Monster in Our Midst


by Cynthia Thorley Andreason

(Originally published in the Winter 1980 issue of Exponent II. For length purposes, we have shortened the article slightly. A link to the original full version of the article will be available shortly.)

After long hours of consideration and investigation, I have decided that we are living with a monster in our midst…

Who is this dragon, and where did it come from? I call it “The-Way-Things-Are-Supposed-To-Be,” and I think that we’ve collectively given birth to it over many years. As a teenager, I was fiercely determined not to be like all those other girls who were snagging boyfriends, fully determined to marry them either shortly before or after graduating from high school. Even so, on the eve of my twenty-third birthday I sat with my sympathetic roommates, wondering what had gone wrong – I was supposed-to-be-married. Then there was my friend, the new Relief Society president. Once quite vocal about the importance of molding programs to meet individual needs, she now extolled the virtues of the homemaking meetings she had previously refused to attend because they didn’t meet her needs, since that was what she was supposed-to-do. Or there was the ward I once lived in where everyone very, very impressively fulfilled charitable duties well into the second mile, but none of the women were close friends. By their own admission they were afraid to let people find out what they were really like – the inside just might not match the supposed-to-be.

For years, I wasn’t absolutely sure of the dragon’s existence. I only caught glimpses of its shadow and sometimes felt its fiery breath upon my neck. But one day, during a particularly trying period at school, feeling that awful presence strongly, I turned around very quickly and caught the dragon full face. Rather than relieving me at all, I was terrorized by my discovery. I became fully aware that something other than my own consciousness and feeling was governing my life. I became aware that I was essentially living two lives – the real me and the supposed-to-be me.

I felt for awhile that I was very alone, but as the problem of my dragon-terrorized life came to obsess me, I began to notice some interesting things. Other women also bore testimonies made up of a combination of stock phrases from the Church vocabulary. I heard others answer questions with the expected answers that didn’t quite ring true as having been cycled through their own hearts and minds. I began to suspect that other people were being intimidated by the dragon, too. A few exploratory ventures on my part into the world of saying-what-I-thought tended to confirm my suspicions – a few people would want to talk privately to me about what I said, while others were appalled to the point of speechlessness that anyone would say such things in public.

…. The dragon was hatched and growing large long before many of us were born. But it is still growing – it grows every time I let the dragon decide what I’m going to say or how I’ll act. It grows every time one woman encourages another, however subtly, to react the way she’s supposed to rather than the way she really feels…..

The blame cannot, then, be placed on any one person or even any one source. I am not responsible entirely for that dragon’s existence in my life, and neither is any other person entirely responsible for its existence in his or her life, I am responsible, though, for the nourishment I provide it and for the acquiescence that I give to its existence. Every time I gush about the spirituality derived from a meeting that I traditionally daydream through or refer to my “good husband” in phrases that we hear over and over, I make it a little bit harder for someone to see around the dragon to the person – the soul – on the other side whom [s]he would really like to communicate with…

I have learned, though, that inasmuch as I differentiate carefully between my feelings and those of the dragon, it is easier for me to consciously choose to act as I wish, rather than to react to the dragon’s ominous rumblings. I don’t know if it is entirely possible to eliminate the dragon, but I’m up for stopping the inadvertent feeding of this beast and for working towards relationships which are unfettered by this monster in our midst.

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

You may also like...

11 Responses

  1. amelia says:

    thanks for posting this one, c. i have seen this “monster” frequently and try to live so that I don’t really cavil to its whims. i’ve gone so far as to make decisions that I know may very well lead people to false conclusions about how i am living my life, but about which i feel comfortable. and my experience has almost always been good.

    however, i think that this is a complex issue. i believe that we should allow ourselves the freedom to truly express what we think and who we are. i don’t think we should can our answers to questions or fit them to an expectation. i don’t think we should determine our own merit based on how well we match a pattern of what we are “supposed” to be.

    That said, I do think that there is a model that we are meant to emulate. that there actually are things that we are supposed to be. and that we are meant to live this life in such a way that we become those things. So where is the balance?

    perhaps the balance comes in recognizing that becoming the things we are supposed to be (Christlike in all areas of our lives) is about learning to make certain attitudes and processes our own, rather than certain behaviors. thoughts?

    amy

  2. stacer says:

    I love that you posted this article. I’ve never seen it before, but it really hits home for me. Too many times I’ve done what the author of the article did–said, “but my life is *supposed to be* such-a-way!” and felt sorry for myself because it wasn’t.

    I’ve usually been on the other side of the supposed-to-be acting, though. I can’t stand artifice, and am usually the one to get funny looks when I do or say something out of the ordinary (such as admit that I read *gasp* fantasy and science fiction! or that I work for a gaming company). When people ask me how I am, I answer honestly. If I’m not doing well, I say so.

    But I’ve had to learn over the years to pick the timing of that forthrightness. Some people don’t know how to handle it. And some times aren’t appropriate for it. But I do agree that it’s something we have to be aware of and work to fix, in the appropriate settings.

  3. mjkauffman says:

    I have found that this dragon is larger or smaller in certain areas. I can say for certain that it was much more enormous when I was living in Utah Valley than in the small branch in mid-America that I currently attend. Yet, in other ways, it’s stronger. This was a very insightful article.

  4. Caroline says:

    Amy,

    You bring up a good point, Amy. I think there is a model to emulate, but I think that model is simply about how we interact with others: being kind and Christlike. All the other things that are so deeply tied to culture – marriage, kids, church callings, big house, etc. that are “supposed-to-be” –
    I’m not so sure about. i’m not so sure those are things that everyone absolutely has to have in order to be happy or to be the best person they can be. They seem rather external to me, while the things we are truly supposed-to-be seem internal. How does that distinction work for you?

    Stacer, glad you liked the essay. I’m with you. I sometimes deliberately project my differences because I can’t stand the thought of tailoring my speech and ideas just to fit it. I hate hypocrisy. I think people in my ward probably either really like me or really don’t:)

    MJ, I would imagine the dragon would indeed be larger in certain parts of Utah. When I was at BYU one summer living with my cousin, she refused to go out to eat on Sunday, not because she had any problem with it at all, but because she didn’t want people seeing her and pointing her out as a bad Mormon. So I would go and get the food and bring it back to her 🙂

  5. Caroline says:

    When I posted this essay, I meant to also throw out the question of what supposed-to-be’s some of you are dealing with.

    Personally, my supposed-to-be’s have to do with having a career and making an impact in my world and in my community in some meaningful and large way. My current job as a part time hs teacher just isn’t cutting it for me. It’s not living up to my supposed-to-be.

    Funny how my major issues with supposed-to-be are somewhat in contrast with what orthodox church members would tell me I should want. But then again, it’s very possible that if I weren’t married but did have that great career, I’d then be feeling that my life wasn’t what it was supposed-to-be.

  6. Brooke says:

    What I’m struggling with is deciding what it is I really want–in many areas, but I’ll just use the example of the number of kids I want to have. I am kind of in a reactionary state right now, having in recent years become aware of this dragon, where I wonder if I don’t sometimes do things not because I want to but because I am reacting against the “supposed-to-be”s. I always wanted a big family because I grew up in one, but the number has been shrinking down to 3 or 4 kids (maybe that’s still a large family to some of you). Now I think, couldn’t I be just as happy with the two kids that I have? But I don’t want to be doing something only to be non-conforming. I have to find out what it is I really want (and in this case, can handle). Does anyone else feel this way?

  7. amelia says:

    caroline,

    i think i see degrees of externality and internality. because marriage, kids, and callings are all much more significant and internal to me than say, whether i have the right job or the right car or the big house. a big house and having kids (just the having them) seem like very different things. one is entirely material. the other could be about status, but at its essence is about creating and loving. i see callings the same way. i suppose they can be about status, but they are in essence about service, not status.

    now does that mean i think someone has to be married with children and serving in a calling to be happy? no. of course not. but i do think that there has to be some lived manifestation of the good qualities that we are supposed to cultivate within us, or they aren’t being what they’re supposed to be. so right now my lived manifestation (not that i’m perfect by any stretch of the imagination) includes a calling, but not marriage or my own children. it also includes other things–like friendships and being the favorite auntie and being a good daughter.

    the key, i think, is letting what we are inside inform what we do in the world, rather than letting what we have or do in the world define what we are inside or how we value ourselves.

  8. Caroline says:

    Hey Brooke,
    I know what you mean. I also have to figure out what I truly want. Maybe in the end I truly don’t want to have the high powered career and be stressed out all the time. Maybe that isn’t the best for me, but it’s still hard letting go of that supposed-to-be. Regarding kids, I always said no more than 2. But I’m sure it will be smart to reevaluate and not make that decision based on my supposed-to-be. Maybe I’ll turn into an uber-maternal person and adore kids (doubt it) but if that is the case, I want to have the courage to change my plans and go with those feelings.

  9. Dora says:

    I think the monster is born of laziness. It’s just so easy to take the exterior as indicative of spiritual magnitude. And I think that we all do it to some extent … at least I know I do. The challenge is to step beyond our physical sight and prejudices and look with empathy and Christ-like love.

    Yes, there is a model. But it’s surprisingly simple. Most of my ideal can be summed up in the fourth and thirteenth Articles of Faih. Just about everything else are mortal commentaries on celestial principles .

  1. June 2, 2011

    […] so the message doesn’t become a monstrously long, detailed and painful compilation of “should do this and act this way” advice, which I think often happens when discussing self-reliance (i.e. you […]