Friday, January 30, 2015

Not the Best Two Years — Never Good Enough

I have never once thought that my mission was the best two years of my life. I served in Norway, which (like all of Scandinavia) is a tough place for missionary work. A Christmas Day article published by a leading Norwegian news outlet proclaimed that "Scandinavia is the most godless corner of the most godless continent in the world" (translated to English from original Norwegian).

I know people that have very good reasons for feeling that they had a horrible experience as a missionary. Not me. The two years I spent serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were a time of tremendous growth. I had times of incredible joy, far more times of depression, and copious periods of simple mundanity. And cold. It gets cold in Norway. Although summers can be beautiful.

What I did not see much of was success, if by success you mean people joining the Church and staying committed to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I climbed into the baptismal font exactly once while in Norway, where I baptized a teenage girl that stopped attending church three weeks after her baptism. But that's not why I returned home feeling unsuccessful.

If I was in Norway to baptize a bunch of people — as the continuous pressure to produce adequate numbers of contacts, lessons, baptismal challenges, and converts plainly suggested — I was a failure as a missionary. Sure, we had missionaries that never baptized anyone in Norway. But there was also one elder that baptized at least one person for every month he was in the country. Compared to him I was an absolute failure.

I knew that I was never good enough as a missionary, although, I served in every leadership position that a young elder could be called to. Pretty much every week of my mission I turned in numbers that fell far below the stated minimum goals in every reporting category. Every motivational tool we used as missionaries became a stick with which I continually beat myself.

I still remember feeling guilty about being such a lousy missionary as I stood to speak in sacrament meeting days after returning home. There were many things I loved about my mission. But I didn't love my mission. How could I? I had never been good enough. I was no slacker, but I had never lived up to what I felt was expected of me as a missionary.

For many years this feeling of guilt represented the chief symbol of my mission in my mind. When others would talk in glowing terms of their missions I would cower inwardly under a sense of self loathing.

Throughout my youth I had repeatedly been exposed to a quote by some church leader where he encouraged missionaries to work hard by saying something to the effect that how hard you worked during the two years of your mission would determine whether it brought you a lifetime of joy or regret. (My internal perception may have paraphrased it more harshly than it was intended.) Although I can't seem to find that quote now, one of my companions had a mini poster of the quote prominently displayed in our apartment.

All I could think of every time I thought of this quote was the part about regret. Having failed to work as hard as I could have as a missionary, I was clearly in for an eternity of regret. I figured, for example, that I was probably called to be an assistant to the president to keep me out of the field because I was such a lousy missionary.

But today, more than three decades after returning from my mission, I feel better about my mission than ever. It's not that the years have caused me to forget the hard times. Rather, having gained some perspective of life, the gospel, the Church, and my own personality, I perceive my mission in a light that I feel is more in line with the way the Lord sees it. I think he counts success differently than we often do in human terms.

It seems that people with my personality type are prone to feeling guilt. Messages intended for slackers can absolutely tear the earnest but guilt-prone apart. While guilt can be a source of motivation, it can also be a trap that stymies progression when incorrectly applied.

The Lord's command for us to forgive everyone extends equally to ourselves (see D&C 64:10). As I look back on my callow 19-21-year-old self, I see a kid struggling through the normal issues of life doing a pretty decent job with the resources God blessed him with.

And if I am completely honest with myself, as I listen to the quiet whisperings of the Holy Spirit, I sense that the Lord is pleased with the service I rendered in Norway. Yes, he's pleased in the way a parent is pleased when their kindergartener brings home a pencil holder made of a spray painted can covered with dried macaroni. But I feel that through the grace of Christ, my missionary service was acceptable to the Lord. And my guilt is swept away (see Enos 1:6).

I will probably never be able to say that my mission was the best two years of my life. But I deeply cherish the time I served as a missionary in Norway. I would never wish to repeat some of the experiences that I have come to cherish. But I rejoice in knowing that I can think about my mission free of guilt and with a sense that in some small way I was able to please my God as a missionary.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Hope For Better Ward Councils

It was the first Sunday that the bishop was away, leaving me in charge of the day's various meetings. I had been called to serve as a counselor to the bishop when our ward's new bishopric had been formed several months earlier.

As our ward council discussed various matters that morning, we hit on a topic that struck a chord with me. After some discussion, I glanced at the clock and then deigned to offer my enlightened counsel. Not only was I the guy in charge, I had a fair amount of experience with the issue.

In my mind's eye I could see myself dispensing incredible profoundness to breathlessly eager listeners. But it didn't quite roll out that way. Almost everything I said seemed to produce loose ends, which I would then try to tie off, only to produce additional loose ends in the process.

These attempts to achieve a coherent thought resulted in me rambling on and on. My message felt like a strong rolling river that eventually peters out into a broad sandy delta covered with a thousand stagnate marshy streams.

I finally glanced at the clock and realized that 8½ minutes had passed since I had last looked at it. Nobody else had said anything. I'm sure that the rest of the people in the room were relieved when I quickly abandoned my attempt to reach a cogent conclusion and weakly wrapped up my desultory monologue. "This" I thought to myself as the meeting ended, "is not how ward councils are supposed to work."

Ward councils are supposed to be collaborative bodies where members work together within their various stewardships to accomplish the entire mission of the Church. Although the bishop ultimately is responsible for the actions of the council, nobody — not even the bishop — is supposed to dominate the council.

Nor are members of the ward council simply errand boys/girls for the bishop/bishopric. Each is called of God to vigorously fulfill a specific stewardship and is entitled to inspiration and revelation in relation to that calling. While the Church has a hierarchical structure with vertical stewardships, no individual is any other individual's underling. Each is accountable to God for their calling.

When any leader sucks all of the air out of the room, members of the ward council tend to clam up and become observers rather than active participants. They feel that their ideas and inspirations are not important to leaders, so they just wait to be told what to do.

An example of this occurred on one ward council of which I was a member. The bishop essentially insisted on making all of the decisions, even on matters that could have been handled by others. It wasn't that he shut down the discussion. But everyone in the room would constantly look at him to see if he was prepared to pontificate his verdict. It was like a game of musical chairs where everyone keeps walking in the same circle until the person in charge stops the music.

I would like to offer some positive examples of how ward councils should work. But quite frankly, I've seen very little of that in any of the various church councils I have attended throughout my life. Many of these meetings have devolved to little more than leaders dumping demands as other council members quietly sit and make notes of what they are supposed to do. I believe that a monumental cultural shift will be required for this to change.

Neylan McBaine's essay on ward councils focuses heavily on enhancing the experience of female members of the council. This is vitally important. But I think that many of her points could be extended to all members of the council. Each needs to be valued in her/his role. Each needs to feel accountable not just for carrying out orders, but for making useful contributions to consequential decisions made by the council. I'd love to see this happen on a broad scale in my lifetime.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Responding to Bullying

I discussed bullying and fighting in this recent post, where I promised to discuss the more insidious side of bullying in a later post. This is that later post.

I'm sure that parents, teachers, and leaders were concerned about bullying when I was a kid. But not like they are today. Bullying simply existed. It was something you had to learn to deal with. There were always kids that made you fear them. I mean in a bullying way, not like fearing the girl on whom you had a crush but that had no idea you had a crush on her.

You tried to stay out of situations where you were likely to be bullied. But sometimes those situations just couldn't be avoided. Or they caught you off guard. Like coming around the hallway corner and seeing a bully headed directly toward you right when there were no adults around.

Today anti-bullying resources are everywhere. Some of them are pretty good, such as this video:

Many efforts to prevent bullying are laudable. But sometimes they have a boomerang effect. Instead of stopping bullying, they can drive it further underground where it takes on even more treacherous forms, often in the form of (frequently anonymous) cyber-bullying.

Unlike the schoolyard bullies I dealt with back in my day, cyber-tormentors don't require physical prowess or social status. The bully and the victim don't have to be of the same sex. Girls can bully boys just as well as boys can bully girls.

Of course there are baddies that revel in playing the role of the bully. But many bullies don't realize that they are bullies. Bullying awareness programs are good at emphasizing the victim's point of view where the jerks in those videos obviously look like bullies. One guy in the video above only realizes his bully role after someone close to him is a victim, but many bullies never reach that level of self awareness. The view from the inside looking out is different enough that they don't see their actions in that light.

While we should do what we can to prevent and stop bullying, it is also important to realize that our efforts will fall short. Bullying will happen. This means that efforts are needed to teach kids what to do when they are bullied. Yes, we tell them to report the offense to adults. But we have to realize that sometimes kids will not see reporting as a viable potential solution. In some situations they are bound to think that it will make matters worse.

One of our children was repeatedly bullied in elementary school by this one kid and his homies. The school tried various counseling approaches, including involving the boy's parents. But nothing was effective. The boy's parents were beside themselves and tried various approaches at home, but nothing helped. The bullying continued until that class advanced to the junior high, where our child's path rarely crossed with his former tormentor's. So telling adults about the problem doesn't always help much.

Teaching children about coping with bullies has to go beyond just tattling. Delete Cyberbullying offers some tactics that can be helpful when dealing with online abuse. Stomp Out Bullying has a pretty good discussion about how a victim can respond to bullying, noting that each situation requires a unique approach. I like how Stomp Out Bullying offers a number of possible approaches that could safely be tried before involving an adult. This can help the victim become stronger and more independent, which is something we should encourage.

The key is empowerment. Bullies thrive on making their victims feel powerless. Lashing out increases the bully's power and decreases the victim's power. Responding in kind turns the victim into the same kind of despicable character that he/she loathes. Tattling can also increase the victim's sense of individual powerlessness. We need to do a better job of teaching kids how to restore power in their respective situations.

So, by all means, let's work aggressively on preventing and stopping bullying. But let's also be realistic in realizing that since bullying won't be eradicated, it is important to empower kids to adequately respond when they are bullied.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

There Was No Poor Among Them

In a recent post I discussed the topic of Zion, focusing on the first part of Moses 7:18 that discusses unity and righteousness. The third characteristic of Zion mentioned in that verse states, "...and there was no poor among them." I felt that this topic warranted separate treatment; hence, this post.

Many have romanticized about eliminating poverty. Some harbor very puerile ideas about how this is to be achieved, when almost all of their simplistic ideas have been repeatedly tried without substantial success, or else would require conditions that defy incontrovertible laws.

It turns out that poverty is a very complex matter. While common themes can be found, the causes of poverty are varied and exist in endless degrees. Poverty is so deeply entrenched that Jesus said, "For ye have the poor always with you..." (Matt 26:11).

How did Enoch's society and the Nephite society described in 4 Nephi 1:3 manage to get rid of poverty? The scriptural record offers only a few words that can be interpreted in many ways. Some extrapolations promote collectivist certainty that flies in the face of verifiable economic laws that are as inviolable as gravity or other natural laws.

World-renowned expert in the economics of social capital Lindon J. Robison offers a fairly cohesive view in this 2005 article. Robison weaves scriptural principle together with a lifetime of economic scholarship to postulate how poverty can be righteously eliminated without violating economic laws. I find this approach refreshing because it does not require the suspension of evident laws; only a change of heart.

The scriptures seem to suggest that poverty can be eliminated only when people stop focusing on the material/status side of the equation. Except for the requirement to meet everyone's basic needs, the mental distinction of economic class would simply become irrelevant.

One way this can happen is when everyone is poor and there are no prosperous folks with which to compare the relative level of poverty. (How often have you heard someone say they never realized as a child that they were poor. Or that they were happy because they were poor.) However, it seems obvious from the scriptures that it pleases the Lord to help his children prosper economically as well as spiritually. Thus, it appears that a more divine way of eliminating poverty would be through a general increase in prosperity.

Robison notes that economists generally agree that the three essential ingredients for economic prosperity are "specialization, trade, and freedom of choice." He goes on to discuss how in a righteous society these three elements are used to achieve "at-one-ment" among people and with God. He discusses two types of at-one-ment that lead to economic equality:
  • Complete at-one-ment occurs when hearts are knit together in righteous unity (the subject of my previous post). Members of such a society lose the desire to do evil and want only to do good (see Mosiah 5:2). They love their fellowmen as themselves are are vitally interested in the welfare of their fellow beings (see Luke 10:27).
  • Equality before the law occurs when people are willing to be governed by just laws, where life and property are protected, and where laws are equitably administered without regard for status.
One might counter that if everyone is knit together in righteous unity there would be no need for laws. But I think this goes too far. Unity in overall matters does not imply complete agreement on every point. People with finite understanding are bound to see some matters differently. But in a righteous society they agree upon necessary just laws and graciously accept their equitable administration. They accept accountability for their own choices.

Robison provides a fascinating discussion of how inhibition of one of more of the three economic principles listed above (specialization, trade, and accountable freedom of choice) fosters various levels of separation and inequality.

Coercive approaches to achieving economic equality are ineffective and take a much too materialistic view. Indeed, "nonmarket methods to force people to live as economic equals have destroyed incentives to work hard and smart and [have been] unsuccessful in producing economic equality or economic prosperity."

Furthermore, "The only successful effort to reduce economic inequality while maintaining economic prosperity appears to be a result of voluntary redistributions that depend on at-one-ment, the same characteristic required for economic prosperity."

In other words, the way to maximize economic prosperity happens to also be the way to eliminate poverty. For both of these things to happen, individual and general righteousness is required.

Given that we live in a society that has different interpretations of what righteousness means and where many use their freedom of choice in unrighteous ways, we aren't going to eliminate poverty anytime soon. (Although some would say that if we weren't constantly revising the meaning of the term poverty upward, we would realize that there are a lower percentage of truly poor on the earth today than at anytime in history.)

This means that for the time being we will have to be satisfied with growing prosperity and reducing poverty on a smaller scale, within our capabilities. Some things we can do include:
  • Improving our personal righteousness.
  • Teaching and helping others within the scope of our influence to better pursue righteousness.
  • Doing what we can individually to help the poor while maximizing their dignity and industry. Consider Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's October 2014 general conference talk titled Are We Not All Beggars? in which he promotes solutions to poverty as diverse as the problem itself.
  • Properly observing the fast, including donations for the benefit of the poor.
  • Helping with and properly applying the Church welfare and humanitarian programs. Bishop Dean M. Davies recently counseled that such programs are "intended to support life, not lifestyle."
  • Doing what we can to protect the rights of specialization, open trade, and freedom of choice coupled with accountability.
This means that we have an individual responsibility. Elder Holland put it this way: "I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again."

On our own we are unlikely to bring about sweeping societal change. But we can be humbly content with our station in life (see Alma 29:3). And as Elder Holland counseled, each of us should "do what we can to deliver any we can from the poverty that holds them captive and destroys so many of their dreams."

We may not see a City of Enoch-like society and an economy free of poverty and class distinctions in our day. But by following righteous principles we can know that our offering to relieve suffering is acceptable to God. Perhaps that should be enough for now.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Evils That Merit Badge Worksheets Have Wrought

Is it OK to say that I am relieved that my sons are pretty much done with earning Boy Scout merit badges? I started teaching merit badge classes as a teen working at Scout camp and I have been a merit badge counselor for decades. But I'm glad that I no longer have to be a parent helping a son navigate Boy Scout advancement. (Our younger sons are now in the Varsity and Venturing programs.)

I have a love/hate relationship with the Boy Scout advancement program, especially as it is generally applied in LDS Scouting units. In this February 2013 post I discussed some criticisms of LDS Scouting that I heard from Dave Rich, a lifelong passionate Scouter who was President of the BSA's Western Region Area 2 at the time of his death. In my post I wrote:
Dave had specific criticisms for the way the scouting program works in Utah. He noted that we have become very good at getting youth to advance. Youth progress through scouting requirements, ranks, and merit badges at a much faster clip in Utah than anywhere else in the world. Many are very proud of this fact.
The problem, Dave noted, is that scouting is not primarily about ranks and awards; it is about getting youth to learn and internalize the scouting method. Scouting is about helping youth become scouts—infusing the moral and character aims taught by scouting into the essence of their very being. Scouts can achieve ranks and awards without ever internalizing these ideals if the adult volunteers fail to firmly keep these ideals the main focus of the program.
Merit badges and rank advancements have become check boxes to be checked off on the road to getting great Mormon stats. (i.e. The quotable figures people use culturally to show how good of a Mormon they are.) The badge has become the goal when it should simply be a symbol of achieving the goal. One of the symptoms of this defect is the now ubiquitous merit badge worksheet, available from a variety non-official sources.

I remember welcoming these worksheets when they first made their appearance. As a scoutmaster I thought they were a fantastic way for my boys to keep track of requirements and take notes. But over time the worksheets have become the primary way boys in my area pass off merit badges. This has always struck me as wrong.

One of my sons grapples with Aspergers, major depressive disorder, and some related mental/behavioral issues. Although he's quite intelligent and has good handwriting for his age, writing assignments have been difficult for him. I was very frustrated when he was working on one of the Citizenship merit badges with a very experienced man who is a friend of mine. My son was completely capable of discussing a matter with the counselor, as per the requirement. But the counselor insisted that my son write an essay on the merit badge worksheet instead. We ultimately found a different counselor.

I have watched boy after boy for years now complete and pass off merit badges by simply regurgitating in writing on a worksheet words spewed in lecture by merit badge instructors. Many merit badge counselors literally think that the only way to pass off a merit badge is for the boy to fill in everything on a merit badge worksheet. This even happens at Scout camps. The upshot is that many boys are receiving merit badges without learning what the requirements were designed to teach.

The BSA has recently clarified that it discourages (doesn't prohibit) the use of merit badge worksheets. This Scouting Magazine Blog post echoes many of the concerns I have just noted. The post quotes from official BSA policies to explain that merit badge worksheets are only to be used as aids. They "are permitted only for fulfilling requirements where something is to be done in writing."

Merit badge counselors that think that the worksheets are necessary need to read the statements from the BSA that say:
  • "Merit badge counselors may refuse to accept worksheets but they are not allowed to require their use."
  • "Scouts must never be required to use worksheets. The decision to use them belongs to the Scout."
  • "Worksheets must not be accepted in fulfillment of requirements that call for “showing,” “demonstrating,” “discussing,” or whatever else the written word does not fully accomplish."
  • "Worksheets are a shortcut. They present on paper what should be arrived at through thought and interaction — through asking questions and trial and error. They often tend to create or support an atmosphere of “get the merit badge finished as efficiently and quickly as possible,” when the objective should be a significant learning experience that builds character, citizenship, and physical or mental fitness."
Moreover, the BSA Guide to Advancement clearly states (p. 2) that "No council, committee, district, unit, or individual has the authority to add to, or subtract from, advancement requirements." Thus, no merit badge counselor may diminish, enhance, or alter any requirement. This includes requiring boys to use worksheets.

So go ahead and let the boys use merit badge worksheets to aid them with the requirements, if they wish. But as a counselor you should never need to look at a boy's worksheet unless it contains something that is required to be written. Your merit badge candidates don't need to complete a worksheet; they need to have a constructive adventure.

Scout leaders and parents need to be careful not to streamline the merit badge process too much. It is quite apparent that people in my area think we are doing these boys a great service by providing stake merit badge classes. Maybe not.

A high school in my town offers low-cost merit badge seminars in the summer. Boys can easily gain four merit badges by sitting in a classroom for a few hours before lunchtime each day for a week. I have seen moms giddy about their little boy completing a dozen merit badges over a three-week period. Great, but how much leadership and character did the boy build during that time?

Frankly, many of the merit badge programs at our Boy Scout camps aren't much better. We turn marvelous natural outdoor laboratories into surrogates for four walls of a school room, oblivious to the powerful development experiences that could take place in that space.

A few years ago I was upset when some boys returned to our campsite bragging to their fellows that they had just completed a merit badge in 45 minutes. What do you think they learned from that experience? Too many Scout leaders and parents judge the value of a week at Scout camp by the number of merit badges earned rather than the quality of the character built during that week.

Efficiency can be a good thing. But we have taken it way too far when it comes to Boy Scout advancement. Many boys today can't tell you squat about what they did to earn — or what they learned from — half of the merit badges on their sash. Our check box approach to merit badges is robbing boys of the opportunities inherent in the Scouting program to internalize the characteristics they repeat in the words of Scout Oath and Law.

What would happen if boys had to struggle more to complete merit badges?
  • Boys would likely earn fewer merit badges. But is that a bad thing? They would learn something significant from each badge they did earn. And they would become greater in the process. Isn't that what we want? It's not the cloth badge that is important; it's what the boy becomes while earning that badge that matters.
  • Fewer boys would earn the Eagle Scout rank. This is probably true. But we would be far more certain that the boys that did earn that rank would deserve it. The rank would mean more to everyone.
Perhaps we should revise how we define success in Boy Scouts. It's not the number of badges sewn on uniforms and sashes that matter. It's the character development. A badge can symbolize the related inward character development when earning it is challenging. But badges that are too easy to earn don't mean much.

We need to help boys become Eagle Scouts in their souls, not just get the badge. And even when boys don't earn that rank — because the vast majority won't — we need to recognize the greatness and goodness that they have developed through the program.

No, that's not something that's easy to quote on the Mormon stats. But it's infinitely more valuable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Of Bullies and Fighting

I stammered as I faced the sneering bully. The fear welling up inside of me threatened to completely incapacitate me, given that the bully's two henchmen had cut off my escape routes. Certain annihilation awaited as the bully approached me while calling out demeaning insults designed to destroy any residual self confidence that might have survived his preparations for this moment.

Frankly, my sixth grade mind couldn't understand the whole fighting for pecking order thing. How could beating me up help the bully move up the status ladder, given that I was already far below him?

There's a legend about the second fasted gunslinger in the West who was always looking to move to first place by challenging the fastest guy. Bullies aren't really like that. They're more often like Irving, the 142nd fastest gun in the West, who was always trying to gun down number 143 instead of number 141. (See video below.) That is, they're interested in picking on those that are easy targets.

As far as I knew, I had never done anything to offend this guy other than to simply exist, so it wasn't a matter of schoolyard honor. He had taken to hassling and insulting me for several weeks before unilaterally demanding that I appear after school one day to fight him. Never having agreed to the arrangement, I found reasons to hang around the classroom until I figured that the bully had probably lost interest and had moved onto other pursuits worthy of his nature, like defacing public property or torturing puppies.

But that delay tactic had worked against me. The schoolyard was otherwise deserted when the three thugs leaped out from behind a barrier near the tennis court. On the plus side there would be no one around to witness my cowardly defeat. But neither would anyone be available to come to my rescue.

Fortunately for me, the bully made several mistakes. One was that he held to the unwritten honor code that required fights like this to be one-on-one. His sidekicks wouldn't step in unless I tried to run. I guess I should be thankful that they didn't all just gang up and beat me to a pulp. Another error was that his setup activated my caged animal instincts. Normally docile animals can become quite vicious when cornered and threatened.

My tormentor kept goading me to throw a punch at him. I couldn't see any sense in that. I had never wanted to fight the guy in the first place and I was still hoping to find some safe way out of this mess. Why would I throw the first punch? Finally the bully ran at me and grabbed me around the middle, intending to tackle me. That was yet another mistake.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys that liked to play a game crudely titled Smear the Queer, where everyone tried to tackle whoever had the ball. Although I generally detested athletics, I became quite adept at continuing to stand and even move forward while would-be tacklers tried to take me down. Thus, the bully was surprised that I didn't go down.

Although my books and papers had gone flying, one hand still protectively grasped my brother's ukulele, which I regularly toted to and from school for music class. With fear-charged adrenalin coursing through my veins, my arm reacted without conscious thought on my part, bringing the side of the body of the instrument swiftly down on my attacker's head with a resounding crack.

The recipient of my instrumental whack immediately disengaged. He stood up and taunted, "Is that the best you can do? Ha! I barely felt that." Rapping his head with his knuckles, he said, "I've got a hard head." His friends laughed contemptibly, but I noticed tears in my antagonizer's eyes. He hurled more insults but seemed too wary to attack again. I was quite surprised when it dawned on me that I had actually hurt him.

Finally the bully and his toadies stalked off. As I gathered up the stuff I had dropped, I noticed that part of the ukulele back was missing and I figured that I would be in big trouble when I got home. After finding the broken piece nearby, I hurried away from the schoolyard worried about future torment from the bully and his gang as well as the punishment I would get at home for ruining the instrument.

Strangely, I felt badly about having hurt another human being, even if the jerk deserved it. This jumble of emotions was difficult for my 11-year-old mind to handle. Despite the altercation turning out much better than I could have imagined, I felt scared and traumatized as I walked home.

I was frankly surprised that neither of my greatest fears regarding the fight were realized. Dad even voiced support for my actions. Actually, the ukulele worked fine for many years afterward. It took me several weeks of continually looking over my shoulder at school, waiting for the repercussions of the fight to catch up with me before I finally realized that the bully and his cronies were going to leave me alone. They never bothered me again.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the last time I was engaged in a fight at school. But in every single instance the confrontation was instigated by some other persecutor. Each fight was as brief as the one described above. In fact, some of them ended without any scuffling at all, although, I always felt traumatized afterward. In most cases the bully tended to subsequently leave me alone.

I never did understand why anyone would challenge me to a fight. Sure, I could be annoying and stupid, but no more so than the average kid my age. As far as I could tell, I never gave any of my tormentors reason to want to whack me, such as delivering an insult or competing for the affections of a young lady. Rather, I had just exhibited weakness, which made me look like an easy target. Most of the bullies that pursued the matter ultimately discovered me to be somewhat more challenging than they — or I had imagined.

But public physical fighting is probably one of the mildest ways one could be a victim of bullying. Private physical and emotional bullying can be far more damaging. The physical injuries from a fight resolve soon enough, while emotional and psychological scars can cause a lifetime of recurring pain.

I will discuss bullying further in a later post.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Of One Heart and One Mind

The concept of Zion can be difficult to grasp because it's not just one thing. The LDS Bible Dictionary provides a handful of scriptural definitions of Zion that include:
Whole tomes have been written about the meaning of Zion. True to the Faith also says that church members are to build up Zion wherever they live. Thus, Zion could (and should) be anywhere. This Encyclopedia of Mormonism article offers an expanded discussion of Zion.

I have long been fascinated by the wording in Moses 7:18 that lists being "of one heart and one mind" among the characteristics of the people of Zion. Given what I have read throughout the scriptures, I doubt this means that these people had no independent thought. Rather, I believe it means that they were completely united in their overall goals by choice.

While unity appears to be a necessary facet of Zion, it is clearly insufficient of itself. Indeed, unity can be antithetical to righteousness, which is the second feature listed in Moses 7:18. One of the dark sides of unity is called groupthink, a condition where "the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome." Very nasty things can happen when mob mentality takes hold among otherwise rational people.

Even when unity results in relatively positive outcomes, it does not necessarily turn a group of people into Zion. Tremendous unity has been documented in academia, athletic teams, military operations, work groups, volunteer organizations, etc, all without producing much in the way of divine purity. Something greater than group unity is required. The essential Zion feature of righteousness implies unity with deity.

Consider the Savior's great prayer for his followers prior to his crucifixion as recorded in John 17:9-10,20-23. He pleads that his followers will be one with each other and one with him in the same way that he is one with his Heavenly Father. Thus, it is unity with Christ that is the chief hallmark of Zion. Those that have righteous unity with God will naturally have righteous unity with each other.

This sounds like a wonderful state. But real life seldom seems to come close to that ideal. How can we approach divine unity with large numbers of our fellow beings when we give into our human frailties and engage in petty bickering and selfishness with those closest to us even on the best of days?

The lofty goal of Zion seems to remain out of the grasp of all but a very few that have lived on earth. Even when we employ all of our capacities in becoming more heavenly — something we should always do — our best efforts are doomed to fall far short of that goal.

But discouragement is the wrong response to this predicament. Only through the grace offered by Christ's Atonement can any of us become part of Zion (see Mosiah 3:17). And therein lies our hope. Indeed, our only hope. We must be humble enough to allow the Savior to turn us into Zion material.

One more note on Enoch's people. Moses 7:18 says that "the Lord called his people ZION because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness...." (I will cover the rest of this verse in a separate post.)

Enoch and his people didn't decide to call themselves Zion. Rather, Zion was the Lord's definition of these people due to their righteous unity with him and with each other. He called them Zion because their actual identity had become synonymous with Zion.

In the great scheme of things, it is not what we think of ourselves or what our peers think of us that matters. Only God's definition of us truly matters.

The scriptures seem to employ the term Zion only in reference to groups of people and never to a single individual. Regardless of one's relationship with deity, it appears that the only way to achieve Zion is as an active participant in a community of saints all working together to build each other toward a bright eternal goal.

I suppose we start by working to build Zion in our own families and branch out from there. And we must be prepared to be patient. Enoch was ordained at age 25 (D&C 107:48), led his people during wars and turmoil (Moses 7:13-17), and was finally translated at age 365 (Genesis 5:23-24). If it took him and his people nearly three and a half centuries to become Zion, maybe we can be patient when we don't see Zion happening very fast in our own lives.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Future of Languages: Fewer and Simpler

Language is an interesting thing. Despite various official and unofficial attempts, nobody really designs languages that are used in real life. Language spontaneously results from the way countless people use it in their individual lives. Once popular words fall out of everyday use as new words come into being and as other words take on different meanings. Grammar usage also changes over time.

To get an idea of how the English language has changed over the past three centuries, try reading chapters from the King James Bible. Originally published in the 1600s, the text was last modernized in 1769. With some study and familiarization, the text is understandable to the modern reader. But will that continue to be the case a century or two from now?

It is easy to see that many of the words in the KJB have fallen out of common use. Comedian John Branyan hilariously demonstrates the steady reduction of our daily vocabulary in his retelling of the Three Little Pigs (video below). He notes, for example that while Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, modern Americans operate with only about 3,000 words.

Linguist John H. McWhorter opines in this WSJ article what the future holds for the languages of the earth. He says that 100 years from now we will find:
  • English will still be the main language used on the planet. In fact, its use will be more widespread than ever, because it reached the position of global usage first and because it is far more approachable than potential challengers. (We can apparently thank rough spoken Vikings that settled in the British Isles for simplifying English a great deal.)
  • A sharp reduction in the number of languages in use — from about 6,000 to about 600 — as many non-written (most languages are not written) and/or complex languages die out.
  • Simplification of the languages used. It seems that our working vocabulary will decrease further as technology and common experience continue to render some words less useful. We can also expect increasing simplification of grammar. (Consider Megan Garber's take on the death of word "whom" in this Atlantic article.)
  • Many bilingual homes, where an oral language is spoken in the home and in tight communities, while English is used in public and in writing.
Although Mr. Peabody claims that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future, it is worth considering McWhorter's discussion of why he believes that assumption to be false. He notes that "the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it."

McWhorter suggests that much of the linguistic "streamlining" that will occur over the next century will come via the children of urban dwelling immigrants. These children often develop simplified hybrids of the official language of the area and the choppy way that language is spoken by their parents. This process "nibbles away at such arbitrary features as irregular verbs and gendered objects." Some of the resulting simplified structures snake their way into common usage over time.

Far from being a cause for worry, McWhorter sees a future that retains "a goodly amount of ... diversity" as well as "ever more mutual comprehension." More people will be able to communicate usefully with each other than ever before, even while many will keep the option of communicating more intimately with others that share their base oral tradition.

Of course, only time will tell whether McWhorter's forecasts prove to be prophetic. There is little personal cost in foretelling a future when you won't be around to be held accountable for what you said. Still, McWhorter provides valuable fodder for thought. Unlike some, I'm not fond of constantly living in fear of societal changes. I like the hopeful vision McWhorter paints.