Guest Post: Truth and Soberness
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.