9/14/14

Three Blind Men and an Elephant

A friend of mine, an inactive Mormon since the age of fifteen, has taken to Facebook asking for clarification of Mormon doctrine. She wants to know why some Mormons—self-identified as devout—came to her lesbian wedding while others—self-identified as devout—said they couldn’t because the LDS Church doesn’t support gay marriage.

My friend feels hurt—very hurt—by the family members who chose not to come to her wedding, faithful Mormons who believe their religion precludes them from attending a gay wedding and believe that other Mormons who attended don’t understand their doctrine correctly. On the other side are friends who chose to come, faithful Mormons who believe agency allows them to support her right to choose for herself and believe that other Mormons who boycotted don’t understand their doctrine correctly.

It’s like arguing over when life begins: there is in fact an answer to that question, but the answer will be known indisputably only in a future perfect eternal realm. Meanwhile here on earth, we have to do the best we can with what we have. None of us can step outside our experience—we are defined by it. If we experience the trunk of the elephant, life goes up, down and all around. If we experience the side, life is big and flat, unchanging in every direction. If we experience the tail, life isn’t much, just a few flicks of thin rope.

The Old Testament Israelites were governed by an overwhelming number of rules, even, as I understand it, exactly how many steps they could take on the Sabbath. Joseph Smith wanted us to learn correct principles so we could govern ourselves. The problem with my friend’s question is that there are a multitude of correct principles that apply to attending a gay wedding. We each have to struggle and puzzle out for ourselves which course of action is correct, and I would expect there to be a range of conclusions, just like faithful Mormons come down on different sides of whether to tithe on the gross or the net, whether to watch t.v. on Sunday, whether to cook with wine.

I suspect it really doesn’t matter what choice we as individuals make—we’re all at different places in the gospel—as long as we feel peace about it. The only thing I’m pretty sure of is that judging someone else’s correct principle as wrong is like the bumper sticker President Uchtdorf cited in General Conference: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”

8/31/14

As a Man Thinketh So Is He

With the exception of Dr. Evil and other Hollywood characters, no one thinks he or she is evil. Real evil does exist, but it seems to be in the eye of the beholder. We are all at the mercy of what we’re taught, which explains racism, bad manners, and why the Lamanites believed in the traditions of their fathers.

I’ve always wondered how I would have felt about slavery if I’d been born in 1800. I would like to think I would have felt the injustice of it, but maybe I flatter myself. It’s so easy to see it’s wrong today because we’ve been taught that it’s wrong. Back then people were taught that selling a slave child away from its mother was no different than selling a puppy away from its mother.

We hear of the American journalist having his head cut off, and we’re horrified. But I’m betting the man who did the hacking thinks he was doing something good, like we feel when we get rid of a cockroach.

My first job out of college was at a brain injury recovery center, and on my first day, one of the residents, an elderly woman, was worrying about the clip doctors had placed in her brain after her aneurysm. She was fretting that her worrying could loosen the clip, and she might have another aneurysm. I suggested that if her brain was that powerful, she could use it to imagine the clip firmly in place. She broke into the biggest smile and never worried again, nor did she, to my knowledge, ever have another aneurysm. 

The power of suggestion is so strong that in medication trials, the “double blind” method is used where neither scientist nor subject knows who is getting a placebo.

If the brain is so powerful, and can obviously be trained to believe and therefore effect almost anything, doesn’t that make us extra responsible for what we feed it? I remember a bumper-sticker I saw once: If you would be successful, choose your beliefs very carefully.

President Uchtdorf urged us to doubt out doubts not our beliefs, and I calculate that’s about the smartest advice I’ve ever heard. No matter what we believe (as a matter of faith), we’ll never prove it, so we might as well pick the beliefs that bring us the biggest reward.

People of all faiths are mocked because we believe in what some consider feel-good fantasy. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses.” I say why not? It’s all in the eye of the beholder anyway. I’m choosing the beliefs that bring me peace, compassion, vitality, and hope. 

8/24/14

The Only Constant is Change

In other words, what goes up must come down. I still find myself pondering the suicide of Robin Williams. There are so many tributes to him going around, so many interviews, so many reruns of Oprah where he appears. At some point in his megawatt career, he had to have been happy, didn’t he? As despairing as he was the day he took his life, he must have had at least short periods of happiness, maybe when his first son was born, or he won an academy award for Good Will Hunting.

It’s so easy to think that the way we know someone today, the here-and-now of someone’s life at this moment is the way he’s always been, the way she’ll always be.

The soul singer Al Green was popular in the seventies for hits like Let’s Stay Together; he was good enough to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1974 at the height of his fame, his girlfriend threw a pan of boiling grits on him before killing herself, and he left his recording career to become a man of God. Today he is the Reverend Al Green, minister of his own church in Memphis, Tennessee. Which here-and-now best represents Al Green?

My experience of Mormons is that we tend to focus on a person’s church membership or level of church activity, the ubiquitous “is she in the Church?” or “he’s not active.” I’ve always thought it short-sighted to define anyone by their current church  activity or lack thereof, but Robin Williams puts a finer point on it. No matter where someone is at a certain point in time, it can change, and in a lot of cases does.

One of the reasons I came to peace with whether or not my son serves a mission is that I realized serving a mission predicts nothing. It’s not like I can relax and think, “Great, he’s in the Church” like it’s a done deal. How many returned missionaries have fallen away from the Church? And just because my son doesn’t serve a mission doesn’t mean he won’t be a weekly Temple patron someday. Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus. 

If we’re really honest with ourselves, we don’t know for sure what we will do tomorrow. Circumstances change, people change; what was yesterday unthinkable may tomorrow become routine and vice versa.

It is human nature to make assumptions, but only God knows the end from the beginning. If we’re more realistic about the inconsistencies of human behavior, I think we’re less shocked when someone isn’t who or what we thought and more capable of managing our own ups and downs.