General Conf. – a Mental Health Perspective (Saturday Afternoon)

We find ourselves once again gathered like the people of Benjamin to listen to the spiritual leaders of our day.  I have found that these General Conference messages go on to color our spiritual lens in a variety of ways for the foreseeable future – in family, church, internet and many other settings.  And as I participate in this bi-annual Mormon ritual, I -like many of you- have a myriad of insights, thoughts, questions, spiritual experiences, and concerns come up in regards to the many aspects of my life (personal, relational, spiritual, cultural and professional).  Therefore, I thought I’d give you an inside look into the process that takes place for me in the hopes that we can further, and when necessary nuance and complicate, the dialogue in hopes that we may better incorporate correct teachings and principles in healthy and vibrant ways.  I would hope that regardless of our many varying opinions – this would be a common goal.  Please join me through the comment section to share your voice as to how this conference’s messages are affecting you.  What can we celebrate and feel “called” to incorporate into our lives in significant ways?  What lifts and edifies? What do we need to challenge or think through in different ways (understanding that it is difficult to cover any subject in complete depth within the framework of 10 to 15 minutes that these men and women are given)?  What might be healthy for some to hear while for others not so healthy (i.e. those managing depression, ocd, anxiety, etc.)?  How do we frame our ideas and thoughts in respectful ways – especially when we may disagree with one another?  How do we maintain the balance between trusting ourselves, offering our voice, and keeping our commitment to sustain our leaders (whom I believe only have positive and protective intentions)?

My comments will be italicized.

I am always touched by the strength of spirit with which our Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings and the beauty of truth and principle within our hymns.  I felt the spirit strongly as they sang:

Glory to God on high! Praise ye his name.  His love and grace adore, who all our sorrows bore.

Jesus as the Messiah he came… Giving us hope of a wonderful life yet to be–

We thank thee for sending the gospel to lighten our minds with its rays.  When dark clouds of trouble hang o’er us and threaten our peace to destroy, there is hope smiling brightly before us, and we know that deliv’rance is nigh.  We doubt not the Lord nor his goodness.  We’ll sing of His goodness and mercy.  We’ll praise Him by day and by night, rejoice in His glorious gospel, and bask in its life-giving light.

Elder Russell M. Nelson:

Messages I found to be healthy and uplifting:

I’m not sure that my presence on that flight should have given her any comfort.  I’m glad he makes clear that his presence on the flight would not have protected them any more or less than if he had not been on the flight.  I think sometimes as members we can become overly starstruck with our top leaders – and here is a gentle reminder that they are humbly serving alongside the rest of us without any special privileges per se.  

The word religion literally means “to ligate again” or “to tie back” to God.  Beautiful. 

Living the Lord’s pure religion, which means striving to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, is a way of life and a daily commitment that will provide divine guidance. As you practice your religion, you are exercising your faith. You are letting your faith show.

Of course we will face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle.

Those who face their fears with [faith] have courage as well.  I like the possibility here of different types of courage. 

Messages I found to be needing of further nuance/discussion:

I have overheard conversations on Monday mornings about professional athletic games that took place on the preceding Sunday. For some of these avid fans, I have wondered if their “religion” would “tie them back” only to some kind of a bouncing ball.  I don’t usually appreciate the use of specific examples like this that pit “us” against “them” in how many of us choose to spend the Sabbath.  I find it a micromanaging approach.  Especially when you might find yourself in a mixed-faith home environment where different members have different ways of wanting Sundays to go.  I believe it causes unnecessary conflict within marriages especially.  I would rather the overall principle be taught and then the members govern themselves as to how that will look in their own homes – allowing for personal authority and agency to prevail in the details.  

Where is our faith? Is it in a team? Is it in a brand? Is it in a celebrity? Even the best teams can fail. Celebrities can fade. There is only One in whom your faith is always safe, and that is in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Just because people enjoy sports or entertainment – doesn’t lessen their faith in Jesus Christ.  I didn’t quite follow this line of thinking and complicating for those who enjoy these types of leisure activities.  

God declared in the first of His Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”2 He also said, “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.”3 Yet so many people look only to their bank balance for peace or to fellow human beings for models to follow.  Agree with the beginning sentences – but why are we putting down “so many people?”  Who are these people?  And why put down others to teach a principle?  In many studies that I have read, people in general seem to value many of the same things we as latter-day saints value (i.e. God, family, good ethics, service, education, etc.).  

One of my medical faculty colleagues chastised me for failing to separate my professional knowledge from my religious convictions. He demanded that I not combine the two. How could I do that? Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside.  Well one of my co-therapists that I worked with as we were going to school together would often bring up her version of “truths” as a born-again Christian in sessions with our clients.  These “truths” often went against or differed from my religious “truths” and gave no room or safe space for our client to explore their “truths.”  There are times when separating our religious convictions from our professional duties is the appropriate and respectful thing to do.

I love that he is willing to share with us the very sacred loss of losing his daughter to cancer.  Without any disrespect to him or his daughter – I would like to point out that many in my care who have experienced a similar challenge (either of being in the position of dying prematurely or having lost someone in such a way) have extremely complicated feelings which can include things such as peace – but that also include a roller-coaster ride of sorts of other emotions that can vastly range (including for example anger at God, confusion or extreme sadness).  These are also covenant-keeping, righteous people.  I just want to make sure and normalize that many will speak of their deceased as Elder Nelson does – and it is true for most that peace and acceptance eventually come.  And at the same time the day-to-day reality before death arrives can entail much more.  

Messages I found to be harmful:

Across the aisle and a couple of rows behind me, a terrified woman panicked. With each frightening drop and jarring bump, she screamed loudly. Her husband tried to comfort her but to no avail. Her hysterical shouts persisted until we passed through that zone of turbulence to a safe landing. During her period of anxiety, I felt sorry for her. Because faith is the antidote for fear, I silently wished that I could have strengthened her faith.  Anxiety and fear are normal, even physiologically programmed responses to dangerous situations – or situations where we perceive we might be in danger.  To somehow correlate our amount of faith to our ability to not feel fear is unfortunate in my opinion because it can leave members who have this type of experience left doubting their testimonies or ability to be faithful or worthy “enough” to somehow not have this type of anxiety response in the future.  I think it’s great that Christ is quoted in the scriptures as saying “do not fear” numerous times – I think it is a reminder that we need not use gospel principles or expectations to place us in an unnecessary state of anxiety for our salvation.  I think it is also helpful when bad things happen where we have little to no control – to help us take a mindful stance of handing over our fear response over to the Lord.  This is an acquired skill and takes some cognitive practice - something I believe we can all benefit from.  

Elder Richard G. Scott:

Messages I found to be healthy and uplifting:

Neither of them coerced me or made me feel bad about the person I was. They simply loved me and loved Father in Heaven.  A wonderful example and reminder of how we can be positive influence on others – staying away from unnecessary criticism and power struggles while presenting a loving stance.  

We must be sure to sincerely love those we want to help in righteousness so they can begin to develop confidence in God’s love…  Giving them confidence in your love can help them develop faith in God’s love. Then through your loving, thoughtful communication, their lives will be blessed by your sharing lessons you have learned, experiences you have had, and principles you have followed to find solutions to your own struggles. Show your sincere interest in their well-being; then share your testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I love the word “sincere” love – this to me means “no strings attached.”  So that when things don’t go as we had hoped, the love/friendship still survives regardless specifically of behavioral choices.  And I agree that since we speak of “loving” Heavenly parents – it is so much easier to bring that concept into a personal reality when one has been able to experience healthy loving relationships in one’s life.  

One way to do this is to ask them questions that make them think and then allow them sufficient time—whether hours, days, months, or more—to ponder and seek to work out the answers for themselves.  I liked the emphasis on both giving time for reflection and giving the gift of true agency (similarly to what Heavenly Father did for us).  This is especially difficult to do as a parent or a spouse – when so much of our own contentment/anxiety/wellbeing can be tied to what we WANT to have happen versus what ACTUALLY happens.  

As you consistently focus your life on the most basic principles, you will gain an understanding of what you are to do, and you will produce more fruit for the Lord and more happiness for yourself.  For me the most basic principle of the gospel above all else (as Paul states) is “charity never faileth” or “love one another.”

Always seek to strengthen families.  It particularly grieves me when gospel belief is a source of contention in family systems and used as a wedge against one another (i.e. issues having to do with same-sex marriage, mixed-faith marriage or children/parents who no longer share the same testimonies with you they once did).  

Remember, loving them is the powerful foundation for influencing those you want to help.  I agree and I also want to nuance: Although it is natural to want to influence those we love for good – I would hope our first instinct is to just love.  Not to seek to love with some ulterior motive of seeking change.  

The children of Father in Heaven can do amazing things when they feel trusted.

We best serve our Father in Heaven by righteously influencing others and serving them.5 The greatest example who ever walked the earth is our Savior, Jesus Christ. His mortal ministry was filled with teaching, serving, and loving others. He sat down with individuals who were judged to be unworthy of His companionship. He loved each of them. He discerned their needs and taught them His gospel. He invites us to follow His perfect example.

Messages I found to be needing of further nuance/discussion:

I was touched by Elder Scott’s recollections of his beloved grandmother having such a positive influence in his life – especially in regards to church activity.  At the same time, there are many mixed-faith families in our midst as members of the church – and I would caution family members/friends of minors to make sure that the messages you are sharing have been discussed with and approved by parents first.  I think it is important to be careful not to undermine parental authority (unless necessary due to abusive situations) even when we have the best of intentions.  

“When I marry, it will be to a faithful returned missionary in the temple.”  Although serving on missions is a worthwhile goal for young adult members of our church – this type of rhetoric concerns me especially when not discussed further than this talk did.  First of all, many members marry “returned missionaries” in temples and do not end up having the successful marriages they expected – this type of talk can set up an equational expectation that does not always deliver.  Second of all, there are many wonderful members of our church who for one reason or another did not serve a mission in their youth (i.e. medical issues, worthiness issues of the time they have since repented of, difference in how ecclesiastical leaders defined worthiness issues to begin with, military service, teen or early adult conversion, lack of family/financial support, etc.).  And this type of reminder is painful.  I have many clients that have told me they have actually considered not going back to church only because they feel so marginalized by the constant narrative where they are reminded that they did not serve in this way.  Third, there are many among us who marry outside of our faith – and find themselves in loving, successful relationships.  Yet their choice is not respected in this type of statement.  I fully agree that missions and temple marriages are good things to aspire to – I just think the conversation around these topics needs to be more inclusive of the many different situations we find amongst our midst.  

Elder Robert D. Hales:

Right off the bat this one was a difficult talk for me to find useful or healthy because I disagree with the beginning premise: that the most powerful lesson we learn from the life of the Savior is that of obedience.  I believe the most powerful lesson we learn is charity – and I think this is well documented in scripture.  Obedience for obedience’s sake is not valuable without there being a valid reason – in Christianity that reason would be love.  In fact, it is in the title of this talk: If ye love me, keep my commandments.  Obedience in of itself can even be dangerous as we have seen throughout history when members of churches or governments obey leaders who claim to act in God’s name in pretty horrific ways.  I don’t believe the Savior atoned for our sins because he was obedient.  I believe he did this out of immeasurable love.  And due to the love He felt – He was obedient.  

The reason I think this is important to deconstruct is because this easily becomes a mental health issue in the way this talk is framed.  First of all, the way obedience is clearly defined in this talk is to follow the prophets.  And although I believe our current prophets and leaders have great wisdom and inspiration to share with us – blind obedience is not an accurate portrayal of our doctrine nor how we want to be perceived (this is part of the reason as to why many see the Mormon church as cult-like, which is an unfortunate categorization to say the least).  We are doctrinally taught to question, ask for personal revelation and seek for knowledge as to how the “fruit” will “be good” in our own lives.  So when many hear a talk like this – it literally robs them of their own agency.  They doubt their own personal authority – they forgo seeking and studying out for themselves – because if obedience is the most important thing, why would that process even matter?  Secondly, it allows for no fallibility of our leaders – which is just not the case in any historical context, including the present.  Third, for those with scrupulosity – this is a disaster of a message.  It puts them into a complete catch 22 situation.  Because although Hales states that there are those who “selectively” obey - the reality is that we all do.  I can count on my scrupulosity clients more than anyone else to lead me to conflicting quotes from our own prophets and scriptures on a myriad of issues – and they are left not knowing how to make sense of the rigidity of the statements found in this talk.  

The reason Cain and some of the children of Adam and Eve chose to disobey is because “they loved Satan more than God.”  This is the only reason Hales gives for “disobedience” and I think this is a really unhealthy way to categorize people’s choices – not making any room for issues such as personality traits, difference of belief systems, mental illness, how different people might even consider “disobeying,” family of origin issues, etc.  And for those struggling with issues of worthiness – what a killer of their self-esteem if the only way they can grasp as to why they behave in ways they don’t even want (i.e. addiction, compulsion, etc.) is that they are lovers of Satan.  

I do agree that obedience to God’s principles brings blessings, and that obedience is taught by example, and that we should strive to be obedient out of love:  May we love Him so deeply and believe Him in faith so completely that we too obey, keep His commandments, and return to live with Him forever.  I just had a hard time finding much healthy messaging on how this principle was taught.  

ELDER CLAUDIO D. ZIVIC

Messages I found to be healthy and uplifting:

We need to continually ask ourselves if we are being doers of the words of Jesus Christ.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4–5).

Using this analogy, we can see the very close, transcendent relationship we have with Jesus Christ and the importance He places on each one of us.

Messages I found to be needing of further nuance/discussion:

This talk was also about obedience in a more indirect way – and right off the bat we see an example of Zivic making a mistake not because he is a lover of Satan, but because he wasn’t paying attention, or was easily swayed by another’s example.  This was a healthier take than the previous talk in my opinion.  At the same time, it is important to remember that we are all swayed by “others” in our lives.  This is part of how our brain works and how we organize data around us.  It is impossible to not do this as the social creatures that we are.  Most of us in the church are in the church because we have followed the teachings we have grown up with – a very common reason why most of the population of the world finds themselves in any particular religion.  

The other piece I wanted to bring up was the principle of not “depending on your own judgment.”  I understand the implication here is that the trust should be in God and our relationship with Him, rather than follow our own desires especially if they lead us down dangerous or unhealthy paths.  At the same time, we need to develop a sense of self-trust that comes front the teachings of us being inheritors of divine spirit, being born with a guiding conscience and light from God that will lead us in good ways.  The development of self-trust and self-authority and knowing what is good for you and claiming that self jurisdiction is an important part of not only self maturity but developing a relationship with God that is deeper than just obeying other people who claim to know what God wants for you.  

ELDER W. CRAIG ZWICK

Loved this talk!!

Messages I found to be healthy and uplifting:

His beginning example of the experience he had with his wife and infant son showed how we can often make assumptions of other people’s behaviors that are false and lead to unnecessary conflict.  They both shared the same value: the physical protection of their baby.  They both shared the same emotion: fear.  They both used their intellectual capacities to the best of their ability: thinking through what the best course of action would be given their knowledge of the situation at hand.  And they both were hurt and confused when their partner didn’t seem to understand their experience in the aftermath of the event.  Taking the time to validate, listen and try to look at and respect another’s perspective or point of view are such important principles to healthy relationships of any kind.  

“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but [only] that which is good [and] edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29)  The way we talk to each other is so important.  Both words and tone/body language can be extremely edifying or extremely destructive.  

We all regularly experience highly charged feelings of anger—our own and others’. We have seen unchecked anger erupt in public places. We have experienced it as a sort of emotional “electrical short” at sporting events, in the political arena, and even in our own homes.  Children sometimes speak to beloved parents with tongues as sharp as blades. Spouses, who have shared some of life’s richest and most tender experiences, lose vision and patience with each other and raise their voices. All of us, though covenant children of a loving Heavenly Father, have regretted jumping headlong from the high seat of self-righteous judgment and have spoken with abrasive words before we understood a situation from another’s perspective. We have all had the opportunity to learn how destructive words can take a situation from hazardous to fatal.  I like how he normalizes anger – something that we all feel and deal with at certain times of life – and I like how he includes all of us in having failed at this at one point or another.  I like how this is a principle we don’t separate ourselves from others on as far as being “better” than.  This is something we can all work on and is very relevant to anybody.  

“The gospel ofJesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree” (First Presidency letter, Jan. 10, 2014). What a masterful reminder that we can and should participate in continuing civil dialogue, especially when we view the world from differing perspectives.

“A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1)  A “soft answer” consists of a reasoned response—disciplined words from a humble heart. It does not mean we never speak directly or that we compromise doctrinal truth. Words that may be firm in information can be soft in spirit.  I often speak to clients about the concept that “validation” is not “agreement.”  You can validate someone and say “this is what I hear you saying is important to you” without having to agree with them.  Once someone feels validated and heard, they are often in a better space to then hear what you have to say about the subject, even if you disagree with them.  

There exists today a great need for men and women to cultivate respect for each other across wide distances of belief and behavior and across deep canyons of conflicting agendas. It is impossible to know all that informs our minds and hearts or even to fully understand the context for the trials and choices we each face.

When our truck cab filled with smoke, my wife acted in the bravest manner she could imagine to protect our son. I too acted as a protector when I questioned her choice. Shockingly, it did not matter who was more right. What mattered was listening to each other and understanding the other’s perspective.  The willingness to see through each other’s eyes will transform “corrupt communication” into “minister[ing] grace.” The Apostle Paul understood this, and on some level each of us can experience it too. It may not change or solve the problem, but the more important possibility may be whether ministering grace could change us.  I bear humble witness that we can “minister grace” through compassionate language when the cultivated gift of the Holy Ghost pierces our hearts with empathy for the feelings and context of others. It enables us to transform hazardous situations into holy places.  This is just lovely.  I often speak in particular to my couples where one of them is going through an unexpected faith transition of this possibility of taking what can seem like a hazardous and scary situation and transforming into a holy space of renewed intimacy and shared meaning – maybe in ways they had never anticipated.  

ELDER QUENTIN L. COOK

Messages I found to be healthy and uplifting:

Our Father’s plan is about families.

Family commitments and expectations should be at the top of our priorities to protect our divine destiny. For those who are looking for more fruitful use of the Sabbath day for the family as a whole, the hastening of this work (genealogy) is fertile ground.  I like how he helps prioritize this type of work in relation to other family duties that need to come first.  It reminds me that “there is a time and a season” for everything under heaven.  I also just want to mention, on a somewhat unrelated note, that there has been some research to show that those who come from families with “told stories” and identity of their ancestors tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and self-worth.  There is something powerful about feeling connected in some way to our ancestors – and knowing about our culture, ethnicity and general backgrounds. 

 

 

 

 


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