Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Becoming Peculiar Together

When I was a teenager, one of my Sunday School teachers drew a graph on the chalkboard with two lines. One line ran horizontal across the board, and the other took a rounded nosedive. The teacher explained that the two lines represented the Church and the World. She explained that as a church, we needed to remain steady and steadfast as the world continued to decline into moral decay. It wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the world, because ultimately we’d be following their same exponential decline. We were advised to “live in the world but be not of the world.” Effectively, as a peculiar people of promise (nice alliteration, eh? Elder Maxwell would be proud), we needed to be different from those around us in uplifting ways.

Today I realize there are different ways to interpret what it means to be just a little different from the world. After all, how we view the world does so much to shape how we see current events and our behavioral norms within them. Is Armageddon right around the corner? Are we at the tail end/beginning of a Golden Age? Is the future bright with promise? The world definitely has changed from how it was ____ (insert your preferred number here) years ago, back in the Good Old Days for some, the Dark Ages for others, and I find myself wrestling with ambiguous feelings about the present relative to that past, particularly as a model for how my own behavior should change. Is the world really on that downhill slope my Sunday School teacher described? How do we define that decline? In moral terms? In material ones?

As a society, we have made great technological strides that have enabled us to experiment with ways of living that push beyond traditional norms with their safeguards and checks. For instance, we live in an age where innovations in contraception and disease control allow for a far wider range of sexual expression without the consequence of pregnancy and illness and with social safety nets that (try to) catch those whose behavior leads them into harm’s way. Yet at the same time, the traditional calls for moderation, abstinence, fidelity in marriage, and so on remind us that there was (is?) a time when a simpler, behavior-based mode of behavior would prevent the same maladies. In essence, innovation has created a world where many of us can broaden our set of choices and avoid repercussions. Is that a bad thing?

Good, bad, or indifferent, what my Sunday School teacher said does seem to hold true. If we behave just a little differently than the world, we will follow the same general path people of the world take right along with them. Assuming the world is tumbling into moral decline, we would have to stop behaving as our peers do in order to not fall into their pit. A person doesn’t start behaving differently from the group for very long before the others begin to notice. I began to wonder what the experience of someone who committed to holding firm would be like relative to the rest of us. When does it get uncomfortable to be a peculiar people, and how might that peculiarity manifest itself in modern times?

The people surrounding the tree in Lehi’s dream in the Book of Mormon stood separate and exposed relative to those in the great and spacious building. They were odd ducks. Shortly after slugging away, holding firm to the iron rod, wading through the mists of darkness, some of them felt ashamed about standing out so starkly relative to their high-rise neighbors. The rest, notably most of Lehi’s family, managed to hold firm to their decision.

I think that ultimately one of the important points that we have to realize as a Latter-day Saint (LDS) people is that we will stand out like sore thumbs as we give up worldly norms, standards, and behaviors. Is the set of cultural practices we do embrace the sort of stuff that elevates us from worldly influence and makes us more Christian? If it is, we will end up making odd decisions and have to explain or justify positions that seem more and more at odds with conventional wisdom. We will seem more and more like kooks. That’s the bottom line. This is nothing new, but it is a reality we may soon find a harder time embracing. For the moment, we still watch many of the same TV shows, laugh at many of the same jokes, aspire to many of the same honors. We still strive to keep up with the Joneses (the Smiths, the Hinckleys, the Monsons?). We do have some unique twists to the game, but the idea of social parity, of following others along a similar curving path I saw on that Sunday School chalkboard, holds true, at least when it comes to the outer trappings of the LDS “good life,” because at its essence, it isn’t too much different from the upper-middle class WASP norm we see on TV (save for a temple picture here and a Families are Forever plaque there). In a lot of our behavior, we’re looking to each other for reassurance: “We’re not too far off from Bishop and Sister Smith, and I’m certainly not as badly off as the Joneses, so hopefully we’re doing OK.” Possibly, that’s not a bad thing. Obviously some pride issues are involved, but if we can look on the Smiths and Joneses in our lives with compassion and not envy or disdain, shouldn’t we recognize both positive and negative examples that we do see around us?

Moving from the social to the personal, I hear lots of good ideas for how I can do small things to either change the world or improve myself, and most of the time I think, “Wow. That’s a really good idea. I really should do X, Y, or Z. . . ,” and then the thought trails off and I go on doing the same things I’ve always done, berating myself, or worse, excusing myself for not doing what I know I could be doing. The Spirit gives us those quiet, gentle nudges, and we feel vaguely good about doing them. We may even write the ideas down and make an action plan. But somewhere along the way we lose our enthusiasm, or we remember how hard it is to actually do the thing we set out to perform and we fall right back into the same old patterns of stale behavior that make us not too different from the world around us. Perhaps the way of fixing that is having exemplars and friends who make those same commitments and act as positive reinforcers in the days and weeks that follow the epiphanies.

Perhaps supportive, positive peers as role models and reinforcers may serve as the buffer we need to slowly—but genuinely—edge away from the downward slide. Hopefully we can settle on a set of small yet potent changes we can make together that will, while setting us apart from the world around us, help buffer us from feeling so starkly set off that we fall away from the Tree of Life and rather help us feel bound to those other brave standouts who cling to the source of the Good Fruit. I’m trying to get to the tree. It means I have a lot of little things that need to change. Care to join me as I work toward getting there?

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Nice Post. I agree with the importance of doing small things (for the small things bring about great changes). A small thing we are working on as a family is scripture reading. This is very peculiar. How many families sit down each night and read the scriptures. And if you are trying to get to the tree, what better way than to hold on to the rod.
Another small thing is that we are getting rid of cable as soon as BYU football is over!--this will help us financially, and cause us to engage in more productive activities than watch TV. Thanks for inviting me to share. Typing this makes me feel more committed to our goals.