Please, Like Me

January 10, 2018

I’m told that there are “explosive” revelations in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, but so far I haven’t seen anything I didn’t already know. Leaving aside the book’s many inaccuracies and typos, we’ve heard this story before. Since even before Trump’s inauguration, his staff and advisers at all levels have been telling the same tale of an ignorant, undisciplined, narcissistic, petty, and easily bored man who is now arguably the most powerful man in the world. No one should be surprised that Trump has no coherent set of political beliefs, long-term strategies, or goals. It should also be obvious by now that he doesn’t understand government or his role in it, let alone the responsibility for governing the most heavily armed nation in the history of the world. He is, as my brother-in-law put it, a buffoon.

That said, one passage, quoted by Ezra Klein, reminded me of something I had noticed long ago:

“It was obvious to everyone that if [Trump] had a north star, it was just to be liked,” says Wolff. “He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him.”

Trump’s staffers confirm the characterization. “The president fundamentally wants to be liked,” Walsh says in the book. “He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly.”

Either I’m projecting or I’ve just noticed this because of my struggles with this same issue, which I have described in the past as a “pathological need to be liked.” I used to believe that everything would be OK if I could just make everyone my friend, which led me to some rather disastrous interactions with people who clearly were not and were never going to be my friends.

One of the ways people like me try to get everyone to like them involves self-denial and self-sacrifice. I was taught, as Mormon scripture says,

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God (Mosiah 2:17).

Service is a good thing, and people serve others for a lot of different reasons. For me, a primary motivation was that I just wanted to be liked, maybe even loved.

People who need desperately to be liked will do and say just about anything for that impossible goal. When you’re with someone, your immediate goal is approval and acceptance, so you change your attitude and opinion to fit the moment. Even your most deeply held beliefs can be sacrificed to the god of approbation. My wife told me many years ago that, when we were missionaries, one of her companions told her, “I don’t like Elder Williams. He seems to be a different person depending on who he’s around.” I was horrified, first to know that she didn’t like me, but second because I knew she was right. The scary thing is that it wasn’t conscious. Like Zelig or one of those reptilians who live in the tunnels under Salt Lake City, I was a shape-shifter mentally, if not physically (full disclosure: I’ve been in the tunnels, and they are, literally and figuratively, quite pedestrian). We see some of this self-malleability in White House staff observations that Mr. Trump tends to make decisions based on the last person who talked to him.

In a strange but real way, such constant recalibration of the psyche is a profoundly narcissistic behavior, even if it manifests itself as extreme self-abnegation. Nothing is as important as being liked, so your focus is on satisfying your own ego even as you obliterate it. One predictable consequence of such a morphing self is that, eventually, you can’t remember what is actually you and what is just a tactic for being liked. In the drive to build up your ego, you end up whittling away at it until there’s not much left.

I lived that way for far too long in this pattern of narcissistic self-effacement until I encountered people who not only took advantage of my imagined generosity and returned scorn and hatred. I’m not being facetious when I say that I’m grateful for a few people who treated me with disdain and cruelty. I think I’d already begun to come out of these patterns of narcissism, albeit slowly, when I became aware that people I’d tried to help or befriend considered me beneath contempt. I’ll give one example.

At the encouragement of a couple of friends (real ones, mind you), I wrote a series of posts on postmodernism and how it had been appropriated by some defenders Mormonism. I spent a lot of time discussing what I meant by postmodernism and exactly how and why it had been applied to the religion of my birth. Going into it, my goal wasn’t to argue for or against anything but simply to review the interesting ways people had merged seemingly incompatible ideas about truth and religion. One person began asking me questions in an online forum, and I tried my best to explain the concepts I was discussing, but it was slow going because my correspondent didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and instead wanted to talk about Pragmatism and William James, which were outside of the topic I had covered. I tried my best to be patient and kind, but the discussion never seemed to get anywhere. As I had so many times before, I had perhaps unconsciously started to make my primary goal not to explain my arguments but for this person to like me. As frustrating as the direction of the conversation was, I felt like I was making a friend.

Then another friend shared with me a private discussion the Pragmatist was having with his friends elsewhere, boasting of how much fun he was having in exposing my stupidity and “mopping the floor” with me in the debate we were having. And here I never thought we were having a debate at all. I reacted with hurt and anger and vented both at this guy and his beliefs. I suppose I wanted him to understand how hurt I was, which again was quite narcissistic. It was all about me, wasn’t it? For quite a while, I returned all the nastiness he sent to me (openly, at this point). Previously, when someone had treated me like that, I just walked away and licked my emotional wounds. But this time, I couldn’t let go, and I continued an acrimonious interaction with this guy for a few years. (Just writing years is kind of horrifying when I think of it.)

With one phrase he finally broke the cycle: he wrote, sarcastically, that we “love each other like brothers,” and brothers fight. I’m not sure why that struck me, but I finally realized I was the only one of us who cared at all about our relationship, such as it was. For me, the relationship produced nothing but hurt and anger, which I still longed to overcome; for him, it meant nothing at all.

That’s when I realized just how stupid it was to care what someone like him thought of me (he’s not a bad person, but I magnified everything in my quest to nurse my bruised ego). Or anyone else, for that matter. I have friends who like me because of who I am, not because I’m desperate for them to like me. If you have to work hard to get someone to like you, chances are they don’t like you. And the truth beneath the need to be liked by others is that we don’t like ourselves. Perhaps the whittling away of the self is intentional in that there will be nothing left to dislike when it’s gone.

I had to get to a place where I wasn’t consumed by what other people thought of me. Obviously, I’m not advocating living a life with no regard for the feelings of others, in which case I’d be a sociopath. What I have learned is to live so that I like myself and what I do. If I do something good or kind, it’s because I want to be good and kind, not because I’m looking for approval.

I’m not entirely free of this disabling neediness (exhibit A being this rather self-absorbed post), but I’m working on it.

But getting back to Trump:

Trump doesn’t care about policy or politics or ideology or coalitions. He cares about Trump. His dream was to put his name on buildings and in tabloids, and now he has put his name on the most important building on the planet and on the front page of most every newspaper in the world. Yet the coverage he gets, outside of a few conservative outlets, is horrible, the worst of any president in memory. He cannot perform his job well enough to be liked or respected, but he only wanted the job in the first place because it would force the whole world to like and respect him — and he is being driven to rage and paranoia by the resulting dissonance, disappointment, and hurt.

Imagine being Donald Trump. Imagine reading about yourself every day and knowing these awful things are being said by your friends, your aides, your allies, perhaps even your family. Imagine knowing you can’t trust anyone around you, suspecting they’re badmouthing you constantly, raising their social status by diminishing yours.

Imagine seeing your stability questioned, your patriotism impugned, your intellect dismissed. Imagine doing the impossible — winning the presidency! — only to be treated as a national embarrassment.

This isn’t what Trump wanted. And it’s not clear it’s something he can bear. A more capable, competent, and stable person would, by now, have either changed their behavior to receive more of the response they crave or given up on getting the response they crave. But Trump appears to exist in an unhappy middle ground, rage-tweeting through his mornings, retreating to his golf club on weekends, searching for the validation he craves in his Twitter feed and on Fox & Friends but never getting it from the elite tastemakers he’s always sought to impress.

It took me a long time to get over it, but I have “given up on getting the response [I] crave.” I can’t imagine being 71 and still feeling and behaving that way, much less being the President of the United States.

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Guilt and Jesus

March 17, 2015

Back in my believing days, I said that my favorite scripture was this passage in 3 Nephi 11:

18 And it came to pass that he spake unto Nephi (for Nephi was among the multitude) and he commanded him that he should come forth.

19 And Nephi arose and went forth, and bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet.

20 And the Lord commanded him that he should arise. And he arose and stood before him.

I could picture myself being called out of the crowd to step forward and kiss the feet of the Savior. But I was convinced that I would not be able to “arise” and stand before him and look him in the eye. I knew I wasn’t worthy to be in his presence, and I prayed and longed for the day that I could feel clean and worthy to stand before him. I loved the scripture not because it made me feel good but because it gave me something to strive for, even if I didn’t think I’d ever get there.

Once night during the time when I was working at the Church Office Building, I dreamed that my son, who was then about 5 years old, called to me to come into my office.

“Jesus is here,” he said, smiling happily. “And he wants to see you.”

In my dream I was terrified at the thought of having to account for myself in front of the Savior, and no matter how much my son pulled on my hand and pleaded with me, I wouldn’t go in to see Jesus. I awoke sweating and shaky, convinced that I was never going to be worthy to be in the Savior’s presence.

I’m not sure what reminded me of that today, but I realized that I don’t feel like that anymore. I don’t feel worthless and ashamed. I feel peace and contentment. Strange, huh?


Repost: Expert Ex-Mormon

February 20, 2015

A friend asked me about this post, which I wrote a while back. Seemed a good idea to repost it.

Yes, I am an expert in how to leave the church and do it the wrong way. A little background:

I have always been a history and knowledge junkie, and when I worked at the Church Office Building in the early 90s, I would go down to the historical library on my lunch hour and read whatever looked interesting. Around 1995, when I was no longer working for the church, I got invited to participate in an online listserv group, alt.religion.mormon. I moved on to other places, such as the ironically named FAIR board, where I was a defender of the church but tried to be fair and honest and kind with people who disagreed.

In 2005, I took an 8-month break from all Mormon online participation, and during that break, I realized that I’d known for quite some time that the church wasn’t true, but I just hadn’t let myself admit it. Literally, everything fell apart during a phone conversation with a friend who was distraught about Joseph Smith and polyandry.

When I got home, my wife could tell something was wrong, so I blurted out that I didn’t believe in the church anymore. For 2 years I tried to get her to listen to what I knew. I sent her articles, quoted books, asked questions about her beliefs, and generally challenged her as much as I could. Needless to say, we fought for 2 years. My sister, to whom I’ve always been close, began having long conversations with my wife about how to “fix” me. Our marriage nearly broke up, and I sank into a deep depression. In 2007 I attempted suicide and ended up spending 3 days as an unwilling guest of a psych ward in Houston.

That was a turning point for me. I realized that I’d been pushing my wife to hear things she didn’t want to hear, and she had been pushing back just as hard to get me to step back in line. We both changed because of my suicide attempt. We learned that it was OK to disagree, that it was OK for her not to want to know what I knew, and it was OK for me not to bow to her religious wishes.

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Why do Mormons take it so personally when you state the facts about their religion?

Mormonism was part of our identity, perhaps even the main part. The LDS church is designed to be the center of a member’s existence; without the church, there would be a huge, gaping hole (which we all experience when we leave). So, whether they realize it or not, most Mormons predictably react as though a criticism of the church is a personal attack on them. No, it’s not rational, and in a perfect world, you could get people to step back and separate the church from themselves. But in reality, they do not draw a distinct line between the self and Mormonism.

2. Why is relatively uncontroversial information so threatening to a lot of Mormons?

The church has done such a great job of packaging its history and doctrines that anything else, no matter how trivial it may seem, is jarring to believers. Take the “rock in the hat” episode. It’s well-established that Joseph Smith used a stone he found in a well to pretend to find buried treasure, long before the Book of Mormon project began. And there is plenty of eyewitness testimony that he used the same stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon. But it’s not part of the approved narrative, so people get horribly offended and assume you’re just telling lies.

3. Why do my family and friends treat me like I’m an enemy?

The church has long taught that people who leave are apostates, and such people are evil. They are the kind of people who killed Joseph Smith. They have evil in their hearts and are motivated by hatred of truth and goodness. Heck, they’ve even had priesthood and Relief Society lessons about us rotten apostates. So, when you challenge their beliefs with new information, they assume that you are attacking them personally, that you are making things up, and that you are doing so in a dishonest attempt to make the church look bad.

4. How do I get through to them?

Unfortunately, the answer generally is that you won’t and can’t. But being confrontational just plays into the church’s script: angry apostate can’t just leave it alone but must attack God’s true religion.

5. So, what should I do?

There’s no right answer, but I’ll tell you what works for me. If I am tempted to discuss my loss of belief with someone I care about, I ask myself two questions: 1) What do I hope to accomplish with this discussion? 2) What is the likely outcome of the discussion? If the answer to 1) is “I just want them to know the truth,” that’s not good enough. The second question comes into play: How likely is it that they are going to know and accept the truth because of your discussion? If it’s unlikely, why bother? In my view, it’s fine to share your feelings and knowledge with anyone you wish, but when it comes to loved ones, make sure you have a definite goal in mind and that your conversation is likely to achieve that goal.

6. How do I convince my family and friends that my unbelief is not a personal attack on them?

This one is simple. As I said in question 1 above, the church makes itself the center of your life, your relationships, your marriage. One day my wife said to me, “Our marriage has always been built on the church and the gospel, so now I wonder what’s left?” I realized that both of us needed to recognize what our marriage was without the church at the center. We discovered that our relationship was about love, commitment, friendship, intimacy, passion, and so on. None of that depended on the church. Once we started focusing on building those non-church aspects, we started to heal as a couple.

You are going to have friends and family who insist on making the church the center of your relationship. If that’s all there is to your relationship, you don’t have a relationship with such people, so there’s no big loss here.

Let them be the nasty ones; let them be the ones who value loyalty to the church over love and truth. Don’t let it be you.

7. Does this mean I have to just shut up and endure the crap from my Mormon friends and family?

No, not at all. But what it does mean is that we must choose our battles wisely. Have you ever known someone who can’t talk about anything other than a specific topic, usually their religion or politics? I had an Aunt Helen who was a Scientologist, and when she visited (thank God she lived in Ohio, and we were in California) all she could talk about was her stupid cult. Pretty much everyone ignored her and avoided contact with her. My father incessantly talks about Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, so I judiciously change the subject because I’ve learned that arguing back is pointless. He’s not changing his mind, and neither am I. I realize that I can’t be the ex-Mormon version of my nutcase aunt because it does no good and just makes people want to avoid me.

Of course, someone inevitably brings up the subject of why I left the church. Again, what I share depends on who I’m with, what I hope to accomplish, and what I expect the outcome to be. My wife doesn’t want to know anything, so if she asks a specific question, I answer succinctly and leave it at that. An old friend of mine was constantly harping on me about my apostasy, but he wouldn’t listen to anything I said but would just argue and call me to repentance. Eventually, I sent him a link to MormonThink.com and told him that I’d rather he educate himself on the issues before we got back into it. To my complete shock, reading that on his own without my interference led him to question everything he believed. If I had kept up the defensive arguments we’d been having, nothing would have changed for either of us.

8. My Mormon friends tell me I’m bitter for being angry. Is it wrong to feel so angry? How do I get past the anger and hurt?

I’ve been told by countless Mormons that it’s wrong to feel angry and hurt, that it just means I’m “bitter.” They say, “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.” Screw that. Losing your belief is a loss, and that involves grief. Ex-Mormons go through all the stages of grief), and anger is one of those stages. It’s not healthy to suppress that anger. You’ll make yourself crazy. Get it out, but get it out where it won’t damage your important relationships. Message boards, such as the Recovery from Mormonism board, are great places for venting. One thing you’ll notice is that most people post for a few months until the anger passes, and then they move on. There’s no timetable, obviously, but the anger does subside. The time to talk to your family about your beliefs is not when you are angry and hurt.

So, what’s happened since 2007? Well, for one thing I’m not depressed anymore (a good therapist and medication did wonders). My wife and I don’t fight about religion anymore, and I find that I can appreciate the good she gets out of it without forgetting the bad. She understands that I’m sincere in my beliefs and not some evil apostate. My sister, who once thought I had lost my mind, respects my opinion about the church enough to ask me about things she feels she can’t ask other believers. My parents don’t agree with my reasons for leaving, but we have had good conversations about why I believe what I do.

Because I haven’t been in my family’s faces about my beliefs, my children have felt comfortable talking to me about their questions and doubts. Of my 6 kids, 3 were absolutely relieved to know that I don’t believe because they didn’t. One was married in the temple a year ago, though I would say she is very liberal in her understanding of church history and doctrine. The other two haven’t quite decided where they fit.

So, in short:

1. Find non-destructive ways to vent your emotions.
2. Recognize that what you see as truth will likely be seen as an attack by your Mormon friends and family.
3. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t be Aunt Helen.
4. Have a purpose for the information you share.
5. Focus on strengthening the non-church parts of your relationships. Don’t make the church the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.

One last thing:

I’ll bet you’re saying to yourself, “That’s not fair! Mormons get to treat me like crap, and I have to be all nice and forgiving.” No, it isn’t fair. Someone posted yesterday how sad it was that we are grateful for people being less nasty to us. If you need to be nasty to Mormons, join a message board and argue away with believers. But don’t return the nastiness from people who are important in your lives. I often have to remind myself that they are behaving that way because the church taught them to behave that way. That stuff has been pounded into their heads all their lives, and we can’t hold them entirely responsible. To steal a line from the church, “Hate the Mormonism, but love the Mormon.”

And by no means am I saying you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. When you are attacked and maligned, you have every right to defend yourself and your beliefs. But be smart about it.

I hope this helps. Like I said, I believe these things work because doing the opposite didn’t work for me and changing my approach has really helped. There are no guarantees, and there are no right answers. Do what you must do, but I hope what I have said helps in some small way.


What If Lucifer Had a Blog?

February 13, 2015

The nature of deception is spelled out clearly to us in the teachings of Lucifer in the scriptures.

What if Satan had a blog, created podcasts, collected comments, solicited letters on his behalf, and formed candlelight vigils of his supporters when he was called to judgment before the Father? What if he were able to send out press releases to an obliging media? He hasn’t directly used those technological opportunities, but his teachings sounding from the pages of the scriptures seem remarkably similar to today’s assaults upon the truth.

We know that Satan is the father of lies. We read in the Doctrine and Covenants, “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come; and whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning” (93:24-25). Thus, the first thing we would notice was that Lucifer’s blog would be full of lies. Not just obvious, blatant lies, but subtle ones, ranging from slight shadings of the truth to omitting important details.

You see, Lucifer uses truth sparingly, often in support of a lie. If he were here today, he would say to us (perhaps in a podcast or public conference) that telling the whole truth is wrong, that some things that are true are not very useful. He would have us believe that only those so-called facts that promote belief in him are worthy of sharing. “In some instances,” he might say, “the merciful companion to truth is silence. Some truths are best left unsaid.”

He would also use the tools of the crooked politician to tell half-truths or distort the truth. If asked, for example, whether members were ever asked to mime slashing their own throats in the temple, he would, in a Clintonesque use of verb tense, insist, “There are no penalties in the temple.” He would further deny the existence of organizations he is involved with, such as well-known committees within his church.

God wants us to love one another, as He loves us, but Lucifer wants us to point the finger of scorn at those he perceives as our enemies. He would publish book reviews that attack the character of those who think differently; he would write articles comparing dissidents to anti-Christs from the scriptures (such as Nehor and Korihor) and would reserve especially harsh judgment for the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement, and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals. He would compile dossiers on anyone who publicly differs from his teachings. He might even send threatening anonymous emails to obscure bloggers and their spouses.

Lucifer would have us judge others “on the outward appearance,” whereas “the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). In God’s church, “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33). But in Lucifer’s church, people are to be judged by such things as skin color (until he changes his mind), profession, wealth, clothing styles, number of earrings, facial hair, and tattoos.

In God’s church, we become as little children, pure and innocent before Him. In Lucifer’s church, everything is eroticized down to the bare shoulder of a 4-year-old girl and the walking pornography of a bare midriff. God reassures us that, although we are weak mortals, the Atonement rescues us from our shame, “that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7) that we may stand without guilt at the last day.

For Lucifer, guilt and shame are tools to engender fear and unquestioning obedience. If we follow Lucifer, we are not secure in the forgiveness of the Lord but are to be reminded regularly of our shortcomings so that we may feel “appropriate” guilt. Lucifer might, for example, say to us:

In your mind’s eye, wherever you are across the far corners of the earth, would you picture a huge scroll sliding down from the ceiling? On it are listed the names of those who purchased pornographic literature. The list is large enough so that all may see. Is your name on the list?

Did you buy some pornographic literature?

Now suppose those names are removed, and the names of all those who attended or viewed x-rated movies are presented so that all who are in the congregation may see. Again, is your name on the list?

Now, my young friends, and I am sorry to say, many adults, how about all those of you who have a masturbation problem? If the names of those who had the problem were projected across this big, huge scroll, would your name be there, or would you be able to sit back confident and pure in heart?

In this way, Satan wants us to become miserable, “for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). God, on the other hand, wants us to be happy. In Him our “sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:22). We find this joy through the forgiveness and sanctification of the Atonement, which washes away our guilt. But Lucifer would have us turn away from the forgiveness of the Lord and instead wallow in sin and guilt, even if it lead to serious emotional or mental problems. And he would tell us to stay away from any therapists who believe that guilt itself is the problem, thereby ensuring we remain mired in self-loathing and shame.

We also learn in the scriptures that Lucifer “sought to destroy the agency of man, which  … the Lord God had given him” (Alma 4:3): “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it” (Alma 4:2). All of God’s children have been given this precious gift of “moral agency” (D&C 101:78) so that we may learn through our choices how to become like God: “Men are free to choose liberty and eternal life or captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27).

Lucifer, then, would seek to deny our agency. He would criticize parents who say they don’t want to impose the gospel on their children but want them to make up their own minds about what they will believe and follow, saying they are mistaken and should not allow their children to exercise their agency because young people can hardly be expected to understand and evaluate the alternatives that come before them.

But he would extend his denial of agency to adult followers, as well. He would tell us that we should give unquestioning obedience to our leaders, no matter whether we object on moral grounds. He would impose spiritual, social, and familial penalties on those who question or disobey, such as denying them the ability to participate in important family events, such as weddings.

Yet what kinds of laws and principles would Lucifer demand that we obey? The Lord’s laws and principles are eternal. The Savior said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away” (Mar 13:31). Obedience to these eternal, unchanging laws carries significant promises:

Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like:

He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. (Luke 6:47-48.)

In contrast, Lucifer tells us that right and wrong are not eternal principles but malleable and ever changing; he would ask us to obey not the firm, unshakeable principles of eternity, but rather the whims of his desires. Lucifer’s twisted moral relativism loudly proclaims, That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. He would insist that whatever he requires is right, no matter what it is, even things which might be considered abominable. He would promise the blessings of heaven for abdicating our own moral judgment in favor of his. He would flatter you by saying, if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.

Thus he teaches us to place absolute trust in the arm of the flesh in the form of him and our leaders. But the scriptures are clear that all men are fallen and imperfect, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He would, however, assure us that those in authority are not capable of leading us astray; instead we can trust completely in the men who lead us, and we must take their words as if they were God’s words, because they are the same.

Although the scriptures teach us that there is only “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), Lucifer would place men between us and the Savior to mediate our access to spiritual blessings and ordinances. And he would instill in us a highly reverential and completely deferential attitude of praise and adulation toward those men. He would compose hymns praising such men and extolling their virtue and exalted status.

He would allow no opposition, questioning, or criticism of these men. He would tell us that, as members of his church, we must set aside critical thinking and conform to what we are told, finding happiness in that conformity. We would be free to disagree and think independently, as long as we keep such thoughts and disagreements to ourselves. In Lucifer’s church, those who refuse to remain silent are to be excommunicated and banished from the community of Saints.

Criticism would not be tolerated, ever, for criticism of our leaders is wrong, even when the criticism is true. He would deceive us by telling us that we are governed by common consent and have the ability to vote against leaders and practices, while in reality a negative vote would get us a visit with our leaders and put us under a cloud of suspicion.

The comments section of Lucifer’s blog would always be closed.

Yet he would not be satisfied, as long as anyone out there spoke out against him. Though he was given a wide berth for blanketing the world with his message and shouting it from the rooftops, Lucifer would claim that the Church was silencing him. He would claim that all he wanted was free expression, open and respectful dialogue, and everyone’s comments taken at face value. This he said while belittling believers and leading away the hearts of many.

This Internet age means we are swamped with ideas that are as old as sand and as corrosive as a salt sea. They will be sold to us appealing to our care for the downtrodden and marginalized—to which we can’t help but emotionally respond. They will suggest that we have been duped into our religious beliefs and that the truly enlightened know better.

Let us not be fooled. Mormon anticipating our dilemma gave us stunning examples of what this deception looks like and advises us, “Oh be wise.”

Note: I had a lot of fun writing this, but I can’t take credit for coming up with the idea. Thanks to my good friend Odell for suggesting this.


Unafraid

October 22, 2014

I’ll be turning 50 in a couple of weeks. Turning 30 wasn’t a big deal, and 40 came and went with little more than a shrug. 50 doesn’t seem that big a deal, but a couple of weeks ago, a dear friend suddenly passed away, and her death has caused me to reflect on life and where I am in it.

She was 79 years old and a delightful person. I didn’t realize she was that old because she was always so active and cheerful. She volunteered as an usher at her church up until the Sunday before she died of a sudden and massive stroke. My wife and I both agreed that she went the way we would like to go: mentally sharp and physically active until the end, with no long, lingering illness or loss of mental or physical capacity.

They say I’m middle-aged, but that would only be true if I were to live to 100, which I doubt I will do. The life I have left is shorter than the life I have already lived, and according to some people, that should cause me to worry about death and what comes after it. But I’m not afraid of death, and I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Life is to short, after all, to spend it worrying about its end. I don’t even fear getting old and losing my health, mental and physical. I’ll just deal with it as it comes.

This year people seem to want us to be afraid, and sometimes it does seem like there’s a perfect storm of trouble going on in the world today: Ebola, continuing global economic stagnation, DAESH (I refuse to call them “ISIS”), and a host of other problems have a lot of people in a bit of a lather.

Not me.

The likelihood that Ebola will break out in a worldwide pandemic is very small. The last time we saw anything like that was the influenza pandemic of 1918, which of course killed around 50 million people and infected one-fifth of the world’s population. But this is not 1918. In almost every part of the world, living conditions, sanitation, and medical care are much better than they were 100 years ago. And Ebola is not spread through the air, meaning that it’s much easier to contain, as long as one is careful. Even the mistakes made in Dallas not only haven’t resulted in a widespread outbreak but have been a much-needed wake-up call for better procedures. So, yeah, I may get Ebola at some point, but I’m not going to worry about it. I have a better chance of winning the lottery.

Yes, the economy still sucks. The unemployment rate is down, but much of that is due to people dropping out of the workforce and others taking jobs that pay less involve fewer hours. My company could disappear at any time,  but then I’ve been unemployed before and, given the nature of my industry, I may well be there again. I’ll survive.

A few years ago, if you’d told me that an armed death cult of thousands of religious sociopaths would take over large parts of two countries, I’d have thought you were pitching an idea for a horror film. People talk about dealing with “root causes” of such things, but I don’t believe any of the supposed factors (imperialism, poverty, alienation) explain a group that boasts of its desire to murder, rape, and enslave the rest of the world. Root causes or not, these are not the kind of folks you can negotiate with.

Do I worry about these Islamo-fascists killing me or my family? No, not really. I know, they say they want to kill Westerners where we live, and I suppose I can’t really stop that. They could show up at my house tonight, and that would be that for me. But I don’t worry about them, simply because, no matter how well-armed or powerful these folks become, the non-sociopaths will always outnumber the sociopaths. Right now a coalition of countries is doing a sort of half-assed job of containing these nutjobs, but if and when they become an existential threat to any of the regional powers, they will not be long for the world. They’re unlikely to ever hoist the black flag over the White House or Buckingham Palace if they can’t even manage to take a lightly defended Kurdish town. Perhaps on the plus side, they’re doing us a favor in concentrating the violent nutwads in one place.

So, I could be worrying about these things. There’s a lot I could worry about: race relations in the wake of Ferguson, climate change, same-sex marriage, health care, Vladimir Putin, Mexican drug cartels, who Alison Grimes voted for, the Export-Import Bank, “Meet the Mormons,” shingles, and  Canada, to name a few.

But I choose not to.

 


Depression

August 12, 2014

This post is probably going to come across as incredibly narcissistic, but I don’t care.

Last night I was getting ready for bed when my wife told me that Robin Williams had died, but she hadn’t heard the cause. I had my laptop, so I looked it up and read that it was probably “suicide by asphyxiation.”

That hit me hard, as 7 years ago last month I attempted suicide by asphyxiation. Things were very bleak in my life at the time, and one evening after my wife cried herself to sleep, I decided it would be better for everyone if I weren’t around anymore. I got out of bed, walked into my closet, and tied one end of a tie around the clothes rod and the other end around my neck. Then I relaxed my knees and let all my weight pull on the tie. Just that quickly I went from feeling depressed to wanting to die to actually trying to kill myself.

I like to think that I stopped myself short of “success” because I realized I didn’t really want to die, but it was more just that it was a lot more painful than I had expected, which probably means I didn’t want to die enough to be willing to endure that much pain. So, I got back on my feet, untied the tie, and went back to bed.

I’m telling that story because I realize that for someone to go through with that and endure that much pain, it means they really want to die.

Since last night, just about every news item has been about how Robin Williams must have been hiding a lot of pain under the “mask” of his comedic performance. That’s bullshit. He was pretty open about his problems with depression, mental illness, and addiction. It’s true that, more than a lot of performers, Mr. Williams always seemed to be “on” when in public, and I used to think he was probably more interesting when he stopped performing. But we’re all performing, to some extent. Every human being must of necessity get up every morning and try to project normality, even though there’s at least a little crazy in all of us. We have to look like we’re functioning at least at a minimal level; those who can’t project that image end up in an institution or on the street.

But depression is something way beyond everyday problems. It’s not a problem of being sad all the time. It’s not a lack of self-esteem. It’s not feeling hopeless or worthless or dead inside. It’s all of those things and much more, and it almost always seems to come from no reason. It’s like a shark in a feeding frenzy, mindlessly and efficiently tearing apart everything that makes your life worth living. If you look into the cold, black eye of depression, you see no emotion, no compassion, nothing but a machine designed to kill you.

And depression isn’t something you can “beat,” like going into remission with cancer. You learn to cope, you take medication, you get therapy, but it’s still there. Like many people I know, I did very well with a combination of therapy and drugs, but I got overconfident and got off the drugs. I did fine for several months and then earlier this summer, I was fortunate enough to recognize the signs that the depression was creeping back, so I’m back on the drugs and doing fine again.

The reason so many of us think we can beat it and do without drugs or therapy is that, despite knowing it’s a medical condition with known biochemical causes, we still believe somewhere deep inside that it’s “just sadness” or some kind of personal failing. We think we should just be able to suck it up and deal with it. And we can’t.

Suicide is an extraordinarily selfish act, but in that moment, it is impossible to think beyond yourself. The shark circles in ever-tightening rings until you can’t see anything beyond your own misery. When you most need help, it’s beyond your capacity to even think of reaching out to someone else. It’s self-centered not because you have an inflated ego, but because you feel totally empty, totally alone. You just want it all to stop.

Whatever you think of Robin Williams, he was a very gifted man. I have to admit that, although I liked his humor much of the time, I thought it was better in small doses. But it was his dramatic roles that I found amazing. My favorite is the obsessed film developer in “One Hour Photo,” which to this day still creeps me out. And his work in “The Fisher King” and “Good Will Hunting” were brilliant and heartbreaking.

On NPR this morning, they said that he occupied a huge part of our culture and touched countless lives. I know that’s true, but in the end, he was probably like me, believing that it would be better for everyone if he were no longer around.

It isn’t.

I wish there were some brilliant thing I could say that would help people who are struggling with depression. There isn’t. I just hope people learn to recognize its symptoms and get help before it becomes a crisis.


Pornography as Addiction and the LDS 12-Step Program

February 18, 2014

This is a little embarrassing to talk about, but reading recently about how research shows that pornography is not an addiction reminded me of my experience with the LDS church’s addiction and recovery program. I suspect that some people are going to use this point as another angle to go after my character and so on, but I really don’t care. I am who I am, weaknesses and all, and I’m OK with myself.

A few years ago things weren’t going very well for me at home, and I started seeing a therapist in Provo. He was a great guy, a biker and former gang member with lots of tattoos who was also a high priest in the LDS church. Like most men, I have looked at pornography on occasion, and that subject came up because, obviously, it was a sensitive issue in my marriage. My wife had decided that I should attend the church’s 12-step addiction-recovery meetings, though I thought that was overkill. But I didn’t dismiss it because I wanted to respect my wife’s concerns.

I discussed this with my therapist, and he not only told me I wasn’t an addict and didn’t need the program, but he advised me against going to the meetings because, he said, the program tended to cause people to obsess about what was only a real problem for a very small number of people. He also said that there was a major lack of training for the people running the programs, who were not professionals but just people assigned to do it, which should be a red flag to anyone. But I figured that attending the meetings was something I could do to show I was making an effort in my marriage (things did get much better with time), so I went.

The meetings were held on Wednesday evenings at the massive student stake center adjacent to Utah Valley University. There were at least 4 rooms dedicated to men dealing with pornography issues, 1 room for women dealing with any kind of addiction, and 2 more rooms for “spouse support” meetings. Most weeks the 4 men’s meetings were filled to overflowing, with most of the participants young, college-age kids.

The meetings were presided over, more or less, by a missionary specifically called to run the meetings, always an older man whose wife was assigned to one of the women’s meetings. The real leader was the “facilitator,” someone who had been through the program and done well enough that the church assigned. The one I remember most distinctly was a white-collar professional who had been abused as a child and definitely had engaged in compulsive sexual behavior.

Meetings opened with participants reciting a pledge not to judge or interrupt or share information about what others had said outside the meeting, followed by an opening prayer. We then took turns reading each of the 12 steps. Each week focused on one of the steps, so each person would then read a paragraph from the chapter of the book covering that step. Then it was time for reporting how our week went.

The program continued just as you would imagine: each person would state his name and say “I am an addict” or something like that and then talk about how things were going. From my perspective, very few of the people there had a real problem with compulsive sexual behavior. Most of these young guys would say, “My name is Steve, and I am addicted to pornography,” or “My name is David, and I’m addicted to masturbation.” The ones that really got to me were the ones who said they were addicted to “lustful thoughts.” Then they would report how many days or weeks or months they had been “clean.”

It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so deadly serious. One guy kept berating himself because, a few years earlier, he had worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool and had experienced lustful thoughts about the girls in their bikinis. Kids would literally weep as they talked about how they had been more than a year without masturbating but then slipped and had to start all over again. It was as if they wouldn’t consider themselves “clean” until they had banished all sexual thoughts from their lives–and you can guess how that would work out.

With the older men, it was always the same: their wives had caught them looking at porn. Pornography is definitely a problem for some people, but these were normal men who occasionally looked at porn on the internet, not guys spending all day obsessing over it. But the reaction was always the same: the wife was ready to throw in the towel on 10, 20, 30 years of marriage. I can understand the hurt and betrayal spouses might feel, but getting a divorce over it? That just seems crazy to me.

As I said, a few people I met in the months that I attended actually did have a problem with compulsive sexual behavior. They stood out, and I would always think that they really needed to be in therapy, not in this meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the facilitator spoke for several minutes about his experience and the process, and then the missionary spoke, followed by a closing prayer.

The program seemed structured less to control addiction than it was to guide people through the familiar repentance process. Milestones were such things as taking the sacrament again, getting a temple recommend, or putting in mission papers.

My therapist had been right, of course: the main effect was an unhealthy obsession with sexual expression, which ironically is what the program was supposed to help people recover from. There was so much shame in that room, and it was painful to watch. The worst was when these kids talked about admitting their addiction to their loved ones. Most normal adults would think that admitting that you’re addicted to masturbation is ridiculous, but these kids shamed themselves in front of parents and loved ones. I remember some of these boys talking about how they were dating someone and knew they had to tell them about their addiction. Still makes my heart hurt to think of all that pain they were putting themselves through.

Despite all of this, I took the steps seriously because I knew that in those small ways I could reassure my wife that I could and would change my behavior to repair some of what I had damaged in our relationship in other ways, not through any “addiction.” I was glad, however, that I never felt that overwhelming and, it seemed, debilitating shame that many of these guys felt. For me, the meetings were just a reminder to stay focused on my marriage, and I did commit to staying away from porn, which was a good thing.

I did, however, stop attending when I realized that the program was, in the end, a projection of the facilitator’s experiences and feelings. He saw all of us as being the same as he was: a seriously damaged and abused person who struggled with terrible emotional problems and compulsive behavior. The last straw for me was when he started talking about his son, who was serving a mission at the time. He had convinced his son that his occasional masturbation was evidence of a serious addiction, so his son had started attending the meetings at around age 16. When the son went on his mission, he apparently grilled every companion about his masturbatory habits until he became convinced that everyone in the mission was a sex addict. So, he went to the mission president and arranged for each mission zone meeting to have time set aside for all missionaries to go through the 12 steps.

As I recall, the meetings are supposed to help because they are voluntary; you can’t force people to attend meetings for an addiction they don’t have, but that’s what this kid was doing, and his father could not have been prouder.

In the end, that shark-jumping moment convinced me that, just as this man was projecting his life experience and problems on the rest of us, the church had built this program based on how it assumed that members live their lives. One look at pornography was an addiction. Even occasional masturbation was likewise an addiction. But behind the talk of addiction was the old cycle of guilt and shame, and I saw way too much of that.

As I said, I don’t minimize the effects of compulsive sexual behavior, but when you put all sexual expression within that definition, you can potentially destroy lives in ways that pornography and masturbation can’t.