Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Of Hearts That Fail and Love That Waxes Cold

Fifth Sunday is combined Relief Society & Priesthood, and often among my favorite meetings. Last month's discussion was based in part upon the 45th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, particularly those verses speaking of men's hearts failing them and the love of men waxing cold. Similar verses can be found in  Matthew chapter 24 and Luke chapter 21. I'd always understood those verses to be speaking of the latter days and being tied to the righteousness of individuals and nations. Because of this discussion and also for recent experiences in my life and the lives of those I hold dear, I have decided there are further and deeper meanings. Recently called to serve in an Elders quorum presidency and feeling quite inadequate to the task, and reflecting upon past leadership positions, I've been considering how I can best serve, and trying to understand the hearts of those around me.

The Gospel of Luke says hearts fail for fear and for "looking after those things which are coming on the earth". I've always thought this to refer to the descriptors of the last days: abounding iniquity, famine and pestilence, earthquakes in divers places, etc. But I've started to wonder if perhaps much of it is far more subtle than that.

What causes hearts to fail? Certainly sin does, whether our own transgressions or the effects of those who transgress against us. And certainly illness and natural disasters can shake faith and cause doubt and worry to grow. They can also make us stronger. What is it that makes the difference between one person experiencing those things and falling away and another person experiencing the same events and growing stronger?

When I first joined the Church, and for many years after I saw things in a pretty much black-and-white fashion, with grey areas generally being the excuses people made because they didn't want to change. I figured people stay in bad situations because they have given up and don't have the desire to change. And then I found myself in quagmires I didn't know how to extricate myself from. I still have a tendency to think in black-and-white, which might not be an altogether bad thing, as it gives me that core belief that there is a solution to be had, if only that solution can be found and applied. Now I encourage myself to try to understand the process that got someone (myself included) to that undesirable place, and to find a remedy for the problem. I want to learn how to focus on the solution rather than what caused the problem. In short, it doesn't really matter who led the ox into the mire nor why they did it. What matters is the ox is there and feeling a bit uncomfortable and it wants out.

I do think more often than not people's hearts fail them because they have given up. But I wonder why have they given up? I believe sometimes it's simply that we become overwhelmed. And I think it's usually a multitude of little things which overwhelm us rather than a singular huge disaster. As devastating as natural disasters are, people generally rebuild and come out stronger. I think this is because survival instincts kick in and people do what is necessary to bounce back.

Why then don't those same survival instincts kick in when all those little things attack? Or are the instincts there but we push them aside because we don't feel we really need them against minor annoyances? Rhetorical question perhaps, as I haven't yet figured it out. My best guess is that we don't see the little things as chipping away at our armor. We don't recognize the danger. Remember the Jurassic Park movies? People ran from the tyrannosaurus rex because it was big and scary and obviously a threat, and the raptors were just plain mean and evil looking, so everyone ran from those as well. But those cute little chicken-sized dinos? Pfft. Whatever. No problem. Drop kick the little bugger. But suddenly were dozens of the ravenous little monsters, and the situation appeared very grave indeed.

How does love "wax cold"?. Is it like the annoying teenaged Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader? Good guy turns bad? Yeah, it can be. But I think hearts can turn cold in ways which aren't strictly evil. Sin and pride and addiction can turn our hearts cold, but if cold is looked at in the sense of "lack of warmth, friendliness or compassion", then other aspects of the human experience must be looked at. Perhaps, like failing hearts, it can begin with feeling overly tired and overwhelmed, becoming consumed by the trials of life. Perhaps being overwhelmed can lead to an apathetic attitude towards others, as in "I'd like to help you, but I've got my own problems, and besides, it's your ox." Or maybe the things of the world (both good and bad) become distracting to the point where we fail to recognize the needs of others. All of these things can be defined as sins via omission rather than commission, but you have to be pretty far gone to purposefully seek the destruction of others. Hearts don't lose their warmth all at once.

Nearly a decade ago President Thomas S Monson spoke in General Conference on developing "an attitude of gratitude":

While there are some things wrong in the world today, there are many things right, such as teachers who teach, ministers who minister, marriages that make it, parents who sacrifice, and friends who help. ... We can lift ourselves, and others as well, when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.

Perhaps if we focus on everything which is good and virtuous and praiseworthy in our lives, and being thankful for it, we can prevent our own hearts from failing during trying times, and keep our love from waxing cold. And if we can do that, we can better reach out to others, we can restart and bring back the love to the hearts of those who have fallen away.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Loneliness

At the singles fireside tonight, the speaker in his closing remarks said he had thought that marriage would end his loneliness, but it didn't. I thought I knew what he meant before he finished making his point, but he took it a step beyond what I was thinking. I understood he wasn't being negative about his wife or marriage. What I took away from his remarks were two vital points; one, that loneliness is a part of the human experience, and two, we cannot expect another person to cure our loneliness.

Our speaker shared an experience of a time when he was explaining something which was of great significance to himself, and his wife didn't respond quite the way he'd hoped. Retiring to another room in frustration, he sought comfort in prayer from his Heavenly Father and the result of that prayer was a remembrance of the Savior's closest disciples dozing off while He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane. You remember the story. The Savior took Peter, James and John with him to the garden and asked them to wait while He prayed. He returned to find them sleeping. He admonished them, and left to pray again. Three times Jesus prayed, and three times the disciples slept.

The lesson taught to our speaker that night, which he in turn taught us tonight, is this: our Savior knew loneliness, disappointment, grief, sorrow, temptation, bitterness, betrayal - you name it, He knew it. Every single emotional, physical, mental and spiritual pain we experience, our Savior experienced as well. That is part of how the Atonement works. That is how He knows how to succor us. We are never alone. We are not forgotten. We are known by our Heavenly Father and our elder brother and we matter to them.

And it doesn't matter if we are single or married, we all struggle.

What ought we do with that knowledge? I think the answer is twofold. First, we should to seek to remember that sublime truth, even to pray for help in remembering it. I believe we remember best by putting the theory to the test. Test it out in prayer; seek to see ourselves in all our potential as Heavenly Father and our Savior see us. Even if we see it but for a small moment, how much strength would that give us in overcoming all our doubts and insecurities, all our trials and tribulations?

And second, we can help others remember that truth -- by standing beside them, comforting and encouraging and buoying them up. Yes, that's hard to do when our own pains are so acute we are deadened  to the suffering around us. But that's a funny thing about mourning with those who mourn: Grief and sorrow are divided, and joy is multiplied. Always.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Support System

Life is tough, whichever hill you're over or merely approaching the summit of. It is tough regardless of your state or non-state of marital bliss. Is it sometimes tough to be a single in a church that stresses family? You bet. According to my married friends, it's sometimes tough to be married in a church that stresses family. I think the only real reason the inactivity rate of singles in the church is so much higher than the inactivity rate of the married people is the lack of a support system. That, to me is the sad thing about that inactivity rate. Singles feel the isolation more acutely but the stresses are there for everyone, because Satan doesn't want any of us to succeed.

I have a number of friends who believe that the singles "wouldn't leave the church in droves" if only the church would "fix the program". After much debate, we have had to agree to disagree. Me, I don't think the program is broken. That's not to say things couldn't be improved. There's always room for improvement. But as far as the singles receiving extra-special attention? I don't think so. When I first joined the church, the two singles groups were referred to as "Special Interest" and "Young Special Interest". One of those improvements the Church made was renaming the groups to "Single Adults" and "Young Single Adults". I found the new terms more accurate in their mere simplicity: I am single, and I am an adult. Ta da! I do indeed think I'm special. We all are. Being labelled as such didn't make me feel happier, more welcome, or even more special. But I didn't take umbrage at the old moniker, either.

It has been suggested the Church should help singles find suitable mates. I daresay they could do a better job of it than I. But frankly, it's not their job. It's mine. As much as I obviously stink at it, I want the right to make my own decisions -- riddled with mistakes -- regarding my Eternal Companion. I don't want the Cosmic Hotdog Vendor pointing her out to me (if you understand this reference, you watch too many TV commercials.)

Actually, the Church does help singles find suitable mates. It's one of the best kept secrets in the Church. There's no dedicated "Courtship 101" Sunday School class for it. You won't find a manual in the meetinghouse library, on the same shelf with "Primary 1 (Sunbeam Class)", "Gospel Essentials", and "New Testament Teacher's Manual". But there is "how to" instruction available. When you ask people what qualities they are looking for in a spouse, the majority of those answers are going to be character traits which are taught in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And we're unlikely to recognize those traits in another if we're not actively developing those traits within ourselves.

It is at this point I am usually interrupted with questions such as, "So! What you are telling me is I can't find my eternal companion and all those other singles can't find theirs because we're somehow unworthy?" I've never fully understood the leap between the statement and the conclusion. And since I have been single longer than most those who think I think that, I'd obviously be including myself in that category.

But it does beg the question, "Why do people go inactive?" Whether we're asking about the singles inactivity rate or the inactivity rate in general, I think the answer is the same: People lose sight of who they are. They either begin to think too much of themselves or they start thinking too little of themselves. Satan doesn't particularly care how he drags us down, but knowing our weaknesses, he'll exploit them. For some that will be through feelings of superiority through intellectualism, materialism, smokin' good looks. For others it will be just the opposite; he will cause them to focus on where they fall short, on where and how they don't measure up: they aren't smart enough, aren't beautiful enough, aren't spiritual enough. On the one hand, too much, on the other, not enough. And sometimes Satan will throw in addictions, both physical and behavioral, to exaggerate those false self perceptions. And so.... people leave. In droves.

Whether we think too much or too little of ourselves, the crux of the matter is this: we have placed ourselves at the center. Our focus has shifted from the Savior and others to ourselves. I didn't get what I needed. The bishop wasn't there for me. My home teacher wasn't there for me. My girlfriend wasn't there for me. My mother/father/sister/brother wasn't there for me. I didn't get what I needed. I am at the center. I am broken, and they broke me, and they need to fix it.

Now, it is true we have to take care of ourselves in order to effectively serve others. We cannot charge another's batteries if our own have been entirely depleted. I'm familiar with this: I believe I "have to" drop everything and go help someone in need. Sometimes that's true; sometimes the situation truly is that urgent. Most of the time, it really can wait until I complete whatever I'm in the middle of. But if I lose that balance I might become resentful, because I have no time to myself, and it's all their fault... and I'm at the center again.

People leave the Church because their needs aren't met, and they come to feel isolated and unworthy and distrustful of their selves as well as of others. Not because the program wasn't there, or because another person who should've been more cognizant of their needs wasn't. Those are convenient scapegoats. But regardless of who or what fell short, the most often overlooked factor is this: We are in control of our own lives.

Sounds simple doesn't it? And if you've ever been at the end of your rope (and if you're old than say, eight, you have been!) you understand that truth on an intellectual level but emotionally you're hurting so much that you just feel stuck and feel like you cannot handle it alone.

Then stop trying to! Really. Whether you're trying to pull your own ox or someone else's ox out of the mire, admit that the ox is there and it's too heavy and too stuck for you to handle alone, swallow your dadgum  pride and ask for help! I wonder if people think that since on Judgement Day we have to stand alone in front of out Savior to account for our lives, that we might as well start practicing now and do every single thing alone every single day until then? We are not supposed to go it alone, but we are continually astonished at how hard it is when we try to.

In the Church there has been a great focus of late on the topic of "Rescue". How do we go about fixing what's broken in the Singles program? We rescue them. One at a time, the same way they were lost. By helping them to remember for themselves who they are and why they matter: They are Children of God. We bring them back by being their friends, by serving them, by teaching them, by loving them individually. And if we find ourselves among the lost, we accept the offered help with gratitude and (warning: scary word approaching!) trust.

We become actively engaged in our own lives and in the lives of others. We build a support system.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

M.O.T.H.S.

M.O.T.H.S. began as a tongue-in-cheek joke with a couple of my friends, my response to a frustration over a (very) few individuals' over-zealousness over the age limitations for the "Middle Singles" group. Officially, the Church has two singles groups: "Young Single Adults", ages 18-30, and "Single Adults", ages 31 and up (or as I joked before I turned 31, "31 to dead". Unofficially, there are groups for ages 31-45, dubbed "Middle Singles", with the idea of there being a place for easy transition between the two groups and to have "more energetic" activities. One of the ideas behind this "middle" group was to ensure that people would not feel too out of place graduating from a youngster to a full-fledged adult, or feel uncomfortable going to a dance at 31 and having to deal with the unwanted attentions of someone 20, 30, 40 years older. The thinking was no one should be made to feel uncomfortable or excluded. Unfortunately, that very thing happened, just on the other end of the spectrum. Although it didn't happen to me, I do know others who were excluded by having their age questioned at the door (as if yesterday you were young enough to hang with the crowd, but today you're just an old fart.) And then I heard of a couple of situations where friends were excluded for reasons that had more to do with popularity than age.

Now people are people and are going to do silly, thoughtless, and mean things to one another. But I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, so I didn't participate in any "middle" activity, and found myself being almost as stubbornly opposed to the idea as those who irked me in the first place. Okay, scratch the "almost". I was downright disdainful of it for awhile. I didn't like that about myself, but before I corrected my attitude, the rigidity began to relax on its own. And then... I "aged out" and it became a moot point. Once again I could joke about the age factor: at 46, I was officially "old".

I contemplated starting my own group for the older generation. Decided I didn't want to be in charge, It took a year to come up with the "MOTHS" acronym, and another year before I decided to create a Facebook page dedicated to Mormon, Over-the-Hill Singles.

But then I started thinking. Thinking can be a dangerous thing. But occasionally I delight in living dangerously. I know single people in the Church get discouraged. An unfortunate many leave the Church behind, although I think it is seldom solely over the challenges of being single in a church that stresses marriage and family. There are as many sets of circumstances as there are single members. The commonalities they share with one another are the same ones they share with the married members: They are beloved children of their Heavenly Father. They have needs, fears, frustrations, and ofttimes overwhelming challenges. And they have hopes, dreams, triumphs, and incredible talents and abilities and opportunities to serve and love. When people learn to think outside the box, they see that the only exclusions or things that separate us are the ones we create for ourselves or for others.

So, if we're all pretty much the same, can we learn to see those things we have in common and use them to encourage, uplift and strengthen one another? Can we learn to use our differences to gain perspective and insight -- and use those things to encourage, uplift and strengthen one another? Can we build one another up rather than shunning and shaming people into deeper isolation and inactivity?

What I would like to do with this blog -- with the help of others I'll ask to assist me in this project -- is to write about being single in a family-oriented church and about keeping faith strong and active. I want to focus on the positive aspects and the triumphs. Not the failures. We beat ourselves up enough over those.I don't have any experience being divorced or being a single parent, so those are the sorts of things I'll ask my friends to write about.  My hope is that this blog will give positive voices to the writers and hope and support for the reader. Please contact me with your ideas.