My wife and I went out to dinner recently with some old friends. And we caught each other up on our lives and the lives of our children. And we talked about the Church lessons we remembered from MIA. Our teachers were good people, earnest and kind, and I know they wanted nothing for us but the best. And, because we’re Mormons, what they talked about were ideals. Serve a full-time mission, marry in the temple, raise your children with family prayer and family home evening and family scripture study. That was the way to achieve happiness.
Think of General Conference. Even the most cursory search through recent Conference talks shows how central ideals are to Mormonism. Richard G. Scott: “Do the best you can while on earth to have an ideal family” (achieved by studying and applying the Proclamation on the Family). David O. McKay: “I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal family life.” Neil Anderson: “In this continuing spiritual commotion, the restored gospel will continue to carry the standard, the ideal.”
And we talked about that at dinner, my friends and I, how far actuality can stray from the ideal. My wife and I are happy together, and have been for 35 years, but our lives are hardly ideal. Though I’m still young enough that I should still be working, my health makes that impossible, vastly increasing the burden on her. There are surely people whose lives do fit a Church cultural ideal. But I don’t know very many. Mostly, I know people who are struggling. And I think of Sophocles, who had a favorite line that appears in many, if not most of his plays: “count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.” Pain, disappointment, heartache, sorrow are all constants of our lives here.
And they’re supposed to be. Our understanding of the plan of salvation–what we’re now supposed to call the ‘Plan of Happiness’–is that coming to earth would be difficult and painful and sorrowful. Listening to conference talks, it can seem as though we conceive of happiness with a paint-by-numbers literalism. Do these things, follow this path with exactness, and the result will be happiness. On the other hand, the story of Adam and Eve is, according to our own scripture, a metaphor for the necessity of agony and heartache and loss.
I don’t mean to suggest that Mormonism hasn’t come to grips with, for example, that horrific and lethal disease we call clinical depression. There have been many poignant talks on that grim subject in recent years. But too many friends and family members suffer from it for me to ignore it in any discussion of personal happiness. It doesn’t matter what gospel living boxes we check off. For some people, everyday life is agony. It’s not happy at all. And that doesn’t always end well. What depressed people need is help, lots of it, constant help and care and medical attention.
Mormonism is a religion of paradoxes. We believe in personal revelation; we also believe in revelation through prophets, operating within an organization. We believe in personal responsibility; we also have the strongest possible attachment to the importance of communities. We believe in salvation by grace; also the central importance of works. We believe in both sides of the justice/mercy paradox. But we still insist that there are rules to actual life, that doing certain things in a certain order will lead to earthly happiness. And that’s not always true.
And so when we hear sermons emphasizing ideals–ideal families, ideal commitments, ideal service, ideal lives–it can feel like we’re neglecting, you know, reality. I wish the advice we received were more practical, more rooted in reality. How do we keep from beating ourselves up when we don’t reach the ideal? How can we stop ourselves from spiraling downward into depression? How can we keep on keepin’ on, when times become difficult and burdens hard to bear? How can we forgive ourselves more, hold each other up, stop pretending everything’s great when its not?
Because, let’s face it, an insistence on ideals can be immensely damaging. We do get down on ourselves. We do feel inadequate, and inadequacy can depress. I have a relative, a wonderful young man, who recently suffered a professional setback. He’s absolutely distraught over it. He feels like a failure. He’s punishing himself, because he didn’t, he thinks, live up to the ideal of husband=provider.
I wish I could fold him in my arms and tell him that he doesn’t need to beat himself up, that he is loved and worthy of love, that we recognize the goodness of his heart, and his devotion to his children and his wife, that he isn’t a failure, or anything like it. But it doesn’t seem to help.
I’m a pretty happy person, I think. I love my family deeply, and we have a good time together, mostly. I’m happy because I met the right woman at the right time in my life. I’m happy because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life at an early age, and then got lucky professionally and was able to actually do it. I’m happy because the chemicals in my head are conducive to happiness. I do appreciate having a religious community I can call my own. That’s a lovely blessing. But I’m blessed in other ways too.
Rather than focus on ideals, shouldn’t we instead talk about getting by, muddling along, doing what we can? I wish our cultural conversation were more honest, more accurate, more forgiving. As a culture, we seem to be capable of navigating a whole map full of complicated terrains and ecosystems. We are a culture of contradictions; a religion of paradoxes. And some, we cope with nimbly, with grace and elegance. We’re all going to fall short of our ideals. But let’s keep trying. When we fall short, let’s not mourn having missed an ideal. But get up, brush ourselves off, keep trying. And know that there are many others in the same situation who can help.