There are no comments here on my previous post, but I have observed some Facebook conversations about it which made me think I definitely need to clarify.
I didn't write "How I Stay" so that I could get pity or compassion. I didn't write it to guilt people who happen to have intact and more-or-less working families, nor to tell people in wards that they're doing something wrong. I wrote it mostly to people like me: people who struggle and need some tools to fight harder for what they really, deep-down, want. But this one is to people who aren't struggling, and want to know how to help. I'm going to try my best to give you some tools to try.
The fact is that me and people like me KNOW we are different. There is nothing you can do to make us feel not-different. All your efforts in the world can't erase the pain we've felt as collateral damage in someone else's attempts to "be true to themselves" or whatever other reasons lurk behind our lives.
It's like I told a friend recently: you can't be responsible for other people's feelings. But what you can be is compassionate. And I think that's what the questions and comments are really getting at: how can you show compassion and make space for difference?
I have a few thoughts on that, but first I want to point out that "divorced people," or "people who have lost children," or "people who struggle with the Word of Wisdom," or "people who struggle with pornography," or "feminists" or whatever other category leaves someone feeling on the fringes, are first and foremost PEOPLE. Every single individual has individual needs or hopes. Don't take my word for what will help them. Ask them.
Secondly, don't expect them to tell you right away. Most of us are well aware of our other-ness. We often feel like burdens, and abhor the thought of being more of a burden. Granted, some of us accept as much help as we can get. I'm not one of those, and based on observations, I think that those who gladly consume others' resources are a vocal minority.
So, first search your own soul. Do you REALLY want to know what we need? Because it's probably going to cost you something, even if that "something" is nothing more than your own paradigm. If you really want to know what we need, you're probably going to have to ask more than once. You're going to have to show that you really mean it, and you're not just offering to assuage your own guilt at being more blessed/differently blessed/luckier than we are.
So with those caveats to what I'm about to say, here goes my attempt to give you some concrete tools. I'm not trying to share specifics of what I personally need in my situation as a divorced single parent, but to share more general tools to help approach anyone who doesn't quite fit into the standard Mormon mold. Please take what I say and apply it to whatever circumstances surround you. It may be that it doesn't help, but I hope it does.
- Give the benefit of the doubt. People who are struggling don't usually carry malicious intent. If someone in your ward shares "dirty liberal" political views (for example,) give them the benefit of the doubt. Chances are, they have come to their political stances out of good, solid Christian values. Just because you have chosen to emphasize other good, solid Christian values, or the same ones in different ways, doesn't mean they are evil or even wrong. If someone is divorcing, let them tell their own story. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Not all divorcing men are at fault, and not every divorce is from selfishness. My post-marriage life is MUCH more in line with God's will than my married life.
- Realize that divorce (or porn, or whatever else) is not catching. Divorced women aren't wanting to steal your husband, nor are they loose cannons who can't be trusted in the same room alone with men. Just because someone smokes a cigarette doesn't mean they are lazy or apostate or a bad influence. You just don't know where people are coming from. Chances are pretty good they are hurting somewhere and somehow, and what you think will solve their problem won't. In my experience, almost everyone deserves respect and sympathy when you get to know them. Operate on that premise.
Don't go way out of your way to make life comfortable for us. Just because I am divorced, doesn't mean you should be careful what you say. You don't have to be ashamed of your marriage just because mine failed. You don't have to fail to teach ideals just because some of us can't reach them.
But when you do teach them, realize that success at reaching ideals isn't a value marker. Yes, I failed in my marriage. But that doesn't make me a failure.
- Don't objectify us. We aren't all the same. Please don't say in your meetings: "we need to find a way to include singles." Rather, say "we have this activity, is there anything we can do to make it easier for [person] to come?" Go and ask them. Say, "we noticed you don't come to church. We miss you. What's going on? Is there any way we can help make it easier to come? Did anything happen to you?" Then be prepared to 1) ask again and again until they give you a real answer and 2) roll up your sleeves. (Remember, I said first to make sure you REALLY want to help.)
Provide variety. Don't have all activities at the same time on the same day. I can't really ever participate in weekday activities because my schedule is so tight. If you can't provide variety, offer to help. Take the activity to them. Go to their house the next day and say, "we did this lesson in RS meeting, and I thought you'd like a copy." Try to make them feel included without making them feel guilty for not being able to participate.
One of my children has an activity, for example, that I can't ever bring them to because it starts before I get off work. But other mothers in the ward noticed, took initiative, and offered to pick them up from daycare so they could go. I can't express how much that meant to me: that they went out of their way to make sure my child has a chance to participate in the ward. It was a HUGE guilt and burden off my shoulders.
- Realize that your resources are also limited. You can't do everything or be everywhere. Cultivate your relationship with God and the Spirit. Trust Him to guide you to where you're most needed. Pray to know who in your ward needs your help. It's the tiny miracle—those times someone writes me out of the blue and says "I was thinking of you," or comes up just to give me a hug—that reveals the grace and majesty of God in my life. Ultimately, we are only responsible to Him.
- Let us and our families into your lives. Don't shun someone because they wore pants to church, or judge them because they asked your kids over to play on a Sunday. Rather than shunning them, reach out to them even more. Find out why they wore pants. Let go of some of your personal rules, and maybe invite them over to your house instead. It might be good for a kid to see what it's like to have a righteous father presiding in the home. Open your lives and your hearts, let us know we aren't pariahs or some special problem to solve.
Most of us who experience these sorts of difficulties don't expect you to solve our problems. We just want you to acknowledge that we have them, and that there isn't anything wrong with us for having them. Open up: show "marginal" people your own heart, your own vulnerabilities. Testify in Church to the times you have struggled and found a way through those struggles. Be real. Just say, "I'm so glad to see you here today," or "wow, your life is so rough right now, you look like you need a hug."
"Letting your light shine" isn't an injunction to be perfect: it's a commandment to open YOUR heart. We all have light and we all have darkness: let YOUR experiences and faith shine forth in someone else's darkness. We are all in this mortal trench together. Be honest with yourself and with others in the ward. THAT is what a ward is for: to be a dysfunctional family bonded in spirit, working together to find unity in Zion. Respect more and expect less from the people around you. All of us are just muddling through the best we can.