Greater Good

August 14, 2016

(Chiasmus)

Prelude: Hymn #85, Verse 1

How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said
Who unto the Savior for refuge hath fled?

I. A Token (2004)

NEXT TO MY MIRROR hangs a small plaque: a narrow rectangle of poly resin, white, with pastel ribbons and flowers adorning a poem in the center. I’ve had it for five years, but until recently I kept it in a battered shoe box full of mementos. Whenever I came to add or retrieve some treasured item, it seemed to belong there, nestled among the old cards and letters.

I’m not sure why my hand reached for the plaque when I opened the box a few months ago—perhaps its significance seemed especially bright in the midst of my discouraging struggle with old ghosts. Reluctant to tuck it back into my mind and closet, I removed it to my bathroom windowsill, where it waited for weeks until one of my tidying whirlwinds motivated me to fetch a hammer and nail.

The other day my husband noticed the new addition. “Where’d this come from?” he asked, apparently bewildered by my gaudy taste in wall decor.

It’s a worthy question.

II. Through A Glass, Darkly (1992)

It was a slow afternoon in the JKHB Writing Lab. I was catching up on some reading at an empty table. April, another senior tutor, was working with a young-sounding student at the table behind me.

Overhearing some familiar phrases, I realized the student was writing on a topic I had wrestled with in Dr. Paulsen’s Philosophy 110 class: “Is the existence of evil logically compatible with the concept of an omnipotent God?” I had faced the assignment my sophomore year, a time of blossoming faith in God and deepening awareness of humanity’s woes; reconciling the two became a subtly urgent challenge. In my deliberations I failed to come up with a fitting use for great evil, although I did come to understand that eternal law, which undergirds God’s power, requires it to be an option. It was satisfying to exonerate the Almighty from the base choices of his children—yet many questions remained.

April’s hesitant tone prompted me to listen intently for the student’s approach: building on the premise that God could justly allow evil in order to serve a greater good, she argued that the personal benefits of suffering evil outweighed the costs—a claim I had considered and rejected in my own paper. Eager to set the student straight, I turned in my seat and asked if I could join in the discussion. April looked relieved.

“Could you give an example to support your conclusion?” I asked, feigning neutrality.

The student glanced at me nervously. “Well, a woman who had been abused would be able to help other abused women, because she would understand how they felt.”

April and I exchanged a look, then in tandem carefully pointed out her naivete and circular reasoning: Were abuse victims really better off? Did pain always yield benevolence? Was empathy an adequate reward for suffering evil? Why have evil in the first place?

Defeated, the student asked, “So what’s the greater good, then?”

III. Bands of Death (1996)

I had not planned to spend my prime birthday hours playing wallyball, but as a newly-called Laurel class advisor, duty had summoned me to the rec center for Mutual night. Hoping to avoid injury from the melee of manic teenagers, I maneuvered to the back of the court. That’s where I saw Dawn.[1]

There were several other youth skirting the court, trying not to be noticed, but Dawn’s peculiar image captured my attention. Her slight frame was stooped, making her look much older than sixteen years; her wan face was blank and still. With her pale, limp hair and drab clothing, her body and spirit seemed diluted, nearly colorless, as if she were slowly disappearing.

We talked a little—or rather, I talked and she responded in single syllables. Feeling strangely determined to make a connection, I gently prodded her all evening with my juvenile brand of humor, and felt gifted with her fleeting, reluctant smiles.

This kind of exchange became our typical mode of interaction at Young Women gatherings. Dawn regularly attended Sunday lessons, activity nights, and even class presidency meetings, but would usually sit with hunched shoulders and a dull stare, keeping participation to a minimum. Her bare responses to my friendly overtures left me feeling like a bumbling suitor. Yet faint glimmers of life were evident: she dutifully followed directions, would make short comments if pressed. And her very presence, however bleak, assured me that some portion of her will continued to survive.

Eventually, another leader told me what had happened to Dawn—but part of me already knew.

IV. Agency (D&C 93:29-30)

Man was also in the beginning with God.
Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself,
as all intelligence also;
otherwise there is no existence.

V. According to the Flesh: Great Evil (1997)

Our lesson today is about abuse.

I had mixed feelings as I stood and announced our topic for the hour. The girls’ usual chatter gave way to sober silence; they had probably never heard abuse mentioned in a church setting. I wondered, a bit uneasily, how Dawn might respond, but the sight of her in the back row encouraged me to proceed. Our text was Richard G. Scott’s landmark conference address, “Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse,” custom-made for such a time as this. We covered the key elements, first from the standpoint of a victim and then from that of a concerned friend: Understand some things about eternal law. Seek help. Understand principles of healing, and of forgiveness. Exercise caution.

In closing, carefully sparing the details, I testified that God had helped me recover from a hurtful situation, and that he would help all in such need. When I dared a glance in Dawn’s direction, her gaze was fixed on the floor.

During one of our activity nights, Dawn approached me in the hallway of our ward meetinghouse. Somehow, the other girls were nowhere in sight. Her words came in rapid monotone, as if any pause or inflection would break her resolve to speak. It might have taken her thirty seconds or thirty minutes to finish; time seemed to pause as she related her experience, which made a trifle of my own.

As I stood in the sacred space of her trust, my ignorance and inadequacy loomed large. I searched my magic bag of answers for something to make both of us feel strong. But she wasn’t seeking answers that night—just a resting place.

VI. At-one-ment (Mosiah 18:8-9)

bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light
mourn with those that mourn
comfort those that stand in need of comfort

that ye may be redeemed of God
and be numbered with those of the first resurrection
that ye may have eternal life

VII. Greater Evil (1998)

Our lesson today is about forgiveness.

According to the philosophy of men, forgiveness is unnecessary (and even absurd) in the case of serious offense. According to scripture, forgiveness is necessary, in every case, to avoid a more serious offense. This can seem a hard saying to one who has endured abuse.

It had taken me years to accept God’s blunt truth. Throughout adolescence and young adulthood, I was sure that the darkness complicating my life stemmed solely from another’s sins. I was furiously defensive when, in a university-sponsored counseling group, one peer exposed my greater burden with stinging words: You don’t want to forgive him, and you don’t want God to forgive him either. Soul-gravity would have kept me in a downward spiral had it not been for the intervention of grace.

Dawn looked so deflated and vulnerable on her folding chair; she would need abundant grace to make the upward climb to wholeness. Our discussion focused on forgiving as a sane, potent state of heart, a way to reclaim one’s life as well as secure one’s innocence. With big-sisterly confidence, I promised the girls that God’s compassion can enable and sustain our own, even for an enemy. But when we read D&C 64:9,[2] I saw familiar anguish in Dawn’s trembling face.

Her downcast eyes reminded me that ultimately, we have only one enemy to forgive: ourselves.

VIII. The Measure of Creation (D&C 121:7-8)

My daughter, peace be unto thy soul;
thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be
but for a small moment;

and then, if thou endure it well,
God shall exalt thee on high;
thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.

Thy friends do stand by thee,
and they shall hail thee again
with warm hearts and friendly hands.

Thy friends do stand by thee.

IX. Talitha Cumi[3]: Fragments (1997-1999)

Mutual night. It had been months—a year?—since our conversation in the hallway. Dawn’s fidgeting eyes found me in our meetinghouse foyer.

“My father’s getting out of prison.”

What did that mean? Would he be back in her life, in her home? I didn’t know if her mother was still married to him; I didn’t know anything other than her panic.

“You’re not going to see him, are you?” I blurted, stupidly.

Her eyes popped wide. “NO!”

The bold tone of her indignation still echoes sweetly in my mind.

*

Laurel class sleep-over. With each hour past dark, I shed more of my adult restraints until I found myself sitting on the floor, reciting dumb movie lines with our class comedian. As group hysteria set in, Dawn tried to contain herself by squeezing her elbows and clamping her lips, but she couldn’t stop shaking with half-suppressed laughter. I paused, drinking in the sight until my head spun with elation.

*

A Sunday lesson. Not teaching this time, I sat in the back with Dawn. She wasn’t one to chat in the classroom. But as we opened our hymn books to #85, she surprised me by leaning over with a whisper: “This one’s my favorite.”

*

Girl’s camp—Dawn’s last. We sat in loose circles, passing around name-topped sheets of paper for writing anonymous compliments about each girl and leader.

My pages came back filled with obligatory praise, ranging from the sincere to the inflated to the fabricated. I read quickly, loving it all. Did the girls know that even adults love it all?

Dawn’s scrawl graced the bottom of the page:

Kathy it was so nice of you helping me with things I needed help with and I love you.

*

Sidewalk. I had not seen her for months. Spotting me from across the street, she ran to me, calling my name.

“Hi!”

What was most different—her easy posture, her upturned face, her vibrant voice? I was suddenly clumsy again, not knowing how to respond to this new creature with spirit streaming from her eyes and mouth, her hair and skin.

“Dawn? Is that you?” I tried to cover myself by mocking my surprise.

She cocked her head and grinned. “I’m out of my shell now.”

X. Greatest Good (Alma 7:12-13)

And he will take upon him death,
that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people;
and he will take upon him their infirmities,
that his bowels may be filled with mercy,
according to the flesh,
that he may know according to the flesh
how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Now the Spirit knoweth all things;
nevertheless the Son of God suffereth
according to the flesh
that he might take upon him the sins of his people,
that he might blot out their transgressions
according to the power of his deliverance.

XI. A Token (1999)

I answered the door one holiday afternoon to find Dawn, holding a small, wrapped Christmas gift.

She had moved from the neighborhood; our paths hadn’t crossed since our sidewalk meeting months before. Her mood was more subdued this time. Still, as she described her family life and her new job, her countenance shone with quiet triumph.

As I began to unwrap the gift, she covered her face with her hands. “I feel so stupid!” she giggled in embarrassment, making me wonder what she had picked out.

It was a narrow rectangle of poly resin, white, with pastel ribbons and flowers adorning the poem in the center: “Footprints in the Sand.”

Postlude: Hymn #85, Verse 3

Fear not, I am with thee; Oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid,
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

yellow tile visually marks the end of a section

[1] Name has been changed.

[2] Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.

[3] And he took the damsel by the hand, and said, unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. (Mark 5:41)

1 Comment

  1. Amira

    August 16, 2016

    Thank you, Kathy.

Comments are closed.

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