Friday, May 21, 2010

You shall be ordinary

When I was younger, I loved M. M. Kaye's lovely children's story, The Ordinary Princess. In it, one of the fairy-godmothers arrives late (and cranky) to the christening of the seventh daughter of the king (Amethyst, who later goes by Amy). The fairy looks over the impressive list of virtues that the child has already been endowed with, snorts, and says, "I'm going to give you something that will make you happier than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be ordinary."(Or she says something like that--I don't have my copy at hand to check). And so Amy becomes ordinary--her lovely golden curls turn straight and mousy, her nose turns up, and her cheeks are dusted with freckles. But because she is ordinary, she learns how to have an adventurous life that ends up unexpectedly rewarding.

I laughed at the story, enjoyed the romance, and secretly felt rather smug. You see, I wasn't ordinary. Or so I thought. In high school, even in college (and on rare occasions, in graduate school) I had been told that I was smart. Articulate. (I once had a complete stranger stop me and marvel at how clearly I enunciated. It was a strange experience). And a good writer. Somehow, this combination of abilities made me feel as if I was an unusual quantity.

Sure, I knew I wasn't unique. There were lots of people who were smarter, more articulate, better writers. But I still thought I was special.

But recently I've made a disconcerting discovery. Because I'm still new enough to my community to not know lots of people, I've been spending a little more time in online communities (mostly places like Segullah and the Mormon Women Project). And maybe because these efforts tend to concentrate smart, articulate women who are also good writers, my perceptions may be a little skewed. But I've discovered that there are actually lots of Mormon women who share my favorite triumvirate of characteristics. And I mean LOTS. I always knew they were out there--I've met my share of them at school and in various wards. But I didn't realize there were so many of them. And while I realize that this is a good thing for the church, it's also kind of a sad thing for me.

It means that really I'm pretty ordinary; there's nothing particularly unusual about me or my abilities.

Even this blog, which I started as a place to solidify thinking that would otherwise stay sort of amorphous, isn't particularly deep, particularly profound, or particularly well-written. I won't be winning any literary awards with it.



All of this is humbling for me (always a good thing), but I'm still going to keep writing. I'm still going to think. And I'm still going to be articulate as I can be. I write because I enjoy it, because it makes me feel as though I and my life matter a little bit more. And I think because I can't help it. Even if I am more ordinary than not, I still have things to say, things to contribute, even if the scope is smaller than I may have once wished. (After all, my gifts are still gifts--if I was given two talents instead of five, that's still no excuse for squandering them.)

Besides, there are worse fates than being ordinary.


As a post-script to yesterday's post, today I was reading a wonderful article on the church website ( by Terry Warner and his wife on helping young children recognize the spirit. Among other things, they include this telling quote by President Joseph F. Smith:

“You can’t force your boys, nor your girls into heaven. You may force them to hell by using harsh means in the efforts to make them good, when you yourselves are not as good as you should be. … You can only correct your children by love, in kindness, by love unfeigned, and reason” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971, p. 317). This may require listening to children’s complaints or frustrations patiently while we fight the urge to force them to behave correctly. It may mean confessing our shortcomings to them and asking their forgiveness. It may cause us to weep with them over whatever has gone wrong. It may require that we leave what we are doing, however important we may think it is, and attend to our children’s needs.

Last fall I had a student in my class whose story broke my heart: he had grown up in an LDS home and then left the church, in large part (or so it seemed from his written descriptions) because his parents had tried to *force* him to church. Teaching my children to want to choose good through example and love seems infinitely harder than doing so by force, but the end results seem much more promising.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Agents unto ourselves

Agency is a funny thing. It was so important that God let Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, fall rather than coerce obedience. In theory, I can accept this idea quite easily--I like the idea that God will defend to the point of damnation my right to choose my own way.

But it's not always so easy in practice.

For one thing, there's always the question of how much of our own actions we control, how much of our actions or choices are the result of social conditioning. Some of the extremists that I read in graduate school would suggest that very little of what we do is really the result of our own free will. While I don't accept this--I think people are more complex than that--I do have to acknowledge that some degree of social conditioning influences me, particularly when my actions are more reflexive than thoughtful.

But more than that, I think my issue with agency is not really with the question of how much agency I have, but with the fact that accepting my own agency means accepting that other people have agency too.

That's the part I don't like as much.

My mission was really the first point in my life where I was confronted with other people's agency. Up to that point, I'd been able to accomplish pretty much anything I wanted in my life if I just worked hard enough. (School was nice that way.) But conversion doesn't work like that (and in my more honest moments, I have to admit that I wouldn't want it to work like that). People have to choose to be converted of their own free will--no amount of willing, working, or praying on my part made any difference. All I could influence was my own end of things: my efforts could help invite the Spirit, but that was about it. Everything else depended on the other person.

I learned that sometimes agency could be heart-breaking. I remember meeting with a sixteen-year-old girl. She was beautiful, in the way that so many young Hungarian women were, with clear skin, dark eyes, dark hair and just the slightest hint of mystery. She listened to our lessons (in English, because she wanted to practice), she clearly felt the Spirit, and she was eager to learn more. But she wept when we got to the law of chastity and confessed that she had slept with her boyfriend because she didn't believe he would love her if she didn't. And despite our protestations that she deserved more than that, despite her own intense feelings of Catholic guilt, she couldn't find the strength to change. She was too afraid of not being loved. Eventually, she stopped meeting with us.

Sometimes agency is difficult. Sometimes we'd rather not choose. I still remember reading Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" from The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. In it, Christ returns unexpectedly during the Spanish Inquisition and the Grand Inquisitor accuses him of ruining everything. He tells Christ that the people don't want agency--they just want to be fed. If I remember right, he says something along the lines of: "If you'd loved them more, you would have given them less."

The Grand Inquisitor had it precisely wrong. It was precisely because Christ (and God) loved us that they gave us agency. They trusted us enough to let us get it wrong some of the time in the belief that ultimately we'd be better people for it. I believe this.

But somehow I don't seem to get it in practice, particularly with my kids. I can accept that other people have agency, even if I don't always like their choices. But why, having finally learned this home truth, do I so frequently find myself engaged in a battle of wills with my four-year-old, as if I could somehow compel him--by sheer force of will alone--to conform to my own wishes? Why do I so often find myself offering him choices that are not really choices, like you can do what I want or you can go into time out?

To be honest, I struggle with this. I know that a four-year-old is not--in many respects--equipped to deal with the full responsibility for his own life. Part of my job as a parent is to give my son enough choices so that he can learn about responsibility and accountability, but to also set appropriate limits. But sometimes I have a hard time differentiating from choices that teach responsibility, and choices that are really just about me trying to exert my own control over the situation. And I have a nagging suspicion that this will get even trickier as Andrew gets older.

So the question I'm currently puzzling over (and don't have a good answer to yet) is: How do I allow Andrew to be his own agent (in age appropriate ways)? How do I know when I'm letting him learn versus when I'm just trying to get my own way?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Death be not proud . . .

I found out Monday morning (via Facebook, of all places) that a colleague of mine from my time at BYU, Gary Hatch, had passed away unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism. The shock of it momentarily took my breath away--after all, he was only 45, a good 14-15 years younger than my parents. And plus, for someone like me who has a genetic blood-clotting disorder, the thought of a pulmonary embolism made my own mortality so much more vivid.

I can't seem to stop thinking about his death, not only because he was a good man and a sound scholar who will be missed on many levels (his family, certainly, but also the university and rhet/comp fields), but because of all the things his death (anyone's death, really) leaves undone. One of the most poignant examples of this, to me, is his to-read list on Goodreads. For anyone unfamiliar with this site, Goodreads is a kind of social networking site for book-lovers, allowing you to share book recommendations and reviews with "friends" and to keep track of your own reading. I was "friends" with Gary and found him to be one of the most regular and prolific posters of my online friends. In particular, he was assiduous about noting the books that he meant to read. When he died, he had nearly 1200 books in his "to-read" list. Now, I don't know exactly what Heaven looks like, or whether he'll have a chance to read these books there (chances are, he'll have better things to do), but this list reminds of how easily death interrupts the trajectory of life and its plans.

I'm sure, if he were asked, the list of books he's read are among the least of the accomplishments he hopes to leave behind. For me, it's interesting about how the question of death puts my own priorities into focus--if I knew that I were going to die soon, what would I be concerned about? Would I worry about teaching and research? Almost certainly not. About writing? Maybe, but only because I'd like that writing to speak to my family (especially my children) when I was gone. Mostly, I think I'd be concerned that my family--my children in particular--know that I loved them. I should say, I don't expect to die anytime soon (but then, who knows?) but I did want to note here, at least semi-publicly, how important my family is to me.

When I pass away, I hope that somewhere, among the glorified list of things I have done, it reads prominently that I loved my children well. Even if I don't get around to all the other things on my to-do list.

What about you? What do you most want to be remembered for?