Thursday, June 10, 2010

Learning from My Grandmothers

I am at a stage in life where I have the means and time to research and write family history so I increasingly find myself immersed in stories and accounts written by the women in my family tree and their family members and peers. Every one of those women encountered tragedies and struggles in their lives. There is not a single exception. Sorrow is a part of each of their stories. So I have been thinking about sadness and its relationship to the gospel of Christ.
One great grandmother, Moriah, who was born in a small southern Utah town, buried ten of her thirteen children before they reached the age of 18. Another step-great, great grandmother, Sarah, received the gospel with her family as a young woman in a mining town in England, fell in love with and married a fine, young miner in that town who was a member of her congregation and was raising two children when her husband, as her father had been before him, was killed in a mining explosion. She used the money the mine gave her for compensation for the death of her husband to emigrate to Utah shortly after which her youngest child died. She met, loved and married my great, great grandfather and raised his three boys, her remaining daughter, and a passel of subsequent children, some of whom lived and some of whom did not.
My grandmother, Mariah’s daughter, told me stories of Mariah’s constant kindness and business-like determination to organize her Relief Society work to reach out to families in her community who were in need of food and help. She called her an angel.
Sarah was known for her careful, kind years of work as a member of her town’s “burial committee”, responsible for the washing, laying out of the body, sewing and clothing and flowers needed by a family in grief. Her granddaughter, Vida, remembers her for her ability to see the beauty in nature, her gratitude and fortitude as well as her quiet, dignified manner.
I did not know Mariah or Sarah, but I did know Ida, my calm, devout, sweet-smelling great grandmother who grew up with an absent father, lost a baby girl at birth, lost an energetic, strapping, son to a sudden illness when he was 18, and nursed her husband through years of multiple sclerosis. She used to recite long stretches of poetry to me, bake bread for us when my mom was sick, and beat me thoroughly at Scrabble.
All three of these women were thoroughly devoted to God and to the church. All three of them experienced times of terrific sorrow, struggle and loss. And all three found that the former helped them through the latter.
Nowadays I spend my Sundays teaching a Primary class. Every once in a while the lesson manual will tell a story, either from the scriptures or from a person’s life, about a choice wisely made, and include the question, “How do you think so-and-so felt when he did that?” And the children, having heard such questions before, will answer with a bit of a sing-song tone, “ha—ppy”. And then I have to get them to think deeper than that.
Wise choices don’t make happiness. Neither does living the gospel of Christ mean that we will always be happy. But I wonder if sometimes we don’t think they are supposed to. Perhaps that is because we read “Man is that he might have joy” and think that joy means happiness and that having means always. Perhaps it is because we read Joseph Smith’s comment that, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence”, and think that means that if we are living the gospel we are happy, and that unhappiness is therefore a sign of not living it, since, as we also know, “wickedness never was happiness”. And we neglect to realize that Joseph Smith goes on to say that “virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness” lead to happiness, not that they guarantee it every moment, here and now.
Perhaps some of this is behind the push for perkiness we find in some Mormon women’s circles; the sense of failure if they are not acting or feeling chipper or always focusing on the silver lining. I recall a young friend’s irrational dismay and sense that something was wrong with her when, after breaking up with her boyfriend, she “just couldn’t seem to be happy”. We sometimes think that living the gospel means we are always happy. But that is not the gospel.

I find wisdom in the words of Henry Ward Beecher. “Affliction comes to us, not to make us sad but sober, not to make us sorry, but wise.”

I think we modern women, protected somewhat by modern medicine and technology from the extent of sorrow our ancestors experienced , have lost our vision of the power of soberness and wisdom that comes as part of wading through affliction with God. Sorrow, sadness and heartache are not a manifestation of an absence of faith, nor a failure on our part, nor an abandonment of the grace of God. It is rather, a universal experience through which we all pass.

I remember a conversation I had with a thoughtful, old stake patriarch when I was a teenager. He had lost a son in a random shooting a few years before. He taught me that pain, struggle and heartache are what teach us to truly appreciate joy and truth. His comment was that the purpose of the gospel wasn’t to make you happy, but to transform your life from what it would otherwise be if you didn’t have it.

And it does transform it from what it otherwise might be. Recently two of my dear friends, one who understands and feels the love of God and one who does not, tragically lost a child to SIDS. I have spent hours listening to them mourn, talk and struggle through their terrific losses. And I see the empowering nature of a connection with God as I walk these two parallel paths with them. Both are terrifically bereft and sad. But the one who feels a connection with God is finding strength in a resource that the other is not able to find right now. I also know that both will feel that loss all of their lives. I know my great grandmother did.

Sorrow is an intrinsic part of life. If we spend our lives trying to avoid it or feeling like a failure when we experience it, we are missing important truths. An understanding of God doesn’t take away sorrow, but it does have the ability to sustain us and empower us as we fully experience it.

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