Tuesday, May 20, 2014

WWE - Tragic Optimism in Mormonism

Steel Magnolias is a favorite of my mother's--along with Big Business and Overboard--and one of the most consistent sources for her movie quotes (my family tends to communicate in movie quotes). It also features one of the best examples of what not to say to someone grieving. Following the funeral for the daughter she lost to diabetes-related kidney failure, M'Lynn (Sally Field) is joined by several of her friends at the grave site. Annelle (Darryl Hannah), the newest and most awkward of the group, says, "Miss M'Lynn, it should make you feel a lot better that Shelby is with her King...We should all be rejoicin'!" Irritated (and rightfully so), M'Lynn snaps back, "Well, you go on ahead! I'm sorry if I don't feel like it, I guess I'm a little selfish. I'd rather have her here." A little taken back and perhaps a bit embarrassed, Annelle replies,

Miss M'Lynn, I don't mean to upset you by sayin' that. It's just that when somethin' like this happens, I pray very hard to make heads or tails of it. And I think that in Shelby's case, she just wanted to take care of that little baby, and of you, of everybody she knew. And her poor little body was just worn out. It just wouldn't let her do all the things she wanted to. So she went on to a place where she could be a guardian angel. She will always be young, she will always be beautiful. And I personally feel much safer knowin' that she's up there on my side. It may sound real simple and stupid and...well maybe I am, but, that's how I get through things like this.

There are a lot of I's in this paragraph. Anelle is focused on her good intentions ("I don't mean to upset you...") rather than the way M'Lynn feels. She is worried about herself making sense of it and feeling better about it rather than grieving with M'Lynn. She is worried about herself "getting through things like this" instead of M'Lynn getting through it. M'Lynn's eventual response is a charitable one, but it is followed by the famous breakdown scene.

Personally, I would rather take a swipe at Anelle for missing the point of mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort. Tragedy is not only a part of life, but plays a major role in scripture and Mormon history. Even though there are reasons for optimism, I fear we sometimes put on a fake smile and provide cheap rhetoric instead of truly engaging the good, bad, and ugly of the world. Mormons needs a fresh sense of what Viktor Frankl called "tragic optimism." This is the topic of one of my more recent Worlds Without End posts. When tragedy strikes, I hope that we can have enough sense to avoid the whole "all is well in Zion because we have the great Plan of Happiness." Instead, maybe we should do what Christ actually did: 

"Jesus wept" (John 11:35).


  1. Thank you, son. (Do I add a movie quote now???)