An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Free agency’

Free Agency and Other Myths

I lost my testimony at Utah State Prison—no, I wasn’t an inmate. I taught at USP for five memorable years and met too many guys like Vince—a depressed, suicidal 24-year-old when I began working with him in one of the maximum security units. As a first grader, Vince had been introduced to drugs by his dealer brother. By 4th grade, Vince was a habitual user. Naturally, he resorted to theft to pay for his habit and was in and out of detention through his teens and in prison once he turned 18.

In prison Vince got off drugs, but upon release had no place to go except to a dealer friend’s house. Vince saw old school friends with jobs, cars, wives, kids, houses—while he had nothing. Even a chimpanzee could have predicted Vince would soon be back on drugs and in prison.

Where was Vince’s agency in all this? He didn’t ask to be born into a family where he’d be introduced to drugs before he lost his baby teeth. The deck was stacked against him before he was even born. Where was the God who notices even the passing of a sparrow when Vince needed him?

The idea that Heavenly Father sends us to earth to be tested with exams rigged against many examinees defies reason. And an atonement which forgives those getting the short end of the stick for failing is neither merciful nor just.

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They Never Had a Chance

We received a letter from Nyleen, a lonely relative, this week. Nyleen’s mother was a depressed, fearful woman who disliked and distrusted everyone. She was verbally, possibly physically, abusive. Nyleen never had friends. She married shortly after high school and produced six children in rapid succession. She apparently copied her mother’s parenting skills. At one point we heard that child welfare services investigated her home.  With her children gone and her health poor, Nyleen would be alone except for her ward. Members take her to church, but no church can cure problems as serious as Nyleen’s. George read her letter, shook his head, and said, “Nyleen never had a chance.”

George’s stepson, Skipper, looked him up a few years ago. George was the stepfather Skipper remembered as Dad. Skipper, the eldest of three kids by three different fathers, functioned as the adult in his family. When he was ten, his mother sent him 30 miles on a Greyhound bus each week to pick up her mail—her attempt to outwit bill collectors. Skipper, like Nyleen, picked up many of his mother’s relationship skills. We met Skipper’s wife and liked her a lot, but she filed for divorce when she could no longer live with his manipulation and refusal to accept responsibility. Alone now and in poor health, we worry about Skipper. He didn’t ask for the life he was given.

Scores of kids I’ve taught in schools in middle-class neighborhoods have been rooted in the poor soil of dysfunctional families. I can only imagine teaching in an inner-city school where a majority of kids come from homes filled with drug and alcohol abuse, instability, violence, and deprivation. Television news programs show us the hopelessness of impoverished people trying to subsist in poor countries under oppressive regimes. Heart-rending stories of children conscripted as child soldiers or sold into the sex trade are regularly found on the media—usually not even as headliners. From what I’ve seen, many—possibly a majority—of people in this world have little choice in their circumstances.

I know many successful people have arisen from the depths of poverty.  People have surmounted social, economic and physical handicaps, but how many people overcome mental illness without medical intervention? How many normal adults have overcome a childhood of abuse or deprivation of love without professional help?

If agency, as many believe, is God’s greatest gift to His children, why doesn’t He give it equally to all? Unequally given agency strikes me as heartless as grace and salvation extended only to the elect.

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