Monday, November 17, 2008

Forgive Me, or, How to Have a Happy Marriage

In previous work at the family blog I have mentioned one of my favorite podcasts, Speaking of Faith, a public radio show featuring a wide variety of religious and spiritual thinkers who probe insightfully into a range of interesting topics.

Today I listened to the first part of an episode on revenge and forgiveness with Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology in Florida, who Summer described as "ruggedly handsome." McCullough's research into different animals--including us humans--shows that both revenge and forgiveness are rooted in our evolutionary psychology, and that understanding our instincts towards both emotions--and their resultant actions--helps us with the deep spiritual issues associated with responding to violence. (McCullough also teaches in religious studies.)

The basic idea is that for self-preservation, we are wired to defend ourselves and those we love, but that in order to truly love others, we also have to forgive. In fact, counterintuitively, he argues that in our close relationships, those where trust exists, "you don't put any effort into forgiving. It naturally happens and you move on." Drawing from evolutionary biology, McCullough makes the case that a parent has to forgive its offspring in order for them to survive, and so, as parents, we look past a,lot of little slights from our children.

I think there's a great spiritual truth here, that we have two competing but ultimately complementary instincts to grapple with, and the tension between the two is the struggle of our lives--to protect what is valuable and nurture it at the same time. This is especially true in the context of marriage, where we see too many relationships lost when selfishness and pride collide and derail forgiveness. Again, McCullough's argument is insightful: "relationships that have value in them are ones in which we're naturally prone to forgive." There is an investment of time and energy in our relationships that makes us predisposed to forgiveness in order to preserve and enrich those relationships.

Returning to marriage, it seems that the cause of exploding divorce rates among baby boomers (and,increasingly, my own generation, although the trend here is to not marry at all, avoiding the relationship in the first place) is related to an unwillingness to invest that psychic energy into establishing relationships in the first place, making them easier to dissolve.

I am convinced that Summer and I have made it work because we had it tough early on--we were poor, busy with work and school, and we had a baby--and we had to circle the wagons of our relationship to keep any semblance of sanity. That unity, forged in those early days, makes us more likely to look past each other's flaws and focus instead on the good. (It helps that she's an immensely patient and naturally forgiving woman. My two rules of marital bliss: 1) Strive for unity early on so you can learn to get along [see above], and 2) marry someone better than you.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Gratitude

As I mentioned in an entry at the family blog last week, I am currently working on a talk for this Sunday on the theme of giving thanks. Earlier this week, with this topic on my mind, I noticed the following passages from the Book of Mormon.

In Alma 31 we read of Alma's mission to the Zoramites, and I have always been struck by how the prayers offered by the Zoramites and by Alma represent, respectively, attitudes of pride and humility, even though they use some of the same words.

In verses 17 & 18 we read the words of the vain prayer of the Zoramites, who once a week took turns reciting these same words: "O God, we thank thee[...] that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God. And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen."

Here thanks indicate a haughty and condescending attitude, much like saying, "I'm sorry if you were upset by my actions." It's shallow and insincere and trite.

Contrast this with Alma's humble expression of thanks: "O Lord, wilt thou comfort my soul, and give unto me success, and also my fellow laborers who are with me—yea, Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner, and also Amulek and Zeezrom and also my two sons—yea, even all these wilt thou comfort, O Lord. Yea, wilt thou comfort their souls in Christ. Wilt thou grant unto them that they may have strength, that they may bear their afflictions which shall come upon them because of the iniquities of this people. O Lord, wilt thou grant unto us that we may have success in bringing them again unto thee in Christ. Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren; therefore, give unto us, O Lord, power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee."

Note here that Alma, while never uttering the words "thank you" (or "thee," as the case may be), expresses gratitude for the gospel and for the work to which he has been called. And, more importantly, he does something with those blessings. He prays for others, not just for himself. He asks God to bless his fellow laborers and the people they are serving.

This gets me thinking that true gratitude is not only an attitude (to invoke President Monson's famous rhyme), but also an action. In fact, here's a tidbit from my crash course in Spanish (I'm speaking in the Spanish ward and, rather than use an interpreter, I'm translating my talk into Spanish). In Spanish, the term "thanksgiving" can be expressed as "dar las gracias" (a pretty literal rendering) or, as it is found in scripture, "accion de gracias," which implies that we do something. This is a nice concept.

(And if any of my readers speak Spanish fluently, rather than get nitpicky with the preceding paragraph, how about you volunteer to proof my talk so I don't make a fool of myself?)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I Swear, the Last Thing I Write on Proposition 8...

I’ve never really been one to be undecided on matters political. My presidential votes and my stances on issues have always come pretty quickly, based on both my interpretation of the facts and an emotive or intuitive inclination toward liberalism. So, in what has been an odd election season for me, previous entries here have chronicled my back and forth on the gay marriage issue as it relates to California’s Proposition 8. Logically, I saw (see?) this as troubling, primarily for the precedent of amending a constitution—state or federal—to limit rights, something that we typically don’t do, and that when we do, ends poorly (see Prohibition).

As the debate raged, I was upset, however, by the inflammatory and misleading rhetoric of each side. Those for the proposition resorted to fear-mongering about teaching kindergarteners about homosexual lifestyles, while those opposed to it painted their opponents broadly as intolerant bigots. And once a debate devolves to this level, it’s hard to feel good about any choice.

This has been even more evident in the days since the proposition passed, as the anti-Mormon vitriol has expanded from anger over the election results to attacks on the integrity of the Church and its members. (This reminds me—tough year for Mormons politically. The far right rejects our claims to part of their Christian voting bloc and sends Romney packing. Then the far left calls us bigots for our core doctrines. Rough times. At least both Udalls running for Senate won.)

And it’s here that I have to step back and reconsider what exactly the argument is. If marriage is sought for the legal rights its entails, or even for the public recognition of a meaningful relationship, then I am on board. There are very real rights that I enjoy and that another human being should not be denied simply because his/her most intimate relationship is different than mine. But if marriage is seen as validation of a relationship and grounds for assaulting beliefs that would resist that validation, then I am forced to question a radical agenda that seems to be reaching far beyond rights and toward something much uglier.

This is especially disturbing in the wake of the presidential election results. The gay rights movement has often presented itself as being modeled on the civil rights movement, but it’s clear that the differences matter. No one denies homosexuals jobs or the right to do business, to travel or have access to public facilities. Discrimination in any of these areas based on sexual orientation is illegal, and rightfully so. But to claim that a religion cannot define its beliefs and practices according to its theology is diametrically opposed to the model of the civil rights movement, which operated within a religious context.

In some ways I wonder if these events might result in a public opinion backlash against gay marriage, as people see the hypocrisy of arguments for tolerance from people who refuse to accept religious diversity as part of the pluralistic society in which we live. And perhaps the ugliness demonstrated by both sides of this debate will convince people that we need to step away from the emotionally-charged aspects of the issue and sensibly develop some sort of compromise that allows legal rights for couples while respecting religious freedom and preserving religious diversity. The question then is, “Can we do it?”

Thursday, November 6, 2008

GOP Goodbye?

I stayed home yesterday so Summer and Isaac could recover from their respective colds, and while driving, I caught some talk radio, both Air America style and the right-wing staple; the contrast was fun. Liberals exulted, but did so cautiously, aware that only 8 years ago the Republicans rode a similar wave to control over both the executive and legislative branches, and we all know how well that went.

Conservatives, on the other hand, were wringing their hands, fretting about how they let this happen. For them, this election wasn't about Obama and Democrats winning; it was a watered-down, moderated GOP losing its way. (It was especially fun to hear these folks participate in the sort of self-loathing usually reserved for those of us on the left.) To this theory, I say, "poppycock!" The results of Tuesday's election were due entirely to the self-defeating and short-sighted rightward track of the Republican party since their last huge defeat in 1968. Since then, every major move by the GOP, from Nixon to Palin, has been to move steadily to the reactionary extreme, based on a politics of fear and exclusion and name-calling, and that can only last for so long.

I've been thinking a lot since then about the Republican party, that odd marriage of big business, conservative Christianity, and random libertarianism (gun rights, especially). For years I wondered how that coalition worked, and now, in the wake of 11/4/08, it appears that it didn't really work that well. At the risk of hyperbole, here are some elegiac thoughts on the GOP.

It began with the market meltdown earlier this fall, as the Bush wing of the party called for increased government involvement in the markets, a sort of pragmatic approach, which was torpedoed by the fiscal conservatives, the small government crowd. In some ways this rift may indicate how the house of cards went into foreclosure, as it were. Being the only game in town, government-wise, for 6 years may have made that anti-government aspect of the Reagan-era GOP fade; it's hard to hate yourself (unless you're a liberal).

This was followed by the House republicans falling in line only after getting the requisite pet projects funded in the revised package. To rail against waste and stand for fiscal discipline is fine, but you gotta walk the line too, and hypocrisy has rarely been so evident as with 21st-century congressional Republicans.

After the first bailout plan failed, Timothy Noah of Slate wrote this piece on how this schism might well mark the death of the modern GOP. His argument seems all the more solid after Tuesday's Democratic victories underscored the national discontent with Republican policy toward the economy. It does little good to hate the government when the private sector, left to its own devices, can be so fallible.

A second piece, this one from the new issue of the Alibi, makes a similar case. Ortiz y Pino, who is often a bit of a blowhard, makes the case that, both nationally and here in NM, the GOP fell because it, in his words, "hitched its wagon to a single engine, the Conservatism Express, and rode it close to the top." The idea that the GOP limited its scope to such a narrow ideological range should serve as a warning to Democrats not to let a mandate turn into a suicide run to the left.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama

Just a few thoughts from last night. First, I don't think I appreciated the historical significance of what might happen until it happened. I'm part of a generation that is removed from the turmoil and intensity of the Civil Rights movement; the race issues of my formative years had more to do with OJ Simpson than Martin Luther King Jr. But seeing people--black and white--my parents' age and and my grandparents' age shed tears of joy over something that not long ago was literally impossible brought it all home. I am immensely proud of the progress we as a nation have made over a few generations.

I was also touched by Senator McCain's concession speech. His first mention of Senator Obama was met with a round of boos, which he silenced with the most eloquent speech I have ever heard from him. His love of country is something to be proud of, and the dignity of his words meant a lot to me.

I didn't stay up for the President-Elect's victory speech, but I caught bits of it on the TV and radio this morning, and what I first thought in 2004 after his DNC speech rings true again today--this is a man who can inspire, a man whose words make me want to be a better person. Few politicians can do this, and he does it consistently.

My next few entries will address my hopes and fears for the next 4 years, but for today, I will simply reflect on what this momentous event says about this great nation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Religion & Politics

Two pieces:
  • A devoutly religious student at the local university woke up this morning, excited to vote for the first time, but undecided regarding the presidential race, prayed, "God, give me a sign from above," then walked outside and saw it, a small plane circling the area pulling a sign that read, "Vote Obama Today." (I saw the plane pass by several times a few minutes ago. The rest of the story, however, is fictional.)
  • A prayer for election day--May good people give thanks for the right to vote and vote their conscience. May those entrusted to oversee the voting do their duty justly and fairly. May the various means by which votes are recorded work better than this highly fallible system would dictate. May the results come quickly and be accepted as legitimate. May we as a nation unite, both supporting and opposing the winner as needed to check power and ensure equity. May those elected to offices both high and low execute their duties well. And may we forgive each other and ourselves for the rancor and discord of another long electoral season, finding wisdom and goodness in each of us, rejecting that which is base, mean-spirited, duplicitous, or erroneous, and striving to acknowledge, address, and right those things that ail us.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Is It Still Election Eve If You've Already Voted?

Two quick thoughts for today:
  • I did some surfing around blogs by family and friends today and found several intelligent entries in defense of Proposition 8 in CA. I expected to read blog posts about the issue, given the demographic of the people to whom I am related and with whom I interact. but I was pleasantly surprised with how considered and considerate their thoughts were, and how well they were expressed. Having blogged--poorly, I believe--on the topic a while ago, and having some sense of the vitriol that must characterize this sort of debate in a place so polarized as the Golden State, I have come to expect the vicious name-calling that is floating around. So to read opinions by people I love and respect was nice. And after some soul-searching, I think I would vote for the Proposition, while acknowledging that it is far from a panacea for social ills. But sometimes you do something you don't like because, ultimately, it's the right thing to do.
  • One last observation on the presidential race. The thing that has stood out in my mind over the past few days is the difference in how the two campaigns have been run. McCain's is messy, undisciplined, and marked by extremism. It's a campaign of chaos and passion. Obama's is efficient, inspiring, and organized, with a sense of purpose that transcends policy without neglecting it. It's a campaign of effectiveness and innovation. All of this makes me think that, if a campaign is an indicator of leadership, the choice here is pretty clear.
Let's hope tomorrow goes well, and that the results of the elections, local and national, lead to greater equity, opportunity, and peace, both individually and collectively.