Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a very strong push towards perfectionism. We take this scripture in Matthew and turn it into a sort of motto. We even, sometimes, focus so much on seeking after perfection that we forget the real world. We paint beautiful verbal pictures of pristine homes, flawless marriages, and angelic children. In both the classroom and over the pulpit, we instill into every member of the Church the notion that there is a correct way to map out and live our lives. It starts with missionary service, continues on to temple marriage, quickly progresses to child bearing, and ends in the idyllic picture of perfect homes and families that I mentioned earlier. There is great value in teaching and emphasizing that making and keeping covenants is essential to salvation and personal happiness, and I think it's critical that we teach every young person in the Church to value temple marriage and the sacred roles of mothers and fathers. But I think that there is a frequently made mistake whenever we talk about these precious topics. Instead of teaching principals, we're teaching an application. We teach that there is an ideal--a one right way to be perfect in God's eyes and in the eyes of the Church.
I understand the doctrines of marriage, family, and covenants. I value and cherish those doctrines and believe in them wholeheartedly. But timing is often outside of our control. Who can predict when their eternal companion will walk into their life? And who can dictate the exact timing of conception and child bearing? Even when our heart's desire is to follow the outline for ideal marriages and families that has been laid out by the Church, there is little anyone can do to ensure that all goes according to that plan. The thing is, members of the Church have become hung up on the idea that there is an ideal way to live our lives, and that ideal lifestyle also comes with a timeline and a laundry list of characteristics.
Here's where the issue lies: I'm not ideal.
I don't say that to disparage myself or to be rebellious. I say it because it's true. I am not living the ideal Mormon timeline, partially by choice and partially because of circumstance. I also am not the image of the ideal Mormon woman, partially by choice and partially because God gave me personal weaknesses and life challenges that I don't have control over.
Almost a month ago, I had a miscarriage. Along with the overwhelming sense of loss, I was crippled by the fear that people would begin to ask uncomfortable questions about why my husband and I were still notably childless after nearly two years of marriage. From the moment we first got married, people have expressed the expectation that a baby would not be far behind. While these comments were always somewhat irritating, the idea of being faced with such questions was genuinely devastating after I experienced the grief of losing a pregnancy. My Facebook feed is constantly cluttered with pregnancy and birth announcements, as well as hundreds and hundreds of photos of healthy, happy babies and pregnant women. Some days, I just can't face it without tears and feelings of guilt, loss, and resentment. I have always been and always will be happy for my friends who have healthy and successful pregnancies. But recently, it's been difficult not to wonder if something is wrong with me. Why can't I have what they have? To everyone else, it seems to come so easily. But for me, there has been almost a year of attempting to get pregnant, followed by the crushing blow of a miscarriage. In the midst of my own personal grieving, I've become more aware of just how painful it can be to be a worthy member of the Church who is denied the espoused LDS ideal.
In an attempt to be more aware of the people who cannot live the prescribed lifestyle of the Church--especially those who fall short not because of their personal choices, but because of circumstance--people will often include in their talks and lessons a little side note, stating that God will make right all the wrongs of our lives. Again, that word ideal gets thrown around. We recognize that the doctrines we teach are the ideal, and not everyone can achieve that ideal in this lifetime. But we promise that in the eternities, every blessing will be granted to those who were denied the privilege on Earth. This is a true, and glorious doctrine. The Atonement can and will make right all the wrongs of an unfair and imperfect world. I believe that, and it brings me comfort. But when I hear someone tell me that over the pulpit or in the classroom, I don't hear, "God will fix everything that is unfair about this life." What I hear is, "you are not ideal." All I see is that everyone else seems to be doing fine, and I don't measure up. In our attempts to recognize those who are trying to be righteous, but still don't quite achieve the ideal outlined by Church culture, we are instead creating the false idea that the fault lies within them. That they are what is not ideal.
I don't share my experience to bemoan my own plight. In comparison to many, my circumstances have been extremely easy to bear. Although I have struggled with mild depression and loss, I have never experienced true suffering. I don't claim to be an authority on grief, but I do see within my own experiences a pattern and a very real truth. People are uncomfortable with facing the very uncomfortable reality that the ideal is almost entirely fictitious. Most people don't get married young. Most people don't or can't have children right off the bat. Many families struggle with infertility and financial issues that make rearing a family nearly impossible. Many marriages face infidelity, addiction, and other marital issues that will test the relationship to it's limits, and sometimes to it's breaking point. Millions of worthy and hopeful women are still awaiting the day that an equally worthy and hopeful man walks into their life and is ready to settle down and start an eternity together. Almost every family will face health problems, some small, and some devastatingly large. Parents all around the world have watched helplessly as their children have fallen away, caught in the snare of addiction or simply led astray by the conflicting messages of the world. Very few people meet their spouse at a young age, settle down, start a family, and raise beautiful, obedient children. Even fewer will live healthy lives in a pristine home where no one argues or slams doors. The fact is, the true ideal of marriage and family is a beautiful doctrine that we have embellished to the point of being almost beyond recognition. We've turned it into a fantasy far outside most people's reach.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't teach about marriage, family, motherhood, or temple covenants. We should teach those doctrines boldly and loudly! The world needs to hear them. But instead of making a side note at the end that says, "We'd like to recognize all those who are trying and failing to do what everyone else has achieved. We love you and want you to know that someday you'll get those blessings, even if it isn't in this life," we ought to be treating those circumstances as what they are. Valid, real life experiences. We make the mistake of assuming that people with picture perfect lives and families are the majority. They're not. They are the minority. Imperfect people, imperfect families, imperfect lives--those are the majority. They are mortality at it's most honest and most real.
My suggestion is that we stop trying to include people with un-ideal circumstances as an afterthought in our talks and lessons. Teach the Word with boldness! Preach the doctrines of the Gospel, because they need to be taught. Encourage people to follow the example of the Savior, the only truly perfect being to have ever existed on this Earth. But teach with equal amounts of boldness, clarity, and truth that the Gospel is not for perfect people. It was Christ who declared, "They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17)." In His commandment that we be perfect like unto our Father in Heaven, He was not trying to make us feel ashamed of our mortality or the fact that life turns out differently than we desire. He was reminding us that there is a purpose behind the Gospel, which is to heal those that are sick--to make them whole. We shouldn't focus so intently on what it means to be whole that we forget that the true human condition is to be sick, to be afflicted, to be tossed about in a world that is perpetually and unalterably unfair. We should instead focus on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, that lifts all people, no matter how imperfect they start out, to a higher and holier state.
The ideal--the true ideal--is that everyone should be striving towards becoming like Christ. This is a perfection that everyone can achieve. It has no timelines or checklists. It cannot be generalized, nor can everyone be expected to achieve the same results. It is a deeply and wonderfully personal experience. The Gospel was not designed as a conveyor belt that mass produces "ideal" members of the Church. It was designed to heal, to uplift, to exalt. Such a process can only happen individually. Families are central to the process, but each person must "work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) without the interference of anyone's expectations except God's. If we all saw the Gospel in such a light, no one would feel as though they did not belong or were less than ideal. "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39). It is only in our imaginations that such a separation exists. Forgetting the romanticized concept of the "ideal" would go a long way toward removing that imagined gulf and bringing us back to the truth of God's love.