Those who are on Reddit will recognize the acronym AITA immediately. For those unfamiliar, it stands for “Am I the A-Hole?” In this discussion forum, people post personal stories of conflicts in their life and ask commenters’ opinions about whether they are in the wrong or not. There are three buckets of responses:

  • YTA. “You’re the a-hole,” or the commenter thinks that the author is in the wrong.
  • NTA. “Not the a-hole.” The commenter thinks the author is not in the wrong and may identify other bad actors in the conflict.
  • ESH. “Everyone sucks here.” The comment then points out all the various bad motives and behaviors they see at play in the conflict.

These things are pretty addictive as online rabbit-holes go. Sometimes the posts are pretty ridiculous, like a bridezilla who makes completely outrageous demands of her friends and wedding guests, then gets mad that nobody is making her feel like a princess on her special day. Or the dad who treated his daughter like Cinderella, forcing her to pay for her own extracurriculars while his son didn’t have to pay for his because “football could lead to a scholarship,” while he also made her cook all meals, do all cleaning, and pay for her own feminine hygiene products because he found them disgusting. That post sounded frankly made-up it was so outlandish. Some of the other posts appear to be written by people in abusive relationships whose abusers have trained them to internalize unearned blame for conflicts.

Usually, the answers are pretty astute and often entertaining. That’s not to say that the wisdom of the crowds is perfect. The discussion forum feels a little younger than average to me (at 54, groups of people are starting to feel that way). I’d guess there are a lot of 20- and 30-somethings commenting, and some of their conclusions feel a little generational to me. There’s a tendency, for example, to advise people that situations or people are “toxic” and to cut them out of your life rather than trying to resolve conflicts or to let people have a bad day. This is especially common when the conflict is in the poster’s family. It seems a little bit “trigger happy” to me, pun slightly intended.

Isn’t part of the point of families that we didn’t choose them, and that sometimes they are (and we are) a-holes? Being in a family can teach us how to appreciate weirdos that we would literally never associate with if we weren’t related, right? As the poet Robert Frost put it, “Home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” If we had chosen them, they’d be friends, not family.

I’m certainly not saying that we should give families a pass for truly damaging, abusive, or toxic behaviors. I know people whose families have literally stolen their savings, rendering them homeless. I knew quite a few women at BYU who were victims of parental incest where their mothers sided with their fathers against them. I know someone whose father tried to physically force him to donate an organ. Some families have disowned their own children for being queer, as we are all aware, particularly in the Church. There are definitely lines that once crossed may make it impossible to have a relationship with that person again without a real road to Damascus change on the part of the a-hole.

But there are also generation gaps and political divides that may feel important but not really be as important as we make them. Sometimes parents say insulting things. Kids make ultimatums or reckless choices due to a lack of experience and maturity. Our significant others may reject or undermine us openly or covertly. We think we’ve been treated unfairly when we compare ourselves to others in the family. We may disagree over care for a family member or how a will is written. These are the stuff of life. These situations aren’t great, nobody enjoys them, but we can find a way to work through them with time and patience.

I was thinking about a few of the stories I’ve heard shared at General Conference that sound like YTA issues:

  • A boy wants to marry his girlfriend until he notices that she has not removed a second pair of earrings. Instead of talking with her like a normal adult human being, he passive-aggressively breaks off the relationship because she does not act like an automaton in “following the prophet.”
  • A husband’s wife has painful cancer, so he saves up for a year to buy her an ironing machine, begging the questions: 1) who was ironing those shirts with tears running down her face during that long year, and 2) what is wrong with the men in this family being unwilling to iron their own damn shirts?
  • A father explains to his gay son that even though they love him, he and his partner will never be allowed to stay at the house or to join in family meals with them or be acknowledged in any way as a couple.

These stories which were told to laud the person in the story as a hero and exemplar, definitely sounded the opposite of what they perceived when I heard them. That’s the beauty of the AITA forum. Individuals often hear things hidden in the story that just don’t quite sound right, that raise some questions about the motives or actions of the individual.

For example, there was a recent AITA about a woman who said she had a bad relationship with her brother-in-law who sued her, but she didn’t want to get into the details. Her sister had recently died, and she had invited her nieces to live with her family, but not their father, and the father was separated from his children. She mentioned she lives in the house their mother used to own. Because she deliberately avoided explaining the lawsuit, the AITA community’s spidey senses were tingling. Many of them were lawyers who were raising questions about whether the house really belonged to the poster or did she basically cut her sister’s family out of their rightful shared inheritance. It was a twist I admit I didn’t really see coming, but I’ve never been involved in an inheritance conflict, so it went right over my head.

Which brings me back to the above “Church-sanctioned” scenarios. While I personally find it very easy to see wrongdoing in all three of these situations, they also point out the blind spots of the individuals sharing the stories. If you think that it’s obvious that you should immediately sever ties with anyone less orthodox, less blindly obedient than you are, then you won’t think twice about the first scenario. It may not even occur to you to wonder why someone considering marriage to another person could be so easily swayed by a pair of earrings that he wouldn’t even have a conversation about it, instead waiting and watching to judge her behavior and dump her if she doesn’t do what he thinks she should. That’s a guy nobody should marry. Future incels of the world, unite! This is your story!

In the second story, if you heard this story growing up and you know your father to be someone who tenderly loves your mother and would willingly sacrifice for her, the idea that the simple solution of ironing his own shirts never occurred to him might slip past your notice. Or you might assume that your mother refused any help, despite the crippling pain, believing it to be her sacred duty or some such. Stories we hear as children are often prone to blind spots like this. Only an outsider hearing them will question the narrative.

In the final story, if you believe that “acting” on one’s homosexuality is a sin that is contagious to other family members, particularly impressionable children, well, you’re an idiot, but you’re not the only one. Apparently a majority of Floridians agree with you. Maybe you’re just too old to be living on this earth in 2022. If you further see yourself as knowing the will of God more than anyone else on the planet, you just might have a blind spot when it comes to empathy for queer people and a whole lot of other things. As humans, it’s hard to be objective. Personal growth is also harder the more successful you’ve been without it.

Here are a few more historical and church-site AITA scenarios I thought of:

  • I’ve been secretly marrying my wife’s friends (I have my reasons, not going to get into that here), but someone started publishing a paper criticizing me for it. Since I’m in a prominent position, this put me in danger, so I destroyed their printing press. Now they are coming after me. AITA?
  • My wife said she wanted a divorce, so I said go right ahead, but she’s not getting a dime from me if she does, and I pride myself on not knowing all my wives’ names anyway, so what do I care! I can easily replace her with two younger, hotter wives. AITA?
  • My science teacher was teaching about evolution, so I said I believed in the seven day creation story in Genesis. My teacher disagreed with me, so I bore my testimony which shut him right up. He was impressed with what I had said, and he told me he respected me for my beliefs. AITA? (Actually this is just more of a conservative Christian wet dream rather than anything that realistically happened).

The original AITA is a question most of us will be familiar with: “Lord, is it I?” You don’t have to be Martin Harris or one of the original twelve apostles to benefit from a little humility and introspection. I was delighted to find a talk by E. Uchtdorf in 2014 on just this topic, something we all would benefit from hearing more about:

“In these simple words, ‘Lord is it I?’ lies the beginning of wisdom and the pathway to personal conversion and lasting change.”

He told of a research experiment in which scientists had college students participate in a series of tests on various life skills and found that the students who performed poorly were the least accurate in evaluating their own performance, some of them estimating their scores to be five times higher than they actually were.

“The study has been replicated in numerous ways, confirming over and over again the same conclusion: Many of us have a difficult time seeing ourselves as we truly are, and even successful people overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the contributions that others make . . .”

Something I like about the AITA forum is that no matter the outcome, the outside perspective provided by commenters often points to blind spots, giving people new ways to view their own behavior and the behavior of those around them. At its worst, it can lead to a lot of clamoring about toxic “others” who need to be cut off, sometimes for infractions that may be simplistically understood at best (or are being misrepresented by the one writing the post). At its best, it can help people change their own problematic behaviors, get out of their comfort zones, understand their family dynamics with fresh eyes, or get out of abusive situations.

  • Do you think we need more “AITA” introspection at Church?
  • Are there other Church stories you can think of that you doubted were as clear cut as what was presented?
  • Can you think of a time when outside feedback completely changed your perspective on a situation? Please share!