At 3pm, the Friday before Christmas, we were rounded up for an impromptu all-hands meeting.  It wasn’t exactly “all-hands”, as half of us had already left for the Christmas break, but those of us who remained figured something bad was happening.  The other times all-hands meetings had been called in this manner, somebody’d been fired.  This was worse.  They’d just found out that my co-worker — the guy I’d sat next to for the past 4 years — had been found dead.

We were, of course, shocked.  I had been a little surprised when he hadn’t shown and hadn’t called in, but I figured since he’d just completed a project, he probably considered himself on a long leash.  pexels-photo-287748Maybe he’d left on his Christmas trip a little early, or needed the day off to get ready.  But no, his brother hadn’t heard from him for too long and brought the authorities to open his apartment door.  They’d found him dead in bed.

Needless to say, it was an extremely sobering way to start off Christmas.  Mike and I were total opposites, and everybody thought it was funny (or evidence of my fall from grace) that’d we’d been assigned to sit together.  I was the straight-laced family-oriented Mormon and he was the loud-mouthed, hard-drinking bachelor sixteen years my younger.  Surprisingly, we got along just fine.  Mike had a certain charisma and charm, and he had a very positive and hard-working attitude when it came to “crap-work”.  He’d grown up the son of a tobacco farmer and turned himself into a pretty sharp engineer, and he’d spent a good part of his early career on overseas assignments placating our Korean taskmasters at our most important customer.  His charm and attitude were so good, he was literally taking the VP’s children to the amusement park as a babysitting “favor” after working a 70-hr week.  He was very funny and likable.  But he swore a lot, said and did inappropriate things at work, and was a material component of two ex-employees’ wrongful termination lawsuits.  He’d quit attending company parties because once, all liquored up, he’d almost said enough to get himself fired.  Philosophically we disagreed on just about everything.  I remember us talking about abortion, and him stating his opinion that it was no different than pulling a plant.  I’d said that I didn’t think most pregnant women felt that way, whether they chose an abortion or not, and he said it was only because people like me made them feel guilty about it.  Sex to him was recreation.  He liked to shock me with his stories and kept threatening (jokingly) to show up at LDS singles’ activities to see just how “Mormon” the women really were.

The past year he’d become erratic, coming in really late, sleeping at his desk, calling in sick on Mondays, and his personality and manner of speaking changed from day to day.  He confessed to being a drug addict, but didn’t tell me what it was he was addicted to.  He’d made several half-hearted attempts to quit smoking, get exercise, and generally clean up his life, but after a week or so, everything would go back to normal.  Finally, it all caught up to him.  It appears he probably just combined the wrong substances before bed and that was it.  Life over.

My co-workers’ reactions were as expected.  Most wondered what they could have done, and why they hadn’t tried to do more.  Yes, they’d all seen him decline, but nobody thought he’d fallen that low.  A couple felt bad for Mike but made it clear that he’d had resources to get help, and he’d made the choice not to take advantage of them.  He’d made his own deathbed, so to speak, and we shouldn’t blame ourselves.  One was actually angry, suggesting that if anything, we should’ve complained about how erratic and disruptive Mike had become, spreading his garbage everywhere — maybe if Mike thought he was about to lose his job, it would have been the wake-up call he’d needed.

My most distressed co-worker (the only woman in the group) called me over the Christmas break, wanting to talk through it, feeling a lot of guilt that she hadn’t done more.  When work resumed, she told me she’d called her mother in India about it too, and her mother used the opportunity to accuse her generation of not having adequate structure.  “You’re all willing to try things — some things you shouldn’t ever try!”  I presume she meant if Mike had never tried drugs or alcohol as a kid, he wouldn’t have ended up the way he did.  She proceeded to point out that her daughter wasn’t much better.  “Your kids have no beliefs!”  (my co-worker and her husband are upper-caste Indians, she Hindu and he Catholic, but they’ve become completely secular).  “You drink alcohol in your home — in front of your kids!  How are your kids going to make good choices?  How will they understand that some things you simply don’t do — not ever! — if they have no faith?”  The conversation as reported was as disjointed as written, but I understood the points.  It resonated enough with my co-worker for her to be shaken.

I live in a pretty permissive area.  Youth around here generally don’t think very much is “really bad”.  Marijuana is not really bad.  Alcohol is not really bad.  Sex isn’t bad unless someone is coerced.  Vaping isn’t bad.  Smoking IS bad — for you.  Cheating on a test isn’t that bad, but don’t get caught.  Lying isn’t bad unless it hurts someone.  Sexting isn’t bad.  Racism IS bad.  Homophobia IS bad.  Getting pregnant IS bad.  Abortion isn’t good, but it’s better than being pregnant.  Drugs are kind of bad because you can get addicted.  Stealing isn’t bad unless it hurts someone (ie., pirating is fine, taking from an institution is just risky, taking someone’s things IS bad, unless it’s just candy or something like that).  This is just the culture at the high school.  Judging from Mike’s stories, I get the impression that his high school growing up was pretty permissive too, notwithstanding being in bible belt.  He was experimenting with “not that bad” from a young age.

The church youth in my area seem better, but jumping into an empty golf cart you have no right to and taking it for a joy ride was considered funny.   Some of them think raiding the kitchen between 2nd and 3rd hours to steal the Single’s Ward’s food for their linger-longer is okay.  Stealing candy from a youth leader’s bag and lying to her about it wasn’t considered THAT big of a deal.  I’ve even heard an active youth say “we’ve done everything you can do except actual sex — but we haven’t had sex!”, the idea being that only penis-in-vagina sex is actually THAT bad.

The permissive attitudes of the adults in my area definitely contribute to teens’ shenanigans. We all tended to brush off the golf cart incident as boys being boys, because “they’re good kids, but they were just a little dumb that time”.  Of course, the golf course management and the police certainly didn’t see it that way.  Those boys were originally charged with felonies — probably to impress on their minds, and the minds of their parents, that yes, it was THAT bad.

The fact is that our kids, and many of their parents, have a progressive form of morality — namely that how immoral an action is is determined by who and how much someone gets hurt.  If there’s no obvious victim, there’s no real crime.  Having your girlfriend give you a blow-job, therefore, isn’t immoral, because she’s willing, and nobody’s getting hurt.  Cheating on a test, therefore, isn’t immoral, because whatever harm it does (shifting the curve) is distributed over a big enough group that nobody is really hurt.  Experimenting with drugs, therefore, might not be a good idea, but it’s not immoral, since the only person that could get hurt is you.  And of course, taking the golf cart, therefore, wasn’t immoral, because they weren’t going to keep it and nobody got hurt.

But… I think a lot of hurt can be done that isn’t immediately apparent.

Funny enough, my co-worker’s conversation with her mother brought to mind a BCC post by EmJen (Emily Jensen?) from a few years back which has somehow stuck with me.  EmJen was offended by Wendy Watson Nelson’s (President Nelson’s wife’s) childrens’ book, The Not Even Once ClubNotEvenOnceClubAt the end of the book was a pledge the children were encouraged to make, to not break a list of basic commandments, “not even once”.  EmJen felt it set children up for failure by making them feel that if they break a rule even once, they’re out of the club.  It didn’t teach them the atonement, just the commandment.  So EmJen presented her progressive-Mormon corrected version of the pledge.

Most people in the comment thread complained that the church so emphasizes the commandments to children that they get the idea that they earn their way to heaven, don’t understand the concept of grace, and just feel unnecessary shame.   Ardis Parshall pushed back, saying

What I hear you saying is that we should teach “Thou shalt not X — but we all know you’re going to do it anyway.” If that isn’t an uncertain trumpet, I don’t know what is.

In a world where everybody says “go ahead — just once won’t hurt you” (with this post’s corollary, “… you might as well, because the atonement is a get-out-of-jail-free card”), teaching that it’s NOT okay to smoke or seek pornography or cheat or break the law of chastity even once is NOT a bad thing. It isn’t comprehensive (what child’s book is?), but neither is it wrong.

(Angela C., of course, weighed in by citing a study that pledges don’t work).  It’s an interesting post and comment thread, and I can see both sides of the argument.

When I grew up in the church, I was taught in the manner EmJen was rejecting.  The focus was following Jesus’ example and keeping the commandments.  We were taught that we would be judged on our works, and that if we didn’t repent, we’d be damned.  We were taught that our choices decided who we were.  My personal integrity became integral to my self-worth.

In a very important way, this style of teaching worked for me.  Never in my life have I intentionally drunk alcohol.  Never have I tried drugs.  Never have I had sex with anyone other than my wife.  Never have I shoplifted.  My self-worth was based on whether I kept the commandments.

But, I also fell pretty short of my ideals in other ways.  As a teen, it became clear to me that I just wasn’t celestial material.  I was going to have to settle for the terrestrial.  I still wanted to be good, so I tried hard.  I tried to repent.  But I clearly wasn’t going to make it, and I grieved in my shame.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that Jesus wasn’t saving me through His example, but through His grace.  That’s when I felt truly free.  Turns out I’m celestial material after all.

But, I wonder how things would have gone for me if I’d understood as a youth that it was expected I’d break the commandments.  With my under-developed prefrontal cortex, what would I have been willing to try?  Would I have thought, “well, it’s not so bad — maybe just this once”?  What if I had tried alcohol?  What if I had had sex with my girlfriend?  Plenty of people did.  But those simple choices could have radically changed the course of my life.

Would I ever love the Savior the way I do now, if I never appreciated just how bad my sins were?

Church kids these days understand the atonement so much better than I did then.  But do they use it as a “get out of jail free” card as Ardis suggests?  How important to them is their integrity?  Upon what do they base their morality?  How many of them have the attitude “Not even once”?

What is happening to our society in general, when kids are being taught that all choices are valid, so long as they understand and accept the consequences and aren’t hurting anyone?

In all of Mike’s crazy stories, from whoring in Colombia to drinking in China, nothing that he told me about could be considered “all that bad”.  Even in those few bar fights (which he didn’t start), he wasn’t really trying to hurt anybody.  He was a charming, good-natured guy — he just loved the inappropriate, and was willing to try anything that wasn’t clearly “really bad”.  And now he’s dead, and there is a lot of hurt.