Sister Nelson offers UVU graduates advice: Be prepared to learn from life’s surprises and eliminate contention

Compassion, creativity and productivity increase exponentially as contention falls away, said Sister Wendy W. Nelson while addressing graduates at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, on Friday, May 7.

By eliminating contention “hearts can change, conversations can change, relationships can change,” she said. “And that’s only the beginning.”

Sister Nelson — a retired professor of marriage and family therapy, published author, former nurse and psychologist, and the wife of President Russell M. Nelson — received an honorary degree of humane letters and offered the keynote address at UVU’s 80th commencement exercises. Duff Thompson, chair of the UVU Board of Trustees, said the honor recognized Sister Nelson as a “distinguished scholar” and “revered leader” who has “always sought and valued education.”

The convocation honored the largest graduating class in the school’s history — 8,729 graduates earning a total of 10,443 degrees and certificates — and was celebrated in “drive-thru” and “drive-in” style. Concluding a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, the outdoor ceremony had to be moved indoors and broadcast due to high winds. In addition to Sister Nelson, Gary R. Herbert, former Utah governor, and Melisa Nellesen, an advocate for those with autism spectrum disorder, also received honorary degrees.

During her keynote address, titled “Surprise!” Sister Nelson offered two pieces of advice:

“Be willing and be prepared to be surprised. And perhaps even more important: Be willing and be prepared to learn from each surprise.”

Sister Nelson — whose career included teaching for 12 years at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and for 13 years at Brigham Young University — said it was a surprise to receive an honorary doctorate from Utah Valley University.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Sister Wendy Nelson applaud students at Utah Valley University's graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is a professor of marriage and family therapy, author and a former nurse and psychologist.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Sister Wendy Nelson applaud students at Utah Valley University’s graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is a professor of marriage and family therapy, author and a former nurse and psychologist. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Life,” she added, “is full of surprises. Some surprises are fun. Some jaw-dropping. Some heart-wrenching. Some almost heart-stopping. I’m sure you’ve experienced all kinds. I certainly have.”

For example, Sister Nelson said she always assumed she would marry in her 20s and have many children.

“I dated some great men with that goal in mind. However, I never wanted to be just waiting for marriage; instead, I wanted to be increasingly more prepared for marriage, and for life. So, I pursued further education.”

Then, “surprise,” in her 50s, she married a man with 10 children.

Sister Nelson said she has experienced many surprises as she and her husband visited more than 85 countries together. “When we travel, one of the biggest surprises for me is that I can never get enough of each place we visit.”

Another surprise is how drawn she is to government and religious leaders of the various nations, Sister Nelson said.

“Most have very different ideologies from mine, and yet, when I have the privilege, I love looking into their faces and into their eyes, just as my husband does. I love hearing what they believe and learning about their families.  Invariably, I quickly realize how very much we have in common.” 

Then Sister Nelson spoke of another surprise that occurred, while visiting Mozambique. During an evening dinner with two other couples, the group was held hostage by armed men

“The intent of the robbers was to kill my husband and to kidnap me,” she said. “However, thanks to the actions of some courageous, inspired local friends, our lives were spared.

“What surprised me the very most during that Mozambique robbery is that I felt thoroughly, totally, completely at peace.”

That experience now helps Sister Nelson put “even a really bad day” into perspective.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, right, pose with others at Utah Valley University's graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is an author, retired professor of marriage and family therapy, and a former nurse and psychologist.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, right, pose with others at Utah Valley University’s graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is an author, retired professor of marriage and family therapy, and a former nurse and psychologist. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘Best-kept secret’

Sister Nelson also offered advice to the graduates as they commence the rest of their lives. “Armed with your degree, would you like to participate in a really big surprise?” she said. “Would you like to know something you can do that will actually help to change the world for the better?

“Here is a best-kept secret: If you will remove contention from your life, not only will your world change, but you will help to change the world itself.“

The world is filled with contention — extreme forms of discord, strife and antagonism, rooted in disagreements between people.

“Over 30 years of my professional life were devoted to helping people remove contention from their lives,” she said. “From my teaching, clinical practice and clinical research, I can tell you that contention is lethal. It can ruin your physical health, ravage your relationships and play havoc with your productivity, creativity and stamina. And that’s just for starters.”

Playing off a Utah safe driving campaign slogan, Sister Nelson said graduates should have “zero contention.”   

“If you want to have a wonderful life, a life filled with momentum and optimism and accomplishments, remove contention from your mind and heart, from your conversations and relationships, from your home and from your workplace,” she said.  

Here is a best-kept secret: If you will remove contention from your life, not only will your world change, but you will help to change the world itself.

When thinking “about cyber-bullying, or recent political campaigns, or strong opinions on social media about everything from masks to guns,” the goal of zero contention could feel impossible, she added. But It can absolutely be done, she said.

“Yes, it’s true that misunderstandings happen. Feelings get hurt. Contentions arise. Well, what do we do then? We stay with our goal of zero contention, recognizing that it may take some time to get there.”

Quoting researcher Humberto Maturana, Sister Nelson said when one person believes he or she is more correct than another, and that the other’s idea must change, “emotional violence” arises. 

“We can have ideas that are different from others. That’s just part of life — even a most enriching part. We can be passionate about our ideas, and yet, find ways to share our ideas in a manner that leads to congenial debates and to engaging conversations. …

“However, when one person says or implies, ‘You are wrong and must change your view,’ when we force our ideas on others, or insist that they must think or believe or vote or behave like we do, that is emotional violence. And emotional violence is the breeding ground for contention.”

Multiple perspectives can become a rich seedbed in which creativity, productivity and human dignity can flourish — if they are shared by those who are respectful, curious and kind, said Sister Nelson.

“My dear graduates, contention wounds our souls — and our cells — the very cells in our bodies. Have you ever had a conversation that gave you a headache or a stomach ache? And conversely, have you ever felt invigorated, even healthier, at the end of a conversation?”

Sister Wendy Nelson speaks at Utah Valley University's graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is a professor of marriage and family therapy, author and a former nurse and psychologist.
Sister Wendy Nelson speaks at Utah Valley University’s graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is a professor of marriage and family therapy, author and a former nurse and psychologist. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The answer, she said, is love. “Love is a powerful healer — and its companions are peace and joy. I invite you to consider Maturana’s definition of love: ‘Love is opening space for the existence of another.'”

This doesn’t require everyone to always agree, she said. But when opening hearts to the ideas of others, “contention leaves, and love enters in! With love present, we may be surprised how easy it is to offer commendations and encouragement, or to apologize for not previously listening, or for previously attempting to push or force our ideas.”

Eliminating contention can heal hearts. “And, surprise, the world in which we live, the world we co-create through our interactions with others, can change for the better.”