“Aerobics of the Heart,” Ensign, Sept. 1986, 62
Aerobics of the Heart
Losing yourself in the service of others can give your heart quite a workout.
The scene was a doorway. Visits begin and end in doorways, and this visit was ending. The hour the two women had spent together had left each more prepared for the day. The visitor got into her automobile, started the motor, and drove several yards along the curb. Then abruptly she stopped the car and hurried back up the sidewalk. “I forgot something!” She took two hands in hers and whispered an urgent message: “I love you!” In an instant she was gone, leaving the woman in the doorway bouyed up not only for the day but for a lifetime in which to enjoy the memory of that startling moment.
The scene was a doctor’s office. The young mother expecting her fourth child in a few months had just been told she had a malignancy that should be removed immediately, despite danger to the unborn child. Of course she could delay the surgery, but doing so might increase danger to herself.
She and her husband prayed: What should she do? Hurry, an answer, please! They pleaded—and waited. There was no voice, no clear reply. Finally, she and her husband reached deep into the reservoirs of faith that had already sustained them day by day through smaller tests and found just enough courage to decide, for the sake of the baby, to wait.
The scene was a sacrament meeting. At the pulpit stood a paradox. For nineteen years she had prayed, taught, planned, worried, and felt bubbles of joy over the young man seated behind her. For nineteen years his full-time mission had been in the harbor of her mind. Yet there she stood, tears falling, fear rising. How could she let him go? Why had she encouraged him toward loneliness and slammed doors? The pain of his going was just slightly less than the earlier pain of his maybe not going. What if the challenges of his mission were too difficult? What if he got a lazy companion? What if he ruined all his white shirts in his first laundromat? What if there were no laundromat? What if no one would listen?
The essence of gospel-centered womanhood lies in our concern and love for those about us. Although our paths wind through individual circumstances, when it comes to such aerobics of the heart, we understand each other. Each of us is the visitor who knows that however demanding and full our lives are, we must reach out to others beyond the family. Each of us is the expectant mother who understands that sometimes faith brings clear answers, but sometimes only the courage to push back fears for ourselves long enough to sacrifice for someone else. Each of us is the missionary’s mother with threads of responsibility for her family woven through every heartbeat. We fear for our children when they meet difficulty, and when they do not.
Yes, we see ourselves in the experiences of such women in the outward reaching of their lives, and there we find verification of ourselves. From that increased understanding, we seek to identify our own roles. The complex, troubled world in which we live insists upon it.
Daily, women hear various interpretations of who they are and what they must do. This attention may be past due and deserved, but it can also be intimidating to women who realize that sometimes it contradicts revealed truth. We frequently encounter cynicism about the holiness of motherhood and wifehood, and about priesthood leadership in our homes. We are coaxed to believe that to be happy we must assert certain rights and fulfill certain needs. We are even told what those needs and rights are that we must satisfy to be happy.
Of course we welcome solutions to the problems women face. Life is a challenge. Where husbands are concerned, no matter how magnificent they are, the honeymoon has probably entered a more realistic era of understanding and misunderstanding. Where children are concerned, there are surely days with that teenager or two-year-old when we feel that we are living in the eye of the storm. Where the gospel is concerned, of course it is true; but like the lady salmon, we swim not with the current but upstream. And always the more progress we make, the more growing there is to do.
There are days when, like every other mortal, women cling to the iron rod with both hands for spiritual survival. But usually we must proceed with only a single hand grasping the rod because with the other we must change a diaper, fix a meal, earn a livelihood, or ward off loneliness and discouragement.
Yes, we know the nature of life, and we acknowledge the remedies offered modern women. In the midst of such complexity, how do we stay on course?
In my quiet moments—and they do come—I have thought about Eve, our first mother. We don’t know much about her, except that she is one with us as a divinely born spirit daughter of a Heavenly Father. She had a righteous, hardworking husband. She was the mother of many children. We also know that Eve was “glad” and “blessed the name of God” as she came to understand why she must leave the Garden of Eden for the rigors of mortality.
In President Joseph F. Smith’s 1913 vision of the spirit world, he gives us a later glimpse of Eve: “Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam … and our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshipped the true and living God.” (D&C 138:38–39.)
Like Eve and the generations of daughters President Smith saw in her company, we want to be righteous and faithful and to worship not false gods but our Father in Heaven. How do we do that? And what is worship? At first, the word suggests the more structured expressions of faith when our hearts turn heavenward during prayer, scripture study, and the sacrament. It is easy to visualize Eve on her knees.
But when we think of Eve’s long life beside Adam, we know somehow that prayer, study, and reverence were only a part of her devotion to God. The heartbeat of a woman’s worship is the giving of time and energy in service to others.
Opportunities, invitations, and righteous impulses to give of ourselves in service are a continuum in the committed life. True worship requires looking for opportunities, accepting invitations, and heeding impulses. The gospel of Jesus Christ offers women of any age the only lighted path through mortality. If we walk it, we arrive at a certainty about what is important, a certainty impossible in the adherence to any philosophy of the world that beckons us inward toward self-centered womanhood.
Consider Laura. The day I phoned to invite her to go to lunch with me, she was tending her grandchildren. Her husband is a bishop whose employment also requires extensive time away from home. It is not hard to imagine the demands on her from four teenagers still at home. But she is willing to take the grandchildren for a few hours, or a few days. Church callings stretch her considerable talents for teaching and leading. Neighbors love and admire Laura and are not afraid to ask for her artistic touch on those special occasions she handles so well.
What an ideal target for rescue Laura would make for the worshippers of false gods! As she spends her hours serving others, we can almost hear concerned voices insist that her needs are not being met, that her rights have been forgotten.
Yes, Laura is often tired, always busy, caught hour by hour in a web of her own compassion and others’ needs. Her most strenuous days bring to mind the language of Joseph Smith when he charged the Early saints to “waste and wear out” their lives in bringing the gospel to the world.
Laura loves to spend snatches of free time blending patterns and colors in stunning stained-glass windows. She also enjoys books, lunch invitations, and quiet afternoons. But although her time for these pursuits is rare, Laura does not want to be rescued. She sees her web as a Charlotte’s web—beautiful, designed. If we stand a little distance from it—as the gospel enables us to do with all human experience—we see the symmetry and intricacy of that design. The focus of her life is righteousness, and her righteousness is verified and beautified by service.
Beneath the rush and weariness of Laura’s days is a heart that knows that only the joy we give to others finds its way back to us. If Laura sought first to meet her own needs, she would come away empty. Because she worships the true and living God dynamically, she stands unconfused before the false gods of the modern world.
Diane is a vibrant, friendly woman who lives outwardly. She has inspired thousands in her career as a teacher. Perhaps the heart of Diane’s worship is best demonstrated in her philosophy of teaching:
“Listen to those you teach. Don’t think about what you are going to reply; you don’t even know until you listen. Afterward, take a moment to think about and appreciate what you have heard.”
No one is more vital to the family-centered ward than a single woman such as Diane who, although she occasionally feels at the edge of a sermon or an activity, is more concerned with others’ needs than with her own.
Whenever the Relief Society president picks up the phone to ask Margaret and Edna to take in a meal, visit someone, or perform other compassionate services, she does so confidently. She knows that these widowed sisters who share a home will gladly do whatever she asks. They attend their meetings, strengthen the singles’ program of their ward with their total participation, and ignore chronic health limitations that could become good reasons to do less. But most important, to those in need they are constantly available and consistently good-natured. Of course their acts of kindness often are not easy or convenient. Like so many other LDS women, Edna and Margaret have had their days scrambled by a call for help. But they never seem inconvenienced or overasked. Their worship is built on service.
President Kimball has said, “Service to others deepens and sweetens this life while we are preparing to live in a better world. It is by serving that we learn how to serve. When we are engaged in the service of our fellowmen, not only do our deeds assist them, but we put our own problems in a fresher perspective. When we concern ourselves more with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves. In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves!
“Not only do we ‘find’ ourselves in terms of acknowledging divine guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. We become more significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!” (Ensign, Oct. 1985, p. 3.)
The worldly philosophies about women today suggest priorities such as equality, beauty, opportunity, freedom, fulfillment, and happiness. These goals certainly do not contradict our hopes as LDS women. They have been an integral part of the gospel from the beginning.
Equality reminds us that we are daughters of heavenly parents and that ultimately we can be like them. True beauty is a reflection of the Holy Spirit that can be visible in our countenances. Our greatest opportunity as women will always be to do good, and our most significant freedom the freedom from sin and selfishness. We are fulfilled as we expand our lives to fill the measure of our creation. If we run after happiness we will never catch it. But it will come to us more and more as we righteously pursue a life of caring about and caring for others.