Edge Cases

In 2015, I finished my transition from being a stay-at-home mom to working full time. I am now a software developer. I enjoy getting to work on problems and getting the tests we write to pass and I’m on a great team.

When we work on an app, we are given a list of features that the product manager wants, for example, “As a user, I want to be able to sign in and see my name in the navigation bar next to the log out link.” It’s small, and it’s straight-forward. At least at first.

failing test In a recent app, we were dealing with a problem like the feature above. Our “user” needed to fill out a form and we needed to display the name in some tables on the admin side of the app. Name formatting is an interesting one. You can start with “Last name, First name.” And that works for probably the majority of your users. But what if a person has two last names? Or a long hyphenated one: will it fit into the table? If a person has two last names, do you display them both or choose the last one no matter what the user prefers? Can your database store special characters like apostrophes and hyphens?

Many problems are like this. We get the basic case set up, but then spend 80% of the time on edge cases: the things we don’t plan for and cause bugs. What if the person clicks on the text instead of the picture? Should the picture be a link? What happens if they click on the edge of a table instead of the table cell? What if we want 700 pieces of data from an API, but only gives us the first 100? How can we get the other 600? Will loading all these icons slow our page to a halt?

As I was working one day, I thought about edge cases and how they are what we put most of our effort into. It’s the stuff that we think won’t ever happen, but actually does happen, and enough to render our apps unusable or frustrate the user so much they won’t come back.

When we talk about the “ideal” (life, family, choices) at church, I’ve heard, “We have to teach the ideal” as if addressing the exceptions will mean the “ideal” will be forgotten somehow. And this turns into the teaching of the ideal for 3 hours every Sunday from nursery to Relief Society.

But let me be honest: I think we have the “ideal” down pretty well. We know what it is. It’s solved. In the app example, it’s the easy, “Last name, first name.” Let’s take that quick solution and start looking at the edge cases. It’s going to take us a bit longer to address those.

As a developer, I could turn to my product manager and say, “Let’s just accept user emails which are gmail accounts because it’s easier to code and will save us time” (I actually use apps like that, though I’ve not programmed one like that). This might mean I finish this feature quickly and can move on to the next feature, but I do that at the cost of alienating lot of potential people who could use the app and we shrink the customer base. At the end of the year, we might have lots of apps in our “ideal” world (look at our portfolio and how productive we are!) but most of them would be unusable in the real world.

As a teacher at church, I can turn to my young women and say, “A temple marriage is the only way to true eternal joy because you can’t enter the celestial kingdom without it and so you should make that your life’s goal.” And the result would be that my lessons are neat and follow the manual well and have lots of general authority quotes to back them up. But I do that at the risk of alienating the girls and the risk of outright lying to them. What happens if one of them have a family who is not sealed in the temple? What if they have dreams and goals that would bring them happiness and end up neglecting them because I promised true “joy” though marriage? What if they never get married? What if they get married to a person who hurts and abuses them? What if they have a baby outside of marriage and have to wait to get a temple sealing? Suddenly, very few of the girls will relate to my lessons. Or they will relate right now because they’re sure their future self will have everything in place, but then it doesn’t work out that way. Ultimately, I’ve failed at preparing them for living the gospel as adults in the messy world of life.

What if we spent 80% of our time teaching to or discussing our exceptions and edge cases? What would church look like? Sound like? I imagine more people would feel welcome and come to church.

Start counting the number of people who fall under the “exceptions” category in your life. I imagine it’s about 100%. After all, we have only one ideal person: Christ. This means in some way, every single person is an edge case and flawed human being. I’d like to propose we teach more (only?) to the edge cases and ditch the ideal. Let’s talk about how to handle life and turn to God when things aren’t “working.” After all, that’s the only state our spirits are ever in.


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Love this glimpse into your work life, TopHat, and I love this analogy. Indeed, teaching the ideal is easy and neat… but I too worry that it often serves to alienate people whose messy lives won’t ever fit into the neat boxes. I would love more discussion of edge cases in church.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Great analogy. I’ve coincidentally spent the day reading a collection of essays about consent. It’s hardly surprising that the majority of the writing covers edge cases. The stuff in the middle is morally easy to get right, and, from a philosopher’s perspective, only the stuff on the edges is interesting, because only it really illuminates what’s morally at stake even in the apparently simple cases. Beyond such abstractions, though, as you say in the OP, talking more about the edge cases in Church might help us to keep fellowship with more people. I think that learning to live with edge cases–which most of us are, in one way or another–is somewhere near the heart of learning to be a moral person. Thanks for the post!

  3. “We have to teach the ideal” sounds to me like, at best, an untested platitude, and at worst, an excuse. I would love to see us spend more time accommodating the minority instead of pretending we have to focus on the majority who are doing fine.

  4. Julie Moore says:


  5. cfg says:

    This reminds me of a fifth Sunday lesson a couple years ago. The HP teaching the assigned lesson on blessing of temple marriage admitted at the beginning that as a child he had never known anyone who didn’t have a temple marriage. He could never see another view point or understand the Other
    . About 80% of the class had been married in the temple and the rest, including me, never had and never would. Since I have been in the ward much longer than he, I knew the circumstances of pretty much everyone there. What is the point of such a lesson? to make most people feel smug about their lives? What about the others who well knew they weren’t part of the blessed? They can’t change other people’s choices. I pointed out that no matter how I lived my life, or my children lived theirs, we would never be sealed. Those who point out I could be sealed after death don’t realize that is cold comfort to one who is happily divorced. Really, what is the point of teaching the “ideal”?

  6. Ziff says:

    Great analogy, TopHat. So much Church rhetoric, particularly around family structure and sexuality, tries to pretend that edge cases don’t exist, or tell people who are edge cases that it’s their duty to *not* be edge cases. It’s disappointing.

  7. Kimberly says:

    Every lesson and every talk about the Atonement is a talk or a lesson about the “edges.” We talk in church about the edges constantly. Every mention of the Savior is addressing the edges. None of us are living the ideal. We are all living “bugs” in the code. We teach the ideal because that is where we can experience maximum peace. But when we don’t achieve it–and none of us do–that doesn’t mean we are without hope that we can feel right or have peace. The Atonement spreads itself over every variation from the ideal, which means over all of us. That is what brings peace, not censoring any notion that we can do and be better.

  8. Rachel says:

    So many amens. And thank yous.

    I know that when it’s my turn to teach RS, and I think about the specific women in my ward, and speak to their actual lived experiences, it goes better. Meaning that it feels more genuine, and more women speak up and share what trying to live the gospel is like for them.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.