The Strait and Narrow Path is Not Straight

One of the most famous and talked about sections in the first book of Nephi is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life along with Nephi’s subsequent vision and explanation of what his father saw. We speak about this vision a lot, and rightly so, as there is so very much to learn from it. This time, however, I noticed a few things that we have been missing or getting wrong.

In every picture or representation of the vision that I have seen, there is a straight path with a straight rod next to it, when the scripture says, “I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood.” The two homophones, straight and strait, have very different definitions and we should really stop confusing the two. We keep thinking of the path as straight, picturing a road that has no curves, bends or even hills. One can very clearly see the end from the beginning. A strait, on the other hand is a difficult situation, such as “dire straits,” or when speaking of a path, one might think of a narrow passage of water, such as the Bering Strait or the Strait of Magellan. The path is tight, constricting, and difficult to navigate. I think the use of the word strait in this vision is purposeful and far more accurate.

The path to the tree of life is not straightforward. We want to think that it is. Make the right covenants, check the right boxes, just be obedient and stop wandering. In 2nd Nephi, chapter 4, Nephi prays and asks God to make his paths straight, and don’t we all want that. A simple path with no surprises and a clear destination. But Nephi saw the vision and he knows the path is strait. The purpose of those covenants is to connect you with the Holy Ghost, the purpose of those commandments is to teach you to receive revelation and seek the Spirit. The Spirit will help you navigate. The scriptures are your map and guide, but your path is still difficult. Your situation will require you to listen to your navigator and follow the bends and turns. You won’t always see the end from the beginning. 

Thinking of the path this way has also helped me to correct my interpretation of the iron rod, which is stated to be the word of God. We talk about it as if that means a list of the commandments we follow, but to me that is the title of revelation. Commandments are contained within revelations, but there is so much more. Perhaps, even more important are the personal commandments and directions we receive through revelation. In order to get through the mists of darkness and stay on a strait path, I have to receive revelation and do what the Spirit tells me to do, which will not necessarily be what the Spirit told Joe, or Bob, or Mary. The scriptures will help me learn how to connect with the Spirit and interpret the promptings and directions, but I still need to be getting my own directions.

I worry for those that think the path is straight and that “hold to the rod” means “just do what I told you to do” because they also then misinterpret the large and spacious building which represents the pride of the world. I’ve heard some people speak of their position on the path with a lot of pride and mocking towards those people in the building, and isn’t that a bit ironic and hypocritical? In the vision, the people in the building are mocking those at the tree. In real life, I’ve seen a lot of people at the tree point their mocking fingers at the building not realizing that they are just as consumed with pride as those they attempt to scorn.

There have definitely been times when I’ve felt pressure from friends to do things that weren’t aligned with my beliefs. I did hold on to that vision of myself at the tree and think, if they mock me, it won’t matter because I’m eating fruit that is more precious than anything they could offer. The allegory is helpful when you’re trying to visualize yourself working towards a desired goal and not falling for discouragement from people that don’t understand what you’re doing. I’ve also learned that my real friends do not mock me even if they hold different beliefs. If I’m truly partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life—the love of God—I won’t mock them either. Let’s be careful not to crush the tree with our own building of pride.

This is easier to do when you remember that you are walking on a strait path you need constant revelation to navigate. You have to stay humble; you have to keep listening, and the invitation for others to join you must always remain open.

Abusive Relationships in the Book of Mormon, Love Him or Leave Him?

Nephi had some really awesome adventures. He was a man of action and he knew how to get stuff done. He got the scriptural records from their murderous cousin, he persuaded another family to join them in the wilderness, he made his own bow after his old one broke, he built a boat and crossed the ocean. It is not hard to understand why he is a favorite hero to many people. I remember wanting to be like Nephi when I was a young child. When I was a teenager, however, I felt like he let me down and betrayed me. He became an impossible standard that I couldn’t live up to, and I started to hate him for it. Mostly because of the way he dealt with his brothers.

Nephi’s brothers were abusive, and we really don’t say that enough. They beat him with a rod, they tied him up and wanted to abandon him to the beasts in the wilderness, they blamed him for their problems, they tied him to the mast of the ship, and in general were truly awful to him. Nephi would somehow escape—an angel would come and chastise Laman and Lemuel, the Lord would give him strength to break his bonds, family or friends would plead for him until Laman and Lemuel relented. And after every single one of these brutalities, Nephi would forgive them.

When I was 15, I was bullied and not in the off-hand way that is used by many nowadays. Before bullying became a buzz word, the only way I had to describe what this boy did was abuse. Mostly verbal, only in a few instances was it physical, but it was enough that I felt scared and I was emotionally and mentally beat up by this boy constantly. I wanted to be like my hero Nephi, I wanted to be saved. There were no angels, I felt no heavenly gift of strength to break the bonds, I didn’t even have friends and family that would stand up for me (except my mother, she was the only one that believed me). I thought maybe, if I tried to forgive more like Nephi, I could be stronger like Nephi. It never worked.

Every time we cover these chapters in Nephi, someone will bring up what a great example of forgiveness Nephi is, and I want to scream and pull my hair. Yes, Nephi’s brothers apologized, and he forgave them, but they didn’t stop. He just kept getting abused. When I was trying to stop the abuse, I felt that Nephi was a traitor telling me that I needed to forgive and keep going back to my abuser and if I couldn’t do it, I was simply too weak. It was my fault that I couldn’t handle the abuse. Maybe I’d be able to handle more abuse if God would send me something like he did Nephi, but then maybe he didn’t because I wasn’t as good as Nephi. And so, I ended up in a cycle of anger and despair at myself, Nephi, and God. For a long time, I refused to forgive because forgiveness left me open to more abuse. I held on to my pain because it was the only protection I seemed to have.

Years later, I started going back to church and reading scriptures again and I skipped through these chapters. Then I read the one where Nephi is told to leave his brothers. I felt the Spirit tell me, it’s ok to leave, to protect yourself. After this, I realized a better way to forgive and that protecting myself wasn’t going against God.

I don’t know why the Lord made Nephi stay with his brothers for so long. Maybe he protected Nephi as much as he did because he needed the family to stay together, and then, once it was feasible for Nephi to leave, the Lord told him to do so. I just wish that we would expand our discussion on forgiveness and recognize that you do not need to keep opening yourself up to abuse that is continual and ongoing.

Nephi is a good example of forgiveness, but not only when he stayed with his brothers. Even when they separated, he prayed for them and taught his people and they later sent missionaries over to the Lamanites. There is forgiveness in that too.

Forgiveness is hope. Hope can be many things and can be held in many different circumstances. You can hope that someone will get help even when you are not able to help them. You can forgive and protect.

Is Nephi Arrogant or Humble? The Underlying Confidence Necessary for Powerful Humility

To be totally honest, Nephi is not my favorite. He and I have a troubled past, but he and I are learning to work through our differences. As arrogant as I think Nephi is, there is one thing he has taught me about the awesomeness of humility. 

Soon after leaving Jerusalem, Lehi tells his sons they have to go back to the city to get the plates of brass (in other words, the scriptures) from a distant family member who is also a bit murderous. Of course, Laman and Lemuel complain and don’t think they can do it because they’re all going to die. Nephi rallies them with the story of the Lord delivering the Jews from Egypt saying, “Therefore, let us go up. Let us be strong like unto Moses…the Lord is able to deliver us even as our fathers and to destroy Laban even as the Egyptians.” There is something really awesome about how Nephi just assumes that the Lord will give him the same aid that He gave to Moses. He doesn’t see himself as less than Moses, too low in standing or worth to the children of God to receive aid. Nephi doesn’t seem to see any big difference between himself and Moses. He knows the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore, if the Lord helped Moses, the Lord will help him too.  

Laman and Lemuel don’t have that attitude. Nephi seems to think that they doubt the power of God, but thinking of myself in this position, I think that they doubt they are deserving of the Lord’s help and thus forget to look for it, let alone ask for it. Later on in the story, after they do succeed in getting the plates and even see an angel, their father has a vision. Laman and Lemuel are confused by it and Nephi asks them if they asked God. Their answer is, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” Perhaps they have tried on previous occasions and have given up, but a part of me wonders if they didn’t ask because they thought they weren’t of the right standing. Maybe they thought their father received visions because he was a visionary man, a prophet, and because they are not prophets, they will not receive visions or revelations. They didn’t try because they didn’t think they were allowed to. 

At first glance, it might seem a bit arrogant that Nephi automatically places himself among prophets of old. Yet, I think this is actually the strength of Nephi’s humility. If we look at what Nephi does with the assumption that he is as deserving as the prophets, we see that he asks for help, a lot. He is constantly asking God what to do and where to go. He then actually does what he is told to do. 

There is something really amazing about his basic belief that the Lord will love him and help him as much as the Lord loves and helps anyone else. It isn’t that he is more deserving than his brothers, it’s that he asks for help a lot more. Nephi didn’t wait to earn a title or position before asking for help from God. He didn’t need anyone’s permission because the opinion of other men meant very little. 

I’ve learned a lot from Nephi in this regard. Even though I am not anyone with huge standing or a prominent calling doesn’t mean that the Lord loves me any less or that the Lord will help me any less. The individual answer will change, the type of help that comes will be specific to my or your situation, but the Lord will always answer the question and give aid. No special title or standing required. 

It is not arrogant to know that the Lord will answer you and help you. That’s just faith. In fact, I think this basic belief and confidence is necessary for true humility and the power that it brings. To ask for the answer and the help, most especially to accept whatever answer and help is given instead of demanding your own desire, that’s incredible humility.  

Revelation, the Cure for Whining

What is the real difference between Nephi and his brothers Laman and Lemuel? We could also ask, what is the difference between someone who is happy in a church and someone who is not. When these stories are taught there is an emphasis on obedience and cheerful work without murmuring. Perhaps I am prone to disobedience and complaining, but I do not find these lessons encouraging for myself. I am too often a Laman. One of the most frequent admonitions I remember from my mother is, “no whining.” But is whining what really makes Laman and Lemuel the epitome of all that is wicked and evil?

After their father, Lehi, was told by the Lord to leave Jerusalem because it was going to be destroyed, he prepared his family to go into the wilderness. The entire family obeyed and went. Laman and Lemuel, the oldest sons, complained and criticized their father. Nephi says they did this because “they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.” Nephi describes his own reaction to his father’s demands as such:

     And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers. 

1 Ne 2:16

While I don’t know why Nephi feels it important to tell us of his large stature (my best guess is that he’s a teenager), I do love his description of his first recorded revelation. He was young and had a desire to know. I too found it a lot easier to receive revelation when I was younger. My desires to learn and my simple curiosities were just that—simple. Now they are easily clouded with confusion, conflicting desires and thoughts, even my own pride and wish to be right. Nephi is not describing anything grand either. Later, he will receive visions, ministering angels, and huge assignments from the Lord. But here, this first one he tells us about was just a softening, a heartfelt belief. It sounds so small, yet this is what stopped his own murmuring and rebellion.

We don’t know about Laman and Lemuel’s history with personal revelation. Did they have some when they were young and then doubt them when they got older? Did they try but never get an answer? I have experienced both of these and can testify that they do lead to extreme frustration. Revelation is not always simple. As a scientist, I like things that follow a protocol and are repeatable. If it can’t be repeated by another person, then it’s not valid or the interpretation is incorrect. If I can’t repeat an experiment or a procedure, I will keep trying, looking for things I might be doing wrong, blaming myself or my own lack of skill. Until, I’m so sick of blaming myself that I either give up entirely or lash out at the original procedure. It is so easy for me to see myself in Laman and Lemuel.

In my quest to please my mother and stop whining, I have thought about the importance of personal revelation. To me it is the difference between being forced to do something by an outside force and choosing to do something with your own power and your own motivations. It is always worth it to take some time and consider why you do or do not want to do a particular thing or what your goal is from a particular project regardless of the stated goals of other people.

My church has a rich history of revelation from the Lord and we love that history particularly because it declares that the heavens are not closed, and that revelation is possible. I think this knowledge and an ability to receive revelation for oneself are essential for a healthy practice of a living religion. While my church has this belief, it does not mean we are free from blocks to personal revelation. I am a Laman that constantly strives to seek revelation and to be a little more like Nephi. I have found help to do so within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have friends and family who have left the Church and found other traditions and structures to help them find the revelation they seek. They were Lamans like me and they also sought revelation to be more like Nephi. They found that help in other churches and other traditions. I still count them as righteous and highly favored of the Lord.

All of Lehi’s sons were obedient. Nephi did it without complaining because it was his choice and he didn’t feel forced. Obedience is not the key difference, revelation is. I applaud all of my brothers and sisters that are able to find revelation, wherever in the wilderness they may be. Blessed is she that can find joy and stop whining.

Destruction as a Path to Salvation and the Importance of Context

It’s been so long since I’ve posted regularly, mostly because we have been battling a lot of different illnesses at our house this winter. Nothing major, just a lot of viruses and infections, one right after the other. I did a lot of reading (and a lot of Netflix bingeing) but did not have the mental energy and focus to write. I did find a lot of interesting things in my reading, especially as I tried to stay with the Come Follow Me curriculum put out by my church. I really wanted to write down and work out some of my ideas, even though the curriculum is now far past this point in the reading. I hope you’ll understand as I go back to the beginning and try to catch up to the study schedule. 

I usually study and read by topic and so it’s very easy for me to fall into the excuse that I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times before, I’m familiar with the stories and thus do not need to read them from cover to cover. This year, I want to read it straight through and see it again as a whole. Everything has a context and seeing that context is important in arriving at an understanding of the intended message. While I always try to look for the context of each individual verse as I study (for example, who is speaking and to whom), it is just as important to see that story within the full arc of the Book of Mormon and the book itself within the full scriptural cannon and the story of the Restoration. This is essential for the Book of Mormon and that’s obvious from the very beginning.

The first grand vision and revelation in the Book of Mormon is given to Lehi but is written by his son Nephi, who is reportedly young—the youngest of four brothers. Nephi writes that his father was worried for the people of Jerusalem and prayed for them. He saw a pillar of fire, was carried away by the Spirit and saw the heavens open. He was given a book and read about the destruction of Jerusalem. After reading the book, Lehi exclaimed, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!”

I stopped here for a second and wondered, is he including the destruction of Jerusalem in his praise for great and marvelous works? How could someone glory in the destruction of another? I wondered if Lehi might be a bit vindictive in his praise of the Lord, believing that the people of Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed and he deserved to be saved, thus his description of the Lord’s great mercy. This attitude is not all that hard to imagine. I’m sure we’ve all seen it or even felt it from time to time. We feel safe, maybe even jubilant, when we avoid catastrophe. And when we’ve avoided catastrophe because of our own work and choices, we are proud. Bad people should have bad things happen to them, right? Except, aren’t we all bad people at some point? 

Then I remembered that Lehi is not the only prophet to see or to prophecy about the destruction of an entire people. These prophets also praised God for his mercy because they saw the purpose of the destruction and how it fit into a greater plan. As I thought of even my own experience in learning from God that something bad was going to happen, I realized that God doesn’t show such things in isolation. He comforts and teaches. In my experience, God is not vindictive or petty but He does lead people down paths. We have a great deal of choice when it comes to which path we walk, but He also bends the roads and alters the direction to help us reach a favorable destination. I think Lehi and other prophets praised God’s mercy even after learning of destruction because they saw the part it played in their ultimate salvation.

We don’t know the entirety of Lehi’s vision—if he saw God’s full plan for Jerusalem or not. We only have an account written by his young son in a handful of verses. Later in the book it will become obvious that one small account of a vision is never enough to understand the entirety of it and that Nephi himself had a lot to learn about the meaning of mercy. 

I think this particular verse made me stop because I have seen so many examples over the years of people taking one thing and emphasizing it to the point that they forget to balance it with all of the other perspectives, stories, and lessons with in the Book of Mormon. This one verse (and it’s not entirely alone), when misconstrued and context ignored, can easily lead to a puffed up pride that is dangerous and destructive. The truth is, the Jews at Jerusalem were destroyed but then brought back again. Their history is rich and long and the love God has for them runs deep. We must also never forget that Lehi and his immediate family may have avoided destruction, but the nations that came from them did not. Prophecies about the destruction of Nephi’s people began quite quickly, and they were also welcomed with praise by the prophets that foretold them.

While the Book of Mormon does guide readers in how to follow God, it would be a fatal mistake to interpret the destruction in these stories as horrifically final when the Book of Mormon’s very existence stands as a testimony that destruction is never the end. The fact that we continue, that there is more to the story, is the mercy of God.

Moving Past the Form of Godliness to Claim the Power Thereof

My church rotates among our four main books of scriptures every year, and this year’s focus is the Book of Mormon. To begin this year’s study of the Book of Mormon, I started by reading Joseph Smith’s account of what we now call the first vision. I have read his account many times and always find myself reacting to it in a mixture of ways. Sometimes I am awestruck and find the whole thing so amazingly beautiful. Other times I find myself getting oddly jealous that someone else should be given clarity when I seek for it and find so little. This in turn makes me angry and the whole thing becomes simply too fantastical to be believed.

What most notably struck me this time was his description of what the ministers were doing in his community. He says, “The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.”  This religious fervor had devolved into a prideful contest among the ministers. A battle ground had developed, where their desire to be right and to debate took up everything else. 

It was this fighting, a “war of words and tumult of opinions,” as Joseph calls it, that prompted his own religious and spiritual journey to discover who was right. As the ministers fought over right and wrong doctrine and interpretations of doctrine, this is the mindset Joseph started with. One must be right and all the others wrong. There must be an answer, an undeniable truth beneath it all. Yet, because they all used the Bible to support their own theories and various interpretations, Joseph did not feel that the Bible alone would be able to solve his dilemma. He went and asked God and looked for revelation. He received a revelation and reported that the Lord said to him, “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

Being, myself, in a bit of a tumult lately about what to do, how to be faithful in light of various personal struggles and frustrations, I began to wonder more about the actual power of godliness that differs from having merely the form of it. 

It is not that hard to imagine this contest for converts to one’s own faith as it continues in many circles today. There are many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who still maintain this mindset—that missionary work is a war and the prize converts, or that one merely need to be right in the facts in order to have power. But if all of these ministers quoted the Bible, debated the Bible, and cared so much for the word of God yet received only the form and not the power, how important is it to be right?

If facts are only the form, what is the actual power?  

I was once asked what I gain from religion and after a moment I said, “Confidence.” At the end of the day, I believe religion and spirituality should be empowering. I don’t think facts or truth are unimportant, rather I don’t believe they are important in and of themselves. How important is it to have true doctrines? I think it depends on what you do with the doctrines you have, how you live the values you have chosen to believe in. 

Because I believe God’s purpose is to help me get stronger, that is what I see when I look at my doctrines and it’s how I use them. Because I believe God has the same purpose for everyone, I cannot use doctrines to tear down another. To deny them the power of God is to lose it myself. To use anything I consider a revelation to bolster my pride or to tear down another is to use it for the exact opposite of its actual godly purpose. Truth is empowering when it helps you act with the power of God. And God is love. 

An Eye Single to the Glory of God

Once, many years ago, I went to the temple feeling overwhelmed and stretched in too many directions. I prayed, hoping the Lord would sort through it all and tell me my priorities. How was I to balance being a good mother, wife, scientist, home maker, saint,…on and on and on? My hope was that the Lord would take some of those things off my list by telling me they weren’t really that important. My actual answer was, “keep your eye single to the Glory of God.” 

What is the Glory of God? I thought, and I knew instantly that it was us—His children. I thought of all the things God does for us, how He lifts and teaches.

My to-do list started to change from tasks to people. I thought of the people I served, those I loved and sought to help, and what kind of help they actually needed. When I viewed the people, the tasks started to change. 

For example, I hate doing dishes, but I love my children and we need to eat off of clean dishes for several health reasons. This seems like a necessary service to give my family. Yet, when I thought of the service my children needed, it was not clean dishes that came to mind. It was time spent with their mother and learning. If they could cook and clean with me, we would be spending important time together and they could learn and grow.

This all sounds beautiful in theory, and in my head it was exciting. In practice, however, not so much. The tasks were too complicated for them. They worked very slowly. They would rather watch TV. Remember, this impression came to me years ago, and I’m still working on it. 

I keep trying to make chores a team sport and focus more on teaching them and encouraging them instead of having it perfectly cleaned and totally finished. My ultimate goal would be that I don’t do chores by myself—the house is lived in together and cared for together—but I am not there yet. 

What I have kept, though, is that perspective of seeing people over tasks. Time together over appearances. This mental shift did a lot to ease the stress and anxiety I had been feeling and gave me a new approach in how to prioritize and think through my daily tasks. 

As I’ve worked on this, I’ve realized it’s not the tasks I need to let go of, it’s the expectations and the worry about how other people see me. 

I’ve found that I’m not always focused on the people that I want to lift and strengthen because I’m worried about the people watching. There are expectations I have put upon myself, not because they are what I need to do to lift someone, but because they are what I need to do to look good. It’s not that I’m vain—I know I’m not the best. What I want is just to belong. I want people to like me, even if the expense is stretching myself too thin, taking on too many tasks. In fact, I did this just last month.

So, how do I pull myself back? I’ve decided to look for people to lift, not for people to please. I think of my relationships and ask what I can do to lift this person?

A quick side note: it is an incorrect definition of power that says one person can only rise if another falls. When done correctly, power is cumulative. When one rises, we all rise. Lifting another doesn’t mean you offer them your back to step on. People may think they need things, or things done for them, but that’s not necessarily true and it might not be in your ability to give. Just like I needed to focus on people over appearances, I need to be sure I’m offering a true lift from connection and love and not a temporary fix. 

Sometimes, they need a bit of help, but more often than not, they just want someone to listen. Most people just want a little bit of praise and some compliments. Some, like me, want to be involved, and they are the ones I get to ask for help. In return, I get what I really wanted. I belong with these people because we have built a connection and a lasting relationship based on care and understanding. 

Are You a Perfectionist, or Do You Actually Want to be Perfect?

The definition of Perfect is one that often weighs on my mind. I think it is one of those words that is defined by the Lord in one way but used in a different way by our current society. Some speak it with adoration describing something so beautiful and wonderful it is beyond description. For others, it brings fear of overwhelming and unattainable standards. In trying to find a way to enjoy the beauty of perfection without being crushed by it, I’ve started to distinguish Perfectionism from actual Perfection.

I used to be excited about my perfectionism. I enjoyed designing the perfect masterpiece, doing the very best I could, or even performing the perfect experiment using all the proper controls and not forgetting a step so that everything would work just as it was supposed to do. I could focus for hours on what I wanted to accomplish, excited about the final product, and also thrilled when there was a problem to solve for it kept my mind fully engaged on something worthwhile and wonderful. I would get a tremendous rush when I finished something I was proud of, and that got me a good grade, but somehow, as I grew up, all of these things turned into a burden.

I first noticed that I could not be as fully engaged in my projects as I wanted to because there were so many of them. Mother’s with full lives, however, cannot cut out everything. There are so many things to try and do perfectly. I became impatient with myself for not moving faster, doing more, being better. The pictures in my head, my dreams of what I wanted to accomplish, seemed so far away. Problems were no longer exciting puzzles, but more indications that I lacked ability or talent. I couldn’t do anything the way it should be done. Eventually, projects became so daunting that I would abandon them. I was afraid to try.

In Christ’s sermon in Matthew chapter 5 he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This seems like a very tall order. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we emphasize that faith without works is dead and we do tend to keep ourselves very busy. However, defining Perfect, or Faith, or Value according to what I could do had become my problem.

President Nelson taught in a 1995 General Conference that the word perfect in this scripture was translated from the Greek word telios meaning complete, finished, fully developed. He continued by saying, “Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’” In 2017, Elder Holland taught us to “strive for steady improvement without obsessing over…’toxic perfectionism.’” We are to look forward to perfection, to be patient and forgiving of shortcomings for we are not yet finished.

While I love these messages, and I do try to be more patient and gentler with myself, I still get frustrated. About a year ago, I looked around and noticed I had not finished anything in a very long time. I had started various projects and worked intermittently on them, but never completed them. And I realized that one of the fears of Perfectionism is that you won’t reach the end unless you do everything right. Where is my hope to come from that I will reach that “distant objective” if I’m stuck and I don’t know what to do?

I started again, determined to finish my goals, even if they still held errors. I simply wanted to finish because I thought these small things would be my progress markers and boost my confident that I could do larger ones. I told myself, Christen, just finish something-even if it’s flawed, it will be done. And I couldn’t. I found that my efforts never met my expectations of what I wanted, and thus held me back from getting any joy from any accomplishment. Were my standards too high? Did I need to lower my dreams, accept less from myself, just so I could finish something that didn’t make me happy anyway? I took a long look at what was actually holding me back. This is when I really started to see the difference between Perfectionism and actual Perfection.

The fear of Perfectionism still held me back because I kept thinking about what other people would say. When I presented my finished product, what would be my grade? Would they see my errors? I realized that I was trying to prove myself, individually, to others who were outside waiting to judge me. Perfectionism is very disconnecting. We are like neighbors throwing things at each other over a fence. I, striving to meet the expectations thrown at me, throw my projects out, only to have them thrown back with criticism or praise, probably a mixture of both. But I am never with my neighbors—we never actually work together. I work by myself and then await the judgement. And they do the same in their own way, in their own yard.

My favorite part of the intercessory prayer, found in John 17:21-23, is when Jesus pleads with the Father, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us;…that they may be made perfect in one.” As I have thought about all of this, I have come to the conclusion that Perfection and Unity go together hand in hand. I cannot be whole if I allow others to dictate what I should do at the expense of my own yearnings. Neither can I be whole without true compassion, the ability to learn from others such that they can fill the holes left from my own limitations. No one can be truly Perfect alone. The final achievement of this is after this life when we are reunited with God and loved ones in a way that cannot be fully accomplished here. That is our distant objective. Yet, we can find unity here and now and thus have the assurance that we are going the right way.

I’ve approached my projects again with a determination to finish them and do it correctly—not by looking for flaws but by looking for unity. What is the motivation behind this goal? What is the purpose of this project? Am I trying to create something I can hold up to others or am I trying to connect with others?

Unity with myself means that the goal must be mine and mine alone. That is not to say that my goals are selfish or that I’ve completely cut myself off from others. Rather, seeking someone’s praise is very different from seeking to help them or to be their friend. I make an effort to involve others in my goal. Asking for advice, learning from them. While their input changes the appearance of the final product and the methods to achieve it, the end goal is the same. And it’s easier to have patience when you can feel that it is working.

Unity is love, peace, patience, understanding, joy, strength, and friendship. Doesn’t that sound Perfect.

A Personal Review of Depression

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways we can experience a depression and the different forms it can take. How difficult it can be to recognize a depression for what it is, even when you’re the one experiencing it. There are different ways to heal, different lessons to learn. For myself, I have had three, perhaps four, distinct bouts with depression, and they have taken on different forms. These are some of the things I’ve learned from my various depressions.

The first one was the worst. It came when I was 15, a fairly common time for mental health disorders to show up, but I wouldn’t say that it was purely genetic. There was a boy that I blamed my depression on because he began to bully and torment me when I was about 14. At first, I was angry at him and I told other people how much I hated him and how mean he was. But no one believed me. They told me I was the mean one. It took me years to understand how this happened, but he was saying things about me too, and they believed him over me.

After a while, I learned to keep my mouth shut. Trying to talk to people about it only got me in more trouble. They told me I was too sensitive, I needed to let it go. I was too naive, if I knew more about boys, I would understand. I was too selfish, I needed to think about things from his side and stop trying to pull him down. I started to believe them. I blamed myself for everything and I was stupid, worthless, and horrible.

By the time I was 15, I had bizarre physical pains in my stomach that did not have any diagnosable source that the multiple doctors I went to could find. But I was also severely depressed. I was sleeping all the time, refusing to leave the house, watching TV for hours, unable to read, but also obsessed with solving puzzles. I would also fantasize about dying and committing suicide.

To many people, I was still a selfish girl who wanted attention and my illness was not real. I just needed a firmer hand, some believed, a push out the door, and my mother was being too soft. My mother just wanted me happy again. She took me to a counselor and a psychologist and kept trying to help me. My medications and the counseling started to work. I did start feeling better and oddly enough, all of the pain and hatred I had for myself started to turn outward again. I blamed that boy and all the people that believed him instead of me.

From this depression, I learned several things. One, emotional pain will sometimes manifest itself physically because the body does not know how to interpret it or fix it. There is a connection between the physical and the emotional that cannot be denied though it’s also not entirely understood. Two, my mind and body shut down as much as possible when depressed. I need to be vigilant in noticing the warning signs of when I feel the desire to turn-off. Three, anger is felt on the way into and on the way out of a depression but is often not present during the darkest part of the depression. Because depression is often a desire to shut down, it is characterized by very low energy emotions—apathy, lack of focus, disconnection, despair—and anger is a high energy emotion which can be a good sign though it’s also important to not stay in anger for too long.

Unfortunately, the bullying and abuse that centered in this depression occurred largely at church. One of the best things I did when my depression was bad was to stop going to church, and one of the best things I did to complete my healing was to go back to church. When I was doing better, getting back to my angry self, my mother told me that if I thought there were bullies at church then there would be others that felt the same way. “Go look for them,” she said, “be with them, believe them, and they will be your friends.” She was right. The others I found that were being marginalized and bullied became some of my best friends. I also remembered the spiritual feelings I had when depressed (see “A promise of light” for one example) and realized that if I liked praying, reading scriptures, and going to church because they brought me the Spirit, I shouldn’t let someone else keep me from being where I wanted to be. If God wanted me at church, who were they to kick me out?

Anger carried me for quite a while, but it couldn’t fix everything. I went with a desire to be there and a fear that someone would notice I was an imposter. I tried to sit in some unnoticed corner, I had panic attacks, I spoke very little. I realized that I loved the Church, but I didn’t much care for other Mormons. It took a long time (not until the end of my mission truthfully) before I felt comfortable with other Mormons without fearing them.

My second depression came after my mother’s diagnosis with cancer. My fear of losing her and being alone was profound and I again started sleeping a great deal and wanting to watch TV. I went to counseling sooner and found a psychiatrist. I was able to keep up with my studies at school, but I didn’t attend church as much. Those at church that knew about my mother’s diagnosis were very nice and supportive, but I didn’t really let them help me much. I did have fabulous friends at school that helped me a lot. Lessons from this depression: don’t be afraid of medication and counseling, take it, the sooner you do the better it goes and let people help you, you are not a burden to your friends, they care enough to sit with you even when you’re sad.

I struggle to call this next one a third depression because it did not go to the extent that I needed counseling and medication, but it was difficult. I was with a companion as a missionary that I could not leave, we needed to be together all the time, and she had very exacting standards. I started to feel that I did everything wrong, that I was not good enough to be a missionary, I cried a lot, felt tired all the time, and wanted to go home. Being mostly isolated as we were, there were few options for finding support.

Our Mission President had given everyone a talk from President Benson entitled Beware of Pride, and in this talk I found my coping mechanism. I thanked and praised my companion for something every day. When I did this, she was nicer to me. I don’t recall her thanking me or praising me in return, but she was less critical, and doing this for her made it easier to do it for myself. I will not lie and say this was wonderful—it was hard. I don’t think I could have done it if I had not known that we would only be companions for a few more weeks, but it did work.

I learned from this experience that I need to be nicer to myself. One of the reasons her criticisms were so hard to combat was because she did not say anything to me that I did not already say to myself. To have it confirmed by another person made it ten time worse, but I began to ask, why was I so critical in the first place? She and I were similar in one regard—we were both perfectionists. She is what I now call a high energy perfectionist, someone who can pay attention to the details and follow through with her grand ideas because she has enough energy for it. I am what I call a low energy perfectionist. I see the details, I have grand visions of what I want to do, but I don’t always have the energy to do it all which is why I always fall short of what I want and always feel like a failure. I used to wish I had more energy to go with my perfectionism, but my experience with her has taught me that moving that fast often leaves you blind to the things around you. I prefer my slower pace now; I see that I can do more than what I’d originally envisioned because my vision is broader. It is now my goal to fight off my perfectionism and be kind to myself.

My last depression was when we lived in Michigan, far away from friends and family. I was going through several intense struggles (see Problem 1, Problem 2, and Problem 3 for more details) and began to hate myself, God, and the people around me. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I did not recognize it for what it was. I was tired all the time, but I blamed that on my new baby. I started off with anger and it wasn’t until my anger started to turn to despair and I began to fantasize about leaving, shutting down, that I realized I had a problem. I went to God and took my healing seriously, but I didn’t seek counseling and medication. I can’t say why, this was a poor decision, and I do not recommend it. Perhaps it was because I kept blaming other things and thought I just needed to fix this or fix that and then I’d be fine. It’s possible I didn’t trust that anyone else would understand. Maybe I was afraid that people would blame me again or be dismissive about my pain. For whatever reason, I didn’t think of this as a depression until years later when I was finally out of it enough to see clearly.

One thing I learned from this one was the need to talk to other people. I think my husband knew I was depressed before I did, but because I saw him as one of the problems that I needed to fix, I wasn’t listening very well. I got mad at the people at church because they were more concerned about my husband than they were about me. They wanted to answer his questions and help him feel welcomed at church, all very good. But there is no magic answer or silver bullet for someone like him and friendship does not equal belief.  Meanwhile, as I was feeling very lonely and questioning my future, no one asked me if I had any questions or whether I needed more fellowship. Neither my Home Teachers (male ministers) nor Visiting Teachers (female ministers) ever came.

I began to get a bit resentful. I felt invisible, taken for granted, and far less important than my husband. I remember trying to make a friend by going to a Relief Society dinner and then crying the whole way home. I started to think of them as shallow, stupid people. And my panic attacks came back in full force. Just like when I tried to go back to church after my depression as a teenager, I would panic in Relief Society, sit by myself in Sacrament Meeting, and say nothing in Sunday School. I loved the Church, but I hated Mormons.

When I look back on this depression, I think my biggest lesson was that forgiveness is the final healing. I needed help desperately but because I hadn’t really forgiven those first Mormons who had hurt me as a teenager, I didn’t allow the ward members in my college ward to help me, and then I didn’t trust the people in my Michigan ward.

I can’t say that I was wrong to avoid church until I was firmly on the road to health. I needed separation from the ones that were hurting me. But holding on to anger also held me back from finding new allies. I’ve been working more on forgiving those that didn’t understand and didn’t see what was really going on. I think I understand them better now and it’s helped me find new allies but also to be a better ally for someone else.

I learned these lessons from battles with depression, but I think they’re useful for everyone. Our bodies and spirits are connected, let them strengthen each other and don’t ever build one at the expense of the other or they will both fall apart. Deal with your anger, it can be very useful, but don’t use it for too long and don’t hide it away or it will destroy you. When you feel yourself turning off find ways to connect and engage. Slow down and be kind to yourself. Find those people that will support you and forgive those who don’t know how.

I’ve met a lot of people who don’t understand what the big deal is. Everyone needs to have good friends, so why is that so hard for depressed people? I had a lot of friends before I was depressed, afterward I had one. Friendship is not easy for me, it’s frightening. But because I’ve struggled with it and worked at it, I think I know more now about how to be and find good friends than those for whom friendship is easy. Because forgiveness was hard, I know more about it. Because my mind and my heart are sensitive, I’ve studied how to take care of them. People who think these things are easy may mistakenly believe they’re stronger or smarter. But I warn you, we who have struggled are wiser and stronger than you realize.

Don’t stop fighting, it’s worth it.

Book Review: Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson

Silent Souls Weeping is a wonderful book both for those that have suffered, or are currently suffering, from depression as well as those that haven’t but would like to know how to help. I particularly love her descriptions of the disease and those who suffer. There is much about mental health that is confusing—there are situational, environmental, and individual factors—but, first and foremost, Jane Clayson Johnson emphasizes that it is a disease with a malfunctioning body part just like diabetes or cancer. How and why the brain is triggered into a depression varies according to the individual. Some of us have more of a genetic tendency, and the depression can come out of nowhere. For others, it is prolonged exposure to threatening experiences that has caused a system overload. And, as with so many things, the truth is a bit of both. I have learned that certain situations and environments will lead me into a depression when for others they might not. Those situations are extremely stressful, and would be for anyone, but I seem to shut down and respond in ways that others don’t. For a long time, I thought it meant that I was wrong, I was broken. My favorite part of this book was how Ms. Johnson separated this disease from the identity of the sufferer. I am someone prone to depression who has to monitor and care for my body just like someone who has diabetes. I am not weaker than someone who’s never had a depression.

This book is filled with stories and examples from others that have suffered and the different strategies they have taken. The greatest benefit to someone who is suffering is that they will realize they are not alone. I found some of my strategies described in this book, but there were times when her descriptions and examples gave me pause. I’m grateful that she reiterated how individual each experience is and states that her book is not for self-diagnosis or for self-help. If you are suffering, get help and don’t use every strategy in this book. Only use the ones that seem right at this time. Another strategy might be useful later, but not right now, or it will never be a good strategy for you. There were some I use constantly, some I have used but only under certain conditions. Others I love and rely on heavily, but I understand that others struggle with them, and some that scare me and I don’t know how anyone could possibly do it, but it obviously works for them. 

I hope that someone who has never had a depression and doesn’t understand it could find compassion and clarity from reading this book. Through out her entire book, Ms. Johnson speaks about depression coming with a sense of isolation and its cure is connection. I believe she’s absolutely right and I applaud her articulation of depression as a disease that can be helped by our society as we work together. The stated scope of her book is to “raise the blinds” on depression and ease the stigma. Too often people are too embarrassed to talk about their depression and this only enhances their feelings of isolation. If we could reduce the shame people feel and speak more openly, then we could start to see the disease become less severe and our communities as a whole would be greatly benefited. 

She focuses on the stigma around depression in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in so doing, points out a few things within our culture that contribute to this stigma. We are a society of “do-ers,” she says, we love to serve and be constantly working. We take the Lord’s commandments seriously, including his invitation to be perfect. I wish she would have done more to dispel the misconceptions around these principles, but I understand it was not within the scope of this particular book. I still think we have a lot of work to do to be more inclusive, compassionate, and spiritually intentional in our communities and in doing the work of the Lord.

As a whole, I loved this book and wish that everyone would read it. It has given me a lot of food for thought, both with my own depression but also about how our society deals with it.

My final thought at the end of reading it is that our culture has become stronger than our doctrine. People that are prone to depression are not weaker than others. We do not need a lower standard or a different set of requirements. We need people to listen to us. Someone with diabetes cannot eat the same things that a healthy person could, but a healthy person could do quite well to eat a little more like a diabetic. I don’t have diabetes, but I still shouldn’t eat sugar all day long. Likewise, someone without depression could continue to live as our culture demands but that person would not be as connected to the Spirit or to the doctrine. If we were to listen to those who have had to fight depression and have done so with help from the Spirit and faith in the gospel, we would learn things we would be blind to otherwise. Depression makes us more sensitive to problems that others do not notice, and like canaries in the coal mines, we can be your warning voice that something has gone wrong. Building connections together will help the depressed person and will help the healthy person. We can all be made stronger together.