The first time I wrote in my journal was in the days immediately after my baptism when I was 8 years old. I still have the pages somewhere in a box, including the hand-drawn map of the different routes I could take when I walked back and forth from school.
I have started and stopped journals countless times since then because it’s one of those things that, as Elder Groberg reminded us in Writing Your Personal and Family History, good Mormons are supposed to do.
As much as I enjoy writing, there’s always been one big thing inhibiting me from keeping a journal more reliably, and it is this: I don’t know what the real story is. This isn’t some weird post-modern hang-up, so much as it is (as far as I can tell) a weird psychological hang-up. I never know how I feel about things. Interrogating my true feelings about the things that are going on in my life is like collecting mist with a butterfly net. I can record the brute facts of my life—I can draw the map and label the streets—but I can’t tell you what those facts mean. Not even, and perhaps most especially, to me.
My inner life is an optical illusion. It is a collection of lines that looks like the inside of a cube one moment or the outside of a cube the next. It is a picture of a rabbit for a blink, and then it is a picture of a duck. It is two faces; it is a chalice. It is an old lady; it is a young woman.
This is why I spend almost no time at all thinking about my past. My friends and family all remember so much more of the things that I’ve been through than I do. For me, the past is like a crime scene, and I am afraid to contaminate the evidence. I have a superstitious belief that there is a true story, an objective reality, and I’m afraid that if I try to hard to find it then I will only erase it.
I have a couple of binders somewhere that contain all the letters that I sent home while I was serving my mission in Hungary and all of the letters that people sent to me. I think the binders were a gift when I got home, but I’m not sure. I’ve never opened them. I’m not sure where they are. I don’t even like to look at the binders, let alone consider reading the pages inside. Because my mission was the one time in my life when I acted like I knew what was going on and when I told everyone how I felt about things, and I’m afraid that it was all lies. It was the hardest time of my young life, and I have vague recollections of writing relentlessly optimistic and happy letters despite feeling so depressed that it felt like physical pain on most days. The whole thing is wildly embarrassing to me. I acted like I knew what was going on. I had no idea. I have lived almost as many years after my mission as I lived before it, and I still have no idea what was going on or why it was so hard for me.
If writing a journal is about writing the real story of my feelings, then I can’t write a journal for the simple reason that I don’t know my own story.
And yet, I should. Write a journal, that is. Like Elder Groberg says, writing a journal “helps immeasurably in gaining a true, eternal perspective of life” and “should be a great motivation to do what is right.” I know that’s accurate: the reflection of writing about my life has helped me put things into perspective.
Maybe that’s the point?
I’m teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine this year, and it’s a mess. We just made the transition from Joshua to Judges, and I taught about how all the mass slaughter that supposedly happened in Joshua is pretty flatly contradicted by Judges. On the bright side: you don’t have to believe in a genocidal God. On the downside: it’s hard to make sense of all the contradictions. In Deuteronomy, we’re told a Moabite will never enter the assembly of the Lord until the 10th generation. Ruth, the hero of the Book of Ruth, is Moabite and that makes King David 1/8th Moabite. And, while we’re on the topic, how do we reconcile the apparent gap between the miracle-laden Exodus story and the miracle-free story of Ruth and Boaz?
The one encouraging thing is that, as I read Elder Groberg’s talk, I realize that the Old Testament is a mess in a lot of the same ways that my own life story is a mess.
There may be one, true, ultimate truth about everything. Not just the objective facts of life, but the subjective ones as well. Maybe there is an absolutely true narrative. But if there is, we will never know it in this life. In this life, stories are things we make up. Fictional stories are based on imaginary facts. And real stories—including history—is made up based on true facts. But they are both made up.
I’m not sure if I have that right or not, but it sounds promising. At the very least, it’s worth giving a shot. I’m going to try writing in my journal again, and this time I’m not going to try and find a life story. I’m going to use the raw materials of my experiences to build one.
My university is home to a controversial Confederate War memorial.
It is a bronze sculpture of a college student carrying a rifle, commemorating the students at my university who left their studies and went to fight in the American Civil War for the Confederacy. On the base are three inscriptions, the middle of which shows the student in class, hearing the call of a woman representing duty urging him to fight. The side inscription speaks of honor and duty.
The statue has always been controversial, but recent events have brought the controversy back.
The university is holding an open panel, inviting the general public to share their thoughts. You just had to register, and the first 25 get to go.
Well, I have some thoughts on the monument, and I wanted to share them. So I signed up, and I wrote a speech (exactly 3 minutes in length), and I’ve been practicing it. On Wednesday, I anticipate getting to deliver the speech.
I would be pretty foolish to not be worried. Actually, on an issue this incendiary, I am pretty foolish to want to speak out at all.
For starters, there’s a chance my talk could anger white supremacist groups.
I am a white man with pale skin and reddish/blondish hair. I am married to a beautiful woman from Costa Rica, with caramel skin and these gorgeous black eyes you can just get lost in. We don’t have children yet, but we are both excited to meet them. I know they will be beautiful, like their mother. I hope my daughters look like her, with her dark skin and dark eyes and her raven black hair.
If you listen to what white supremacist groups actually say these days, then you’d know this is their raison d’être. They refer to it by the moronic title “white genocide” — the “diluting” of the “white race” through marriage of white people with people of other races.
Me and my family are the main thing that white supremacists march against.
In the speech I have planned, I think I make it clear that I consider the cause of the Confederacy in the American Civil War to be an unworthy cause — it was certainly not worth the lives of the men who died for it.
That might anger white supremacists, who would already have reason to despise my family.
But, I’m not afraid of angering white supremacists; they’re evil, but they don’t frighten me. Because I know they are a powerless group of isolated and outcast individuals with little to no social standing in their own communities, who are resorted to anonymous online forums for human contact. They are pathetic, and I’m not enough of a coward to shrink away from shadows in a basement.
White supremacy is, of course, evil. It cost me nothing to say that, and means nothing when I do say it, as everyone either agrees with it already, or is a white supremacist and doesn’t care what society thinks about them.
White supremacy is also stupid. It is lazy thinking. It is the kind of mental shortcut that the feeble-minded rely on. It is the sort of excuse that the weak-willed cower to, lacking the testicular fortitude to face their own inadequacies. It’s the kind of pseudo-intellectualism the internet is famous for, citing poorly analyzed statistics, when all it would take is meeting one normal, middle-class African American to see the fatuity of it all — that blacks and whites are the same race, because there is only the one race of Adam.
My comments might make them mad, but what are they going to do? Make memes about me?
There is also a chance my speech could anger Progressives on the ctrl-left. Actually, probably a much bigger chance. And that does scare me.
It scares me so much that I’m actually considering if I even want to speak at all. I have a speech written, and I’ve been practicing it, and I’ve shopped it with a number of friends, and I’ve made edits and timed it perfectly. But I’m thinking of not doing it at all.
I’m afraid of what the ctrl-left could do to me.
What is the ctrl-left? The label is a take on the alt-right designation, though the ctrl-left have been around for a lot longer. Maybe since the Bush administration. They are a political activist class — that is, they are a class of people with nothing else to do but be politically active. They are employed in universities, shutting down conservative voices. They are employed in news stations, selectively editing narratives and choosing which stories to give press time. They are employed at online opinion magazines, and spend all day opining on politics and culture. They are employed in Starbucks, and then spend 14 hours a day on twitter and tumblr investigating the lives of people they disagree with, trying to have them removed from their jobs, or shut down their youtube, facebook, or twitter to prevent them from sharing in electronic public forums. They are employed in tech companies enforcing “community standards” with bans and post removals, which on platform after platform seems to conveniently mean removing opinions on the right of American politics.
The ctrl-left, in essence, want to control what you are allowed to say, and punish you when you say what you are not.
The most recent explosion of this movement has been in antifa, the group of emotional children using acts of literal street violence to suppress and silence dissident voices in the public sphere — which is to say, they are a group of fascists. These jackbooted thugs have been taking to the streets, punching people in the face, smashing up their campuses in temper tantrums, setting fires, and generally acting exactly like the goosestepping authoritarians they are in order to stop people from saying anything that they don’t think people should be able to say anymore.
This latest expression of the ctrl-left doesn’t particularly worry me. I can take physical violence. I can take being punched in the face, or maced, or beaten with a club. I would consider it an honor, actually. Make my day.
What does worry me are the online Social Justice Warriors in the ctrl-left who have nothing better to do with their lives, apparently, than to seek new ways to punish people for wrongthink.
I work in academia. Tenured professors cannot get fired for refusing to attend their own classes for two years, but tenured professors have been fired for daring to injure the precious emotions of the ctrl-left. I’m a mere, lowly teaching assistant. I could lose my job, or be dismissed from school. I could be made unhirable in colleges and tech companies.
If my speech offends the wrong person, they could look to dig up all kinds of stuff on me.
It wouldn’t even be very hard to dig up stuff on me. For most of my life, I was a pretty terrible jerk. Just ask anyone who knew me in high school. Since high school, I have been slightly tolerable. If you had nothing to do but look for reasons to say crap about me, you could find crap to say about me. And the ctrl-left has absolutely nothing else to do.
But even if they can’t find dirt on me, the very act of disagreeing with their orthodoxy is a firable offense. They have power in universities and companies to crush whoever displeases them; and not only do they have it, but they use it.
I know this, so I generally go about my day and just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut. My fellow students don’t have to keep their mouths shut, because they affirm the accepted dogmata of our thought guardians.
I let them talk and express opinions I disagree with and laugh at people who think the exact things I think and endorse ideologies I completely reject and say nothing, because I just want to get out of here alive, get my PhD, and maybe once I have a job I can rely on, maybe then I’ll be able to breathe again.
And the crux of the story is that I’m just sick of it. I am sick and tired of shutting up. I am done with being expected to receive with full docility the ramblings of this tumblr magisterium. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t speak my mind without retaliation and blowback, while others can express their politics unafraid.
I’m done. I’m done being shut up.
Realistically, I can probably expect nothing. I’m probably over-worrying myself. It’s unlikely anyone will really take notice. It’s an indoor event with a few dozen speakers, and who really wants to attend a meeting like that unless you’re speaking? Local news might pick it up, and they might run two seconds of my three minute speech (probably selectively edited to make it sound like I’m saying something completely opposite of what I’m saying), and then that’s probably it. Maybe some person I know might notice and say something, maybe a student would say they heard I spoke or something, but that’s about it.
In a rational universe, maybe that’s all there needs to be about it. I can just say what I think, people can hear it and agree or disagree with it, we can have back-and-forth, and then we go on our merry ways.
But this is not a rational universe, so who knows what I can expect.
(Authors’s Note and General Disclaimer: These are not the only two groups of people with opinions in this country. There are people opposed to the monument who are not part of the ctrl-left and who want civil dialogue and peaceful protest to lead the change. There are people in favor of the monument who are neither white supremacists nor part of the alt-right, and who want all people to be treated with the dignity due all human individuals. There are people on the left who also champion free speech, such as the ACLU, because free speech is not a partisan concern but the birthright of humanity. I know these people exist, because I know them; they are my family and friends and neighbors. With all of these people, I hope to see the American spirit of passionate but nonviolent engagement in the marketplace of ideas continue to drive political discourse. To the ctrl-left and alt-right, I pray that God has mercy on you and grants you repentance from your hatred, violence, and folly.)
Suppose Frank and Joe get into a Facebook debate, and suppose Frank knows a lot more about the issue over which they’re disagreeing. Neither one of them is really an expert, but Frank has read a lot more and maybe even has some sort-of relevant background. The longer the discussion goes, the more he realizes that Joe doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.
Let’s give Frank the benefit of the doubt. He’s not just a victim of confirmation bias. Joe really doesn’t know that much about the issue, it’s evident in what he’s written, and Frank’s assessment on that score is accurate.
So, naturally, this can lead Frank to feel a little smug, and smugness is toxic. It’s a poison that clouds our thinking, alienates us from people who could be our friends, and fuels arrogance and pride.
Frank is self-aware enough to realize that he’s having this reaction, but–as it turns out–there’s more to good character than just being able to recognize your own bad behavior. It’s good to suppress an angry outburst, for example, but it’s even better to overcome the anger itself. Controlling behavior is nice, but shaping character is better. Unfortunately, character can’t be shaped directly. We have to come at it sideways and ambush our own bad character traits when they least suspect it. We have to–wherever possible–cheat.
So here’s an idea.
The reason that Frank knows more than Joe about this issue is that Frank took the time to research it. He read dozens of articles. Joe didn’t, and so Joe doesn’t know as much. Instead of attributing his superiority in this one realm to some kind of personal attribute, Frank should ask himself: “What was Joe doing with the time I used to study this issue?”
Maybe Joe is lazy, and Joe was just watching reality TV show reruns. Maybe Joe is actually very curious and diligent, and was using the same amount of time studying some totally unrelated topic which–if they discussed it–would quickly demonstrate to Frank what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t really get it. Or maybe Joe wasn’t studying, but he uses his time volunteering to make his neighborhood a better place.
It doesn’t really matter, because–in practice–Frank will never know. The point of the question is to ask it, because asking it reframes the context of Frank’s smugness. It’s not about some kind of overall, general superiority of intellect. It’s about the simple fact that Frank spent time studying a particular issue, and Joe didn’t. This is a smugness antidote. On top of dispelling the person-to-person comparison, it raises questions for Frank, such as: Was studying this particular issue really that wise an expenditure of his finite time and energy? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn’t, all things considered. This should make Frank a little uneasy. That’s healthy. Certainly fair healthier than smugness, at any rate.
I am not a very good person. This isn’t a statement of false humility. I suspect, all things considered, that I’m probably about average by most comparisons with others, although I’ll never really be sure. But that’s not the point. I don’t care about comparing myself with others; I care about the gap between who I am and who I’d like to be. And the person I’d like to be doesn’t have to devise strategies for decency or play tricks on himself to mimic virtue. That’s what I mean when I say I’m not a very good person.
But we don’t get to choose the kind of person we are. Not in an instant, anyway. We come into this world with a load of genetic and environmental baggage that, by the time we get around to being thinking, self-aware little human creatures, is already more than we could ever hope to sort through in a life time. All we can ever do is start where we are. Hopefully we make incremental steps in the right direction, but human character can’t be perfect in a life time. There’s the old expressions, “fake it ’till you make it.” We’re never going to make it. So we just have to keep faking it. Play-acting at being a good person–when it’s done out of a sincere desire to learn to be good–is the best we can hope for.
This is one technique I try to remind myself to use in that game, and I thought I’d share it.
There’s a new Internet/Facebook list going around: “10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a teenager.” I thought it’d be fun to give you a glimpse into the musical tastes of my teenage self, which largely continue today. Attempting to think of whole albums was a little difficult because this was the age of mix CDs. I had a ton of mix CDs with various artists. I also had a lot of “Greatest Hits” and “The Best of…” albums (I wore out The Cream of Clapton as well as The Best of Bond…James Bond), which I’ve decided not to count. I’ve also limited the list to one album per artist. Otherwise, my list would likely be made up of two bands. It should also be noted that my musical tastes were largely seen through the eyes of a budding guitar player. Virtually everything was interpreted through the filter of, “How can this affect my guitar playing?” So, without further ado, here are my top ten teen albums (in no particular order):
Blink 182 – Enema of the State: I went through a huge Blink 182 phase through middle school and into my freshman year of high school. Aside from some radio play (“Dammit” was actually the first song I ever heard by them), my first proper introduction to them was at scout camp one summer. One of my best friends at the time had Enema of the State with him (I want to say on cassette) and he let me listen to some of the songs as we made our way to different merit badge sessions. This led to mixtapes featuring songs from Enema, Dude Ranch, and even Buddha. My parents weren’t particularly thrilled when they finally heard some of the crude themes and coarse language on these tapes, but that didn’t stop me from getting my secret stash of Blink CDs. It was this album that made me want to play an instrument. I decided I wanted to play bass because (1) everyone and their mother plays guitar and (2) Mark–the Blink bassist–was in my eyes the coolest member of the band (though now I know it’s definitely the drummer Travis Barker). My parents opted for a guitar instead and I’ve never once regretted it. Even though I prefer their 2001 album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (see what they did there?), Enema is the one that started my musical journey. Below is the highly immature video for the single “What’s My Age Again?”
Incubus – Make Yourself: During one of our family vacations, my older sister Tori let me listen to her copy of Make Yourself by Incubus. I’d heard some of their hits on the radio, but this was the first time going through the entire album. I fell in love with it to the point that my sister just gave it to me. Brandon Boyd’s vocals and the somewhat unique twist on 90s alternative rock stood out to me as did its ability to capture my various teenage emotions, from angst to puppy love to a desire for self-direction. Their follow-up albums during my high school years–Morning View and A Crow Left of the Murder–received even more constant rotation than Make Yourself, but it was this album that began my still ongoing love affair with Incubus and their talent for both capturing my emotional states and transporting me to new ones. Below is the video for their song “Stellar.”
Metallica – Ride the Lightning: I had heard Metallica growing up. Who hasn’t heard “Enter Sandman” or “Nothing Else Matters“? But I only started paying attention to them after hearing their live album S&M in the weight room at my high school freshman year. It was my first year of guitar playing and my initial thought was, “If they are this good live, what are they like on their records?” As I started downloading Metallica songs, I saw them perform one I hadn’t heard before on VH1 (trivia: it was bassist Jason Newsted’s last performance before he left the band). The song was “Fade to Black” and it was found on Ride the Lightning. I bought that album soon after and brought it with me on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. I listened to it non-stop and decided that I wanted to be able to play like guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett. This was my pathway to metal. I ended up with all of the Metallica albums, as well as a large chunk of Megadeth, Pantera, Ozzy Osbourne, and Dream Theater albums. I probably spent far more time listening to these metal bands than anything else, but it was Ride the Lightning that started it all. My guitar chops improved as did my musical taste because of it. You can see the VH1 performance of “Fade to Black” that ignited the flame below.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon: My brother-in-law JC has been a guitar player since he was a teenager (at least). Whenever we would visit my sister, he would always go through his ginormous digital collection of music in hopes of educating me out of my Blink 182 phase and moving me beyond Metallica. He first used David Gilmour’s ending solo in “Comfortably Numb” to peak my interest in Pink Floyd. I ended up getting Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd (on my own or as a gift, I can’t remember), but Dark Side of the Moon was the first actual album that listened to heavily (followed by The Wall). The musical style was so different from what I was used to; a kind of progressive, psychedelic rock. Gilmour’s less-is-more melodic playing was such a contrast to the shredding I was accustomed to from metal bands. Plus, the idea of a concept album was pretty new to me. Composing songs that bled into each other as they told a coherent story or relayed similar themes was a new level of creativity for me. Dark Side taught me to slow my playing down and told me that emotion and melody were key to a good lead. You can see what in my estimate is the best version of “Money” from the concert Delicate Sound of Thunder below, which I watched over and over again as a teenager.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II: I originally bought Led Zeppelin II for my dad for his birthday(?) one year at the suggestion of my mom. I wasn’t very familiar with Led Zeppelin at the time and even though I thought “Whole Lotta Love” was pretty cool, it didn’t peak my interest all that much. However, after picking up the guitar and shifting away from pop punk bands, I started “borrowing” (i.e., making a permanent part of my personal collection) Led Zeppelin II from my dad. While I acquired The Best of Led Zeppelin: Early & Latter Days, Vol. 1 & 2, it was this album that made me really appreciate the bluesy elements of rock. It felt like a bridge between the old and the new, between traditional blues and modern rock. And everyone was amazing: Plant’s vocals, Page’s guitar, Jones’ bass, and Bonham’s drums. Hard to find a band in which every member is of the highest caliber. And yes: I still prefer it to Led Zeppelin IV. You can see them performing “Whole Lotta Love” live from the Led Zeppelin DVD I watched consistently in my later years of high school.
Pearl Jam – Ten: I used to hate Pearl Jam. I remember revealing my dislike of them to a bass player friend my freshman/sophomore year and he was flabbergasted that a guitar player would not like them. “But they’re such good musicians!” he protested. I don’t know what it was about them. Maybe it was Eddie Vedder’s voice (a co-worker of mine once described him as sounding like a man singing in a freezer). Maybe it was the flannel. My suspicion is that I just had not been properly exposed to them beyond “Jeremy” (which is an awesome song, mind you). I started downloading a number of Pearl Jam songs in my later years of high school and found myself appreciating them more and more. I finally caved and bought Ten. The album was (and is) phenomenal. There isn’t a song on it that isn’t top-notch. You can see them on full display with “Alive” below.
Rush – Moving Pictures: My first introduction to Rush was their video for “Time Stand Still” early one weekday morning on VH1. The video was ridiculous, but there was something about the band that I really liked. I stumbled on them again when “Test For Echo” came on one of those satellite music channels that I had playing in the background one day. I recognized the vocals and the band name and once again found myself being drawn to their style. On another fateful weekday morning, I saw their video for “Limelight” on VH1. The video was incredibly dated, but the song blew me away. Their mastery of the instruments was incredible and I was sold on Alex Lifeson’s wammy-heavy solo. I had to have that song. I ended up buying Moving Pictures soon after. I couldn’t believe that a trio could create that kind of sound. Typically, I focused solely on the guitar playing, but Rush made it impossible to ignore Lee’s bass playing or Peart’s drumming. This opened the flood gates: virtually every album and a couple concerts (one of which was as recent as 2015) later, I still consider them one of my favorites. You can see the video for “Limelight” below.
Alice in Chains – Dirt: Lucky for me, my YM/Scout leader for the longest time was also one of my best friend’s dad. While I was listening to Blink 182, my friend (due to his dad’s influence) was listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and even the chainsaw-wielding Jackal. One Wednesday night, as I caught a ride with my friend, his dad popped in one of his many CDs. Suddenly, a chugging, metal chord progression filled the car, along a with a jolting scream and eerie harmonies. I was caught off guard, but thoroughly entranced. About halfway through, the guitarist ripped into a headbanging solo. My ears perked up. The song, unfortunately, came to an end after only a couple minutes. When I asked what this was, my friend’s dad answered (with a smile), “Alice in Chains.” The album was Dirt and the song was “Them Bones.” I borrowed the album, ripped it, and became an AIC fan from then on. Jerry Cantrell, the guitarist and co-vocalist, provided a blues-based, melodic metal I could rock out to. More importantly, he provided a type of playing that seemed achievable: not because his playing was sub-par, but because it evidenced a moderate partaking of the best rock music had to offer. Cantrell was not a shredder, a blues master, or a progressive rock composer (he still isn’t). But he was and is a fine guitar player, lyricist, and all-around musician. He instilled me with confidence and inspiration in my first few years of playing and remains influential even today. You can see the video for “Them Bones” below.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours: For Christmas one year I received a year-long subscription to Guitar World magazine. In one of the issues, it featured a kind of boxing bracket for guitarists, rating them on a 0-5 scale on things like chops, influence, creativity, etc. Unfortunately, my mother trashed all of my Guitar World issues while I was on my mission (I’m still not sure why), so I’m unable to reference it properly. But at the time, I used the bracket to learn about guitarists I had never heard of before. At one point, I came across the name Lindsey Buckingham with something like a 3.7 in chops. When I discovered that he was the guitarist/co-vocalist of Fleetwood Mac, I remembered that my mom had Rumours in her van. I promptly borrowed the album and began soaking in Buckingham’s fingerpicked style. The album remained in constant rotation along with their (then) new album Say You Will. The mix of male and female vocals gave it a more diverse sound than I was used to and my enjoyment of Rumour‘s more pop-oriented style helped expand my musical palate. You can see their performance of “The Chain” from their live album The Dance (which I also spent of fair amount of time listening to) below.
Steve Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Texas Flood: In my first year of guitar playing (and therefore still in my pop punk phase), I had a Sunday School teacher who recognized that my fellow Blinkophile friend and I were “big into music.” One day, she held us after class and gave each of us a copy of SRV’s Texas Flood. Because we were guitar players, she knew we would appreciate SRV’s skills. In actuality, we both had a bit of an aversion to the album: it was straight blues and that just wasn’t us. We were “punk rockers” and SRV was definitely not that. Fast-forward a year or so. I was going through my CD collection and pulled our Texas Flood to give it another listen. I was floored: the tone, the bends, the precision. It was beautiful. While other artists (see Zeppelin and Floyd above) opened the door to a bluesier style, it was this album that solidified the blues in my book. It paved the way for my embrace of other blues guitarists like B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, and others. Texas Flood is the reason that I earned the name “Blues Man” from a co-worker due to my Pandora picks. You can see SRV & Double Trouble performing my favorite track off the album–“Lenny”–below.
Here are a few honorable mentions with a brief explanation:
Megadeth – Rust in Peace: After Metallica, Megadeth was the next biggest metal band I listened to (Dave Mustaine was a former member of Metallica before they kicked him out). Rust in Peace was the first album of theirs I bought and it is still my favorite.
Tool – Lateralus: A friend of mine had a select few bands that he insisted were required listening. One of them was Tool and he made me promise to listen Lateralus all the way through without stopping. If I loved it, he would burn me the rest of their albums. I did and he did.
Prince – Purple Rain: I probably listened to “The Very Best of…” more, but Purple Rain put Prince’s skills on full display. The talent of the man was almost sickening.
Les Miserables: Original Broadway Cast: My older sister Nicole was a big theatre geek, so Les Miserables became a staple of my growing up. I still listen to it fairly often and I wept like a baby at the end of the 2012 film.
Phantom of the Opera: Original London Cast: Ditto. I dragged my high school girlfriend to the 2004 film. She kept trying to get friendly in the theater and I kept telling her to leave me alone so I could watch the movie. Priorities.
I didn’t get a chance to make that pithy observation in a Facebook exchange this morning because my interlocutor gave me the boot. That’s OK, I may have been blocked from somebody’s Facebook feed for thinking bad thoughts, but I can’t get blocked from my own blog! You can’t stop this signal, baby.
So, just as two wrongs don’t make a right, let’s use this Columbus Day to talk about two stupids that don’t make a smart.
Bad Idea 1: The Noble Savage
There’s a school of thought which holds, essentially, that everything was fine and dandy in the Americas until the Europeans came along and ruined it. The idea, seen in Disney and plenty of other places, is that “native” peoples lived at harmony with the Earth, appreciating the fragile balance of their precious ecosystems and proactively maintaining it. This idea is bunk. The reality is that in almost all cases the only limit on the extent to which any culture restricts its exploitation of natural resources is technological. Specifically, humanity has an unambiguous track record of killing everything edible in sight as they spread across the globe, leading to widespread extinctions from Australia to the Americas and upending entire ecosystems. If our ancient ancestor didn’t wipe a species out, the reason was either that it didn’t taste good or they couldn’t. As Yuval Noah Harari put it Sapiens:
Don’t believe the tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.
Harari specifically describes how the first humans to discover Australia not only wiped out species after species, but–in so doing–converted the entire continent into (pretty much) the desert it is today:
The settlers of Australia–or, more accurately, its conquerors–didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition. The first human footprint on a sandy Australian beach was immediately washed away by the waves, yet, when the invaders advanced inland, they left behind a different footprint. One that would never be expunged.
Matt Ridley, in The Origins of Virtue, lists some of the animals that no longer exist thanks to hungry humans:
Soon after the arrival of the first people in Australia, possibly 60,000 years ago, a whole guild of large beasts vanished — marsupial rhinos, giant diprotodons, tree fellers, marsupial lions, five kinds of giant wombat, seven kinds of short-faced kangaroos, eight kinds of giant kangaroo, a two-hundred-kilogram flightless bird. Even the kangaroo species that survived shrank dramatically in size, a classic evolutionary response to heavy predation.
And that pattern was repeated again and again. Harari again:
Mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia whenever people settled another part of the outer world.
Have you ever wondered why the Americas don’t have the biodiversity of large animals that Africa does? We’ve got some deer and bison, but nothing like the hippos, giraffes, elephants, and other African megafauna. Why not? Because the first humans to get here killed and ate them all, that’s why not. There’s even a name for what happened: the Pleistocene overkill. Back to Ridley:
Coincident with the first certain arrival of people in North America, 11,500 years ago, 73% of the large mammal genera quickly died out… By 8000 years ago, 80% of the large mammal genera in south America were also extinct — giant sloths, giant armadillos, giant guanacos, giant capybaras, anteaters the size of horses.
In Madagascar, he notes that “at least 17 species of lemurs (all the diurnal one is larger than 10 kg in weight, one as big as a gorilla), and the remarkable elephant birds — the biggest of which weighs 1000 pounds — were dead within a few centuries of the islands first colonization by people in about 500 A.D.” In New Zealand, “the first Maoris sat down and ate their way through all 12 species of the giant moa birds. . . Half of all new Zealand’s indigenous land birds are extinct.” The same thing happened in Hawaii, where at least half of the 100 unique Hawaiian birds were extinct shortly after humans arrived. “In all, as the Polynesians colonized the Pacific, they extinguished 20% of all the bird species on earth.”
Ridley’s myth-busting doesn’t end there. He cites four different studies of Amazon Indians “that have directly tested their conservation ethic.” The results? “All four rejected the hypothesis [that the tribes had a conservation ethic].” Moving up to North America, he writes that “There is no evidence that the ‘thank-you-dead-animal’ ritual was a part of Indian folklore before the 20th century,” and cites Nicanor Gonsalez, “At no time have indigenous groups included the concepts of conservation and ecology in their traditional vocabulary.”
This might all sound a little bit harsh, but it’s important to be realistic. Why? Because these myths–no matter how good the intentions behind them–are corrosive. The idea of the Noble Savage is intrinsically patronizing. It says that “primitive” or “native” cultures are valuable to the extent that they are also virtuous. That’s not how human rights should work. We are valuable–all of us–intrinsically. Not “contingent on passing some test of ecological virtue” (as Ridley puts it.)
Let me take a very brief tangent. Ridley’s argument here (as it relates to conservation) is exactly parallel to John McWhorters linguistic arguments and Steven Pinker’s psychological arguments. In The Language Hoax, John McWhorter takes down the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is the trendy linguistic theory that what you think is determined by the language you think it in. Just like the Noble Savage, this idea was originally invented by Westerners on behalf of well, everybody else. The idea is that “primitive” people were more in contact with the timeless mysteries of the cosmos because (for example) they spoke in a language that didn’t use tense. Not only did this turn out to be factually incorrect (they just marked tense differently, or implied it in other cases, as many European languages also do), but it’s an intrinsically bad idea. McWhorter:
In the quest to dissuade the public from cultural myopia, this kind of thinking has veered into exotification. The starting point is, without a doubt, I respect that you are not like me. However, in a socio-cultural context in which that respect is processed as intellectually and morally enlightened, inevitably, to harbor that respect comes to be associated with what it is to do right and to be right as a person. An ideological mission creep thus sets in. Respect will magnify into something more active and passionate. The new watchcry becomes, “I like that you are not like me,” or alternately, “What I like about you is that you are not like me.” That watchcry signifies, “What’s good about you is that you are not like me.” Note however, the object of that encomium, has little reason to feel genuinely praised. His being not like a Westerner is neither what he feels as his personhood or self-worth, nor what we should consider it to be, either explicitly or implicitly.
The cute stories about the languages primitive peoples speak and the ways that enables them to see the world in unique and special ways end up being nothing but a particularly subtle form of cultural imperialism: our values are being used to determine the value of their culture. All we did was change up the values by which we pass judgement on others. Thus: “our characterization of indigenous people in this fashion is more for our own benefit than theirs.”
The underlying premise of Harrari, Ridley, and McWhorter is what Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate tackles directly: the universality of human nature. We can best avoid the bigotry and discrimination that has marred our history not by a counter-bigotry that holds up other cultures as special or superior (either because they’re in magical harmony with nature or possess unique linguistic insights) but by reaffirming the fact that there is such a thing as an universal, underlying human nature that unites all cultures.
Universal human nature is not a byproduct of political wishful thinking, by the way. Steven Pinker includes as an appendix to The Blank Slate a long List of Human Universals compiled by Donald E. Brown in 1989. It is a long list, organized alphabetically. To give a glimpse of the sorts of things behaviors and attributes common to all human cultures, here are the first and last items from the list:
abstraction in speech and thought
actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control
affection expressed and felt
weather control (attempts to)
white (color term)
The list also includes lots of stuff about binary gender which is exactly why you haven’t heard of the list and why Steven Pinker is considered a rogue iconoclast. These days, one does not simply claim that gender is binary.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the idea of the Noble Savage as it relates to ecology, but of course it’s a broader concept than that. I was once yelled at quite forcibly by a presenter trying to teach us kids that warfare did not exist among pre-Columbian Native Americans. I was only 11 or 12 at the time, but I knew that was bs and said so.
The point is that the whole notion of a mosaic of Native Americans living in peace and prosperity until the evil Christopher Columbus showed up and ruined everything is a bad idea. It’s stupid number 1.
Bad Idea 2: Christopher Columbus is Just Misunderstood
So, this is the claim that started the discussion that got me blocked by somebody on Facebook today. The argument, such as it was, goes something like this: Columbus looks very bad from our 21st century viewpoint, but that’s an unfair, anachronistic standard. By the standards of his day, he was just fine, and those are the standards by which he should be measured.
The problem with this idea is that, like the first, it’s simply not true. One of the best, popular accounts of why comes from The Oatmeal. In this comic, Matthew Inman contrasts Columbus with a contemporary: Bartolomé de las Casas. While Columbus and his ilk were off getting to various hijinks including (but not limited to) child sex slavery and using dismemberment to motivate slaves to gather more gold, de las Casas was busy arguing that indigenous people deserved rights and that slavery should be abolished. Yes, at the time of Columbus.
The argument that if we judge Columbus by the standards of his day he comes out OK does not hold up. We can find plenty of people at that time–not just de las Casas–who were abolitionists or (if they didn’t go that far) were critical of the excessive cruelty of Columbus and many like him. Keep in mind that slavery had been a thing in Europe for thousands of years until the Catholics finally stamped it out around the 10th century. So it’s not like opposition to slavery is a modern invention. When slavery was restarted in Africa and then the Americas many in the Catholic clergy opposed it once again, but were unable to stop it. So the idea that–by the standards of his day–Columbus was just fine and dandy doesn’t work. He’s a pretty bad guy in any century.
Two Stupids Don’t Make a Smart
I understand the temptation to respond to Noble Savage-type denunciations of Christopher Columbus by trying to defend the guy. You see somebody making a bad argument, and you want to argue that they’re wrong.
But that isn’t how logic actually works. A broken clock really is right twice a day, and a bad argument can still have a true conclusion. If I tell you that 2+2 = 4 because Mars is in the House of the Platypus my argument is totally wrong, but my conclusion is still true.
The Noble Savage is a bad bit of cultural luggage we really should jettison, but Columbus is still a bad guy no matter how you slice it. Using one stupid idea to combat another stupid idea doesn’t actually enlighten anyyone.
The Bell Curve of Extremism
There are basically two kinds of moderates / independents: the ignorant and the wise. It really is a sad twist of fate to stick the two together, but nobody honest every said life was fair.
To illustrate, let me introduce you to a concept I’ll call the Bell Curve of Extremism:
To flesh this out, I’ll use some examples from voting.
A person on the left doesn’t know who they’re going to vote for because they don’t know much of anything at all. They may not even know who’s running or who’s already in office. This doesn’t mean they’re stupid, necessarily. They could be brilliant, but just pay no attention to politics.
A person in the left knows exactly who they’re voting for, and it’s never really been in question. What’s more, they can give you a very long list of the reasons they are voting for that person and–what’s more–all the terrible, horrible things about the leading contender that make him or her totally unfit for office and a threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. This is the kind of person who consumes a lot of news, but probably from a narrow range of sources, like DailyKos or RedState. They’re not bad people, but they high motivation tends to lead to an awful lot of research that is heavily skewed by confirmation bias.
A person on the right may also be unsure of how they’re going to cast their vote, but it’s not because they don’t know what’s going on. The problem is they do, and this knowledge has led them (as often as not) to fall right off the traditional left/right axis. I called myself a radical moderate when I was in high-school. At the time, it was mostly because I was on the far left but I wanted to sound cool. Later on in life I found myself near the peak of the bell-curve, a die-hard conservative with all the answers who was half-convinced that liberals were undermining the country. But then I went to graduate school to study economics (one of the areas where I was staunchly conservative) and lo and behold: things got complicated. I fell off the peak and I’ve been sliding down the slope ever since. And what do you know, but I found out recently that radical moderates are actually a thing. They even include some of my very favorite thinkers, like John McWhorter (cited above) and Jonathan Haidt (cited in a lot of my posts). I’ve come full circle, from know-nothing moderate to know-that-I-know-nothing radical moderate.
It’s kind of lonely and depressing over here, to be honest, and we don’t often find an awful lot to shout about. Which is why the conversation tends to be dedicated by peak-extremists who know just enough to be dangerous. About the only banner you’ll see us waving is the banner of epistemic humility. And really, how big of a parade can you expect to line up behind, “People probably don’t know as much as they think they do? (Including us!)”
But one thing that I can share with some conviction is this post, and the idea that–when it comes to ideas–fighting fire with fire just burns the whole house down. There is validity to the idea that things were better before Christopher Columbus showed up. There was a helpful lack of measles and small pox, for example. But blaming the transmission of those diseases (except in the rare cases when it was important) and the resulting humanitarian catastrophe on Columbus doesn’t make any sense. He did a lot of really evil things, but intentional germ warfare was not among them. Relying on it because the numbers are so big is lazy. There is also validity to the idea that Columbus lived in a different time. Many of the most compassionate Westerners were motivated not by a modern sense of equal rights but by a more feudal-tinged idea of noblesse oblige. De la Casa himself, for example, first suggested making things easier on Caribbean slaves by importing more African slaves before later deciding that all slavery was a bad idea. And if you fast-forward to the 19th century abolitionist movements, you’ll find plenty of what counts as racism in the 21st century among the abolitionists who were motivated (in some cases) by ideas of civilizing the savages. Racial politics are complicated enough in the 21st century alone, of course we can’t bring in perspectives from six centuries ago and expect all the good guys to neatly align on bullet point of focus-group vetted talking points!
So yes: I see validity to both sides of the fight. If your goal is to win in the short term, then the most useful thing to do is double-down on your strongest arguments and cherry-pick the other side’s weakest points. This is the strategy of two stupids making a smart, and it doesn’t work.
If your goal is to win in the long term, then you have to undergo a fundamental transformation of perspective. The short-term model isn’t just short-term. It’s ego-centric. The fundamental conceit of the idea of winning is the idea of being right, as an individual. Your view is the correct one, and the idea is to have your idea colonize other people’s brains. It is unavoidably an ego-trip.
The long-term model isn’t just about the long-term. It’s also about seeing the whole that is more than the sum of the parts. In this view, the likeliest scenario is that nobody is right because, on any particular suitably complex question, we are like the world before Newton and the world before Einstein: waiting for a new solution no one has thought of. And, even if somebody does have the right solution to the problem we face now, that will almost certainly not be the right answer to the problem we will face tomorrow. In that case, it’s not about having the right ideas in the heads of the read people, it’s about having a culture and a society that is capable of supporting a robust ecosystem of idea-creation. The focus begins to shift away from the “I” and towards the “we.”
In this model, your job is not to be the one, singular, heroic Messiah who tells everyone the answer to their problem. Your job is to play your part in a larger collective. Maybe that means you should be the lone voice calling from the wilderness, the revolutionary prophet like Newton or Einstein. But more probably it means your job is to simply be one more ant carrying one more grain of sand to build the collective pile of human knowledge and maybe–through conversations with friends and family–shift the center of gravity infinitesimally in a better direction.
I’m not a relativist. I’m a staunch realist in the sense that I believe in an objective, underlying reality that is not dependent on social construction or individual interpretation. But I’m also a realist in the sense of acknowledging that the last living human being to have ever understood the entire domain of mathematics was Carl Friedrich Gauss and he died in 1865. No living person today understands all mathematical theory. And that’s just math. What about physics and history and chemistry and psychology? And that’s just human knowledge. What about the things nobody knows or has thought of yet? An individual is tiny, and so is their sphere of knowledge. The idea that the answers to really big questions fall within that itty-bitty radius seems correspondingly remote. In short: the truth is out there, but you probably don’t have it and you probably can’t find it. It may very well be, keeping this metaphor going, that the answer to some of our questions are too complex for any one person to hold in their brain, even if they could discover one.
I’m not giving up on truth. I am giving up on atomic individualism, on the idea that the end of our consideration with regards to truth is the question of how much of it we can fit into our individual skulls. That seems very small minded, if you’ll pardon the pun. Instead, I’m much more interested in ways in which individuals can do their part to contribute to building a society that may understand more than its constituent individuals do or (since that seems a bit speculative, even to me) at a minimum provides ample opportunity for individuals to create, express, and compare ideas in the hope of discovering something new.
Two stupids can’t make a smart. The oversimplification and prejudice necessary to play that strategy is not worth the cost. Winning debates is not the ultimate goal. We can aim for something higher, but we have to be willing to lay down our own egos in the process and contribute to something bigger.
This post is a talk that I gave in my congregation a couple of weeks ago. A few folks asked me for copies, so I thought putting it online would be the simplest approach.
Love or Fear
I have heard it said that every decision a human makes fundamentally comes down to one of only two motivations: fear or love. That’s it.
Scientists are a little less romantic about it, but they actually have the same basic concept. From biology to computer science whether you’re talking about an amoeba or an artificial intelligence the fundamental choice every agent has to make comes down to attraction or avoidance. You are attracted to the good stuff. You avoid the bad stuff. If you’re a bacterium, it means you move towards food and you move away from anything that thinks your food. So these are the two motives any creature can have: we either move towards what we want or we move away from what we don’t want.
An Irritant or a Quest
President Benson said
When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.
What I want to talk about is how we make that transition. How do we change our attitude towards obedience? How do move beyond the place where obedience feels like a burden and get to the place where obedience feels like a challenge? How do we turn obedience from an irritant into a quest?
I believe that it comes down to fear and love. We have to wean ourselves away from fear-based obedience and towards love-based obedience. We have to fear less and love more. It’s like Paul told Timothy:
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
On my mission I set goals all the time. My companion and I would sit down, we’d pray, and we’d set “realistic” goals. We’d set goals that—sitting in the apartment, feeling charged to go out and do the Lord’s work—seemed easily attainable.
I don’t think we hit 50% of our weekly goals a single time. Not even once. And yet somehow, we never learned. Every week we felt really horrible about how bad our goals were going, and every week we rallied and we did the exact same thing.
The Lord can work with all kinds of tools, but I’m pretty sure that even he appreciates the value of a sharp instrument over a blunt one. As a missionary I was definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed. It never occurred to me, not even once, that the only realistic goals would be to start with what we actually accomplished last week and then build from there.
It’s not actually that I was too dumb. The truth is that I was too proud to admit how far from perfect I was. I wanted to think of myself as a good missionary. I’d wanted to serve my whole life, I was following the rules, and I truly wanted to be there. So I just assumed—naturally—given all my good intentions I had to be pretty good, right?
Well, not. First of all, that’s not realistic. That’s just wishful thinking. I try to be a lot more realistic now than I was then. (My wife doesn’t think I’m very good at that, yet.) More importantly, however, I was operating out of fear. It was fear-based obedience. I was afraid of failure. And, I have come to learn, there is a mile of difference between trying to avoid failure and pursuing success. They may look similar from the outside, but from the inside they could not be more opposite.
Trying to be obedient out of fear means that you’re in constant stress. You’re unwilling to take risks—and risks are necessary for growth. Over time, this can lead to shriveling and atrophy. You remember the parable of the talents? The rich man gives his servants 5 talents, 2 talents, and 1 talent. The story has always bugged me, because it’s the poor guy who only gets 1 talent that messes it up. I’d like the story more if it was the guy who got 5 talents who was lazy. But that’s not the point. The point is that the first two invested. They risked. They turned doubled their talents. But the last guy? He was so afraid of losing his talent he just buried it. That’s fear right there.
Still Better than Disobedience
Let me pause for a second and make a very important disclaimer. Fear-based obedience is not as good as love-based obedience, but it’s still a whole lot better than disobedience. I don’t want anybody misunderstanding me on that point, OK?
And there’s a reason for that.
The laws of nature, the laws of God, the laws of life, are one and the same and are always in full force.
No matter why you are obedient, you’re still going to enjoy at least some of the blessings of that obedience because the laws of God are always in full force. The laws of physics don’t care why you buckle your seat-belt, right? If you get into an accident, your motivation does not enter into the equation. If you have the seat-belt on, you’re going to be safe. If you have it off, you’re going to be in a lot more danger.
O my beloved young friends, even selfishly it is smart to keep the commandments God has given.
So, step 1 is be obedient. What we’re talking about now is step 2, which is how to be obedient.
Look, if your option is to either be obedient because you feel like you’re supposed to or be disobedient, then go ahead: be obedience out of obligation. When I was growing up I avoided a lot of pitfalls because I was afraid. That’s the honest truth. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t watch pornography. It’s not because I’m such an awesome, righteous guy. It’s because I was risk averse. I saw that a lot of bad stuff came along with drinking and smoking, and in general I never wanted to lose control. I was obedient because I was afraid. That’s better than disobedient. And there are plenty of days when I just don’t feel all excited about following the commandments, and I just go through the motions because it’s what I promised to do. Going through the motions is better than not doing it at all.
So, fearful obedience is better than disobedience, but it’s not that great. We want love-based obedience. This is tricky, in a way, because we’re changing horses in mid-stream. We need to find a way out of fear-based obedience and into love-based obedience. Let’s start with letting go of fear.
A Remission of Sins
I have always been struck by the phrase “remission of sins.” We pretty much always hear about it around baptism.
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
And the only other time we ever use the word “remission” is when we’re talking about cancer. I’m not a scholar. I know that the word remission has two definitions. It can mean “the cancellation of a debt” or it can mean “a temporary recovery.” And I’m not certain which one fits best with our understanding of baptism. But as I understand it, the idea of cancer going into remission and the idea of sins going into remission is basically the same. The one difference is this: when your cancer goes into remission you can’t control if or when it will come back. But when your sins go into remission you are in control. As long as you abide by the covenant you made when you were baptized, they are in remission.
What this means to me is: you don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to live in fear. When you have faith in Christ, you get to live in hope.
That’s the first key to transitioning away from fear-based obedience.
The second key is being humble. That was my biggest problem as a goal-setting missionary. I was too proud to admit how weak I was. That got a lot easier as I got older. My life, in many ways, has been a string of disastrous failures ever since I got home from my mission. I have failed at so many things and in so many ways and with such utter gracelessness that I have been blessed with the inability to take myself very seriously anymore. I am like the poor Zoramites who were not allowed into the synagogues that they had built.
because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye
This humiliation has been a great blessing. It has taught me that fear of your own sins is a kind of arrogance. It is like saying that your evil is greater than Christ’s good. It is like saying that you have the ability to dig a hole too deep for your Savior to lift you out of. And if there’s only one thing you remember from my talk, let it be this: as long as you want to be saved there are no holes that deep.
When you are humble, failure loses the power to intimidate you. That’s why the devil hates humble people, they are practically impossible to push around. When you have faith and are humble, you are ready to let go of fear.
I’m going to share one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a man named Ira Glass, and—on the surface, at least—it won’t sound very religious. But it is. You’ll see. Here is his quote:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
This quote is about love and fear. All artists have to confront the gap between what they want to do (make good art) and what they are doing (making terrible art) and then they have to make a decision: love or fear. If they choose fear, they will quit, because the pain of failure is too much. If they choose love, they will refuse to give up. And that means they will keep on failing. They will write bad stories. They will write terrible poetry. They will take horrible photographs. And they will do it again and again and again until they get it right.
This applies to all of us.
Every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ
We all see light and truth and kindness and beauty in our lives at some point. We love those things. And we all see our own actions and we see darkness and deception, selfishness and ugliness. And then we have to choose: love or fear.
If we choose love, then—just like the artists—we go right on ahead and keep failing. We fail at being perfectly kind. We fail at being perfectly wise. We fail at being perfectly honest. And every morning we get up and we do it again and again until one day we get it right. And that is what it means to be a saint.
A saint is not necessarily a person who is perfect, but he is a person who strives for perfection—one who tries to overcome those faults and failings which take him away from God. A true saint will seek to change his manner of living to conform more closely to the ways of the Lord.
Artists learn to be better artists by first being bad artists. They practice. And people learn to be better people by first being bad people. They practice. And the name for that practice is: obedience. When you “seek to change [your] manner of living to conform more closely to the ways of the Lord” because you love the things which “inviteth to do good” then—for you—obedience has become a quest. Keeping the commandments will always be hard, but it will no longer feel like a burden because you will understand that keeping the commandments is the path to becoming the kind of person you would be proud to be.
If you’d like a printable copy of the talk, here you go.
For those who haven’t read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Wormwood is the demon the letters are addressed to. It’s Wormwood’s job to weaken faith and encourage sin in the human he’s assigned to, and the letters are from his uncle, a demon named Screwtape, who gives Wormwood advice on how to do this.
Yesterday while meandering through Spotify, I came across the song “Dear Wormwood” by the Oh Hellos. From what I can tell, the song is about a demon who weakened the singer’s faith since childhood and how the (now adult) singer is recognizing and trying to overcome the demon’s influence.
I’m a secularist, and by that I mean I don’t practice a religion and don’t have faith in anything supernatural. But I’m a reluctant secularist, and by that I mean I had good experiences with the religion of my childhood, I miss it and wish it were true, but I don’t actually believe it is. From that context, the song kind of hits a nerve.
You can listen to it here:
Here are the lyrics, though I recommend listening to it first or concurrently rather than reading them on their own:
When I was a child, I didn’t hear a single word you said
The things I was afraid of, they were all confined beneath my bed
But the years have been long, and you have taught me well to hide away
The things that I believed in, you’ve taught me to call them all escapes
I know who you are now
There before the threshold, I saw a brighter world beyond myself
And in my hour of weakness, you were there to see my courage fail
For the years have been long, and you have taught me well to sit and wait
Planning without acting, steadily becoming what I hate
I know who you are now
I have always known you, you have always been there in my mind
But now I understand you, and I will not be part of your designs
I know who I am now
And all that you’ve made of me
I know who you are now
And I name you my enemy
I know who I am now
I know who I want to be
I want to be more than this devil inside of me
Elie Wiesel departed this world at the age of eighty seven. He has had a tremendous influence on my life, though I never met or corresponded with him. His books were always in the house when I was growing up, and I remember my mother retelling for me the plot of Dawn, but I cannot remember how old I was. Perhaps I was nine. The details have faded but the memory remains and comes to mind quite often. Honestly, it was sobering and a bit frightening to realize that no one is exempt from life’s horrors, that even I might be forced at some point to choose between two ugly outcomes. I still hope that I never will, but it was Elie Wiesel who forced me to acknowledge the possibility that it could happen.
I have not rushed to post on Wiesel’s death because I have been picking up his works again and pondering his life. He deserves as much. I confess that it has been at least a year since I last read something of his. Wiesel himself resisted tidy conclusions. Still, something that I have noticed while following media coverage is just how much is misunderstood about Wiesel. He had his flaws and failings, of course, and valid criticisms can (or is it should) be leveled at him. There were even survivors with more compelling views on the universality of the Holocaust than his own, and Wiesel sometimes clashed with them, but he was a powerful voice for good nonetheless. Then there was the disgraceful spectacle of people like Max Blumenthal, who possess the moral stature of a Chihuahua, publishing tweet after tweet vilifying Wiesel not long after his death was announced.
Something that I can see even in many valid criticisms is that Wiesel is being judged by our own image of a Holocaust survivor and champion of human rights should be rather than by what Wiesel actually was. To understand Wiesel we must set aside such grand images as citizen of the world and its conscience, and start with the Elie Wiesel who was deported to the kingdom of night, as he would put it. A shy but ardent Hasidic youth who viewed everything through a spiritual lens. His parents had to force him to set some time aside for secular studies, such was his religious fervor. Then came the Holocaust, an outburst of the forces of evil so intense that it destroyed his ability to believe as he once did. Wiesel always wanted to recover that simple faith, but could not. This is the thread running throughout his works, the source of the enigmatic laughter and silences that fill his stories.
Night is a powerful novel. Really needs no introduction. Dawn is not as well known, but as noted above, perhaps more compelling and troubling because it deals with the internal struggle of a Holocaust survivor faced with making an awful choice. If Nightis about surviving in a kingdom where God does not act, Dawn looks at the choices one must make when acting in history instead of God. Nightwill make you weep, andDawnwill chill you, but if you want to get at the man behind Wiesel’s public persona then read Souls on Fire. Souls is a collection of sayings, stories, and character sketches of several 18th-19th century Hasidic masters, leaders of a Jewish revivalist movement in Eastern Europe. Wiesel has written quite a bit on this or that Hasidic master. It is a prominent topic in his writings, and though I have never bothered to quantify this, I would not be surprised if he has written more frequently and directly about Hasidism than he has about the Holocaust, but everything that he wrote eventually touched upon his experience in the camps.
The Hasidic master, or Rebbe, acts as bridge between his followers, the Hasidim, and God. The Rebbe was central to how they approached the world, so telling stories about these masters practically became a sacred duty. These were stories about hidden saints and holy beggars, miracles and prophecies, uplifting the poor and downtrodden, intense longing for the Messiah as if he were due any minute, putting God on trial for neglecting his children, and a host of other colorful episodes, but most of all about the soul and how to mend it. Sometimes cryptic and paradoxical, they all share a love of truth. These stories were used to draw man closer to God rather than simply entertain. Wiesel did that, too. “I don’t believe the aim of literature is to entertain, to distract, to amuse.”
Hasidism, then, was the world of Wiesel’s innocence, where God was close, always ready to intervene on behalf of those who loved him, a world filled with warm memories of conversations with his grandfather the devout Hasid. It was he who taught Wiesel his first stories and embodied their virtues. Hasidism was about faith. Not mental affirmation, but an attitude of trust and devotion.
In the chapter entitled Disciples IV, Elie Wiesel relates a Hasidic legend of how Satan protested the birth of a particular Rebbe so holy that he would draw enough followers closer to God so as to destroy Satan’s kingdom effortlessly. The heavenly court recognized the unfairness of that scenario, and decided to send a rival – a counterfeit Rebbe – whom no one would suspect of serving God’s rival.
How is one to know? How does one recognize purity in a man? And how can one be sure? I remember putting this question to my grandfather. He chuckled and his eyes twinkled when he answered: “But one is never sure; nor should one be. Actually, it all depends on the Hasid; it is he who, in the final analysis, must justify the Rebbe.”
It is hard not to see this as really being about God, about Wiesel’s relationship with him. This answer to a childhood question, I think, lies behind the anger in Night, and behind the moral calculus in Dawn. Like the old chestnut, show me your friends and I will show you who you are. With Wiesel, though, there is never a simple affirmation of man’s moral superiority to God. That is a subtle nuance which even as fine a film as God on Trial (inspired by a Wiesel experience and story) misses. Man is responsible for affirming his devotion to truth through his actions and choices, perhaps even to transform his master through them. His failure to do so can have acute repercussions because God and man are inseparably linked.
“You’ll grow up, you’ll see,” my grandfather had said. “You’ll see that is more difficult, more rare to find a Hasid than a Rebbe. To induce others to believe is easier than to believe…”
Another story is shared of a Rebbe scolding God for keeping an old man like him waiting all his life for the messiah, then Wiesel’s own memory of his grandfather blessing him to see the messiah end evil, and how that caused him to tremble in Auschwitz for his grandfather. A story about a holy dance invites Wiesel to wonder how his grandfather died. For him, it is all connected. He expressed what he experienced in the camps in terms of these Hasidic tales and sayings.
One of Hasidism’s finest tales relates that the founder of Hasidism went to a certain spot in the woods to perform a ritual and utter a prayer to avert a disaster. His successor could not remember the ritual, but knew the spot and the prayer. The next Rebbe knows only the spot, and, finally, only the story remains. This must suffice, or can it? Wiesel suggests that we might be past that stage.
The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors? Especially the survivors?
That last question alone opens up a world of anguish that the trite and easy phrase survivor’s guilt can never fathom. It also lends urgency to the task of storytelling. There are no easy answers to any of these questions which occupied Wiesel his entire life.
Two sayings of Hasidic masters are given in the chapter with no commentary. “To pronounce useless words is to commit murder,” and, “Nothing and nobody down here frightens me… But the moaning of a beggar makes me shudder.” Both of these encapsulate Wiesel’s approach as author and witness. Waste no word on things that do not teach truth and fear nothing as much as another’s suffering.
There is much more that could be discussed. Instead, read Souls on Fire, especially the moving postscript describing why he wrote it. Your time will be greatly rewarded.
To end like I began, on a personal note: I was surprised to feel no sorrow at Wiesel’s passing. In fact, I almost felt happy. I typically get very emotional thinking about the Holocaust at any length. Why not now? In Jewish thought death is often considered a passage from the world of illusion to the world of truth. Wiesel loved truth but was haunted by it. He was truly a soul on fire, so perhaps now he will be able to see things as they really are, and meet with God to reconcile differences and finally have his questions answered. A chance, I feel, to regain his childhood faith.
Understand your conversations aren’t happening in a vacuum; silent victims are listening to you.
Sometimes I want to talk to people about “rape culture.” I’m putting “rape culture” in quotes because the people I most want to talk to about this often recoil at the phrase. If there was another shorthand phrase I knew to describe this situation, I’d use it, but I don’t know of any.
For clarification, when I say “rape culture” I do not mean a culture that is totally chill with violently forcing people to have sex. I mean a culture that minimizes the seriousness of sexual harassment and assault in myriad ways, most of them not purposeful but still very impactful. The cumulative effect is that far too many women have not only been sexually assaulted but—and for me this is a crucial point—they feel unable to do anything about it or even tell anyone.
(Before I continue, please note that in this post I talk exclusively about male rapists and female victims because I am talking about my personal experiences. However it’s important to understand that men are also assaulted and they also struggle to talk about it.)
I feel very strongly about this issue. I probably feel more strongly about this issue than any other social or political topic, by a lot. And that’s because, for me, this is very personal.
When I talk about “rape culture,” I’m not trying to have a political conversation or a policy debate. I’m not trying to establish whether liberals are on witch hunts or conservatives hate women or feminists hate men or whatever else. I don’t care how you feel about your ideological opposition. If I’m trying to talk to you about “rape culture,” this is what I’m trying to say:
I’ve been assaulted. It traumatized me for a long time, and it was even worse than it needed to be because I didn’t think I could tell anybody. When I eventually did tell someone, someone I trusted and loved, he told me he was disappointed in me. I felt humiliated and ashamed, and I really wished I hadn’t told him. I didn’t tell anyone else for a very long time. And I suffered for it.
And many women I love have been assaulted. It’s not my place to share their stories, but the bottom line is this: of all the women I’m closest to, more of them have been assaulted than haven’t. Many of them didn’t talk about it with anyone for a long time. And they’ve suffered for it too.
If I had just walked up to you and told you that, would your first response be “How do you know your loved ones aren’t lying to you? How do I know you’re not lying to me? Women lie sometimes. We should be talking about that.”
The women I know who don’t go public with their stories fear they won’t be believed, fear they’ll be blamed, or fear there will be reprisals against them. And I can’t reassure them that wouldn’t happen, because, from what I’ve seen, that is usually what happens. Even in the more obviously criminal situations, I couldn’t get them to tell the police. Often they won’t even tell their social circles. The men who do these things just go on with their lives, in many cases going on to assault more women who also won’t say anything. My heart breaks for those future women, who I can’t save. It breaks for my friends, who got no justice or relief.
Before this post, I’ve only told a handful of people that this has happened to me. It’s not something I want to think about, and it’s not something I want to be defined by. But I’ve decided to write about it because I’m tired of having this conversation as if we’re discussing “them”—other women, not present, who have gone through this and what it may or not be like for them and how they may or may not react to the way we discuss this. We’re not talking about “them,” we’re talking about me. We’re talking about my family and friends. And, in all likelihood, we’re talking about your family and friends too. For countless people, this is not an abstract discussion; this is our lives.
The more vocal I am about how seriously I take this, the more women end up telling me their stories. They trust me to believe them, and they also trust me not to tell anyone. Sometimes that’s the hardest part, because I want to tell everyone. I want people to understand how common this is.
In one of my friend’s cases, I knew the guy. I fantasized about walking up to him and punching him in the face. But she didn’t want me to say anything to anyone. So when I saw the guy, I had to just act like nothing had happened. Everyone acts like nothing has happened. I wonder if he even thought about it again. She was intimidated about leaving her house, she would cry when she got home, she would make extra sure her door was locked—and he doesn’t even have to think about it again.
When I think about how many women I know—personally—who have not only been preyed on, but then shamed or intimidated into silence, I feel overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed with sorrow and I’m overwhelmed with rage. I feel rage at men who take whatever they want with no real concern about repercussions, and I feel rage to know they’re right not to worry. I feel rage at a society that’s quick to find reasons not to take my friends’ stories seriously, not to face how common this is. I feel rage at myself that I can’t do anything besides listen and grieve.
And you know what else? If you’re the person who can’t have even one conversation about this without saying “what if she’s lying?” – I feel rage at you.
You think because you’re not physically attacking anyone, because you’re “just asking questions,” that you’re not a part of this—that you’re innocent. You are not innocent. Every time you talk about this publicly or in groups, odds are good that someone who’s been through it is listening. She’s hearing your suspicion and condemnation, and she’s deciding she’s much better off never telling anyone. If no one knows, no one can call her a liar, man-hater, idiot, or slut. No one can use one of the most painful parts of her life to hurt her all over again. But she’s also a lot less likely to get the help she needs. And the guy who attacked her is free to go attack someone else.
And you. You who think we don’t talk enough about false accusations, who think we don’t consider how scary it is for men to hook up with women they don’t know, who think a man assaults an unconscious woman hidden behind a dumpster because of a “hook-up mentality”–you’re a part of this. Where do you think “culture” comes from? Each time you talk about sexual assault, you’re contributing to a culture of some type. You might be contributing to a culture of support, compassion, a desire to understand. But if you’re contributing to a culture of suspicion and blame, that’s on you. She hears you, and she’s shutting up, and that is on you. So I feel rage at you too.
When I talk about “rape culture” I’m not advocating for a political party or policy or position. I’m not calling for a ban on any ideas or any topics of conversations. Talk about false accusations, talk about drunken regret, talk about whatever you want. Just understand your conversations aren’t happening in a vacuum; silent victims are listening to you.
So when I talk about “rape culture,” that’ s what I’m trying to make clear. I want you to recognize that none of us are observing this from the outside; we’re all involved. Everyone who talks about this—and everyone who refuses to talk about it—is a part of this. We are all a part of this. And all I really want is for you to think about which part you’re playing.
Many Mormons live with the hope that their families will be together forever – such hopes are inscribed upon us in primary. We hope to live righteously and faithfully so that we can all make it to the celestial kingdom together. Many, at one point or another, experience the fear that a family member might go astray and forsake the straight and narrow, disqualifying themselves from the celestial kingdom.
What are we supposed to do, how should we react? We endeavor to be all the more devout in regards to our religious practices in hopes that our goodness can somehow affect those we love. Religion, which we had hoped would be the anchor of our family ends up sinking it in storm tossed seas. The bonds in which we had put so much faith have fractured. The grief and pain many feel is beyond comprehension as they try to understand what the consequences will be – will mothers and fathers be forever separated from their children, children their parents, siblings divided from siblings by great gates?
Many have dreamed of the possibility to progress from one kingdom to the next – that if we were not perhaps ready to receive all that we could have received by the end of this life, that we might still have the opportunity to become ready in the hereafter. There are also many who reject the idea out of hand and say it is a heresy and an abomination – though not all who reject this notion do it out of anger. However, it is often the voice which is fueled by outrage and indignation is louder than the voice of quiet hope. Where does this indignation come from?
In Luke chapter 15 we read the story of two brothers and their father. The elder brother in this story becomes angry and bitter when his brother, returning from a riotous (“sinful”) life, is greeted with celebration and festivities.
“And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment… But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.”
The elder brother isn’t as much upset that the prodigal son has come home as he is that he has lived a life of obedience and seems to profit no more from it than his brother who has lived a life of sin. However, what the elder brother does not seem to realize is the pain and suffering which his younger brother, the prodigal son, endured as he gathered experiences from the life style which he had chosen. The older brother was never driven to the point of starvation where he would look on with envy as pigs were given more to eat than he, but rather was constantly a participant in the bounty and love of his father. The older brother did not recognize that suffering is sin’s constant companion however well it may conceal itself; we must not heap more punishment upon those who have already endured pain we know not of. We must ask ourselves who are we most akin to in this story; the younger brother, the elder, or the father? Why do we choose to live the life we do? Is religion a tool to grant us our treasures in heaven or is religion a tool to teach us to have heavenly desires? Do we see righteousness as a way to secure greater accolades or do we hope to weave acts of habitual goodness into our moral tapestry?
Another parable found in Matthew 15 highlights this principle:
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house.” The master of the vineyard then responds, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”
The laborers of the Vineyard who had been working all day did not expect more because they thought they deserved more money for their work, but because they believed they deserved more than those who had worked less. They believed themselves to have become more worthy through their works that they might be recipients of the Master’s mercy. They had become so fixated and concerned with their own standing and desires for mercy that they had forgotten how to sympathize and be joyous for others who were also in need of the Master’s mercy – a position that they themselves were in not so long ago. How quick we are to become the servant who was forgiven much but forgave little (Matthew 18:21-35). The question then isn’t if we are able to receive God’s mercy, but if we are changed by His mercy – do we desire an even more abundant out-pouring of mercy for our enemies (for if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye?).
Which of us, when partaking of the sacrament, is truly worthy of that broken body which we remember and that sacred blood which for us was spilt. It isn’t solely the act of taking sacrament which cleanses us, but the desire to partake of the sacrament. Worthiness isn’t a status to achieve or an object to obtain, but rather it is found within the desires of our hearts and soul. Worthiness is found in the desire to repent and to become something heavenly. And though it is said that faith without works is dead, works without faith is equally dead.
C.S Lewis asks a question in his book, The Great Divorce, “Is Judgment not final? Is there really a way out of hell into Heaven? There have been many who have spoken with conviction that there is indeed hope of eternal progression which is only halted by our own desires. J Reuben Clark once said,
“I am not a strict constructionalist, believing that we seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can: and while, if we live unrighteously here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed to those eternities that are to come.” (J. Reuben Clark, Church News, 23 April 1960, p. 3)
President Clark believed that within the eternities and eons of time, progression and change are possible. Joseph Smith believed that a spirit in the lowest kingdom “constantly progresses in spiritual knowledge until safely landed in the Celestial”1 and Brigham Young believed that those who don’t inherit the Celestial Kingdom “would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom but it would be a slow process”.2
I believe that just as agency is eternal, so is progression; that progression only ceases when desires to progress cease. As long as there is more knowledge to be obtained then possibility to change exists – and that is only made possible through the atonement. President Packer once commented, “I repeat, save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.” 3
“There are only two kinds of people in the end” says Lewis, “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” 4 God will not force any in to heaven, that choice is ours. And it isn’t simply a choice of relocation, but a choice of repentance and becoming. As Mormon clearly says in chapter 13, “Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt[?]” This life and this moment now is the best time to truly become disciples of Christ and to weave patterns of righteousness into our own very being. It is here, in the space of faith and doubt allowed to us by the suspension of knowledge through the veil that we are truly able to choose that which we desire to believe and desire to become. God has allowed us the freedom of choice not to test what we will do, but to allow us the freedom to act and believe according to our own beliefs and to learn where those beliefs lead.
In case there are questions about the post regarding Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s well known address, I give the following thoughts.
Foremost it is important to recognize this following tidbit of information, “President Kimball was not doctrinaire, and he felt a need to intervene in doctrinal matters only when he saw strong statements of personal opinion as being divisive. Elder McConkie’s talk at BYU on “The Seven Deadly Heresies” implied he had the authority to define heresy. Among other things, he denounces as heretical… the idea of progression from kingdom to kingdom in the afterlife… President Kimball responded to the uproar by calling Elder McConkie in to discuss the talk. As a consequence, Elder McConkie revised the talk for publication so as to clarify that he was stating personal views”. Among with a few other changes, McConkie added to the end of his talk, “every person must choose for himself what he will believe.” 
I don’t claim to know McConkie’s thoughts or reasoning behind his conviction of this thought being a heresy – but I’ve come to reconcile his words with another truth. Believing that there is progression in the eternities to come could dissuade many from seeking to emulate the character of Christ in this life. However, if this thought were to be a truth and it served to dissuade us from choosing a life in pursuit of emulating Christ, then our spiritual maturity is much like the elder brother of the prodigal son. If only the fear of not being able to progress in the future and only being able to progress now is what roots us in the Gospel and teachings of Christ, then we have missed the meaning of those teachings entirely. The Gospel isn’t given to us to save us from future pain and misery (though that is a byproduct) but to help us choose now, this day, to become more like our heavenly parents and to know how we can work on accomplishing that goal. Importantly, the gospel isn’t there to incentivize us to do good out of the fear of being damned or for the sake of more blessings, but out of love and devotion – charity is the center of Christ’s teachings.