It actually does take a village: A note on community and openness

 

We aren’t called to live in isolation, real or figurative
– neither from God nor from the people of his church

 

A couple of weeks ago, a young couple, new to our ward, spoke in our sacrament meeting.

 

The wife spoke openly of her struggle with relatively newly-diagnosed bipolar disorder, and of her husband’s patient kindness and caring for her.

 

I was deeply impressed, not only by what she said about her husband, but with her.  I appreciated her candor.  I admired her courage.

 

I believe that members of the Church are coming to a better understanding of, and to more compassion for, mental and emotional illness and those who suffer from it.  Elder Holland’s wonderful remarks during the Saturday afternoon session of October 2013 General Conference were a landmark, as were, earlier, Elder Alexander Morrison’s 2003 book Valley of Sorrow: A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Mental Illness and his 2005 Ensign article on “Myths about Mental Illness.”

 

I understand the strong social pressures within and without the Church to act as if we’re perfect, as if we have everything together, and the strong personal urge to avoid too much openness, too much vulnerability.

 

But I also believe that, carried too far, this pretense does us considerable harm.  First of all, it can become, essentially, a lie.  None of us is really perfect, none of us really has his or her act fully together, and few of us even come close.  All of us have insecurities, areas of guilt and feelings of inadequacy.  And it’s awfully hard to keep up such a façade.  And not, it seems to me, very worthwhile.

 

As I write, I’m thinking about two friends who are going through a terribly difficult time, something of which most of us who knew them had no inkling until just the past few days.  A mutual friend wrote to me today, expressing concern and a desire to help, but also saying that he has typically tended to assume that everything is going swimmingly well for others, just not for him.  For that reason, therefore, this recent turn of events in the lives of people we both care about was especially shocking.  How can we help?  Could we have helped earlier?

 

I agree.  And I’ve noticed the same thing.  I sometimes wonder why I’m facing challenges, or why things aren’t going the way I would like for my children. Why is everybody else doing so well?  Why do their paths in life seem so effortless and so effortlessly successful?  Why not us?  But, of course, this is all illusion.  Everybody has challenges.  As the passage in Susan Evans McCloud’s wonderful LDS hymn reminds us, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.”

 

I always think, in this context, of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Ricard Cory”:

 

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

 

And I think of the earlier poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson (d. 1935), which inspired the song:

 

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

 

And I recall this passage, from Mosiah 18:8-10, about the Book of Mormon prophet Alma:

 

And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

 

I understand the need for privacy, and am not calling for the Church to be transformed into one great boundary-less sensitivity-training session and group hug.  But I do think that too much pretense harms us and prevents the Church from fully carrying out its divinely-appointed mission.  Furthermore, acting as if we have to merit admission into heaven rather than to seek entrance via the grace of Christ is plain, unambiguous, heresy.

 

Years ago, Hillary Clinton published a book entitled It Takes a Village.  The title allegedly came from an African proverb:  “It takes a village to raise a child.” She came under a great deal of fire from my fellow members of the vast right-wing conspiracy, and I understand why:  Most of us aren’t fans of Ms. Clinton, and most of us read her title as really saying “It takes an intrusive and vastly-extended state to raise a child.”  But I was very uncomfortable with much of the rhetoric, because, despite my libertarian leanings on political and economic issues, I’m also, at heart, a communitarian.  And I think it really does take a “village” to raise a child — and to sustain and nourish the rest of us, too, even after we’ve left childhood long behind.

 

 

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  • Chris365

    I don’t think it’s a desire to depict ourselves as perfect, and I don’t think that was a desire in the past. I think it’s probably unfair to accuse our predecessors of such. It reminds me too much of those in and out of the church who feel bitter that church history is “white washed” and tries to cover up the warts to make everything and everyone seem perfect about the church and its history.

    Hooey, I say. I simply think many in the past, and now, choose to focus on the positive and overlook the negative in others and ourselves. Consider Pres. Eyring’s counsel:

    “That leads to another principle of unity. It is to speak well of each
    other. Think of the last time you were asked what you thought about how
    someone else was doing in your family or in the Church. It happened to
    me more than once in the past week. Now, there are times we must judge
    others. Sometimes we are required to pronounce such judgments. But more
    often we can make a choice. For instance, suppose someone asks you what
    you think of the new bishop.

    As we get better and better at forging unity, we will think of a scripture
    when we hear that question: “And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know
    the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see
    that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye
    judge ye shall also be judged.”

    Realizing that you see others in an imperfect light will make you likely to be a
    little more generous in what you say. In addition to that scripture, you
    might remember your mother saying—mine did—“If you can’t say anything
    good about a person, don’t say anything at all.”

    That will help you look for what is best in the bishop’s performance and
    character. The Savior, as your loving judge, will surely do that as He
    judges your performance and mine. The scripture and what you heard from
    your mother may well lead you to describe what is best in the bishop’s
    performance and his good intent. I can promise you a feeling of peace
    and joy when you speak generously of others in the Light of Christ. You
    will feel, for instance, unity with that bishop and with the person who
    asked your opinion, not because the bishop is perfect or because the
    person asking you shares your generous evaluation. It will be because
    the Lord will let you feel His appreciation for choosing to step away
    from the possibility of sowing seeds of disunity.”

    Sorry for the massive quote, but if anything is worth reading and applying generously to our lives it is that. I believe when it comes to church history, many want to feel united with rather than tear down or sow the seeds of disunity between us and our predecessors.

    And to the point of your comment, I believe it’s in the same spirit that many (increasingly less) people still do try to focus on the more positive perspective without dwelling and bringing up the negative aspects of our own personalities — either in our personal thought or in word.
    I hope you know I’m not disagreeing with the content of your post though, as I also thoroughly value Elder Holland’s words. And having charity toward others (as well as ourselves) necessitates bearing others burdens, so again there’s not much disagreement.

    I just get uncomfortable at how easy it is to say, “look we’ve improved those guys who came before us didn’t really get it right, but now know the truth and can move on.” Not accusing you of such, but it’s a quick jump from one to the other.

    I’ve got so many hope I don’t offend anyone qualifications in my comment I might as well stop here…

    • G Rant

      I think Dan is right. It is one of the reasons that Mormons often shy away from writing fiction. There are some horrible truths that need to be acknowledged and when you try to write them people ask why you have to focus on that. It makes is difficult to get help when your situation is outside of the norm.
      My first wife has been diagnosed as a psychopath several times, in and out of institutions, just for the fun of it. She has left a mess that I will never be able to clean up. Ever. Most members don’t even acknowledge that personality disorders exist, or have a television understanding of them. I got literally no good advice from the church on this matter. Keep in mind that I am an active, temple attending Mormon who is happily remarried and going to teach about the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood this Sunday. I am not a bitter ex-mo or anywhere near the edge of inactivity. But my divorce had levels of brutality and cruelty that are kind of uncommon and that led a thorough reappraisal of what I believed about blessings and faith and my own worth as an individual.
      I can’t mention my struggles without someone giving me rosy, eyes-covered, ears-plugged, “I’m not listening to this negativity LA LA LA LA LA LA” advice. Except from people who are discovering that they are in the same boat. I spend much of my time with those people trying to save their testimonies from people who don’t seem to get that Nephi, when writing about his enemies, was talking about his brutally dysfunctional family from which he had to flee for his life. I understand what Elder Uchdorf was saying months ago about reaching out to family, but does that mean that Nephi was just not righteous enough to get along with the siblings who wanted to murder him. a lot of times.
      YES I GET THE WE SHOULD FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE, but Nephi’s psalm should tell that only after years of struggle do we “get over” some of the ugliness that members to day think we should overcome by the next time sacrament is passed.
      Spiritual injuries take WAY longer to heal than physical injuries. We should learn that in our church.
      Also I have many friends who are bi-polar. She lives her life not knowing from one day to the next if she will remember the difference between moral and immoral. At times she feels so removed from the Spirit that she can’t believe their is a God, even though the day before she was utterly convinced He is there. She has tried three times to kill herself. And what does she get from her mother (an upstanding member of the ward)? She gets scorn for her weakness and told, in essence, that mental illness equals immorality. The advice she got from one bishop was so wrong that it could have led to a fourth attempt. Don’t get me wrong, the bishop is a good man, just not psychologist, and not in any way acquainted with the kind of darkness she enters at times.
      This kind of rambles, I know, but in church we often acknowledge in a vague sense that life is hard and we are none of us perfect. But when those imperfections become more specific than, “I struggle with pride (a meaningless and stupid admission made from the stand all the time) and eating too much,” most members forget what the Lord said about not judging people.

      I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

      Oh, Right!

      Until our wards and branches become villages that can bouy up all those who are struggling and on the verge of surrender, without seeing an opportunity to lecture, many, many, people who might have stayed will leave in search of a village that accepts them. Sadly, those other villages often don’t just accept weakness, they encourage us to wallow in it. The gospel is where we are taught A. that God GAVE men weakness, specifically so that B. we can bring those weaknesses to Him so that C, those weaknesses can be made strong.

      Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnndddd….scene.

      • Chris365

        Nephi is a good example. He acknowledges tragedy, sin and his own weakness. Largely in principle. He didn’t dwell on the details. It’s a pattern I prefer. But too each his own.

        • G Rant

          The truth is that we don’t really know if Nephi dwelt on details. All we know is that he felt a need to include this conflict in his dramatically abridged memoirs.

      • Y. A. Warren

        My understanding is that Mormons used to tithe and give only within their own closely-knit wards, but that the LDS church incorporated in a legal sense, so that all the taking and giving goes through the central church. This is my problem with anonymous “charity”; there is no connected responsible compassion when we are not in committed community. The earliest followers of Jesus met in small groups, as do real families.

        • DanielPeterson

          I’m not sure whether your account of the administrative history of tithing is entirely accurate or not, but I do know that fast offerings — the principal monies used for helping members of the Mormon community who are in need — are gathered and used locally.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I apologize if I am wrong about the history of tithing. Does the LDS church only help people in their own church “wards?”

          • RaymondSwenson

            Tithing has always been subject to disposition by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twleve Apostles. Fast Offerings are a donation that is based on members fasting from two meals on the first Sunday of the month and donating the food money saved (and more if they can) to the fund. That money is spent locally by the bishop of the ward (congregation) to meet the needs of members locally, and any surplus is forwarded up to the stake and then the Church.
            When a bishop learns of someone within his ward’s geographic boundaries who is in acute need, who is not a member of the LDS Church, he has discretion to provide a limited amount of direct financial aid out of the Fast Offerings fund on an emergency basis.
            Members can donate to a Humanitarian Aid fund, to help cover the cost of aid sent by the Church to help victims of natural disasters, such as the haiti earthquakes and the Japan Tsunami.
            Additionally, the Church maintains a system of farms and food processing facilities that grow and package and stockpile food that is distributed to members in need whose need has been certified by their bishop. Church members donate their labor to produce and distribute the food. This food bank is also tapped to send aid to disaster locations. After World War I and again after World War II, the Church sent large amounts of grain and other needs to help people (regardless of religion) in Europe suffering from the effects of the wars.
            The Church-sponsored employment services agency will help non-Mormons find jobs as well.
            When someone has a need that involves physical labor, such as repairing a fence or a house, or helping to load a moving van, members are notified and come in on short notice to provide aid, especially to those who are too old or ill to take care of themselves. There are many stories recounting how Mitt Romney as the leader of a Mormon congregation in Boston was directly involved in that kind of labor.
            In addition to those formal programs, many congregations participate in community efforts. For example, most of the LDS congregations in the metropolitan area where I live participate in filling and donating food kits, enough to feed four people for two days, to the Salvation Army. My own congregation last year donated some 80 boxes that cost $35 or more each to fill.
            I did a comparison a few months ago between the humanitarian donations program of the United Methodist Church in the USA and that of the LDS Church in the USA. I found that the donations per person were comparable, and those were in addition to the contributions of fast offerings, other donations and labor that LDS Church members make that aid fellow church members. A research study by the University of Pennsylvania published last year showed that, in addition to donations of time and resources that benefit fellow church members, Mormons in the US also make donations to other charities at levels comparable to any other group of donors.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Thank you. I have long admired much in the limited amount that I knew about the LDS church. Thank you for expanding my knowledge.

          • RaymondSwenson

            You may also be interested to know that no one at a local or regional leel in the LDS Church gets paid for their work as leaders or teachers. The bishop of a ward, and the presaident of a stake, are contiributing 20-30 hours a week, without financial compensation, while supporting their families with regular jobs as farmers, truck drivers, military officers, attorneys, businessmen, doctors, and even university professors. The money that in other churches goes to support the minister(s) is used to meet the needs of the congregation as a whole.
            These practices teach Mormons to make contributions of their time and talents as a regular part of their worship and daily lives. The people who performed the U Penn study recounted how surprised they were at the many informal ways that Mormons learned about the needs of someone and personally and directly acted to answer those needs, both physical and emotional. Inviting people to get involved in giving service to someone else strengthens their self-worth and confidence to be able to tackle their own challenges.

          • Y. A. Warren

            This does sound admirable to me. Thank you for sharing this information on your faith.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    Thanks, Dan.

    • DanielPeterson

      Thank YOU.

  • disqus_j1IxWQ1QEm

    Well expressed, Dan. Some years ago, while serving as bishop, I shared with a wonderful and struggling member of the ward that I had gone for a session at LDS Family Services due to some unresolved anxiety I was feeling while serving as bishop. Her shoulders relaxed and she said, “You mean you’ve felt this, too?” We had a good visit and she benefitted for her visits to a therapist. I didn’t try to make a big deal about my struggles, nor did I (or do I) dwell on those struggles, but sharing in that particular instance was helpful. Thanks for the post.

  • RaymondSwenson

    We in the Church are blessed by the various callings we receive that involve helping people through some of the.most painful episodes of their.lives. It can be very uncomfortable holding the responsibility of a bishopric or a stake high council and seeing the emotional pain that some members inflict on others, often because the perpetrators were themselves victims of traumatic abuse. Having responsibility to represent the Lord to people who are suffering is a sobering experience that calls on us to develop true empathy and love, as well as humility about our own need for repentance and humility and submision to Heavenly Father.

    The teachings of Elder Holland are important because so often those who blame people with chronic mental illness for causing their situation are also people who like to think of themselves as obedient to those in authority. I hope that some hearts were turned to reflection and repentance. And that those suffering from mental illness felt assured that their anxieties and burdens are not sins, and do not disqualify them from approaching God in prayer.


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