Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Turbulent Heart

“The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” —Blaise Pascall

There are times in a person's life when she is presented with opportunities to look at herself and find herself wanting. I am naturally very hard on myself. Growing up, I somehow learned that my worth was directly linked to perfection. It seems that relationships are the greatest of these opportunities.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to live with my sister after her graduation from high school. We had not been the best of friends growing up. She was favored, and I was a truculent and sullen child. We did not have the enmity that many siblings cultivate, but we were jealous of each other for different reasons. I like to think that in the course of living together, and the trouble that we both experienced at the time, we learned to forgive and accept each other and ourselves a little bit more.

When I served my mission, I had close relationships with a few of my companions. One in particular, I think of as a sister. We had very similar outlooks on missionary work, and life in general. We both hated mushrooms (a good basis for any lasting friendship.) Most of all, she gave me confidence in myself and my unique brand of missionary work, which did not mesh well with the general missionary structure. Her influence started my feet down a long path which would eventually lead to me forgiving myself of my faults, no small task.

More recently, as part of my process of recovering from an all-consuming marriage, I have opened myself to friendship with people. And all of them have shown me character flaws and strengths. While I no longer truly believe my self-worth is wrapped up in personal perfection, sometimes I have to work hard to remember that.

Of course, romantic relationships are a core aspect of this process. When we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of those who have the potential to be our eternal friends, somehow flaws seem more dire, and strengths less perceptible.

The easy answer is to back off from entering into relationships. Quieting my heart, wearing a pleasant mask, would make me likable and accepted. But the easy route is not compelling to me. I want to BE quiet and pleasant, not only seem that way. But at the same time, I want to be friends with people who can understand the chaos within and forgive me for the things I cannot forgive myself. My contrary nature, my need to always pick at things and pick them apart.

I long to cast off all masks and still be someone to whom others can come to be healed. I want to be able to trust again, to give trust that is deserved. But I doubt it is possible. No one is that strong, loving, or caring. Everyone wants friendship for themselves, not for what they can give others. And as long as you give, they will never think to give back. Not until your structure crumbles. Then they comfort you for a moment, and back away to allow you time to put yourself back together.

It is enough to make me weep, in those quiet lonely moments when the house breathes only with my pulse, when no others are around but me and my God.

But this concept goes far beyond forgiving myself for my own imperfections. In that lies the key to the entire gospel.

Recently, I read a blog post criticizing LDS leadership for focusing on hemlines and sleeve length rather than on the ills of the world; rape, child abuse, sex trafficking, and all the many evils that prevail in this mortal world. The post quickly devolved into some very harsh criticism of the Church from one side, countered by very harsh denouncement of the personal righteousness of those making the criticism.

In all that, I can help but see a macrocosm of my own personal struggles with imperfection. We American LDS Church members are born and raised in a climate of judgment. Participating in a democratic process has steeped so deeply into our bones, we don't even question it. It sets us up as the judges of our leaders, gives us a right to criticize and try to change or control them. And this is not a bad thing. It creates a thin layer of responsibility to the people that is lacking in dictatorships or other more homogenous governments.

Just as I am my own worst critic, it often seems that we Americans are the worst critics of our leadership. Presidential elections look more like a football game than a process that determines the leadership of our country. Everyone wants to win, to convince people who, like me, cross party lines to buy into their ideas. Often, people get so focused on winning (on being perfect) that they destroy any chance of actually being heard (of making change.)

The Church is not democratic. It is theocratic. In our structure, our leaders are not answerable to us, but to God. When our leaders claim to have received revelation from God, we are responsible to turn to God for answers, for confirmation and guidance on how to apply those principles to ourselves. Between us and our leaders, there is almost no communication. Rather, communication is largely between them and God and us and God. And we are just as answerable to Him as they are. If you don't believe that, you are doomed to a life in the Church, feeling like you keep hitting your head against a brick wall.

As is probably obvious, I am an uncomfortable member of the Church. I have never fit well into the mainstream demographic of what a "good Mormon" should be. I rankled under six years of Young Women's dating/marriage/temple lessons and craftsy activities. I protested when expected to memorize missionary discussions when I served a mission, preferring to focus on concepts and people. And now, I'm a divorced single mother, seen as damaged goods by a large portion of men in the Church. Not to mention that I have always been far too outspoken for a girl.

But I believe in the Church. Not just the Gospel it proclaims, but in the Church itself. I believe in the messy and imperfect process of effecting change as a woman. I believe in God's power to heal me and use me for His purposes, even as a misfit.

Perhaps it is because I have had to face my own imperfections and my own weaknesses. Perhaps it is because I have lived in many different wards across the northwestern hemisphere. Maybe it is because of the gift of empathy He has given me, or the interactions I have had with General Authorities, with Apostles, prophets, stake presidents and bishops. They are not perfect. I know this for myself. I have been burned many, many times.

But I have also witnessed miracles.

By being an outspoken misfit, I have conflicted with my priesthood leadership (as a line of missionary district and zone leaders would probably be happy to lament.) And by being in conflict with these men and women, I have learned to see them. NOT as leaders only, but as children, just like me.

When I hear people speak in Conference, I can look into some of their eyes and see their love for Heavenly Father, their devotion to the Savior. I can see their care and concern for us. Maybe they don't always say exactly what I want to hear. Maybe they don't always say anything that really relates to me, or touches my heart. But I can see their imperfections and forgive them. I can love them. All of them.

I have no doubt that the evils of the world trouble them. I believe they have more firsthand knowledge of suffering than I do. But it is possible for them to sorrow for deep evil, and still instruct us on the details that help us gain control over ourselves and our inclinations. Do a couple inches of sleeves make a difference to the woman in Ghana who gives up her dinner so she can feed her children? Of course not. But nor do I believe that spending my energy castigating my leaders for not being who I want them to be makes a difference to her, either. Filling my heart with resentment blinds me to the plight of those who are within a sphere I CAN reach.

So I choose to approach my conflicts with leaders with an open and accepting heart. I choose to try to learn wisdom through my imperfection, and the imperfection of others. I can afford to be patient and forgiving, because I truly understand what the Savior did when He wrought the Atonement: He freed us from fear, He made it possible for us to let go of our sins and weaknesses and the sins and weaknesses of others in order to turn our hearts towards love.

It is from the turbulence in my heart that I have learned to love. Though that is an opportunity I have also failed to live to its fullest, I'm going to let the Savior worry about that and simply do the best I can to open my heart and be imperfect.


  1. Your point about the American (or even Western) tendency to criticize and feel superior to our leaders is something that has been working around in my mind a lot lately. I've been thinking about how God speaks of his church as a kingdom, which is handled on entirely different assumptions. I kneel before my maker. I do not stand at a distance and critique his robes.

    I also especially liked your characterization of yourself as a "truculent and sullen child." I have one of those, and to be honest, I struggle to understand her. So much of her pain seems self-inflicted and the solutions so obvious. Because I know you and appreciate you, it gives me a different perspective on my daughter, and I thank you for that. I think Peter was truculent, and I suppose I am in my own way as well. We are all learning to train our traits rather than eradicate them. I love that your post courageously engages that quest.

  2. Lovely post. Do so wish we wandered closer circles, as you continue to strike me as someone worth knowing better. I'm glad for your perspective on those posts. I don't think either were very reasonable, just ranty, and were immediatly answered by many people jumping in with their own rants for or against rather than giving measured responses.

  3. "I long to cast off all masks and still be someone to whom others can come to be healed. I want to be able to trust again, to give trust that is deserved. But I doubt it is possible. No one is that strong, loving, or caring. Everyone wants friendship for themselves, not for what they can give others. And as long as you give, they will never think to give back. Not until your structure crumbles. Then they comfort you for a moment, and back away to allow you time to put yourself back together."

    Don't give up. You sound like how I felt decades ago. It gets better as you get older if you don't give up. Things change. You change. Others grow up too. You find reservoirs and sources of strength and peace and an ability to cast off masks and create rare, strong, caring, loving mutually supportive relationships you never thought you would. Interactions like the ones you think are not possible ARE possible because of what you and others have learned and become in the intervening years.

    It is possible and, I believe, from what you write here and elsewhere very likely in your life. The vision of giving, caring, supportive relationships you think is impossible is not impossible. Please don't give up the vision. You will need it as you become who you will be in the coming decades.

    1. MB, this obviously is not my blog, but I wanted to say that I appreciate your comments here. Sometimes the focus is so much on getting through a day or an hour or a moment that it is difficult to keep the proper perspective. I think there is an elusive balance (at least for me) between accepting current circumstances vs hoping and striving for improvement. For me, trying to change my view to a ten or twenty year or eternal perspective gives me hope that things will be better, but at the same time, my future will not change unless I do, and that's where I seem to get stuck.


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