Uchtdorf at the Women’s Session: Something for Everyone #ldsconf

The silver fox is my animal spirit guide at General Conference.

Pres. Uchtdorf, aka the “Silver Fox” as he is known in my ward and probably everywhere else, hit yet another home run in the Women’s Session, batting clean up for the three female speakers.  He opens with:

Today, I too have a story to share. I invite you to listen with the Spirit. The Holy Ghost will help you to find the message for you in this parable.

He shares the story of an 11 year old girl named Eva who did not want to go to live with her Great-Aunt Rose.  

By framing the story this way, Pres. Uchtdorf knowingly addresses the elephant in the room: that all women, aged 8 to 100+ are lumped together in one group.  Although the Priesthood session similarly lumps all men and boys aged 12 to 100+ in one group, in Priesthood, the men are separated by quorums which more or less divide them into a younger group of men (20-40) and an older group of men (40+).  Women are never separated by age.  Women who are 18 go to Relief Society and remain there for the rest of their lives, so groups of women span many different ages and stages of life.  Trying to address a message to such a broad audience is nearly impossible as most Relief Society teachers know.  Generally, you aim for the middle of the pack with an occasional nod to the outliers, and it’s hit and miss.  Kudos to Pres. Uchtdorf for doing better than most at dealing with this difficulty.

Where did I find all these awesome pictures of happy multi-gen women? Mostly gyno sites.

He also acknowledges, in a humorous way, the underlying problem of these huge generational gaps in the women’s organization.  Eighteen year old girls don’t want to enter Relief Society, which they see as their mother’s territory.  Single women feel that all the lessons are about marriage.  Childless women feel the lessons are all about parenting.  Empty nesters feel the lessons are all geared toward young mothers.  Women with careers are frequently identified as outliers or ignored.  Adding 8 year olds (!) into a meeting for “women” makes it even more difficult to craft a message that suits all.  Listening to Sis. Reeves in the talk directly prior to this one as she stumbled through a sex talk, trying to make it appropriate for women and girls of all ages, further illustrated this point.

Eva is also the perfect age for this talk.  8-year old girls can aspire to be her because she is pre-pubescent and still child-like.  The teens can identify with not wanting to be lumped in with the maiden aunt.  At some age, the women in the audience instead identify with Great-Aunt Rose.  Older women, empty nesters, widows, career women, and singles or those without children are all represented by Rose.  Mothers with children at home may identify with the hospitalized mother, worried for her child, but unable to care for her while she is healing.  He has deliberately created a cast of characters with something for everyone.

In Eva’s mind, there were a thousand reasons why this was a bad idea. For one thing, it would mean being away from her mother. It would also mean leaving her family and friends. And besides, she didn’t even know Great-Aunt Rose. She was quite comfortable, thank you very much, right where she was.

We are so happy to go to the same gyno.

This reminds me a lot of how it felt to go from the comfort of the Young Women’s program to the stodgy Relief Society.  Being away from her mother also represents leaving her childhood behind, a time when she is taken care of.  Now she will have to become an adult.   Time to leave Neverland.

From the moment Eva stepped inside the house, she hated it.  Everything was so old! Every inch was packed with old books, strange-colored bottles, and plastic bins spilling over with beads, bows, and buttons.

It’s like Pres. Uchtdorf has been in the Relief Society closet!  This description matches ours perfectly.

Even the house itself seemed lonely. It was out in the countryside, where the houses are far apart.  No one Eva’s age lived within half a mile. That made Eva feel lonely too.

In Young Women’s, the girls are friends.  The ages are closer together.  There are many social activities.  It’s an exciting time of life.  Relief Society is a stark contrast to this.  Women of such a variety of ages often are more isolated, certainly than the girls in a Young Women’s program are.  YSA wards and married student wards certainly help create closer knit groups, but it is still a big change to go from a youth program to an adult group.

Over time, Eva made a surprising discovery: Great-Aunt Rose was quite possibly the happiest person she had ever known!  But how could that be?  What did she have to be happy about?  

She had never married, she had no children, she had no one to keep her company except that creepy cat, and she had a hard time doing simple things like tying her shoes and walking up stairs. When she went to town, she wore embarrassingly big, bright hats. But people didn’t laugh at her. Instead, they crowded around her, wanting to talk to her.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist bolding that part because it sounded for a second there like Pres. Uchtdorf answered his own question!  But I digress.

What he does is point out is that although we preach the ideal at church, the “ideal” doesn’t actually make people happy and not having the “ideal” doesn’t make them unhappy.  It’s as if he’s suggesting that there is no real ideal way to be, but that Eva’s childish notions of what leads to happiness (being married, having children, dressing in muted colors) are in fact not at all what makes a person happy.  This is another ingenious move.  Relief Society can be very pushy about how women should be and when women deviate from those norms,  they often feel judged and punished.  Motherhood is a dish best served constantly, or so it would seem.  If she has children, there really are only 2-3 decades of a woman’s life that are primarily devoted to raising children in the home, but twice that long spent in Relief Society.

Aunt Rose talks about feeling disappointed and angry when she didn’t get the “ideal” life she wanted.

“I don’t think I was clinically depressed—I’m not sure you can talk yourself out of that. But I sure had talked myself into being miserable!”

From pre-teen through post-menopause.

And he sticks the dismount, avoiding the trap of implying that clinical depression can be overcome by faith.  It’s like he knows his audience, and like the Apostle Paul can anticipate his critics and avoid the rhetorical pitfalls with a timely “God forbid!”  Speaking of Paul, he lets Eva play the role of strawman arguments, and Aunt Rose gets to knock them down, one by one:

Eva furrowed her brow. “But wait a minute,” she said. “Are you saying that being happy means just looking forward to happiness in the future? Is all our happiness in eternity? Can’t some of it happen now?”

This is one of my favorite strawmen:  the celestial lobotomy, the notion that somehow a life of misery will suddenly be A-OK in the eternities thanks to the Plan of Happiness.  Then he adds a cherry to this ice cream sundae by quoting Emily Dickenson!  Aunt Rose’s retort:

“Dear child, now is part of eternity. It doesn’t only begin after we die! Faith and hope will open your eyes to the happiness that is placed before you now. I know a poem that says, ‘Forever is composed of Nows.’” [1]

Next, Eva gets to play the role of Captain Dum-dum as we sometimes call the captain on a Law & Order episode, the one who has to ask the stupid questions to let the smart detectives show their stuff and explain things for the audience.  It’s a quick way to get the audience up to speed.

“So what did you do then?” Eva asked.

Aunt Rose swoops in with the insight of a Bobby Goren:

“I exercised faith in God’s promises by filling my life with meaningful things. I went to school.  I got an education. That led me to a career that I loved.”

Swoon.

Eva thought about this for a moment and said, “But surely being busy isn’t what made you happy.  There are a lot of busy people who aren’t happy.”

Strawman argument again!  Isn’t a career just another form of drudgery?  Busywork?  Toiling in obscurity?  How do we avoid that?  Through the gospel . . .

“It is love – the pure love of Christ.” Rose said. “You see, everything else in the gospel—all the shoulds and the musts and the thou shalts—lead to love. When we love God, we want to serve Him. We want to be like Him. When we love our neighbors, we stop thinking so much about our own problems and help others to solve theirs.”7

We love our gynocologist, and we are all so happy! If only we had a salad we could eat while we laugh!

This is Pres. Uchtdorf channeling Paul at his finest, knocking down the rules and checklists that Mormons are so prone to substitute for the gospel and showing that the real gospel is the commandment to love one another.  He doesn’t go on the offensive about the rules, but he does contrast them with the real gospel, and they pale by comparison.  The contrast speaks for itself.

While it wasn’t my favorite talk of all time, it was masterful.  I would have preferred a Rose a little further off the reservation, a Cowboy Jesus type, a pipe-smoking lesbian perhaps, someone a little more thorn than Rose.[2]  Pres. Uchtdorf is generally too optimistic for that kind of heroine.  Regardless of this petty preference of mine, the talk was well done, an admirable effort to include and engage a very diverse audience.

I think he pulled it off admirably.

[1] The rest of the poem:

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

 

From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

 

Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –

[2]  Perhaps the choice of the name Eva was intended to make Eva an everywoman character, like Eve, and Rose was meant to be a bit prickly and thorny, someone initially off-putting but with great beauty.

Comments

  1. What a great review, Angela! The “8 to 108” age span is so ridiculous. But, you’re right, Uchtdorf seems more adept at dealing with it than the women who head these groups. The reason for including Primary girls is probably so the Primary Presidency isn’t left out since those 9 women work closely together these days. You do a great job of dissecting the non-parallel tracks men and women are on in the church as well as the affect it has on girls and women.

  2. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Interestingly, both the Priesthood session and General Women’s meeting are addressing five different subcategories in their audience — both meetings include three small age-groups of youth, and then you have either Sr Primary + RS or EQ+HP (although the age range is four years wider in the Women’s Meeting).

    On a weekly basis throughout the year, the division into two priesthood quorums does translate into a rough but useful delineation that can keep the lesson and discussion a little more tuned into the life stage of the men involved. That pretty well dissolves during the Priesthood session though. Inevitably the earlier talks in the session draw on tales of high school athletics and the outdoors as the basis for a talk geared towards the YM before they’re bored. Later on, the teacher’s quorum attendees are still expected to sit reverently and listen as President Hinckley concludes the two-hour session with a talk that begins, “I would now like to address my remarks to the fine bishops of the church.”

    Truth be told, we shift around in callings enough that it might be a disservice to be too pigeonholed — at least during the twice-annual general meetings.

  3. Love it! I seriously hope I get to teach this lesson in R.S. as this talk has so many ways to open up great conversations. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  4. “embarrassingly big, bright hats” wins me over. I have one of those. A lime green sunhat with a large brim, and massive bow at the back…

  5. Here’s my question: If 18 year old girls, single women, childless women, empty nesters, and career women feel like outliers whose needs go unaddressed in regular Relief Society Meetings, what then is the purpose of two more meetings a year that include even more sisters, the eight to 17 year olds, with whom we have little or nothing in common? I was told the 8-17 year olds are included because they don’t get the sense of being a part of a wider community that boys and YM get from the scouting program. If that’s true, then why not look at the Activity Days’ and YW’s programs and rework them if necessary? It’s impossible for me to believe that attending two more long, sometimes boring (let’s get real) meetings a year are going to do the trick. Certainly doesn’t work for me.

  6. It kinda felt like Primary on the Sunday one of the bishopric visit and as a teacher you’re sitting there in the small chairs with the children…I couldn’t figure out if the story was set in Bolivia, Kansas or Ukraine or of it was a true story or composite observation gleaned from his travels or letters he receives because I tho’t fictious stories were no longer accepted to The Friend or allowed in Primary Manuals. Now that we have received the woman-child parable I’m trying to remember if the men-folk have ever received a man-child parable in priesthood session? I’ve been trying to figure out what the brethren think of us to teach us in that way?
    I am grateful the first principle of the gospel-Faith in The Lord Jesus Christ, was taught of how to meet and resolve challenges. That I am grateful for….

  7. The Silver Fox strikes again. Isn’t he a breath of fresh air? But where was the aviation analogy? Did Rose work for an airline? Sorry, I was watching football during the “first session” of conference.

  8. You’ve done an amazingly good job of analyzing this in terms of audience. Brava.

    But — and I wish I could type this in teeny tiny letters so it would be a whisper — I hated the talk. Not because it wasn’t a great talk (it was) but because I instantly feared how this talk will be used by small-souled people, many of whom seem to infest Facebook and the comment sections of blogs. Instead of reading this talk as applying to them: “Choose to be happy; have faith; have charity,” they will read it as applying to everyone else and will use it as a weapon: “It’s your own fault that you’re unhappy. You don’t have faith, and I have no responsibility to help you be happy or to exercise charity toward you.” We’ve seen that happen over and over again with other talks: “You choose to be offended, and I have no responsibility not to be offensive.” “It’s your own fault when talks are bad. You’re supposed to rewrite them in your own head, and speakers have no responsibility to be better prepared.”

    But the talk itself, outside of how it will be weaponized, was fine.

  9. Ardis – “I instantly feared how this talk will be used by small-souled people” This is so hard to avoid. I know just what you mean. It’s just really easy for people to twist any talk into a weapon against the underdog. I don’t know how we can get past it, to be honest; it seems to be so ingrained in our culture. Pres. Uchtdorf seems to see this and tries to help (his talk “Stop It” comes to mind), but he is himself so cheerful. Ultimately people have to enlarge their own souls. Leading by example doesn’t seem to be sufficient.

  10. I took this delightful 3-generation photo outside the Conference Center at Women’s Session! Feel free to use it with my blessing if you need another one sometime. (We are not quite as naturally gorgeous as gynecology ads, but my gynecologist does assure me that I am in excellent health.) https://twitter.com/AprilYoungB/status/647926059967471616

    Because I sent to the session in person, with my wee, primary age daughter, I had to walk her to a potty break right at the beginning of President Uchtdorf’s talk. (Why couldn’t that have happened during the sex talk she is too young for?) So I got back mid-story, and without hearing the beginning, I couldn’t follow it. Thanks for the recap.

    I think I might have enjoyed this talk had I heard the beginnning. Even so, I think it too bad that women do not give the keynote speeches (the longest and concluding speech) at a Women’s Session, as if to imply that male advice to women is more important than input about womanhood from other women. But I am sure that I will be pleasantly surprised as Conference continues this weekend to find that women give the concluding talks in all the other sessions, and of course, there will be as many female speakers as male, or at least, certainly more than one female speaker per day, right?

  11. Jennifer Almarine says:

    I loved his talk. It was such a breath of fresh air and dare I say, feministy, even?

  12. Thank you for this thoughtful and discerning review. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other about this talk while President Uchtdorf was giving it, but I did notice that the Primary age girls in the room perked up considerably when he began, and that made me happy. I was one of those that did not originally understand the broadening of the age range for this meeting. I still don’t, really, although I do wonder if developmentally 8 year-old girls are more or less on par with 12 year-old boys. But, lately I have also been doing a lot of reading and thinking about how women are unique in their power to foster intergenerational connectedness – literally through our bodies when we give birth to the successive generation, but also as we do the lion’s share of care work in this world, including caring for the older generations as they age. Somehow, that comforts me, despite the fact that this type of work is tragically undervalued (both economically and culturally). It like it that Relief Society (and maybe more symbolically than practically, this session of conference) brings us together, old and young, and I see an opportunity to strengthen this intergenerational connectedness.

  13. When I realized where he was going, that he was making discipleship the point if our existence and happiness in place of gender roles, I started crying right there in the Stake Center. Thank for for adding even more nuance to this beautiful talk.

  14. The ideal is not what makes us happy. Powerful idea in a church that often bases so much on the ideal. Please remember that this is as true for men as it is for women.

  15. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    A powerful talk. Thanks for writing about it, otherwise I might have missed it. Like Rose, I have been in a dark time of life after the death of a child. Church became painful, flashbacks bring back shame and guilt. In talking with my grief counselor I heard my own words, ‘I have given up on prayer.” I feared spiritual lifts because they would lead to crashes. My Bishop counseled me and I was inspired that I needed to pray differently. So I began praying for faith, hope, and charity rather than answers and balms. It has helped me find a measure of God’s grace each day. I’m not where Rose is, but President Uchtdorf put that climb into confirming words that resonate.

  16. Angela C. I think you nailed something good there.
    As I listened to Bro. Uctdorf’s talk I thought, “I bet that this will be much better received by his audience coming from him. If one of the sisters gave this talk she’d be excoriated by a lot of women. We are kinder to him.”
    We are too quick to complain and too slow to treat each other as friends and sisters.

    “But oh! the blessing it is to have a friend to whom one can speak fearlessly on any subject; with whom one’s deepest as well as one’s most foolish thoughts come out simply and safely. Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
    ― Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, A Life for a Life

  17. thanks for the analysis–it was very different. This helps explain a lot.