Virginia Pearce Cowley is the third child of President and Sister Gordon B. Hinckley. She and her late husband, James R. Pearce, are the parents of six children and have twenty-seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A published author and former marriage and family therapist, Virginia served as first counselor in the General Young Women Presidency and as a full-time Public Affairs missionary for the Church. She is married to Joseph F. Cowley Jr.
Because of various Church assignments and life experiences, I’ve spent considerable time listening to, talking to, and thinking about us, the women of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is what I know: We’re not here by accident. We each have “one wild and precious life” to live.1 We don’t know how long it will be, but we believe within that life we have a great deal of responsibility for what we choose to do.
It seems to me that men in the Church, as a whole, have a pretty clear outline for their lives. Even though there is tremendous room for differences, weighing options, and making personal decisions, there are some pretty solid guideposts on the male path: priesthood ordination in the twelfth year with specific duties; a mission responsibility somewhere around eighteen or nineteen; marriage somewhere in their twenties, along with an obligation to seek training or education that will prepare them to provide for a family; and so on. And most men have a great deal of individual control over meeting those expectations.
On the other hand—for us women—well . . . Maybe a good word to describe our life’s path as women is ambiguity. Ambiguity suggests a lack of clarity and uncertainty, and so often that’s the name of the game for us.
Let’s start with Eve. We know little about her and yet a lot. She was noble and full of faith. She had a mission to fulfill—one on which the whole human race depended. We have no record of her angst as she grappled with the ambiguity facing her, but how could she not have made her choice without weighing the immediate and long-term consequences for her—for Adam—and for her unborn posterity?
In a smaller sense, you and I grapple with ambiguity regularly. Trying to make decisions and finding our way along a life path that isn’t always clearly charted—and some of those markers, such as marriage and childbearing, often seem to be out of our control. Additionally, we happen to live in a place and time when women have more opportunities and options available than at any other time in the history of the world. And so, the combination of duties, God-given desires, and new opportunities creates increasing uncertainty. President M. Russell Ballard taught: “I realize that women often deal with a kind of ambiguity not necessarily faced by men, as there is an endless array of choices as well as uncertainties in front of you. This can be particularly challenging today because the world offers women an increasing number of opportunities—many more than were available to women a generation ago.”2
And so we repeatedly ask the question: “Am I doing what God wants me to do with my precious life?” I hear that from my daughters and my friends, and it’s written all over the pages of my journals. I’m quite sure, dear reader, that it’s a question you may be asking.
And every time we try to answer the question, because we are women, we weigh all sorts of competing loyalties and the effect our choices might have on others. We have the gift—and sometimes the curse—of being constantly tuned in to relationships. If I go back to school, accept this promotion, have another child, take on a demanding Church calling . . . how will that affect my family, my future relationships, the happiness of others . . . and my own walk toward holiness?
So how do we navigate this uncertain and ever-changing individual path and not only tolerate ambiguity but celebrate it? Well, I’ll tell you what I think. In fact, I’ll tell you three things I’ve been thinking about and that you may want to consider.
REJOICE IN AMBIGUITY AND EXPECT REVELATION
Ambiguity is a cause for celebration because over and over it invites us to seek revelation from God. Yes, we look around us to see what others do in similar circumstances or at similar ages, but this is My Path, not someone else’s. You and I get to go to Him for personal revelation. And so seeking and receiving revelation becomes a critical skill for every woman to develop. Only through personal revelation can the Lord reveal His desires for our path ahead. Sister Julie B. Beck said, “The ability to qualify for, receive, and act on personal revelation is the single most important skill that can be acquired in this life.”3 And Sister Patricia T. Holland said, “I believe that every one of us has a specific mission to fulfill on this earth.”4 If we believe that we are sent here with a specific mission and assignments, we have to believe that He will reveal them to us piece by piece. In the words of one of my favorite hymns, “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me.”5
One of the great bonuses of receiving revelation by which we make life choices is that we are far less likely to look at the lives of others and envy them—or worse still, look at the lives of others and criticize their life choices. Sister Ruth Renlund taught, “There’s no one way to be an LDS woman. Each has a right to personal revelation and is expected to use that. It should be personal, and we shouldn’t let other people’s comments shake our direction. I think women are particularly susceptible to that.”6 In a life path filled with ambiguity, in our insecurity about our own choices, we too often watch others with a measuring eye.
REVIEW THE CERTAINTIES
In times of uncertainty, it’s helpful for me to review the certainties. I particularly need to be reminded of the things I know for sure when I’m swimming in uncertain territory. I don’t know what’s on your list, but mine includes these certainties:
God is my Father, and He will stand by me. “When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me” (Psalm 56.9; emphasis added). His Son Jesus Christ is my Redeemer. The Holy Ghost is my Comforter and Guide. The things I know for sure include my larger purpose on earth: To grow and learn and change to become more like God, to return to live in His presence, and to help others do the same.
And I am certain about the reality of personal revelation. I can never predict how He will speak to me, but I’ve lived long enough to be certain that He will. I also know that revelation flourishes in the soil of gospel living. President Russell M. Nelson gave us a glorious promise: “To be sure, there may be times when you feel as though the heavens are closed. But I promise that as you continue to be obedient, expressing gratitude for every blessing the Lord gives you, and as you patiently honor the Lord’s timetable, you will be given the knowledge and understanding you seek. Every blessing the Lord has for you—even miracles—will follow. That is what personal revelation will do for you.”7
Those are my bottom lines. They’re not up for grabs. And when I speak them out loud, I feel a kind of settled peace that allows me to open my heart and with confidence—even excitement—embrace the ambiguities.
SLOW DOWN—GRAPPLING WITH AMBIGUITY TAKES TIME AND ENERGY
At times the wrestle to find a path ahead comes because unexpected adversity simply stops us in our tracks. The future we had planned vanishes. I’m told that when animals are wounded, they “hug the ground” for a while. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had that experience where something suddenly hits you in the stomach—something that catapults you into a new and frightening world and, for a bit, all you can do is hug the ground and wait. I think we can give ourselves permission to do that for whatever time it takes to gradually stop feeling numb. You will know how long . . . no one else does.I clearly remember the weeks after my husband died as ground-hugging times. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to feel anything but heavy again . . . and then one day, walking down the street (I can tell you the exact place), the heaviness lifted. I felt light just long enough to know that it would come back to stay eventually—that I would feel an underlying joy and sense of well-being again. I like to think about the word fallow. A fallow field is one that is plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a time in order to restore its fertility.
You may not even need to hug the ground. Maybe you just need to slow down, if ambiguity comes because of adverse conditions. But even in the absence of difficulty, we each need to carve out regular quiet spaces and places in everyday life . . . to just think, to be still. I believe that’s a prerequisite for hearing the voice of the Lord.
Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraged us: “If your life is void of quiet time, would you begin tonight to seek for some? . . . We all need time to ask ourselves questions or to have a regular personal interview with ourselves.”8 President Gordon B. Hinckley advised college students: “You need time to meditate and ponder, to think, to wonder at the great plan of happiness that the Lord has outlined for His children. . . . Our lives become extremely busy. We run from one thing to another. . . . We are entitled to spend some time with ourselves in introspection, in development. . . . Your needs and your tastes along these lines will vary with your age. But all of us need some of it.”9
This isn’t worry time. This isn’t planning time. This is time to meditate, to open yourself to life and to Him.
Think about walking into nature when you’re creating space and place for introspection. I know a therapist who advises her clients to walk outside and actually touch something in nature to quiet their anxiety. Rub a leaf in your hand. Feel grass under your feet. Turn your face to drink in the sun!
We can take joy in the ambiguity of our lives, reviewing the certainties and taking time regularly to simply let God in—to stop and contemplate Him and His majesty. To place our lives at His feet—in quiet spaces and places—in times of quiet reflection and meditation, free of the lists of endless tasks, claiming the privilege of personal revelation. And surely, in His own time, He will flood you and me with His life-giving spirit and nudge us forward, to lead each of us to fulfill our foreordained mission, to rejoice in our one wild and precious life!
A Place to Belong is filled with distinctive stories written by thirty-three modern women of faith who show from their own lives that there's more than one way to be a believing and contributing woman in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This collection celebrates the diverse lives that women lead and how they navigate their twin commitments to women's issues and to their faith. Available now at Deseret Book stores and at DeseretBook.com.
1. Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 94.
2. M. Russell Ballard, “Women of Dedication, Faith, Determination, and Action,” in Between God and Us: How Covenants Connect Us to Heaven: Talks from the 2015 BYU Women’s Conference (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016), 138.
3. Julie B. Beck, “And upon the Handmaids in Those Days Will I Pour Out My Spirit,” Ensign, May 2010.
4. Patricia T. Holland, “A Woman’s Perspective on the Priesthood,” Ensign, July 1980.
5. John Henry Newman, “Lead, Kindly Light,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 97.
6. Ruth L. Renlund, “Just Call Me Ruth,” Mormon Women Project, May 2010, https://mormo
7. Russell M. Nelson, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” Ensign, May 2018.
8. More of Elder Ballard’s remarks in their context: “The people of earlier times experienced solitude in ways we cannot imagine in our crowded and busy world. Even when we are alone today, we can be tuned in with our handheld devices, laptops, and TVs to keep us entertained and occupied.
“As an Apostle, I now ask you a question: Do you have any personal quiet time? I have wondered if those who lived in the past had more opportunity than we do now to see, feel, and experience the presence of the Spirit in their lives.
“Seemingly, as our world gets brighter, louder, and busier, we have a greater challenge feeling the Spirit in our lives. If your life is void of quiet time, would you begin tonight to seek for some? . . . We all need time to ask ourselves questions or to have a regular personal interview with ourselves. We are often so busy and the world is so loud that it is difficult to hear the heavenly words ‘be still, and know that I am God’” (M. Russell Ballard, “Be Still, and Know That I Am God” [Church Educational System devotional for young adults, May 4, 2014, broadcasts.churchofjesuschrist.org]).
9. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Life’s Obligations,” Ensign, February 1999.