Celebrating my son’s ninth birthday this year was extra fun. He decided to have a Star Wars birthday and I was beyond thrilled. While my wife spent the requisite hours searching Pinterest for Star Wars party ideas to entertain a crew of rowdy boys, my contribution to the party was a group of life-size Star Wars cardboard cutouts. We had all the major players – Han, Chewy, Luke, Leia, and, of course, Darth Vader.
The night before the birthday party, after all the kids were finally asleep, we put the large cardboard cutouts in different areas around the house. We strategically placed Han Solo – pointing his trusty blaster – and Chewy so the kids would see them as soon as they came out of their bedroom the next morning; however, I ended up being the first one surprised by the intergalactic duo. When I was getting ready for bed, I decided to do some late-night wandering around the house while brushing my teeth. The instant I stepped out of the bathroom I was greeted by Han and Chewy, having already completely forgotten that I had set them up there myself not even an hour earlier. My body instantly went into defense mode and then my brain caught up and I laughed at myself for being so startled by my cardboard guests. Fun ensued the next day as we moved Chewy from room to room attempting to scare the sh*t out of each other. Good fun.
I’m sure many have experienced similar situations of reaction. Maybe a loose thread on your shirt feels like a spider running up your arm. Your heart rate spikes and you hurriedly brush off your arm to make sure nothing is crawling on you. Or maybe you catch a glimpse of the garden hose out of the corner of your eye and mistake it for a snake (while starting to run away). It may only be for a split second, but our bodies are ready for danger – fight or flight. This human reaction kept our ancestors alive and is still with us today. To sense danger and react without thinking is rooted deep within us. When we encounter the unknown, our primal senses perk up – whether the unknown is a garden hose or something less physical and more immaterial, like the future. We get uneasy, we worry, and we might even want to run away. These feelings of anxiety and fear are things we have all felt and as a species have evolved to despise: the unknown is danger.
Mormons are unique as a religious group because we think we have all the answers. We like having answers – it takes away the uncertainty of life. Last year Brandon Flowers, fellow Mormon and lead singer for the mammoth rock group “The Killers,” was touring in Europe to support his latest album. As a part of his PR itinerary, he was involved in a live, televised panel discussion. During the show he was asked about his Mormonism. The host asked him what the beauty of his faith was. Brandon proceeded to talk about prayer briefly and then said, “There are answers to questions that my church has…and that is a beautiful thing.” I can relate with Brother Flowers. “Answers to questions” is what I carried with me for two years in Argentina on my mission. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going after this life? As Mormons, we have the answers to ALL of these questions and we would like to come into your home and discuss them with your family! We even dedicate the first Sunday of each month to reaffirming our knowledge as we share our unscripted testimonies of the Gospel. This usually consists of members telling personal stories and then concluding with Mormon household statements such as, “I know God lives”, “I know Jesus is my Savior and died for my sins”, “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet”, “I know that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God”, etc. The foundation of these testimonies is that we know. We have the answers. Mystery and uncertainty are pretty much nonexistent according to the words spoken in this meeting. “I know.” Never doubting.
While Mormonism works for many people, for some it just doesn’t. If you are white, male, served a mission, got married in the temple, and have a couple of kids, you most likely have a better percentage of success within the religion. But if you are female, gay, single, black, barren, or a thinker, then Mormonism can be a hard road. Why do these groups have trouble fitting in? Why are they oftentimes shunned? I would argue it is because these groups or people challenge the standard Mormon perspective. They challenge the status quo. For example, when Mormons meet someone who is gay, they are immediately hit with the unknown. Why would God make someone gay? Something is wrong with the system! It is easier not deal with issues like this. Run away. Flight. Or fight.
Unfortunately, having all of the answers to life’s questions gets in the way of compassion. When tragic things happen, we automatically try to explain the Mormon-reason why – the “answer.” A father dies, leaving behind a wife and three kids: God needed him more on the other side. A missionary is killed while in service: he is now doing missionary work on the other side, naturally! A child tragically dies: she was so righteous that she didn’t need to be tested here on earth, but just needed a body. When was the last time you attended a Mormon funeral? Yes, there are tears, but the overall sentiment is that we know where this person is and so therefore it should be a time of rejoicing. We testify of the plan. It is almost like we are not allowed to be sad when tragedy strikes because it is part of the plan. No mystery; goodbye uncertainty.
For those who are suffering – the wife and three kids, the missionary’s family, the child’s parents – the answers can fall short and leave us feeling empty and alone or maybe even leave us feeling guilty for our sorrow. But those who have never suffered a similar tragedy, cannot understand the depth of grief, and the “answers” are not malicious but are truly offered to make things better. To solve the problem. To fix it. We have to come up with these unintentionally insensitive answers to make sense of tragedies.
“The justification of the neighbour’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality…. I can view suffering as meaningful in me, but I have to see it as useless in others” (Emmanuel Levinas, Useless Suffering).
This became apparent to me when my wife was expecting our fourth child. Angela went to the doctor for a routine checkup when she was 19 weeks pregnant. She unexpectedly called from the doctor’s office to ask me if I wanted to find out the gender of the baby – something we weren’t planning on being able to do for a few more weeks. They couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat with the handheld fetal Doppler and so they wanted to do an ultrasound, which would allow us to see the sex of the baby. I said yes. Twenty minutes later Angela called my phone in tears. Our baby was not alive. My heart sank. How could this happen?
We made arrangements to be at the hospital that night to deliver our baby. Our good neighbor and friend came over to stay with our three small boys until my father-in-law arrived. It was her birthday. When she came into the house, she saw Angela in the hallway with her eyes full of tears, and this amazing woman said nothing but simply held my wife and let her cry. I remember the pure kindness I felt from this simple act and it filled my heart as I watched them embrace. After saying goodnight to our boys, we left for the hospital.
We went to the same hospital floor where our other children were born, but the memories of joy that came rushing back were cut short as the reality of the situation set in. It was a terrible, painful night. Angela was induced and the pains of labor and delivery were felt, only without the reward of that first cry of life at the end as our tiny son entered the world. The next afternoon a psychiatrist from the hospital came to our room to check on us. He was also there to prepare us for what was to come. One of things he said has stuck with me to this day. He told me that people would unintentionally say the most insensitive things with the intention of helping. He said that usually those people are just trying to make sense of the tragedy. His words rang true as many well-meaning friends testified that we would see our baby again, or that he was too righteous for this world, or that God needed him more on the other side. Well, you know what? We were broken. We didn’t need answers. We needed to cry. We needed to mourn. At the moment, I didn’t care about the afterlife, I wanted to hold my baby now.
So how come while so many friends were giving us all the answers, our neighbor knew exactly what to do when she simply held my wife? Why didn’t she too chime in with a piece of advice? Because she had been there before herself. She had felt that pain. To explain this scientifically we could discuss mirror neurons. “A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.” (Wikipedia) In other words, we are wired to feel other’s pain when we have been through those same experiences. It’s in our DNA. The only problem is that there is no possible way to experience every pain felt by every human.
“Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:13)
When life experiences are simply not possible, how can we be more empathetic? “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it” was the advice given to Scout from her father Atticus in the book “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It takes a great deal of courage, thoughtful courage, to follow this advice. It requires us to step out of our comfort zones and into the hated unknown. It requires us to go against evolution, against survival, against the natural man, against our perceived knowledge. It makes us vulnerable. And oddly enough, our ability to do this is what makes us human. In fact, the more opportunities we have to walk in another person’s shoes, the more morally advanced we will become. (The Righteous Mind pg 9, Jonathan Haidt)
As Mormons, our presumed knowledge of the divine oftentimes draws lines that separate us. If you are not baptized in a certain way and married in a certain place (and a myriad of other things), then you will not be able to enter into God’s presence. We are so caught up in a steeped traditional idealism of what we believe God wants that it leaves little, if any, room for loving or even just understanding others. “There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one…” (To Kill a Mockingbird). All of our Mormon answers – especially when they come from authoritative sources – can become bullies to compassion, sorrow, grief, and mourning. It makes it extremely difficult for us to overcome our survival instincts.
“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)…” – To Kill a Mockingbird
From my perspective, this is illustrated today with the LDS Church and its gay members. I don’t believe that the general membership of the Church is purposely trying to hurt anyone who is gay; however, the combination of unwavering obedience to authority (and subsequent fear of disobeying) plus the fear of the unknown unfortunately manifests as self-righteousness and leads to the shunning of gay members. As members, we incessantly hear from the pulpit about how bad gay marriage is. This authoritative answer gives no room for discussion, science, or compassion. Members know it is bad only because the leaders say it is bad.
Sometimes we have to be forced to consider another point of view. Examples might be: having a gay child, having a gay sibling, or having a gay friend. Usually when people find themselves in these situations, when we see our gay friends and family members, we see their struggles and we begin to walk in their shoes. We begin to understand.
If we truly want to come together as a people, if we want to mourn with those that mourn, then we have to fight the natural man – we have to fight against what evolution has taught us about survival (fight or flight). We have to throw out the culture of certainty. We have to stop making testimonies and answers our crowning achievements. It would appear as if we make testimonies and knowledge our golden calves. We have to get comfortable with the thought that we don’t really know anything. We have to stop trying to draw silver linings around every grey cloud. And most importantly we have to love without question and without conditions. To show empathy has to be the future of Mormonism or it will become useless. We have to be a safe place to mourn, a safe place to be vulnerable, a safe place to search and question. Our community should not be a place that protects the status quo.
“But the comfortableness of a religious orthodoxy exists in direct proportion to its rigidity, as people will always go to drastic lengths to preserve what gives them comfort” (Dr. Michael Austin, Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, pg 101).
Wow, I’ve been a regular Rational Faiths reader for about a year now, and I have to say that I think this is my favorite post so far. Thank you for articulating these ideas and for your vulnerability in sharing personal tragedy and weaving that into the Mormon cultural facade of having all the answers and expressing testimonies as platitudes instead of showing humility and empathy to our sisters and brothers. Excellent!
Good post man!
Fabulous post Paul. I don't read much of anything related to mormonism anymore but I'm really glad I read this. I too was considering writing my last post on how having all of the answers inhibits true human connection. I don't mind being beaten to it; this was great. Hugs to you and Angela and thanks for sharing your story.
People of Color in General too.
But yeah, “black” peoole the most…
I’ve been a listener for about a month now, and I’ve really enjoyed this podcast. This article also came in handy when answering an email to a relative this morning. I credited you and posted a copy of the email here.
Thanks and keep it coming.
Outstanding post Paul.
Wonderful essay – you've articulated so many things that have been swirling around in my mind lately. I love this: "It would appear as if we make testimonies and knowledge our golden calves. We have to get comfortable with the thought that we don’t really know anything. We have to stop trying to draw silver linings around every grey cloud. And most importantly we have to love without question and without conditions." Truth. Thank you!
Love it! I think an additional LDS narrative revolves around the idea of a Plan of Happiness. This includes a 1:1 ratio of obedience to blessings that generate happiness. Obedience then becomes insurance against pain and unhappiness with an overdrive toward perfection. However, when the Plan of Happiness collapses under the weight of reality, it crushes faith and hope. I know members who feel guilty for feeling pain, sadness and unable to mourn because a true plan of happiness denies them. Somehow they are failing if they are not happy. Members look at other unhappy, struggling members and think, 'there must be sin in their lives.' So irregardless of whether I am happy or not, I need to smile and look happy at Church, because otherwise, I must be living the Plan of Happiness wrong.
Great point Thomas! I wish I would have included that!
Paul, this is beautiful and heart-wrenching. I love that woman's act or simply holding your wife. I am a King Follett kind of Mormon who considers Mortality pre-school, that easy answers are rarely complete answers, and that the greatest portion of our learning will happen later. Compassion is among the most important lessons we are to learn in this life. Forgive. Repent. Love. Then you may enter Kindergarten.
This is wonderful. Empathy should be one of our highest quests.
I love this. I cannot believe that the longer people live as members of the church they continue to get up on open mic Sunday with their “I know this Church is trues;” it is unfathomable to me that we are still repeating this phrase. The longer I’ve known God and seen life the less I believe Mormons have any idea what we are talking about. The arrogance of “I know” bothers me so much.
Do we really know how our Heavenly Parents really function? Do we really know how it’s gonna work out with all the nasty mess of sealings to multiple people, the hot mess of polygamy? (please hear me say in Dana Carvey George Bush voice: “not doin’ it”) Do we really understand this whole “three kingdoms and who can visit whom” stuff? Do we really get what a modern world looks like with Jesus in it as we say we do for the 2nd coming?
The stuff we claim to KNOW without a shadow of doubt haunts me; we have no idea what it’s going to be like. The longer I go the more I wish we stopped telling everyone “we have all the answers.” I wish we’d embrace faith and doubt a little more and hold each other’s hands in the murky grey of life.
“It would appear as if we make testimonies and knowledge our golden calves. ”
Yes. THIS. Please. I want this! But how? How can we do this? Is it even possible?
Good article, but to say that "thinkers" have a difficult time in the church is irrational. As a scientist, the church truely is compatible. I don't understand why there must be all of this inner fighting. We are all on the same team. Science (thinkers) and religion don't need to be at odds with each other…
By no means did I mean that there are no thinkers inside the church. I agree religion and science don’t have to be at odds, BUT sadly usually those two things in our culture don’t mix very well. Let’s take evolution for example: 22% of Mormons agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of man, 26% below the national average. The only other religion that is slightly lower than Mormons is Jehovah Witnesses. I know Jehovah Witnesses!! Earlier Prophets did some real damage against the science world, but hopefully with education we can get to a spot where we science and Mormons can get a long better. Check out this post that was published this week: http://rationalfaiths.com/teach-evolution-and-they-will-accept/
**My tone is meant to be sympathetic, not patronizing or condescending.**
There are a lot of thoughts in this article that are very concerning to me, especially that it seems to be written my someone who is LDS.
"The first thing that really concerns me is this statement:
Mormons are unique as a religious group because we think we have all the answers." This statement isn't true. We believe that we have the fullness of the Gospel. There are many questions that we don't have answers to like where is the Americas did the Book of Mormon event take place. 🙂
However there are other more difficult questions that many times we lack answers to, the idea is not always to find answers, the Gospel does not always provide that; however the Gospel should provide comfort and peace of mind.
The Savior has suffered not just for our iniquities but also for the inequality, the unfairness, the pain, the anguish, and the emotional distresses that so frequently beset us. This is Gospel.
I understand the irony in my attempts to explain some of the wrong assumptions in this article just after I said we don't gave all the answers, but perhaps if you can overlook my boorishness there might be a chance of better understanding.
It is true that being a man, morally straight an american (not sure about white though that is typical in our society) etc. Your chance to lead are increased, however you also must have faith, study much, be obedient to the Gospel. I am very disappointed that the statement "or a thinker" was used to disqualify a person from the ability to enjoy the Gospel. Some of the 12 apostles have the sharpest minds I know of, indeed the Church as a whole is a Church of thinkers, anyone who states otherwise needs to become better acquainted with the general membership and leading councils of the Church.
It was stated that "If you are not baptized in a certain way and married in a certain place (and a myriad of other things)" that somehow you have no chance at salvation, of course thus us not true, in fact the Mormon Church us the only one I know of that states that that exact thinking is false. Anyone who is familiar with the basics of the Gospel understand that every opportunity will be afforded to all people in this life or the life before. As we read in the Bible (sorry I am tapping this out on my phone so I am not grabbing the reference) 'if the dead rise nit at all why are they then baptized for the dead' we know it us because the dead will rise again, so we must aid in affording them every opportunity in this life or the life to come.
Revisiting something I already hit on was thus statement,
"A father dies, leaving behind a wife and three kids: God needed him more on the other side. A missionary is killed while in service: he is now doing missionary work on the other side, naturally! A child tragically dies: she was so righteous that she didn’t need to be tested here on earth, but just needed a body." Certainly God does take souls unto himself, I have lost family and friends like everyone has it will one day. Though many times when the veil is pierced or slightly parted these can come as tender mercies of the Lord through revelations, visions, or even revelatory dreams. However it is the peace that we should be looking for, the peace that only the prince of peace can offer. By with theses type if answers I believe in veils and I believe in the parting of veils, in fact I have a testimony of theses things.
This statement seemed to be an attack, it didn't sit well with me both because I have never in my life in the Church experienced such things, also I simply do not believe the statement, " As members, we incessantly hear from the pulpit about how bad gay marriage is."
Never have I heard anything like this preached over the pulpit. Anyone who is familiar about talk assignments knows that we tend to focused on a previous talk given by a GA or a gospel principle. As kindly as i can express it this statement is simply false, we do not hate Homosexuals, we love them as our brothers and sisters, my uncle was Homosexual and I never felt threatened by him or judgmental of him. My parents used him as an example for me, as a pianist and good man. He played the piano for a living and would often visit mental hospitals to play and uplift others. Also as a member of the Church I had a few gay friends in highschool, I still have gay friends and coworkers I think we all do. I have never heard anything from the Church that had made me question my friendship or attitude towards. However I do believe marriage and sexual relationships should be between a man and a woman. (Also marriage then sexual relationships) 🙂
And though I know it isn't the same, please do not be offended with what I am about to write, I also have friends who drink alcoholic beverages, I am against it, however I do not disassociate with these people, but I can keep my beliefs.
I hope this is received with the correct intent. I know I am pretty arrogant in seemingly stating I having all the answers after I stated that I don't, I readily attest I don't have all the answers, but hopefully I have shed a little more light on some if the things talked about here, and hopefully it will help others with similar attitudes think a little more about this is a contemplative way.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
I apologize for my typos, I did this in one take on my phone without proofreading. 🙂