“You Do Not Know What Your Life Will Be Tomorrow”
AS TOLD BY HERBERT JENNINGS
“I was returning to the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Ghana from the port city of Tema and stopped to pick up a young man seeking a ride into town. I seized the opportunity to witness to him. I thought I was doing wonderfully well! However, when we reached this young man’s destination, he leaped out of the truck and took off running.”
THE foregoing incident was a clue to me that something unusual was unfolding in my life. Before I relate what happened, let me tell you how I, a Canadian, came to be in Ghana.
It was mid-December 1949 in a northern suburb of Toronto, Canada. We had just finished digging through several feet of frozen ground to provide water service to a new house. Cold and tired, our work crew huddled around a scrap-wood fire, waiting to be picked up by truck. Suddenly, Arnold Lorton, one of the workers, started saying something about “wars and rumors of wars,” “the end of this world,” and using other expressions totally unfamiliar to me. Everyone instantly seized up, became embarrassed, and some even showed hostility toward him. I remember thinking, ‘This guy has a lot of courage! Nobody here wants to listen, and yet he continues.’ But what he was saying struck a responsive chord in me. It was only a few years after World War II, and I had never heard such things in the Christadelphian religion that had been part of my family for several generations. I listened intently, caught up in his explanations.
It did not take me long to approach Arnold for more information. Looking back, I realize just how tolerant and kind he and his wife, Jean, were to me, an inexperienced 19-year-old. I frequently arrived unannounced and uninvited at their home to talk with them. They put me on the right track and helped me sort out the conflict of standards and morals that was swirling through my young mind. Ten months after that initial experience by the roadside fire, I was baptized on October 22, 1950, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and became associated with the Willowdale Congregation in North York, now part of Toronto.
Moving Ahead With Fellow Worshipers
Life at home became increasingly tense when my father realized that I was determined to pursue my newfound faith. Dad had recently been the victim of a head-on collision caused by a drunk driver and thus was often not the most agreeable person. Life was difficult for Mom, my two brothers, and my two sisters. The tension over Bible truth escalated. So it seemed prudent to me that I leave home for the sake of peace with my parents and to establish myself in “the way of the truth.”—2 Peter 2:2.
By the late summer of 1951, I settled into a little congregation in Coleman, Alberta. Two young men, Ross Hunt and Keith Robbins, were there, busy in full-time public preaching, known as regular pioneering. They helped to direct me toward that same volunteer ministry. On March 1, 1952, I joined the ranks of regular pioneer ministers.
I remember with fondness the encouragement I received. I had a great deal to learn, and here was my proving ground. Later, after spending about a year in pioneer service with the Lethbridge Congregation, Alberta, I received an unexpected invitation to serve as a traveling overseer. I was to serve the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses scattered along the east coast of Canada from Moncton, New Brunswick, to Gaspé, Quebec.
At only 24 years of age and relatively new in the truth, I felt very inadequate, especially compared with the mature Witnesses I was to serve. I put forth a sincere effort in the next several months. Then came another surprise.
Gilead School and Off to the Gold Coast
In September 1955, I was invited to join about a hundred other students for the 26th class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in South Lansing, New York. Five months of intensive training and study were exactly what I needed. My enthusiasm was fortified by being with such a highly motivated group. During this time, there was another development that has enriched my life to this day.
There was a certain young sister, Aileen Stubbs, among the students preparing for missionary activity. What I saw in Aileen was a certain stability, a no-nonsense practicalness, and a modest, cheerful disposition. I guess I frightened her when I clumsily declared my intentions. However, she did not run! By mutual agreement, Aileen would go to her missionary assignment in Costa Rica and I to mine in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), West Africa.
One morning in May 1956, I found myself in Brother Nathan Knorr’s tenth-floor office in Brooklyn, New York. He was then president of the Watch Tower Society. I was being assigned as branch servant to supervise the preaching work in the Gold Coast, Togoland (now Togo), Ivory Coast (now Côte d’Ivoire), Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and The Gambia.
I remember Brother Knorr’s words as if spoken only yesterday. “You don’t have to take over right away,” he said. “Take your time; learn from the experienced brothers there. Then when you feel ready, you should begin to serve as the branch servant. . . . Here is your letter of appointment. Seven days from the time you arrive, you should take over.”
‘Just seven days,’ I thought. ‘Whatever happened to “take your time”?’ I left that interview stunned.
The next few days passed in a blur. All too soon I was standing at the rail of a freighter, sailing along the East River past the Society’s Brooklyn offices, beginning a 21-day ocean voyage to the Gold Coast.
Aileen and I kept the overseas mail services busy. We met again in 1958 and were married on August 23 of that year. I never fail to thank Jehovah for such a splendid partner.
For 19 years, I appreciated the privilege of serving alongside fellow missionaries and my African brothers and sisters at the Society’s branch office. The Bethel family grew from just a handful to about 25 during that period. Those were challenging, eventful, and productive days for us. I must be candid, though. Personally, I found the hot, humid climate a particular challenge. It seemed that I was always perspiring, always clammy, and at times, irritable. Nevertheless, it was a real joy to serve, as our numbers in Ghana grew from just over 6,000 Kingdom publishers in 1956 to 21,000 in 1975. And it is doubly gratifying to see over 60,000 busy Witnesses there now.
A “Tomorrow” We Did Not Anticipate
About 1970, I began to experience a health problem that proved very difficult to identify. I had complete medical examinations, only to be told that I was “in good health.” Then why did I always feel so unwell, so fatigued, so restless? Two things provided an answer, and they came as a shock. Indeed, as James wrote: “You do not know what your life will be tomorrow.”—James 4:14.
The first clue was the experience with the young man I witnessed to while giving him a ride into town. Little did I realize that I was babbling on and on, talking faster and more intensely with each passing moment. When we reached this young man’s destination, I was taken aback when he leaped out of the truck and took off running. Most Ghanaians are by nature an unruffled, calm lot, able to take almost anything in stride. His reaction just did not fit the picture. I sat there pondering. I realized I had a problem. Just what, I did not know. But I definitely had a problem.
Second, after one particularly soul-searching discussion, Aileen suggested: “Well, if this problem is not physical, then it has to be mental.” So I carefully wrote down all my symptoms and went to a psychiatrist. When I read off my list, his reply was: “This is a classic case. You are suffering from manic-depressive psychosis.”
I was dumbstruck! There was a continual downward spiral as I endeavored to struggle on for the next couple of years. I kept searching for a solution. But no one really knew what to do. What a frustrating struggle it proved to be!
It had always been our intention to hold on to the privilege of full-time service as our vocation in life, and there was so much that needed to be done. I offered many a heartfelt and fervent prayer: “Jehovah, if you will, I ‘shall live and also do this.’” (James 4:15) But it was not to be. So, facing reality, we arranged to leave Ghana and our many close friends and return to Canada in June 1975.
Jehovah Renders Aid Through His People
I soon learned that I was not indispensable, nor was my problem unique. The words of 1 Peter 5:9 came home to me: “[Know] that the same things in the way of sufferings are being accomplished in the entire association of your brothers in the world.” Having grasped this, I began to discern how Jehovah did, indeed, support both of us in spite of this unwelcome change. How beautifully the ‘association of brothers’ came to our aid in a multitude of ways!
Although we did not have much materially, Jehovah did not abandon us. He moved our friends in Ghana to come to our aid materially and otherwise. With profound mixed emotions, we took our leave of those we had grown so fond of and turned to deal with this unexpected “tomorrow.”
We were kindly taken in by Aileen’s sister, Lenora, and her husband, Alvin Friesen, who generously provided for our needs over a number of months. A prominent psychiatrist made the confident prediction: “You will be back on your feet in six months.” Perhaps that was said to instill confidence in me, but the prediction was not fulfilled even after six years. To this day, I cope with what is now politely referred to as bipolar mood disorder. A gentler name to be sure, but as those who suffer from it well know, a kinder name does not in any way ease the overwhelming symptoms of the disease.
By that time, Brother Knorr was already suffering from an illness that eventually led to his death in June of 1977. Even so, he found the time and energy to write me long, encouraging letters with words of comfort and counsel. I still treasure those letters. His words did much to quell the unreasonable feelings of failure that kept surfacing.
At the end of 1975, we had to relinquish our precious full-time service privileges and concentrate on stabilizing my health. Ordinary daylight hurt my eyes. Sudden sharp sounds reverberated like rifle shots. The milling of crowds overwhelmed me. It was a real struggle just to attend Christian meetings. Nevertheless, I was absolutely convinced of the value of spiritual association. To cope, I usually entered the Kingdom Hall after the crowd settled down and left just before it began to stir at the end of the program.
Sharing in the public ministry presented another great challenge. Sometimes, even after arriving at a house, I simply could not bring myself to the point of ringing the doorbell. I would not quit, however, because I realized that our ministry means salvation to ourselves and to any who respond favorably. (1 Timothy 4:16) After a while, I would be able to bring my emotions under control, go to the next door, and try again. By continuing to share in the ministry, I maintained reasonable spiritual health, and that increased my ability to cope.
Because of the chronic nature of bipolar mood disorder, I have come to realize that this disease will most likely be a fixture in my life during this present system of things. In 1981 an excellent series of articles appeared in Awake!* By means of them, I began to comprehend better the nature of this illness and to learn more effective techniques for coping with it.
Learning to Cope
All of this has not been without sacrifice and adjustment on my wife’s part. If you are a caregiver in similar circumstances, you will likely appreciate her observations:
“A mood disorder appears to bring about an abrupt change in personality. Within a few hours, the sufferer can go from being a lively, encouraging individual with innovative plans and ideas to being an exhausted, negative, even angry, person. If not recognized as an illness, it could provoke in others feelings of exasperation and bewilderment. Obviously, plans have to be altered quickly, and a personal fight against feelings of disappointment or rejection begins.”
As for me, when I feel extraordinarily well, I become apprehensive. I instinctively know that what follows a “high” is a plunge to a moody “low.” In my case, “low” is preferable to a “high” because the low usually immobilizes me for a number of days, and I am not likely to get involved in anything unbalanced. Aileen helps greatly by warning me of being overstimulated and by comforting and supporting me when a dark mood overwhelms me.
There is a very real danger of becoming self-absorbed to the exclusion of all else when the disease is most active. One can completely shut everyone out when in a depressed mood or fail to be aware of the feelings and reactions of others during a manic episode. In the past, it was difficult for me to accept the evidence of my mental and emotional problem. I have had to battle with thinking that something external, such as a failed project or another person, was the problem. Time and again, I have had to remind myself, ‘Nothing has changed around me. The problem is internal, not external.’ Gradually, my thinking has become adjusted.
Over the years, both of us have learned to be open and honest with ourselves and others about my condition. We endeavor to maintain an optimistic attitude and not permit the disease to dominate our lives.
A Better “Tomorrow”
Through fervent prayers and many struggles, we have benefited from Jehovah’s blessing and support. Both of us are now in our senior years. I am under regular medical supervision with a moderate but constant amount of medication, and I remain reasonably stable in health. We appreciate any privileges of service we can have. I continue to serve as a congregation elder. We always try to be supportive of others in the faith.
True, as James 4:14 says: “You do not know what your life will be tomorrow.” That will be so as long as this system of things continues to exist. However, the words of James 1:12 also ring true: “Happy is the man that keeps on enduring trial, because on becoming approved he will receive the crown of life, which Jehovah promised to those who continue loving him.” May all of us stand firm today and realize the blessings Jehovah holds out for tomorrow.
See the articles “You Can Cope With Life,” in the August 8, 1981, issue of Awake!; “How You Can Fight Depression,” in the September 8, 1981, issue; and “Attacking Major Depression,” in the October 22, 1981, issue.
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Seeking solitude in my art studio
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With my wife, Aileen
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At the “Everlasting Good News” Assembly held in Tema, Ghana, in 1963