My Moral Force

“Women bring with them into the world a certain virtue, a divine gift that makes them adept at instilling such qualities as faith, courage, empathy, and refinement in relationships and in cultures.”

–D. Todd Christopherson, October 2013 general conference, “The Moral Force of Women”

 

When I heard this quote in conference, it just confirmed to me what I already knew. I was better. I was better than my brothers, I was better than my father, I was better than half the world’s population. I was even better than myself.

 

I know that the Mormon tendency to put women on a pedestal can be empowering to some, but to me it has been imprisoning. At one point in my life I became nearly paralyzed with the pressure to be the perfect Daughter of God: virtuous, attractive (but not too attractive), industrious, crafty, soft spoken (but influential), a leader (but not too assertive), feminine, smart (but not too ambitious), nurturing, kind, patient…the list of attributes went on and on. Some of them were me, and some were not. But it didn’t matter; I had to be it all. And in the end, because I was trying to be everything, I ended up being nothing.

 

It started when I turned twelve and entered the Young Women’s program. I feel that I should say here that all the leaders and adults in my life had nothing but good intentions. They felt they were doing the right thing for me and teaching me how to be happy. And the things they wanted me to be were generally positive things. However, it backfired. I became so worried about following the rules. I took a tape measure shopping with me to measure the length of skirts in the store. I walked around my high school with a penny in my shoe; every time I felt it I would pray that I would have the strength to avoid sin and be an example to others. I spent more time studying my scriptures than I did on my homework. And since a good Mormon girl values her mind, I was taking a lot of difficult classes, so I was spending a lot of time on homework. I wasn’t sleeping. I was barely eating, both from the stress and because a good Mormon girl values her appearance. This pattern continued in to my freshman year of college.

 

Eventually things came to a head, as these things always do. I got a bad case of shingles over the summer. The doctor said it was because my immune system had been greatly weakened by stress. I found out my father was cheating on my mom and they divorced. My family was not what it had seemed, even to me. I started having panic attacks and avoided leaving the house. I finally started going to a therapist. He, too, was well intentioned but as a Mormon man he never really understood what my problems were. His suggestions mainly consisted of trying to align myself better with the Gospel, which only added to my anxiety and worry. If I was this unhappy, I must not be trying hard enough, right? That feeling of not being enough of a moral force was what had me in his office to begin with.

 

I hit rock bottom. I was completely spent. I had no idea who I was or what I really wanted. In the end, two things saved me. The first was friendship with a strong, smart, assertive non-Mormon woman. She was the kind of person I would have tried to ‘fellowship’ not long before we met. But by that time, I did not have the energy for it. My guard was down with her because it had been worn down and I did not have the strength to rebuild it. Because I was not defended against ‘the other’ any more I was open to what she had to teach me. She taught me things like “it’s good to be assertive,” and “sometimes the rules are stupid,” and, “don’t force yourself in to a mold that doesn’t fit.”

 

The second thing was yoga. I had one particular instructor who totally changed my outlook. She always said that it was ok to be wherever you were. The goal was not to be perfect, or even to improve. The goal was just to be present. Wherever you were was fine. And you if kept coming to class, the improvement would take care of itself. Wherever I was was fine. No one had ever told me that before. There were times when I would lie on my mat at the end of class and cry.

 

I (relatively recently) realized that I can not live up to the expectation that the Church has of me to be a “moral force.” I can only be me. It is unfair for anyone to expect me to be any more or any less. I have stepped off the pedestal. And something funny is happening. The act of stepping down from the pedestal has freed me. Since I have stopped trying to check all the boxes and stopped trying to fit inside the boxes I have been better able to be the person I want to be. I learn more, I am more open; it is easier to be kind to others because I am more kind to myself. The world, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ have become a bigger, grander, more awe-inspiring force for good in my life. My ability to be an instrument for God’s ‘moral force’ has been magnified; it’s hard to serve others while simultaneously balancing on a pedestal. I still struggle with anxiety, and with being a good person, and with keeping myself from falling back in the box or being pushed back on to the pedestal. But that is ok. I am fine where I am.

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17 Responses

  1. Cherisa says:

    Good for you! I loved hearing that same message from a yoga teacher, too. You are enough! Just be present and kind (to yourself and to others). I believe that the Divine is far more compassionate than we give them credit for. Namaste. 😉

  2. Ziff says:

    Wow, Jess. This all sounds so difficult. I’m happy to hear that you made it through to the other side where it sounds like you’re in a much better place. I really love how you talk about this pressure here:

    “At one point in my life I became nearly paralyzed with the pressure to be the perfect Daughter of God: virtuous, attractive (but not too attractive), industrious, crafty, soft spoken (but influential), a leader (but not too assertive), feminine, smart (but not too ambitious), nurturing, kind, patient…the list of attributes went on and on.”

    All the parenthetical points are so perfect in hitting the competing pressures that are so common. Thanks for writing it this way. It really clarifies how difficult it can be for women (and teen girls) to figure out how to make the Church work for them.

    • Jess R says:

      Thank you Ziff. It is unfair that we expect so many contradictory things of women. Especially young teens. That age is confusing enough already.

  3. Jenny says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. My experience was very similar. It’s very empowering to step down from that pedestal and realize that you are okay just as you are. Yoga and non Mormon friends have been instrumental in my transformation as well.
    Love this: “The world, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ have become a bigger, grander, more awe-inspiring force for good in my life. My ability to be an instrument for God’s ‘moral force’ has been magnified; it’s hard to serve others while simultaneously balancing on a pedestal. “

    • Jess R says:

      Thanks Jenny. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and that you also have some good non-LDS friends. It must be something about having an outside perspective that lets them put things in perspective.

  4. Meagan says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I have long been wary of the ‘pedestal’. You pinpointed another side of what happens when we ‘elevate’ people based on what the world believes they are. Thanks again!

    • Jess R says:

      You are so welcome. I’m never sure if I should be happy or sad that others can relate to experiences like this. It makes me happy that we are not alone, but it makes me sad that any one else has had the same negative experience.

  5. Amomof2 says:

    I loathe and detest that talk by Elder Christofferson, and your story is a poignant example of why casting women as a separate species is so harmful.

  6. Growing up (and still today) I keep getting told that women are naturally “nurturing.” Drives me crazy. I don’t know about other women, but nurturing doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to work hard at it!

  7. EFH says:

    This talk is a perfect example to me that in the church we simply do not know how to talk about women because we do not know what to do with them; and this comes from not understanding and knowing anything about the Heavenly Mother and what divine feminine power is. They all mean good but don’t understand much at all about heavenly and mortal female nature as it relates to the spiritual journey we are supposed to have on earth.

    I am glad you have found a way to be present with yourself and live life to the fullest just by being you and accepting your gifts and journey. Namaste!

  8. Heather says:

    What are the chances of you giving this talk at the General Women’s Broadcast? I think a lot of girls and women would be so blessed by your story.

    • Jess R says:

      Heather, I promise that if I am ever asked to speak at General Women’s Broadcast, this will be the talk I give. 🙂

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