Part Two has had to undergo a major overhaul because since posting Part One I have had the opportunity for reflection and come to regret its censoriousness. Upon reading this special issue of the Church News (dated December 27, 2008—about a month after the First Presidency letter announcing the change in the Young Women theme), I feel like I can accept the purity of intentions behind the Young Women value known as “Virtue.” The article cites a 2003 address by James E. Faust, given at the General Young Women Conference, “The Virtues of Righteous Daughters of God.” In the talk, President Faust discussed ten virtues all young women should aspire to: faith, honesty, chastity, humility, self-discipline, fairness, moderation, cleanliness, courage, and grace. These ten virtues are now ten aspects of the Young Women super-value Virtue.
I concede that “Virtue” is a much better name for a value than “Everything but the Kitchen Sink,” though not quite as catchy as “All-Around Awesomeness.” I would like to see a group of young ladies getting up in church each week and reciting the list of “Young Women values, which are Faith, Divine Nature, Individual Worth, Knowledge, Choice & Accountability, Good Works, Integrity, and Awesomeness.” That would be thrilling for at least a few weeks.
I’m far more cynical than I need to be, but not so cynical that I’m against pushing our young women toward greater heights of virtue (or awesomeness). I still think the addition of Virtue (big “V”) is a gratuitous alteration of the Personal Progress model, which was perfectly serviceable the way it was. If leaders thought it was growing a little stale, they might have overhauled the whole thing rather than tacking on a big golden “P.S. If you have any ‘extra’ experiences that you don’t want to go to waste, just put them here!” But these are artistic differences, not worthy of the derision and scorn I heaped upon Big Golden Chastity.
(Indeed, I have no issue with “virtue” as a synonym for “chastity,” so long as it’s done in moderation and not painted gold, making it stand out against all other worthy principles we’re teaching our young women. I stand by the characterization of that as “creepy.”)
At times like these I’m glad that my husband doesn’t read BCC because I can imagine him taking one look at that original post, turning to me and saying, “You have become what I despise.” It’s not a good feeling.
You see, usually, when I feel inclined to censure, I will grouse a good deal silently but eventually take myself aside (figuratively speaking) and say, “Self, these are your leaders, supposedly chosen by and inspired of God, and here you are, going on about stuff you know exactly jack-crap about. Who do you think you are? Nothing but a discontented ne’er-do-well, that’s what you are.” And then I go about my business, not giving the grousing matter any further thought, lest I fall back into grousing yet again.
You might be wondering, if that is indeed my standard procedure, why I didn’t do that this time. Well, I did. The first part, anyway. The second part, not thinking about the grousing matter—yeah, that didn’t go so well for me. Why not? I dunno. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I had PMS…for like…two months. Maybe I was angry about something else. For some reason, because of the mood I was in when the initial announcement was made, I couldn’t accept the possibility that what I was looking at was nothing more than a cosmetic change wrapped in inspirational language—gratuitous, perhaps, but harmless. For some reason, I must have needed it to be pernicious just so it could be something.
In other words, the bored/PMS theory is looking better all the time.
The irony is that I remember hearing Sister Dalton’s talk, “A Return to Virtue,” when she originally gave it in General Conference last October (remarkable in itself because I register so little of what I hear in conference, what with the young-child-wrangling and all). I remember liking it. I remember particularly liking a line in the beginning, “I can do hard things.”
Despite the fact that I never earned my Young Women Recognition Award, I have great admiration for the Personal Progress program. I’m sorry that I didn’t complete it (technically, didn’t come close), as I’m sorry about so many things in my misspent youth. I wouldn’t have worn the medallion if you’d paid me, but having the discipline and focus to earn it would have served me well at that age. (Okay, I’m being a tad dishonest here. I might have worn the medallion if you’d paid me, but you would have had to pay me at least twenty bucks. Or five dollars a shot, maybe. I would have gone for that.) Perhaps this was what my poor mother had in mind when she begged me to just write down some of the productive stuff I happened to be doing and pretend that they were “goals.” I thought that was a silly idea (as I didn’t care about any old silly medallion), but now that I’m old and not nearly as accomplished as I’d planned to be at such an advanced age, and now that I have a daughter on the cusp of her teen years–a daughter who I fear is going to drift through this period of her life with the same aimlessness I did—I reckon that my mother was just trying to lend some structure to my otherwise random, ah, virtue.
In those days, I had dreams, not goals. Which is how I wound up a 37-year-old housewife with a passel of brats and a free blog. But I digress.
A friend of mine, a smoker, once said, “Quitting smoking is easy. All you have to do is nothing.” I don’t know if he ever quit smoking. I myself never started. I never did a lot of things. Ask me how I managed to get through my turbulent adolescence whilst maintaining my high moral standards. The answer is “inertia.” I always felt that I was old before my time. It was probably because I never took risks. I didn’t do hard things.
A couple of years ago I read Irene Opdyke’s Holocaust memoir, In My Hands. (If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. You can find it in the young adult section of your library. It is an excellent book for both adults and teenagers.) The book opens in 1938. Irene is a 17-year-old Polish nursing student. In the wake of the German invasion of Poland, she is separated from her family, raped by Russian soldiers and eventually forced to work at a hotel serving German officers. Sickened by the Germans’ treatment of local Jews, Irene begins to take food from the hotel and leave it for the Jews in the adjacent ghetto. Gradually she starts taking more risks, smuggling Jews to a forest hideaway. She takes a job as a housekeeper for a Nazi officer and hides Jews in the basement of that officer’s own villa.
Eventually the Nazi officer discovers that Irene has been hiding Jews in his house. Naturally, Irene is terrified, not just for her own fate but that of the Jews relying on her protection. The officer, who is fond of Irene, tells her that he will not turn the Jews over to the Gestapo and will turn a blind eye to all such mischief if Irene agrees to be his mistress. She agrees. The officer keeps his word. In the book Irene, a faithful Roman Catholic, describes the relationship as “worse than rape.” What made it worse? It was her choice, but her conscience wouldn’t allow her to choose otherwise.
As I get older, goodness become more fascinating to me than evil. Several times throughout her memoir, Irene Opdyke says she was “only a girl.” And yet she saved lives, at great risk to herself, and with great sacrifice. She, a person who had every reason to be bitter and crawl into a ball and do nothing but survive, chose to do good—a great, heroic good. Why? How? Where did she get that strength?
Here’s the real problem I have with “A Return to Virtue”: it is that word, return. It makes sense to talk about a return to innocence, a return to modesty, a return to old-fashioned values. It makes no sense to talk of returning to virtue because virtue has never been in fashion. It has always been relatively rare. If it weren’t, we would not tell stories about it.
Obviously, most young women don’t spend their youth in such extreme circumstances. Here is a much more pedestrian story from my own youth: When I was a freshman in high school, there was a boy in my P.E. class named George. George may have been autistic, or mildly retarded, or both. He didn’t talk much. In fact, I can’t remember him ever talking at all. He didn’t look at people. He kept to himself. I remember he ate a lot of M&M’s. He had less than stellar hygiene. A couple of older boys in the class used to tease him—not in some horrible way, but not in an affectionate, loving way, either. They were mocking him—probably, in part, because they imagined he didn’t even get what they were doing. Some of the other girls laughed at this because these boys, the ones doing the teasing, were cool and good-looking. I don’t remember laughing myself. I remember feeling uncomfortable because I liked those boys, too—they were cool and good-looking, and yet I knew what they were doing was wrong.
There was a girl in the class named Betsy. Betsy was just an ordinary girl, with no particular social cache. One day one of these cool and good-looking boys turned to Betsy and said, “Betsy, what do you think of George here? Do you find him attractive?” And Betsy, who had been looking off in the distance somewhere, turned to this cool and good-looking boy, a boy all these girls in class had a crush on, and said frostily, “I don’t think that’s nice.” And then she turned away again.
I don’t remember those boys teasing George after that. And I will never, as long as I live, forget how ashamed I felt when Betsy said those five simple words. I knew that I would not have had the guts to say them. I was too worried about what those boys would think of me. Betsy couldn’t have cared less what they thought. What they were doing wasn’t nice, and she just said so. That was all. Such a small thing. If this had been an inspirational tale of virtue in the New Era, Betsy would have been the Latter-day Saint girl and I would have been the random non-member, but of course it was the other way around. To this day Betsy is one of my heroes. I tell my children about her.
“Virtue” is supposed to take our young women to the temple. I remember when I was in Young Women, it seemed like getting to the temple was all anyone ever talked about. Or rather, the way they talked, it seemed like the teen years were a marathon race and the temple was the prize at the finish line. With the blessings of the temple securely in your grasp, the rest of life would be your extended victory lap. Did anyone really believe that? I can’t imagine anyone did, and yet that was how they seemed to be selling it. Get the kids to the temple and they’ll be just fine.
Of course, the temple is really just the beginning. The teen years are the warm-up; the rest of life is the marathon. The blessings of the temple are the bottles of water that people toss to you from the sidelines. You can get married in the temple and subsequently have all kinds of troubles. You may find that you and your spouse don’t get along nearly as well as you’re supposed to. You may find raising children more challenging than rewarding. You may have fertility issues and find yourself questioning what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a family. Your husband may have a porn addiction. (Heck, you might have a porn addiction.) Your husband might die unexpectedly. You might get cancer. Your child might get heart disease. Your child might have a developmental disability or neurological order. Your child might get into drugs. You will probably have more than one child with more than one problem. Your house might burn down. You might lose your life savings. Any number of things could happen to you. Or maybe nothing particular happens to you, but somehow you just find yourself losing faith and doubting everything and feeling alone. After the temple is when things can get really, really hard.
So if I were writing Personal Progress requirements for Virtue, this is what I’d say: You know that thing you think is too hard, that thing that you’ve been avoiding because it’s too scary and too overwhelming to think about? Do that thing. Learn to be strong early and often. Be kind. Be grateful. Be awesome.