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The Blame Game

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Or, why Mormons and other obsessive people demand perfection from themselves.

In this shameful post, my distinguished (and far more prolific) co-blogger D-Train brings up as a Mormon belief that troubles him the idea that we can never be responsible for our own salvation. Ultimately, in the end, we're not capable. We need Christ. We need to admit to ourselves that we need Christ.

"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls," says the Master himself in the eleventh chapter of Matthew. "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

These scriptures are emphasized in Mormon theology, right up there with 2 Nephi 25:23, in which Nephi explains, "for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do."

After all we can do.

I'm a perfectionist. I don't exclude myself from the species of individual who feels that she must do everything right and perfectly, and somewhere deep inside is scared that she'll somehow miss something, will skip a step or let down her guard one time too many, and will not actually do all she can do. And it's a downward spiral: someone with this outlook will see that she's faltering and then blame herself for not doing all she can do, and will try harder, but by expending more energy in futile pursuits of perfection, will only make more mistakes.

Is it that we feel that we can't take up Christ's lighter burden until we've done all we can do? If so, we'll never get there. Just when you walk halfway across the bridge, then walk halfway across the remaining distance, then half of that remaining distance, and so on, you'll never reach the other side...the same way, we'll never achieve perfection in this life, despite our best efforts. It's just not human.

Now, some of us have a hard time buying that. We're the ones who like to think we can do everything and anything, that nothing is impossible, and that no matter what someone demands or asks of us, we've got the strength/energy/ability to do it -- or, if not, then to learn how to do it, or to figure it out. Sometimes this belief is all that gets us out of bed in the mornings, but it's also what sends us crashing past midnight and getting up before the sun.

The reality of this is brought home as I try to write the perfect law school admissions essay. My goal? The "Celestial Kingdom" of law schools. My struggle? To write a perfect essay that conveys exactly what I want it to say and exactly what it needs to say for me to gain admission. I've spent a couple weeks hammering perfection of prose into one -- and now I can only look at it, disgusted, as it doesn't say half of what it needs to.

Unfortunately, there's no savior who I can give everything over to after I've done my best and be assured of entrance.

This post should end with something like a statement of testimony wherein I say how grateful I am for the atoning sacrifice that allows me to be imperfect and yet still return to live with my Heavenly Father someday.

And I am. Don't get me wrong.

But the reality of that has yet to really sink in for me, and in the end, I'm still trying to cross that never-ending bridge into perfection. And I wish I could be more laid back, and accept Christ's lighter burden, and stop worrying about how close I am or how far away or how much better I need to be.

Maybe someday.

13 Responses to “The Blame Game”

  1. Anonymous Laura 

    This is a lovely, well written post. Nice to see you blogging again, Arwyn.

    When I read it last night, I didn't comment because aiming for perfection isn't my thing. Maybe I give myself too many breaks, I don't know, but I think I'm doing alright.

    I do think that many Mormons (and Mormon women, especially) are big on guilt. My mom was not and I think she spared me that kind of thinking.

    Whenever one of my girls (usually my oldest) is trying to get something perfect, the other will say, "Perfect is BORING!" (which is a line from a movie we own) and I like it. I know it doesn't fit in the context of following Christ's perfect example, but for every day stuff like doing an art project or something like that, it's a good way to look at things.

    I hope you can be kinder to yourself. (Really soon.)

  2. Anonymous Eric 

    Nice Post. It is often the case that guilt drives the church both individually and collectively. I am very susseptable to guilt trips and it often brings me down when I come across one. My only hope is that my lazyness, lack of true charity, and improper balance in life is part of what makes up 'all I can do'. I think that Christ's atonement makes him a perfect judge and that he will understand my condition.

  3. Anonymous Eric 

    Ultimately we should pray to know how we should feel about ourselves and how we are doing I think.

  4. Anonymous Arwyn 

    I love that line, Laura! I believe I shall incorporate it into my daily mantra: "Perfect is BORING! Perfect is BORING! Perfect is BORING!" What movie is it from?

    Eric -- I tend to overthink things, which almost always leads me to the conclusion that if I'm aware that I'm not doing it right/well enough, I must not be. That is, if I know I'm failing at one aspect, I must not be trying hard enough to perfect myself in that area, and therefore should try harder, since awareness of that imperfection will lead it to not be considered among everything that comes after "all I can do." If that makes sense?

    I don't know how pervasive that thought process is among other Mormons, though I suspect it must be somewhat prevalent given the Mormon guilt complex that so many (especially women, as Laura points out) carry.

    I like your idea of praying to know how we should feel and how we're doing, but that leads to the sticky question of...what if you do, and you never feel like you get a yea/nay answer -- what if your answer is always, "Keep plugging away, I know you'll do right"?

  5. Anonymous Arwyn 

    I love that line, Laura! I think it shall be added to my daily mantra: "Perfect is BORING! Perfect is BORING! Perfect is BORING!" What movie is it from?

    Eric, I like your hope. As I think about it more, I know that in my case, the guilt comes when I'm aware of the fault, or when I'm aware of the fact I could do better. I feel as though, with the knowledge that I could have done it better, comes the responsibility to do so and to approach perfection a little bit more. I don't know if that's the most pervasive attitude, but I figure it must contribute to the Mormon penchant (especially among women, as Laura points out) toward heavy loads of guilt. We're often more aware of insufficiencies and imperfections than we're able to solve and perfect.

  6. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Oh, grr. The comment wasn't showing up the first time, so I rewrote it. Silly Blogger.

  7. Anonymous Susan M 

    I'm with Laura. I'm lazy--er, I mean, a non-perfectionist--and I've missed your blogging too.

  8. Anonymous Ben S. 

    I think people regularly misunderstand that line, all that we can do.

    Take the same author, same book, same context of salvation by grace, and how does he rephrase this?

    2 Nephi 10:24 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, *after ye are reconciled unto God,* that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are dsaved.

    After you are reconciled unto God, which sounds a lot like baptism and being born again, to me.

    Again, take the Sons of mosiah. They were "teh vilest of sinners." What was "all they could do"? A luandry list of things?

    Alma 10:24
    And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain

    All you can do is repent, to be reconciled unto God. That's it.

  9. Anonymous D-Train 

    Gotta love that Ben Spackman....he's a thinker. Seriously, great work, Ben.

    Arwyn, I always like your posts and hope you post a bit more often. I also love your wordplay with "shameful" - the post is full of shame, it's about shame, I should be ashamed of it....brilliant!

    Part of the problem that I didn't bring up in my original post (and should have) is that I don't think I've ever tried as hard as I can at anything, save a few baseball games. Maybe also this basketball game at the debate camp where Mike and I taught a couple years ago. He might remember it, as I pushed down a fifteen year old.

    In all seriousness, I doubt that I've ever given more than maybe forty percent in academics, living the gospel, or anything. So, I wonder if I'm even capable of it. Truthfully, if I really were trying as hard as I'm able, I might feel a whole lot different about the debt I owe to Christ. So it may be that our efforts to reconcile the debt change our feelings about it.

  10. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Much appreciation for your deep thoughts, Ben. I think you have the crux of it -- ultimately, that is all we can do. But how do we know when we've really been reconciled unto God? And isn't reprentance a long-term process -- something we do all over again every time we sin? So until we can cease sinning, don't we have to keep repenting? And isn't part of true repentance a determination not to commit the sin again? I don't think "that's it" really sums all of that up -- it's a tall order, to my mind.

    On the other hand, I love "teh vilest of sinners". Next time I'm smacking down some n00bs, I'll use that one: "D00d, u r teh vilest of sinxorz!"

  11. Anonymous Ben S. 

    My thoughts have been heavily influenced on this matter by Robert Millett, but especially Stephen Robinson's books. Some of the thinkers in the 'Nacle that I respect have problems with how Robinson formulates things, but I think he really has something.

    From the point that you are comitted to doing God's will, baptised and born again (not always the same thing for those of us who grow up in the Church), you're on the team. You're in. You may utterly suck at your assinged position on the field. But, as long as you keep showing up for practice and listening to the Coach and trying to improve, He's not going to kick you off.

    In other words, repentance is indeed a process, but God reaches and embraces us at the beginning of our repentance, not at the end of it. One of my Arabic teachers related an Islamic saying ( no idea as to the source) that every time you take a step towards God, he takes two steps towards you.

    Again (parroting Robinson here), repentance in Hebrew has to do with turning, changing direction. He likens it to a battleship or aircraft carrier. The captain's intent may be to turn, and the order can be given, but aircraft carriers don't exactly turn on a dime. It can take time and extended repeated effort, but the order has been given and the intent is there. The Lord requires "the heart and a willing mind" (D&C 63:64) not perfection in a thousand details. The real point is, who's your coach? Whom do you *consistantly* listen to? How do you feel when you listen to the wrong source, and what do you do about it?

    Anyway, I feel like I've become very devotional here, like I'm teaching Institute again. It's not a bad feeling :) This topic is one I feel passionate about, because I have perfectionist tendancies myself. Tendancies are worse than simple perfectionism, because you have the self-judgementalism of a perfectionist, but the work ethic of a slob ;)

    Anyway, I really recommend Robinson's "Believing Christ" and "Following Christ." You can get them in small $5 paperbacks now.

    And "vilest of sinners" comes from Mosiah 28:4.

  12. Anonymous Mike 

    Ben, I very much agree with you, but...

    "Whom do you *consistantly* listen to?"
    I always wonder, what does *consistantly* mean?

    I mentioned Alma 5 after D-Train's post. If I've really turned shouldn't I still generally feel the way I did when I made that turn? What if I don't? I still generally believe- I still want to serve him- but really I want to want it more than I actually want it.

    So what about when you're lukewarm?
    Because I feel like I'm there pretty often.

    I'm far from being a perfectionist- but I tend to should all over myself all the time. I've tried to step away from that- but it's mostly been by just not saying "I should" all the time and still not doing stuff I should do instead of just doing it.

  13. Anonymous OA2nLQGZFJ 

    3nyFnV3QvP 5A63uElwYCuzb0 d4WV2Ypcmker

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