Sunday, August 7, 2011

"The Girl in a Whirl" versus the Atonement

My sister-in-law and I were having a conversation a few evenings ago about the unrealistic expectations that women in the LDS church often place on ourselves. I think the poem below illustrates in a humorous (and yet depressingly accurate) light this dilemma.

The Girl in a Whirl
by ‘Dr. Sue’
(a.k.a. Vickie Gunther)

Look at me, look at me, look at me now!

You could do what I do

If you only knew how.

I study the scriptures one hour each day;

I bake,

I upholster,

I scrub,

and I pray.

I always keep all the commandments completely;

I speak to my little ones gently and sweetly.

I help in their classrooms!

I sew all they wear!

I drive them to practice!

I cut all their hair!

I memorize names of the General Authorities;

I focus on things to be done by priorities.

I play the piano!

I bless with my talents!

My toilets all sparkle!

My checkbooks all balance!

Each week every child gets a one-on-one date;

I attend all my meetings (on time! Never late!)

I’m taking a class on the teachings of Paul,

But that is not all! Oh, no. That is not all …

I track my bad habits ‘til each is abolished;

Our t-shirts are ironed!

My toenails are polished!

Our family home evenings are always delightful;

The lessons I give are both fun and insightful.

I do genealogy faithfully, too.

It’s easy to do all the things that I do!

I rise each day early, refreshed and awake;

I know all the names of each youth in my stake!

I read to my children!

I help all my neighbors!

I bless the community, too, with my labors.

I exercise and I cook menus gourmet;

My visiting teaching is done the first day!

(I also go do it for someone who missed hers.

It’s the least I can do for my cherished ward sisters.)

I chart resolutions and check off each goal;

I seek each “lost lamb” on my Primary roll.

I can home-grown produce each summer and fall.

But that is not all! Oh, no. That is not all …

I write in my journal!

I sing in the choir!

Each day, I write “thank you’s” to those I admire.

My sons were all Eagles when they were fourteen!

My kids get straight A’s!

And their bedrooms are clean!

I have a home business to help make some money;

I always look beautifully groomed for my honey.

I go to the temple at least once a week;

I change the car’s tires!

I fix the sink’s leak!

I grind my own wheat and I bake all our bread;

I have all our meals planned out six months ahead.

I make sure I rotate our two-years’ supply;

My shopping for Christmas is done by July!

These things are not hard;

It’s good if you do them;

You can if you try!

Just set goals and pursue them!

It’s easy to do all the things that I do!

If you plan and work smart, you can do them all, too!

It’s easy!” she said …

… and then she dropped dead.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry after reading this poem, because it is hilarious to think that any woman would actually try to accomplish this formidable list of things, but so sad that this "girl in a whirl" actually does seem to be the elusive ideal that so many women expect themselves to become someday. I think it's incredibly damaging for women to create such unrealistic expectations for themselves, and I wonder if this may be part of the reason that Utah leads the nation in anti-depressent prescriptions (almost twice the national average according to a 2002 LA Times Study), or else why outside observers describing our religion, such as Newsweek, have said that "Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus’ suffering and death in the Mormon view … do not atone for the sins of others" (Elder Bruce C. Hafen quoting Newsweek, 1 September 1980, 68). Elder Hafen went out to point out that not only do outsider observers like Newsweek so completely miss the main point of the core doctrine of the atonement taught in the LDS church, but so too do members of the LDS church at times. He said, "It is unfortunate when we convey incorrect ideas to others; but it is worse when we, by our limited doctrinal understanding, deny ourselves the reassurance and guidance we may desperately need at pivotal moments in our lives."

I think this "girl in a whirl" standard is created, in part, by an erroneous interpretation of the counsel of Nephi regarding the atonement, when he says, "For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Ne. 25:23; emphasis added). After all, how is it possible to do "all we can do" and not contravene Mosiah's counsel that "it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength."  Wouldn't doing "all we can do" mean running until we are ragged, until we don't have strength to take one more step, drag ourselves foward on hands and knees, or even lift our head out of the dust? On the surface, these two principles seem to be at odds with each other.

I think Elder Hafen provides a beautiful reconciliation of these principles in his talk I've quoted already, Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ. I'll just post some of my favorite passages (sorry in advance that it's long - I love this talk and had a hard time decideing what NOT to post :).

Our reluctance to stress the doctrine of grace is understandable. . . . A constant public emphasis on grace might encourage some people to ignore the crucial “all we can do” in that two-part process. They might then accept the erroneous notion that we can be saved by divine grace even while choosing to live in our sins. Some Christians do believe they will be saved by grace in spite of whatever they may do. At the extreme, this doctrine denies free will altogether, implying that God will elect those he will save without regard to their conduct or even their preference.

. . . Despite these reasons for caution, the blessing of making the Atonement more central to our lives outweighs any associated risks. When we habitually understate the Atonement’s broad meaning, we do more harm than leaving one another without comforting reassurances—for some may simply drop out of the race, weighed down beyond the breaking point with self-doubt and spiritual fatigue.

The Savior himself was not concerned that he would seem too forgiving or soft on sin. Said he, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28, 30). He spoke these comforting words in the context of asking his followers to develop a love pure enough to extinguish hatred, lust, and anger. His yoke is easy—but he asks for all our hearts.

...[T]he Savior’s grace can bless us, beyond its compensation for our sins, in our quest for divine perfection. While much of the perfection process involves a healing from sin and bitterness, the process involves an additional, affirmative dimension through which we may acquire a Christlike nature, becoming even as the Father and Son are.

. . . The[] scriptures make it clear that we do not achieve perfection solely through our own efforts. Knowing just that much is a source of new perspective. Because we feel overwhelmed with the scriptural injunction to seek perfection, the idea that divine grace is the final source of our perfection may seem too good to be true. That is how Christ’s grace appears to those carrying the burden of truly serious sins. Honest people called “Saints” may feel the same way as they stumble daily through the discouraging debris of their obvious imperfections. But the gospel has good news not only for the serious transgressor, but for all who long to be better than they are.

...In their admirable and sometimes blindly dogged sense of personal responsibility, some believe that in the quest for eternal life, the Atonement is only for big-time sinners. As everyday Latter-day Saints who just have to try harder, they feel that they must make it on their own.
The truth is not that we must make it on our own, but that he will make us His own.

. . . Each of us will taste the bitter ashes of life, from sin and neglect to sorrow and disappointment. But the atonement of Christ can lift us up in beauty from our ashes on the wings of a sure promise of immortality and eternal life. He will thus lift us up, not only at the end of life, but in each day of our lives.

I think one of the main problems with the "Girl in a Whirl" is that she's sending a message to real women (since I refuse to believe the Girl in a Whirl is a real woman) that they are inadequate and don't measure up to what the Savior expects of them, and that if we don't fit that description we're not "celestial material." But as Stephen Robinson says in his talk entitled Believing Christ:

Yes, you believe in Christ. You simply do not believe Christ. He says that even though you are not celestial, he can make you celestial—but you don’t believe it. We all fail at living the full celestial level. That’s why we need a Savior.

. . . Do Latter-day Saints believe in being saved? Of course we do. That’s why Jesus is called the Savior. What good is it to have a Savior if no one is saved? It’s like having a lifeguard that won’t get out of the chair. The great truth of the gospel is that we have a Savior who can and will save us from ourselves, from what we lack, from our imperfections, from the carnality within us, if we seek his help.

. . . Sometimes we feel very inadequate when we compare ourselves to others. We may even begin to despair. But when the Lord looks at us, he measures us against ourselves. His expectations are based on our abilities. He simply asks, Are you doing all that you can do at this time? Consider the principle of tithing. The man with ten million dollars is expected to pay one million dollars in tithing. The child with ten cents is expected to pay one penny. Both offerings are a full tithing in the eyes of the Lord.

After studying this topic more, I've felt overwhelmed with gratitude that I don't have to measure up to the "Girl in a Whirl" in order to qualify for the blessings of the atonement. Rather, by turning my heart to my Savior and putting my trust in Him, I can receive those blessings right now, imperfections and all, and He will love me and forgive me and empower me to be better despite my weaknesses. I may never be as good as other woman at some things (like cooking), but it's not a competition between me and others, it's about turning my weaknesses over to the Savior, repenting of my sins, having the charity to forgive myself of my inadequacies, and allowing Jesus Christ to help me become the best ME that I can be.


Ruth said...


I love this post. It's so nice to be reminded that we don't have to do it all by ourselves! I need that reminder every so often :)

kels said...

Such a great post! I'm reading the Beauty for Ashes talk now, and it really is amazing. It makes you think about how you are actually using the atonement in your life. And it's making me think more about the "grace" aspect of salvation-- I think sometimes I forget about that part and emphasize the "work" part too much.

Deanna said...

I was laughing so hard. This poem is great. But, then I realized too that sub-consciously all LDS women aspire to doing all these things. We have to realize that we can't. And that's okay.

Emily said...

Oh man, I hated that poem the first time I heard it!!!

Kayce said...

Thanks for sharing this poem! I was laughing and squirming at the same time.

Stephanie said...

I've heard the poem before, and wondered about how many times I fall into the trap of wanting to be like that girl instead of wanting to be like myself or what the Savior wants me to be.

I found a lot of insight to the "all we can do" phrase when I read in Alma 24:11 "...for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently..."

Stephanie said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!

Stephanie (always funny writing to someone with your same name :), I LOVED that scripture you shared from Alma. I think that's such a beautiful way to interpret the "all we can do" phrase, and it gives even more emphasis to the importance of relying on the atonement, because since all we can do is repent, repentance itself is a blessing that comes through grace.

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