When I was in high school, probably around my junior or senior year, I was given an opportunity to choose a PE credit. Dance was not my thing and swimming meant that I had to get ready all over again after class. For me, weightlifting seemed the best bet. I was a super competitive athlete and could benefit from some added strength. And as a bonus, there were probably about 20 guys in there and only a few girls. The odds weren’t bad.
On my first day of class, Coach Hunter introduced all of us to each other. There were a variety of athletes, including several beefy football players. But there were a few who had probably never set foot on a court or field in their life, let alone pick up a barbell. The goal of our class was to improve, to become better, stronger. Coach Hunter put us each on the bench press, standing above us to spot us. He wrote down how much we could bench press on his clipboard. For some, lifting the 45 lb bar alone was too much. For others, a few massive plates at the end of the bar maxed them out. Everyone was different.
Every week, we did exercises to push ourselves. Every week, Coach put us back on the bench press to check on our progress. I was in the middle of the pack. I could lift more than some of the other scrawny girls but was nowhere near what the football linemen could lift. Every week, I improved. And I found that I enjoyed it, more than I ever expected. It was hard, but by the end of the semester, I could almost lift my body weight.
So how does story from two decades ago relate to all of us? You might not have ever been in Coach Hunter’s class. That’s totally fine. But you did make a choice.
Before we came to this earth, our Heavenly Father gave us two options. 1) We could choose to follow God’s plan, which meant that we agreed to become perfected through overcoming challenges placed in our lives. We needed to improve in order to pass the test. The goal was to grow closer to Him and become as He is. Or, 2) We could have chosen to follow another’s path, one in which force, and not agency, dominated. I hate being forced. I can picture myself with my hands on my hips, wagging my tongue about how much I hate being told what to do. I’m not sure how easy that decision was for me at the time, but I’d like to think that it might have been as easy as choosing between a dance class and weightlifting.
So, here we are, October 31, 2021. We’ve forgotten most of the details from the time before this earth life. We’re navigating our days based on faith, with only the word of God to guide us through the rough patches. We knew there would be heartache. We knew it might not be easy. Still, we agreed to become perfected through hard trials.
Like you, there have been times when I’ve been weighed down by the difficult things I’ve had to endure. Many times, I have trouble bouncing back. I stress out to the point that my shoulders tense up, creating knots that trigger headaches and insomnia. At its worst, my hair and eyelashes fall out, and I’m gasping through my anxiety attacks, silently counting, reminding myself to breathe normally. At those times I wonder why I chose this particular path. I worry that I’m not improving. My worst fear is that I’m not doing enough. That I’m not enough. When I look around me, around this room, my friends on social media, the other parents in the carpool at school or the line at the store, I catch myself thinking, “Wow, I’m botching all of this! Everyone else seems to have it all figured out.”
Have you ever caught yourself feeling that way?
At a particularly rough patch about five years ago, nothing seemed to be going well. An unhealthy mindset consumed me. As I prayed for answers these words from Elder Cornish (of the Seventy) stood out to me: “Please, my beloved brothers and sisters, we must stop comparing ourselves to others. We torture ourselves needlessly by competing and comparing. We falsely judge our self-worth by the things we do or don’t have and by the opinions of others. If we must compare, let us compare how we were in the past to how we are today—and even to how we want to be in the future. The only opinion of us that matters is what our Heavenly Father thinks of us. Please sincerely ask Him what He thinks of you. He will love and correct but never discourage us; that is Satan’s trick” (Elder Devn Cornish, “Am I Good Enough? Will I Make It,” Conference, October 2016).
I try to remember the tender feelings I felt from such a direct answer. I try to remember Coach Hunter and his clipboard. It would have been easy for him to write a number on the top, circle it in red, and let that be the benchmark for the entire class. If all of us could not lift that number by the end of the class, we’d fail. He didn’t do that. The amount that I could lift surpassed what others could do, and yet, I was nowhere near what the football players could lift. How sad it would have been to have an unreachable standard, a one-size-fits-all number for all our different body types and capacities.
Coach Hunter understood that. He compared where I was at that moment to where I used to be. So does our Heavenly Father. We were all born into unique family situations with challenges tailor-made for our strengths and weaknesses. Our personalities differ. Our opportunities to learn and improve vary from one corner of the world to another. Though we are all God’s children, and we all want to return to Him someday, there is no one-size-fits-all standard for everyone.
So, what does the Lord expect of us?
Cecil O. Samuelson said: “Let me assure you that you are literal sons and daughters of our loving Heavenly Father, who knows you and cares about you. This you must not only know but must never forget. If you always do your best with realistic expectations and understanding of both your strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to be an important part of this great work” (“What does it mean to be perfect,” New Era, January 2006).
Do your best. I’ve heard this before. The perfectionist in me tends to take a quote like President Samuelson’s and zero in on the “do your best” part. It’s not always comforting. I hope it’s not just me. It hits me with the same sense of foreboding as the scripture in Matthew 5 that says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” For me, my best is an impossibly high standard. Probably unreachable. Flawless. In my mind, the counsel to “Do your best” feels daunting and overwhelming on my own.
But that’s not what he said. He promised that “if you do your best WITH REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS AND UNDERSTANDING…, you will be able to be an important part of this great work.”
So, what is your best?
Let’s go back to lifting weights. For funsies, I googled, “How much does an average woman bench press?” Well, the answer depends on her circumstances. How old is she? How much does she weigh? Is she beginner, intermediate, or elite level? What is her health or fitness level? Even then, it didn’t give me a solid answer. It gave me a range of possibilities.
What if “doing your best” isn’t one answer circled in red at the top of a clipboard? Even if I am comparing myself to a past version of me, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for me. Our best might even change every day. My best effort when I have a stomach bug is different from my best effort with a healthy body. My best effort when I’m facing a deadline or finals is different from my best effort on a chore-filled Saturday. My best effort with a colicky baby is different than my best effort with an absent husband during the middle of the week. Have I slept the night before? Have I had any time to recharge my battery? Am I grieving? Am I lonely? Am I hungry? So many factors influence our level of “best.”
Also, it’s not an either/or thing. It’s not one side or the other. Please don’t ever think that if you’re not doing your best, you’re failing. I’ve been there. My inner critic has called me a failure many times. It’s so sad, but I know it’s not just me. I hear it so often in conversations all around me. “I am falling so far short. I’m not measuring up. I’m not enough.” Or some version of it. #momfail #Pinterestfail. I hear it during book groups, play groups, church lessons, meetings with teachers, social media threads, from the celebrities on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and even in the scriptures, Nephi declares, “O wretched man that I am!” Why are we so quick to declare ourselves failures? To think less of ourselves? I did it this week. Really, is my forgetting to bring trick or treat bags for my kids to the ward trunk or treat—is that a true failure of a mom? And really, are we failures?
Yes, we’re imperfect. We’re human! But as Elder Holland says, “As children of God, we should not demean or vilify ourselves, as if beating up on ourselves is somehow going to make us the person God wants us to become. No! With a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness always in our hearts, I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually,” Conference, October 2017).
I borrow President Hinckley’s words to speak to all of us here in this room, on the virtual broadcast, to those seated behind me, to those out of town, and to the critic inside myself:
“Please don’t nag yourself with thoughts of failure. Do not set goals far beyond your capacity to achieve. Simply do what you can do, in the best way you know, and the Lord will accept of your effort” (“Rise to the Stature of the Divine within You,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 96).
My 4 Tips:
· Give your best effort and be satisfied when you do. So what if it’s not as good as someone else? The Lord will accept it.
· It’s okay if you make a mistake. You move on and see your mistake as an opportunity for growth and learning. The Lord will accept that mindset.
· Rely on the Savior’s help through His Atonement to improve “line upon line.” He’s there to help us every little step of the way, not just wait for us at the finish line. Since he knows every detail of our circumstances and phase of life, the Lord accepts a hand stretched out to him, however imperfect and incomplete that person might be.
· Heavenly Father loves it when you try, really try. He loves effort. But above all else, He loves you, more than you will ever know. If there is anything that should be circled in red at the top of a clipboard, it is that.
I testify that God lives. He and His Son, Jesus Christ, want to help us succeed and improve. They’ve provided ways for us to overcome and return to live with them again. Even if I still struggle with my own doubts, I do not doubt Them. I cannot wait for the day I can be reunited with them again.
(Chani Barlow, a talk given during a sacrament meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Sunday, October 31, 2021, North Las Vegas, NV)