An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘agency’

Agency & Service

Last week my ESL volunteer assignment was changed to a group class, “Empowering Parents,” held at a Salt Lake City elementary school. My students are Spanish-speaking women who have little contact with English-speaking Americans. Those with babies and preschoolers bring their children, of course. Lupe’s 3-year-old son got bored during class, so I handed him a piece of paper and some colored pencils. He had no idea how to hold a pencil or what it was for until I showed him how to make marks on the paper.

American children are given paper, crayons, and pencils when they can barely toddle. Can you imagine the disadvantage for a child who has never held a pencil and never heard a book read aloud when he starts kindergarten? No one can define the limits for good that come from empowering mothers to speak English and read to their children—to give them the advantages other American children receive. But, a waiting list exists. The ESL Center in Salt Lake depends on volunteer teachers. They never have enough volunteers available to meet the needs of all the refugees and immigrants who ask for help in learning English.

Surveys show Utahns donate a record number of hours to volunteer work—mostly in Church-related service. The Church sponsors many worthwhile humanitarian and relief programs, but it doesn’t fill every need in the community. Most active Mormons I know are so loaded down with Church callings they couldn’t possibly add community service to their lives.  Wouldn’t it be great if Mormons felt free to choose service projects that matched their talents and interests instead of being assigned to something for which they have no aptitude and little interest? (Tying quilts for the humanitarian center fits this category for me.)

And what if Mormons felt they could turn down Church callings that interfered with their community service? “No, I can’t serve in the Family History library. I spend two afternoons a week mentoring a girl who was failing junior high until I started working with her.”

Agency to choose service where we are most needed and most effective should not be discounted.


Agency is a key component of Mormon theology. Dozens of scriptures from Joshua’s “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. . .” to 2 Nephi’s “”ye are free to act for yourselves . . .” affirm humankind’s freedom to choose.

I never quite bought into my YW teacher’s motto, “You can be anything you want to be.” Even as a 13-year-old, I knew I was not endowed with the gifts to be either a ballerina or an opera star—although I did see a possibility for a career as a film star.

While I never really challenged my assigned station in life, my brother Doogie went through a prolonged rebellion against his upbringing by our boring, workaholic father. Still, Doogie ended up spending most of his life working a job he hated to provide for his kids—just as our father had. Did Doogie have a choice to put his own needs ahead of his kids’? I don’t think so. Whether by nature, nurture or both, Doogie was pretty well programmed to be a caring parent. He could not have done less for his kids and lived with himself.

George’s stepson and his wife came to visit us several years ago. George was the only father-figure Skipper remembered from his mother’s marriages. Skipper, the oldest of three children by three different fathers, functioned as the adult in the family for most of his childhood. From what we saw of his marriage, he’d picked up his mother’s ways of controlling a relationship. He’d also picked up her binge-spending habit. Finally, his wife divorced him. How much agency did Skipper really have? He certainly didn’t choose a childhood that left him emotionally scarred.

Choice is limited by many things not under our control—intelligence, talent, physical and mental health, control by others, poverty. Certainly a person with an IQ of 120 has a far greater range of choices than someone functioning at 80. My friend with chronic lung disease is limited in where she can go and what kind of work she can do. People under totalitarian governments have limited access to information. In many cultures, people cannot choose whom to marry. People in third world countries lack the opportunity to choose education or employment.

Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that the concentration camp guards could control everything in his life except his mind. But—Frankl’s mind was formed decades before he entered the concentration camp. Had that kind of brutality been forced upon him as a child, how much control over his own mind would he have achieved?

And how much choice does a kid have if he’s taught to fear Satan and told he’d be under an evil influence if he steps from the straight and narrow?

Despite the abundance of scriptures on agency, more often I find myself on the determinist rather than the free will page. In the end, I suppose it behooves us all to avoid judging since we cannot possibly know another person’s circumstances nor guess at how much agency that person actually enjoys.

Easing Mormonism

My LDS faith and associations have supplied some of the polish my mother would have given me had she lived longer. Church has introduced me to uplifting women who mentored me in faith, service, and social graces.  LDS teachings and programs have lifted me to a higher level of commitment, service and devotion. I have even gained a modicum of competency at tasks I dislike—speaking in front of a group—badgering people to do things they’d rather not.

For years I enjoyed Sacrament Meeting and Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society classes—the camaraderie with ward members and the thoughtful, spiritual lessons. I lapped up gems of wisdom from Stake and General Conferences. As I read each General Conference address, I copied choice passages into a notebook. I saved each month’s wrinkled, dog-eared, underlined Ensign and devoured the scriptures assigned for Gospel Doctrine class. The peace of temple attendance drew me back twice a month. I fasted and prayed for my brothers who were not active church members. I wanted them to enjoy the blessings I received from church activity.

After about 25 years of dedicated gospel living, my enthusiasm for church meetings waned—beginning with Relief Society. Reading the lesson before class became pointless. I could recite the whole lesson including comments from the audience as soon as I knew the topic. I began sitting near the door for opening exercises then slipping out to avoid the tedium of the lessons. At about the same time, the Gospel Doctrine curriculum telescoped the study of both the Old and New Testaments into one year each and assigned selected verses rather than complete chapters for study. Not learning anything there, I also gave up the second hour of the block. General Conference talks developed a ring of familiarity. I found fewer and fewer passages to underline and copy. Sacrament Meeting talks deadened the senses as speakers reiterated General Conference addresses for our enlightenment.

At the time, I believed the loss of meaningful experience with church meetings was the “milk before meat” approach to instruction. I wanted the church to change, to meet my needs. I tried correcting historical misinformation and sharing new ideas in church classes, but found my efforts unappreciated, even annoying to ward members. Oddly enough, the status quo satisfied most of my church associates.

It’s true the church changed somewhat, but I had changed more. I had gleaned most of what my birth faith offered and needed further spiritual food. My brother had married a Zen Buddhist. My dad sent the missionaries to teach her and I wondered what benefit the LDS Church could give Kato or my brother? Kato’s peace and compassion exceeds that of most LDS women I know. My brother has gained much peace from joining her meditation and yoga practice. What would the LDS Church add to their lives besides increased time and money commitments?

Inspired by my sister-in-law’s example, I began yoga practice and joined a meditation group. I find  answers to my current needs in Buddhist philosophy. For me the concepts of nonattachment and mindfulness work better than trying to keep everybody on board for an eternal Family Home Evening. I value the contribution Mormonism has made to my life, but have eased my relationship with the institutional church. Just as easing myself into a yoga pose allows my muscles to stretch, easing my commitments to Mormonism allows me time and energy to exercise my agency, seeking further light and knowledge.    Spiritual development is a process. A particular religion or organization can facilitate growth only to a certain level. When that level has been reached, wisdom says, “Move on.”

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