My parents lost a three-year-old son five months before my birth. I was born with a white hat on my head, assigned the role of cheering everyone up. Negative feelings, thoughts, or behaviors were not in my job description. Since I had a naturally cheery disposition, much of my new role was comfortable. Later, when the white hat became heavy I still saw it as part of my identity. As a girl I was always quite indignant if anyone forgot for a single moment that I was the “good guy.” I even had my principal in high school convinced I always wore the white hat. It was the teacher that kicked me out of class, not me, that was viewed with suspicion. (and rightly so! I was being good, as usual!)
Much later in life, when I divorced, it was easy for me to see my spouse’s part in the problems, but hard for me to recognize my own part. Unfortunately, this tendency is the norm in divorce situations. I’ve observed that even those who haven’t laid claim to the white hat previously, grab it when divorce occurs.
Divorce and the Black Hat
Divorce typifies the white hat/ black hat scenario. Ironically, no matter what the divorce situation is, both spouses are likely to see themselves as the wearer of the white hat. Each one can find oh, so many reasons to assign the black hat to the other person. When Jim and Eleanor (not their real names) divorced, each gathered supporters who agreed with his or her assessment that the other person was totally to blame for the failure of the marriage. Such an assessment is never fair or accurate. Jim and Eleanor created great polarization among their friends, in their family, extended families, and even ward family as they insisted that people “take sides” with one or the other of them. Nobody won, and the children felt torn between the parents, always feeling they were betraying one or the other.
Is it possible to avoid this “black hat” tendency? The very nature of divorce seems to require gathering negative data about the other and suppressing positive. How else can divorce be “justified” in the mind of either spouse? The spiritual dangers of such a scenario abound. I would like to address only one of them in this article.
Choice and Consequences?
My most serious dilemma in regard to my divorce was spiritual. I believed I had paid the price and not gotten the rewards. I was crushed by my divorce partly because I was incredulous–how could this be happening to me–the good guy, the one who always tried to do what was right? When you do what is right, you are supposed to end up happy, right? I had tried my very best, but in the end my best wasn’t good enough. Was I flawed in some unfixable way, or didn’t the “reap what you sow” law really work? I determined for a time that there was no connection between effort and result because I had worn myself to a frazzle doing all the “right” things, and what did it get me?
Peace came only when I relinquished the white hat. I learned that one of the most damaging patterns of divorce was pointing the finger of blame. As long as I was determined to make him “wrong” I was unable to see my own faults or find any resolution spiritually. Since I couldn’t repent of his sins or weaknesses, how could I make sense of what was happening or make anything better? My dilemma was increased because both my former husband and I retained our temple recommends and stayed fully active in the Church. There was no easy explanation for our failure, and it was hard for each of us to find data to make the other the “bad guy.” But we still succeeded at it in our own minds. On my part I had no trouble listing a multitude of things I thought he should have been doing and was not doing (all things I was doing, or at least would have been willing to do if he had just cooperated!)
The Light Begins to Dawn
I was “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I only began to see the light as I turned to the Lord with greater intensity and became more aware of my own weaknesses instead of focusing on his. (Ether 12:27) I found my need for the Savior–every hour–so much greater than I had suspected. Many sisters have told me of “ah hah! experiences” similar to mine. Let me share one with you.
One very religious woman, devastated by her divorce, prayed with all her heart for understanding. She asked the Lord repeatedly, “What did I do to deserve this? Wasn’t I the one trying to set a good example for the children, keeping all the commandments? Wasn’t I the one going to the temple, reading my scriptures, never missing a meeting? Wasn’t I the one willing to have Family Home Evening and family scripture study and family prayer? (Sounds a lot like the prayer of the Pharisee telling the Lord all his virtues, doesn’t it?)
The Lord’s reply to her was simply: “Weren’t you the one judging your husband?”
The second verse of the hymn, “Lord, I would follow Thee” p. 220, came to her mind,
“Who am I to judge another When I walk imperfectly? In the quiet heart is hidden Sorrow that the eye can’t see. Who am I to judge another? Lord, I would follow thee.”
Little by little she began realizing that she had contributed to the problems by her self-righteous, judgmental attitude. Her heart was softened, and she was able to let go of her accusations and begin working to strengthen herself spiritually.
Relinquish the White Hat but Don’t Grab the Black One
Taking a share of the responsibility for the outcome doesn’t mean blaming ourselves for someone else’s choices. I’m not suggesting that we grab the black hat and think that everything would have been fine if we had only been more perfect. Remember, it is the codependent who says “It’s all my fault.” The humble follower of Christ says, “Lord, help me see what part is mine, what part is theirs.”
Another friend was reminded by the Lord through heart-felt prayers that she was accountable only for her own choices. She said, “When the Lord sits down with me at the judgment seat He is not going to say, ‘Did you do all you could to improve your husband’s choices?’ No, He will ask me about my own choices.” From then on she was able to focus more on what she could control–improving her own spirituality so she could feel the Lord’s healing love.
The Relief of Sorting it All Out
Where did all these new conclusions about my own accountability leave me? With something definable to repent of. I am not a victim. I am where I am because of every choice I have made in the past. Those choices could take me nowhere else than where I am today. I can repent of those choices based on ignorance or pride and make better choices in the future. I don’t have to stay stuck in self-contempt and disappointment.
Appropriate guilt is like a smoke alarm that awakens me to danger so I can do what needs to be done. The alarm is not meant to go on and on and drown out all of life’s joys. It is the Lord’s desire that I turn and live–not that I endlessly suffer.
I have had my faith restored that there is a definable connection between choice and consequences, effort and outcome. I suffered the consequences of prideful white hat wearing and of buying into the checklist mentality. I really believed in my previous life that if I tried hard enough and did enough good deeds and had enough righteous accomplishments on my resume that I should attain the position of peace and joy in the ideal family. Much of what I wanted and still want is only available in the Celestial world. Its attainment is still possible–but not in mortality.
Gift or Punishment: I Choose
In my idealistic youth I only wanted the happy, lovely side of life. I had to learn that mortality is to teach us about opposites–pleasure and pain, light and darkness, health and sickness. I can’t have knowledge if I only know the one side. God’s plan is perfect, and God’s plan includes all the opposition. In aligning myself with the Savior in the pre-existence, I chose to grow; I chose to go through the trials and tribulations of mortality in order to have the opportunity to become more like God.
So has divorce been a punishment for my ignorant choices, or a gift of growth? I choose. “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). I love Him, so I can choose to look for the gifts. I am like a woman standing in a fertile field. I have planted and sown. Under the obvious layer of dirt are rainbow colors of possibilities. There are so many things I can grow and I have only just begun.
Counselor Ed McCormack suggested that my life after divorce has been full of paradox and irony. It reminded him of Neal Maxwell’s remark that “Irony is the crust on the bread of adversity.” It is an irony and a paradox that divorce has inspired my deepest spiritual yearnings, and so is having a saving influence upon me. Brother McCormack said, “Only the members of the Godhead are deep enough and wise enough to account for all these things. In the beginning, when all of this was foreknown to them, they did make a necessary and sufficient provision, which was, ‘We will provide a Savior for them, as we counselled in the beginning.’ So, though all is not yet finished, ‘All is well.'”
Feeling the Savior’s Love
More than a decade after my divorce how could I summarize what I have learned and continue to learn? Purpose in pain, trust in the Lord no matter what, the reality of the Atonement and the Lord’s love for us, the necessity of constant soul-searching and repentance, compassion and empathy for the pain of every other human being. Would I give up all I’ve learned if I could have the “intact family” instead? No. I wish I could have learned all these things an easier way, but they are the most valuable lessons of my life. My heart is full of gratitude for the hard times and for the lessons that have brought me to bare-headed humility instead of hat wearing. God lives. The Savior’s love is magnificently strong and His ability to reach and heal our hearts is beyond human comprehension.