Tuesday, February 26, 2013

If you're happy and you know it, good for you!

I listened to a Planet Money podcast this morning (I’m way behind; it was weeks old) that talked about happiness metrics for countries. As part of the discussion, economists posited that they could determine a person’s happiness level with a few simple question – age (the older you are, the happier you are), marital status (married people tend to be happier), children (parents are less happy than non-parents)…

That runs counter to what we told ourselves when we married and planned to have a family. We pictured ourselves with our sweet children around us in some family portrait of togetherness and joy.

And yet, looking back on my last nearly 32 years of parenting, I have to say I get what the economists are saying.

There are a lot of unhappy times for parents. Terrible twos. Teething. Sleepless babies. Night terrors. Bed wetting. Sibling rivalries. Dead pets. Broken bones. Wrecked toys. Broken “pretty things” in the living room. Spilled milk. Rebellion. Surly teenagers. Broken hearts. Broken commandments. Bad choices. Academic struggles. And on and on.

And yes, there are happy times, too. And each family has its own mix. And sometimes things can move from happy to sad – or sad to happy – in an instant.

Despite my years of experience, I’m no expert, just battle worn. But it seems to me that one reason why parents are less than happy is because of unrealized expectations. As a new father I had the crazy idea that my kids would be happy when I corrected them, that they would gladly receive my parental counsel and want to follow it. I’m sure that’s the way I was with my dad, wasn’t I? Wasn’t I?

Of course in the church we know the stakes for families are very high. And so are the potential rewards. Parents in the gospel understand the value of making and keeping sacred covenants, and we want our children to know the blessings we have known. And when they don’t seem to want them, we are sad. We’re disappointed. And we’re scared.

It’s all too easy to look across the aisle in sacrament meeting at the Perfect Family and wish our family could be like theirs. Children of all ages well groomed and attentive in sacrament meeting (or gazing lovingly at their parents in adoration, or charitably assisting younger siblings at whatever wonderful thing they are trying to do). We tell ourselves that if we have regular family scripture study and Family Home Evening, everything will work out in the end. And we wonder how far we must be from the end, because things don’t seem to have worked out yet.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned along my 32 years and counting of parenthood: my happiness as a parent cannot depend on what my kids do. I cannot build my own image of myself as a parent or a person based on what someone else with his or her own agency does. Not only is it silly on the face of it, it’s counter to the fundamental teachings of agency. God is no less God because I sin. He is not defined by my choices. And I am not defined by my children’s choices.

In the rooms of 12-step recovery programs, one learns pretty quickly that setting up expectations for others leads to resentment, and resentment leads to indulging in addictions. One way we break that cycle is to abandon the idea that we can set expectations for others. In those 12-steps, one learns that the only person I can control is me. (And in the case of addiction, I may not always be able to control me.)

Does that mean we don’t have standards? Of course not. We set standards. We have family rules. We also have consequences when someone doesn’t live up to family rules. But we don’t expect our children (or ourselves) to be perfect. In fact, we expect that our children (and we) will fail along the way, and that they (and we) will bear the consequences of that failure. Some parenting experts teach that we should HOPE our children make big mistakes while they live at home so that we can still have an influence on them.

Our Heavenly Father knew we would fail. He knew we would make many mistakes in our journey home to Him. That’s why he sent His Son to suffer and die and be resurrected for us – so that we could overcome our very natures, so that we could recover from our regular failures.

I don’t know if Heavenly Father feels sadness the way we do. I suspect he sees the end from the beginning better than I do, and so perhaps he does not have the hopelessness that I have felt as a father. I do know this, though. I know that when I pray about my children, I’m reminded in the Spirit of good things they do and good things they will do, even if some of what they are doing now isn’t so good. I believe that is the Spirit teaching me to look forward with the eye of faith, to believe that it will all work out in the end, and to realize that if it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end yet.

And that makes me happy. Tired, but happy.

BTW, you can read a re-posting of one my most popular posts from A Latter-day Voice at Real Intent here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Next To Normal

My lovely wife and I saw the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal this week in its Michigan premiere run. It was, as good theatre should be, emotionally cathartic, truth-telling, entertaining and exhausting.

The pop/rock musical tells the story of bi-polar disorder and grief in a suburban family. And any family that has suffered loss, mental illness, or even “normal” family dysfunction would feel the shards of truth poking through the upbeat score.

The title comes from a line at the end of the play when teenage daughter Natalie tells her mother that she does not need a normal life, but a “next to normal” life will do. As that line resonated in my head long after I left the theatre, I reflected on a Douglas Coupland novel I read years ago, All Families are Psychotic. Most of his novels demonstrate the premise of that title: every family has its way of being weird.

From that thread I was taken to sixth grade where I learned in some subject (probably Social Studies) that there is no real “normal.” I can’t even remember the context in which I learned that lesson, except perhaps to demonstrate that we ought not hold out expectations for one another to behave in certain ways. (I was in sixth grade in 1969-70; do your own thing.)

Next to normal. Everyone is different. Do you own thing.

Not quite the message of today’s LDS culture, is it?

Indeed the gospel teaches us we are created in God’s image. The Savior is our perfect example. In the same sense as the Platonic ideal we look to the Godhead for guidance of who and how we should be.

We teach standards to our youth (and have for decades!) to keep them on track, to keep them safe from the temptations of “the world” around them. Our universities impose dress and behavior codes. As an employer, the church and its institutions also exact a standard of dress and behavior, and even in our volunteer service we do the same. At the same time, we are a missionary church, reaching out to an every wider diversity of non-members, yet hoping they will allow the atonement to take hold in their lives, allowing them to enjoy the blessings of gospel living.

Somewhere between rigid conformity and free-spirited do-what-you-please is truth.

There is little doubt in my mind that my Father in Heaven cares more about what is in my heart than how long my beard is. But I fully respect that if I want to serve in the temple, I need to shave my beard. There is no doubt in my heart that God would choose a young woman to be compassionate and kind before counting the piercings in her ear. But I also believe he’d like her to be aware of and follow prophetic counsel. I have no question that the Lord wants a deacon who is honest and true, a good friend and a good influence on those around him more than he wants him in a starched white shirt on Sunday morning, but I also see the value in the starched white shirt for the symbolism that it carries for the deacon and for those whom he serves.

In our quest to conform, however, we need to remember that each of us is a child of God. Just as my seven children are each unique, so are my Father in Heaven’s children unique. The miracle of the Savior’s comparison of his disciples to the lilies of the field is not that the lilies are all the same, but that each is different, and yet the Lord still cares for them. The children’s song is “I am a child of God,” not “We are children of God.” It is an individual anthem, attentive to the needs – just as the Savior was and continues to be – of The One.

Elder Scott spoke several years ago about the fact that in conference our leaders often speak of the ideal – ideal families and individual behavior – but that they recognize that often we do not live in ideal circumstances. Indeed, the point of the atonement is that we all fall short of the ideal and for that reason we need, and have, a Savior. God loves us so much that He provided a way for us to find peace.

Over at Real Intent, a ten-day series on mental disorders is finishing up this weekend. I hope you’ve had a chance to take a look at it. You’ll find a variety of approaches to mental illness from many perspectives. There’s discussion about different disorders, and different ways the same disorders may manifest themselves. There is discussion about a variety of ways to cope with those disorders and a wide array of resources that can help.

One of the things the series has reminded me of, just as the play reminded me of: our baptismal covenant teaches us to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Nowhere in Mosiah 18 does it tell us our covenant includes an injunction to judge one another or to attribute blame for our neighbor’s trials. We are not to be as Job’s friends, obliquely suggesting he is somehow responsible for his own suffering. We are to mourn and to comfort.

In my next-to-normal life, I cherish those friends and family members who have mourned with me and comforted me, and it gives me courage and hope that I can do the same for others.

Note: I loved the production of Next to Normal I saw, and I would encourage anyone who has the chance to see it. Fair warning, however: this play (like so many these days) is laced with profanity. If that sort of thing will trouble you, then proceed with caution. For me, the profanity was tolerable. Far more jarring are the implications of the mental illness and its treatment and effects, but then, that’s the whole point of the play.

Friday, February 15, 2013

New Series at Real Intent

Only rarely do I devote a post to promoting another post somewhere else, but this is one of those times.

There's a new series starting at Real Intent today, Peculiar Minds. The ten-day series will focus on mental disorders and will include personal experiences, researched pieces, resources, and so on. I encourage you to go over an have a look.

One in four American adults confronts mental illness; chances are the series will benefit you or someone you love.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

For Valentine's Day, Thanks Will

Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

-- William Shakespeare

Monday, February 11, 2013

The vent

I am not a big fan of venting. Oh, it’s fine for the dryer and the furnace. But not for my emotions. Because unlike the dryer or the furnace, where the vent carefully directs the hot air, my venting spews my hot air in places I do not want it to go, places where it generally does more harm than good.

I do acknowledge that sometimes we need to talk things out. Sometimes, we need to share our emotions, even raw ones, to sort through them and to get a handle on appropriate next steps. But simply venting, letting off steam, spewing out the bile that afflicts us, is not the same.

I grew up in a home where we were often quick to speak (and maybe slower to think about the implications of what we said). That tendency still plagues me today to the detriment of those I love the most. I do not blame my family of origin for my quickness to shoot off my mouth – it’s been 35 years since I lived at home, and I don’t observe the same behavior among my siblings. And I’ve made a lot of progress in this regard in the last decade of my life, much to the benefit of those I love the most. But I have a long way to go.

In the end, it’s a good thing for us to learn not to say everything that pops into our head.

For instance, I love my ward’s Gospel Doctrine teacher. He prepares well. He’s faithful and he leads a good discussion. But once in a while he says something I find a little goofy. (I’m sure people find some of what I say goofy when I teach, too.) I learned some time ago that the time for me to discuss my feelings about anything goofy said by my Gospel Doctrine teacher is NOT in the car on the way home from church. My lovely wife (who is as charitable as the day is long, and then some) is not interested in my complaints about the Gospel Doctrine lesson. Further, she doesn’t want me to give my teenage son any more ammunition than he can manufacture for himself to complain about his classes. (I remember the first time I heard one of my kids parrot back a complaint about one of their teachers that I made about mine. Yikes. Way to follow my example, kids.)

I have heard others offer critiques about sacrament meeting talks, firesides, directions from the bishop. At some point this “venting” is not only unpleasant, but it’s destructive.

So, what to do when something happens I don’t like? Hmm. I can think of three possibilities that are better than kvetching about it:

1. Forget about it. This is by far the best one. I need to remember that I’ll be judged by whatever judgment I use, and it would be just as well to spare myself by looking past my own complaints.

2. Pray about it. The one and only safe place to vent is to the One who already knows, namely my Father in Heaven. If I go to Him in humble prayer, He can help me to know if I need to do anything more (including, perhaps, repent of my prideful assumption that I know best). I’m reminded of Elder Uceda’s story of a father who prayed before dealing with a daughter who did not want to participate in family scripture study. What a revelation to me about the humbling power of prayer.

3. Talk about it – to the right person. If there really is something that needs discussion, then I ought to find the right person. If I have a beef with the Sunday School teacher, I can talk to him and share my point of view, and then let it go. I can share something I’ve read or another reading of a verse, but in the end, I’m not the Doctrine Police. If I’m concerned about something involving one of my kids, I can seek out the individual involved and have a gentle conversation. If I need to involve the leadership of the organization or the bishop, I can prayerfully consider that. What I don’t need to do is gossip about it to other members of my family or ward.

In Isaiah 1:18, the Lord invites us to “reason together,” and if we do that though our “sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Motivation enough to reason with the Lord rather than complaining to anyone who is within earshot.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Prehistoric Man in Seveth Grade Social Studies

I was surprised the other night at dinner by what my seventh grader said. (Usually it’s my high schooler who surprises me, mostly because I think he lays awake at night thinking of ways to do so because it’s so much fun for him to see me react.)

They’ve begun a new unit in Social Studies that is looking at prehistoric developments like cave paintings in Europe. The cave paintings have been dated to up to 40,000 years ago, and some speculate that they may come from Neanderthals instead of Homo Sapiens. That didn’t surprise me. But what came next did. My daughter said her social studies teach said she’d get in trouble if she taught Chapter 2 out of their book, so they’d be skipping that.

I asked what was in Chapter 2, and my daughter wasn’t completely sure (they only have a classroom set of the books, so we couldn't look at it together), but she thought it had to do with human evolution from Neanderthal to Homo Sapiens. We talked a little about why that might be a hot topic, and I expressed my surprise that they would not discuss it in class. I explained that many of our friends in our area are fundamentalist Christians, who tend to take a more literal approach to the creation story than we do. Further, they tend to accept an ex nihilo approach to the creation. Those ideas are not completely compatible with scientific theories of the beginnings of the earth and the development of man.

I’m still puzzled at the notion that my daughter’s teacher would get in trouble for teaching accepted anthropology in a social studies class, but I chalk that up to hyperbole from either the teacher or my daughter’s understanding of what her teacher said.

But I also took the opportunity to offer some other thoughts to my daughter on the subject of evolution. I pointed out that there are many faithful Latter-day Saints who take a similar approach to our fundamentalist Christian friends, who believe in a time bound specific creation as described in Genesis, and for whom the theory of evolution is something not to be believed, and even to be feared.

I also said that I don’t hold that view. I said our modern prophets have taught that the church does not take a stand on organic evolution, but does teach – and has consistently taught -- that man is a specific and precious creation of our Father in Heaven. Modern prophets in years past have made specific statements that have been quoted and re-quoted over the years. A First Presidency letter published in 1909 was republished in the November 2002 Ensign. It teaches the divine nature of the creation of man in the image of our Father in Heaven. Among other things, we read there:

It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declared that Adam was “the first man of all men” (Moses 1:34), and we are therefore in duty bound to regard him as the primal parent of our race. It was shown to the brother of Jared that all men were created in the beginning after the image of God; whether we take this to mean the spirit or the body, or both, it commits us to the same conclusion: Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our Heavenly Father.
What others have written (including the First Presidency-approved entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism) is this:

The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how.

Both the 1909 letter and subsequent statements from other First Presidency members have made clear that the question of evolution as a theory is not essential to our salvation. They have counseled church leaders to focus on those things that are essential to salvation – the preaching of the gospel and administering in the ordinances thereof. Further, they suggest, we should leave scientific inquiry and exploration to the scientists.

Here’s why this is important to me, and why I wanted to spend time with my seventh grader on the subject. When I was in ninth grade and had a lesson on organic evolution in my biology class, I felt I had to defend the church’s anti-evolution point of view. I assumed my church taught what other churches taught, that evolution was evil and ignored the need for God. (And, in truth, there are some in that time who clearly taught those things in church).

What I have since learned is a more nuanced approach. I can accept the divine parentage of a loving Father in Heaven without understanding the how of His creation. And I can accept the good that has come from the study of evolution and the wonderful organism that is the human body. And further, I can encourage my children to explore the sciences, to study them and to understand them. Our world needs bright scientists to continue to explore and discover and invent.

My children and I can look critically at scientific theory and we can also examine critically the literal interpretation of religious texts. And by critically, I do not mean we find fault with them, but I mean we can examine them, understand them, seek parallels and differences, identify what we do and do not understand, select areas for further study and understanding and so on. The conversation is at least as important as the outcome at this stage of my daughter’s life.

I pointed out to her that she will meet lots of people with lots of views on this particular subject, even within our extended family. And it’s ok to have different points of view. Those who are more or less conservative than she is on this matter are entitled to their opinions; these are not matters essential to salvation, and are not worth losing precious relationships over. In the end, as she matures, my wonderful daughter will draw her own conclusions. And that’s ok.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Revelations In Context -- How cool is that?

Last week, Ardis alerted us to the unveiling of Revelations In Context at lds.org (link here).

At the website are a series of essays providing historical context to sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. It appears as articles are added, they’re featured on the main page, and older articles will be available in a list at the bottom of the page.

I was grateful for Ardis’ blog post at Keepa’ because I personally find lds.org a bit maddening when I am trying to find something. I don’t browse the site, and I never would have known to look for this new page. Now that I’ve found it, however, I’m loving it!

For yesterday’s Gospel Doctrine lesson, for instance, I was able to read about Martin Harris and the Three Witnesses in two separate posts. (I’m not the teacher, just a lowly student, but I was able to point out Martin’s huge contributions to the work of the restoration as the classroom banter focused on his misstep in requesting the 116-page manuscript.)

Ardis reports about the historical articles:

Written by historians – real live actual working professional historians who are also faithful members of the Church – drawing on the formidable resources of the Joseph Smith Papers project – illustrated by photographs from the Church History Library – linked to images of the original (or earliest extant) written revelations – footnoted to suit even the giddiest lover of footnotes – Revelations in Context explains what was going on at the time and and in the place when a revelation was given.

These essays identify the people involved, and tell of religious and civil history, about social customs, and the state of science and technology, and the geography related to the revelations, and whatever else is helpful to our understanding. They are long enough to be thorough, yet brief enough to be practical. The writing is authoritative yet accessible to all.

And, wonder of wonders, they are, or very shortly will be, linked to the Gospel Doctrine lesson manuals online, so that teachers and class members alike can be easily directed to these resources we have so long wished for.

This is really cool stuff, and will certainly aid me in my study of the Doctrine and Covenants this year. I’ve read about half the articles so far, and I’ve been impressed with their readability (both in terms of length and complexity) and thoroughness. In the Martin Harris article, for instance, I read about Martin’s switching out Joseph’s seer stone for another and, upon finding Joseph could not use the substituted stone, confessed that he was trying to put at rest nay-sayers. I’d never read that story before and was pleased to find it in the church-published article.

As I’ve thought about how to study the Doctrine and Covenants this year, one thing I wanted to do was get a better sense of the history of the revelations, and these articles on the church’s website will be a big help to that. Of course, the articles owe a great deal to the Joseph Smith Papers project and to the Church History library.