The American dream – or at least, my interpretation of the American dream – is that if a person works hard enough, then that work will lead them to a better life. And by that standard, Mormonism is intrinsically American. I grew up with the idea that if I worked hard enough, then the blessings of Heaven were available to me. I grew up in a religion that placed an emphasis on good works and deeds. An oft-quoted scripture verse during my childhood, taken out of the Book of Mormon, was the verse 3 Nephi 12:16
"Therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven"
Within the Mormon faith, good works have adopted a very standard definition. As a teenager, good works meant following the Word of Wisdom, obeying the morality guidelines, and participating in all of the activities expected of the youth. As a teenager, I worked on projects for the Young Womens’ association, I attended a daily scripture study in the hour before school started, and I attended weekly youth activities. As a girl, my life’s path was drawn out for me – marriage in the temple to a worthy Mormon male, child-rearing, home-making, church callings, and regular worship. All of the lessons in church prepared me for the future I was expected to take up. The men also had parallel lives sketched out for them – college, full-time missionary work, marriage, church callings, career, and the day-to-day demands of Mormonism. When Mormons grow into adulthood, the idea of good works is expanded to include temple marriage, family, church callings, and tithing. When Mormons go through their endowment ceremony – an expected rite of passage – they swear an oath to consecrate everything to the Lord.
The good works portion of Mormonism is time-consuming, more so than many people realize. Positions within the Mormon Church are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers, all of whom have their day jobs to perform. In addition to their volunteer work, members are expected to tithe 10% of their income, perform regular temple work, raise large families, pray and read their scriptures regularly, and attend a variety of church activities. In return for fulfilling all of these obligations, the leaders have promised many blessings. Growing up, my elders taught me that the only road to true happiness was found within the Mormon Church.
There is both beauty and virtue in hard work. Hard work has led me to accomplish many things in my life. However, hard work cannot fix everything - hard work cannot change the fundamentals of a person’s personality or undo the random variations of luck. And sometimes, what is thought of as being broken is not, in fact, anything that needs to be changed. I grew up with the sense that I was flawed, simply because I did not conform to the ideals of Mormon womanhood. I was not gentle or motherly or sympathetic or good with household duties. The thought of a lifetime of homemaking and rearing a huge family filled me a sense of helpless terror. I did not possess any of the traits that were expected of a good virtuous Mormon girl.The fact that I did not conform to the ideals of Mormonism meant that I grew up thinking that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I tried to be faithful, to prepare myself for a future that did not fit who I was but that I was assured was God’s plan for me. I acknowledge that I have many flaws; I am stubborn and oblivious to the social cues that other people navigate with ease. But working to change the fundamentals of my personality – the part of me that sensed that the future sketched out for me by my religious leaders was not the right future for me – is a battle that is both futile and unnecessary.