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.
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