Communication Breakdown

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The April 1972 General Conference did not begin strong. Its Thursday morning session was a chore to get through to say the least and displayed some of the more negative aspects of Mormonism (e.g. triumphalism, authoritarianism). Most of my notes were very critical and aimed at dismantling a number of points raised throughout the talks. However, I finally reached Spencer W. Kimball’s talk on communication. He tells of being in “cattle country” in northwest Argentina where a fire had burned down a number of telephone poles. He compares this to struggling couples: “I thought that telephone lines and telephone poles are a little like people. They are built for one purpose and sometimes serve another. They are designed to be firm and stout and to give support; but in many cases they are leaning and swaying and sagging until communications are greatly impaired, if not actually cut off. In my experience I find that in a large number of marital cases, the problem is lack of communication; the wires are down, the poles are burned, husbands and wives are jangling, and there is static where there should be peace. There is growing disgust and hate where there should be love and harmony.” In many cases, the “inability to communicate in reasonableness led to anger, hard words, misunderstandings. 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. And all this because two basically good people let their communication lines get down and permitted the security poles to drag the ground.” He shares another story of a young man who had become distanced from the Church. When asked about his habits and associations, Kimball remembers, “The answers were what I expected. He had turned loose his hold on the iron rod. He associated largely with unbelievers. He read, in addition to his college texts, works by atheists, apostates, and Bible critics. He had ceased to pray to his Heavenly Father. His communication poles were burned, and his lines were sagging terribly.” He concludes by stating, “Sin comes when communication lines are down—it always does, sooner or later.”

Now, I’m not scared of atheists, apostates, or Bible critics. I’m thoroughly convinced that we should be familiar with the thoughts and writings of such people. I was about to chalk this up to the old whitewashing of Mormon history and the labeling of all things challenging as “anti-Mormon”, but then I realized this was relational in nature, not intellectual. The two examples Kimball chooses to use are the relationship between a husband and wife and the one between a young man and the Church (and ultimately God). As I thought on this, I was reminded of psychologist and marriage expert John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the [Relationship] Apocalypse“:

  • Criticism – attacking the person’s character and implying that they are defective as a person.
  • Contempt – displaying a sense of superiority, making the other feel like an inferior (most dangerous of the “Horsemen”).
  • Defensiveness – self-victimization; lack of accountability.
  • Stonewalling – withdrawing from the conversation.

Without going into great detail, I was embarrassed to discover that I do all four of these things plenty when it comes to the Church. While the Church is flawed, it is nonetheless important to me. Perhaps I should try to strengthen my relationship with it by cutting back on my criticisms, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling and replace them with vulnerability, accountability, charity, and engagement.

Doing so may remind me why the Church is as true as the gospel.