I very often have several little or not-so-little essays percolating in my mind, some of which, unlike my last post, can’t be reduced to three sentences. And Sunday afternoon seems like a fine time for ruminating. Sunday is also, however, a fine time for napping, so we’ll have to see whether drowsiness will have a stronger pull for me than the chewing of cud.
One of the most fascinating topics to me is whether and how people really change. I think it’s a core American ideal that people can improve themselves quite drastically, and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints it’s an absolutely intrinsic belief that we can repent and become a new person. Yet we also believe that Jesus Christ’s Atonement applies to every innocent, including those who, for whatever reason, lack the understanding to make right choices, and that only Jesus and Heavenly Father know hearts and minds well enough to judge accountability. So we can stay quite pitiful and wretched and yet be saved, as long as we are genuinely doing the very best we can.
When I was in my first year of the “Personal Progress” program in the Church’s Young Women’s program, one of my leaders met with me to help me set goals. We found a goal in the booklet that had to do with sewing. I told her I had just completed sewing a shirt for myself, and wanted to count that as a completed goal. She said it was already in the past, and goals must be for something in the future, so I couldn’t count it. Afterward I decided that her approach to my “personal” progress didn’t feel very “personal” at all–and I never did any work in my Personal Progress booklet again.
I also acquired, partly as a result of this, a prejudice against setting goals, especially against public goal-setting.
Later, when I was a full-time missionary and encountered LDS young women who were diligently working towards their “medallion” (the pendant that’s given in recognition of completing Personal Progress) I was a bit ashamed of my past stubbornness, and avoided mentioning my lack of medallionized Young-Womanhood.
And yet, in spite of my rebellion in Personal Progress, as a young woman I still managed quite a bit of personal progress. In fact, I was possibly more task-oriented and forward-looking than average. (Or maybe we’re all task-oriented and forward-looking, but some people’s areas of focus and realms of success are more recognized than others: piano playing, yes; being an expert at Nintendo, less-so.) At any rate, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I wrote down a list of things I wanted to do in the coming years. I don’t know if I still have the list somewhere, but it included things like learning to play the guitar, buying a car, going to college, and possibly going on a mission. (My sister Mary later told me that she had come across the list and it had made her cry, because I’d soon be moving on and away.) Then I forgot about my list, and when I came across it several years later I was amazed at how many of the things on the list I had accomplished, without doing any conscious followup. (It took me until I was 24 to buy a car, but I did it. And I don’t play the guitar, but I did take lessons long enough to decide it’s not for me unless I resign myself to calloused fingertips.) If anything, this experience strengthened my prejudice against public goals. But it also showed me that real personal progress is certainly possible, when the private goals that make it onto paper represent who we really are or want to become, and what we most deeply want.
Still, since I belong to a church that’s very pro-goal, and since I do love the idea of personal improvement, I try not to be too vociferously anti-goal. In fact, I guess what I’m really against is people’s privacy and autonomy being breached, especially if it gets in the way of their discovering and attaining their hopes and ambitions on their own terms.
Well, I hope this essay didn’t make you quite as sleepy as I now am. I’m actually just getting going, but to continue I’d have to track down a study I recently heard about, and since my eyelids are drooping, I’m going to call this Part 1, and give it
myself a rest.