Sunday, May 17, 2020

Hope from the scriptures

I remembered a scripture this week and it brings me hope. From D&C 130:2:

And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.

I'm encouraged to know that social interaction is the norm. It may be a while before things go back to normal but they will. And we can look forward to spending eons with the people whose company we treasure.

Social media and intentionality

For some time now, I've disliked the amount of time I've been spending on social media, even though I'm already more distant from the various platforms than most of my peers. Today, I removed the last remaining social media apps from my phone. After a week or two, I'll see how I feel about them and will likely delete my accounts. Many people have voiced their opinions about social media's benefits and costs and don't feel the need to repeat everything that has been said, although I will say that users pay for the service of social media with their privacy and that was a driving concern for me. I also don't know that my solution is the right solution for everyone else.

As I've considered and experienced this change, a thought struck me that I wanted to share. It's an idea that I think has been germinating for some time but has only recently come to the forefront. Stated simply, it is that social media remove intentionality from our interactions. I'll explain.

I know I'm painting with broad brushes here, but social media are about broadcasting information; we might choose to limit who has access to what we post, but the default is for it to be accessible to everyone. In contrast, we have to choose to reach out to someone via phone call, text, or email. This is true even if we send group emails or texts (as long as we aren't simply sending to our entire contact list, and we can all tell when that happens). The act of choosing to reach out to an individual or even to a group of individuals is fundamentally different from the act of submitting information to a platform.

As a result, social media allow us to update weak ties about our lives but discourage us from actually reaching out to people. They allow us to invite people to social events without investment and these weak invitations can be accepted, declined, or even ignored. In contrast, an invitation by phone call has to be taken seriously; these invitations can also be declined but we consider it rude to ignore them. The very efficiency of updates on social media are part of their curse; they give us the illusion that we're in touch with people just because we know about what they post publicly. In reality, we're not actually connecting with our friends.

Parodoxically, the reason I want to distance myself from social media is partially because I want to enhance my connections with my friends. I want to be more intentional about connecting with people than I have been and hope that my friends will reciprocate. I've already seen improvements in myself as I've shifted my thinking and behaviors and hope to see more as time goes by.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

A soft answer turneth away wrath

This week's scripture study included the stories of Abinadi, who was arrested and killed for preaching the gospel, and Alma, who was converted by Abinadi's preaching. Alma attempted to stand up for Abinadi and had to run for his own life. The manual posed the following question: "When have you felt like you were standing alone in defense of the truth?"

Instead of attempting to write all of my thoughts on the topic, I'd like to write just one. We live in a time where every person can broadcast his or her voice to the masses. As a result, there are more opinions out there than any of us has a dream of hearing. This has amplified an effect already evident in more traditional media: the voices that yell the loudest get the most attention. I'm surrounded by so much yelling that it feels like I stand alone every time I choose not to engage in a shouting match or, even more courageously, write something that is moderate, well-reasoned, and not written in a way that screams for attention. I frequently write posts on this blog and hope that there isn't backlash; too frequently, I feel like my stances elicit rancor from both extremes in the various arguments around me.

If fixing the problem is up to me, I have to come up with a way to force or cajole everyone into doing what I think is best. I don't know everything, but I do know that people could do a lot better than to rely on me as an arbiter of what's right. The only other result is for each of us to do what we can do to contribute to a solution. My solution is simple to state but difficult to live: have the courage to stand alone by speaking softly.

Let go of the need to convince people about your point of view. Express what you think, certainly, but do so in a way that leaves room for people to disagree with you. On your own blogs, where you have some editorial power, insist on civility. Elsewhere, do not engage with conversations that are out of hand and leave conversations that get out of hand. Find and build on truth and goodness in everyone and in every stance that people take, even if you disagree with them. Treat people with respect and quietly insist on that same respect for yourself and for the people around you.

The last recommendation I have requires a little technical background. You may be aware that most websites keep track of who clicks where. It's mostly so they can target advertising but it's also used to see what's effective and what's not. Every time you click on a sensational headline, even anonymously, it tells the people running these websites that people are willing to click through and encourages them to make more content like it. So vote with your feet and don't click on clickbait. Don't read sensational articles. If something is intriguing, find another news source that presents the information in a level-headed and informed fashion. If you find a news source that does so consistently, consider buying a subscription.

Imagine with me how peaceful and kind the world would be if we all lived this way. Then remember that you can only control yourself and content yourself with what you can do. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to outside where I can keep my distance from people and watch spring emerge.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

On courage

A phrase from 3 Nephi 12:29 struck me this morning during my scripture study. It comes from the Lord's sermon to ancient inhabitants of the Americas that is almost identical to the Sermon on the Mount. From context, it might be considered a literal exposition on the metaphor to "cut off [our] right hand" (Matthew 5:30):

Behold, I give unto you a commandment, that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart.

I've been thinking about courage (which literally means living from the heart) recently. It occurred to me that, as a child of God, I always want what is right. I may also want things that are not right. This suggests that sinful desires are never wholehearted. They may, of course, be powerful. But especially if we remember that actions and their consequences are inseparable, it's easy to see that there is always conflict when we desire something sinful.

The solution, then, is to live wholeheartedly by choosing a course that is aligned with what we really want: a clear conscience and the blessings of eternity. When we experience temptations, we can identify righteous conflicting desires and can choose them instead. Over time, the glorious blessing of repentance (and one of many gifts that Christ offers us) is that our desires will change and our hearts will become more whole.

A little bonus thought is that at the end of this chapter, Jesus instructs us to "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). The Greek word τέλειοι, translated here as perfect in the KJV, could also translate to complete, whole, or mature. So one way we could interpret this is that the process of becoming wholehearted is the same as the process of aligning our will with true principles and the same as becoming like our Father in Heaven.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Christian liberty

As I've mentioned many times, I've had a tremendous amount of time to myself recently. This has given me ample opportunity to painstakingly review every mistake I make each day.

Mercifully, this ample time to myself is also ample time to converse with God and to listen to His Holy Spirit. He has frequently and patiently reminded me of the most basic doctrine of Christianity: that redemption is offered freely to anyone who will accept it. Yesterday, I was reminded of this doctrine when I studied D&C 45:3-5:

Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—
Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.

The power of this passage lies in its strangeness. In a court of law (the image being explicitly invoked here), the argument would be an obvious non sequitur; how could the "sufferings and death" of anyone defend me in any way? Isn't it obvious that I have fallen short? That I continue to do so? I don't claim to understand how it works, but I do know that Christ's sacrifice for me does have the power to redeem me (see also 2 Nephi 2:8).

Of course, this leaves unanswered another question: why create this mortal existence at all? If the best I can do is not enough – cannot, by definition, be enough – why did God create this world for us at all? There are many answers to this question. I'll choose to focus on one of these answers: that this mortal experience gives us a unique opportunity to learn. We have the glorious privilege of being able to experience, both personally and vicariously, the effects of our decisions. We are blessed to see how some of our decisions, which demonstrate our love for God and for our brothers and sisters, make all of us happier. We are also blessed to see how other decisions, which do not demonstrate these loves, do not contribute to peace or happiness. And we are blessed to know that, if we are willing to accept His offer, we can be redeemed through the blood of Christ.

This freedom, often called Christian liberty, goes much deeper; it is not merely the profound freedom of absolution from guilt. If we allow Him to, God can use these experiences to change us. Usually, this process is gradual and virtually imperceptible as we experience it. But continuing to try to be like Him will invite God's hand and Spirit into our lives. His gentle touch will, over time, change our natures and our desires, making us more like He is. There was nothing even slightly exaggerated in Christ's injunction during the Sermon on the Mount that we should "be ... therefore perfect, even as [our] Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

This great sacrifice on our behalf makes us free in at least one other way. I have found that when I feel insecure or unloved, my capacity for good is diminished. Distracted by my own concerns, I draw inwards and struggle to even see others' needs – much less, satisfy those needs. On the other hand, when I feel loved and secure, being my best self seems natural and effortless (in fact, I wrote about this very recently). When I remember, in my mind and in my heart, that God gave His Son and that Christ willingly gave Himself to rescue me, I feel loved and my capacity to do good grows. And so it is that my task is to "always remember" (See the sacramental prayers, as given in Moroni 4 and 5).

(See also Mosiah 5:8, 2 Nephi 2:25-27, and 2 Nephi 9:50-51. This last excerpt is a paraphrase of Isaiah 55:1-2, which I chose because of its positive wording.)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Questions before answers

This is a time of unique strain on people's physical, financial, and emotional well-being. At such a time, it is unsurprising that there are a variety of opinions. It is equally unsurprising that some of these opinions are somewhat extreme and voiced ardently. This last fact is saddening to me. As people yell about what they want to do or what they think other people should do, I have wondered how much of what I hear is true and how much isn't. It's interesting to me that so many good, intelligent people are so sure of themselves – but they come to different conclusions.

I suspect that part of why it seems odd to me is my perspective as a scientist. The goal of all science is to find answers; however, the process of science is all about questions. Scientists must be careful to ask good questions and to keep track of what they know. Effective science, in this sense, relies crucially on intellectual humility: a scientist who assumes things may craft experiments whose results are misleading or may misinterpret results. In other words, the quality of scientific endeavors is limited by the quality of the questions that drive it. I hope that every one of my readers will come across a question that he or she has not fully considered and, as a result, will learn something.

Before diving into some of the questions I have about the pandemic, I feel like it's important for me to state clearly what I believe we should all do:

  • To the extent that it is possible for you, please stay home.
  • Please wash your hands when you return home.
  • Especially when out and about, make an effort to cover coughs and sneezes with your elbow and to avoid touching your face.
  • When interacting with people who live outside of your home, maintain a distance of six feet whenever possible.
  • If you have respiratory symptoms and a fever, please get tested and obey quarantine instructions.
  • If you need things, please let people know so they can help you.
  • If you can help people, please do so.

As regards the pandemic and what ought to be done about it, I have several questions:

  • How effectively will human immune responses prevent the spread of this disease? How quickly will this effect happen?
  • How long will it take for effective treatments to be developed? Produced? How effective will they be?
  • What about inoculations?

What seems clear to me so far is that we don't have answers to these fundamental questions. We're dealing with a novel disease; as a result, we don't know how it works and so don't know how to address it. This means we're all guessing, even the experts. This does not mean, however, that we should ignore the experts; rather, it means we should cut them some slack if and when they are wrong in some particulars.

Some other questions arise from this lack of information:

  • How long should things be shut down?
  • How will this shutdown affect people? Will the poorest among us be affected most?
  • What happens when we start things back up? Is there anything we can and should do differently?
  • How will the emergency powers being assumed by governments (and corporations) continue into the future?

This leads me to some grittier, more complex questions:

  • If I were starving (or if I had children who were), would I go out and risk worsening a pandemic to procure food for them? Should I? How many lives might I save by going or staying? How does my particular responsibility towards my children interact with my general responsibility to the people around me?
  • It seems to me that the people making decisions about what to shut down, when, and how long are secure in their access to the necessities of life. Is this true? Is it affecting their judgment? If so, how? More importantly, if so, what better judgments might be made?
  • We seem to be making lots of decisions based on projections about how many people will die. How do other considerations, like quality of life, weigh into these decisions? How should they? Are we blinded to some factors because they are difficult to measure?

Of particular concern to me is the reaction I've seen from some members of my church. For context, members of my church believe that the president of the church is a prophet. He's also a retired MD. He acted earlier than most governments and corporations, closing churches and temples the world over and repeatedly stating that we want to be good citizens of the world and do our part to keep this disease from spreading so quickly that our health care systems are overwhelmed. Because church buildings are shut down, many church members do not have regular access to the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper (frequently called Holy Communion or Eucharist in other denominations). And yet some of the people who are opposed to government shutdowns are members of the church.

  • What is a government shutdown preventing that is more important than the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper?

It has been interesting to me to learn about the environmental effects that the shutdown is having. Air quality, for example, seems to be improving. Also, there are fewer greenhouse gases being emitted. This shows us that we are capable of shutting things down. However, I have more questions:

  • Is the amount of stuff being shut down enough to reverse the climate change we've been seeing?
  • Does this indicate that we could reasonably address the problems of climate change?
  • Who would be most affected by these changes? Would we be further impoverishing people who are already struggling?
  • Are there ways we could make these changes to our greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible towards the people who would suffer the most from them?

My own political philosophy suggests that minimal government intervention is wise. However, pandemics and air pollution are both examples of the tragedy of the commons. This leads to my final set of questions (for this post):

  • When we have a system that incentivizes behavior that makes things worse for everyone, should we regulate behaviors? If so, how?
  • What can I do to help people? This is not a question about how I can force other people to do things; the question is what I can do to help.
  • What am I learning about what matters most? How can I improve the way that I use my time and talents? What do I hope to do differently once things normalize?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

How faith works in us

I've spent a lot of time thinking about why being alone is so hard for me. There are many reasons, of course, but I've identified one that seems to be a root cause of my struggle: I'm no longer able to fool myself into thinking that I'm in control of the outcomes in my life. In an abstract sense, of course, we all understand that we can't control our lives; for example, natural disasters or acts of violence could occur to any of us at any time. Being so personally affected by a biological disaster, however, has made it inescapably clear that the outcomes in my life are not entirely up to me. I have learned and relearned many times that focusing on outcomes leads me to crankiness but focusing on faith leads me to peace.

It was in this context that I revisited Ether 12, a chapter in the Book of Mormon that discusses how faith in Christ leads to hope, which makes "an anchor to the souls of men [and women]" (v. 4). I knew as I read that I needed to rekindle my faith and let go of my need to control my life in order to be happy, but I wasn't sure what it is about faith in Christ that changes us. Why is it that faith in Christ makes us "sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works" (v. 4)? What about "the gift of his Son" (v. 11) allowed God to prepare "a more excellent way," (v. 11) or, more to the point, what is more excellent about the way defined by faith? In other words, how does faith in Christ change us?

One part of this answer is that faith in Christ, which we might also call trust in Christ, is trust in His infinite capacity rather than in our own finite capacity. If, for example, I were to trust in my personal wealth to ensure that I would have the necessities of life, I would risk disappointment. This would be true even if I were the wealthiest person in the world: theft, fluctuations in the value of my possessions, natural disasters, can eliminate any fortune, regardless of its size or how astutely it is managed. The same is true of health, relationships, prestige, or anything else we might lean on instead of on God.

One result of reliance on my own strength, then, is fear that I might mismanage my resources. I might be stingy towards charitable efforts that would make the world a better place or I might be overzealous about my health because I'm afraid of losing my wealth or health, both of which insulate me against the fears of poverty or illness. I might also be jealous of the blessings that other people enjoy because I want to have the security that they have. On the other hand, God's power is inexhaustible; it doesn't matter if He lavishes wealth on someone else because He can do the same to me if He sees fit.

As an aside, faith in Christ is not a way of forcing God to do my will; it's a way of finding joy in His will being done. See this article for an entire sermon I gave on the subject.

Another effect of faith in Christ is that if I rely on Him for the things I hope for and not on myself, I can't give myself credit for things that He provided for me. Rather than thinking that the things I enjoy are my own doing and therefore my own just desserts, I can be grateful for them because I recognize them as the divine gifts that they are.

I'm sure there are many other ways that faith changes us. Ultimately, God does not need our faith. We need faith in Him because it liberates us from our fears and our pride and enables us to choose His "more excellent way."