I’ve been reflecting a lot on E. Quentin Cook’s talk called “Choose Wisely.”  This was the opening talk of the Priesthood session in April 2015, so I suppose that makes me not the target audience, and yet it’s clearly a talk with universal application. [1]  I won’t let that stop me.

E. Cook begins by talking about the problems when we rationalize our failures to act heroically.  He uses the example of Lucy not catching the ball in the Peanuts comic strips.

While always humorous, Lucy’s excuses were rationalizations; they were untrue reasons for her failure to catch the ball.

He then goes on to talk about the eternal ramifications when we rationalize our failure to prepare for our eternal goals.

When we allow rationalizations to prevent us from temple endowments, worthy missions, and temple marriage, they are particularly harmful. It is heartbreaking when we profess belief in these goals yet neglect the everyday conduct required to achieve them.

He nods to the Peter Pan crowd, obligatory at Priesthood session.  As a mother of teen boys (and older) I observe that there is a lot less dating among teens than there was in my age group, and there was less dating in my teenage group than in prior ones.  It seems to me that with dating, we are heading the direction China is going, in which 20-somethings may actually graduate college before they have their first date.  It’s a great idea in a one-child-policy country, but it seems like a recipe for lonely and awkward young adults.  To me anyway.

Some young people profess their goal is to be married in the temple but do not date temple-worthy individuals. To be honest, some don’t even date, period!

Hey, Wendy, let’s finish our educations and delay marriage and family until we can support ourselves financially!

E. Cook elaborates, although this seemed like an unintentional deviation from the idea of preparing for our eternal goals, instead focusing on just jumping in despite being ill prepared.

Some postpone marriage until education is complete and a job obtained. While widely accepted in the world, this reasoning does not demonstrate faith . . .

Perhaps true both for men & women (studies show that both sexes delay marriage – out of respect for the institution and a belief they are not ready yet), but it goes against the preparation theme.

I recently met a fine teenage young man. His goals were to go on a mission, obtain an education, marry in the temple, and have a faithful happy family. I was very pleased with his goals. But during further conversation, it became evident that his conduct and the choices he was making were not consistent with his goals. I felt he genuinely wanted to go on a mission and was avoiding serious transgressions that would prohibit a mission, but his day-to-day conduct was not preparing him for the physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual challenges he would face.7 He had not learned to work hard. He was not serious about school or seminary. He attended church, but he had not read the Book of Mormon. He was spending a large amount of time on video games and social media. He seemed to think that showing up for his mission would be sufficient.

E. Cook is making a great point here, one again about preparation, that it’s not just avoiding transgression that prepares us; we need to be actively involved.  Worthy conduct and serious preparation (presumably study) should be part of that preparation.  Not just showing up.  This is definitely something I’ve seen with my own kids, and to me it seems like a byproduct of the participation award generation.  Just showing up has consistently been good enough for these kids. /end rant

Time to go on to his fairly balanced look at everyone’s favorite past time, the Internet.

A wonderful example of the need for moderation, balance, and wisdom is the use of the Internet. It can be used to do missionary outreach, to assist with priesthood responsibilities, to find precious ancestors for sacred temple ordinances, and much more. The potential for good is enormous. We also know that it can transmit much that is evil, including pornography, digital cruelty,8 and anonymous yakking. It can also perpetuate foolishness. As Brother Randall L. Ridd poignantly taught at the last general conference, speaking of the Internet, “You can get caught up in endless loops of triviality that waste your time and degrade your potential.

So, while E. Cook points out that moderation is good (how could anyone disagree with that?), he lumps in anonymous yakking with evils like porn and cruelty.  I imagine this was done for comedic effect, and yet I think his point about anonymity is an important distinction.  Yakking might not be too bad (except in that it can be trivial and waste time), but anonymity is one thing that is often linked with what he calls “digital cruelty” and most of us would call cyberbullying or trolling.  Anonymity definitely contributes to one’s willingness to be cruel online, although there are plenty who engage in cruelty without an invisibility cloak.  I would have loved to hear more about this subject.  E. Cook is a smart guy [2], and hearing him riff on this topic would be time well spent.

In my own experience managing and moderating at three Mormon blogs and a discussion forum, whether the commenter uses a real name or an obvious fake made little difference, though.  Most names were made up or could be interchanged for others, like a stranger in a bar in an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Some spaces are simply anonymous.  The more we play in them, the less anonymous they become. We yearn for contact, to know and be known by others.  We aren’t trying to hide for too long. [3]  We create an online identity that is ultimately a lot like our real identity.  The truth of who we are comes out.

We are surrounded by obsessive portrayals of “fun and games” and immoral and dysfunctional lives. These are presented as normal conduct in much of the media.

Entertainment in movies and TV often do portray “immoral” (by religious standards) or “dysfunctional” (by many people’s standards) norms, and this is a stark contrast to the church’s unceasing portrayal of “ideal” families and situations.  Personally, I think both extremes have a similar effect.  While there is a point about the Overton Window to be made here [4], when I see the church’s sanitized version of reality, I roll my eyes hard and quickly see how little it resembles my own lived experience.  I’m neither saddened nor smugly superior about that. It just strikes me as fake and weird.  When I have met people who more closely resembled that reality, they haven’t liked me or my family.  They found us shocking.  They were uncomfortable. [5]

A family with no visible dysfunctions has hidden dysfunctions; families are a social experiment in which random weirdos are thrown together to figure life out. The dysfunctions don’t have to be as extreme as is often portrayed in entertainment for comedic or dramatic effect.  I will certainly grant E. Cook that there is a tendency in movies and TV lately to normalize extreme dysfunction, but I also don’t consider those shows to be an affront or an influence on my more “normal” life.  They are just entertainment, after all.  I don’t think people take the extreme portrayals too seriously.

Hollywood is very invested in portraying a variety of underdogs so that there is more empathy for those minority groups.  This, perhaps more than anything, has led to wider acceptance of non-traditional norms.  I imagine this is the thing E. Cook is most concerned about.  And yet, given how effective it is, I don’t see Hollywood changing its approach.  Tolerance happens.  This talk isn’t going to change that.  As Madge would say on the Palmolive commercial:  “You’re soaking in it.”

Elder David A. Bednar recently cautioned members to be authentic in the use of social media. A prominent thought leader, Arthur C. Brooks, has emphasized this point. He observes that when using social media, we tend to broadcast the smiling details of our lives but not the hard times at school or work. We portray an incomplete life—sometimes in a self-aggrandizing or fake way. We share this life, and then we consume the “almost exclusively … fake lives of [our] social media ‘friends.’” Brooks asserts, “How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are, and the other part of your time seeing how much happier others seem to be than you?”

The point about comparing our (known) fake lives to others (unacknowledged) fake lives is well taken.  People do tend to self-aggrandize on social media by presenting an incomplete picture of their imperfect lives.  Pictures of us look flattering, not disgusting, and sometimes that means they don’t even look like us anymore.

I am not a fan of the authenticity that equates to TMI status updates quite obviously trolling for sympathy, though.  Is that really better for us psychologically?  There is something to be said for accentuating the positive.  We do that IRL as well as online.  I’m also unconvinced that Mormon social media models the behavior E. Cook describes. [6]  Au contraire.

Sometimes it feels like we are drowning in frivolous foolishness, nonsensical noise, and continuous contention. When we turn down the volume and examine the substance, there is very little that will assist us in our eternal quest toward righteous goals. One father wisely responds to his children with their numerous requests to participate in these distractions. He simply asks them, “Will this make you a better person?”

I love this test:  Is this making me a better person?  Does our blogging make us better people?  I think that depends largely on the group of people with whom we engage, the topics, and the attitudes that we have in those discussions.  If the discussions lead us to excuse our own behavior while focusing on the faults of others, then no, they are not making us better people.  If the discussions help us to gain clarity about our values, they can be great; if they exchange our values for those of other people we deem “cooler,” then not so great.  Incidentally, that happens in church sometimes, too, which is a frequent discussion in the bloggernacle, the tendency of some members to spend a lot of time judging others as “less” because they don’t fit the mold and using social pressures to get people to conform.  Same problem, different manifestation.

I  am particularly concerned with foolishness and being obsessed with “every new thing” . . .

I certainly see this with my kids, and I’m sure my parents saw it with my generation’s obsession for parachute pants, synthesizer music, and Atari game consoles.  “Every new thing” is too much, but where do we draw the line?  Keeping current with technology is essential in our work lives, and increasingly so in our personal lives.  Will any of us be able to retire given that we have to continue to buy a new phone and new laptop every 2-3 years?  What if that pace of change accelerates? [7]  My dad was a nuclear engineer. He worked on the moon launch.  But when I visited my parents a few years ago at Christmas, he was doing sudoku with a pencil.  Is that what retirement is going to be?  Eschewing rapid changing technology due to a fixed income? /sad emoticon [8]

Many choices are not inherently evil, but if they absorb all of our time and keep us from the best choices, then they become insidious. . . . My intent is not to discourage participation in sports or the use of the Internet or other worthwhile activities young people enjoy. They are the kind of activities that require moderation, balance, and wisdom. When used wisely, they enrich our lives.

E. Cook shifts to prioritization as a way to find balance.  He continues:

However, I encourage everyone, young and old, to review goals and objectives and strive to exercise greater discipline. Our daily conduct and choices should be consistent with our goals. We need to rise above rationalizations and distractions.

He concludes:

My prayer is that as a body of priesthood holders, we will make our conduct consistent with the noble purposes required of those who are in the service of the Master. In all things we should remember that being “valiant in the testimony of Jesus” is the great dividing test between the celestial and terrestrial kingdoms.

I think he just implied that the terrestrial kingdom is going to have better internet.  Choices, choices.

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[1]  My DVR, like the church’s PR department, recognizes the Priesthood session (and not the Women’s General meeting) as part of General Conference.

[2] He always inserts his resume into his talks, so I’m pretty sure he’s got some chops.

[3] Even Ted Bundy had a few friends.

[4] Portrayal of extremes broadens our perception of normal.

[5] As my nephew’s wife put it, “You people are horrid.”  We were just talking about how our parents made the kids go to the bathroom in a cup rather than making a pit stop on road trips.  This is not a practice that has spanned generations, but **it happens.  In a Big Gulp cup in some families.

[6] You could debate that the I’m a Mormon campaign comes close, or you could say that kind of “deliberate diversity” is exactly what’s being decried by E. Cook’s talk.

[7] When we went to visit my parents in December of last year, my dad was picking us up at the airport.  After we got our bags, I called his cell phone repeatedly but couldn’t reach him.  I finally called my mom who hadn’t come to the airport, and she said he was there somewhere, but she didn’t know why he wasn’t picking up.  I finally started checking every car waiting out front until I found him.  I asked why he hadn’t been answering his phone, and he said he got rid of it because he didn’t need it anymore.

[8] #authenticity

**This OP is a reprint of one I did at BCC after April Gen Conf.