I have twin daughters. They are a delight, and I am constantly astonished at how different their personalities are despite their identical genetic starting point. I have learned many things from my children, and recently I had reason to stop to consider a wonderful life lesson taught to me by one of my twin daughters.
It relates to their recent baptism, but for those who read this and may not be LDS, there are three things that are important to know about baptism in our Church.
Firstly, children do not get baptised before the age of 8, which we believe is when children begin to become accountable for their actions. We believe that prior to this age, Christ’s atonement covers all mistakes no matter how sorry or otherwise a child may be.
Secondly, baptism in our Church is by immersion – the whole body under the water at the same time, symbolising the death of the old self, and cleansing resurrection to a new life as a disciple of Christ. If your hair floats on the top of the water it has to be done again – 100% simultaneous immersion is essential.
Thirdly, all males in good standing in the Church are able to hold the Priesthood, meaning that they are able to directly perform ordinances like baptism for their families. A real highlight in my life has been being able to baptise each of my children.
With the above points in mind, and as the time drew closer to my twin daughters’ 8th birthday, we began to prepare for their baptism. They were both very excited as the months and then weeks drew closer. We had some practice sessions at home, “bend your knees like this”, “now close your eyes and hold your nose”, “try and keep your feet on the ground so a toe doesn’t pop out of the water”, etc. They invited school friends to come and see their baptism, told their teachers, and generally just couldn’t wait.
But, as the day drew nearer we recognised a potential problem – neither of my girls were able to put their heads under water. We’ve often gone swimming as a family, and they attend swimming lessons at school. But they never put their heads under water – they don’t even like water on their faces. That’s fine for a family swimming trip; not quite so fine when they want to get baptised, and the baptism must be by immersion.
We therefore had some additional family trips to the swimming pool. “How much of your head can you get under the water?”, “Try it with your goggles on”, “Just get your chin wet first, and then see if you can go a little bit deeper next time”. We filled the bath extra full so they could continue practicing at home. We got permission from our Bishop for the girls to wear their swimming goggles during their baptism (the first time I’ve ever seen that). We were ready.
Finally the big day arrived. All dressed in white (but their pink goggles at the ready), they couldn’t stand still as they awaited with excitement the arrival of their school friends at the Church. A lot of members from our local Church came along to show their support, too. (To avoid identifying which twin is which, I will now call them daughter x and daughter y.)
Finally the moment arrived and I stepped first into the warm water of the baptismal font. I then took the hand of daughter x as she descended the font’s steps to join me in the water. She had asked to be first, because daughter y suffers from much more anxiety over doing new things, and she thought it would be easier for her if she could see that her sister had managed it. What compassion and thoughtfulness at such a young age…
With the congregation looking on through a glass barrier, the baptism was beautiful and we shared a big hug in the font when it was finished.
She climbed out of the font to her waiting mother and a dry towel, and it was her sister’s turn. But all of a sudden daughter y’s anxieties got the better of her. She saw the water, remembered she was afraid of putting her head under the water, and started crying. She decided she couldn’t do it. “I don’t want to get baptised”, she said through her sobs.
Now, if she really didn’t want to get baptised, that would have been fine. I’m never going to try and force any of my children into undertaking the Church’s ordinances. While I will teach them what I believe, I also try to teach them that they need to learn for themselves about God, Christ, and His gospel. They need to believe because they believe – not because I believe. But when my daughter said that she didn’t want to be baptised, what she meant was, “I do want to get baptised, but the water is frightening. I find doing new things terrifying, and this falls into the category of things I just can’t do – not now that it’s right in front of me.”
Even this would be have been fine. If she was being baptised on her own, and when the time came she decided she wanted to wait for 6 months, or 12 months, or whatever, because it was too scary, that would have been fine. I don’t think the Lord would have minded in the least bit.
But my twin girls have an interesting dynamic. They often come out of school with one of them crying because the other got a sticker or a certificate. At the best of times they relentlessly compare themselves to each other – much more so than our non-twin boys. Any hint of an achievement by solely one of the girls is a source of distress for the other. I sure hope they grow out of it, but for the moment it is their reality. To add to this, daughter y has very low self-esteem (it’s not her fault, she gets it from me). It’s not just a case of competitive sisterhood when daughter x achieves something she doesn’t; it’s a further dent in her sense of self-worth.
All of this was uppermost in my mind as she stood at the water’s edge and said she didn’t want to get baptised. Clear as the mid-day sun I knew what the result would be to her self-confidence if she didn’t get baptised because of her fears, when her sister already had done so. And so I took her hand, and invited her to just stand in the water with me. We closed the wooden shutters to the font, and the congregation sang some hymns for a while. For quite a long while, in fact.
I knelt down in the baptismal font with my daughter, cradling her, praying with her, talking to her about her desires and the future. I held her horizontal on her back with all but her face under the water so she could get used to the feeling of the water surrounding her body again. She held her nose, but staying above the water. I told her how much I loved her, and how proud I was of her bravery.
All I could think of as I knelt in the font, the water to my neck, and holding my beautiful daughter, was just how devastating it would be for her if we didn’t find a way for her to be baptised. She would not forget what she would see as her failure no matter how I tried to console her. She already suffered from low self-esteem, and this would compound these feelings many times. And so my only thought was, “No matter how long it takes I will stay here with her until she feels able to do this. I will continue to pray for guidance so that I can say the right thing, so that we can find the right strategy for her. Whatever it takes, I will not abandon her to certain despair because of this.”
After 45 minutes in the font, with fingers and toes well and truly wrinkled and baptismal clothes utterly soaked, my daughter y was baptised. She still found it frightening at the time, but 5 minutes later she was beaming. She was so proud of herself for having done something that had terrified her – and I was proud of her too. I was thankful to my Heavenly Father and the Saviour, that they had given her the strength to do something that was so difficult for her; that she wasn’t left with what for her would have been a certain devastation of failing to do something she wanted to do, and which her twin sister had accomplished. No, the trauma of not being baptised would have had appalling consequences for her self-esteem, but that had been avoided, thanks to her bravery, thanks to some inspiration on how we could accomplish it, and yes even thanks to a father’s love and patience.
The experience reminded me of a time while I was serving as a missionary for the Church in Chile. I was serving in a small town called Coihueco, and there was a young girl of perhaps 14 years of age who was to be baptised. She too was afraid of water and stopped at the water’s edge. Her experience wasn’t quite so traumatic for her as my daughter’s, and it took only about 5 minutes or so for her to build up the courage to enter the water. Her words as she rose out of the water following her baptism I will always remember, “Que rico. Podemos hacerlo otra vez?” Translation “How beautiful. Can we do it again?”
My feelings as I knelt with my daughter in the baptismal font: an overwhelming love for her; a commitment to do whatever it took to enable her to find the strength to overcome her fear; a knowledge of the appalling consequences of failure, which gave me an infinite patience. These are feelings that I believe our Heavenly Father and our Saviour have for us. They love us more deeply than we can imagine. Our Saviour bears the scars of His love for us, descending below all because of it.
Some of us have the physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual abilities to just get on with doing the things we know we need to do. But sometimes what we’re asked to do is not just hard, but scary too. We freeze, like rabbits in the headlights – “I can’t do this!”. I look back on my life so far, and wonder in amazement how I managed to get through certain periods. I know I haven’t managed it on my own. Too many times I have stood at the edge of life’s waters, and said, “I can’t do it. I’m scared.” And the Saviour has taken me by the hand, led me into the water, patiently staying with me until I could finally achieve what needed to be done. “[Others] may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
I am grateful that this life is not a race; that there isn’t a time limit for me to make certain self-improvements; that as long as I’m trying, it’s ok if it takes me a long time at the water’s edge before I have the courage to enter; that the Saviour will always patiently be there. He is committed to seeing it through with me – He loves me such that the alternative is worth any cost to avoid; Indeed, He has already paid the price.
This is just one of many lessons that my daughters have taught me.