter how you adjust your mirrors, you can’t truly drive safely unless you’re aware of and account for your blind spot.
You’re probably familiar with the old saying “The best things in life come to those who wait.” Sometimes that’s called delayed gratification: the decision to forego something you want now so that you can have something better later. It’s not hard to see the benefits of this philosophy, but it can be hard to practice it—especially in today’s world, where so many voices say, “Why wait? You deserve to have it now! This will make you happy.”
Despite the difficulties that come with getting older, we all hope we live long enough to experience them. But we also hope, of course, to find plenty of peace and comfort as well. According to one expert who has written about happiness in the retirement years, two key attributes are essential—in old age or any season of life: a good sense of humor and a willingness to forgive. 
In 1872, United States President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill designating Yellowstone as America’s first national park. In fact, it was the first national park in the world. More than that, it was the birth of a new idea—the preservation of a natural site of notable beauty and importance. The idea caught on, and over the next 44 years, another 34 national parks and monuments, along with an agency to maintain them, were created. Here at Yellowstone National Park, we mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service, and we celebrate what author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called “the best idea [America] ever had.”
In the spring of 1945, with the world still staggering from the most devastating war in human history, leaders from 50 nations gathered in San Francisco with admittedly high aspirations: to create an international organization that would “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Thus the United Nations was born, with a charter that also included the aim to promote human rights, international law, and a higher standard of living around the world.
The first-time famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma ever performed as a young boy, he played a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. In the 60 years since then, he has performed works by scores of other composers, but he finds himself constantly returning to Bach. When asked why that is, Yo-Yo Ma explained: “At each stage of your life, you go back and discover new things. The way I understand Bach now is with the analogy of a river. It’s like you’re touching a living stream of water that keeps flowing, and by touching it or listening to it or playing it, you are in touch with something much bigger than yourself. It changes from day to day, from season to season and from year to year.”
It takes only a glance at the news to know about disasters and tragedies all around the world. And it takes only a glance into our own lives to know that they happen close to home as well. Everyone’s difficulties are unique, but everyone has some. And perhaps that’s the first step toward coping and hoping: to realize that we’re not alone as we experience life’s hardships. We are all, to one degree or another, going through it together. While we might prefer to turn away from others and struggle privately, hearts heal best when they’re open. That’s when love can enter, when the bonds of friendship can bind up a broken heart. Writer James Thurber once shared this definition of love he heard from a friend: “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.”
In 1846, thousands of people in the midwestern United States were persecuted for their beliefs and forced from their homes in the dead of winter. They didn’t consider themselves pioneers, but suddenly they were—walking across the western wilderness in search of refuge, a place where they could worship their God and practice their faith. Some traveled by wagon, others by handcart, but they all had to walk and walk and walk many hundreds of miles. There were no roads or restaurants, no inns or waystations to enter and rest along the way. But the fire of their faith kept them warm, and their convictions kept them moving.
When The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square first began singing, not long after the wagon wheels came to a stop in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847, there was more sagebrush than people in the listening audience. Now, that same choir produces the world’s longest-running continuous network broadcast—carried on more than 2,000 media stations and heard by millions of people each week.
We opened today’s broadcast the same way we opened The Tabernacle Choir’s first-ever broadcast 90 years ago: with a stirring hymn titled “The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee.” It was composed by George Careless, former conductor of the Choir, and looking back, it was the perfect way to begin the weekly tradition of Music and the Spoken Word—with a song about “the dawning of a brighter day” majestically rising “on the world.” Mornings, after all, bring hope. The dawn is a signal of promise and possibility and encouragement. And this is what Music and the Spoken Word has brought to the world for nine decades now. No one knew it at the time, but July 15, 1929, marked the dawning of the longest continuously broadcast network program in history.
On the 10th day of May 1869, at a remote promontory north of the Great Salt Lake, Central Pacific Railroad official Leland Stanford struck a golden spike into a railroad tie. It marked the connecting point between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific rail lines, a railroad that now spanned the breadth of the United States. Bill Smoot, a local 15-year-old, had signed on to help with the work as it passed through Utah Territory. He later recalled, “I caught the railroad fever, even though I had never even seen a picture of a railroad or a train of cars.”