Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Those infuriating, necessary, other people

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session from the October 1975 Conference.
Lately I think I've become a bit of a misanthrope. I was saying so to my mom the other day. She was talking about some good cause she had supported, and I said how she was a philanthropist (which, as you know, has the literal meaning of "Lover of Mankind"), and then I said, "I myself am more of a misanthropist. I've considered Mankind, and I don't think much of him!" Ha.

I guess on some levels that's not true—I do mostly assume people are going to be honest and friendly when I talk to them, and I get all choked up and teary when I read one of those happy little anecdotes where people return lost wallets or save hurt animals, or when I watch Mormon messages about people changing their lives because of the gospel. I do believe in all of that goodness in the world. But, as much as I try to avoid Facebook and the comments of any article, I also just can't help spending a good deal of time thinking how irrational and inconsistent and ignorant and petty and mean and, well, dumb, people can be.

I don't WANT to think of other people like that, though (see: avoiding Facebook and the comment sections), and when I'm at my best I realize that we're all dumb in our own little ways, and we all have our irrationalities, and we all need Jesus Christ. And if HE is the ultimate "philanthrope"—which he must be—shouldn't I aim for that mindset too?

Elder Robert D. Hales talked about this subject in the October 1975 General Conference. And it was clearly a talk I needed to hear, since I highlighted practically every paragraph. The talk is "We Can't Do It Alone," and his thesis sums the basic doctrine up nicely:
It is…God’s plan that we cannot return to his presence alone, without the help of someone else. … 
The many missions which we have in life cannot be embarked upon successfully without the help of others. Birth requires earthly parents. Our blessing as a child, our baptism, our receiving the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, our receiving membership in his church, ordination to the priesthood, going on a mission, being married, having children of our own, blessings during illness and times of need—all require the help of others. And all these are acts of love and service which require the help of others and the giving of help to others. 
…In preparing this message, it has become very clear to me that the true nature of the gospel plan is the interdependence we have upon one another in this life and the estate in which we now live.
So that's pretty clear, isn't it? It made me feel a bit sheepish about how often I forget how many other people have helped—not just helped, but been essential—in my becoming who I am. My parents brought me to earth and gave me a body. They and my brothers and friends and teachers shaped my childhood. Even the ideas and thoughts and opinions I now hold as my own have been influenced by my parents, the books I've read, the doctrine I've been taught, the insights I've received in conversation and discussion. Bishops and other ward members have served in countless callings for the benefit of ME, and my children. Temple workers make my temple worship possible. Ancient prophets wrote down the scriptures that I now treasure. Once you start thinking about it, you realize how pretty much every blessing you have comes through another person. And that's not even including Christ, who of course makes EVERY good thing possible.

That realization is humbling enough, but then Elder Hales gets right to it with some deeper insight. It isn't merely the benevolent figures in our lives, those who serve us, that are essential. It's just…other people. ANY other people! And this is why:
The “isolated self” shut off from the Light of Christ makes us become fallible—open to delusion. The balance and perspective which come from caring about others and allowing others to care for us form the essence of life itself. We need the inspired help of others to avoid deceiving ourselves.
I've been thinking about this passage all week. I sense the truth of it, but it's still slightly hard to accept. Elder Hales seems to be saying that our interactions with others—even the unpleasant, annoying, bumping-up-against-each-other sorts of interactions—are part of what will save us. That they will give us balance. That in isolation, even the most noble and well-intentioned of souls will begin to deceive itself! That it's the belonging to a group—this messy rubbing about together with the rest of humanity, bothering each other and being brought to see each others' faults in hideous close-up—that is the "essence of life itself." 

And lest you think maybe he's just using hyperbole there, he repeats himself:
…In this life we experience something we cannot do any other place. The life we had before and the life we will have hereafter will leave our bodies, spirits, and minds in a more perfect state. But we did not and will not have the opportunities to give of ourselves in the same way as we can in this life. What a simple truth of a gospel principle! As we suffer and serve in this life, we are fulfilling a very essential part of the gospel plan.
Next Elder Hales tells the story of the song "Believe me if all these endearing young charms." I sang this in a ward choir when I was a teenager, and I don't mind telling you that I found it one of the sappiest, smarmiest, most sentimental songs I'd ever heard. My friend Rachael and I used to make fun of it mercilessly. You can read the lyrics for yourself, if you've got the stomach. It's very flowery and Victorian and quite foreign to our modern sensibilities. However! The story behind it is actually quite sweet. The poet's wife had smallpox and was terribly scarred from it. She vowed never to leave her room or open the shutters. She didn't want anyone to see her ever again. So, her devoted husband wrote this poem to assure her that her scars didn't matter to him. It was her self, not her physical appearance, that he loved.

Okay, it's a nice sentiment, if a little trite. But Elder Hales put it in a different light for me when he said,
I would like at this time to thank my wife for opening up the shutters and letting in her light and her life and sharing it with me. I would not be here today without her love and companionship. 
When we are marred spiritually or physically, our first reaction is to withdraw into the dark shadows of depression, to blot out hope and joy—the light of life which comes from knowing we are living the commandments of our Father in heaven. This withdrawal will ultimately lead us to rebellion against those who would like to be our friends, those who can help us most, even our family. But worst of all, we finally reject ourselves.
When I thought of those smallpox scars as being a metaphor for all the ugliness within each of us—the selfishness, the doubt, the fear, the pettiness—I suddenly related to poor Mrs. Moore and her urge to shut out the light. It's so strange that feelings of loneliness or self-doubt should lead us to withdraw and become more alone! But that's exactly what they do. And though there is not really relief in that withdrawal, there's at least some sense of safety. It's so scary to allow others to see you as you really are! And yet—God asks us to do it! In our relationship with Him most of all, and then in our families and marriages as well. We show our own weaknesses even as we are entrusted with the weaknesses of others. And in doing this, we open the doors for a greater love and closeness than is possible in any other way.

It's not a sure or easy thing, though! Of course not. It's risky and messy. We hurt people's feelings and they hurt ours. But there's something God-like in even this, in this willingness to engage with the "unwashed masses" (and admit we are among their number). It reminds me of Elder Renlund's talk last week, that beautiful quote from Les Misérables: "Should the scabs of the sheep cause the shepherd to recoil?" The scabs are widespread and real. And they want curing. But this is not justification to "recoil in horror" from humanity. Rather, we are supposed to minister to others with compassion and love, as Christ did. Only then can our own "scabs" be healed.

I don't think this is easy doctrine. There is something difficult in hearing Elder Hales say this:
Those who are alone and lonely should not retreat to the sanctuary of their private thoughts and chambers. Such retreat will ultimately lead them into the darkening influence of the adversary, which leads to despondency, loneliness, frustration, and to thinking of themselves as worthless. 
…When you attempt to live life’s experiences alone, you are not being true to yourself, nor to your basic mission in life.  
I can imagine all the protests one might make. "But I'm wounded! I'm hurting! I need to care for myself; I need to focus inward! Other people hurt me and cause me stress and bring more heartache!" Or even the quieter arguments, "Why waste effort worrying what anyone else does or thinks? Shouldn't I learn to be self-reliant?" And of course, the courage to stand alone when necessary is an admirable thing. But I think this injunction not to retreat—not even to "the sanctuary of our private thoughts"!—is really interesting. Obviously we can disengage from argument or contention, and should. But NOT from interaction. NOT from service. NOT even from social discomfort, necessarily. These things, we should engage in, in as Christlike a manner as possible. Even if we don't really feel like it! (And I love the fact that families and wards basically…force us to do this.) As Elder Hales matter-of-factly concludes,
The disposition to ask assistance from others with confidence, and to grant it with kindness, should be part of our very nature. That we might understand this basic principle of the gospel, having love for and allowing ourselves to be loved by our fellowmen, is my prayer.
I don't think Elder Hales would begrudge anyone the chance to pull back and be alone now and then, or to focus inward and find strength there. Of course there are places where we feel only Jesus Christ can truly walk with us. But…that's temporary. And by and large…we need to be with others. Helping and being helped. Needing and being needed. Annoying and being annoyed, if it comes to that, I suppose. Because that's what being part of this family—God's family—is all about.

Other posts in this series:

4 comments:

  1. This is all a good reminder for me. Thanks for writing it!

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    1. I hope it will make it easier to live with me...

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  2. I love your thoughts and for sure social media can make you more of a misanthrope than anything! I've often thought that God could have just created us all individually if He wanted but purposely sends us to families for this very reason.

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    1. Yeah. I've always known families were God's plan, but it becomes more and more clear to me as I get older that there really was no better way. As hard as it sometimes is! I often reflect on how patient and righteous and productive I could be all the time if I just lived alone. But...that's not really the POINT (and also probably not true! Ha ha).

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