An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2011

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.

Less is More–a Short, Meaningful Funeral Service

I recently attended a moving service for a woman I never met. Kathleen ________  was our son-in-law’s grandmother and had resided in a nursing home for the past decade—her memory eroded by age, her body crippled by arthritis.

People who live past 90, especially in a memory-care facility, tend to have small funeral services. Only a handful of friends and family survived Kathleen. Newer friends serving assignments as officers of the nursing home LDS branch conducted the brief service. No members of Kathleen’s immediate family are active LDS.

The branch president offered an opening prayer. A song, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” was sung and family and friends shared memories of Kathleen. No hymns, no sermon, no speculation about Kathleen’s eternal family reunion, just love—and gratitude that Kathleen had been taken home, wherever that might be, and was free from pain and suffering.

As family members shared memories of the person Kathleen had been—full of life and love and fun—the meaningfulness of her life touched me. Fame and fortune are not requisites for blessing the lives of others. I felt connected to Kathleen—as if I, too, had known her for years and spent time in her home. I felt connected to the branch presidency, their wives, and the Relief Society president—kind-hearted people who leave the comfort of their home wards for two or three years to minister to members in the twilight of life—members with little to give in return except gratitude.

How much God cares about our personal theology, our church attendance or our underwear, I can’t say. But I do believe we occasionally catch glimpses of his love and receive a brief vision of our connection to all his children and to all his creations.

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