An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for October, 2011

Chewed Gum and Self-Worth

Tina Fey is an example of a bright, self-confident woman succeeding in a male-dominated field. For me, the most intriguing thing about Fey is that she seems like a genuinely nice person. She’s stayed married to the same guy and loves her kids. Except for her potty mouth, Fey, if we can believe her memoirgrew up with two of the values most prized in Mormon child-rearing culture: “Don’t drink” and “Keep your virginity.”

So, how does a girl preserve her chastity through her teens and college without the benefit of YW object lessons featuring a shopworn cupcake or a dusty rose by the side of the road? Fey claims her mother could never bring herself to tell her the facts of life—let alone tell her the advantages of saving herself for marriage. Fey jokes about her parents’ foibles, but credits them with always loving her. Her authoritarian dad, whose vocabulary could earn Eddie Murphy’s respect, set strict rules. Fey obeyed a rigid curfew throughout high school.

Besides providing love and rules, Fey’s parents didn’t appear to micromanage. In high school, she pursued her interest in theater and hung out with gay and Lesbian friends, some much older than herself. Many of her friends drank, but young Tina did not risk bringing the wrath of Dad upon herself by coming home with alcohol on her breath.

Maybe instead of yammering about the power of Satan and the dangers of bad language,  immodesty, and immorality, Mormon parents would do better to set rules for the biggies, such as “No premarital sex,” and “No drugs or alcohol,” and eliminate the guilt-tripping. Plenty of non-Church-related reasons exist for teens to not become sexually active. Unfortunately, Mormon morality lessons often contain an implicit message—if you transgress, you are of less value—like a chewed up piece of gum.

Guilt instills fear, and fear erodes confidence. Self-confidence, not fear, is the strongest tool a person has in meeting the challenges of an often difficult world. From what I’ve seen, girls who feel loved and accepted at home have less need to use their bodies to gain approval from boyfriends.

Besides unconditional love, encouraging young people to think for themselves rather than to blindly accept information—even from trusted sources— seems like the best way to give them the confidence that comes from respecting one’s own mind and body. Maybe this is what Joseph Smith meant when he said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”

Who Could Ask for More?

I am not one of these Mormon women who measure their self-worth by the size of their posterity—kind of like men who measure their worldly status by the size of their truck and number of cars, boats, 4-wheelers and other toys cluttering their driveways and yards. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s when Mormons who had survived the Great Depression were having only two or three children. Those with larger families were generally considered poor and ignorant.

By the ‘60s, over-the-pulpit Mormon rhetoric rivaled that of Catholics in condemning birth control and extolling large families. Six-child families were good, eight better—and producing 11 offspring made your calling and election sure.

By the time I graduated from BYU, I aimed for a family of no less than eight. I settled for five and if they followed our example, we would now have 25 grandchildren. Fortunately, they did not. The earth looks replenished enough.

Two of our daughters produced no children. Jaycee’s divorce left her too scarred to make another marriage attempt and she shows no interest in taking on the responsibility of single parenthood. Aroo and Biker opted for no children—not a decision I ever considered, but it feels right to them. Lolly and Doc have four—and are over 40 and through. Wort and Cooky have two and may have decided that’s their limit.

 The Techies have only one. Another would be nice, but Techie II had a tough time getting Little Pistol here, and I hate to think of her taking another health risk. I haven’t offered my opinion. They would just ignore it and label me an interfering mother/mother-in-law if I did.

Seven lovely grandchildren are a bounteous blessing. Who could ask for anything more?

Is It Really Charity?

In a recent post I wrote about how much to give to charity. Today, I want to bring up an equally touchy subject—one with which Congress is currently wrestling— are all donations really charity? Utah, which is over 60% Mormon, ranks high among states for charitable giving—yet nonprofits that provide services for the poor are always starved of funds.

I suspect the vast majority of itemized donations by Utahns are tithes to the Mormon Church. My question is—does supporting a church really count as charity? If charity is defined as helping the poor and the church spends the majority of contributions on helping the poor, of course, that counts. But I have heard that a relatively modest percentage of tithes and offerings paid to the Church funds programs benefitting the poor and needy. The lion’s share of Church expenditures are for three programs—CES (BYU, seminaries, and institutes), missionary work, and temples—none of which directly benefits the poor—with the exception of building and staffing temples in developing countries which does provide jobs for qualified members there.

Large Mormon families of average income sacrifice to pay their 10% to the church, leaving them little or no money for giving to other organizations. Most members prioritize Church donations—feeling confidant that 100% of their donations are well spent instead of going for the high salaries paid to CEOs of some organizations—and with a belief that their donations further the work of the Church in preparing the world for the Second Coming. Less altruistic motives include the fact that  non-tithe payers fail to qualify for temple recommends and leadership positions in their ward and stake. We are also told we will be blessed for making these sacrifices—with the implication that God will withdraw blessings if checkbooks close.

Giving to support a person’s church is necessary and commendable. I’m just not sure that it constitutes charity. Donating in order to maintain membership status and privileges seems more like paying dues to a social organization. Donating out of fear is sad.

Giving to an organization where most of the contribution benefits others in a demonstrated way—such as micro loans to help establish small businesses and improve farm yields, food for starving children, and funds to educate and improve skills is closer to my definition of charity. I think this is what Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “Draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted.” (58:10)

NPR Does It Again

American inventiveness outdoes itself at providing terms for the part of our anatomy on which we sit. Buttocks are called everything from “butt,” “bum,” “booty,” “buns,” “rear end”, “hind quarters”, and the near onomatopoeia of “rump” to the cruder term “ass.” A lot of terms with varied shades of meaning for that part of the body.

I thought I knew all the slang terms, but listening to NPR last week increased my vocabulary by introducing the term “badonkadonk.” The program on which I learned my word of the day featured a woman who produces short videos on teaching Chinese speakers English. She said the kids love it when she includes cool terms in her lessons.

Badonkadonk kind of rolls of the tongue and I planned to use it to impress my grandchildren. I mean, Granny would like to be cool, too. Just to be on the safe side, I Googled the word and learned it’s an ebonic expression meaning a curvy female behind. Google linked me to a Trace Adkin’s song, Honky Tonk Badonkadonk  which is hilarious, but gave me pause. My daughter is pretty strict. I think I will not corrupt my grandchildren with my expanded vocabulary—even if I did learn it on NPR.

Giving ’til It Hurts

Several years ago when George was an ordinance worker at the Jordan River Temple, another worker showed up for prayer meeting in a spiffy, new white suit. During prayer meeting he asked the counselor in the temple presidency how to go about donating his old suit to a worker in a new temple in a developing country. “Why don’t you donate your new suit to the brother in the new temple?” the counselor replied.

Shock and disbelief registered on the faces of the questioner and most of the group. Instead of praise for his generosity, the owner of the new suit received implicit criticism. The counselor, however, was on the same page as C.S Lewis who, when asked how much a good Christian should give, said, “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . . . There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” (Mere Christianity)

Sobering thoughts—giving away what we want for ourselves. And the tricky part, of course, is distinguishing between our needs and our wants.

Charity, defined as “the pure love of Christ” (Moro.7:47), is obviously more than donating items we no longer want to the poor. Maybe true charity is working to create a system that equalizes, not income, but opportunity.

God Gives Second Chances

Novelist Judith Freeman gave a reading in Salt Lake last week. Born in Utah to a large Mormon family, married right after high school graduation, a mother at 18, Judith seemed set on the typical path for Mormon women of her era—stay-at-home-mom with a big family. Instead, she found herself divorced at age 32, supporting herself and child with a series of entry-level jobs. A few years later, her son chose to live with his father and Judith moved to LA and became a writer.

I find her story fascinating because the more common course for a divorced Mormon woman is to repent of real or imagined trespasses and pray for a good man to take her to the temple. Mormons, especially women, often sacrifice goals and dreams in this life in hopes of qualifying for a next life—a marvelous concept—but supported by no empirical evidence.

Judith Freeman’s fulfilling life contrasts with that of Jenny, a young woman I met last summer. A have-to marriage at age 17 and years of berating from herself and others for her “transgression,” have shackled Jenny with sadness and shame which more children—legally conceived—and a temple sealing have not healed.

Had I the voice of an angel, I would tell Mormon youth, especially girls who carry the brunt of stigma for sexual experience, that life isn’t over when you have to suffer the consequences of immature choices and actions. Violating social and church rules of conduct does not make a person bad or undeserving of God’s love or of a better future. What harms people more than “sin” is being beaten up for stepping off the straight and narrow. God is better than that.

Stop! You’re Boring Me

“Old people are so boring,” George said 20 years ago after spending a Sunday afternoon listening to my dad and stepmother regale us with tales of who was doing what in their ward and neighborhood. Now, the shuffle is on the other foot as we note the glazed eyes of our kids on their visits.

But it’s not entirely age that creates the divide. We have friends and associates our age and older who have varied, even unusual, topics of conversation. Our twice-a-month writing class brings together a group of mostly retirees who add stimulating insights to the literature prompts with which we begin. Last time Len, a retired music professor, spontaneously sang us the melody from a Brandenburg Concerto mentioned in a poem we read. Angela, a connoisseur of art museums, illuminates writing points with references to famous art—sometimes imagining herself within a painting—once as a voluptuous Renoir nude. Gwen in her 70s and Kay in her 60s participated in an archaeological dig last year—backpacking into the site, camping in below freezing temperatures, and going without showers to spend a week sifting dirt for shards of ancient pottery. Nora, a retired attorney, heads up the state League of Women Voters. Jean, just returned from an 18-month LDS service mission to Madagascar, is looking for her next adventure. Our instructor, a workshop junkie who has forgotten more about teaching writing than I ever learned, brings poems from poets I’ve never heard of, helps us unpack meanings, and prompts us to try similar ways of expressing our own experiences.

The positive conversation of this group contrasts with the negativity of retired relatives and neighbors—convinced by talk radio hosts and TV pundits that the world is going to hell in a Prius driven by a tree-hugging immigrant. Maybe one difference is that members of our writing group—although mostly Mormon, mostly grandparents, and mostly owners of television sets— do not limit their interests to church, family, and TV. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to share on any topic of discussion.

Possibly some of this will rub off on George and me, and our kids will start finding our conversation fascinating—but that’s optimistic. Our kids mostly talk about new APPs they’ve added to their iPhones. Maybe it’s they who should broaden their horizons.

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