A second kind of exceptionalism is at least as damaging as the superiority we might find through either our actions or our religious associations. This second kind of superiority is assumed not as a result of choices made but merely as a fact of nature. Some groups, to use a geological metaphor from the scriptures, might be considered “mountains,” and other groups “valleys.” This is the sin through the ages that has caused some to believe that one race was inherently inferior to another, for example, or to believe that people in higher classes or castes were inherently superior to those “beneath” them.
Everything Jesus taught was an attack on this idea. All are guilty before him, all must cling to the rod to get to the tree, all must walk the repentant path. He both loves all and leaves no one comfortable. Inviting such comfort would be to invite a spiritual smugness that would put our very salvation at risk. He loves us too much to do this. Each of us must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” before the Lord. “Every valley shall be filled,” Jesus declared, “and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.” The Lord’s work on our hearts pulls down the mountains within us and fills in the valleys. And then we see what was always the truth: we are each of us, as it were, rows in the Lord’s fields. He is the husbandman who labors to grow fruit that can be gathered unto God. We, the subjects of that work, are equally in need of his trowel. “Without me,” he said, “ye can do nothing.”
More and more, however, I hear repeated, even in our church meetings, an idea that invites some to think they need less of the Lord’s redeeming work and others need more. These statements are usually made out of love-even out of admiration-but these “compliments,” if you will, can be misinterpreted in ways that are misleading and dangerous. This is a delicate issue, susceptible to misunderstanding, so I will try to explain myself carefully and clearly.
I was recently in a high priests group meeting when one of the brethren, his voice
breaking, said, “I think women are spiritually superior to men. I know my wife sure is. I don’t know what I’d ever do without her.” Another brother then chimed in with an opinion, repeated so often that it has taken on almost doctrinal status: “I think that’s why we have the priesthood and women don’t-they don’t need it, but we do in order to get us to serve and progress.” There were agreeing nods around the room.
I sat with mixed feelings. First, I was filled with gratitude both for the love of my own wife and for the privilege to attend church with brethren who were filled with such tender and loving feelings for their companions. The comments troubled me, however, as well. I thought of the Lord, and of Adam, Enoch, Abraham, and Jacob. I thought of Moses and Joshua and Gideon and Samuel. I thought of Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Jeremiah. I thought of Lehi and Nephi, of Mormon and Moroni. I thought of Peter, of James, and of John. I thought of Joseph Smith and his loyal brother Hyrum. I thought of the Presidents of the Church who have followed, and of our present-day prophet and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It didn’t settle well with me to think that these were inherently inferior souls, and I sat wondering at how fully ideas that have no basis in scripture can have become so readily accepted-almost unquestioned, even.
Please do not misunderstand. I think it is a wonderful thing that a man believes he has married up, even way up. But I think it is wonderful for a woman to feel the same way. Indeed, the happiest marriages are those in which both partners feel that way, as the feeling that one is lucky to be with his or her mate is one of the purest expressions of love and surest expressions of devotion. The risk, however, is that we hear such expressions of personal love and gratitude and regard them as statements of doctrine. When this happens, expressions of love can be made into poisons that erode the very foundations of marriage.
Think about it. Even if it were true that one group was spiritually superior to another, the moment someone believed that about himself or herself it would immediately become false. Their arrogance would expose the lie in the spiritual mountain they were making of themselves. So if we preach that women are better than men, what do we invite? First, we invite women to believe it-to believe that they are, in fact, better than those they have married. What a bitter pill this would be, to believe that one was condemned to be with someone who was inherently inferior! It is a poison pill to personal and marital happiness.
Marriages can continue even if only one of the partners feels that he or she is lucky to be married to his or her spouse, but the partnership will not be a full one. And the strains of life, combined with the neglect one feels when married to one who thinks himself or herself superior, can turn the feelings of the other as well. When both partners feel that they are better than their spouses, divorce has already happened in their hearts. The only question remaining is whether they will announce that fact to the public.
The second thing we invite by telling women that they are better is depression. This is a cruelly ironic outcome, as I think that sometimes people feel moved to tell this to women in order to lift their spirits and make them feel better. But it doesn’t work-both because it isn’t based on truth and because, even if it were, a number of women know that it wouldn’t be true of them.
I learned this from a sister in the Church who was a close friend. I had heard that another of our female friends was feeling down about a number of things. I had always loved the struggling woman deeply-in some ways, she had been like a second mother to me. I found her to be one of the most kind and compassionate people I have ever known. So in an effort to lift her spirits, I e-mailed her, telling her what I have just written here-that she is one of the best people I have ever known-and thanking her for being so good to me and to others. My friend, whom I had copied on that note, wrote back and taught me a lesson I will never forget. “Good job, Jim,” came the reply. “She will really feel down now.”
I was shocked by the note. Had my friend actually read what I had written? I wondered. How could a note so positive and full of thanks as mine possibly make our mutual friend feel worse? I immediately asked her for clarification. It was my friend’s reply to this request that opened me to something I had never understood. “Your words will make her feel worse because she doesn’t think she’s as good as you are describing her to be,” she answered. “She knows how she’s felt in her life, even at times when she has been doing good, as you described. And she knows she’s been wrong to feel those ways. So when you tell her she’s great, she knows better, and the gap between what you say about her and what she thinks about herself grows all the wider.”
I read the note probably ten times, letting the insight soak in. What was true for this good sister, when hearing praise meant only for her, must be ten times as true of sisters generally when they are told how righteous and loving their whole gender is supposed to be. Many sit and hear that message and know that, while it might be true of others, it certainly isn’t true of them. And they now are estranged not only from the men whose presence is implied to be a burden in their lives but also from their fellow sisters whom they now feel to be so very far beyond them. How depressing it must be to be aware of so much personal sinfulness when one is told she is of a gender that is designed to be extra good! That kind of despair, I’m afraid, is too often the result of our well-intentioned efforts to lift.
Another damaging result of this idea, of course, is that it ends up giving men (or whomever else is considered to be the spiritual “valley” at the moment) a pass. “What do you expect?” one who is taught that he is worse might say. “I’m a guy!” Don’t laugh. I’ve heard that plenty-said it a few times myself, in fact. Inferiority is a tremendously powerful justification. Once I’ve bought into it, I am excused from many things that others more “spiritually gifted” could pull off. I might even convince myself that I am not even as good at repenting as other people are, so why try?
There is an interesting example of this in 1 Nephi 15. “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” Nephi asked Laman and Lemuel. “And they said unto [Nephi]: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” We aren’t like you are, they were saying. We’re not as spiritual or as favored. And because we aren’t, God doesn’t speak to us. So what’s the point in praying?
How much more liberating it is for all of us simply to see the truth: that I am neither inherently better nor inherently worse than others-that I am, in fact, equally fallen and flawed and separated from God. That I need to see how I am wrong before I can get right. That it is a gift that I am seeing my sinfulness. That my hope is through repentance, just as everyone else’s hope is-just as my spouse’s hope is, for example. And that my Savior nevertheless loves me (and my spouse and others) infinitely.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t speak kindly of each other. Quite the contrary, when we have no personal need to seem better than others, the compliments will flow freely. Studies show that in healthy relationships, positive comments outnumber negative ones by at least five to one. At first blush, it seems that this means that people don’t function well if they are not receiving many more compliments than criticisms. Whatever truth there may be to this, the greater truth is that people don’t function well if they are not giving many times more compliments than criticisms, for it is the giving of compliments rather than the receiving of them that truly edifies. One who is down is therefore not lifted merely by hearing a compliment but by seeing others in a way that awakens within him or her the desire to compliment. For this reason, attempts to lift others that do not invite them to speak better of others but only to think better of themselves usually make matters worse.
One man once told me of the problems he had experienced in his marriage because the brother who had married them told them that he, as the husband, had a priesthood duty to forgive his wife.
According to him, his wife had relied upon this teaching as justification for not being forgiving herself.
Now, I have no way of knowing whether this was, in fact, either a true account of what was taught or an honest account of their marriage (and I have reason to doubt the latter). But I can imagine the kinds of problems that could come from such an idea. I have perpetuated this same problem in a number of ways over the years. For example, I have sometimes repeated to newly called bishops in our stake this anecdote: “When calling a new bishop, it has been said that you look for the most dependable, most spiritual, and most charitable person in the ward, and then you call that person’s husband as the bishop.” Now, that might be a cute thing to say, and a little bit funny, but it strikes me as I think back on those times that it has largely been a gratuitous comment, and that, contrary to intentions, it actually harms both the bishop’s wife and the bishop to have heard it.
I remember once hearing President Gordon B. Hinckley say to the men that their wives had taken a terrible risk marrying them. He said it with a smile, and the congregation laughed heartily, but he wasn’t joking. The women in our lives really have taken a terrible risk by attaching themselves to us. What is also true, but what a priesthood leader is much less likely to say from the pulpit, is that husbands have taken a terrible risk marrying their wives as well. That is a message that a man will be more reluctant to deliver, as it seems self-serving, but it is equally the truth. No one gender has a corner on righteousness or the Spirit. Each of us needs the Savior equally and infinitely.
Do I believe that men are helped by women to become more than they could be alone? A thousand times, yes. Just as I believe that our gender differences make men helpful to women in precisely the same way. We tweak each other’s weaknesses, which allows for individual and mutual growth that would be more difficult to come by otherwise. To invite one gender to think themselves a mountain and the other to consider themselves but a valley is to pit partners against each other and to sow bitterness rather than love. If it is the duty of the man (which I believe it is) to care first and foremost for his wife, it is equally the duty of the wife to care first and foremost for her husband. We tip that balance at the peril of our families.
It seems to me that in wards comprised of healthy families, expressions of love and gratitude for each other would be made in equal proportion in both priesthood and Relief Society lessons and meetings. And neither the men nor the women in the ward would use times they are gathered together-either formally or informally-as opportunities to gripe about, criticize, or look down at their mates. And no group-whether of gender, of race, or of culture-would think itself superior in any way to any other.
Anything that makes me feel better (or worse) than another is darkness; anything that makes me feel one with others is divine. So the natural instinct to try to lift others by helping them to feel good about themselves relative to others is exactly the wrong way to help. True happiness is found not in a belief that I am better but in the obliteration of any need to be.
When this belief is finally rooted out of me, I will begin to do what we will discover in the next chapter is the thing that I most need to do-I will begin to repent of failing to love.