An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘compassion’

Aging Past Attachment

“Life is suffering for all life ends,” the Buddha said. “And the cause of suffering is attachment.”

I thought of these words when visiting my 86-year-old neighbor this week. Opal suffers from heart disease and Parkinson’s as well as the assorted pain, feebleness, and general perversity of her aged body. Opal lives alone. Despite dizzy spells and blackouts, she drives when she has strength enough to walk to her garage. “I told the bishop that there’s people in the ward older and in worse shape than me still driving their cars,” she said—reminding me of a kid ratting on her siblings when caught with her hands in the cookie jar.

Opal’s care has worn out our ward. Her next door neighbor checks on her each morning and administers eye drops at bedtime. Opal needs meals brought in, laundry and yard work done, groceries and prescriptions picked up, and transportation to doctor appointments. She should be in assisted living. The bishop has told her this. Her son has taken her to visit several facilities.  I tried to talk her into making the change. She argued, “I’m just so attached to my house and to my neighbors and our ward.”

Opal suffers from loneliness and worries about being a burden to the ward. Her attachment to her house and ward—to the past—cause her inability to make the change that would improve her quality of life.

I’m beginning to wonder if our ward’s compassion is part of the problem. Help from ward members enables Opal to stay in an unsafe, unhappy situation. Of course, it’s great for older people to be independent and to enjoy their home and yards while they can care for them. Still, the time comes for nearly everyone when houses and yards become burdensome. And here is where I see a role for churches.

For generations the Mormon Church has emphasized preparedness for the Second Coming, for natural disasters, and for hard economic times. Now that many people are living into very old age with its accompanying limitations, I think these teachings should be expanded to include preparation for declining years.

Golden oldies need the message that the Second Coming likely will not happen soon enough to remedy the decline and fall of their frail bodies. They need to deal with the fact that even with clean living and priesthood blessings, at some point they may not be well enough to live alone. Checking out alternatives ahead of time is wise. Why not some RS/PH lessons on accepting change, on not being attached to houses—even seeing the positives in no longer having windows to wash and rain gutters to clean?

The pain of losing healthy, functioning bodies and leaving long time homes is inevitable for most of us—but suffering can be diminished if we’re emotionally prepared. Buddhist non-attachment is a good principle to practice when dealing with temporal possessions.

The Work Jesus Loved

Last Sunday, Lolly and family arrived to watch General Conference on our TV (by choice, they live in a house devoid of television hook-up). Feeling compelled to join them in front of our screen during the morning session, I survived by amusing myself with the grandkids. When Presiding Bishop, H. David Burton, took the podium wearing a pink necktie, I snapped to attention. His genial, cherubic face signaled a spiritual message, and I was not disappointed as he described our duty to care for the poor, to do “the work Jesus loved.”

Critics have pointed out the discrepancy between the $3 billion the Church has spent on City Creek Center development and the $13 million the Church spends annually on aid to the poor, but I no longer expect perfection from organizations or their members. In the most moving part of his talk, Burton quoted President Heber J. Grant who, during the Great Depression, pledged the Church would not let members go hungry even if it meant closing the seminaries and temples and shutting down missionary work. While that may not be literal policy today, it is a lofty goal. Of course, the institutional Church as well as individual members fall short of attaining the standard set by Jesus, but Bishop Burton did a good job of reminding us where our priorities should lie.  

Reflecting upon why Burton’s conference talk moved me while most others seemed irrelevant, I realized that Burton was speaking about the application of a universal principle—one of Jesus’s core teachings. Most conference addresses tell listeners how to become better Mormons.  Burton told us how to become better human beings. While the two goals are not mutually exclusive, neither are they identical. Conference addresses typically admonish members to greater diligence in temple attendance, missionary work, obeying church leaders, Family Home Evening, and reading the Book of Mormon.

Many great people do none of these things, yet relieve suffering and provide opportunities for those trapped in poverty and despair—people like Greg Mortensen who builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lesser know, but equally dedicated people include: Father Tom Hagan who builds and operates schools and feeding stations for Haiti’s poor, Somaly Mam, who operates a rescue for girls exploited in the sex trade in Cambodia, Dr. Anthony Lazzara who operates Villa la Paz, a hospital which cares for impoverished sick and handicapped children in Peru, and Scott Neeson, who gave up a successful film production career to establish schools in Cambodia.

Burton’s talk came close to being nondenominational. Compassion transcends church and national boundaries. Love and cheers to the Presiding Bishop with the pink necktie and generous spirit.

Fear Factor

Our daughter, Lolly, shocked me a couple of weeks ago. I was telling her about the woman I tutor in English and citizenship preparation. I mentioned that it’s important for legal immigrants to get their citizenship before reaching age 65 because, no matter how long they’ve worked in our country, they will only receive Social Security benefits for seven years—the amount of time actuaries tell us most people have received back what they’ve paid in.

Lolly exploded that SS is unsustainable now and my efforts to help another working citizen qualify for eventual benefits is irresponsible.  Her family’s taxes are already too high. They can’t afford to support more SS recipients.

Knowing that I have now reached my seven-year mark and am a drag on the US economy, I clicked off  my phone, resolved to practice the ancient Eskimo strategy of leaving the unproductive elderly out in the cold to die of exposure. I sat on our deck to await the end, but since it was only 40 degrees, I soon realized I would likely have to go several days without food and water before nature took its course. I wasn’t up for that kind of sacrifice, so I came in and soothed myself with a piece of chocolate.

Lolly called the next day and apologized for her tirade, but this conversation left me wondering about her and other young Mormons who oppose compassionate treatment for unfortunates not covered by Church Welfare. I suspect that Lolly, normally a generous, compassionate person, is motivated by fear. A middle-class living standard is hard to manage these days. Even though Lolly’s husband, Doc, has a far better job than either her dad or I had, they are not homeowners. Doc’s job is on a year-to-year contract. Housing prices in their area have dropped from the bubble, but could fall farther if their mining-industry economy collapses.

 Despite hard work and careful management, Doc and Lolly, like many young American couples, cannot depend on continued employment and benefits or even that they can invest their savings in a secure place. They fear for their future and their children’s future. They need someone to blame. The easiest targets are immigrants, legal as well as illegal, and the poor.

Useless senior citizens like myself are part of the problem. But I still wonder why more of the angst about the economy is not directed at those who are prospering while most Americans are tightening their belts. How does the health insurance industry justify raising rates, in many cases 40 or 50%, when their profits are at record highs? And has anyone looked at the compensation packages for CEOs of nonprofits? Plenty of angst has been directed at the TARP bailout for the financial industry, but no criminal investigation has been launched against the persons responsible for the debacle.

Public employees have been criticized for their pension benefits, and in many cases, states do need to re-negotiate. Still, if public officials need to cut expenses, shouldn’t they set the example by trimming their own salaries and benefits before asking sacrifices of lesser paid state employees?

Fear is a healthy, protective strategy when it’s directed at the right target. I have a feeling that the American people are being manipulated into directing their justifiable anger towards other victims rather than to the special interests and government officials of both parties who do their bidding.

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.

“. . . Are We Not All Beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19)

As I approached my car parked along a street in a less affluent part of Salt Lake City, a thin, gray-haired man spoke to me from the sidewalk. His voice was soft and hoarse, so I walked through the snow to the sidewalk to hear him although I was pretty sure he was asking for money. He said he’d just arrived from Texas and had caught a cold and wondered if I could spare a dollar or two for him to buy some cough drops.

I have a strong prejudice against facilitating negative behavior—and I define begging as negative behavior—so I generally refer panhandlers to the homeless shelter or Salvation Army—and donate to support these organizations. Habit kicked in and I referred the man to the shelter instead of giving him cash. He looked so pathetic and disappointed that my conscience burned. As I drove away, I realized I could have offered to buy the man some cough drops or food in the nearby mini-mart. Or I could have just handed him a couple of bucks. How could I be so unfeeling to a fellow creature on a cold day a week before Christmas?

I confessed my lack of compassion to George when I returned home. He tried to salve my conscience by telling me the man might have gotten angry and violent if I’d offered to buy him food instead of giving him cash. Nice try, George. I was bigger and stronger than that poor, old man.

An hour later, George and I were approached by a woman in a supermarket parking lot. She said her car had broken down and she needed $2 or $3 to take the bus to Salt Lake. “Bus fare is $1.00 for senior citizens,” I told her. George knew I needed to repent for refusing the sad, old man in Salt Lake, and handed her four quarters. As the woman walked away, a store employee picking up shopping carts asked if we’d been solicited for money and told us he’d seen her doing that yesterday. Maybe if I’d followed my conscience the first time, I could have held my ground against the scam artist.

My friend, Tanzy, insists all panhandlers are scam artists being supported in luxury by the gullible. She knows this because she heard a man on talk-radio relate his career as a street beggar in Salt Lake during the ‘70s. He claimed to have made $70,000 year by driving his Cadillac downtown, parking it in a mall garage, then hitting the streets pretending to be a college student needing bus fare to get to his classes at the University.

My brother who does math in his head heard Tanzy and said since buses don’t run on Sundays and holidays, the man couldn’t have played his scam more than 200 days a year—necessitating a take of $350 a day to achieve a $70,000 annual income. With bus fare about 25 cents in the ‘70s, approximately 1400 people a day would have to ante up a quarter—or about 140 people per hour, if he worked ten hours a day. We found it implausible that anyone could consistently talk 20 people a minute out of a quarter in Salt Lake City in the ‘70s.

Believing her talk-show source frees Tanzy from guilt over refusing to fork over cash to beggars. My daughter, Lolly, gives to every beggar although knowing that many times her money will go for booze or drugs. Straddling the fence on this issue gives me a pain in the heart as well as the butt. I think I need to go with Lolly’s approach. I doubt anyone who isn’t desperate would beg—whether they need the money for food or for pain relief. And who am I to judge people who probably lacked the advantages I’ve enjoyed—loving parents, a secure home, and an education?

The God Who Loves Rules

The 15-year-old son of our daughter’s high school friend committed suicide recently. Jaycee phoned Cel Frighteous, another high school friend, to inform her of the tragedy. Cel responded as if she were instructing a church class. “I’m so glad Denise and her husband were sealed in the temple before this happened. I’m teaching my Young Women’s class that the blessings of a temple marriage will protect them from heartache.” No expression of sympathy or shock, no intimation that losing one of her own children would be a devastating blow.

What happened to the Cel who embraced her friends’ sorrows and joys as though they were her own? Somewhere in her religious practice, she’s picked up the notion that a lesson must be drawn from every experience—that proclaiming the efficacy of gospel principles trumps compassion and empathy. Cel’s current interpretation of religion makes her less caring, less human, less like God. 

I am sad for Cel because she has narrowed her vision of life to the point where she apparently believes that being a rule-abiding Mormon is an end in itself. Just as she showed no feeling for this friend’s tragedy, Cel showed no empathy for Jaycee’s painful divorce, greeting the news with, “Well, have you been going to church?”  I am sad for Cel because at some point in her life, she will find that keeping the rules won’t protect her from all suffering.

Jesus ministered to pain and suffering without judging the recipients or making them examples for his teaching. Putting the message ahead of the person creates a god who loves the rules more than the children for whom the rules are given.

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