Before I go into what I have to say, I want to clarify some semantics because sometimes you miss the meaning if you don’t get the nuances of the words. This is one of those times. A lot of people use the terms “gospel” and “church” interchangeably. I don’t. I actually make a huge distinction between the two and, if you don’t get the distinction, you are probably going to misinterpret what I have to say. So, please understand that I see the “gospel” as a set of religious truths. I see the “church” as the group of people striving to follow the gospel. The gospel is a perfect ideal–the church is the imperfect organization striving for that ideal.
I have been doing a lot of reading today. I have been reading about studies done in 2002 (if you have time, read some of the cross-referenced articles here–a lot more insight than I can cover) and 2008 that showed that the state of Utah has the highest per capita rate of antidepressant use in the nation. As a matter of fact, the use of antidepressants in Utah is almost twice the national average. I have read all kinds of speculation as to why that is. Certainly, there are many who want to blame the gospel of the LDS church. And, naturally, there are many in Utah who want to claim that the LDS population has nothing to do with it (Idaho and Arizona, which also have large LDS populations, do not share these increased antidepressant usage rates).
I think the answer lies firmly in between. I know that the LDS gospel, lived as it is intended, brings happiness. But I think that the church–the people, the mores, the social traditions–sometimes strays.
A couple of months ago, I left a comment on a blog that I had stumbled upon trying to offer encouragement to an LDS mother in Utah who felt that she wasn’t doing enough. When I suggested to her that she give herself a break, she responded that there are two different types of LDS women–the perfectionists and the slackers. I’ve thought about that a lot. Especially since my experience with living in Utah left me with a different impression. In the church, I saw the half-way normal people and the hyper-perfectionists.
Early in my freshman year at Brigham Young University, we had an Enrichment meeting that I don’t think I will ever forget (for my readers from other religious backgrounds, our women’s organization has regular meetings–Home, Family, and Personal Enrichment meetings–that focus on building women up). This particular meeting was about organization. The girl who was teaching the lesson held up her own mother as the ideal. She pulled out sheet after sheet of her mother’s daily planning. The entire day was scheduled in fifteen minute blocks. Shower. Hair. Makeup. Eating. Everything was scheduled down to the minute.
We were a room full of awed and humbled coeds. We weren’t planning like that. We were doing a lot of things off the cuff. We were obviously inadequate and needed to use this type of strict planning if we were ever to hope to become the type of women that could run a household and raise children.
Then, something occurred to me. They medicate people for this.
Seriously, we were a room full of eighteen-year-old girls feeling hopeless because we were normal. We were all but flagellating ourselves for our lack of OCD. That day, I saw many girls study those sheets of paper and vow to be better. Many, I’m sure, felt like failures when their normal brains couldn’t handle the regiment.
The three years I spent at BYU were some of the most stressful of my life. Certainly, the pressures of being away from home, carrying an insane class load, and working almost full-time contributed a lot. But that wasn’t all of it. I have experienced much greater stress as a wife and mother, but those years were the only time in my life that I experienced anxiety attacks (seriously, I once even saw a man standing in my room that wasn’t there).
For me, I think a lot of it came from the pressure for perfection. It seemed like people forgot that we were striving towards perfection, as opposed to needing to be perfect right now. Suddenly, I went from the definition of a square, since I was probably the only varsity cheerleader in the history of my school to not spend weekends drinking and sleeping around, to the equivalent of demon spawn because I didn’t qualify for the Virgin Lips Club (seriously, that was an actual, organized club in the high school where I did my student teaching). It was unnerving.
Last year, Sean considered applying for a position that would have moved us to Salt Lake City. Even without knowing, at the time, that Utah is considered the nation’s most depressed state, I was decidedly uninterested. I have seen the difference in pressures between there and here, and I’d rather see my kids grow up with their friends thinking they are weird for taking a stand on their morals than with the pressures I saw my high school students out there facing.
And, again, it isn’t the gospel that does it to us. It isn’t necessarily even other people in the church (although that certainly happens at times, too). Frequently, it is ourselves. We compare others’ strengths to our own weaknesses and always come up lacking. We constantly tell ourselves we could do more–we should do more. We expect ourselves to do things that we would never expect of others. And, when we don’t want to take on one more thing when we have nothing left to give, we feel that we haven’t done our duty.
We need to lighten up.
*Title taken from Perfection Pending by Russell M. Nelson.