At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to share some thoughts with you. And forgive me that these thoughts are coming from the deepest part of my soul and might sound awkward and are sort of uncomfortable for me to share. But I feel like I need to. So I will.

The year is winding down and I guess I've been a little more reflective in the last few weeks than I have been all year. And I've been more reflective throughout 2013 than I have been in prior years.

I'm basically like a huge mirror now. Except one that drinks a whole carton of eggnog last night at 11:30, right before climbing into bed.

I was at church on Sunday morning. In Mormon churches we have what you might call "interactive sermons" for the majority of our Sunday worship. Church meetings proceed for three hours. Two of those hours are made up of classes that consist of group discussions where the class will entertain such topics as overcoming adversity and the benefits of meaningful service and developing oneself spiritually. And making doilies.

The more unique perspectives shared and higher level of class participation, the better.

These kinds of classes have been the source of a lot of strength for me over the years. And in fact sometimes they were the main thing that encouraged me to hold on in Palau when I didn't know if I had it in me to survive another day. There was something so encouraging about sitting among those beautiful Palauans and hearing them share their own experiences of working through hardship and learning something along the way.

Gosh I miss those people. I really miss those beautiful people.

This Sunday I sat in a class, the topic of choice for the day: why we have trials.

I was needing something extra on Sunday. And I knew it as I walked the two blocks to church on Sunday morning. Life has been a roller coaster this year. And the recent weeks have delivered unrelenting blow after unrelenting blow that seem hell-bent on making sure that I know that the struggle did not cease when I left Palau.

I've experienced heartache and anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and fear to a degree that I had never known before.

Last week was a hard week. A long and hard one. And when I got to Sunday morning I was feeling a little broken and alone.

The class started talking about why we have trials. And their comments hit home. They resonated with me in a way that was probably only possible because of the heartache and anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and fear that allowed me to digest them.

The teacher asked what it is that we gain from our trials.

Flashes from this year flew through my mind.

I saw myself crying in the shower in Palau.

I saw myself feeling the wind get knocked out of me when a friend delivered some of the worst news I've ever heard.

I saw myself crumble on the street when someone I loved deeply said the most hurtful things I've ever heard.

I saw myself ache over tragedy.

I saw myself shrink at the sight of more abandonment.

I saw myself  hurt because of crushed dreams.

And I watched these flashes run through my mind. All experiences from this year. All experiences that caused pain I had never really known before. And I felt tears well up in my eyes as I basked in this misery for a moment or two.

And then I felt myself sigh a sigh of relief. And I felt the words run across my mind: Eli, you're still here. And the pain has made you better.

You can cry with others because you understand their pain better now.

You can feel peace in the fact that you haven't let yourself fill up with hate.

You can be proud because you've made it to this spot. And this spot was not an easy place to get.

My life is not the hardest life that has ever lived. I know this. That's not lost on me. Many of you have had hardships so much greater than anything I'll ever know. But I've struggled. And my struggles have hurt. And as much as they have hurt, I know that I needed them. I haven't handled them all perfectly, but I know that I needed them.

Before I knew it, I felt myself blurting out an answer to the teacher's question about what we gain from our trials. It was an answer that I knew in the very core of my soul. The kind of answer you feel.

I said that hardship is our link to reality. It's the thing that can truly make us focus on what matters. It's the rain that either waters our crops or floods our houses. It's the thing that can best help us become something great on the inside. And the only thing that can callous us on the outside.

But no matter what the hardship is, it can never fully take away our decision about how it will affect us internally.

I said that it's our human nature to minimize struggle. Even though struggle is what allows us to become better. And those who understand that and appreciate it are the ones who do become better because of the struggle.

I have no idea why I've had to endure some of the things I have. I have no idea if and when a few of my own demons will go away. But I'm sure as hell not going to let the pain reign in vain, so to speak. I will find value in the struggle. This year will make me stronger. It will pave the way for true empathy in the future. It will serve to remind me that I can handle trial. And I am determined to be grateful for the heartache that taught me the lessons.

Because not being grateful isn't going to make the heartache go away. And you know what? I'm ok with that.

Because I'm still here. And the pain has made me better.

~It Just Gets Stranger