This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
Some General Conference sessions seem brimming with impactful revelations and guidance. And some do not.
I believe in a lot of cases the variable isn’t the session or an individual talk; it’s me. When I was a missionary in the MTC, the October 2000 General Conference was absolutely riveting. Every single session captured my full attention. On my mission, I devoured the conference issues of the Ensign, avidly reading every word of every single talk. But this was all a very drastic change from how I approached General Conferences before and after my mission. In both cases—at least until recently—it was a rare accomplishment just to stay awake for an entire Sunday session, and I frequently didn’t even try to catch the Saturday sessions. Most of the difference was simply what I brought to the table. Like scripture, you get more out of General Conferences when you put more into them.
But it would be strange to think that that’s the only variable in play. Some talks resonate more with different parts of the audience than others. And surely, if some talks stand out as legendary and unique, then other talks by definition have to be somewhat ordinary by comparison. This session, for me at least, was full of those kinds of talks.
As I read the first five talks, I found interesting things to note, but nothing that really stood out. I have itching ears. I like to hear new things. That’s not a bad trait in general—curiosity is essential to a meaningful life—but when it creates a thirst for novelty for novelty’s sake it can become a problem.
Which is exactly what I realized when I came to the last talk of the session, Keep the Lines of Communication Strong by President Spencer W. Kimball. His emphasis was first and foremost on the lines of communication within a marriage, and he begins with a story of a young couple who grew apart because of mismatched expectations and goals and, more importantly, because they stopped communicating with each other and turned to someone else for comfort:
In time, each found another person and set up different communication lines for sympathy and understanding and comfort; and this disloyalty led to physical adventures that resulted in adulteries and two broken homes and disillusioned spouses and crushed hopes and injured children.
President Kimball writes that “all this [happened] because two basically good people let their communication lines get down.” From there, he segues into a discussion about the line of communication in faith, about the necessity of maintaining a habit of daily prayer and reading the scriptures and how—without these habits—we will not have a vibrant, thriving spiritual life to fall back upon in challenging and lean times.
These points are interesting, and they are good, but they aren’t really new, are they? Isn’t the advice about keeping open the lines of communication with our spouses just common sense? Isn’t the advice about keeping open the lines of communication with our Heavenly Father just a restatement of the Parable of the Ten Virgins?
Yes and no. It depends, to a great extent, on what we bring to the message.
For me, I realized when reading President Kimball’s talk how important it was for me to slog through the first five talks of the session even though I didn’t enjoy them as much as I often do. Sometimes keeping the line of communication open isn’t novel, or exciting, or revelatory. Sometimes the conversations you have with your spouse aren’t scintillating. You’re just sharing ordinary concerns and relating everyday events. But if you only talked to your spouse when at least one of you had something really thrilling or intrinsically exciting to say, then how often would you talk at all? And, facing that kind of scrutiny, how could you possible put in the simple moments—day after day, week after week, year after year—to keep lines of communication open?
It reminds me of a quote from an amazing science fiction novel by the Chinese author Cixin Liu:
As had occurred so many times before, their eyes met and intertwined, a continuation of that gaze they had held in front of the Mona Lisa’s smile two centuries before. They had discovered that the language of the eyes that [his wife] had dreamed up was now a reality. Or maybe loving humans had always possessed this language. When they looked at each other, a richness of meaning poured from their eyes, just as the clouds poured from the … endless and unceasing. But it wasn’t a language of this world. It constructed a world that gave it meaning, and only in that rosy world did the words of the language find their corresponding referents. Everyone in that world was God. All had the ability to instantaneously count and remember every grain of sand in the desert. All were able to string together stars into a crystal necklace to hang around a lover’s neck.
The point of the secret communication between this husband and wife wasn’t what they had to say. It was that they were saying it to each other. This otherworldly communication is possible in all loving relationships, I believe, a secret language only understood by a man and wife who have built a lifetime together. And every simple, boring, commonplace exchange—when part of a grand project of keeping open the lines of communication—becomes another element to their private language.
There is this fascinating connection in the scriptures between marital fidelity and religious fidelity. Between adultery and apostasy. It’s no coincidence that President Kimball chose to emphasis those two stories in his talk about lines of communication: because in both cases, the work of maintaining the lines of communication is the work of protecting and preserving a special relationship.
Writing about the importance of love in human society and psychology, Jonathan Haidt pointed out that although we often celebrate the idea of universal love, there is actually something vital about specific love:
Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence towards everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return. [emphasis added]
That kind of specific love is tied in some way to exclusivity. It is why idealistic, naïve arguments for polyamory—although superficially commendable: shouldn’t love be devoid of jealousy and possession?—are so foolish. The love of man and wife is sacred because they have each chosen the other in particular and above all others. And this is very similar to our discipleship, in that we must choose to love and follow God in particular and above all others.
So yes: sometimes General Conference talks are boring. Sometimes they are repetitive. Sometimes the talks are little more than just long recitations of scriptures we already know, without any new or unique twist or insight. And listening to these talks is not as much fun as listening to a talk that seems to expand our minds our souls with every word, but listening to these workaday talks is important, because the mundane and the repetitive and the commonplace are the building blocks of the sacred and the transcendent.
Keeping open lines of communication is a chore sometimes. It’s a chore with our spouses, with our children, with our family, with our friends, and with our God. But these relationships are also the treasures of eternity. They are, especially for Mormons, the whole point. A little boredom is a small price to pay. If Naaman could be troubled to bathe in the humble Jordan,1 then I can be troubled to read even the General Conference talks that don’t appear to sparkle. The cost of admission is so low, and we have so little to lose in paying it.
As a last observation: I believe I may have wandered a little far afield of President Kimball’s talk. I have pulled in quotes from social science and science fiction, and gone off (as far as I can tell) on a tangent of my own. If the digression has been a good one, it is also evidence of how we—the audience—have an obligation to make what we hear our own. To “liken [scriptures] unto yourselves,” is everyone’s duty.2 Sometimes a General Conference is a delicious prepared meal, ready to be consumed. Other times, it is raw ingredients we have to cook ourselves. Sometimes, it might even feel like just the seeds to grow the plants to cook the meal! No matter. There is honor and dignity and even love in taking what we are given and making it what we desire.
The chance that I will be bored by another General Conference talk—or even an entire session—is quite high. Knowing what to do doesn’t make it easy. But this post represents the way I will try to approach them in the future. If “all things work together for good to them that love God,” clearly this “all things” must include even the boring General Conference talks, right?3
And so I will read every single one. Even the boring ones. I will keep the lines of communication open.
- LDS Conference April 1972 – Common Consent, Sustaining vs Non-Opposition (J. Max Wilson at Sixteen Small Stones)
- Restoring our Lines of Communication (Daniel Ortner at Symphony of Dissent)
- A Peculiar People Aims for Respectability (Ralph Hancock at The Soul and The City)
- No Success Can Compensate (SilverRain at The Rains Came Down)
- Our Lines of Communication (Chastity Wilson at Comfortably Anachronistic)
- More Profound Than Words (Jan Tolman at LDS Women of God)