The first time God spoke to me—I mean literally, with words—was through the mouth of a police sergeant. I don’t remember his name, but he changed my life. I was seventeen, miserable, and in a whole mess of trouble. And while I know you’re just DYING to hear all of the sordid details, I’ll just have to let your vivid little imaginations take care of that. Suffice it to say that I was a really stupid sheep who had followed some really stupid other sheep in to a really, really sheepishly stupid situation. The sergeant was arresting me.
He was darn nice about it. In fact, he is one of the wisest people I’ve ever met. He knew that I had just been humbled to the dust, and that I was in prime position to be taught. So instead of telling me what a loser I was, he did just the opposite. Or, I should say, God did.
“You don’t belong here,” he said. “You are better than this.”
And I believed him.
Five years later I attended a meeting of the newly-reorganized Young Women presidency in our ward. I was the new Laurel advisor. The eight of us had moved our metallic folding chairs into a loose semi-circle for the occasion. At one point the discussion turned to the importance of nurturing each young woman’s individual worth. I felt inspired to share my police-station experience as an example of how an adult in tune with the spirit can change young lives. The spirit filled the room as I spoke, warming each of us as we sat in the cramped, dimly lit room that Sunday evening.
Sharing the story was easy to do. Back in those days, I often referred to my checkered past to illustrate gospel principles. I rarely volunteered any truly gory details, but I wasn’t afraid for people to know where I had come from. After all, I was living proof of the truth of the gospel and the redeeming power of the Lord.
But in the years that followed, my comfort level in sharing such experiences took a nose dive, and I became an expert at wearing “the church face.” I trust I don’t need to explain what I mean by church face. I imagine I’m not the only one who prefers to broadcast the signal that I’m in control, that I have my life together, that I’m faithfully performing in all the ways I’m expected to. And always have.
It’s understandable, of course, this urge to convince our social group that we’re hot stuff. As if public opinion determined reality. But my compulsion to act the part really took its toll. At one point, I peevishly explained to a friend of mine that I did not want to burden my church community with the skeletons in my closet. And I cited my police-sergeant story as an example of what NOT to share.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “Hearing that story makes me love and respect you all the more.”
Over time, this friend, Angie, tried to help me understand the value of being open about our selves, our lives. It took her considerable time and effort, but through her mentoring I began to remember the beautiful things that have happened in my life thanks to openness—my own, and that of others. I was so grateful for the teaching that I browbeat Angie into writing on this subject for Segullah’s debut issue. The resulting essay, “On Being Bald,” is a poignant look at the value of remaining vulnerable, of taking risks, of being truthful about ourselves as we interact as sisters in the Church.
She reminds us that while there are risks—big ones—in being open with each other, there are greater risks that come with wearing our church face. Even at church. Especially at church. When we insist on being fake-happy, fake-confident, fake-righteous, we create and maintaining distance between ourselves and others, distance that prevents us from truly knowing and loving each other.
That doesn’t mean that we should engage in an emotional free-for-all during every church gathering, or that we should constantly spill our guts on our Visiting Teachers’ laps. The extent of our openness should be gauged according to the situation, and especially according to the inspiration that we feel, or don’t feel. Furthermore, there are times when we’re not feeling strong enough to be candid with people we’re not already close to. Disclosure can be exhausting. We shouldn’t feel obligated to hold our pain up for everyone to see, if we feel fragile. The timing needs to be right.
But I think that most of the time, we are capable of being more real with each other than we usually are. And typically, we err by sharing too little, not too much. I am convinced that, for the most part, incredible things happen when we’re willing to be open about our ourselves: our dreams and fears, our successes and failures, our questions and our faith, our struggles and our joys. I believe that inviting a sister into our inner sphere is one of the greatest gifts we can give another.
Today in Relief Society, Sister H. was teaching. She’s one of the few elderly women in the ward, a paragon of righteousness and obedience. You don’t mess with this woman. She toes the line, and reminds all of us that we’d better darn well do the same. But she’s also incredibly humble.
The lesson was on Pres. Monson’s conference talk, “True to the Faith.” (The one that had the octopus-lure story. You know, the maka-fete. Say that ten times fast.) One of his points was about the terrible struggle of those who are ensnared by drugs and alcohol. After leading a discussion for a few minutes, Sister H. told us about her daughter’s war with heroin.
“You have no idea,” she said, voice trembling, “of the agony I’ve felt as I’ve held her, and felt her cry and shake, as she’s come down off that drug.” As she spoke, the spirit of truth filled the room. She grew luminous, transparent, as she wept for her daughter and for herself.
We all cried too, grateful for the gift, awestruck by the beauty of baldness.
If you haven’t read Angie’s essay, do it now. And tell me:
What inspires you to be open with your church sisters?
What compels you to stay closed?
What benefits have you experienced from openness?
How can we help each other feel safe enough to be real?