Why should I fear? Part 2: Four planes and two towers

And all things shall be in commotion; and surely, men’s hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people. — D&C 88:91
This know also, that in the last days, perilous times shall come. — 2 Timothy 3:1

How do you explain the September 11 attacks to a child?

My bright and vivacious nine-year-old son has tears in his eyes. He’s telling me what he learned in school about bad guys hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings and killing thousands of people. As America was memorializing the 10th anniversary of the unthinkable, my son’s grief was fresh. How could this happen? Who would do such a thing? Why did all those people have to die? And what kind of world is this anyway?

As I listen to him, I find myself remembering clearly the shock of September 11, 2001. It seemed so unreal, so horrific, and so far away… I couldn’t even grasp it. I could only watch the news and stare as the towers fell—again.

And again.

The world was in a state of shock. Grief. Disbelief. But it didn’t hit home until the next morning, September 12, when I had my first ultrasound for my first child. A boy.

A boy!

A child who will never live in a world where this didn’t happen. I spent the rest of the day grieving for the past my child would never know, and the uncertain future that he would have to face. What kind of a world am I bringing this sweet, innocent spirit into? How can I raise my child in a world where this kind of evil and suffering exists?

It’s a boy.

This boy.

This boy sitting in front of me, tears of grief and disbelief running down his cheeks. He wants an explanation. And I have to answer him.

I’m on trial. The world is on trial. I am on the witness stand, testifying on behalf of an imperfect world, knowing that my son’s belief in humanity is on the line. I have to explain carefully and justify my choice to bring children into a world like this. Justify my decision.

Justify his existence.

And leave him with enough hope to live his life outside the shadow of fear.

I explain to him how evil men, full of hate, the exception rather than the rule, made choices based on that hatred, and killed thousands of people. We call them terrorists, because their goal was to create terror and fear—and in many ways they succeeded. But we don’t have to let them win. We don’t have to be afraid. In fact, the world needs love and joy and bravery and goodness more than it ever has before. It’s up to us to make our corner of the world a better place, to keep on living, to keep on learning, to keep on helping and loving and thriving no matter what evil men try to do. We need not be afraid. And their choices to do harm and create fear should not affect our choices to be helpful and kind.

I am a mother in an imperfect world.

This is my rebellion.

By choosing not to be afraid, I deny the terrorists their victory. I’m fighting back. I’m going to love, anyway. I’m going to raise a family, anyway. I’m going to reach out to my neighbors, anyway. I’m going to learn, work, serve others, and serve God, anyway.

And should something happen? I will have lived my life with no regrets and a clear conscience, anyway.

I put my hands on my child’s shoulders, taller than they were before, look intently in his eyes and tell him the truth: Evil exists. Bad Things happen. We will do our best to make the world a better place, anyway.

And they can’t stop us.

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Why should I fear? Part 1: The contagion of fear

“Send this to all your friends, wives, sisters and mothers! Let them know to BE ALERT!!! Reading this could SAVE YOUR LIFE!!!!”

I get these things every couple of months: an email, forwarded by an acquaintance to her entire address book, alerting everyone of a “new” fear, illustrated by an anonymously written—and scary—anecdote.

The latest one was about kidnappers trying to lure women from chain store parking lots in broad daylight by using little old ladies as bait.

Seriously?

The story had all the elements: just enough details to make it seem grounded in real life, a suspicious situation, someone calling for help, a scary-looking guy in a knit cap (what, no pointy goatee?) who pops out of the car, and a police officer who “saw the whole thing” and showed up just in time to arrest the scary-looking guy…and the little old lady.

Because, obviously, the little old lady in the story was a willing accomplice and couldn’t possibly be a victim of kidnapping or abuse herself, right?

Doesn’t this sound fishy? And doesn’t it sound like something you’ve heard over and over again?

We are repeatedly told in the scriptures that in the last days there shall be wars and rumors of wars. With the growth of the Internet, it is easier to spread rumors—and fear—faster and farther than ever before. And because anything posted on the Internet never truly goes away, the rumors persist for years. (According to Snopes.com, the urgent email I received has been around at least since 2006 and is purely fictional.)

At the same time, the FBI has recently released its latest crime statistics showing that, despite the continuing recession, crime rates have fallen 6% across the board, following a trend that has been going on since the 1990s. Scholar Steven Pinker explains that rates of human violence are at historical lows—after a 5000-year downward trend—and continue to decline as people become more organized, more connected (socially and economically), more educated, and more equitable as they recognize and extend basic human rights to one another. (Our own scriptures show evidence of the civilizing and pacifying effects of good government, interconnectedness, education, social unity, and equality.)

Yet the 24-hour news cycle, entertainment, internet rumors, and thus “conventional wisdom” would have us believe that violence is on the rise, no one is safe, no one is to be trusted, predators are lurking around every corner, and all our previously normal activities (and especially those of our children) are fraught with danger and should be curbed in order to maintain absolute safety. At the same time, the things we’re told to do to be safe (isolate ourselves, distrust our fellowmen, give up our own or take away others’ rights, and avoid all possible risk) break down the very things that promote a connected, thriving, resilient, and peaceful society.

In the preface of the revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants section 45, Joseph Smith wrote, “at this age in the Church, many false reports and foolish stories were published and circulated to prevent people from investigating the work or embracing the faith.” I would argue that at this age, many false reports and foolish stories are being published to spread fear and shake faith. Is it helpful to pass such rumors along?

I understand that the person who sent me the email was afraid of the rumor and had the best of intentions in trying to make others aware of a potential (if highly unlikely) threat. And I understand that, yes, Bad Things do happen. No one goes through this life without experiencing suffering and, ultimately, death.

But we can choose not to be paralyzed by worry and not to spread the contagion of fear, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

God gave us these gifts so we don’t have to be afraid. Let’s use them.

This series continues with a look at the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the decade of fear.

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Perfection vs. progression at the college level

I’m feeling validated.

Speaking to this year’s BYU students, Elder Cecil O. Samuelson said that perfectionism impedes progress and that worthiness and perfection are not the same thing.

What a timely–and reassuring–reminder! We can be good without being perfect and growth is a process.

As we embark on a new school year, whether a student or not, it’s a good time to remember that while we’re all striving for an “A,” in God’s grading system effort counts; doing your best is more important than being the best; and the Savior has more than enough extra credit points to make up for our own deficiencies.

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How can failure lead to perfection?

Therefore I would that ye should be perfect…
3 Nephi 12:48
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness…
Ether 12:27

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between perfection, failure, and progress lately.

It all started with an article (I wish I could remember the reference!), in which the author asserted that perfection is the enemy of progress. In a church where we take the injunction “Be ye perfect” to heart, and often tend toward overachievement and perfectionism, the idea of a conflict between progression and perfection would seem paradoxical. After all, isn’t the purpose of mortality to help us progress toward a state of eventual perfection?

The fact of the matter is, under the conditions of mortality, we aren’t going to be perfect because we simply can’t be perfect. No matter how hard we try, we will inevitably make mistakes and experience failures. None of us has the perfect knowledge, perfect physical ability, perfect mental ability, etc. to be perfect in this life. What we have instead is a system in which we can learn, grow, progress, and receive mercy when we make mistakes.

I think the situation is analogous to a point Elder Dallin H. Oaks made in a talk about judgment. In reconciling conflicting commandments about judging, Elder Oaks distinguishes between intermediate judgments (daily choices in which we are admonished to judge wisely) and final (i.e. eternal) judgments (in which we are admonished to judge not). I think we similarly get hung up when we don’t distinguish between intermediate failures (normal everyday experiences on the way to learning, improvement, and growth) and final (i.e. eternal) failures (reserved for the deliberately unrepentant at the final judgment). Most of the failures we experience in this life are of the intermediate variety—transient challenges, experiments, setbacks that we experience and learn from on the way to something bigger and better. Yet we often see them as final failures, letting them define us as people and determine our eternal value.

When see our eternal value at stake in every attempt (and failure), it is easy to fear failure as something bad and to be avoided at all costs. We fear punishment. We become perfectionists. We avoid taking risks and making decisions. We lose sight of the invaluable and necessary role of failure in our progression. Failure is an essential component of the learning process. As we move from confusion, to curiosity, to exploration, to experimentation, we go through a series of trials and errors (i.e., failures and corrections), until we eventually “get it” and integrate the new information with our existing knowledge and move on to the next challenge.

On the other hand, without failure, curiosity isn’t piqued. Resilience, flexibility, and creativity suffer. The desire to learn, grow, and improve is not stoked. Without failure, we cannot make improvements in our knowledge, understanding, or performance. Without failure, there is no need to practice, no need to try, no need to progress because there’s nowhere to go.

That doesn’t sound like the plan we fought for.

Instead, God allows us to be challenged and tested. He allows us to experience pain, frustration, and—yes—failure. But the goal isn’t to make us fail; the goal is to make us succeed. By giving us the testing ground of mortality, we have the freedom to make choices, experience consequences, and grow more like Him. Sometimes it’s painful, but the Lord will not abandon us or let our tears go unnoticed. Instead, he reassures us that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). And, like any good parent, he stands at the ready to catch us when we fall and help us up again—then encourages us to press forward once more as we strive for eternal perfection.

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