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).