The Beauty of Melancholy: An LDS Perspective

trees

It’s February, friends.

For most people in my family and social circle, this means everything slows down a little. We’re more prone to procrastinate, we want to sleep more, and we crave fattening foods. It’s dark and cold outside and we might go weeks without seeing quality sunlight. Christmas was almost two months ago, Valentine’s Day reminds us single folk how truly single we are, and Easter is over a month away. College students just start to see the mid-semester mark, and the weeks ahead seem to be moving slower than ever. We might listen to lots of Enya and watch Netflix while eating copious amounts of chocolate. We might want to cry occasionally, for no reason. We might want to be alone. We might want to be in London instead of Utah right now. Why?

Because it’s February, and February is rough.

I’ve followed this pattern every year since I was about thirteen years old. That’s when my grades started slipping every second semester, when I lost any sense of discipline I might have had in the Fall, and became a little depressed until the sun came out again and magically made things all right. For a long time I thought I’d just gotten burned out from being in school for so many months in a row (which could be true), but as an adult it’s become a lot easier to see a pattern. Come November, and my emotions go a little shaky. Winter break helps immensely, but by February I’m a mess again. I think a lot of people are like this.

Now I want to be clear that I have never been diagnosed with clinical depression, and that if I were to ever exhibit signs of self-destructive behavior or true hopelessness, I would seek out help. I’m all about mental health, believe me!

But February blues are a different beast, I think. I feel like something deep within us tells us to retreat for a bit, to hibernate inside our homes and take time to think and feel the world around us in ways not possible during the upbeat, lighthearted warmer months. Sure, the laziness and falling grades are a major inconvenience, but beyond that I try to see something beautiful.

Which brings me to a HUGE, MAJOR THING we need to discuss in Mormon World. There is such a pressure for LDS individuals to constantly express joyous, chipper, happy feelings, even in avoiding sincerity.

I understand where this comes from. We are taught that “men are that they might have joy,” and I believe that fully. I believe that we are on this earth to feel joy, and to continue on in our eternal existence to experience the joy that can only come from becoming like God. Joy is great. Joy is a necessary, beautiful part of life.

But if you want to hear “the gospel of Emma” perspective, I have to insist that men are also that they might have sadness. And anxiety. And fear. Melancholy, ennui, anger, frustration, anguish, and hopelessness also happen to make the list. I’m not saying all of these things are “of God” per se, but they are of the human experience, which we believe every one of us chose in order to learn and grow to our eternal potentials. There is beauty in that.

We are commanded to “mourn with those that mourn.” In one of the most poignant scenes in the New Testament, Jesus wept with Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus. It’s obviously not healthy to wallow in self-pity, but Jesus made clear, through his actions, that he welcomed and encouraged human emotions – by no means just the happy ones!

Nobody should be able to tell me that they can read about the current crises in Syria and feel warm and fuzzy inside. They shouldn’t be able to study the atrocities of World War II and say the earth is an endlessly-joyous place. They shouldn’t be learning about devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cancer, incurable viruses, and drug-resistant bacteria, and feel happy. No one should ever be expected to respond in that way, because they’re sad, terrible things. Yes, have faith and use the gift of prayer, but make room to feel things, too. It’s okay. It is in fact an extremely Christian thing to do – without all the horrific, sad, unfair things in this world, what would we have to be redeemed from? What would we need a savior for? Why would we need Christ?

A truly beautiful piece of Mormon doctrine that I’ve been learning about in my Doctrine and Covenants class teaches us that we chose this. This is heavy stuff. It’s difficult stuff. I would never walk up to a cancer patient or a trafficking victim and tell them that they chose their lot, because I really don’t think it works that way.

What I do believe is that we all came here knowing the possibilities. We knew that we would lose loved ones to death one day, and that it would hurt more than we were able to comprehend in the pre-mortal life. We knew about mankind’s ability to hurt, and kill, and ruin. We knew of illness, confrontation, tragedy, and Februaries. We knew all memories of our glorious past would be blocked by the veil. We knew that we might struggle in faith, and learn about really sad things, and have to work through the most difficult trials imaginable, and we chose to take that risk. We chose to come to the earth knowing we had agency, and knowing that horrific, unpreventable things wouldn’t likely happen, but definitely, without-a-doubt happen, out of necessity.

I believe we knew the gifts, too. The birth of a new baby, the very different types of love shared between friends, brothers, and married couples; the beauty of the natural world that at once can kill us and enlighten us with its sublime powers; nice hugs, long walks, good books, and the smell of hyacinths. Kittens! We knew we’d be given bodies that could taste food, and stretch out and yawn every morning. We knew we’d have the chance to bring new bodies into this complicated world, and raise them with joy, long-suffering and wisdom.

We knew what the world would give us. We knew what our omnipotent Heavenly Father wanted to give us when he offered us free agency and the chance to receive a body. We knew we would feel new things, and that those feelings are precisely what would give us the necessary experience to develop into something greater, to become like our Heavenly parents one day.

Some of the darkest moments in my life were also the most character-forming. They taught me to feel empathy, and to treat others in the way Christ would treat them. Those moments taught me patience, hope, and the ability to see the deep beauty in the good times. I have learned to be grateful for my privileged, comfortable life.

The good feelings taught me, too. Christmases with my family, summers spent at girls’ camp, silly games with my niece, and sweet memories of exploring the world beyond my home have shown me brightness I could have never known without the gift and the blessing of the earth I believe I chose.

We are loved, and the world is a token of that love. Sometimes love hurts, you know. Sometimes we need to learn difficult things to find true happiness. Sometimes we need to be disciplined and humbled before we can truly become worthy. Sometimes we need February to remind us of the beauty in June. Without melancholy, we would never know joy, and without joy, we could never progress.

So next time you’re tempted to brush off your very real, upset feelings to put on a plastic smile? Maybe don’t. Maybe go to BYU campus, or sacrament meeting, or Family Home Evening with your emotions in mind. Share them with others, seek comfort, remember our decision to be here. I’m not saying that we should just cry all the time, but I would like to encourage genuine behaviors and the freedom to express less-than-joyful emotions and to be comfortable doing so in a gospel context. These are the things that bring us together, under Christ, and under our mutual destiny of greatness.

It’s midnight, I just ate a slice of cake, I have a new Enya song on repeat (the sad kind), and I haven’t started my homework yet. Tomorrow morning as I walk to campus, I’ll look at the overcast February sky and dream of summer. I’ll probably think a lot about the Thames, my favorite London neighborhoods, and ancient cathedrals I have no way of accessing. I can almost guarantee I’ll be eating more chocolate. There’s a real possibility that I might cry.

And that’s okay, you know.

March is coming soon, and I can already smell the hyacinths.

hyacinths

Why Lent Matters (For Mormons, too!)

cathedral

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

I just read a Mormon blog post belittling Lent. It was terrible. I’m not going to link to it here because it really doesn’t need any more views.

Instead, I’ll try to summarize based on my own interpretation: Instead of offering accurate information about the history and continuing role of Lent in the Catholic tradition, it told me that Mormons are sooooo over that crap and could never practice such a terrible tradition created by men, and that we don’t need something like Lent anyway because we take the sacrament.

Um, excuse me?

First of all, we’re Mormons. All of our traditions are created by men. At least from an outsider’s perspective. Don’t you hate it when nonmembers say our doctrine is false because it comes from the mouths of men, not the Bible? Didn’t this stupid viral blog post use that same stupid argument against Catholics? It did. It really did.

Also, EVER HEARD OF THE EUCHARIST? Oh? You didn’t know Mormons aren’t the only church to take the sacrament? You didn’t know that virtually every Christian church takes the sacrament? Because you’ve probably never set foot into a non-LDS church in your entire life? I see.

Okay, I’m going to cut the snark because there is an important lesson to be learned here. Ignorance really brings out my nasty side; there is so much to be learned from other faiths, and that can only happen if we take the time to appreciate them from a fair perspective. Releasing a blog post – which proceeds to be published by LDS Living – on Ash Wednesday, giving several reasons Mormons are too good for Lent is not the best way to introduce possibly-unaware members to ancient, revered traditions, and certainly doesn’t constitute a fair perspective.

I’m not going to say that all Mormons should be practicing Lent, because really, we’re in no way obligated – we’re Mormons. But I’m not going to say we shouldn’t be practicing Lent, either.

I’ve learned so many interesting things by exploring other religious traditions throughout my life. I attend a Lutheran Christian service every year, have been to a few Catholic services, spent a whole lot of time in Anglican cathedrals, went to synagogue for Shabbat, toured Hindu and Sikh temples, and sort of attempted Hanukkah one year. It’s great. As far as I know, we Mormons aren’t explicitly directed to explore other faiths, but we are encouraged to increase our knowledge, and partaking in other traditions is a fabulous, hands-on way of doing so.

Learning about other Faiths can help us realize how truly, uh, special ours is. For example, you might visit a European cathedral and take note of the stunning architecture, relics, and general antiquity absent in our own meetinghouses. You might go to Shabbat and find gratitude in the fact that only a very small part of our Sabbath observance involves singing, which (thanks be to God) is in our common languages and not Hebrew. Maybe you could visit a Hindu temple, learn why Hindus consider idol worship so important, then be super happy that we don’t have to worship idols. You might go to pretty much any other Christian service and realize that we Mormons go triple-overtime every week with our three-hour block, and maybe you will feel cheated (kidding! – sort of).

My point is, everyone will come to different conclusions. The important part is that we take the time to learn things correctly, from reliable sources, without an intentionally-Mormon slant. Intentionally-Mormon slants usually work best when studying Mormonism, not so much when studying almost anything else.

I decided a couple months ago that I wanted to try going vegetarian for Lent, which admittedly takes things a step further than most Catholics do. Originally, my goal wasn’t anything religious; I only wanted to see if I could go roughly forty days without meat, since I didn’t think I’d ever gone longer than three or four days.

And I really like meat, guys.

I also think that learning self-discipline and restraint is important, especially to Mormons. I fast once a month, but something more constant, something that will actually tempt me on a daily basis, would likely teach me even more about spiritual self-denial, a practice introduced long before Fast Sundays existed. I’m also willing to admit that by giving up something I love during the time Jesus fasted will make me view Easter a bit differently, perhaps with far more respect.

On another note, I thought it would be a small chance to show my respect for the millions of animals who die every day so that we omnivores can enjoy delicious, protein-rich foods. Vegetables are also great, and I’m a little excited that I get to be more creative with them in my meals. I’m definitely not a fake-meat-soy-product kind of person, so I’ll learn a whole lot about going crazy with eggplant, cauliflower, beans, and quinoa.

In the end, it’s just an experiment. Maybe I’ll feel great by the end. Even more likely, I’ll be dying for a steak and will never go meatless again. But I will have learned something, and I’ll understand Catholics (not to mention the Anglican tradition my own ancestors came from) a whole lot better.

Since I am not a religious scholar or a Catholic, I’m not going to pretend to be authoritative in any way, unlike some people in the LDS blogosphere. If you’re a Mormon and want to learn more about Lent, I would suggest starting with this article put out by the Catholic Education Resource Center. If you end up wanting more of an LDS perspective (also put out by LDS Living, the bipolar-ist of Mormon websites; you never quite know what you’re going to find!) you might like this article about ways LDS families can practice little bits of the Lenten tradition as they lead up to Easter.

Whatever you choose to do as Easter approaches, remember that even though other people might do things differently, it’s all in the name of respecting the same Christ we love and serve. We have to take joy in this; the love of Christ spans far beyond Mormonism, and the more deeply we can understand and appreciate that, the better. As Christ himself taught, tolerating others is always a good choice.

The Single Mormon Woman Manifesto

I turned 21 this week. The occasion marked a few milestones: I can drink alcohol now (but I won’t). I can smoke weed in my home state!! (But I won’t). I can gamble wherever, however I want (but I won’t). Surprise, surprise – turning 21 isn’t exactly a huge game-changer when you’re a practicing Mormon.

But there is something weird about my turning 21 that has nothing to do with potentially-addictive behaviors. Something that isn’t exactly a milestone, but more of a comparative look at my progress in life: I’ve finally approached that special age that my own mother got married! Yikes.

Now this isn’t a HUGE deal to me. I know a lot of young LDS women whose moms nag them about dating/marrying/child-producing the second they approach “the age.” My mom is quite the opposite. She doesn’t mind my single-status, and would happily support my life choices if I were to continue my education and travel the world and do all those exciting, expensive, life-affirming, independent-woman type things indefinitely.

But it wouldn’t be honest of me to say that’s all I want in life.

I know I could be perfectly happy moving to England and getting a masters degree a few years down the line. I could finally decide on a career and become established and make money and actually have health insurance, which would be nice. I could travel to the East Coast or Puerto Rico or Croatia and it would be relatively affordable since I’d be solo hostel-hopping. Maybe I’d write a book, or start a non-profit, or invest in stocks. I DON’T REALLY KNOW.

Regardless of where this hypothetical perpetually-single life might bring me, I know I would be missing something. As a Mormon woman, I have been taught my whole life to prepare for marriage and babies, and unlike a lot of my progressive-leaning LDS lady friends, I’ve always been 100% okay with that. I’m truly a get-married-and-have-babies, stay-at-home-mom kind of girl, and while I completely understand that not everyone is quite so enthusiastic, I have no reservations about shouting to the world, loud and proud, that I’m just waiting for the day to come that I take a new last name and start producing adorable tiny humans.

The security and intimacy that comes with a husband sounds great, too. Just in the past year or so, I’ve started feeling this weird loneliness from being single that’s tugging at me in that obnoxious way only biological clocks can tug. Even when I’m surrounded by friends, roommates, classmates, and coworkers all day long, I want a person whom I can love and claim as my own. And I want to be loved in that way only mutually-attracted people can be loved, even just on the emotional level. At the risk of sounding completely mushy and ridiculous, I want a man in my life who means more to me than anyone else, and I have come to that age where I’m beginning to feel the void despite any worldly ambitions I might have once had. And it’s a little terrifying.

Why, you might ask, is it terrifying?

Let me try and explain to you how terribly single I am.

At 21, I’ve been on more-than-five-but-less-than-ten dates. Among the first dates, only two of them resulted in second dates, and only one of those two resulted in a third. To put it simply, things don’t typically work out.

I’ve never held hands with a boy, let alone kissed one. I’m partial to end-of-date hugs, but beyond that my experience level with physical intimacy is zero.

In my desperation I tried the Tinder/OkCupid thing. Tinder was a bust because LITERALLY every time I messaged my matches, they’d never respond. So much for swiping right. Some guys responded on OkCupid, and by some guys I’d say maybe ten percent? I met up with some of them for activities spanning varying levels of date-ness and the conversation covered the range from awkward small talk to superhero movies I’ve never seen to video games I’ve never played. Also, a lot of Star Wars and Pokemon.

The last date I “went on” was watching a movie in the fellow’s dorm room. We sat close, it was okay enough, and we texted a few days later about going on a second date, to an actual outside location. I got excited about it. The next morning he informed me that he’d been on another first date the night before that “went really, really well!” and he was considering asking this girl to be his girlfriend, so we “probably shouldn’t go on a second date. I hope you understand.” He texted about a month later telling me that things didn’t work out with his potential-girlfriend, so we could go out again if I wanted. For what should be obvious reasons, I didn’t respond, and never will. I WILL BE SECOND TO NONE, DANGIT.

I’m not trying to throw a pity party by sharing ridiculous stories of my failed romantic endeavors. I find them more funny than tragic. I’m mainly trying to demonstrate that even when you’re trying really, really hard to find “the one,” there are absolutely no guarantees in the world of modern dating (especially as a socially-reserved English major who works in a kitchen and talks to single, eligible men maybe a few times in an average week). I live with women, study in a woman-dominated field, and work in an environment that tends to scare a lot of men away. Women ARE super fun, and I AM glad I get to constantly associate with them. But I don’t really feel like dating them for what should also be obvious reasons.

I know singles wards are made for people like me to associate with potential future husbands but that just doesn’t really happen. I wish it did. But it doesn’t.

And I’m not completely ignorant of my situation. I understand why things are so difficult. The ratio of men to women in Provo and in the church itself is not in my favor. On top of all that, I have a lot of traits that make me completely unattractive to the average regular-Mormon-Joe when compared to the competition.

I’m pretty fat even at my thinnest, and I never served a mission. I think Sunday school is REALLY, REALLY boring, and don’t usually discuss church things outside of church. I’m emotionally guarded with everyone but the closest of friends. I’m about as far from submissive as they come. I’m stubborn, headstrong, judgmental, snarky, and don’t shirk at the word “feminism.” I think traditional notions of masculinity are mostly crap, and I’m not a die-hard sci-fi or superhero fan. Pop culture means almost nothing to me. I sometimes watch select R-rated movies. I’m a total snob. I become pretty freaking melancholy come February. I know more about poetry and politics than fashion or makeup. I find hipsters annoying. I care way too much about a lot of things. I don’t care enough about others. I’m hopelessly introverted. I won’t consider long-term dating someone unless they prove themselves intelligent and challenging in the way I find attractive. I’m pickier than I probably deserve to be.

I obviously understand why there aren’t men lining up at the door to grace my presence. I know I have plenty to work on, all while those skinny, brilliant, athletic, accepting, culturally-literate girls out there are getting most of the dates.

It also didn’t take me long to realize that plenty of gorgeous women will date less-attractive men if they have good personalities, whereas most men (conventionally-beautiful or not) won’t even give women a chance unless they’re physically attracted from the outset. I try to not let this piss me off.

I have been blessed growing up surrounded with all kinds of LDS women in varying degrees of marriage or lack thereof. Some never marry, and they’re okay with that. Some aren’t as okay with that. Others marry young, divorce, and never remarry. Some do remarry. I know many who thought themselves hopeless, only to get married at thirty or forty or fifty and live perfectly-happy lives with or without children. Because of these role models, I don’t feel hopeless. I know that, no matter what, things will likely turn out okay and that I can live a fulfilled life in any number of ways.

But I still feel pangs of envy when I see relationship updates, proposals, and pregnancy announcements on Facebook. I’m sure my fellow singles know that feeling when you pass a couple holding hands in public and think “Really?!? Those weirdos found someone and I’m still single? How?!?” It sucks. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t suck.

To those single Mormon ladies out there who feel hopeless, ugly, too-reserved, or male-repelling in any way, I’m not going to tell you to stop feeling that way. I want you to know that there are countless women out there, like me, who feel that piercing longing and feel like they have nowhere to turn in their search for eternal companionship. Your feelings are real, and are to be expected in a culture that values family above everything else.

I’m not going to tell you that you can still hold leadership positions in the church, lead a Christlike life, and be a mother to neighborhood children, nieces and nephews as a single woman, though all of those things are true. They’re also things single sisters hear ALL THE TIME, and I don’t feel the need to repeat them, because they sort of ignore the real problem.

I want you to know that your feelings are valid, and that your suffering is real. Even as a young person well within the acceptable Mormon-marriage age range, I know how much it hurts to want somebody to love, and to be loved, without ever feeling like you have a reasonable chance. There’s nothing worse than feeling like an outsider, and being a single Mormon woman usually implies loneliness in the relationship game and outsider status within a family ward. That’s a lot to deal with.

What I will say is this: you are great, and your relationship status in no way affects your greatness. Your singleness doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You are great and good and worthy, husband or not.

Maybe single men don’t see it. Maybe you are doing everything you can to put yourself out there, and maybe it’s not working. It’s probably not your fault. What those men not dating you don’t realize is that you have an incredible ability to love and serve the people around you. They don’t realize that you would make a fantastic wife and mother. They don’t know that you bake really good cupcakes, or that your sense of humor is on point, or that you will be there for them through some of life’s greatest struggles. They have no idea what they’re missing.

That guy who stood me up for his make-believe dream girl? He will never know that I love unicorns, or that my mac and cheese recipe is delicious. He’ll never know how much I love a good conversation about the deep subjects in life, and he’ll never know how much I’d appreciate the chance to kiss his face just because I can. He’ll never know how badly I want motherhood, or how I earnestly look forward to a long, happy life with a faithful companion. And maybe, even if he did know all those things, he still wouldn’t like me. Maybe I would’ve decided against him on our second date. Such is life; At least I’d get the chance to try.

The time has come that we single ladies delete the dating apps that make us feel sad and rejected; they don’t help much. I think we should learn to love and respect our bodies even if the men around us don’t. I think we should openly talk about how much it sucks to be single when it’s not our preferred lifestyle. We shouldn’t feel guilty calling out certain men for being stupid and superficial. We shouldn’t feel inadequate because we don’t have immediate marriage prospects.

Feel sad. Feel disappointed in the life you didn’t think you would be living at this age. Fear the day you can no longer have children. Continue doing everything you can to find that guy you want to spend the rest of your life with. Stay motivated. Don’t give up if it’s something you really want.

21 is still young. I could get married next year, five years from now, even twenty years from now. Maybe I’ll never get married. Maybe that shouldn’t bother me so much.

But it does, and you know what? I’ll never try to hide it. No one should.

bathrobe.jpg

And really, just look at what they’re missing!!