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.