“I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful
So unloved for someone so fine
I can feel so boring for someone so interesting
So ignorant for someone of sound mind”
Alanis Morissette — Unsexy
While in graduate school, I fell into a dark place. I was doing everything badly. In every aspect of my life I was failing. I was a lousy father, a bad student, and a terrible Teacher’s Quorum Advisor, and a miserable employee. Our fourth son had just been born and we had taken out student loans to pay for the tyke, so I was overwhelmed by my sense that somehow God was frowning at me for going into debt although he was the one demanding not to put off having children for my education—the classic don’t eat of the fruit/multiply and replenish the earth contradiction. So there I was working full time (yes full time) for the EPA, going to school full time (yes full time), serving in a demanding church calling, and trying to be a good father to my four boys. And I was failing miserably at all of them. Still I struggled on. Until one day.
The Ensign came one afternoon with the story of one of the general authorities. The spotlighted person had been in medical school, serving as a bishop or stake president or some high-level, demanding calling, every night he came home and played with his kids for several hours while helping his wife, he was never angry, or discouraged (stated explicitly), and neither was his wife. He was a model student, father, president and in every way (I believe now that this says more about The Ensign than the person).
I was devastated. I could not measure up. I was doing far lesser things and being crushed by them. Literally, I started to cry and couldn’t stop for a long time. Then darkness settled in—I was fundamentally flawed in irredeemable ways. I was weighed in the balance and found wanting—in every aspect of my life.
Something had to give. So I asked to be released from Scouting. The Bishop was understanding, but with a furrowed brow kind of understanding hinting at a certain lack of faith on my part. He put me in nursery (ironically where I now serve). But since God had called me to scouting, it was clear I had let him down and the heavens were disappointed. I dropped a math class in which I was falling so far behind that I could not catch up—it felt like academic loserhood. Still, I plugged on despite my unfitness for the Kingdom. A strong feeling that the Lord was unhappy with me persisted and seemed to hang like an ever-present miasma thick in the air around me. Oh, I knew intellectually that he loved me, everyone said so, but my heart felt more of His disappointment—You’re no Elder So-and-So, I seemed to hear Him say frowning and shaking his head.
At some point in this darkness, someone pointed me toward Chieko Okazaki’s book, Lighten Up, a marvelous dismantling of Mormon perfectionism. It was the first thing I’d read from an LDS source that seemed to suggest that maybe my human imperfections were all right. That maybe, just maybe, God accepted me as is. Shucks, maybe He even liked me.
I look at some of the unpleasant current statistics for Utah—among the highest in antidepressant use, suicidal thoughts, internet porn use, prescription drug abuse and other things. I recognize that the reasons for this are complex, multifaceted, and do not necessarily implicate the Church. Even so, there is a sense that something is wrong here. I submit that part of the problem is Mormon perfectionism. Not a part of the gospel, but a deeply entrenched habit of mind for many members of the church. I know personally many who are, like I was above, plagued with unhealthy feelings of inadequacy and guilt. This paired with an inclination toward a kind of black and white worldview (“There’s a right and wrong for every questions” we brightly sing). Means that when we fall, we just don’t move to the gray, we enter a realm of complete darkness. If we fail a little, we fail all the way.
Enter LDS author Jana Riess‘s new book, Flunking Sainthood, in which she describes her attempt and failure at a yearlong course of spiritual practices. I quite honestly believe this is the most important devotional book published this year, well, I’ll go further, the most important devotional book since Chieko Okazaki’s book. It’s not written just for Mormons, but for the broader Christian community. Kevin Barney reviews it at BCC here and does a marvelous job. But I want to offer it as a catholicon for Mormon perfectionism, because it recognizes that we all fail, but in that failure can find spiritual graces that lift us and make us more Christlike than when we assume that our failures are mistakes, deal breakers, shortcomings rather than inevitable unmaskings of the human condition.
As she fails at her practices (which she does with delightful humor and wit) often and spectacularly, rather than ringing her hands and mourning at her inadequacy (my approach) she says things like:
“I feel immediately comforted. Somebody up there likes me. There is someone in my corner. ” p. 49
“I raise my arms in gratitude for the most perfect day, for these friends, for the simple joy of fruit and harvest. Blueberry buckle tonight, blueberry pie tomorrow. Thank you, God.” P. 112
In a failed prayer practice, she says, “My stats for fixed-hour prayer are still dismal, so by ESPN standards the month is another failure. . . But numbers don’t tell the whole story: I feel closer to God and to the communion of saints. That’s got to count for something, because it feels like it means everything.”
She does not wallow in sorrow at her failure (although of course there is some of that as the failures first show up) but finds meaning and growth in the lack of perfection.
It is a marvelous book. The perfect way to start a new year. I find myself wishing it were the course of study this year for both RS, Priesthood and YM/YW. It’s a lesson we all need. When Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matt 5:48)” he was talking about one thing, as Adam Miller points out in this post, love. Be perfect in loving. Including love of self.
So set a New Year resolution to lighten up and relish flunking sainthood in all its senses.