This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s talk about weaknesses was one of the best General Conference talks I’ve ever read. Not only was it an intrinsically fantastic post, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how relevant it is to some of the confusion and heartache swirling around us today. Elder Maxwell’s directed his talk:
not to the slackers in the Kingdom, but to those who carry their own load and more; not to those lulled into false security, but to those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short.
These are sometimes the people who, as Elder Maxwell eloquently described, are hardest on themselves:
Some of us stand before no more harsh a judge than ourselves, a judge who stubbornly refuses to admit much happy evidence and who cares nothing for due process.
Before offering words of comfort and counsel, however, Elder Maxwell did something really important. Here’s what he said:
The first thing to be said of this feeling of inadequacy is that it is normal. There is no way the Church can honestly describe where we must yet go and what we must yet do without creating a sense of immense distance. Following celestial road signs while in telestial traffic jams is not easy, especially when we are not just moving next door—or even across town.1
This idea of a gap between who we think we’re supposed to be and who we feel we are is something that has always pained people, and that has become a particular focus in recent years. One poignant example–and one I’ve cited a lot in the past–is Ira Glass talking about the aesthetic equivalent of this gap.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
One of the most important things about this quote is something I haven’t heard many people point out before. Just like Elder Maxwell, Glass takes for granted that the standard must not change. Nothing that Glass said makes sense unless we take as our foundational starting point this assumption that our good taste (in his example) is accurate. Glass never questions this. And because of that, the idea of closing the gap by simply pretending that our first novel is good (when really we know it’s terrible) is never even on the table.
Glass’s quote is beautiful and uplifting because it is hard. He is giving advice for people on how to continue a difficult struggle. The idea of letting them out of the struggle never even enters the discussion.
What is true for Glass about art is true for Elder Maxwell about morality. When the Church teaches what is true, it’s going to create a moral gap a lot like Glass’s aesthetic gap. Glass comforts and encourages people to soldier on through this painful gap, but he never suggests anyone should give up. And so Elder Maxwell–and all true prophets–can offer comfort and encouragement only within the context of affirming the bedrock moral principles. There is no other way forward.
The title of this post is a riff on something Brené Brown likes to say. Brown is a shame researcher who studies how shame–as opposed to guilt, which is healthy–is a debilitating form of self-loathing that leads to needless suffering and, perversely, worse behavior. And I like almost all of what Brown has to say. But I confess that her crowning mantra rubs me the wrong way. “Your are enough,” she says.
Except that we’re not.
I don’t want to hammer this too hard, because there are different ways we can take that expression. But one way–and I think it’s an insidious and increasingly popular attitude–is to simply lower standards. It would be as if Glass’s attitude was, “Well, if your first novel is terrible, just lower your standards until it seems good.” Or if Elder Maxwell said, “Well, if the Church’s standards seem unrealistically high, just lower them until they fit your current behavior.” If you feel inadequate, if you feel imperfect, if you feel broken and flawed just tap your heels and whisper “I am enough. I am enough. I am enough.”
That worked for Dorothy, but it won’t work for us.
Let me show you what I recommend instead:
This is probably my favorite video of all time. It’s supposed to be about chastity–and it is, powerfully–but it’s more than that. In the example, the rose is broken. It does no good to try and pretend it’s not. It does not good to deny. It does no good to pretend we are blind. The. Rose. Is. Broken.
And Jesus wants it anyway.
We are broken. And Jesus wants us anyway.
Some people will try to convince you that you’re not broken. You’ll recognize this rhetoric especially from exclamations that “God made me this way, and God doesn’t make mistakes.” I may be cynical, but all I can say is: tell that to someone born with a congenital heart defect. Or any of a myriad of biological conditions–some minor, some deadly–that we come into this life with. As it is physically, so it is spiritually (in this case). We are all broken. Instead of trying to pretend otherwise, I opt for a different approach. I won’t say that “being broken is OK,” because it’s not. But I will say this: being broken is only the beginning. The story doesn’t end there. But the story can only get better–we can only get better–if we’re willing to accept where we are at the start.
Maybe, when Brown or others say, “you are enough,” this is what they mean. But to me, it sounds wrong. We live in a time where the individual is worshipped and judgment is decried as intrinsically hostile.2 The pain of the gap is real, but leaving someone on the wrong side of that gap is never the truly kind thing to do. Lowering standards is never the kind thing to do. Denying universal and particular brokenness is never the kind thing to do.
Elder Maxwell gave a great list of ways that we can respond to the pain of feeling inadequate. Here is just one of them:
We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon.
This is the image that I like. Glass doesn’t mince words. Your first artistic endeavors feel terrible because they are terrible. Elder Maxwell doesn’t back down either: what is true is true. But both of them encourage. They beckon onwards.
Our Heavenly Father does, as well.