The Relief Society and the Muting of Mormon Drama

In my first post to this blog I commented about the disruption of our normal Christmas festivities that year (spending the day at Grandma and Grandpa’s house with the extended family) because Grandma was too radioactive from her therapy for pancreatic cancer. I commented that while the date of our gathering would shift, the plan would still go forward and be (perhaps) just a bit more memorable for that alteration.

Last month Grandma lost that battle after the cancer metastasized and spread to her liver, kidneys, and even up into her shoulder. She spent her last month at home, and received constant care from Grandpa, her children, and a nurse who came every other day to take care of medical maintenance as she counted the days to the inevitable. She was only sixty-five.

On our way back from her interment in southern Nevada about three weeks ago, my daughter made a comment that has stuck in my mind ever since—something to the effect of “that was easier than I expected; the Relief Society took most of the drama out of the arrangements.”

Which was mostly true. Yes, the family took care of the core arrangements—the wake, the funeral, transportation, and the interment—but the Relief Society took care of the gatherings that followed each event. The family dealt with those things that only family can handle, but most of the subsidiary tasks were taken care of by others.

This function of the Relief Society to literally provide relief from mundane tasks at times of personal and family stress took a lot of the (unnecessary) drama out of the situation. Even in our own ward, the Relief Society quickly arranged for meals so my wife could focus on the obituary, program booklet, and a photo anthology rather than tending to the mundane needs of six children and a husband. A small thing, but one that we deeply appreciated in the moment.

The Relief Society takes a lot of gentle (and some not-so-gentle) mockery for being the refreshment committee for everything, for doing a lot of small and seemingly trivial work at the margins of more important events. But it’s that very consistency and efficiency that makes them so effective at reducing ambient drama, and relieving the small stresses that can overshadow weightier matters.

It’s been commented that one of the challenges of Mormon culture is that we’re just too mellow, that we don’t have so many of the moments of personal drama that define so much of common experience and the popular literature, with the effect that we (generally) lack the social misery that drives so much of our better literature and drama. By reducing the preponderance of small tragedies that stick in the craws of so many, we deny our dramatists the necessary seeds of discontent that lead to art.

Of course that’s a vast simplification of the idea, but I think it hits the high points. Our culture is bland because we cater to the common denominator, and the Relief Society takes much of the drama out of the few remaining legitimate individual tragedies—with the effect of blunting our need for tortured expression.

That claim might be true, but I think it’s a little too easy, a little too glib. Yes, much of the mundane drama of life is muted by our cultural practices and institutions. But the result should be that we then have the ability to focus on the more existential meanings of the events that underlie those personal tragedies. We should be able to seek understanding and context for that necessary pain because we’re less distracted by the mundane accoutrement attending those experiences. We should be able to pull back half a step to see more of the forest and less of the trees. We should be able to go deeper, not shallower in our dramatic (literary) handlings of those more expansive issues directly by dint of muting the noise that so often distracts us at key moments.

From my view there is nothing inherent in our culture or its practices that should blunt our willingness to aggressively address the core definitional and existential issues that underpin all human experience. If the Relief Society does indeed take the mundane drama out of many of those experiences, then the only thing that should change is our angle of entry to the issue—not our willingness to tackle the issue itself.

Individual misery should be only one of many goads to literary exploration of the drama of human experience rather than a single entry point. By changing the angle of attack we can avoid the need for increasing shrillness (see Harlow Clark’s reference to Flannery O’Connor’s musing in his last post), and get to the more basic issues by offering them in a different light. That gives us a better chance to be heard in a very crowded marketplace.

In the mean time, I appreciate a culture (and more particularly, an institution) that operates so effectively to mute the lessor drama of Mormon experience and give us a better chance to address the more fundamental dramas that underlie our experiences and personal tragedies.

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14 Responses to The Relief Society and the Muting of Mormon Drama

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thoughtful and very well stated. I like the notion that by focusing our attention on the things that matter most, Mormonism should be enhancing our capability to tell stories that really matter.

  2. C. M. Malm says:

    Interesting observations, but something occurred to me as I was reading: your essay centers around a particular event–a funeral. And that’s an event which, more so than any other, is muted in Mormon culture, not just by the efforts of the Relief Society, but by our very doctrine. In LDS doctrine, death is not quite the tragedy that it is in other belief systems.

    Indeed, much of what the rest of the world views as tragedy is, in LDS eyes, a necessary and natural (if sometimes painful) part of the Plan of Salvation. Joseph Smith, in the midst of a great and painful drama in his own life, was told, “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

    So I have to wonder if it isn’t our very worldview that mutes our sense of the tragic. What impact this has on our ability, as artists, to find something significant to say about the human condition is a question to be explored. But I agree with you, it does suggest that a change in our “angle of attack” might produce work that is new and different and significant in a unique way.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      The funeral was the context in which the idea crystalized, not the origin of the idea for me. The experience I was privately deconstructing was a violent suicide a few years ago in our town where a man shot himself in the head (non-LDS). After the necessary investigation, it was the women of the local Relief Society who came in and cleaned blood and tissue from the walls while feeding the family in the next room, thus saving the grateful survivors from the task.

      That didn’t provide those non-LDS survivors with any special insight into death or LDS doctrine on it, but it did take a lot of potentially horrifying personal drama out of an already dramatic situation for those people. In other words, it reduced the number of irritation points that might commonly spur the kinds of personal rage that seems to lead to so much of our more critically lauded fiction.

      But to your point, the Relief Society as a service institution of a church founded on the idea of community and shared burdens is only a symbol of the idea you express above—that it’s Mormonism itself that 1) tries to reduce the number of overwhelming burdens on individuals through communal response because 2) we see ugly experience as useful and temporary.

      I think that’s an extraordinary worldview that should be shocking, fresh, and interesting to readers. It’s not that we don’t see (or feel) the pain, it’s that we understand the pain as useful and necessary and experience to be understood in a larger context. Ugly experience may still seem random and pointless, but we approach reconciling ourselves to it on exactly the basis that it is useful.

      That should be powerful fodder for literary creation. Instead, we seem to believe that it’s our excuse for non-production; our ability to see ugly experience as useful is deemed a curse because it robs us of the existential terrors that have driven so much of the world’s literature.

      My argument (which you nicely restate) is that if we are to take advantage of our cultural uniqueness we must choose a different angle of approach precisely because we don’t experience some of the spiritual hopeless common to many—not because we don’t have similar experiences, but because we process them differently.

      That difference seems like it can be powerful (and perhaps even useful) in creating worthy literature.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m a convert, but I’ve been with you good people for thirty plus years now and I’m not buying the notion that we have less drama or grief or pain than anyone else. Kathleen suggests that our doctrine “mutes our sense of the tragic.” Nothing mutes the pain of losing a child, no matter how many platitudes we repeat. What I have come to believe is muted is our willingness to express the pain: We are muted, not the tragedy. I sense that if we really expressed the pain, we often fear it will be interpreted as a lack of faith, and there is nothing worse in the faithful LDS world than insecurity of belief. We assume that the stress of believing in the tiered celestial system is less difficult than believing that dead is simply dead, or that dead means auto-Heaven. I’m sorry, but our view of the afterlife is complex and fraught with worrisome pitfalls for the “eternal family.”

    What is different about us, then, is that grief and faith (and by grief I don’t simply mean over death) get mixed together so that it is difficult to distinguish what the problem which problem is which. So we go “mute.” Hello, “Nifty Little Mormon Trick” from the Book of Mormon Musical. Certainly the song is a gross exaggeration, but this seems a noticeable trait of ours. I think we tend to bob along in the wake of grief and emotional torment, unwilling to sink into the depths, because we are afraid we will drown rather than be cleansed. I’m being simplistic, but my point is that I think our culture holds more potential for depth, not less, because of the way we handle our problems.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I think a lot of people (of any faith) choose not to confront difficult experience, and Mormons are no more immune to that than anyone else. We often feel social pressure to not be devastated by difficult experience, and that can lead to the same kind of quiet desperation common to so many people (of any faith) when facing those challenges.

      Catholic and Jewish literature has explored that approach fairly well over the years. Yet I still think there’s room for further exploration, and the unique social and doctrinal elements of Mormon experience can provide a useful re-framing of those basic existential struggles that ought to make them interesting again to audiences that often feel jaded to the effort.

      I just think the excuse that we don’t produce worthwhile literature because we’re culturally bland is weak. We have unique challenges and worldviews that are just as worthy of exploration any other, and ought to be able to produce work just as critically interesting as any other. We have the same experiences and feel the same pain (if in slightly different conceptual contexts) as everyone else.

      If the argument is that our social pressure is away from exploring that pain because we allegedly have all the answers, I think that’s no different than any other religious/cultural group. I know good Mormons who have avoided those basic existential questions, who have faced them and found peace, and who have faced them and been devastated. If anything, it seems to me that we have more windows on the question (and avenues of response) rather than fewer.

      Which leaves the question of why we take the excuse when so many others have chosen not to. Here I offer an exploration of one of those avenues of response—that our communal ethic to share each others burdens can often change an experience from overwhelming to merely whelming. Only one of many approaches, but one that doesn’t require the same kind (or at least same degree) of social alienation that seems foundational to exploring difficult experience.

      As with any culture, Mormon responses to experience are varied and complex. This was an attempt to look at only one of those possible responses.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Addition to final statement: I’m being simplistic, but my point is that I think our culture holds more potential for depth, not less, because of the way we handle our problems, because of the complexity of our doctrine, and because faith is laced into our every experience.

    • Kathleen suggests that our doctrine “mutes our sense of the tragic.”

      Kathleen who?

      Lisa, If you were referring to me, I’m very confused, because I don’t recall ever saying such a thing.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        augh! I hate it when I screw up like that. C.C. not Kathleen. Mea culpa big time, Kathleen. So embarrassed.

        • Ah! Okay. I see now where C.M. Malm said it.

          Whew! I’m glad to know I didn’t say it, because I don’t look at things that way, but I do say things accidentally that aren’t what I mean.

          • Maybe I should try to share what I do think about this, especially from a writing-stories approach.

            Because our doctrine and our faith can give us a much broader perspective on everything–not only our trials, but our triumphs–and because point of view is often so crucial (and so hard to get right) in fiction, one of the things I think we should strive to add as LDS authors to the body of fiction that is out there is that broader perspective through our (and our characters’) LDS points of view.

            Getting this right, however, has got to be one tough challenge, but I definitely think it would be worth it.

            It goes along with what I’ve said before about my frustration with those LDS authors who don’t seem to want prayer to be much of a part of their LDS characters’ lives, when it is (or should be) so integral to our lives.

            Who we are and what we believe and how that affects the way we see and experience and live life has a huge potential for interesting and meaningful stories, if we can just figure out how to tell them so that they really WORK for any and all readers.

  4. Eric Swedin says:

    When my grandfather committed suicide in his bed, using a rifle, with the resulting mess, it was the ward Relief Society President who was there to literally clean it up. That is real service.

    • Oh, wow, Eric. One more reason to not want to be Relief Society President. And I thought having to travel around a ward that was over 200 miles across (when we lived in Texas) in order to fill in the visiting teaching gaps was a good enough reason (our Relief Society President then is still my hero for doing that every month).

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      And what a story! Dibbs.

      I maybe have a thing for death. Idk

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