Guest Post: Truth and Soberness

by MB

MB, who has lived in a number of different places, currently works and writes from her home on the southern plains.

I am at a stage in life where I have the means and time to research and write family history so I increasingly find myself immersed in stories and accounts written by the women in my family tree. Every one of those women encountered tragedies and struggles in their lives. There is not a single exception. Sorrow is a part of each of their stories. So I have been thinking about sadness and its relationship to the gospel of Christ.

I did not know all of these grandmothers of mine, but I did know Ida, my calm, devoted, sweet-smelling great grandmother who grew up with an absent father, lost a baby girl and, later, an energetic, strapping, 18-year-old son to a sudden illness, and nursed her husband through years of multiple sclerosis before his death. She used to recite long stretches of poetry to me, bake bread for us when my mom was sick, and beat me thoroughly at Scrabble.

These women whose stories I know were devoted to God. All of them experienced times of terrific sorrow, struggle and loss. And in their stories I find that they found that the former helped them through the latter.

Nowadays I spend my Sundays teaching a Primary class. Every once in a while the lesson manual will tell a story, either from the scriptures or from a person’s life, about a choice wisely made, and include the question, “How do you think so-and-so felt when that happened?” And the children, having heard such questions before, will answer with a bit of a sing-song tone, “ha—ppy”. And then I have to get them to think deeper than that.

Wise choices don’t make happiness. Neither does living the gospel of Christ mean that we will always be happy. But I wonder if sometimes we don’t think they are supposed to. Perhaps that is because we read “Man is that he might have joy”, and think that joy means happiness and that having means always. Perhaps it is because we read Joseph Smith’s comment that, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence”, and think that means that if we are living the gospel we are happy, and that unhappiness is therefore a sign of not living it, since, as we also know, “wickedness never was happiness”. And we neglect to realize that Joseph Smith goes on to say that “virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness” lead to happiness, not that they guarantee it every moment, here and now.

Perhaps some of this misunderstanding is behind the push for perkiness we find in some Mormon women’s circles; the sense of failure if they are not acting or feeling chipper or always focusing on the silver lining. I recall a young friend’s irrational dismay and sense that something was wrong with her when, after breaking up with her boyfriend, she “just couldn’t seem to be happy”. We sometimes think that living the gospel means we are always happy. But that is not the gospel.

I find wisdom in the words of Henry Ward Beecher. “Affliction comes to us, not to make us sad but sober, not to make us sorry, but wise.”

I think we modern women, protected somewhat by modern medicine and technology from the extent of sorrow our ancestors experienced, have lost our vision of the power of soberness and wisdom that comes as part of wading through affliction with God.  Sorrow, sadness and heartache are not a manifestation of an absence of faith, nor a failure on our part, nor an abandonment of the grace of God. It is rather, a universal experience through which we all pass.

I remember a conversation I had with a thoughtful, old stake patriarch when I was a teenager. He had lost a son in a random shooting a few years before. He taught me that pain, struggle and heartache are what teach us to appreciate joy and truth. His comment was that the purpose of the gospel wasn’t to make you happy, but to transform your life from what it would otherwise be if you didn’t have it.

And it does transform it from what it otherwise might be. Recently two of my dear friends, one who understands and feels the love of God and one who does not, each tragically lost a child to SIDS. I have spent hours listening to them mourn, talk and struggle through their terrific losses. And I see the empowering nature of the gospel of Christ as I walk these two parallel paths with them. Both are terrifically bereft and sad. But the one who knows God is finding strength in quarters that the other cannot.  I also know that both will feel that loss all of their lives. I know my great grandmother did.

Sorrow is an intrinsic part of life. I think that if we spend our lives trying to avoid it or feeling like a failure when we experience it, we are missing important truths.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women’s Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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11 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    These are wise words, and I think you are absolutely right that life is not meant to be happy all the time. I don’t feel I was taught this as a child and teenager (or if I was, I wasn’t listening), and have had to learn it by life’s hard knocks. I want to give my children a more realistic expectation about what living the gospel will mean, but I’m not sure how to do this without sounding like a cynic. How do you get your Primary kids to think beyond feeling “happy” in these lesson manual stories?

  2. KimB says:

    Thank you.

  3. Caroline says:

    mb,
    Thank you for this.

    I’m struck by your idea about the push for perkiness in LDS women’s groups. One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about Relief Society is the constant repetitions about how happy the women are with their lives, the gospel, etc. Often those expressions are emitted with tears, rather than perkiness, but the sentiment is the same. And that’s all well and good, but I sure would love to hear women be a bit more vulnerable – talk about those sorrows and struggles that you mention here. I feel far more connected to those women who share their stories of disappointment and tribulation.

  4. mb says:

    Emily U,

    My goal in such situations with my Primary kids is to help them recognize and accurately articulate their experiences with making similar wise choices. I mostly help them to think more deeply about that question by asking them other questions. “What if…?”, “How about when…?”, “Have you ever had…?”, “Would you do it again even though…?” “Why would you…?” “So you’ve learned that you…?” Such questions help them to talk about some of the perplexity they may have faced and the learning they may have done in such situations. And they allow me to understand their experiences and help them find the vocabulary to accurately express them.

    Depending on their responses we may end up talking about our experiences with compassion, determination, the comfort of the Holy Ghost, integrity, commitment, inspiration, courage, enlightenment, hope, faith in Jesus’ teachings, understanding, charity, fortitude, clarity or whatever other good thing they or I have learned from our experiences with making a similar wise choice, whether or not that wise choice brought immediate positive feedback or results.

    When they recognize and verbally identify these things in their lives they begin to see their challenges more accurately and are more empowered to recognize and embrace the deeper blessings of choosing goodness.

  5. mb says:

    Caroline,
    I think many of us, once we have had our own face-to-face experiences with sorrow, do feel more connected with the women who express their experiences with disappointment or tribulation. Perhaps that is because both of those are universal experiences that perplex us and challenge us. And a comrade in struggle is more dear to us than a comrade in play.

    How do you suppose this relates to knowing Jesus as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”?

  6. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Thank you for the thoughts. I believe sorrow can be a divine attribute. Alma 7:15 and Mosiah 29:17-18 are a couple examples of how certain kinds of joy are only available in combination with affliction, sorrow, knowledge, and stories.

  7. Gwen O. says:

    I was recently called into the Young Womens after about a year in primary. Because YW was a trying time for me spiritually, I have been trying to think of what to say to the girls that will be uplifting and supportive of their tender testimonies while still being honest with what I felt at that time. My mom said that one the most valuable church lessons she heard was in young womens when some women came in who had lost spouses to death, never married, had problem children, etc. etc., and kind of gave a “What to do when your dreams don’t come true.” lesson. It was a wake-up call to her that despite all of those stories you hear in primary, things don’t always “work out” in the end even if you do the right thing. It’s hard to explain to teenagers who don’t have a lot of life experience that life will be hard no matter what, but the hard times can be more bearable with the gospel perspective.

    Caroline – I definitely agree with you. I have always found testimonies that reveal weakness or vulnerability to be very moving and relatable. And yet, even though I have many experiences of vulnerability or questions with the gospel I have yet to share them in public at church! I guess I am afraid of turning into a “project” or just scared of revealing that side of me.

  8. Alisa says:

    MB, thank you for writing this. It’s great to hear more of your thoughts!

    I spent a lot of years misunderstanding happiness. It’s taken a lot of time for me to learn to be happy in my own way. In the end what brought me happiness were some of the things that I had to reject first in a journey to appreciate them, if that makes sense.

    I will never forget the experience of a sister in my ward when I was first married who had a stillborn baby. How I still recall her expressions of grief in RS, and I hope she knew we were all feeling for her in the small way we could. Now that I think back on that ward, women were able to share more of their vulnerabilities back then, maybe because we were all college students, trying to make it work. It made for a better experience over all.

  9. Rachael says:

    I enjoyed everything you said until the end when you started talking about your friends who both lost children to SIDS. I understand that I do not know that personal circumstances here, but as one who has never “understood or felt the love of God” I hope when I come to my friends of faith in a time of need that they do not judge me for my lack of belief the way you seem to be judging her.

  10. mb says:

    Rachael,
    You entirely misread me. I will try to write in ways that will help me avoid such misreadings in the future. Perhaps you have encountered bigots or narrow minded women who use such descriptions in a judgmental way, but do not read it here. I love and know these two dear friends deeply and have for decades. I have simply stated what they have stated to me about their connection to God and their sense of his care at this juncture in their lives.

    I must be honest. The one who finds solace in that connection is finding sustaining help there. That is simply an observation of what she is finding helpful right now. It is a resource for her. It is not a condemnation of my other friend who does not have that resource right now. An observation about resources is not a judgment of an individual. Nor should it be. At least not in my book.

    My friends and I have lovingly and openly discussed just about everything and have been through a tremendous amount over the years and I am sad that you read judgmentalism into my descriptions of relationships that are very open and dear to us.

    I will assume, due to your comment about your not feeling God’s love, that you are responding as you are due to some nasty judgmentalism that you’ve encountered in other venues. I fully acknowledge that those encounters exist way too often and when they do, are unsettling and angering. However, you would be in error if you read it or assumed it in this reference to my friends’ most tender times and sorrows.

  11. mb says:

    ooops.

    that last paragraph should have read:

    I will assume, due to your comment about your not feeling God’s love, that you are responding as you are due to some nasty judgmentalism that you’ve encountered from people in other venues who claim that they do feel it. (How ironic that they make such claims.) I fully acknowledge that those encounters exist way too often and when they do, are unsettling and angering. However, you would be in error if you read it or assumed it in this reference to my friends’ most tender times and sorrows.

    lesson for me: Don’t hit the send button until you’ve made sure that it’s the piece with the final edits that you’ve cut and pasted.

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