Years ago, when I was dealing with depression that resulted from a move and the associated massive changes in my life, I sought out an LDS counsellor. I had gone to some counselling sessions at LDS Family Services, but the counsellors there were all men, and I felt the absence of female empathy and direction. I wanted an LDS counsellor because much of my angst was church related. In hindsight, I understand that I sought spiritual advice from a woman, but given the patriarchal structure of the church, only could comprehend female, Mormon, inspired, advice could come from a woman who was a professional counsellor. I do not believe this now. Anyway.
Prior to this move, I found it easy to meet and make friends, sometimes LDS, sometimes not, so had not shied away from moving to new places and trying new things. But this move was different. I chose to move where my husband was going to school and had family, far from my friends, and very different to any other place I had chosen to live previously. The place, the people, and the situation were different and foreign. In this, I suddenly found myself an outsider in a close-knit community. I sought the companionship of female friends, but found it very difficult to meet people. A deep loneliness set in, resulting in depression. Although previously disinterested in Relief Society and its structured friendships, I chose to embrace Relief Society with the expectation of making new friends, even if they were assigned.
It didn’t go well.
When my newness faded and I became a regular, the polite welcomeness once fluffed at me quickly greyed into oblivion. I became an ignored waif, and questioned myself, my value, my place. Every Sunday, I attended church hopeful of developing a friendship. Every Sunday, the women in that Relief Society turned their backs when I walked in– literally. If I tried to sit by them, they reminded me that the seats by them were already taken, but I could set a chair for myself “over there…” I would find a chair in a stack, remove it and place it in a solitary position and sit alone for the meeting. I tried different things, sharing books and recipes, often not having the books returned or the recipe-giving reciprocated. In a last-ditch attempt for any kind of companionship, I started to bring crayons, paper and even toys to church because the crawlers and toddlers sitting near me would come and interact with me. I wanted to become a friend to their mothers, so thought this small service would be appreciated. It was; they thanked me and smiled. Then they left me, standing alone, no other words uttered.
I relayed my overt and pristine sense of loneliness to my female LDS counsellor. She was shocked, and distrusted me. “No, really…” she said, “who do you sit by in Relief Society?” “No one,” I responded. This astonished her, she fell silent and had no advice to offer. Her reaction depressed me even more. I stopped going to see her shortly thereafter. Somehow, as a Mormon, I thought that “the world” was somehow allowed to not be friendly to me at its choosing, but that Mormons—when I sought friendship would reciprocate. I was wrong. Sometimes offerings of friendship are not welcome, reciprocated or even recognised… even by Mormons.
The counselor’s surprised reaction had a lasting effect. It increased my sense of being unwanted and brought me to a new, and dangerous low. I stopped going to Relief Society. And Sunday School. I was falling into a deep depression. By then, my beloved husband stepped. Sundays became our “date day.” After, or sometimes in place of Sacrament Meeting, we did as we pleased. I found joy and a new degree of liberation in not allowing myself to be socially diminished by the Mormons. The depression lifted, and independent, even angry, but empowered solitude developed in my personality. Eventually, I made friends. None were LDS. I even lied when they asked me if I was Mormon. This still makes me cringe, and I regret it, yet… it wasn’t shame of my testimony, it was because I wanted to protect my new friends from being repulsed or fake-friended by the Mormons I knew. I declared myself Christian instead, and felt peace.
In this period, I stll went visiting teaching. I found a strange satisfaction the assigned friendship, because I could always start a conversation by saying, “so have you read this month’s message?” It was an ice-breaker. Nothing more. But my depression was less because someone responded to my (often absent) query; even in such an unfriendly place, the culture to respond to acts of institutional Mormon-ness usually prevailed.
So here’s the thing: To me, second only to the bemoaning of leaders when we don’t visit teach, is the lamentation against assigned friendships. This imitation friendship rates particularly poorly when the visiting teacher only offers the compulsory “lecture” message to the recipient, then drops the facade of friendship as soon as a new assignment is made, proving a distinct falseness in the assigned “friendship.”
I am not going to lament or argue against or try to correct or dissuade this feeling of false friendship, because I feel it too. At that time, I still felt unwanted when I went visiting teaching, and I hated it. I longed for people to choose to want to get to know me. This feeling was furthered and reaffirmed because my assigned visiting teachers never visited me. I felt even more judged because we did not stay for Sunday School or Relief Society/Priesthood. In all of this, I was not affirmed as a member of that ward, that relief society, or that group of people. I was rejected. The paper declaring my baptism and endowments was a physical promulgation of my belonging to Mormoness, but my feeling of being affirmed and sustained was wholly absent.
I think this is in part, what this month’s message is trying to express, that we need to feel an affirmation of belonging to Relief Society, to the Church. We need someone to be a friend wherein we can seek guidance and spiritual support. We all need a feeling of affirmation, of being welcomed, or being loved for who we are, not just because we are assigned to befriend someone particular. When affirmation is absent, church attendance, Relief Society activities, and visiting teaching becomes an unfeeling, phony, unjustified chore. But in the message, the recipients are limited to “New sisters, Young Women entering Relief Society, sisters returning to activity, and new converts- need the support and friendship of visiting teachers.”
Newsflash to the secret agent who writes the VT messages: EVERYONE needs friendship, not just the women included on the above list.
2 Nephi 31:20; Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all (wo)men.
I personally am not sure that the message’s suggested list of helpful things you can do is actually helpful (Help with living the law of the fast? Seriously? Let’s ask the Center for Change about the percentage of women with eating disorders before go there….). And I obviously don’t think the limited list of suggested “friending/new people” prototype is reflective of an overall attitude of genuine friendship. So, my thoughts? I think you should sit by someone new. That’s all. If you are comfortable or regularly sit by the women you visit teach, then don’t fret. Just sit by someone else. Someone new. Someone who you think could be a new friend. Someone who- like me, always sits alone because we expect to be rejected, so we choose to sit alone in Relief Society, even after a decade of healing from the initial period of rejection.
Invite your visiting teachee, or a new potential confidant to lunch. Or to get ice cream. Its okay if it doesn’t come to fruition. Real friends know life is crazy, limiting. But real friends know that an offer- once stated, is unlimited. Real saints, real friends know the power of a warm body sitting next to them in a cold Relief Society. Be the warm body, the warm heart, the listening ear, the sharing mouth, the balm to loneliness and destitution. Just be you, but invite someone else to know you, and get to know them. That is my goal this month: to ask to sit by someone in Relief Society. She may be new to Relief Society. She may be contemplating returning to activity. She may be like me, attending sporadically, always sitting alone to avoid rejection. And if she rejects me, it was my goal to ask, not to be accepted. And that is okay.
Have you ever felt alone at church? Have you overcome this feeling? If not, what would help?
How have assigned friendships helped or hurt you?
Do church friends affirm your feeling of having a place in the church? Why or why not?