Jane was abused as a child and in that horror she learned to cope by hardening herself, learning to be numb. It was an adaptive behavior, a survival instinct, which protected some small part of herself deep inside. She resigned herself to the evil all around; she couldn’t hope because it broke her heart too often.
When someone like Jane leaves an evil place, her behavior, which was adaptive in that bad circumstance, is maladaptive in a normal world that holds good possibilities (maladaptive meaning not conducive to growth and normal functioning.) Yet these were the skills unknowingly taught to Jane by her abusers, as surely as another child is taught to walk or eat with utensils.
Imagine now the moment when Jane and her maladaptive behaviors walked into an LDS chapel for the first time.
Jane’s maladaptive behaviors might make her look harsh and maybe even scary. In her world showing toughness was a way to protect herself; she talks crudely with profanity, she has tattoos, smokes, and wears only jeans. Her voice is raspy from years of smoking (and crying) and she tells the missionaries inappropriate jokes. Despite her hard exterior and maladaptive behaviors, when she is in the church she feels something penetrating her harshness; it softly touches that small part of her protected deep inside. It is something different than she has ever felt before and it scares her, while at the same time she clings to it.
Even though Jane goes back to church she knows she doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t understand why the way she acts is so different from the way the other people at church act. As much as she wants to act like them, it scares her to be open and soft. That takes her back to her childhood when she was hurt and damaged. She can’t do it. She can’t wear a skirt, or stop smoking; it isn’t possible to change her voice. She does stop telling the missionaries dirty jokes (even though they run through her own mind, even when she doesn’t want them to), and tries to keep her language clean in the church. She never thought anything was wrong with it before. She has never been in a place without profanity until now, not even as a child.
Some people at church looked down on her and didn’t talk to her; that was nothing new. There were a few, though, who were so friendly that Jane thought they were talking to someone else when they greeted her. They were so full of light that when they stood close to her, smiling and sometimes touching her arm, she had moments when fear left. Fear had always been a part of her world. When the fear left, good entered; making her feel short of breath and lightheaded. The more time she spent at church, and with those good people, the more it felt like her internal organs were being replaced one by one with new and improved versions that were lightning fast.
Then, Jane felt safe enough to hope. When the missionaries invited her to be baptized, she accepted, still fearful with what seemed like irrational fears. She didn’t believe that she could stop smoking, but she believed the missionaries could do what they said they could. So she said she would try if they would help her. She wanted to be like a woman who hugged her at church, who smelled like clean sheets and baby lotion. Smoking reminded her of ugly memories anyway.
She was congratulated by many at her baptism. While walking into the warm, clean water in the font Jane was as scared as she had ever been in her life, but not the same kind of fear she had of her abuser. Being baptized was what she imagined jumping out of an airplane would be like: frightening, but also overwhelmingly exciting, as a world full of possibilities opened ahead of her.
As Elder Uchtdorf shared a slim version of Jane’s story in April 2013 General Conference I fleshed out this alternate telling of her life in my mind. As true as I’m sure Elder Uchtdorf was to Jane’s lifeline, it is not possible to accurately describe the total journey to healing in a few paragraphs. My creative mind imagined Jane’s details, her feelings and doubts. Some of the added details are from personal experience; some are from watching the journey of others.
Some may have brushed off Jane’s story as another anecdote about finding hope and healing through the gospel. For me it meant much more, especially after the reaction I received from friends and strangers about the Peculiar Minds series. Too many take the journey that Jane did without a hand to hold.
Simple words signaled that Elder Uchtdorf was telling a different kind of story, maybe you didn’t catch them. He said Jane found peace in the gospel, and then “years later, after her abuser had died, Jane was again troubled by the horrible events of her youth. Profound sadness and anger threatened to destroy the wonderful light she had found in the gospel.”
How could this be? If Christ heals, how could it come back?
We who are wounded think that the return of darkness is proof that we can’t heal. Instead Elder Uchtdorf tells us that it is only part of the process, a process that is not about always walking in the full sunshine, but walking in the dark towards the bright hope of God.
Many people feel they are alone in the darkness taking timid steps towards a faint light. I fear that we sit right next to a person that is just as lonely, afraid, and wounded as we are (because we are all lonely at times, afraid in the dark, and wounded by mortality.) What keeps us from reaching across the short distance between us to say, “I am here too, seeking the light.”
For the people who contacted me about their search for healing and stability, the insecurities (that are a result of the pain they’ve experienced) keep them stuck in that hurt. There is a fear not only of wondering if you are inherently flawed, but a fear that if you take the chance to reach out you might find that you are the only one, a lonely anomaly. Jane’s story sent light into the darkness that so many wounded saints wander in. Thank you Elder Uchtdorf, for the searchlight of hope emanating from the conference center which was broadcast across the world. And to Christ, thank you for being the Light that never dims.
Yes, we will make mistakes.
Yes, we will falter.
But as we seek to increase our love for God and strive to love our neighbor, the light of the gospel will surround and uplift us. The darkness will surely fade, because it cannot exist in the presence of light. As we draw near to God, He will draw near to us. And day by day, the hope of God’s light will grow within us, ‘brighter and brighter until the perfect day.’