A few weeks ago, the Relief Society lesson in our ward was about Eternal Marriage. By some demographic fluke, I am the only divorced person in my ward (and one of only two unmarried women). I really didn’t want to be there for the lesson, partly because it would be uncomfortable for me, and partly because my presence would make some of the women in the room feel less free to express their opinions, for fear of hurting my feelings.
How to teach ideals without making people who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to achieve them feel bad is a regular theme in the Bloggernacle, probably because we don’t have any good answers. I certainly don’t have any good answers (which, alas, doesn’t always stop me from pontificating about it when people say particularly hurtful things). But in this case, the teacher was a dear and wise friend, so as I bravely ran away, I was thinking about what I would say to her if she asked me how to teach this particular lesson without wounding me freshly, or re-opening old wounds.
As it happened, I’d been having a particularly hard time in the weeks before that lesson, feeling sorry for my sad, single self, and mourning deeply for the idyll I’d planned, the sweet, peaceful childhood I had intended for my children, now irretrievably blighted. It was the sort of mood in which God sometimes manages to get through the layers of pride and neurosis behind which I usually hide from divine help. Alas, Deity is constrained to speak to us “according to [our] language, unto [our] understanding,” which means, in my case, that He has to resort to channeling second-rank sentimental poets:
I pray you if you love me, bear my joy
A little while, or let me weep your tears;
I, too, have seen the quavering Fate destroy
Your destiny’s bright spinning—the dull shears
Meeting not neatly, chewing at the thread,—
Nor can you well be less aware how fine,
How staunch as wire, and how unwarranted
Endures the golden fortune that is mine.
I pray you for this day at least, my dear,
Fare by my side, that journey in the sun;
Else must I turn me from the blossoming year
And walk in grief the way that you have gone.
Let us go forth together to the spring:
Love must be this, if it be anything.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)
It seems to me that some willingness to bear each other’s joy as well as our burdens is a necessary lubricant to sociality in the church. If the fact of someone’s pain requires silence about our own joy, the bearing of one another’s burdens becomes grim duty indeed–those burdens, it seems to me, can be borne better as they are lightened by shared happiness. Being all members of one body cannot possibly provide relief if every part of the body must constantly suffer the affliction of all the other parts.
Moreover, we simply can’t, by force of will or intellect, anticipate all the ways in which our talks, our lessons, our casual chatter in the halls, might cut a beloved bystander to the quick. The song goes “in the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” It isn’t that we won’t see it, or don’t want to, but that, in the terrible, beautiful words of Charles Dickens,
every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
Or again, in Mosiah’s grimmer articulation, “And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.” We go around flinging darts at those we love, not out of malice, but out of a wretchedly inevitable ignorance. We fail at charity constantly, on our best days, because we cannot see each other clearly–we cannot yet “know even as also [we are] known.” The hopelessness of the situation does not excuse us from doing our best to see and understand each other (and we ought to think long and hard about the unkindness we can easily avoid), but it does free us to look for help from sources beyond our own fretful thoughts and inadequate imaginations. Another liberating idea I take from that poem is the reminder that both our blessings and our trials are so often “unwarranted”–it seems to me that a great deal of the hurt we inflict on each other comes from looking for explanations, for secret sins or particular righteousness that justify our own happiness or others’ misery. Even where such explanations may exist, the likeliness that they are deeply hidden–part of the “profound secret and mystery” locked away in a far room of a “darkly clustered” house we may not enter–spares us the requirement of advising or correcting or praising. We covenant, simply, to respond sympathetically, that is, to feel with our sisters and brothers, to love them as ourselves. Because they are our selves. And Christ’s.
If we begin to understand that our most careful efforts at not giving any offense will fail, we can stop trying for pale, polite, bloodless niceness and risk the deep connection that is the beginning of real charity. When I remember that the ragged, chewed thread of my fate is part of the same thick, golden cord as your beautifully spinning thread–when I know and feel that the fact of my sisters’ and brothers’ happy eternal marriages is a joy that belongs to me as it does to them simply because it increases the amount of light and goodness in the world, when I learn that it is my duty and privilege to rejoice with them, even as it is theirs to mourn with me–then, and only then, it seems to me, can I start to receive the gift of charity that makes it possible for all of us to speak freely and love fully in our congregations. It requires the sort of humility that C.S. Lewis describes as the capacity to “rejoice in [our] own [gifts] as frankly and gratefully as
in [our] neighbour’s [gifts] or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.” Our spiritual and emotional blessings have to be shared as freely as our material possessions if we are ever to arrive in Zion. Enduring the discomfort of sitting together in a lesson on an awkward topic, saying what we really believe, and listening to what others say with the deepest charity we can muster, is a chance to practice, in a tiny way, being “of one heart and one mind.”
(And luckily, I just got called to teach Primary, so I can afford to be preachy about how everyone in Relief Society ought to behave ;))