It is human nature to always think of ourselves as “right” and others as “wrong.” In addition to this natural overconfidence, Mormons also have the witness of the Holy Ghost, which we accept as additional evidence that our views are even more right, and others are even more wrong. While I too have felt the witness of the Holy Ghost confirm various truths of the gospel as defined by Mormons, I am hesitant to use this witness as a measure by which to dismiss differing views. If God confirms something as true to me, does that mean that it is also true for everyone else, in every other case and time?
Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods has a beautiful song called “No One is Alone.” It is sung towards the end of the musical by Cinderella to Little Red Riding Hood who is crying because her grandmother was smashed by a giant. She wants to kill the giant in revenge, but Cinderella tries to coax her into adopting a more nuanced, forgiving approach. The lyrics teach a profound lesson about our faulty perspectives and judgements. I’d like to analyze the song using the example of our recent discussions of Kate Kelly and the unkind judgements heaped upon Wendy Watson’s book Not Even Once.
Mother cannot guide you.
Now you’re on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you’re not alone.
No one is alone,
Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.
People make mistakes.
People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.
Honor their mistakes…
Fight for their mistakes-
Witches can be right,
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right,
You decide what’s good.
Someone is on your side.
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side-
Maybe we forgot:
They are not alone.
No one is alone.
“You Decide What is Good”
One of the great paradoxes of the gospel is that although we are given free agency to choose good or evil, most of the time those who choose evil honestly think they are really choosing good. When we make a wrong choice which we honestly thought was good, Elder Oaks describes this as “a mistake” which is not on the same level as a sin. It was generous and wise of Elder Oaks to make this distinction, but it is not one we usually make. If someone chooses a path different from the one we “know” is right, we usually judge them as sinning, as deliberately choosing darkness over light. But the reality is that most choices in life are not as self-evident as we make them out to be. How do we know that those who disagree with us are not acting according to the best of their knowledge? What evidence do we have that they are acting with evil intent?
I argued in a previous post that “the road to Hell is NOT paved with good intentions.” If someone makes a wrong choice, but does so with good intentions, the person will be judged by those intentions, not by the wrong choice. Is Kate Kelly being true to what she honestly feels is right? Is Wendy Watson in her preaching of “Not Even Once?” I believe so, and therefore I see them as both executing their duty to God in an honorable way, and I believe God judges them based on their differing perspectives, not some kind of universal measure.
“Honor Their Mistakes, One Another’s Terrible Mistakes”
In this tumult of opinions and shades of grey, “people make mistakes.” Sondheim adds this profound injunction: “Honor their mistakes, fight for their mistakes, one another’s terrible mistakes.” This resonates with our LDS belief in the importance of free agency. God says “I will not command in all things.” Trial and error is an essential part of the mortal experience, in spite of our tendency to sometimes see things in the gospel as simple and absolute.
“Witches Can Be Right, Giants Can Be Good”
Elsewhere in “Into the Woods,” the witch asks Little Red Riding Hood, “how many wolves have you killed?” to which she replies, “A wolf is not the same as a human.” The witch then retorts, “ask a wolf’s mother.”
It is true that a wolf is not the same as a human. According to the laws of men and God, we can rightfully kill a wolf, but not a fellow human. But the wolf does not live according to the same laws as we do. The wolf’s law says: “you can kill a human.” We often forget this. Even within our own species, people are living according to different laws, laws which God Himself as given them, according to their various times and cultures. Paul said, “For he (the Roman leader) is God’s minister unto thee for good.”
Kate Kelly is following a law of Mormonism which embraces all truth, including humanist and democratic truth, and seeks to circumscribe all these truths into one great whole. Wendy Watson in “Not Even Once” is following the correlated law of Mormonism which believes in preaching a more black and white version of the gospel to children, who must have “milk before meat.” If this is the law and the perspective God has given these two women, who are we to judge them as having lost their way?
“No One Is Alone”
I don’t know if Sondheim meant to evoke God when he wrote “no one is alone.” He probably meant that no one is alone because we all share the same predicament of having to choose within the darkness of the woods. But I like to think that Sondheim was also imagining some kind of universal benevolence which supports all of us in our decisions and even our mistakes.
I believe that God sometimes fights on both sides of the battlefield, alongside the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Confederate and the Union soldiers. There is something so much greater than our wars and differences: our humanity, our divinity, and our right to make choices and mistakes. In all this, God is with us. No one is alone.
- Should we “honor” the mistakes of others as positive manifestations of the purpose of life?
- Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions?
- How do we know if we are really right and others are really wrong?
- Could both Kate Kelly and Wendy Watson be right in God’s eyes, though their views contradict?