Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Enduring to the End or Copping Out?

Here's another essay draft that I'm preparing to post on Mormon Matters, which has fast become one of the top-visited Mormon blogs (my post there on shrinking Mormon families has gotten over 30 responses and was highlighted in the Deseret Morning News Bloggernacle report). I don't post this one until Feb. 28, so if you have any suggestions or challenges for improving it, I've got plenty of time to apply them.

As a person who has allowed his life to get too busy and as part of my midlife crisis—I’m 41 and feeling increasing dissatisfaction and anxiety about certain areas of my life, mainly related to career—I’ve been looking more closely at how I spend my time and energy. While I remain a person who is honestly not troubled with doubts about Mormon doctrine and history—for me, the solid stuff far outweighs the occasional aberrations, inconsistencies, and uncertainties—I have plenty of trouble with the Mormon culture and lifestyle, especially some of the regular spiritual disciplines that everyone seems to think are mandatory and one-size-fits-all.

Let’s Mormo-psycho-analyze me for a moment, shall we? I’d like your input on whether I’m off base or on track to a better, more sustainable reality. And maybe you’d like to share some of your own struggles and successes in these same areas:

Home teaching: I have been with the same partner for several years, and let me tell you, he’s a home-teaching machine who absolutely never misses a month. And right now my family is assigned to be visited by an equally gung-ho home teacher. These guys drive me bonkers. Each month, I find myself feeling stalked on both ends, and I really want them to ease off—with my personal and family time under increased pressure and each month passing by so quickly for me, I find such frequent visits repetitive and intrusive. I can see the value of home teaching for socially bonding together a ward and for helping families who really do need it, but under my own present circumstances I honestly feel that quarterly would be perfect for both visiting and being visited, and I am getting very close to making that preference known—however, I live right next to BYU, so you can imagine how well that would go over in my ward. Still, I’d much rather participate less often and feel less irritated. But my quorum president is the kind of guy who’s obsessed with numbers and does people’s home teaching if they don’t, so I hesitate.

Daily scripture study: I’m very grateful for the scriptures and can appreciate their worth to our church. However, I personally think they’re a bit overhyped as to how much we can keep getting out of them by rereading them over and over. I’m a passionate reader, and I have tried to do daily scripture study at different times in my life, but it always ends up feeling overall tedious and irritating, with the occasional smidgeon of new insight. Rather than not study scriptures at all, I now read a chapter from the Book of Mormon each Sunday and call it good. This is doable for me, and I believe I get more benefit out of that than trying and failing to enjoy daily reading and just giving up altogether. But of course, there are many Mormons who would think I’m on the road to apostasy for not following the widely touted standard of daily reading.

Temple attendance: Ouch, I’m horrible at this. Although I maintain a current recommend, I’m one of those who lives a block away but makes it only once a year. I just loathe blowing a whole evening on it even with Baskin Robbins as a reward, and sitting through the session usually makes me feel either antsy or sleepy, although I occasionally feel some warm peace too. I need to be careful here, because I do very much believe in temple ordinances, but I personally find the spiritual benefits of temple attendance to be considerably overhyped. I don’t get what people mean when they say, “I learn something new every time.” Yes, a big component of temple attendance is serving others—so I ask you, why do we have to sit through the movie every time? Unless the dead actually somehow view the movie through our eyes, which I doubt, why can’t temples offer a streamlined version in which we perform just the essential endowment ordinances for the dead? I’m sure I’d go more often, and think of how much more work could get done—in the Millennium, I bet we won’t have to watch the movie every time. I’m not saying to do away with the movie—keep it for first-timers and as an option for whenever anyone wants a refresher. But viewing it every time just feels like overkill to me, and it’s one of the main reasons I don’t get around to it.

Missionary service: I was simply done with the missionary program after one year, mentally and emotionally checked out. The missionary lifestyle and approach were simply not sustainable beyond one year for me, and I personally believe that much of my discomfort and disappointment was due to unnecessary, unrealistic expectations, restrictions, and privations. But of course the social pressure made it unthinkable to go home early, so I coasted through the last year, getting put out to pasture with other coasters and mostly wasting my time and my parents’ money. I wish our culture were such that I could have honestly assessed where I was at and made the decision that one year was enough for me. Again, why the one-size-fits-all standard and the overwhelming stigma against those who don’t perfectly conform to it? It causes needless suffering and is downright unchristian in many ways, says I.

Dress code: I personally reject the Mormon priesthood dress code, disliking it on both the symbolic and practical levels. I think it’s cultural, not doctrinal. So I don’t always wear a tie, never a white shirt, don’t own a suit, sometimes wear nice leather sandals without socks in summer, and often wear a pair of newer black Levi’s. I choose to wear a groomed beard and would never shave it off just because some church leader asked (frankly, I’ve been a little disappointed that no one’s yet given me the opportunity to stand up for myself on this issue). Psychologically, this nonconformity helps me continue participating without feeling consumed by what I see as nauseatingly conformist cultural Mormonism. (Or maybe it’s just one of my ways of being passive-aggressive.)

Odds and ends: This is going to shock you, but fasting once a month grates on me. So I tend to do it every other month, and I would also do an extra fast when facing an unusual crisis that's really got me scared. This is my personal benchmark that I’m willing and able to do without resentment and irritation. On family home evening, we tend to hit it about every second or third week, and from my standpoint that’s because weekly comes too often. On attending church meetings, I find I’m more willing to go with a reasonably willing heart most weeks if I can skip priesthood and Sunday school once a month, which is what I do. It also helps my attitude if, during church, I can read church magazines (the Ensign, Sunstone, and Dialogue) and, on weekends when I have to grade papers, get some of those done during church too. I’ve decided that I don’t like to sing, so I never do, although I do open the hymnal for the sacrament hymn and mentally follow along with the words, as a form of worship. I have chosen to be a regular partaker of selected R-rated movies, decaf, and nonalcoholic malt beverages, because Mormonism is so strict and rigid and these small pleasures help mitigate my resentment.

OK, enough self-inventory. What do you think—am I just a worldly, self-indulgent wimp, or do most Mormons make personal accommodations along similar lines, only we don’t admit it or discuss it because Mormon culture is so obsessed with benchmarks and perceptions, at the price of individuality and authenticity? I’m personally relieved that I haven’t felt the need to apply my personal accommodations to temple-recommend-level issues—I don’t try to get away with paying 5% tithing or drinking beer only once a month. Maybe I’m missing out on some blessings gained by those who hit all the arbitrary benchmarks set by our culture—and OK, I acknowledge that these benchmarks are largely set by the Brethren, but not quite at the commandment level. I guess I just don’t think it has to be all or nothing at this sub-commandment level—in fact, I hate to see people drift away because they think it does have to be all or nothing at any level. Be yourself, man, but don’t let go of the rope.

The bottom line is that I’m a grown up and get to make my own choices, and Mormonism’s one-size-fits-all cultural standards don’t all work for me—I just chafe too much under the pressure and discipline, and I know my limitations. I don’t personally pick and choose and make personal adjustments when it comes to what I believe—I accept or feel content to wait and see on all aspects of Mormon doctrine and history—but I imagine others inwardly take this kind of approach on doctrine and history too, because otherwise they would get too irritated to stick with this faith. I think it would be much harder to stick with Mormonism if my issues were historical or doctrinal, so my hat’s off to those of you in that boat.

So that’s where I’m at and how I’m staying active in the church and trying to endure to the end. I'd rather deal with a little guilt than a lot of irritation. How about you?


Anonymous said...

I feel very similar to you in a lot of respects. I am much worse at home teaching.

I remember a quote, can't find it now, but it stated something about when we reach the point that our responsibilities are no longer an annoyance and we really want to do them is when we will be endowed with true power.

Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn't be so depressed if I were more diligent. I know it isn't that simple but of course when you are depressed you wonder such things.

Stick with it, it is better to do some good than no good.

Anonymous said...

I've thought about the same stuff a lot. To be honest, if I were designing a religion, I'd do the same thing: focus exclusively on the middle 95%. Make them do all sorts of crazy, orthodox stuff to deepen their commitment. Create a culture that perpetuates the doing of crazy things by looking askance at anyone doing anything that seems different.

Yeah, by doing so you marginalize the tails of the curve, but that middle 95% is going to beget a bigger 95% and they're going to beget an even bigger 95%, etc. You can't develop that kind of self-perpetuating commitment if you're willing to care about what happens to the people on the tails. You end up with a bunch of "inactives" with weak commitments (see most other Christian denominations).

Uh -- IMHO.

And I like home teaching. It's like having assigned enemies. In any social situation that includes both teacher and teachee, you know *exactly* who you need to avoid. Gives life structure, makes decisions easier.

On that note,


Anonymous said...

I admire your courage and honesty for bringing up such a sensitive topic when you're likely to be judged for your confessions harshly.

You ask about the rest of us? I think it's an interesting question. Often in LDS culture there is pressure to do certain things. Even though they might be "good" things, they sometimes can feel void and empty of purpose.

I think when that happens we get in the mode of just going through the motions - and in my experience, that doesn't produce very much happiness. I actually just read an interesting quote this morning. So, if I may be allowed to engage in Mormon taboo and quote someone who's not a General Authority, I write a couple lines from Bob Millett's book - Grace Works:

"Without... trust in the Lord, without relinquishing our own stranglehold on life, we will probably work ourselves into a frenzy of spiritual and physical exhuastion, doing all the rigth things but feeling little pleasure in them."

I know I've felt that way in my life sometimes when trying to do all the right things, some of which I think are culture-imposed and not necessarily pillars of an objectively virtuous life. All that being said, I think that we're almost always safer doing a good thing - even if its for a not so good reason, than we are doing something wrong.

Going to church, fasting, reading the scriptures, serving through home teaching, watching edifying entertainment - those are all things that I think can feel empty of purpose and completely devoid of joy if we do them just to be good Mormons or Christians - or even to become like Christ.

I'm still learning in this area, like most areas, but in my case those things almost always feel somewhat unfulfilling if I do them just to do them, or emulate the Savior. But when I read the scriptures because it helps me recognize God throughout my day, when I stay away from rated 'R' movies because they affect my ability to retain control of my thoughts, or fast because I want to fine-tune my ability to communion - when I do those things, then I have real joy and happiness. The things aren't empty anymore.

That's me though. I think a letter-of-the-law type of obedience can kind of dilude the potency of good things. But even with the Pharisees in the New Testament - I don't think the Savior's beef with them was that they did what they were asked to. I think it was because they didn't understand why they were doing them, but said they did.

Just because Mormons feel like we have a "higher" law than that of Moses because we have the Savior's teachings - I don't think that keeps us from the danger of looking beyond the mark. Looking has never been the issue - it's what we're looking at, I think.

And I try to always look at the Savior, hoping that He's looking at me. Doing good things because we want to be good - I think that's great. But I'm not certain it's the ultimate end of what we're striving for. It leaves us unfulfilled - at least me. However, when I do good things because they are good, versus because I want to be good - I feel something different. Something good.

~ Kurt Manwaring ~

Anonymous said...

Yo. Bigsy. I think this issue begins to zero in on a fundamental flaw most Latter-Day Saints: the impulse to assess their own spirituality in comparison to their peers' visible spiritual benchmarks. It's a religious keeping-up-with-the-Joneses culture that is counter productive.

Naturally, when we compare our spiritual journeys with others, sometimes we'll feel smugly superior, and sometimes achingly inferior. And sometimes that we're actually doing ok. But that is flawed because God will only ultimately judge the individual relative to the individual's lifelong circumstances. Each final judgment rendered will be as unique as the fingerprints of the person being judged. And that is something I find extremely fair and comforting.

Also, this could lead to a spinoff discussion of the nasty caste-system mentality that infiltrates Mormon culture. You know: We're doing very well financially, ergo that reflects our inner spirituality. Or: We were born in this blessed land/family, ergo we must have been more valiant in the pre-existence than those other schmucks down the street.

But I'll reserve comment on that for another time.

Peace to you and yo momma.

Anonymous said...

A ture rebel without a cause...and to make sure that this doesnt sound gallant or romantic...a rebel without anyone who cares if you are rebelling.

Buy some shoes, wear a white shirt, quit trying to make such a bit statement about nothing.