Maurine Proctor’s columns appear on Tuesdays. For the next two Tuesdays, she will be in the Philippines reporting with her husband, Scot on the Cebu City Temple dedication. Her regular columns will resume on June 30.
My mother was a young married in the Great Depression, and like all who lived through that time, she was forever marked by it. She carefully folded and saved her tinfoil for reuse. She walked up and down carpeted stairs avoiding the center, so the more well-used part would not wear out soon. She bought her eggs in bulk from a farmer in Draper, Utah, so they would cost less.
These eggs came in a big, brown box, packed in layers, so our job when we got home was to take the eggs, and repack them in egg cartons she had carefully saved. I loved my mother and looked forward to the trips to Draper for eggs, and what’s more I liked watching her meticulously repack the eggs for cold storage.
I wanted to help, to be smart and able and like her. The job seemed so neat and comprehensible. I watched her carefully pick up two eggs in her hand, transfer them to the cartons, and then grab two more, a cadence she continued, emptying one layer of the box and then the next. I could do that!
She interrupted her rhythm to let the five-year-old I was take an egg and put it in the carton. I was impressed with myself, and then wanted to pick up two eggs in my hand just like she did.
“No,” she said. “Your hand isn’t large enough to hold two eggs at a time.”
I insisted that I could do it. She still said no. But I was certain, so when she was back at her job, preoccupied, I picked up two eggs in my small hand, thinking to impress her.
Oh no, oh no. I could feel both cool eggs in my little hand, their oval smoothness balanced for a moment, but my hold was precarious. Almost instantly I could feel the one start to slip. My stomach churned, I tried to clench my hand to hold on tighter. My fingers were too short, and the inevitable happened.
The egg went crashing to the floor, shells flying, golden yolk splattered. I had lost a precious egg right in front of my thrifty mother, and in defiance of her warnings.
So many emotions at once – humiliation, disobedience, embarrassment, a mess-up – especially when I had thought to be smart. I started to sob and before I turned to run from the room, I put my other egg on the slick counter to rest there. As I fled the room, it rolled over and hit the floor, too, joining its fellow in a gooey heap of shell and broken yolk.
Not just one, but two! Oh no, oh no, oh no.
My guilt was compounded and I cried hard in my mother’s arms, who chose not to add to my chagrin by chastising me.
It has been decades, but I still have the heart of that five-year-old. I would like to think of myself as capable, worthy and competent, but too often the tasks before me exceed my grasp. My fingers cannot carry the burdens I ask them to.
How easy it is to be eaten with discouragement when we run headlong into our limitations, when the things that matter most to us are the hardest to penetrate.
We dream of turning in a great performance with our lives. We would like to hear the Lord say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” or at least tell us that we have run the race well. If we think, however, that running the race is about our own efforts, that thinking can ultimately get us into trouble, because somewhere along the journey, we learn firsthand, that we are simply not enough to solve the great problems that lie before us.
The celestial kingdom is not full of self-made men or women.
I would like to think of myself as capable, as worthy and competent, that I can make things turn out as I want them to, but I find myself breaking all sorts of eggs. In this world where we value competence and good resumes, that can be crippling knowledge. It can be disappointing, indeed, to experience first hand how often our judgment is flawed, how regularly we make mistakes, how petulant emotions rise up and swamp our self-discipline.
When we are in the rough and tumble of life, we break eggs, even when, with all of our hearts, we mean not to. Sometimes it is because we require more of ourselves than our hands can carry. Sometimes we are so disappointed in ourselves because we are not yet finished and whole, and our days reflect that incompletion.
We are not as wise as we wish we were. Not only can we not figure out all things, sometimes it is the most important things – like how to love a difficult child or spouse or how to carry on with hope when we feel hopeless, that we can’t figure out.
We may have started out life with the notion that we could turn in a perfect performance, like a straight-A child at school, only to learn that perfectionism sets us up for failure. We learn first hand that our best efforts are puny – or if we pretend that we are really good, and have got it all together, we know that even if we fool others, we cannot fool ourselves.
“I’m trying to be like Jesus,” we sing, but we have to admit that we have only the vaguest notion of what that brilliance of love and perfection looks like.
Perfectionism (or anything even akin to that) – the notion that we can be omni-competent or at least notable – sets us up for pain because it is beyond our grasp. Only God is good.
Running headlong into our imperfections and shortcomings, however, is no reason to despair. It is in fact, one of the most important purposes of mortality and God’s great favor to us.
In fact, just in case we are deluded into thinking we’ve got it all together, God knows how to change the game, so that such fantasies are quickly dispelled. The most stunning of us, who can run great races, grows old and feels overtaken by infirmities. We may be quite able in one arena of our lives, but mortality demands that we perform well someplace else, too, perhaps where we blunder a bit.
We may be content to be small, our soul at ease and cozy, and fantasize that we are doing quite well. But in God’s efforts to remake us into something larger and more expansive, he will bring us experiences where we cannot help but see our limitations with some wincing. Our idea that we are doing well, compared to what God wants us to become, is just a delusion. He has better plans for us, and it will knock down any false inner structure that we have carefully built that suggests that we are impressive on our own or that we can run this race, with any capacity, alone.
Thus, our need for the atonement becomes more and more clear, especially as we try with all of our hearts to do well. As children we may have thought that the atonement was just for obvious sins, those things that we can see clearly and point to as clear blemishes. The atonement is for bank robbers – or at least for someone who shouted at his brother and needs to repent. We think the atonement is something that we pull out and use only when we can point to a specific act or thought that we know is less than unworthy.
As we mature, however, we are to put away childish thinking, especially regarding the atonement. After all we can do – which we find out is not as much as we would have liked – this precious gift is our only route to wholeness. We will remain shallow and silly and stuck until we learn fully how to accept this gift and use it in our lives.
Our need for the atonement isn’t based alone on our sins, which we often perceive as discrete acts. It is not just that I made a mistake last week and I need to repent of it. Surely there are plenty of sins that we could point to specifically, and say, of this I need to repent. This thing that I did last Tuesday at 10:00, I must repent for. Our need for the atonement certainly includes these specific acts or thoughts that we can point to, but this gift is so much more than that and our need is so much greater.
The atonement is not only about having specific sins and blemishes cleansed from us.
It is about transforming us altogether so that the very tendency toward them is no longer a part of our being. We said an angry word for which we can be forgiven, but it demonstrates that anger still has a place in us. It is the very tendency toward anger or resentment or despair or selfishness that resides in us that the Lord’s atonement will cleanse if we open ourselves to his gift.
It is not just that we display obvious weakness; it is that we are still weak. It is not only that we sin in small or large ways; it is that we are sinners, inclined to certain traits that are not celestial.
We are broken in ways that may be obvious to us, but in some ways that may not be so clear. Where we could be charitable and aware of others, we may be self-absorbed or indifferent. Where we could be hopeful and see God’s hand in our lives, we may be jaded and tired, worn out by little defeats. Where our souls could be full of light we know there are patches of dimness. We may cringe in fear where we should be bold, sloppy where we should be exacting.
It is part of the life’s experience in a fallen world, to have flawed and limited thinking. It is why we break eggs and even our best-laid plans for self-improvement always fall short.
It is strange, however, that no matter how many times it is demonstrated to us that our self-sufficiency is a mirage, we are still tempted to go it alone. We may think the atonement is a gift for somebody else with really big sins or for some other time in our lives. We may assume that we are so unworthy we can’t come to the Lord right now or conversely that we are doing pretty well on our own, and we’ll let him know when we need help.
The truth is we need help and we need it now, unless we are to be forever incomplete and pained by our own limitations. Alma had it right when he cried out, “O Jesus, thou Son of God have mercy on me who am in the gall of bitterness (Alma 36:18).
We might tell ourselves, oh yes, but he had major problems. That’s not me. The truth is all have fallen short and must rely on the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ. We must fall upon our knees and say our own version of “O Jesus, thou Son of God have mercy on me.” It is not only that we need our flaws removed and our fissures filled. It is also that we cannot seem to add one cubit to our stature by ourselves.
From our limited hearts, we cannot think ourselves into having the pure love of Christ. From our perspective in a fallen world, we cannot wish ourselves into being full of light.
The atonement not only cleanses us, it empowers us. It is the enabling strength that allows us to be transformed, to have every part of us enlightened. Right now the Lord’s ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts, but through the gift of the atonement, we can become at one with him, until our very ways and thoughts are entirely changed, until ultimately our ways and our thoughts are like his.
Nothing brings us more pain than our own limitations and flaws, and the way they play out so visibly in our lives – and nothing will bring us more joy than engaging in the process, directed by the Lord, to be made new.
We can be in that process now, engaged with all our hearts, as we acknowledge our complete dependence on him, weave the atonement into the texture of our lives.
In this life we try to be good and competent, but we know we fall short. The truth is that we are in process, and that we must accept with patience and without self-recrimination. We are not yet today what we will be tomorrow, if we put our hand in God’s and fully accept the atonement. Our incompleteness is temporary; our broken parts will be healed. We have not yet seen what we will be.
The Lord would not have us so burdened about our shortcomings or so anxious about our performance. He would not have us label ourselves as a hopeless mess-up the way my five-year-old self did.
That’s when we break the second egg.
Having broken an egg, which is part of the mortal experience, we may say, I can’t do this. I can’t try. I can’t measure up; I’m a disappointment. Labeling ourselves that way, our hope may be dashed, our self-worth withered. That is when we become stuck.
The Lord’s atonement invites us, instead, to undo the heavy burdens, including the negative self-definitions. He invites us to travel lightly.
If we are stressed about performance, anxious and guilt-ridden about what we cannot do and what we are not, we have misunderstood the meaning of the atonement. The Lord wants us to travel lightly because it is the only way to travel forward.
That journey will always be made not on our strength but on his.
He is the only one who can give us this gift. Mortality does us a favor when it is finally made clear to us that we cannot get where we want to go on our own. Instead we cry, “O Lord, Jesus, have mercy on me,” and he does.