Talking Story



The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints recently put out a new video called You Never Know. Part of their Mormon Messages campaign, it’s about nine minutes long and tells the story of a young mother whose day is much like the days I remember when my kids were small. The best laid plans go out the door. It’s the kind of day where you make a list and nothing gets crossed off, but you’re running every single minute.

The video makes several points, not the least of which is that we never know all the good we do with our small acts of kindness. It’s meant to inspire, uplift, and celebrate the everyday things we do as Christ’s hands.

But in my mind it misses the mark.

You see there’s a whole sub-plot of the mom and her cousin. From the very beginning you know that at some point in the evening the mom is supposed to meet her cousin at the airport for a mini reunion during the cousin’s two hour layover. It’s on the calendar. The mom has gotten a babysitter. The cousins are texting back and forth. This is clearly a Big Deal. The clock is ticking people. This mom is on a deadline.

But in fiction as in life, things get in the way. Throughout her day, the mom chooses the inconvenient choice in every situation. She prepares her picky daughter a second breakfast. She glues her son’s forgotten science fair project together before school. She watches a neighbor’s drop by child and brings her needy sister lunch at the park. She tries to take crafty photos of her uncooperative toddler. She even prepares and delivers a last minute supper to a family with a new baby—after forgetting to turn the oven on. Things push her day so off schedule, she never makes it to the airport. The mom is sad, weepy, and not a little frustrated at the end of the day.

And because this is fiction, we get to see how her decisions to do the inconvenient thing—always—helped so many people. Her son wins the science fair. Watching the neighbor’s child allows the parents time to deal privately with a medical tragedy. The sisterly pep talk leads to bigger and better things in her sister’s career. The last minute meal helps a couple keep going through those long new baby nights.

During these images, there’s a voice over message that says it’s all okay—we’re not failures. We simply we never know how much good we do.

It’s as subtle as a hammer. The writers, actors, and director increase the tension and risk at each plot point—the video is designed to trigger a tsunami of  emotion. I get that. But to an analytical mind who crafts stories for a living—at least this one who used to be a video director and was once a mom with small children—the whole scenario rapidly becomes absurd.

At the end the message left me with the unfortunate takeaway that good mothers sacrifice everything. Instead inspiring or encouraging, to me it’s more an homage to ideals of motherhood as self-sacrifice—the exact opposite of what I think the video was trying to say.

Here’s how I’d fix it.

If they’d asked me, there would be no cousin coming to visit. The focus would be on the long list of things—all worthwhile and important to the mom and her family—that the mom plans to accomplish.

Let’s assume everything else stays the same. (Although if I were really writing it, lots would change here, too.) Throughout the day the mom gets the same derailing problems and makes the same choices. Her frustration comes not from missing her cousin, but from not checking things off her list.

Think about it. In my version there’s a moment at the end of the day where she sits at a table with Fruit Loops stuck in dried milk, dots of glitter glue trailing over the placemats, and the morning’s congealed eggs on a plate. She looks at her house and list and shakes her head. She didn’t sew the costumes. She didn’t sort the old winter clothes and run them to a charity shop. She didn’t use the peaches and now they’re spoiled. She didn’t update her blog with cute photos like she promised her mother. She’s a failure. She didn’t do one important thing she set out to do.

Then the voice over comes telling us that we never know the good we do. We see the same results of her choices, but this time at the end, she raises her head. She grabs the pen and writes all the things she did do that day and crosses them off the list. She sits back in contemplation of her choices and realizes she did the work God set for her—the truly important things. She laughs at the cereal stuck to her elbow and says tomorrow is another day. She climbs into a bubble bath with a magazine. There are candles lit around the tub. Later she says a prayer of thankfulness that she could be Christ’s hands and asks for guidance tomorrow. She goes to bed tired, but empowered.

That’s the message.

At least the one I’d want to tell.

I have a favorite Sunday joke that goes, “A mother left church to look for her son and found him sitting on the curb in the parking lot. ‘You need to come back inside,’ she said. ‘But Mom, nobody likes me. Nobody talks to me or wants to sit by me. It’s boring going to meeting after meeting. I’d rather be outside enjoying the sunshine. Isn’t that a better way to feel God’s love?’ ‘Son, there are two reasons you need to come back inside,’ she said. ‘The first is that you made a commitment to God. The second is that you’re the Bishop.’

I often feel like that bishop.

Of course, you can change bishop to pastor or priest or rabbi or even Relief Society President or PTA Chair. The reason I like this joke is because at its heart it’s really about reluctant leadership and obligation. Even the most stalwart on the outside can have internal doubts.

There are many people in my church who would find that sentiment horrifically unsettling, but I consider it marvelously humanizing. I feel like I can lend a hand to a human.  I can also forgive humans for making mistakes.

My husband and I team teach Sunday School to fourteen year olds. Some days it’s like trying to raise the dead. They constantly beg for treats and want to take naps instead of participate in discussions. It’s a lot like helping in the nursery but without diapers or Goldfish crackers.

One Sunday when I was teaching alone I walked out on them, saying I refused to believe they were truly as stupid as they were pretending to be when they insisted Catholics crucified Christ.

You don’t even have to be Christian to know that’s impossible.

But calling their bluff and storming out was probably not one of my more Christ-like moments.  I even told them that if they didn’t want to learn, I’d wheel in a tv and play a video each week while I sat in a corner reading a book. Surely that would bring more Sunday peace to my life than struggling with these knuckleheads.

After stomping around the hallway and grinding my teeth to hold in the inappropriate words that bubbled up to the surface, I realized what I needed to tell them.

God only had one perfect person to do his work in the entire history of the world—and even Jesus had days where he wept in frustration. If our faith rests in the infallibility of a single person or group—bishop, scout leader, parent, Sunday School class—we’re guaranteed to be disappointed, possibly angry, and sitting on the curb while the meeting is going on. Our fragile, tempest-tossed faith has to be more resilient.

Faith is something that grows not because of  all the good we’ve experienced, but in spite of the bad. It is the fervent belief that no matter now big or insignificant our contribution seems, no matter how little progress we seem to be making, faith is knowing the journey defines the destination.

After nine months of cajoling, badgering, challenging, and insisting that kids think beyond easy answers like prayer and reading scriptures when we ask them about how they will tackle life’s curve balls, I realize that I’m going to miss them when a brand new class takes their place in a couple of weeks. More surprising is that they say they’re going to miss us, the mean teachers who insisted their weekly treat was having us as teachers.

Evidence of God’s power and grace, if you ask me.

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