Doom vs. Optimism
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As I frequently mention, I’m wrong about a lot of things. But I know this, which means that if someone accuses me of being wrong, rather than ignoring them, I actually try to pay closer attention. Unfortunately this system relies on being able to identify the accusation in the first place. This is easy if you’re talking to someone face to face. Or if someone actually comes to your blog and tells you that you’re wrong, but for me (though perhaps not most people) potential accusations of wrongness occur far more frequently when I’m reading something. And it’s not always clear if the accusation applies to me.
For example when Thoreau says: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Is he talking to everyone else, but not me? Or is he, perhaps, just wrong about general levels of desperation? Or am I actually leading a life of quiet desperation, even though I don’t feel particularly desperate? In other words, am I wrong? It would be so much easier if it just said, “Jeremiah, you’re leading a life of quiet desperation and you don’t even realize it.” Then my only concern would be whether he’s wrong or whether I’m wrong. I would not have to decide if he’s even talking to me in the first place. All of this is a very roundabout way of saying, that I’m open to soul-searching if that’s what’s required, but I’m not always sure when it is.
I came across an example of this recently while reading through the Gordon B. Hinckley manual, the one we’re using in Priesthood and Relief Society this year. It happened as I was reading Lesson 3 which is titled Cultivating an Attitude of Happiness and a Spirit of Optimism. This lesson really jumped out at me, and in the Church that’s something you’re told to pay attention to. It’s not hard to imagine why it jumped out at me. I will freely admit to being very cynical by nature. If someone were to accuse me of being grumpy by default I don’t think I would argue with them very much. Consequently, this definitely seemed like one of those times where someone might be trying to tell me that I’m wrong.
As I mentioned above in the Thoreau example. There are three possibilities. First, President Hinckley could be talking about someone else. Second, he could be wrong. Or third, I could be wrong. The first possibility is unlikely given the natural cynicism I already mentioned. Also he is the leader of MY church, which means I’ve already decided he’s talking to me, and then finally there’s the whole bit about the lesson jumping out at me. The second possibility, that President Hinckley is wrong, is something, which, for religious reasons, I’ve already basically ruled out. Which only leaves the final possibility, that I’m wrong, or at a minimum that I need to do some soul-searching, and, lucky you, I’m inviting you along for the ride.
Of course, wrongness operates on a continuum. On the one end it can be very black and white, as was the case when a one of my 2nd grade classmates bet me a “hundred bucks” that the speed of light was only 1,000 miles per hour. Needless to say he didn’t have a “hundred bucks”, and if I could remember his name maybe I’d try to track him down and collect it now. On the other end of the continuum are opinions like declaring Harry Potter the greatest fantasy series ever (for future reference it is, and always shall be, the Lord of the Rings.) So though I expect to be find some places where I’m wrong, I hope that it might fall more on the Lord of the Rings end of the spectrum, than on the speed of light end. Also, while, I’ve already admitted that I have a “bad attitude” what’s more important, particularly from the standpoint of the church is what I say and do.
One of the things I do (and also say) is this blog. Does it reflect a bad attitude? Probably. I wouldn’t blame anyone if that was their impression after reading posts about nuclear war, the end of progress, the near impossibility of space travel, etc. etc. In fact reading the last two posts they might specifically point to a lack of optimism about technology. Fortunately, there is a section in the lesson which appears to address that very subject. And given that at least one other person has pointed this out as an area where I may be wrong, it’s probably a great place to start. Here’s the relevant quote:
There never was a greater time in the history of the world to live upon the earth than this. How grateful every one of us ought to feel for being alive in this wonderful time with all the marvelous blessings we have.
When I think of the wonders that have come to pass in my lifetime—more than during all the rest of human history together—I stand in reverence and gratitude. I think of the automobile and the airplane, of computers, fax machines, e-mail, and the Internet. It is all so miraculous and wonderful. I think of the giant steps made in medicine and sanitation. … And with all of this there has been the restoration of the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I are a part of the miracle and wonder of this great cause and kingdom that is sweeping over the earth blessing the lives of people wherever it reaches. How profoundly thankful I feel.
You can probably see where this quote might have some bearing on my last two posts about technology, specifically what I was saying about the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). And, in my experience, this is the sort of quote the MTA loves. Does this mean I’m about to say that my last two posts were wrong? No. Definitely not. I’ve already written two posts on the subject (and the last one even addressed the idea that I might be wrong), so I don’t want to rehash all that here, but I continue to maintain that the technology President Hinckley is talking about and the technology the MTA is talking about are very different. That said, I could certainly see where someone might accuse me of underselling the awfulness of the past and overemphasizing current problems. And this is a great time to correct that impression.
When speaking on this subject I am reminded of my Grandma, who was born in 1912. Near the end of her life, she would often talk about how difficult young people have it these days. How hard it is to get started financially. She might also express her worries about war and disease. Oftentimes using some variant of the idea that “It’s never been worse.” Of course this is not true. My Grandmother lived through the Great Depression and World War II (also World War I though she probably didn’t remember much) not to mention the Spanish Flu Pandemic. But all of those things happened at least half a century ago, while the latest crisis, whatever it was, was always front and center. I don’t think I’ve ever said that that there was less violence or less sickness or less poverty in the past, but I also haven’t done perhaps as much as I should to emphasis the many ways in which modern life is pretty amazing. We do live, as President Hinckley said, in the greatest time in history, and we should be grateful for that.
By returning to the neglected theme of the blog, Jeremiah 8:20, I think we might find some clarity. Jeremiah said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.” Implicit in that scripture is the idea that there was a harvest, and a summer. And when President Hinckley talks about the wonderful technology of the modern world, that is precisely what he’s talking about. I don’t disagree with President Hinckley or the MTA about that. Where I disagree with the MTA is whether this harvest of technology and this summer of progress, has saved us or whether if it hasn’t. I think it has not and based on the rest of the President Hinckley quotes in the lesson I think he agrees. But getting to the bottom of President Hinckley’s feelings on technology is not the point of this post, the point is to get to the bottom of what he’s saying about happiness and optimism, and if you look at the full lesson you’ll see that references to modern conveniences makes up just a small portion of it. (In fact it basically just appears in the two paragraphs I quoted.) So what does President Hinckley offer up as the keys to happiness and optimism?
Absent a better way of approaching things (and believe me I did spend a lot of time trying to come up with one) it’s probably best to just go through the various sections in the lesson. The first section is all about cultivating a spirit of happiness and optimism. As I’ve already mentioned this is where I could do better. I’m not someone who brims with happiness and optimism and I’m not someone whose writing brims with happiness and optimism either. I could do better and I’ll try to do better going forward, but I’m not committing to anything. Particularly since in the middle of this section President Hinckley says that he’s not asking for a silencing of all criticism. And he points out that:
Growth comes with correction. Strength comes with repentance. Wise is the man or woman who, committing mistakes pointed out by others, changes his or her course.
Someone who chooses the alias of Jeremiah is never going to shy away from pointing out mistakes, offering criticism or calling people to repentance. Nevertheless, I should remember to do it in the most loving way possible, and that probably hasn’t been the case thus far.
Section two is where his discussion of technology and the modern world appears, and since we’ve already covered that, we’ll jump ahead to section three.
The title of section three is “The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a reason for gladness.” And I think here is where the lesson really gets into the meat of things, and the section where President Hinckley and I largely agree. It begins with a quote from the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 25 verse 13:
Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made.
I think there are a lot of people that have no problem with the first part, but don’t pay much attention to the second part. The part about actually keeping the covenants we’ve made. Obviously covenant keeping is something which largely applies to people inside of the Church but if we speak of commandments more generally, then I would have to say most people don’t agree with this connection between being happy and obeying the commandments. In fact my strong sense is that most people think that it’s the exact opposite. That obeying commandments is the biggest obstacle to happiness. That telling people not to have sex outside of marriage or to avoid drugs or to do anything else to restrict their natural urges is the chief cause of unhappiness. President Hinckley makes it very clear that this is not the case:
Transgression never was happiness. Disobedience never was happiness. The way of happiness is found in the plan of our Father in Heaven and in obedience to the commandments of His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the point most people overlook, and while I’m sure, as this lesson demonstrates, that we need to be reminded from time to time to be optimistic and happy. When I look at the world I see at least as much need if not more of reminding people to keep the commandments. And while I am horrible at the former I don’t think anyone can say that I’ve avoided doing the latter.
President Hinckley goes on to make another point which I think a lot of people miss. Many people in the world today think that happiness comes from being able to do what we want to. This is why most people think that keeping the commandments is the opposite of happiness, but President Hinckley points out that happiness comes from faith in things which are outside of ourselves, that in fact if we can only derive happiness from things going the way we want that we’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time. To illustrate this he offers up an old newspaper clipping:
Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise...
Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.
Thanking the Lord for letting us have the ride is an example of looking for a foundation outside of ourselves, an idea President Hinckley expands on in the fourth section, so we’ll move on to that.
The overarching message of section four and perhaps of the whole lesson, is faith. Specifically the idea that everything will work out. In fact the lesson says that this may have been the assurance President Hinckley repeated most often to family and friends. This may seem at odds with the newspaper clipping I just included, but President Hinckley’s point is more that everything will work out eventually, rather than that everything will work out immediately. Once again people reading my blog could find ample places where I appear to be saying that things won’t work out. But what I’m saying is the complement to what President Hinckley is saying, he’s saying that in the end everything will be okay, and I’m saying that before the end their might be some times when things are not okwy. In other words, I think we’re saying the same thing, in any event where we both agree is that we definitely need the help of God. That we will not be saved through our own efforts. President Hinckley states it this way:
The Lord never said that there would not be troubles. Our people have known afflictions of every sort as those who have opposed this work have come upon them. But faith has shown through all their sorrows. This work has consistently moved forward and has never taken a backward step since its inception.
This idea of troubles and afflictions runs through the last part of the lesson, continuing from section four into the concluding section, section five. Section five is more about recognizing our status as Children of God, but it ends on a note that I think ties in with many of the things I’ve already written on the topic.
In a dark and troubled hour the Lord said to those he loved: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
These great words of confidence are a beacon to each of us. In him we may indeed have trust. For he and his promises will never fail.
Right at the beginning of the lesson we’re urged to not fret about the future. The word future is mentioned a couple of other times, but on those other occasions it’s in reference to the future of the Church. This is the only time where specific instructions are given about the future in general, but in reality the future and worrying about the future form the background for the entire lesson. When President Hinckley urges us to be optimistic it’s understood that we should be optimistic about the future. When he mentions keeping the commandments, once again he’s referencing the future, specifically how we should act in the days and months to come. Of course he also mentions troubles and afflictions. It may seem counterintuitive to emphasis both troubles and optimism. While we can draw a certain amount of optimism from the assurance that everything will work out eventually, that only gets us so far. How do we maintain a spirit of optimism and happiness in the meantime? We don’t do it by ignoring potential catastrophes, or by blindly assuming everything is going to be great, we do it by protecting ourselves against those catastrophes. This largely takes the form of keeping the commandments, but it also takes the form of savings and food storage and strengthening families and communities. While it’s true I may spend too much time emphasizing the bad things which may happen, I did it largely to assist with this preparation.
Certainly, like President Hinckley I believe that everything will work out eventually, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of bad might not happen in the next 10 years or the next 20. And, obviously, it is exactly that sort of statement that makes me seem pessimistic, but the way to happiness and optimism is not through ignoring the future or naively assuming we’ve progressed past the point of worry, the way to happiness and optimism is knowing that you’re prepared. It didn’t come up in the lesson, but President Hinckley gave an entire talk on the idea that if we are prepared we shall not fear.
This is why we’re urged to keep the commandments. What does anyone have to fear if they’re prepared to meet their maker? Death itself holds no terror if we’ve done what we were supposed to. In the shorter term the Church encourages us to stay out of debt, assemble food storage, live modestly, support one another. All of these are things which increase our happiness and optimism because we have less to worry about. And here, rather than being wrong, I think President Hinckley and I are in exact agreement. This is the whole concept of Antifragility which I’ve talked about in numerous places. Keeping the commandments makes you antifragile. Having savings and food storage makes you antifragile. Having a loving and strong family makes you antifragile. And as much as I need to work on my attitude I think doing all of this is the surest way to happiness and optimism.
If you’re feeling happy and optimistic, consider donating, it might decrease your happiness, but it will increase mine.