The Goodness in Others; the Goodness in Me

Suzette and EliTwo years ago this month I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer – and started on a dark journey of hospitals, needles, chemotherapy, nausea, and pain.  I have been reflecting on this time as I pass the anniversary. The thing that stands out the most is how much goodness I saw in others as I struggled through.  It was remarkable to me at the time and continues to be a source of inspiration.

The people I knew well (close friends and family) banded together to form a shelter, so that I rarely worried about my next meal, a ride to the hospital, being alone, or even doing laundry.  My people were beyond generous with their time and resources – and I feel grateful for that every day.

But even outside of my own clan, goodness came to me from all kinds of strangers.  Because I was bald and walking slowly, most people could tell that I was going through some sort of treatment.  I noticed that people smiled at me more and this seemed a sign of solidarity against the great enemy of humankind:  cancer.  Many people approached me to wish me well and give me their prayers.  Waiters and store clerks often discounted items; others (strangers to me) picked up my tab.  Women let me go ahead of them in bathroom lines, teenagers carried my bags, and taxi drivers dismissed charges.  It was astonishing – and wonderful.  I can only imagine that they did these things because they saw “one among them” who was obviously struggling and going through a difficult time.  It was heartening.  I will forever believe in the goodness of humankind because of this experience.

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Meet Me at the Tree

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Tree of Life by Lukey

 

 

I pressed forward in line heading for the sacred grounds of the temple while angry anti-Mormon protesters shouted hateful words, and church members fresh out of the Saturday afternoon session of conference honked and shouted hateful things.  It was like something out of a dream.  In fact, it felt much like a dream I had spent my whole youth learning about, never fully understanding.

I used to understand Lehi’s dream of the tree of life to be about the church vs. the world.  We as members of the church hold onto the word of God and press forward toward the tree of life and its delicious fruit, the love of God, while people outside the church mock us from the great and spacious building.  Never did I think that as I pressed forward, holding onto what I feel very strongly is the word of God, that I would be mocked by members of my own church.  Like Lehi, I have tasted a fruit “most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted.”  It is a fruit that represents our Heavenly Parent’s love for all their children, and their desire for us to truly be equal.  But when I turned back to tell others about this fruit, they did not want to join me in partaking of it.  Some, instead of coming to the tree with me have mocked and ridiculed me for doing so.  This pointing fingers and derisive mocking has become intolerable over the last few months.

As a member of Ordain Women I can’t say that I have always remained at the tree of life either during this journey.  I came to Ordain Women because of some powerful spiritual experiences that left me with a greater capacity to love and to understand God’s love.  But, just like the people in Lehi’s dream, I have had moments when I cast my eyes about and wandered away from that love to a great and spacious building where I didn’t intend to understand the person I was contending with. We are all prone to have moments when we are partaking of the love of God and other moments when we are the ones in the great and spacious building, mocking others who are partaking of the love of God in their way.  It’s not black and white.  It’s not church members vs. the world.  As a church, we do not hold a monopoly on the tree of life and we are not immune from the great and spacious building.

The thing I find most tragic is those who wander the pathways lost and alone, all because the mocking of others caused them to doubt that the fruit they were tasting was really good.  Instead of judging others and causing them to second-guess and lose their way, I think we need to carefully consider at all times, where we are on the spectrum of Lehi’s dream.  Are we partaking of the love of God, or are we being critical of someone we disagree with because we can’t see things from her perspective?  As a member of Ordain Women, I have experienced a lot of loss and pain from those who chose to remain above me and criticize, mock, shun, call me to repentance and judge me from a place where they couldn’t see or understand my heart.  But I have also been blessed with friends and family who have met me at the tree of life and said, I don’t fully understand, but I love you and I am trying to understand.  It is the love and support from these friends that keeps me rooted at the tree of life instead of falling away into dark paths or joining the critics in the great and spacious building with negativity and angry words.

The reason the great and spacious building is up in the air, far from the tree of life, is that misunderstanding is easier to achieve from a distance.  It is easy to criticize and point fingers when we can’t even see the fruit that someone is tasting.  That’s when it is time to come down and share in God’s love with those we don’t understand.  Nephi was told by the angel that the tree of life represented the condescension of God.  Christ came down among us.  He descended below everything and experienced everything so that he could understand us perfectly and love us perfectly.  He had to come to where we are at and experience what we experience before he could gain that perfect love.  That is the condescension of God and that is the love represented by the tree of life.  If we follow his example, then we must also come down from our floating buildings that make us think we are above others.  We have to come down to a level where we can fully understand others, just as Christ did.  I don’t think this means that we all have to agree on everything.  But we do have to do our best to fully understand each other without judgment.  We have to let go of our need to be right or to be better, in order to love.

So to my fellow Mormon feminists who have tasted of the same precious fruit I have, I know that the last few months have been rough.  I don’t know about you, but it has been hard for me to remain at the tree.  I have found myself wandering up to the great and spacious building or becoming lost in the dark paths.  Let’s meet back at the tree and partake of that great love that once consumed us.  And to my fellow Mormon sisters and brothers, please meet us there.  Even if we disagree, it’s better to do so together at the tree of life. I still have a great desire to share with other members of the church, the precious fruit of divine love that I have found in the concept of female ordination and in agitating for it through Ordain Women.  At the very least, I hope we can stand together at the tree of life and share in the fruits of love, instead of pointing fingers from a place where understanding isn’t possible.  In choosing to meet at the tree of life, we are choosing to love, even if we disagree.

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“I do not know the meaning of all things.”

I am meant to write a poll today; an interesting question that will gauge the opinions and feelings of Exponent II readers today.  But what question can I pose of the many questions being asked today?  What feeling can I draw forth of the many emotions that are flooding our Mormon world today?

Kate Kelly’s disciplinary council will be held tonight and it impacts us all.  Whatever you think and feel about Ordain Women or church leadership or revelation from heaven or the disciplinary process – this impacts us all.

As I think and feel today, I sing songs to myself as a way to bring order and calm.

“He gave me my eyes that I might see …..”

I see my brothers and sisters.  I see hate and love.  I see miracles and troubles.

“He gave me my ears that I might hear …”

I hear comfort and division. I hear scripture and the temple endowment. I hear hymns.

“He gave me my life, my mind, my heart …”

I think of Jesus and Joseph and Thomas.  I think of patterns. I puzzle over the lines these patterns create:  parallel lines, perpendicular lines.

I feel the Holy Ghost. I feel the love of friends and family. I feel pain around me. I feel compassion.

Today, I will not understand.  I will not be able to connect the dots and make a straight line.  All I know to do today is feel.

“For all his creations, of which I’m a part. Yes, I know Heav’nly Father loves me.”

 

And from Nephi, a prophet:

“I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” 1 Nephi 11:17

 

What are you thinking and feeling today?

 

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From the Backlist: Comforting Those that Stand in Need of Comfort

Michaelangelo's 4th PietaA couple of weeks ago, I was having a down day between my relationship with the Church and Mormon feminism. I vague-booked out to my “Rogue Mormon” Facebook list and quickly after, my bishop and fellow ward members who are on that list messaged me back, letting me know I am always welcome and they want me in the ward, in the Church.

When the New York Times article about Kate Kelly and John Dehlin came out yesterday, my tech-savvy bishop messaged me again to make sure I was ok. This morning I got an email from a fellow ward member telling me, “Don’t leave!” and that she believes there is room for everyone in the Church. I wasn’t going to leave and I’m surprisingly handling this newer news better than I was handling things a couple of weeks ago. I think the responses I got a couple of weeks ago were helpful in grounding me. When the NYT article came out, I knew already that my ward wanted to keep me and I didn’t need to worry about whether or not I’d be welcome on Sunday.

I’m so grateful for a ward that really does believe in taking care of everyone and making sure we are all doing well, no matter where our talents and interests fall. I am honored to go to church every Sunday with people who take their promise to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” seriously.

Yesterday we mourned with you, so today, from our backlist, we will share comfort with you all.

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The benefits of fallible prophets

My ward meetinghouse

My ward meetinghouse growing up

 

I spent my teenage years in another country as the daughter of an ex-pat banker.  I attended a very small English-speaking ward and was often one of very few Mormons my age.  Because our ward was the only English-speaking one in a city of many millions of people, we were the hub for American Mormons coming through for 2-3 years at a time.  We had folks working for the embassy, plenty of folks working for large American corporations, and quite a few Americans working for the church, including mission presidents and general authorities (and one that is now an apostle).  Because of this unique situation, I interacted with lots of church leaders (both past and present) in a much more informal setting than I do now.  I went to seminary and school with their kids.  We had birthday parties at each other’s houses.  They came to my house and sat around a grill while we had ward cookouts.  We ran carpools and had movie nights together.

Sometimes, when I was at their houses, these church leaders yelled at their kids.  I spied a few R-rated movies in their movie collections.  Sometimes I heard them gossip or say unkind things about other people, usually in exasperation or frustration.  I even saw a few of them drink caffeinated soda (oh, the scandal!).

The one who is now serving as an apostle ended up being my home teacher for three years.  In all those years, he faithfully and regularly cared for our family.  

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Empathy

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As I was thinking about what I wanted my first post as a perma to be about, I decided to talk about what I know. I’m a developmental psychologist and spend a lot of time thinking about how my academic work interfaces with my ‘faith work.’

Lately I’ve been doing some work on moral development. There are three main theoretical approaches people take when talking about the development of morality: evolutionary, socialization, and cognitive. Most of my work falls in the cognitive camp, but I’ve been thinking a lot about evolutionary psych approaches lately. These theorists tend to focus mainly on moral emotions (things like shame, guilt, remorse, compassion, sympathy, and empathy). Empathy is probably the most studied and least understood of any of these. There is some disagreement about how to even define it, but as far as I’ve been able to untangle it, empathy is an emotional response where an individual experiences or mirrors the (usually negative) emotion that another individual is experiencing. Empathy can develop in to either sympathy, which is feeling for someone, or personal distress, which reflects an inability to separate your emotional distress from the other person who is actually in distress. Either way, empathy is the starting point.

It’s sort of amazing; the ability to have empathy is present in extremely young children. Contagious crying (where a baby starts crying when they hear another baby crying) has been observed in infants as young as 6 hours old, as well as in every sacrament meeting ever. Even more amazing is that infants show more distress at the cries of others than in response to recordings of their own cries.

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