An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2011

When Egos Collide

Our sons are both Libertarians. I enjoy sharing their takes on politics and economics and they listen respectfully to my questions and differing opinions. (We raised them well.) But I have two relatives, Dooby and Mama Grizzly, with whom I try to avoid political topics—not because of their right-wing views, but because of their rudeness when I can’t agree with statements like: “Obama is not a natural-born citizen,” or “Global warming is a conspiracy perpetrated by the science community.”

I finally realized that Dooby isn’t actually speaking to me when he insults my intelligence if I question his sources of information. Dooby lives in a blue state where his conservative views are viciously attacked by his liberal neighbors. When he brings up politics with me, Dooby is trying to make the points he wishes he’d made with acquaintances who probably insulted him.

Since her retirement a few years ago, Mama Grizzly spends her free time listening to talk radio. Mama G. latches onto pundits’ opinions as tenaciously as a stray dog defends a bone. Armed with her favorite talk-show host’s sure knowledge of the source of our national evils (Democrats and big-spending socialists),MG seeks to share her wisdom and perceives any attempt to offer a differing opinion as a personal attack. Possibly MG is trying to replace her lost career identity with a new persona—political guru.

A few months ago, a 16-year-old home teacher visited and offended us by demanding to know why we seldom attend meetings. He offered his conviction that we need to improve our lives with a rigorous application of church attendance. (We think we’re fine the way we are). Because young Brother Fervent is only 16, we smiled politely, thanked him for coming, and hoped he wouldn’t be back. I recently learned that his active Mormon parents have split up. Now I understand Bro. Fervent’s fervor for preaching the gospel. He needed to clutch at a source of permanence in his life as he watched his family disintegrate.

I’m always glad on the occasions when I keep my ego in check (i.e. my mouth shut) while dealing with the defensive egos of others. A wise person said that nearly everyone we meet is dealing with all she can handle at any given time. Extending compassion to others is less stressful than defending our own egos.

Being in the World, but Not (Aware) of the World

When our neighborhood book group discussed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn recently, one woman expressed amazement to learn of the poverty that existed in American slums in the early 20th century. How could she have lived for over 70 years without learning of the world beyond Utah? Unfortunately, this neighbor is not unusual. Mormons often isolate themselves from outside influences. Our son-in-law, Doc, a very bright guy, said he’d had no idea until he read Alex Haley’s Roots that African-Americans had suffered the kind of persecution Mormons had in the 19th century. Was his teen reading limited to Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites?

Utah Mormons are often criticized as insular by those living outside the state, but in my experience, Mormons everywhere tend to limit friendships to Church members—possibly because Church activity leaves no time for other people or organizations. Reading material is also often restricted to Deseret Book sources.

Devoid of outside contact, our vision of the world becomes skewed. A visiting teacher told me her domino group had invited a nonmember to join them. “She has high standards,” Sister Small told me, “and we set the example for her.” This kind of hubris—the notion that we are the only righteous people—may have been the failing President Ezra Taft Benson warned against in his 1989 address, “Beware of Pride.”

My sister’s loss of testimony began on her mission when she encountered, for the first time, good people with strong testimonies of their own faiths. Would Pelly have left the Church had she been prepared for the reality that good people, devout in their own faith, exist outside of Mormonism?

Joseph Smith counseled us that, “One of the grand, fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Contemporary Mormons frequently dismiss anything outside our church as unworthy of our time if not downright suspect. Case in point: Our neighborhood book group was formed from our disbanded ward Relief Society book group after the RS president tried to restrict the reading to Church titles. Locking ourselves into cultural insularity does not prepare us to live in the real world. Neither does it further the growth of the Church as a worldwide organization.

Book Review

My neighborhood book group chose Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this month. It was fun to reread this book after 15 or 20 years because although the book has not changed, I have. I remembered the coming of age story about Francie, growing up in an impoverished family in Brooklyn 100 years ago. But I’d forgotten—or ignored on my previous reading—much of her mother’s story.

 Katie, the mother, has the wisdom of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. Katie grieves that she feels closer to Neeley, the younger brother than to Francie—still, most of  Katie’s mothering skills and wisdom are far beyond those of us mortal moms.  At age 17, Katie marries a handsome, fun-loving boyfriend who turns out to be a chronically underemployed alcoholic. When Katie tries to reform Johnny by keeping him away from liquor, her sister, Sissy, sneaks a bottle of whiskey to relieve Johnny’s DTs.  Sissy tells Katie that she knew Johnny drank and had no steady job when she married him. Reforming Johnny is not a choice. She can either leave him or love his good qualities and compensate for his weaknesses.  At our group discussion, we all admitted trying to change our husbands—unsuccessfully. “If we could change them, we might not love them anymore,” one wife commented.

Katie does not let poverty define her family. She allows Francie to pour out unwanted coffee and milk just so she won’t feel destitute. She insists her children stay in school even though the family needs the income they could provide. Education will liberate her children to a better life than their parents had. Katie’s wisdom extends to not calling foolish behavior sinful and to not instilling guilt in her children. When she finds a pack of cigarettes in 16-year-old Francie’s purse, she says there are worse things she could be doing—so Francie throws the cigarettes away.

It’s hard for people born in the latter half of the 20th century to realize that people living at the beginning of the century had no social network in place. No Social Security for children whose fathers die or for an elderly grandmother, no paid sick leave or maternity leave for a woman who cleans buildings to feed her children, no unemployment insurance for laid off workers.

I was surprised to read in a journal, that my grandmother had read this book in 1945. Grandma, who could not bring herself to tell me how babies got inside their mothers’ tummies, apparently enjoyed this book with its frank (for its day) portrayal of human sexuality.

A question young Francie asks herself is why everyone calls Aunt Sissy a bad woman when Aunt Sissy is the kindest person she knows. This is the same kind of question we should be asking ourselves today. At 500 pages, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a short read, but it is entertaining as well as insightful.

Lessons Learned?

Watching the news about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of Saturday’s shooting by a mentally deranged man, I heard the mayor of Tucson among others, attribute this crime to inflamed rhetoric in our public discourse and express hope that a return to civility will be the lesson learned from the tragedy.

Whoa! Why is nobody talking about the elephant in the room?—the fact that  in Arizona and most other states, a man with a long history of mental illness can legally purchase a semi-automatic pistol which he can take it to a public gathering and open fire?

In the light of this shooting Utah Congressman, Jason Chaffetz, has announced his intention to pack his own gun more often which should add flair to his public appearances. The more conventional members of Congress will no doubt allocate hundreds of millions to provide round-the-clock Secret Service protection for themselves. They will also avoid passing laws to provide sensible rules to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns.

The Arizona shooting which left six innocent people dead and wounded 20 others besides the Arizona congresswoman is far from the only incident of a shooting spree conducted by a mentally ill person using a legally obtained weapon. Congress will protect itself—but what about the rest of us? Isn’t our freedom to gather in public places without fear of being shot to death more important than the right of the insane to purchase guns without restriction?

Maybe it’s time for us to speak up to our representatives and demand they represent us rather than moneyed interest groups.

Modern Mormon Marriage

A couple in our ward with a 20-year temple marriage and six kids recently divorced. If a husband and wife can’t get along, the place in which their marriage was performed doesn’t seem to matter. In the case of the couple in our ward, I wonder if the wife’s expectations of marriage were unrealistic. Comments she’s made indicate that she wanted a husband with a high income who helps with the kids and household chores, does all the yard work, and takes care of all household repairs and service problems. No, I don’t know what her husband expected.

Possibly a couple with a temple marriage will try longer and harder to save their marriage, but that may not always be a plus. Polly, a young relative, was widely criticized for ending her three-month temple marriage 20 years ago. She never remarried and is, as far as I can see, a happy career woman. Polly’s marriage, I suspect, was motivated more by social pressure than by love. Should she have endured a loveless marriage of friction and borne and raised children in that environment? Contrary to what we hear at Church, marriage isn’t for everyone. Neither is parenthood.

In the past, people married for financial benefit and probably had low expectations for love and companionship as part of the deal. The wife went along with the husband’s decisions. A roof over her head and food on the table was all she could reasonably expect.

Modern marriage, however, is expected to supply emotional fulfillment as well as financial stability, sex, and children. Modern wives expect a say in where and how the family lives—even how many children will be produced.

What does a couple do when the wife is desperately unhappy living where the husband’s job is located—or the husband’s income doesn’t provide what the wife considers reasonable necessities for the family—or if one spouse decides to quit attending church? These are not moral issues, but they are differences that can create daily stress in a marriage.

Couples deal with strained relations in different ways. Unhappy spouses often look beyond the boundaries of matrimony to find love and understanding. Smaller, seemingly unrelated  issues often provoke public needling and subtle belittling—little jabs about weight, earnings, even snoring. Looking at some older Mormon couples, I wonder if they really want to be together for eternity or if that’s just another sacrifice they expect to make for their family.

Obviously, it would help for people to know themselves and what they want from life and then seek a mate with compatible goals and values before making eternal vows—but how likely is that for people in their 20s? Pre-marital counseling, such as my son’s church requires before a church wedding, probably helps. Honest information and counsel from trained clergy about sex, money, and other areas of potential conflict—and learning the rules of fair fighting to resolve disputes—are practical. Unfortunately, the only premarital counseling most Mormon couples receive is to practice chastity before marriage.

Lolly recently expressed gratitude that her dad and I stayed together through difficult times. Our secret of success was less spiritual than a temple sealing or commitment to our kids. George and I are realists. We looked at ourselves and realized no one else would put up with either of us. Our choices were: a) Learn to get along with each other or: b) Go it alone. Maybe realistic expectations rather than temple ceremonies are the key to marital success.

A Place for Nerds

Being a nerdy child is painful for both boys and girls. Boys who prefer study to sports have traditionally been seen as weaklings by more physical peers. This may have changed now that both studious and warlord-type boys use computers to pursue their interests.

Bookish girls, I fear, are still pegged as potential “old maids” even before puberty and are a source of worry to their mothers. When I was nine, my mother bribed me to attend after-school dances at our elementary school.

By the time I reached high school, I had gained enough cultural awareness to reject my nerdy true self. Well aware that boys don’t like girls who are too smart, I played dumb in most classes and batted my eyes at the football players—unsuccessfully. Adolescents can spot a nerd a mile away and only fellow nerds asked me out.

Even in adulthood, nerdiness is a disadvantage. In Mormon culture, real women sew, decorate, and make crafts. I tried, but my self-esteem nose-dived at every enrichment meetings where, despite my best efforts, I always produced an item that looked like a kindergartener’s reject.

Finally, I was vindicated. I was called as Gospel Doctrine teacher back when the curriculum allotted two years each for studying the Old and New Testament. Instead of hiding my history and theology books under a basket of unused embroidery floss, I could display and quote from them publicly in church. (This was before the rule for church teachers to limit teaching materials to the manual and scriptures.) A captive audience to regale with background material and historical gossip about biblical characters and events from my wide reading was as close to heaven as I expect to get. The only calling I’ve ever totally enjoyed, I expect no blessings in Heaven for fulfilling it. My reward came in this lifetime.

Fruit Doesn’t Fall Far from the Trees

As a Mormon, I grew up believing that all good comes from God and that knowledge and art are inspired by the Holy Spirit through worthy humans. The best way to be successful in life was to be a valiant Mormon. This belief took a hit when I was old enough to read biographies of artists, scientists, and national and world leaders.

Recently, while reading a New Yorker piece about Dasha Zhukova, the girlfriend of a Russian oligarch, I was reminded of the role money, native intelligence, and opportunities play in success. Zhukova has founded an art venue in Moscow, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, to promote innovative art. Although young, beautiful and the cause of her billionaire boyfriend’s divorce, Zhukova does not fit the stereotypical notion of a mistress—Russian oligarchs apparently having moved beyond gum-chewing blondes to warm their beds.

Zhukova comes from a wealthy, intellectual, and influential Russian family. Her mother is a molecular biologist and her father an entrepreneur. She grew up in Los Angeles, received an excellent education in the US and London, and enjoyed international cultural opportunities with influential people. A capable manager,  Zhukova uses her guy’s money to promote the arts and education in Russia. I doubt many young women from working-class families have the chutzpah and the know-how to successfully conceive and carry out a project on the scale of Moscow’s Garage Center.

Reading about Zhukova made me reflect on the successful people I know (successful on a much smaller scale, of course.)  Very few successful and influential people in modern times come from deprived or even lower middle-class backgrounds. Contemporary studies link a person’s chances of financial success to the financial status of their parents. Most of the creative people I know come from families who were creative or associated with creative people.

While I don’t advocate the lifestyle of Zhukova and friend, clearly this couple has an impact on their country. Personal righteousness does not appear to play a large part in attaining affluence or influence in the world. Certainly, we have prominent Mormons like Mitt Romney and John Huntsman, Jr. playing a role in national politics, but would clean living have been enough if these men had lacked the advantages of family fortune and connections?

Character counts in achieving success, but above average intelligence, excellent education, and connections to influential people play a major role. Maybe parents who want to raise successful children should concentrate on their own education, achievements, and sphere of influence.

Tag Cloud