Two experiences this weekend taught me the truth of the lyrics, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” (Hymn 220, "Lord, I Would Follow Thee")
I ran into a lady from my ward over the weekend and in the course of chatting I asked her a question I’d often wanted to ask her, “How have you kept your skin looking so young?”
She was visibly startled but answered me. The next day in Relief Society, she came up to me and, with emotion in her voice, thanked me for my comment. She said she saw something entirely different in the mirror and was feeling quite poorly about her physical self prior to our exchange.
Now, I wish I could say I was being benevolent when I asked her for her secret to youthful skin, but it was quite a selfish request. However, my question happened to come at a time when she was feeling low and dispirited over the changes she saw age bringing. I’m so grateful I was able to lift her spirits. Goodness knows we all need it more than we might even realize.
My next experience came from another sister in my ward. I’d previously been at her house for a missionary fireside, which she and her husband hosted. She’s African-American and had her home full of beautiful African inspired art. Me and my pasty-white self felt right at home. As I was admiring her art, we started talking about some of the pieces I’d collected from our years in Africa.
Now one thing I need to back story is how I instantly liked this woman the first time we met. You know how Anne of Green Gables talks about kindred spirits? Well, she was that for me.
The first time I met her, I mentally admired how classy she was and wished I had her knack for putting clothes together so elegantly—she's the kind of friend you want as a shopping buddy. Over the course of getting to know her, we found out that we have the same family tradition of naming girls, and our ancestors even share the same or similar names. She also shared a time with me about how another family in our ward, who’d also lived in Africa, responded to her story of when she first bore her testimony. There she was staring out a sea of white faces and how overwhelming that felt. The father of the family she was talking to said he knew what she meant only in reverse--as a white family in an all-African branch.
We laughed about that, and I agreed. It can be hard being so visibly distinct from everyone around you and since returning from Africa I’ve had much more empathy for those who feel the odd man out. Never, though, would I have thought how hard it must be for her at times—until yesterday.
Sunday morning as I was getting ready, I was reminded about the beautiful artwork she had at her house, and I remembered an African beaded necklace I’d purchase years ago in Kenya thinking I’d give it to a niece for Christmas. I’d forgotten about it and there it sat still in its bag.
It seemed a natural gift for this lady and would fit so well with her passion for African art. I gathered it up along with the little papers that talk about the history of the particular beads used in the necklace and took it with me.
When I saw her in Relief Society I told her I had something for her and explained how it had sat in my house for years. I then gave it to her and she was thrilled. She hugged me and said, “I knew you and I had a special connection, not just because of our names but because you’d lived in Africa and knew that all black people aren’t bad.”
I certainly felt good that she loved the gift, but I also felt a sting of sorrow at her words. What a burden for her to carry to feel that people were thinking that anyone who shared her skin color was “bad.” I thought about her words throughout the day.
Perhaps she felt a weight of representing her “race” among a predominately white ward that I felt being the sole Mormon in a job surrounded by people from all over the world. I knew that I would likely be the first and perhaps only contact these people would have with a Mormon. I also knew they had some preconceived ideas of Mormons that were less than flattering. I did feel heavy at times with a responsibility to represent my religion well, and I knew they were watching me and formulating opinions about my religion through my actions.
Or perhaps, even worse, she’d experienced people who had made her feel “bad” because of the color of her skin, who’d treated her differently or poorly. I just can’t imagine anyone treating this lovely woman poorly for any reason and I certainly hope she’s never felt that from other members.
But that moment when her comment sunk in, my naiveté was stripped away, as I had wrongly assumed these types of issues were things of the past. But obviously there are those among us who still hurt or are being hurt—perhaps even by me.
I’m always impressed with those of African heritage (all over the world) who join the church because I realize the odds they have to overcome to do so, and to think that they may feel the way this sweet lady feels truly, truly hurts.
Prejudice of any kind, be it against race, religion, politics, beauty or body size, is a heavy burden both for those who face it and for those who carry it. Prejudice clouds our view, destroys freedom, obscures truth, and stunts the progress of our soul and that of others.
As I was feeling weighed down in the thoughts I’ve just laid out, I took my children to the park and began pushing them on the swings. They each wanted to be pushed higher and higher.
I could see their little faces pressed forward into the wind and could almost feel their same sense of escape from the downward pull of gravity. Their soaring little bodies looked so free and I found myself wishing for freedom from my own prejudices, where the facts or the people are allowed to speak for themselves. I know I don’t have that. I know I’m burdened with prejudice and biases and that my vision is clouded by them.
Is a bias/prejudice-free world achievable? I don’t know, because each of us acquires biases as a natural byproduct of mortality and all of us suffer from these biases to a lesser or greater extent. And each of us carries the resultant sorrows, sometimes quietly hidden, until something triggers their outflow.
Can we ever achieve a state where we view each other and ourselves with an unbiased eye? Where we truly see each other as God sees us? I have to hope it’s possible.