A recent New Yorker cartoon features a woman speaking at a funeral: “Mother wouldn’t want us to grieve. Mother would want us to do guilt.” I laughed uneasily, knowing I had used plenty of guilt on my own kids.
Rereading journal entries from a hectic time in my life reveals the guilt I felt for not enjoying church callings for which I had no time, much less aptitude. I urged myself to try harder to merit the Lord’s blessings which came to others who loved their callings and commitments—or so they said. Since the Church was true—obviously, I was at fault if participation created stress instead of peace in my and my family’s lives.
Guilt has a long history with Mormons. Reading excerpts from early Mormon women’s diaries and letters in the Godfrey/Godfrey/Derr book, Women’s Voices, I found early church leaders urging the Saints freezing at Winter Quarters to repent of their sins in order to merit God’s help. While struggling to settle Utah, starving Saints were admonished to repent and be rebaptized in order to receive God’s blessings.
My journal reveals me using similar guilt tactics with my kids. When our older son who was away at college said he had no testimony, I wrote him a long letter encouraging him to keep the commandments and promised a testimony would follow—a message I’d heard repeatedlyfrom General Conference. Wort answered with a list of relatively normal behavior such as hating his younger sister when he was 11 that had made him feel too wicked to even hope for the Celestial Kingdom.
Wort had already internalized an unhealthy amount of guilt and I had just told him, “Keep the commandments.” I might as well have said, “If the wall won’t budge when you bang your head against it, bang harder and longer.” At that time, nobody had informed me that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expecting different results.
Fortunately, I have forgiving children—and I’ve largely forgiven myself and the Church. I know devout Mormonism works well for many people, but I empathize with those for whom it doesn’t work and who struggle spiritually, fearing to move on.