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Friday, April 9, 2010

An Example of What Bitterness Can Do

From a talk given by Elder David Sorensen:

"I grew up in a small farming town where water was the lifeblood of the community. I remember the people of our society constantly watching, worrying, and praying over the rain, irrigation rights, and water in general. Sometimes my children chide me; they say they never knew someone so preoccupied with rain. I tell them I suppose that’s true because where I grew up the rain was more than a preoccupation. It was a matter of survival!

Under the stress and strain of our climate, sometimes people weren’t always at their best. Occasionally, neighbors would squabble over one farmer taking too long a turn from the irrigation ditch. That’s how it started with two men who lived near our mountain pasture, whom I will call Chet and Walt. These two neighbors began to quarrel over water from the irrigation ditch they shared. It was innocent enough at first, but over the years the two men allowed their disagreements to turn into resentment and then arguments—even to the point of threats.

One July morning both men felt they were once again short of water. Each went to the ditch to see what had happened, each in his own mind reckoning the other had stolen his water. They arrived at the headgate at the same time. Angry words were exchanged; a scuffle ensued. Walt was a large man with great strength. Chet was small, wiry, and tenacious. In the heat of the scuffle, the shovels the men were carrying were used as weapons. Walt accidentally struck one of Chet’s eyes with the shovel, leaving him blind in that eye.

Months and years passed, yet Chet could not forget nor forgive. The anger that he felt over losing his eye boiled inside him, and his hatred grew more intense. One day, Chet went to his barn, took down the gun from its rack, got on his horse, and rode down to the headgate of the ditch. He put a dam in the ditch and diverted the water away from Walt’s farm, knowing that Walt would soon come to see what had happened. Then Chet slipped into the brush and waited. When Walt appeared, Chet shot him dead. Then he got on his horse, went back to his home, and called the sheriff to inform him that he had just shot Walt.

My father was asked to be on the jury that tried Chet for murder. Father disqualified himself because he was a longtime friend of both men and their families. Chet was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

After many years, Chet’s wife came to my father and asked if he would sign a petition to the governor, asking for clemency for her husband, whose health was now broken after serving so many years in the state penitentiary. Father signed the petition. A few nights later, two of Walt’s grown sons appeared at our door. They were very angry and upset. They said that because Father had signed the petition, many others had signed. They asked Father to have his name withdrawn from the petition. He said no. He felt that Chet was a broken and sick man. He had suffered these many years in prison for that terrible crime of passion. He wanted to see Chet have a decent funeral and burial beside his family.

Walt’s sons whirled in anger and said, “If he is released from prison, we will see that harm comes to him and his family.”

Chet was eventually released and allowed to come home to die with his family. Fortunately, there was no further violence between the families. My father often lamented how tragic it was that Chet and Walt, these two neighbors and boyhood friends, had fallen captive to their anger and let it destroy their lives. How tragic that the passion of the moment was allowed to escalate out of control—eventually taking the lives of both men—simply because two men could not forgive each other over a few shares of irrigation water.

The Savior said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him,” 1 thus commanding us to resolve our differences early on, lest the passions of the moment escalate into physical or emotional cruelty, and we fall captive to our anger.

Nowhere does this principle apply more than in our families. Your specific concern may not be water, but each of us on earth, living under the stress and strain of this telestial climate, will have reason—real or perceived—to take offense. How will we react? Will we take offense? Will we find fault? Will we let the passions of the moment overcome us?

President Brigham Young once compared being offended to a poisonous snakebite. He said that “there are two courses of action to follow when one is bitten by a rattlesnake. One may, in anger, fear, or vengefulness, pursue the creature and kill it. Or he may make full haste to get the venom out of his system.” He said, “If we pursue the latter course we will likely survive, but if we attempt to follow the former, we may not be around long enough to finish it.”
(David E. Sorensen, “Forgiveness Will Change Bitterness to Love,” Liahona, May 2003, 10–12)
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