Hi, my name is Kris. I’m a spouse, a parent, a college student, and a Mormon. Oh, and I’m transgender. I’m pretty ordinary, but even ordinary people have a story to tell.
I had the opportunity to speak the Women’s March at Provo. Here is my speech:
It is wonderful to be here today. I am honored to be among such incredible, knowledgable, passionate people. My name is Kris Irvin. I am 33 years old and have lived here in Utah most of my life. I have been married to my husband Nate for 13 years. Our son, Toby, is about to turn 12. I love to read, to be on Twitter, and write. I am passionate about many things, but the biggest passions in my life right now are opossums (come talk to me afterwards for a possum fact) and LGBTQ+ rights.
See, I am transgender. If we are getting technical, I am a transmasculine nonbinary person. What that means is that I don’t strongly identify with being either male or female, though I skew more towards masculinity. Regardless, I don’t fit the gender binary.
I have struggled with gender dysphoria my entire life. But I didn’t know how to talk about it with anyone. I went to therapists while I was growing up and danced around the topic. I admitted to a church leader that I had been pretending to be a boy for months in Star Wars chatrooms online and I was terrified this was some great sin, so when I confessed and he laughed at me, I was confused. When I went to doctors, I didn’t know that I could talk to them about how i felt inside.
Imagine, then, how relieved I felt when I found doctors who did listen. It took me until I was 28 to find that, but I was so relieved to find a doctor who knew what dysphoria was. Who understood why I was so excited when I had a hysterectomy. Who gave me ideas on how to relieve that. It was hard to find medical providers, especially here in Utah, who could help me with transgender related issues. The doctors I did find had 3-9 month waits to get in to see them. In the end I decided to pursue top surgery. (Top surgery means a double mastectomy, for those who don’t know.) I felt that I could be okay with my body, that my dysphoria would lessen the most, if I had top surgery.
Only one problem: my insurance did not cover top surgery. It did not cover transgender related healthcare of any kind. So if I wanted top surgery, I would have to raise between $5-7,000 to pay for it out of pocket. At the time I was a full-time student at BYU, the parent of a 9 year old spitfire, and I could not work outside the home because I have chronic illnesses that make that difficult to impossible. But I set up a GoFund me for half the amount of top surgery. I thought if I could raise half, maybe I could somehow work for the other half.
Miraculously, I was able to fulfill my goal in October of 2018. As I started researching surgeons in the area (and there are not very many,) I started hearing rumors about my insurance changing to allow certain trans-related healthcare needs in 2019. I cannot tell you how fast I jumped on that train—I immediately emailed Erin Evans, a nurse advocate for transgender people seeking gender affirming surgeries and other related needs. Erin told me that there were certain requirements, like I needed to go on testosterone for a year.
I was discouraged. I didn’t want to go on testosterone. My husband didn’t want me to go on testosterone. I wondered if I should give up altogether. But there was hope! Because I came out in 2015 and had been living ‘as myself’ since then, the insurance was willing to help pay for my top surgery. They later ended up doing away with the hormone therapy rule. I was able to have top surgery done in July of 2019. It was performed by June Chen. It felt like—and still feels like—a miracle. I no longer have the crushing depression I was desperately trying to survive. I look forward to life—to living! I’ve become an optimistic person, which is just weird.
But looking back, it is so frustrating how difficult it was to get approved for surgery. Like I’m already tired all the time, and recounting that whole experience is retroactively exhausting. But I am so grateful that my insurance did have transgender healthcare coverage. Most insurances do not cover transgender healthcare of any kind. They explicitly exclude transgender people and discourage them from seeking life-saving medical treatment.
My insurance required that I be seeing a mental health provider for over 18 months. I also had to prove that I had been seeing the same general practitioner for 18 months. I was asked to get a letter from both parties saying that they approved me for surgery. Because I have had seizures in the past, I had to have my neurologist write a letter approving me for surgery.
People argue that it shouldn’t be easy to get gender-affirming healthcare. It’s almost like society tries to discourage the dysphoria right out of us by blocking our access to medical care that will affirm who we truly are. Bad news for those folks though. It’s not going to work. You can’t block off dysphoria. There’s no way to just “turn it off.” it’a painful and it’s always present. Sometimes you can alleviate dysphoria—and that’s what top surgery did for me. I no longer feel depression regarding my gender. I feel a lot less depression over all. If top surgery can change my life this much I can only imagine what it can do for others. And in fact I know so many other trans people who have transitioned with hormones, or who have chosen not to do that and pursued surgical options instead. I have never met a transgender person who regrets how they’ve approached transgender medical care. I know a friend who has had complications with one surgery that have put him in the hospital 8 times for corrective surgeries. He comes out smiling and happy every time because he’s finally living the life he’s always wanted. He is finally fully himself. I know there are some who do regret transitioning, and I feel for them, but it’s frustrating that their stories are used against us constantly. We are each on our own path and it’s time we all learn to respect that.
But transgender healthcare accessibility is under attack. Bills are popping up all over the United States proposing to block treatments for transgender kids felonies. Just the other day one popped up here in Utah, proposed by Rep. Brad Daw of Utah county. It proposes to make it illegal to treat a transgender child with hormone blockers. For the record, transgender healthcare for kids almost always consists of hormone blockers first, so the child has a bit more time before their bodies start changing. This extra window gives them a chance to decide if they want to take testosterone or estrogen before those hormones start flowing through them normally and leaving changes that may be unwanted. For older teenagers, doctors may allow them to start hormone replacement therapy. But as for surgery? You MUST be 18. So most of these bills that are proposed are useless. That said, Chase Strangio of the ACLU says that the proposals are still harmful. “Even when bills like these are defeated, the proposals themselves are harmful and send a message that trans people are an appropriate target of government discrimination,” he said. “They lead to our rights and bodies being debated in the public domain in ways that compromise our health and sense of worth and basic dignity.”
For whatever reason, some people don’t want gender nonconforming people to have access to surgeries or medications that can literally save lives. 31% of transgender people lack access to healthcare at all, because it’s harder for transgender people to find health care coverage, because it’s harder for them to find jobs. Social stigmas aside, consider the difficulty of getting hired if your gender does not appear to match the one on your legal ID. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Study, transgender people face an unemployment rate three times as high as the national average — 15 percent versus 5 percent.
The U.S. Transgender Survey found that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes. But there is a dramatic reduction in those attempts when people have access to gender affirming healthcare. Treating trans people like people isn’t hard! But among transgender individuals who were refused gender-affirming care, 62% reported experiencing suicidal thoughts, and 14.4% attempted suicide, according a report published this year by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law.
We must do our best to destigmatize affirmative healthcare for transgender people. It’s hard sometimes to know what to do and how to help. But let me suggest that you firmly vote against any bill or proposition that vilifies transgender people. Vote for healthcare initiatives that are affirmative and inclusive. And one small thing that I do now—when I was in the ER last year, the nurse came in and asked my name. And then he asked what pronouns I use. I was so surprised and touched that I almost fell off the bed. I told him I use “they/them” pronouns and he did his absolute best to honor that the whole time I was there. It meant so much that now when I go to a doctor’s office and meet a new doctor or nurse, I straight up say “Hi, my name is Kris. I use they/them pronouns. What pronouns do you use?” That’s just a very small thing that can help fight the stigma surrounding pronouns and can lead to destigmatizing trans people in the healthcare environment.
I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. I wish trans people could get their gender-affirming surgeries easily and without jumping through so many hoops. I hope that the rising generation of gender diverse individuals are able to start hormone therapy as easily as getting antibiotics when you’re sick, or that having top surgery is as simple as walking into a plastic surgeon’s office and saying “this is what I want” and getting it done. No special letters or requirements to go through. And i hope that by the time that generation is in position to do so, our insurance companies are all required to provide financial assistance for transgender related healthcare.
One final thing about my top surgery. Fighting to get it felt like a long process. It took 8 months. That’s fairly quick in the world of top surgery. But I kept fighting for it because I was miserable. I didn’t know how much longer I could survive with so much weight on my chest that I could NEVER ignore. (Top surgery was the easiest 10 lbs I’ve ever lost by the way)
I had my surgery on July 15, 2019. Ever since that day, there is one emotion that has been my constant companion. I still get sad sometimes, and frustrated, and scared. But that one emotion quietly sits with me until I feel better. And then I get up and I try again. That emotion is hope. I have never had this much hope for the future. And as I look out into your faces, that gives me hope too. Hope for Gender-Affirming Healthcare. Hope for Transgender Acceptance. Hope for Change. Keep fighting, my friends.
It’s no secret that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I have our issues. I struggle a lot with doctrine vs policy, with how we treat people who are struggling, with how we treat people who are different.
I’ve been asked countless times: why do you stay in a church that does not, will not, cannot accept you? Why put yourself through that? What’s the point?
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a pure answer to that. I’ve said before that I want to be visible for queer youth, and that is still true. Visibility matters, and in a church that implies you are wrong for questioning your gender, it’s even more important to be present.
This is what I know: the Church may not accept me. That’s okay. There are parts of the Church I don’t particularly like. We can still get along. The Church is still my spiritual home. I will stay for as long as I’m allowed. I will be strong for those who cannot be. I will be visible for those who need to see visibility.
I am like a star, shining brightly.
President Oaks’ remarks can be found here under the subheading “President Dallin H. Oaks.”
As you know due to our correspondence last year, I am transgender. But I am not confused about my gender identity. I am eternal. I was created intentionally the way that I am, and I was created this way for a wise and glorious purpose. Christ has carried me through the agony of not knowing who I was, and He rejoices that I have that clarity of my being now.
He rejoices that since having top surgery 82 days ago, I have suffered from depression for only 3 of those days.
President Oaks, I’ve had suicidal ideation and major depressive disorder for 28 years—since I was 5. This is the first time in my life I have ever felt at peace with myself. I am not experiencing confusion. I am marveling at a clarity deeper and more pure than anything I’ve ever felt.
I pray that someday you can feel that same clarity. I pray that someday you will understand that those of us who exist outside of the gender binary are not confused. We are made this way by divine design.
President Oaks, we stand outside the door to the Church and knock. Will you let us in? Or will you have us wait outside in the harsh elements until Christ returns and opens the door for us?
Your sibling in Christ,
I love this church. I was born into it, but I’ve also gained my own testimony of many principles we are taught. Yet we are also commanded to study out things out in our minds and pray to learn if they are true. In our faith, we place a huge emphasis on personal revelation. Our church was quite literally founded on it.
I’ve said before that I don’t receive personal revelation in the way that we speak about most often in Church. For years I felt like maybe I was broken or my gender identity made me an abomination who couldn’t receive personal revelation. But occasionally, when I’m trying to make an important decision, I will be filled with a quiet calm and peacefulness. This happened when I was praying about whether or not I should marry Nate, and when I was trying to choose a major at BYU. And it has happened again as I consider top surgery. I know this peace isn’t from me—if it were just me I’d have far more nervousness than I do. What am I supposed to think? I’m confident that this must be personal revelation.
We believe that Satan cannot imitate feelings of peace or calm. So where, then, can this come from? You’ve told me before that no surgery can bring me happiness, yet few things have brought me more temporal happiness than my hysterectomy. My uteruslessness brings me joy if not on a daily basis then DEFINITELY on a monthly one!
You’ve also said that this cannot bring me closer to Christ. I’ve carefully considered that. But consider not only the dysphoria I live with, but also the debilitating depression. I’m not naive enough to believe that top surgery will cure either of these, but if I can do anything to alleviate either of them, I will do it. Frankly, if amputating a leg or my hands or my eyes could cure my depression I wouldn’t hesitate. I’ve begged God for years to take this away, to heal me of SOMETHING, but He hasn’t. Maybe this is His way of giving me a step to take to lessen this pain. Between fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, daily migraines, dysphoria, anxiety, and depression, this is something I can do to help a few of those things (as you remember, my neurologist told me that top surgery could help alleviate my migraines.) If I had fewer “earthly challenges,” maybe I wouldn’t need to do this. I’d LOVE fewer trials or less intense ones, at least. But these are lifelong issues. Because chronic illnesses cannot be cured, I’m stuck.
I don’t want anyone to think that this is a decision I’ve made lightly. I’ve researched this surgery for 5 years. I wish I could describe the relief and joy I felt when I learned top surgery was even possible. I had literally been praying to get breast cancer since I was 11, because that’s the only way I knew of getting breasts removed (by the way, top surgery takes my risk of breast cancer from 50% to 0%.) I have yet to find an account of someone who has had this surgery and regretted it. I’ve talked to both a psychiatrist and a therapist for 18 months. Both of them are LDS and I have letters from both of them recommending I proceed, and the support of my general practitioner, also LDS, who I have been seeing for 11 years. I have also interviewed 3 plastic surgeons, so I think it’s more than fair to say I’ve done my homework. I made a point of NOT talking to my transgender care doctor, because I felt she’d be too biased.
Here’s the main issue I think we have: I am not changing my gender by having top surgery. I will still exist as female and live a female life. I tried out testosterone and it wasn’t for me. Having no breasts isn’t a sex change; if it was, people who’ve had mastectomies for breast cancer and back pain would be considered male. People have breast reductions all the time and don’t face discipline. Frankly, my medical decisions are none of the church’s business. Nobody got involved for my hysterectomy; why is this any different? If you didn’t know I was trans, you would you have even gotten involved?
Bishop, I love you. I value our relationship so much. I listen to your counsel and consider it carefully. But I do not understand why church discipline is a consequence of this surgery. My breasts should not matter this much to the Church or to you. The Church is my spiritual home. I am trying so hard to hold on and remain faithful, but honestly it feels like I am in abusive relationship and I don’t know what to do. I am always waiting for the next painful policy to drop. I want to feast upon the words of Christ but I am never allowed to sit at the table. How much longer can I hold onto the rod when the Church is whipping at my fingers?
I know this is a lot to take in. I just wanted to email you so you can get a sense of where I’m at before we meet on Sunday. I hope you can continue to welcome me, regardless of what my chest looks like, to Christ’s table.
My name is Kris. I’m 32 years old and I am an asexual transman. I have never been physically sick because of anxiety before, but the reversal of November 2015’s Policy of Exclusion in the LDS Church left me ill for three days. I dreaded April General Conference. I felt like I had spiritual (and physical!) whiplash.
The Policy of Exclusion, or PoX, stated that those in same-gender relationships were committing apostasy and must be excommunicated. If they had children, those children were not allowed to be baptized in the LDS church until they had turned 18, disavowed their parent’s “lifestyle,” and received approval from the First Presidency.
My story with the PoX is not nearly as painful as others. For me personally, I had just come out a month prior to the PoX’s release. I was so excited to come out because I finally knew the word for my gender identity and I didn’t have to feel like a freak or alone anymore.
But November 2015 saw me lying in my bathtub almost every day trying to work up the courage to end it all. The only reason I am still here is I knew that my 7-year-old son would be the one to find me. I couldn’t do that to him. That knowledge is the only reason I am still alive. No antidepressant in the world did its job, no therapist could help me, no amount of scripture studying or prayer fixed what felt like the most despicable betrayal from the Church I loved. My faith, my spiritual home, was telling me that it thought I was unnatural and disgusting and wrong. I had thought it was amazing to be able to be out and open about who I am and who God created me to be.
And then my Heavenly Parents gave this revelation to my church. What does that say about them? I was pretty sure I read, “suffer the children to come unto me,” from Christ, and I don’t recall Him adding, “unless the kid has queer parents.” The first Article of Faith states, “we believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” I thought this meant that kids couldn’t be punished for their parents’ mistakes, but the Church’s actions with the PoX showed me otherwise.
I know the answers we hear all around us. “This church is imperfect because it is lead by imperfect men.” Tell that to the kids who killed themselves in the months following this revelation. Tell that to the adults who hurt or killed themselves, to the marriages that failed, to the children who were unable to grow up in a Church that their parents loved and wanted them to be a part of. And, “it’s God’s timing.” Well then frankly? God’s timing SUCKS.
My son Toby turned 8 three months post-PoX. I didn’t tell him about the policy because I didn’t want to color his feelings about baptism one way or the other. I wanted it to be his choice, as much as it ever is when you’re 8 years old and have grown up LDS. Because I was not transitioning on hormones, because I still appear more female than male, Toby was able to be baptized. I have felt guilty for FOUR. YEARS. because Toby was allowed to be baptized while children of parents in a same-sex marriage could not be. I was able to “sneak one by” because I appear cis/straight. But because this church meant so much to my husband and my son, I have kept as quiet as I could while being as honest as I could.
I don’t know what to do now. I am trying to be happy, and honestly, I am in some regard. I’m relieved for my gay, lesbian and bi siblings. Finally, a festering wound has been healed. But it will always have a scar–a gaping hole where we lost so many precious lights and lives. Because of a “revelation from God.”
I’m feeling a lot of things, and I believe all feelings regarding the PoX and its reversal are valid. These feelings can be very painful. Don’t make light of this and don’t pretend that things are okay now. We have a LONG way to go before things are okay. I’m still hurt and frustrated because once again, transgender, nonbinary and intersex people are left out of the Church completely. There are no guidelines for us and it seems that our spiritual home has disowned us because of who God made us to be. That doesn’t seem like the loving Heavenly Father I’ve heard about in Sunday School.
Churches should not hurt people. Not like this. This is wrong. I’m hurting and I’m mourning. And I’m very, very, very tired of hoping for change and getting tossed scraps for hanging on. In conference last weekend, someone spoke about avoiding the “cynical fringe” of the Church. I shook my head when I heard this. I have found Christ on that cynical fringe. I have seen more kindness, felt more love, learned more about the nature of God than I ever did when I was in the dead-center of the Church. God bless the cynical fringe.
As Latter-day Saints, one of the holiest things we can do is “mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” I am mourning. Mourn with me. Stand with me. And then help me strive to make a place for everyone to belong in this Church. We have a long way to go. Let’s get to work.
I sent a letter to President Dieter F. Uchtdorf earlier this week. I meant to tell him that a response isn’t necessary, but I think I forgot to write that. Oops.
Dear President Uchtdorf,
I wanted to send you this picture taken at the St. Martin’s Parade on 29 November. This is my son, Tobias. Toby has really enjoyed meeting Sister Uchtdorf and you at the parade for the last 5 years. He’d love to talk your ear off in German any time! (Toby is in a German immersion program at his school and is nearing fluency.)
President Uchtdorf, thank you so much for your kindness and compassion, especially towards LGBTQ+ Saints. I am transgender, and while I have chosen not to pursue hormonal/social transition, I know many Saints who have (after careful prayer and consideration.) They are healthier for doing so, both mentally and physically. I often wonder if I have a place in the Church. I would like to remain a member, but it’s not easy when I feel like I’m not welcome or when I feel like the Church might be happier without me or those like me. I also see the difficulty our intersex siblings face in the Church (those born with ambiguous genitalia or chromosomes.) Theirs is a particularly difficult journey, considering that they fall in a painfully gray area of the gospel.
I want to stay LDS because I want to be the person I needed when I was younger. I desperately needed an LGBTQ+ person to look up to. I’m trying to remain part of a church that doesn’t seem to know what to do with me. It seems that I am on the fringes of the Church, and while it can be a lonely place to exist, I am finding there are more of us on the edges than I once thought. We love the Church; it is our spiritual home, and we are doing our best to keep our hearts close to it.
Thank you for doing your best to make your spiritual siblings welcome. And again, thank you for being so kind and patient when we run into you at Christkindlmarkt. It makes Toby’s whole face light up with excitement, and as his parent, that means the world to me.
Bluffdale Independence Stake
Last night as I was procrastinating writing my talk, I said on Twitter “if you like this tweet, I will post a picture of a possum that reminds me of you.” I didn’t expect much, just a little diversion. ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY LIKES LATER… I’m pretty sure I have now seen every possum picture that has ever graced the Internet but I regret nothing.
Good morning ward family. My name is Kris Irvin and I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 5 years. My husband Nate and I have been married for 12 years and we have a son, Toby, who most of you probably know (either by reputation or just because he’s VERY LOUD.) Toby told me I’m not allowed to embarrass him while I’m speaking today, but I promised him nothing. Besides, today is his 11th birthday! So happy birthday, Toby.
In 2007, 6 months after Nate and I were married, we moved to Arkansas so Nate could work as a software developer for Walmart. I got pregnant shortly after we arrived there and my body was not happy about it. We tried to make it to church relatively often, but probably only made it to one hour of church every other month. I was very, very sick, and I felt very, very alone. I was often too sick to leave my house on my own, so I stayed home all day till Nate got home from work. Some days I felt well enough by then that we could go on a super exciting grocery shopping trip. Most days, though, I felt too weak and sick and didn’t trust myself to be able to drive around in our new state on my own. I was very lonely and very sad. Nate was very lonely and very sad because he was working 80 hours a week to try to save up some money for after Toby was born.
In January of 2008, I got a call from a new relief society president in our ward. Her name was Jean Fields. She asked if she could come meet me, and I told her “of course, but my house looks like a disaster because cleaning makes me really sick.” (I really wish I’d appreciated that excuse more at the time.) Sister Fields was a grandma, so she was experienced with messes, and besides that, she didn’t even care. She wasn’t there to judge me for not being able to clean my house for 6 months. She came over to talk to me, to get to learn about me. She only planned on staying for an hour, but we ended up sitting there and talking about everything and nothing for 3.5 hours. We exchanged favorite books and she promised me that she would put together a group of women who wouldn’t mind coming over and to help to get my house straightened up, because by this point (January 22) we were aware that Toby was going to be born early. We just weren’t sure how early. Toby was due on March 10, 2008.
On Sunday January 27, I woke up with an excruciating migraine. It was so bad, it tore a part of the vein in my left retina, which left me blind in one eye. We immediately went to the ER, where they hooked me up to lots of monitors and saw that my blood pressure was 220/140. Alarms started going off. The nurse yelled “DON’T PANIC” and ran out of the room. Nate started to hyperventilate. I started to giggle, because stuff like this always happens to me and it’s funny.
But I was worried, because we were in Arkansas. Nate’s family lives in North Carolina, and my family was still here in Utah. The nurse came back and got me checked into the hospital and Nate called our home teacher and asked if he could stop by our house and bring me my stuffed dog and a change of clothes for Nate. I called my Relief Society president and let her know what was going on. Jean was able to let the woman giving the opening prayer in sacrament that morning know that I was in the hospital and Sister Day prayed so that the ward knew that our baby was coming TODAY. She prayed that he and I would both be protected.
After Toby’s birth, he was taken to an NICU a half hour away, so I didn’t get to see him until he was 3 days old. We named him Tobias, which means “God is Good,” and we gave him two middle names. Hinckley, because he was born the night President Hinckley died, and Van, which is a family name. As Toby’s parent, I’ve seen so many ways that people show compassion to him and to our family. And I am proud of the compassion and love that Toby feels towards his friends and family members. He is a brave kid with a wise heart, and I have always felt very grateful (and very overwhelmed) that he’s ours.
Recently, I was concerned about one of the upcoming topics we may be discussing in Relief Society this year. I texted Sister Atherton and asked her if she knew when we would be discussing this topic, because I couldn’t decide if I wanted to conveniently be sick that day or not. Sister Atherton responded and said that we might not even use that lesson this year, and if we do, then she would be sure to let the person teaching that day know that it was a sensitive topic. I can’t tell you how much that short text exchange meant to me. It was a beautiful, loving, Christlike gesture from a beautiful, loving, Christlike woman.
I posted this experience on social media and received two very different general responses. Half of my “followers” were happy. They appreciated what Sister Atherton was trying to do for me. Another faction of church members was irritated. Their general response was to mock me for having sensitive issues with the church at all. When I responded by asking them the question “how do you think would Christ respond to me in this instance?” none of them had a very good answer. (Which is telling in and of itself.) Some of these people even told me I needed to inform my bishop that I don’t sustain the leaders of the Church, which is just ridiculous. I absolutely sustain my leaders in the church, from Bishop King on up through President Hawkins on up through to President Nelson. I may not always agree with them, but luckily I don’t have to agree to still appreciate the gospel principles they teach me.
I suspect that Christ, were He the Relief Society president, would have responded to me in much the same way that Sister Atherton did. When I think of Christ, I tend to think more about His sense of compassion and love toward the poor and downtrodden rather than His anger at the money-changers in the temple. Of course there is a time and a place for both responses, but we have far more examples of compassion in the scriptures than we do of righteous indignation.
I’m a huge English nerd, so I can’t resist throwing definitions in here. I asked Nate what compassion means to him and he said “being kind to other people.” Well I am here to tell you that that definition is WRONG. Or at least it’s incomplete. Compassion means literally “to suffer with.” It also means to show pity, sympathy, and mercy for one another. Now there’s a difference between compassion, sympathy and empathy. As a reminder, sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Empathy goes a little bit farther than sympathy, although both are often used interchangeably with compassion. But compassion itself is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. Sympathy and empathy involve listening and feeling, while compassion involves acting on those feelings. President Monson said “The Savior has always shown unlimited capacity for compassion. … Let us open the door of our hearts, that He—the living example of true compassion—may enter.”
How do we develop compassion? It takes practice. We can start by being a good listener and imagining how we would feel if we had the same experiences that someone else may be going through. Compassion is simply seeing someone’s need and wanting to help. Acting on that feeling leads us to do what we can for that person. This is part of our covenant to “bear one another’s burdens” and is at the heart of ministering. Jeffrey R. Holland taught in the April 2018 general conference: “We have a heaven-sent opportunity as an entire Church … ‘to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light’ and to ‘comfort those that stand in need of comfort’, to minister to the widows and the fatherless, the married and the single, the strong and the distraught, the downtrodden and the robust, the happy and the sad—in short, all of us, every one of us, because we all need to feel the warm hand of friendship and hear the firm declaration of faith.”
When life seems tough, home can be a place where we find love, compassion, and warmth. Within our family, we feel reassured that someone understands and cares about how we feel. And the compassion we witness and experience at home inspires us to be more compassionate to others. Compassion can help us develop love for our friends, neighbors, family, and spiritual siblings. Depending on context/definition, compassionate love is mentioned around 3-400 times in the King James’ version of the Bible (there are at least 6 ways to say “love” in Greek, so it gets tricky to pin down every occurrence.) Its prevalence in the text makes sense, though, because in its essence, the gospel is all about love. Loving our neighbors, loving our families, loving Christ and showing our love for Him by serving Him. True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long—we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it—but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
So to develop compassion, first, we listen to each other. Then we act according to the promptings of the Spirit. A story is told by President Uchtdorf that during the bombing of a city in World War II, a large statue of Jesus Christ was severely damaged. When the townspeople found the statue among the rubble, they mourned because it had been a beloved symbol of their faith and of God’s presence in their lives. Experts were able to repair most of the statue, but its hands had been damaged so severely that they could not be restored. Some suggested that they hire a sculptor to make new hands, but others wanted to leave it as it was—a permanent reminder of the tragedy of war. Ultimately, the statue remained without hands. However, the people of the city added on the base of the statue of Jesus Christ a sign with these words: “He has no hands but yours.”
We are Christ’s hands on this earth. And if we are listening to Him and following Him, He will whisper to us when He needs us to be compassionate towards our fellow spiritual siblings. There is a profound lesson in this story. When I think of the Savior, I often picture Him with hands outstretched, reaching out to comfort, heal, bless, and love. And He always talked with, never down to, people. He loved the humble and the meek and walked among them, ministering to them and offering hope and salvation. That is what He did during His mortal life; it is what He would be doing if He were living among us today; and it is what we should be doing as His disciples and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One of my favorite scriptures in the Book of Mormon is Alma 5:26. It’s technically a scripture about repentance and a change of heart, but I really love the imagery in this verse. “And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” Christ did not just speak about love; He showed it each day of His life. He did not remove Himself from the crowd. Being amidst the people, Jesus reached out to the one. He rescued the lost. He didn’t just teach a class about reaching out in love and then delegate the actual work to others. He not only taught but also showed us how to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”
Christ knows how to minister to others perfectly. When the Savior stretches out His hands, those He touches are uplifted and become greater, stronger, and better people as a result. If we are His hands while on earth, should we not do the same?
What is the song of redeeming love? Well, Jeffrey R. Holland said this: “Brothers and sisters, we live in a mortal world with many songs we cannot or do not yet sing. But I plead with each one of us to stay permanently and faithfully in the choir, where we will be able to savor forever that most precious anthem of all—“the song of redeeming love.” Fortunately, the seats for this particular number are limitless. There is room for those who speak different languages, celebrate diverse cultures, and live in a host of locations. There is room for the single, for the married, for large families, and for the childless. There is room for those who once had questions regarding their faith and room for those who still do. There is room for those with differing sexual attractions” (and might I add, gender identities.) “In short, there is a place for everyone who loves God and honors His commandments as the inviolable measuring rod for personal behavior, for if love of God is the melody of our shared song, surely our common quest to obey Him is the indispensable harmony in it. “