Patricia’s excellent series of posts about her experiences with her daughter Mattea over at T&S have got me thinking again about ignorance and offense. I don’t want to presume to compare Patricia’s experiences (which she rightly terms “unbelievable”) with my own, but I suspect all of us have experienced the hurt and frustration of blithely presumptuous, well-meaning drive-by comments on our lives, sometimes in church settings, sometimes from fallible church leaders. I imagine all of us have endured remarks that stick in our craws that we struggle to forgive and to eject from our souls. To start this post off I’ll reflect on a few such remarks in my own life. Then I’ll try to put those remarks in some sort of meaningful context.
In my experience it’s the areas in which we deviate from community norms that we draw such comments. My public deviations tend to be in the areas of family and education. When I decided to start my Ph.D. I had two different bishops dismiss my undertaking as unnecessary; one told my husband that I already had a master’s degree, and the other told us both that since I was already a teacher, further education was uncalled for. Those remarks didn’t sting; they bothered me insofar as they indicated cultural reservations about women’s higher education, but they bothered me as data points rather than personally, so to speak. I was able to turn a polite deaf ear because I had already long wrestled with the issue, at one point concluding that I was done with formal education and then receiving the distinct impression that I needed to start my doctorate. The serenity in my own choice that revelation gave me made my bishops’ remarks irrelevant.
(Here begins the FREE bonus discussion of infertility)
But of course I haven’t received that kind of clear personal revelation nor attained that kind of serenity about many aspects of my life. For most of us, the wrestle with various trials is ongoing, and in my experience it’s in those areas where the wounds are raw that the drive-by comments really sting. For me our inability to have children has been one such area. Infertility generally attracts two lines of questioning: people either want to fix the problem, or they want to account for it theologically (or both). Some pursing the first inquire into the most personal aspects of our lives, wanting to know diagnoses and precise details about medical interventions. I’ve learned to avoid answering their questions, partly because I’m a private person by nature, and partly because I’ve realized this line of inquiry is too often a fishing expedition for blame. Having nosed around in our reproductive life some implicitly condemn us for our infertility because we have not taken every possible medical step to conceive; perhaps they’re unaware of the enormous expense and the ethical dilemmas that accompany such interventions. The heroic, conquering against-all-odds hail-Mary think-your-way-to-success narratives that dominate American pop psychology are very powerful, and sometimes very cruel; the inevitable implication is that if you have not yet attained your heart’s desire, you have not wanted it enough. Any failure of life to conform to your desires is thus your personal failure. (I once drew some ire at an infertile-couples’ support group by asking why so many books were entitled “Overcoming Infertility.” Why not “Accepting Infertility”, or simply “Dealing with Infertility”? The response of one woman was to push the overcoming book back at me and tell me that I needed to take its message to heart. Back to the comforting illusion that we have all power over the circumstances of our lives.) To some we simply don’t have the right to struggle or to grieve if we haven’t bankrupted ourselves financially and emotionally in an all-out quest to have a child. It’s hard to explain to people in the grip of such thinking that while I certainly don’t believe medical interventions are inherently wrong, they have simply never felt right for us. Others offer various more prosaic solutions: herbs, boxer shorts, hot-tub avoidance, and a general prescription to “relax.” The endpoint of such lists is often adoption, another undertaking whose complexity and expense those who propose it rarely appreciate.
People tend to repeat the same stories to us over and over, repetitions I take as attempts to soothe their own theological anxiety. One acquaintance has repeatedly told us how a couple she knows could conceive only after adopting other children, and that God made them wait so that they would adopt. She has assured me that God knows I and my husband need this time together to establish the stability of our marriage before he will grant us a child. Another acquaintance has repeated to me the story of someone whose bishop advised her to quit her job, at which point she immediately got pregnant. Such stories are generally so well-meant I never say much in response, but I have complained to my sisters that every good Mormon has a theodicy machine in the garage, and when trouble strikes the neighbors, the Mormon goes to the garage and starts cranking out theodicies like so many self-published pamphlets. When people haul out their theodicy machines to justify God’s ways to me in my very own living room I always recall the explanatory frenzy into which the neighborhood I grew up in was thrown many years ago when a child in the ward drowned. Everyone claimed to know why it had happened: an older sister hadn’t been paying attention, a friend had egged him on, God had called the child home. But of course it is the nature of life that tragedy rarely comes with a clear theological explanation (and even more rarely are theological explanations revealed to the neighbors; strangely enough God seems to reveal the meaning of experiences to those whose experiences they are). And so we ourselves cruelly devise explanations of others’ tragedies in order to keep ourselves safe from them.
(And here ends the FREE bonus discussion of infertility)
However, enough about the specifics of my experiences, which are only incidentally the point of this post. The real points I want to consider in light of the specifics that happen to be part of my life, are these:
(1) I suspect most readers could fill in the paragraphs above with their own accounts of well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) insensitivity about every possible human experience, many exponentially more painful than those I’ve detailed: undesired singleness, unhappy marriage, divorce, widowhood, same-sex attraction, physical and mental illness, abusive parents, spouses, or strangers, bullying and cruelty, addictions, financial reversals, poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination and rejection, chronic mental or physical illness of children or parents, the deaths of parents, children, or other family members. Those are just some that come to mind: I’ve no doubt there are many others, some perhaps even more painful because they’re considered shameful and unspeakable.
(2) I’ve sometimes struggled with is the temptation to imagine my suffering unique and utterly incomprehensible to other, merer mortals, to tell myself extended sob stories all essentially entitled “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” This is, as we like to say, true but trivial. Yes, it’s true that no one else lives my life, no one else quite gets what it is to be me. Yes, the pain of infertility is real, and the pain of well-meaning comments is also real. But it’s vital for me to remember that both of these facts are equally true of every single other person on the planet, many of whom suffer in ways I can’t even begin to imagine in my comfortable privileged North American life, living in financial security married to a kind man who’s completely devoted to me and pursuing an education in the field of my choice.
(3) In considering what to make of experiences like infertility and the associated comments it draws, it’s frequently occurred to me that the perspective God wants me to take is exactly the opposite of the perspective I have sometimes taken in (2), above. So life hasn’t offered me the children I wanted and people are sometimes unkind in their well-meaning ignorance. The question this invites me to consider is all the ways I am ignorant of others’ sufferings, all the ways I unthinkingly foist unkind assumptions about people meriting their particular sorrows on them, or presume to prescribe facile answers to complex problems I don’t begin to understand.
(4) It’s both telling and frightening to me that I can remember so clearly the unthinking comments others have made on my life (although detailing them as I have above has been surprisingly healing, and placing them in a broader context has helped me loose them of some of their power). But as I consider what unthinking comments I myself might have made, they are fewer and vaguer. I remember at nineteen asking a woman I worked with whose daughter was in an abusive marriage, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”, a comment that now strikes me as hopelessly insensitive and naive. When I lived in Wymount I remember being stunned when someone suggested there was an educational hierarchy among the women in the ward. I myself was in graduate school and therefore toward the top of the hierarchy, which is undoubtedly why I had never even noticed is existence. (Some years ago it took a patient and diplomatic Lynnette a while to persuade me, the oblivious oldest child, that there was similar family hierarchy of siblings and that, um, well, I might not be in the best position to appreciate what it might be like to be a little further down the line.) But when I think about my own insensitivity I remember more than anything a tone I’ve sometimes evoked in others with prying questions–a tone of restrained, tired patience that I’ve come to recognize retrospectively as I’ve used it myself in responding to others’ well-meaning inquiries and suggestions about personal matters like infertility.
I realize this is the kind of overlong, rambling, personal post that can be difficult to respond to, and so if it doesn’t draw much response I won’t be surprised. But what I take from all this is the need to remember and appreciate my ignorance of others’ lives, even (maybe especially) the lives of those closest to me. There’s so much of each other we just don’t know, so little of the underlying complexities may appear in others’ visible acts. Or as the Indigo Girls put it so memorably, I’ve got to learn to respect what I don’t understand–and remember that when it comes to other people, I have to take it as axiomatic that any understanding I have is partial and will always be. Other people are no less than a sacred mystery.
And that, my dear brothers and sisters, is What My Infertility Means to Me. (At least, that’s what it means today. Who knows what stunning realization I’ll have tomorrow that I can’t currently imagine?)
- 29 April 2008