(I also posted this at Blogger of Jared, so you can send comments that way.)
As a trying-to-recover perfectionist, I will admit that it's always been difficult for me to process the ideal when I know that my reality is often so far from the ideal. I have spent a good portion of my life feeling like I am never enough. I have been known to have General Conferences end, finding myself feeling simply buried in my inadequacy. Actually, sometimes a whole lot less than an entire weekend of General Conference can do that to me.
I know I am not alone.
Sister Beck's talk has been the topic of conversation, again. That talk spurred more reaction that anything I have seen in my decade+ of online discussions about gospel topics.
I should say that loved her talk. I loved her boldness and clarity. I love the power of clear and pure direction that can help keep me centered in a world that is constantly shifting.
That doesn't mean, however, that I have always found it easy to hear all the things I should be doing to really be the kind of woman God wants me to be. There have been many times when I have sobbed from the pain of my imperfection. But I felt the Lord prepared me for this talk. He helped me know that He knew the specifics of my life, and that I didn't need to do all the ideal all at once.
The teaching about housework (which, if you look at it, was more about teaching and helping children grow and progress than about keeping a clean house for cleanliness’ sake) could have sent me in one of those spirals, but it didn't. Why? Because I had had some personal inspiration about how and why I could make some improvements. And because of that, I knew that God knew about my specific situation and frustration (health issues, a weakness in the cleanliness area, and great insecurity about these things). As such, I was able to take Sister Beck's counsel as just that -- counsel. The specifics of what to do about that counsel had already come to me from God, so I didn't need to beat myself up needlessly about my weakness and inadequacy and imperfection. I could just pick up from where I was and try to do better, in ways that HE showed me!
(Just for the record, my house is still often a mess, but the end result of a clean house is not my goal right now. The process is what I'm engaged in. "Progression, not perfection" is a new motto.)
That personal experience taught me a lot about processing ideals. I think it's really easy to feel like the exception, because in a sense, most of our lives are exceptions in one way or another. I want to ask, honestly and really and truly: How many of us really feel like our lives fit the ideal? By the show of hands?
I thought so. :)
Think about it. How many people do you know who got married just at the right time, to the perfect person; had kids in succession when they wanted them to come; had no health issues with themselves or their kids; have a family where everyone willingly goes to church never yells or fails at anything, where everyone grows up happy and united, where all are temple worthy and returned missionaries, etc. etc.
Sure, there are some few whose lives have gone pretty smoothly. (So far, anyway.) (Either that, or we really don't know what's really going on in their lives.)
I have talked to women who are divorced, who are trying to figure out how to have a marriage with men who have addictions and/or serious sins, who are single (I've been there myself, too), who want more kids and can't have them (that would be me as well), or who have more kids than they feel they can handle, who have other individual struggles that leave their lives significantly short of the ideal.... We all know these people -- or perhaps more likely ARE these people, living some less-than-ideal something.
As such, we all can feel the pain of unfulfilled or even shattered dreams, and sometimes can also feel neglected, either because we do often focus on ideals in the church, and/or because people use these ideals as measuring sticks for our worthiness or worth. Or worse, we use them on ourselves.
But guess what? That's not how things work. Or rather, that's not how the Lord works. And I think talks on "the ideal" can give us the opportunity to really learn what His love and help and mercy and guidance can mean and be in our lives...to really learn how to become.
Sure, we have ideals to strive for. We should be constantly seeking to improve and seeking to be changed. But that's the thing. We aren't supposed to be able to do it all on our own, all at once, or even all in mortality. If we could actually live the ideal completely on our own, how on earth would we learn how to turn to God and live, to let the Atonement actually do what it was fulfilled to do?
I have pondered Elder Holland's words from the most recent WW Leadership Broadcast, and I think they are ever-so-important to remember.
Now, I hope this helps you understand why we talk about the pattern, the ideal, of marriage and family when we know full well that not everyone now lives in that ideal circumstance. It is precisely because many don’t have, or perhaps have never even seen, that ideal and because some cultural forces steadily move us away from that ideal, that we speak about what our Father in Heaven wishes for us in His eternal plan for His children.
Individual adaptations have to be made as marital status and family circumstances differ. But all of us can agree on the pattern as it comes from God, and we can strive for its realization the best way we can.
We who are General Authorities and general officers are called to teach His general rules. You and we then lead specific lives and must seek the Lord’s guidance regarding specific circumstances. But there would be mass confusion and loss of gospel promises if no general ideal and no doctrinal standard were established and, in our case today, repeated. We take great strength in knowing the Lord has spoken on these matters, and we accept His counsel even when it might not be popular.
The very fact that he said this to me tells us how very AWARE they are of all of us in our less-than-ideal lives -- be we single, married, with children, childless, with healthy family relationships and fulfilled dreams or lives of utter pain and chaos. But that doesn't change the fact that they simply HAVE to keep focusing on the ideal, because otherwise that pattern could be lost in all the exceptions and the cultural chaos surrounding what family and marriage is vs. what it is supposed to be.
Sister Dew addressed this challenge at Women's Conference as well:
"In this audience are sisters coping with every situation imaginable. Some of you have never been happier. Others are grappling with unseen ordeals, weeping into your pillows at night, then putting on a brave smile and facing another day. I know. I've experienced both.
It is because of the range of our experiences that we as women can be a tough crowd. We sometimes pounce if a speaker doesn't say just what we want to hear. But here is the reality: We each have our customized opportunities to deal with disappointment, yet our disappointments don't change the doctrine....None of our lives are perfect, and neither are we. Nonetheless, in the spirit of not offending or overwhelming one another, it can be tempting to water down the message."
In the end, no matter where we are in life right now, our goal is eternal life, which includes eternal family relationships. But that doesn't come necessarily through ideal family relationships here. In fact, more and more, I think the challenge is to learn to accept the ideals without being paralyzed by them. To learn to let our imperfect lives and selves, painful as they are, turn us to God. To make the most of the life He has given us, be it close to ideal or far from it.
I believe God expects us to learn to turn to Him to figure out what it means to strive for the ideal as best as we can. Right now. We can do that, line upon line, regardless of what our specifics look like. He doesn't judge us in a vacuum against the ideals (which is sometimes hard to remember because that is how we often judge ourselves and others). He will take us wherever we are, and help us take the next step, if we will turn to Him.
I am coming to really feel that if I rely on the leaders to do all of that exception-managing and specifics-acknowledging for me, I am missing out on really learning to lean on Him. I believe our general leaders care deeply, and will continue to seek for ways to address a worldwide church while acknowledging how much variation there is in our lives. But that's the point. There is just too much variation for them to address at the level any of us really need for our pain and struggles! And I think it's unfair to expect that of them. The LORD is the Source of our customized counsel, and we will find more peace, power, perspective, and progress if we learn to take the ideals and turn to Him.
I say that with conviction because I am experiencing this in my life right now. I feel that one thing the Lord is teaching me in my less-than-ideal life, with my imperfect self, is that when I choose to really turn to HIM for that support I sometimes wish I had for my specifics and exceptions (from leaders or others).... Wow. I have had some really powerful experiences lately that have helped me know that HE IS THERE and that He can help me see specific guidance in the general principles that are taught by prophets, both ancient and modern. I don't need to hear my specific situations and struggles addressed to learn how to process the ideal in my less-than-ideal reality. That's not always easy, but it's an exercise in faith that is helping me grow and feel His love and power in amazing ways.
The Savior sacrificed His life so that I don't have to beat myself up with ideals. When I hear the Lord's servants teaching the ideals, I am learning to remind myself that they aren't beating me over the head, either. In the end, they are inviting me to take the ideals and then take my less-than-ideal life and self to God and see what He wants me to do now to keep pressing forward steadfastly toward the ideal -- an ideal that will only be possible through the Savior as I turn my life over to Him.
Yes, men and women who turn their lives over to God will find out that he can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life to God will find he has eternal life.
-Pres. Ezra Taft Benson (Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Tambuli, May 1977, 20)