“It feels good not to be trammeled.”Joseph Smith, founding a Church that becomes a bastion of conformity
I was recently listening to a podcast I stumbled across called Latter-day Struggles. It’s a pretty good podcast, although I don’t normally (sorry guys) listen to or enjoy Mormon podcasts. This one is a little more general, focused on psychology and avoiding (to an extent) specific references to Mormonism, instead applying its discussion to conservative Christian sects generally. In this recent episode, they discussed the idea that there are two broad types of people at Church: those who have not struggled or suffered, and those who have.
Those who have not experienced suffering enjoy what the podcasters called a pseudo-community (here’s where I start paraphrasing and probably mess up their actual points), which is superficial and based on structural associations, but it doesn’t rise to the level of true friendship because there is no vulnerability or depth to the relationships. This lack of relationship results in a “pseudo-community,” one that is discussed frequently in online Mormon (and ex-Mormon) spaces. People lament that those they thought were their friends didn’t care when they quit coming to Church, or weren’t really their friends when they went through a personal struggle, or ditched the relationship as soon as they expressed doubts, or only discussed Church related things with them, etc. It’s a very common conversation. In the podcast, they mentioned that there aren’t many Churches that actually create a real community because people are seldom vulnerable and raw with each other (which I gotta be honest sounds awful anyway). They said it’s why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are successful at creating empathy and deep relationships whereas Church is just not good at that. Church is really more of a country club than a hospital, but it plays a doctor on TV.
Speaking of playing a doctor on TV, we have been re-watching M*A*S*H episodes chronologically since most of our TV shows are not currently on (they mostly hold up, believe it or not), and last night we got to Season 2, Episode 22 “George.” In this episode, a soldier is being operated on for his 4th time having been hit in the line of fire. Frank and Margaret laud what a brave hero he is for his service. Hawkeye & Trapper note that he’s also covered in bruises.
The patient, George, sees that Hawkeye is a caring person and confides to him that his bruises are due to his unit finding out that he’s gay and beating him up. Because homosexuality is grounds for dishonorable discharge in the army during the Korean war, he pleads for Hawkeye to keep his secret and make sure he can get back to the front lines and finish his service honorably. While Hawkeye doesn’t divulge his sexual orientation, Frank finds out from gossip and immediately works to notify the army to dishonorably discharge this “pervert” as he calls him.
In true M*A*S*H fashion, Hawkeye points out directly to Frank that it’s none of his business, and that he’s a pious hypocrite since he’s having an affair with Margaret (often including weird fetishes). Frank is unmoved, so Trapper & Hawkeye entrap Frank into divulging that he cheated on his medical exams, which they threaten to use to ruin Frank’s practice at home. This is portrayed as an equivalent threat, but also (troublingly) as an equivalent “transgression.” Both men (George & Frank) have “made mistakes,” and why can’t Frank see that and let bygones be bygones?
This episode originally aired February 16, 1974. That was almost 50 years ago. It was more compassionate toward homosexuality than some things I’ve heard from the Church in the last six months.
What it got right: the hypocrisy and lack of empathy of homophobic, supposedly religious people like Frank. The character of Frank Burns is always portrayed as the worst impulses of Americans and the military: lauding bravery while displaying cowardice, pretending religiousness despite having been a serial adulterer his entire life, and making plenty of contradictory statements in a whining, self-defensive voice that illustrate his fecklessness and hypocrisy. What the episode missed or at least did not address: the fact that this kid, who was already gravely injured 4 times, was begging to go back to the front lines where he would again face the prospect of being killed. The fifth time’s the charm?
Rather than treating this like what it appeared to be to me (suicidal ideation), they showed that he was the bravest soldier, not at all a threat to his unit, but instead a true hero, unlike people like Frank. While that’s a fine message (and important in a homophobic military), it’s also not typical for M*A*S*H which normally portrays gung-ho types as the real risk to their units, the ones who stupidly charge into danger, putting everyone in the crosshairs in their quest for glory. M*A*S*H is at its heart an anti-war sitcom, using the Korean war as a placeholder for criticising the Vietnam war.
I appreciated that it showed that a gay man could be a patriotic, brave soldier (especially given all the effeminate slurs the spineless and cowardly Frank uses to describe gay people), but I would have liked the show to comment on the toll it takes on someone to be gay when surrounded by this kind of derision and fear of coming out, and the very real and repeated threats to his safety. Were his injuries evidence of his bravery, or of his unit being unwilling to provide him cover, seeing his life as worthless due to his sexual orientation?
The show deals with homosexuality quite often, but usually in underdeveloped ways, mostly as a joke, but never revulsion. Even Klinger, who cross-dresses to get a Section 8, is treated with respect and admiration for his total commitment and his fashion choices. Only the characters who illustrate negative character traits (like Frank, Col. Flagg, or others who represent war-mongering hyper-masculine types or religious hypocrites) treat others with contempt. I’ve just been thinking about this difficulty that some have in feeling empathy, and that it seems to go hand in hand with a patriotic fervor focused on its own righteousness and loyalty to the institution. Struggling, admitting doubts or fears, can be mistranslated as disloyalty to the mission or the organization.
In a recent church talk, the speaker talked about her pioneer forebears, detailing their struggles, including burying newborns, losing loved ones to illness, and physical hardships that are beyond our imagination. She insisted that these paragons of long-suffering virtue were never sad despite these problems. They never grumbled or doubted. They cheerfully went on their way as if it was just another Tuesday. I might have detached a retina in the eyeroll her assertions prompted. She might believe that her ancestors never complained or that they were cheerful as they buried a baby in the desert, but I don’t believe it.
More importantly, though, why would anyone tell such a story? The point of shared suffering is often to build empathy and compassion, to bring people closer together through vulnerability. But her stories were not about suffering. They were about suffering being the enemy to be avoided. That faith requires us to be cheerful constantly as evidence of our rightness. That only the weak or bad people find suffering to be difficult. Good people maintain cheer in the face of adversity. Not only is this hogwash, it’s downright dangerous. This type of detachment is how sociopaths think. For people who’ve actually suffered, this kind of happy talk is hurtful.
As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singth songs to an heavy heart.Proverbs 25:20
I don’t actually think she’s a sociopath, just someone who doesn’t really have a lot of empathy, who finds being “right” more important than being human, someone who hasn’t really suffered, someone for whom pseudo-community is not only enough but at risk and needing to be protected from the messiness of life. That kind of attitude is fine for Primary maybe, but it’s just not worth my time as an adult. And it seems to be, more and more, what’s on offer.
At one point in the M*A*S*H episode, Frank reveals his revulsion about the homosexual soldier in an exchange with Pierce and Trapper:
Frank: Don’t you understand? The man is not normal.
Trapper: What’s normal?
Frank: Everybody doing the same thing.
Pierce: What about individuality?
Frank: Individuality’s fine. As long as we all do it together.https://subslikescript.com/series/MASH-68098/season-2/episode-22-George
Suffering is not a group activity, and it is one of the things that make us unique. Keeping our meetings patriotic, focused on obedience, fealty to leaders, and a sort of patriotic religiosity makes it a place where empathy can’t really exist because nobody can be real. We have to be performing our happiness because anything other than that would imply the church isn’t enough to fix every problem. But that forced cheerfulness is itself a problem.
- Do you find Church to be a pseudo-community or have you created truer, deeper relationships with your fellow Mormons? What made the difference?
- Do you see a lack of empathy as a problem at Church?
- Do you find the comparison of Church with the military instructive or misplaced? Explain your answer.
- Are you a M*A*S*H fan?
 We are re-watching on Hulu Premium because conventional TV is cutting so much content out of the episodes to fit in more commercials that they don’t really even make sense!
 I can literally feel my teeth beginning to grind when a speaker inevitably steers into his or her personal pioneer pedigree.
It’s just one type of suffering, but I’ve found lots of community among Mormons among those who have doubted. I think it’s such a particular shared experience, to feel like an outsider in your own church just because you can’t swallow everything that’s considered orthodox. And I suspect this is particularly so because the LDS church is so demanding of time and resources, and so adamant about being the only correct one. I’ve seen people saying, since the beginning of the Bloggernacle, how they’re so happy to find they’re not alone in their issues with the Church.
It makes me think of this bit that I found so striking in Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday, where she talks about asking people she meets if they’ve ever doubted:
Our lack of empathy is seen as a feature not a bug – to the extent that we brag about it at funerals. That is NOT a good look.
🎶”🙁No one likes a frowny face. Change it for a smile. Make the world a better place by smiling all the while.🙂”🎶
That song was a constant in Primary where I grew up in the 60s-70s, which was not in Utah.
It was drilled into us at home & church to look smart, smile big, and invite everyone to Primary & Church. Also, we don’t talk about our problems, we pray about them.
Where I live now, on the Wasatch Front, the drill continues. Not sure about the song. And yes, it is like the military. If you talk about your problem, any type of problem, it will be to your detriment. Because humans gossip. And Because Frank Burnses.
And because like in M*A*S*H*, our culture has made us too crazy stressed to really see each other’s problems. (Margaret to the other nurses: “Did you ever invite me to one of your little parties? Did you ever even once offer Me a damn cup of coffee?”)
For me the pandemic outed the pseudo-community in the Church. When so many refused to mask up and social distance for the safety of the more vulnerable, it revealed the lack of empathy that permeates LDS Church culture. Many of us still struggle to “unsee” that ugly failure. There are several members of my own ward, who, despite being absolutely TBM, will likely never grace another sacrament meeting this decade because what they perceived in the pandemic time period was an absolute violation of moral trust. These people lost family to the pandemic or suffered immensely from the disease. I know one can “forgive” the guilty and unrepentant and move on, but reconciliation and rebuilding moral trust in a community takes acknowledgement of reality, full commitment by all parties and a significant amount of chronological time. Do we have that?
Old Man – Many medical studies have shown the masks have absolutely no positive effect on the reduction of viruses. It isn’t a lack of empathy that leads people to not wear masks.
What a timely post. I have found the church in general to be a pseudo-community; one where empathy and “friendship” are extended only if you pass the various Mormon virtue tests (temple marriage, current temple recommend, puritanical view of sex, rigid view of gender roles, etc.). Inevitably, when someone new joins our ward and gives their first talk, part of that talk details their church service, how they met their spouse, which temple they married in, etc. It’s clearly a way to signal to the community at large that it’s okay to be friends with them. And such friendships, at least as I’ve observed, are based pretty much solely on shared beliefs, which, while that’s certainly a legitimate thing upon which to begin a friendship, I think it’s difficult to sustain relationships and community if, say, a number of folks in the community change their beliefs or decided not to believe any more. I have a few friends at church, but those friendships have been cultivated over years and are actually based a lot on the fact that none of us are true believers. I’d much rather have honesty and trust at the core of my friendships and not have my friendships based on conformity to a belief system that simply does. not pass the smell test.
I think Joni is spot on that there is a decided lack of empathy among Mormons and the reason that is so is that it’s seen as a lack of faith or some sort of character flaw if you aren’t immediately able to shrug off some horrible stuff, like the OP’s example of burying children or Joni’s examples of how Mormons are expected to behave at (and conduct) funerals. There’s this deeply harmful and dysfunctional idea in Mormonism that if you’re “truly” faithful, your faith not only sustains you, but also makes you impervious to any kind of traumatic event. That’s just wrong on every level. And the corollary is that, if you express any doubts or any sort of beliefs that deviate from the Mormon mainstream, you instantly become a pariah. That’s because anyone who expresses any doubt whatsoever is not to be loved, empathized with and treated with kindness; rather, they are seen as a threat to the true believers, the ones who have unshakeable faith, and therefore, doubters are to be utterly avoided. It’s like a really dysfunctional and deeply un-Christlike version of the emperor’s new clothes. I’d like to think that the few friends I have at church would still be my friends if I stopped attending, but I doubt they would. I don’t blame them; the church has been very good at convincing its members that conformity and obedience are the same thing as faith.
I had a friend who had breast cancer. She showed her fear of dying and leaving her small children to me, because, well I didn’t fit in at church because I didn’t play the “I am perfect and perfectly happy game.” Funny, but she trusted me because of the very things that the ward was rejecting me over. But at church, she was always smiling, and positive she was going to beat the cancer. But anyway, her husband was bishop, so she was under tremendous pressure to stay cheerful while she died of cancer. And her jerk husband, our “good” bishop didn’t even ask to be released as he watched her die. Then, since a bishop has to be married, the stake pressured him into a quick remarriage within seven months of his wife’s death, and that lasted about six months because he was not allowed to mourn his wife. But he couldn’t remain bishop, work, and care for six children, the youngest barely two. But, ya’know the church released him quickly when that second wife divorced him. Hilarious that the church will not release a man with his wife on her death bed, but will when the wife walks out. Just so God damned hypocritical that it makes me sick.
Yup, we have a problem of pretending we have no problem. In a sane world, that is called denial and is seen as a worse problem than the problem you are pretending you don’t have.
I love Latter-day Struggles podcast. If you are interested in the LGBTQ issue episodes 54 and 55 are good.
The idea that suffering changes how we see the world really resonates for me. I know living through suffering in my family has changed me. Living through so much makes it hard for me to sit quietly while the man in charge preaches how he thinks I should live think and feel. Meanwhile, he just doesn’t know anything about what I am grappling with. And he doesn’t want to to know. Telling him what reality is, can be seen as “murmuring” and thus sinful.
I choose to break out of the pseudo community and speak up. This is the only way to change anything. People don’t know what they don’t know. I have had some successes in my community by being real and authentic and speaking up. It is difficult, because people who haven’t suffered really cannot easily understand. So I have to be willing to forgive failures in compassion and keep preaching mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who need comfort.
It’s really important that the church has people that will do this or we will become an organization that only focuses on judging people for failures in self reliance and personal purity. I speak up at every opportunity reminding others what following Jesus Christ really means. To me it means connecting with those who are afflicted, as Jesus did.
Great post! My wife and I are big fans of M*A*S*H and can regularly quote lines from the show to each other, knowing that the other will get the meaning right away. My personal favorite episodes are any that feature Sidney Freedman or Col. Flagg. Another favorite is “Capt. Tuttle”, in which the protagonists invent an imaginary officer, and through the rumor mill and the need for conformity, the rouse takes on a life of its own. Always leaves me in stitches. You could probably make a solid post on that episode alone, and draw any number of analogies from it.
I agree that the whole conformity/lack of empathy thing is strong in the Church. That culture also exists in the military. At least the military paid me to put up with the BS; the Church expects me not just to put up with it, but to happily embrace it, and to pay for the privilege. I find it ironic that such an institutional lack of empathy exists in an organization that claims to have a much deeper understanding of the atonement of Christ than the rest of Christendom.
I am reminded of the film Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams’ character’s advice to his students is thus: “Carpe Diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.” He then encourages the young men to explore their individuality and follow their passions, often against the norms of the stuffy conformist prep school. I don’t recall ever in Church being empowered to make my own life extraordinary, but to conform, obey, limit my passions and “get with the program” (nowadays known as the Covenant Path). The message I received was that Jesus doesn’t want us to be extraordinary, He wants us to be lock-step rule-followers (my later post-orthodox readings of the NT showed me that, rather, the opposite is true). Fortunately, I found such individual empowerment elsewhere, but I also felt like I had to defy the teachings of the Church to do it.
About 11 years ago this month, my wife suffered a miscarriage while I was away on a business trip. The response from our faith community was “been there done that” or “you will raise them in the next life” or “well you already have two kids anyway” or “you are still young.” We assumed these responses were normal until my wife’s non-religious siblings simply said “I’m so sorry.” It really made me realize that these responses are polar opposites. It was hard to go through this not together. The community really failed us. When there is so much focus on the next life, I suppose it’s easy to just shrug off this life’s pain. But now that I’m less certain about the next life, I care more about this one.
During December, my best friend was called into the bishopric and I am now working with him since I was/am the deacon’s advisor. So I bluntly told him that I will not always be there and cannot go on any temple trips. For the first time in four years since our faith crisis he wanted to know more. I decided to be brief and said it’s three things: having a non-binary child, not feeling a sense of belonging, and truth claims. I only mentioned the first two before he changed the subject. I guess he wasn’t really ready. Oh well.
Anna’s story makes me very sad.
All that to say, we could be better at empathy and relationships.
What a world we live in where all the shows we grew up with are now at our fingertips. I was a little young for MASH so it’s not been my thing. But re-watching a few shows from my teen years has shown me that even in the 80s and 90s Hollywood was very accepting of the queer community, showing compassion for the AIDS epidemic, and generally seeking a level of understanding of the world that is still very lacking in our faith community in 2023.
Chadwick: OK now I feel like I have to evangelize M*A*S*H a bit. It really is unique among sitcoms for two reasons: 1) It was the first sit-com that successfully morphed into a “dramedy” by dealing with a horrific situation (war) in a very fast-paced comedic way, and 2) the pacing of the dialogue is very quick and full of quotable quips. It’s a real joy. When my son was 11, I had turned on a M*A*S*H rerun while I was doing something in the kitchen, and when he protested about this “old lady” show, I told him if he could make it ten minutes without laughing out loud, I’d change the channel. He didn’t even make it to the opening credits!
You also mentioned having an enby (as do I), and I read a comment in an online forum that was kind of heart-breaking. A woman with an NB child was explaining it to a long-term ward friend and also talked about pronouns, and that it’s hard to remember, but important to support. This “friend” replied, “Or you can just decline.” And she said, “Decline what?” The “friend” said, just tell them “No, I’m not going to use those pronouns. You’re always going to be [deadname] to me, and I’m not playing along.” It’s really hard to remain friends with people who are so lacking in common courtesy, who make no attempt to empathize or show compassion.
Jack Hughes: The Dead Poets Society comparison is a good one, dealing with that same “golden” time period of the 1950s, when conformity and obedience were considered the pinnacle of human achievement, but in reality, they are soul-crushing. They make us feel “trammeled.”
Re: the suffering of grief, one of my first posts ever was about Boyd Packer’s instructions that funerals were not supposed to be about the deceased, but instead should be a church meeting, essentially using the corpse as a visual aid in a lesson on the plan of salvation. That’s some breathtaking lack of empathy right there. It’s probably one reason that some of the best Mormons I know are psychologists, people who not only take mental health seriously, but know something about it. It’s far too common for average members to mock the idea that someone might not just power through their emotions. Years ago, I had a teen with depression & anxiety, and some ward members we weren’t super close friends with offered to go by their work. I said, “Oh, I’m sure they’d like that if you said hello.” I had misunderstood. They intended to bully my child out of feeling depressed and anxious by explaining that it was all in their head and they should just get over it. Uhm, no thanks, a-holes.
I have a friend who recently left the church with his wife and 5 children. Former EQ president. We were just talking about this idea last night. He was wondering how to raise his children to know that they didn’t have to have a lot of children without implying that they didn’t want all of their children themselves. He regrets many of his life decisions prior to his leaving the church. I defended him (though, of course, I had to put down the church to do so) by saying that none of us were given any tools to make our own decisions: about marriage, about children, about gender roles, etc. There was one way. There was nothing to decide in these matters. I want to believe it’s somehow different for the younger generation, that the church has matured, but it hasn’t.
My father is also near death. And I will greatly resent that his funeral will not be about him, but about the Church. I know that he would want it that way, which I respect. And yet it saddens me greatly that his identity, his life, doesn’t matter to him. He didn’t believe himself a God in embryo. He believed himself nothing more than a ball of clay in the hands of all powerful God who (he wouldn’t ever admit this) didn’t trust him enough to make significant decisions on his own.
And now the Church is even doubling down on controlling how people talk to God. The arrogance, the power plays, the demands of loyalty and conformity over all is, is stifling and kills. My father and mother are more zombie than living people; they don’t even like to go on walks together because they have nothing to say to each other, no fire between them–only the knowledge that they have done their ‘duty’ here in life. THAT is sad heaven, Dr. Nelson. That is sad heaven. The one you want people to get on board with.
Angela C: I’m willing to give MASH a go =). I recall my older brothers watching it and they really enjoyed it.
Our last bishop, upon finding out our child was non-binary, had no idea what that meant. When it was explained to him by our YW President (my wife’s best friend) he said “I guess that’s fine if it’s about gender and not about sex.” He doesn’t know we know about that conversation, but I couldn’t even attend church for a month after that. Your story above is even worse. It really does tire continually taking your family to participate in a community that’s just not safe.
I also really liked this quote from EagleLady: “Also, we don’t talk about our problems, we pray about them.” That seem about right. I hope this changes. We can and should do both.
Life is full of suffering. That is irrefutable fact. Any attempt to pretend otherwise does mankind a disservice, and it denies the very essence of the Divine Plan.
Those who preach that suffering does not exist are out of touch. Life is not about sitting around in sweatpants and crocs in a basement while seeking to avoid any experience that carries the slightest risk of pain. That would be a worthless existence.
The irrefutable fact is that we were placed here to seek excellence in everything we do in order to obtain joy. That requires putting oneself out in the world to work hard, and that carries a risk of failure and suffering.
This preaching that we should ignore suffering will ironically create even more suffering. It will lead impressionable youth to sit in basements playing violent video games to avoid the world and its suffering. That will lead to nothing but suffering in the long run.
I ❤️ MASH and I think I’ve seen all the episodes although it was before the streaming media era and so don’t know for sure. So many good one liners!
I’ve not thought about the church as a pseudo community before this post but it makes sense. My experience is that when I was in a ward leadership calling everyone was friend and my wife’s friend. My wife is a private person and has never had many friends and so this was a good and new experience for her. She and I both received Stake callings right as Covid started and since then I’m not aware of a single person asking how we are and why we don’t attend church. It’s not because they know we have stake callings- one person asked if we had divorced so they at least noticed we were absent. The underlying assumption was that if we weren’t active that we had divorced??
In their defense, the church asks so much from people that most active members are exhausted and happy that their marriage is still semi-functioning. There isn’t much time for anything not church related.
EagleLady: “we don’t talk about our problems, we pray about them.” Thanks to Chadwick for pointing this out. It reminded me of something I wrote about in my mission memoir, a story in which due to mission rules, my companion & I were completely inactive for over a month. The rule was that you had to have an investigator with you or you were not admitted to church. The missionary leaders would police the door, and if you came empty handed, you were sent away. Missionaries were grabbing drunk people off the street or bus to drag them to meetings. It was not great. We had just had six baptisms in one day, and so we had no investigators, and after a few weeks of us being “inactive,” our new members and the ward members were asking us what in the heck was up with us. We had to defend the rule to explain our absence.
I prayed and prayed that the rule would be changed. One day, inspiration struck and instead of praying about it I told the mission president in a lengthy letter about the unintended consequences of this incredibly stupid policy, that it fostered mistrust from the members, and that our new members were unsupported. Within two weeks it was changed! (I’m not sure it was my complaint, though, as everyone hated the rule, and often changes were prompted by well-connected missionaries complaining to GAs).
hawkgrrrl- Thank you for this piece. It is timely and important.
In your OP you said …”In the podcast, they mentioned that there aren’t many Churches that actually create a real community because people are seldom vulnerable and raw with each other (which I gotta be honest sounds awful anyway.)”…
Would you mind elaborating on why being vulnerable and raw in a church community sounds awful to you? And is that personally, or listening to others, or both? No judgment at all. Just curious and wanting to learn what you and others think.
I usually only take time to comment on BBill Sunday blog. However, with the topic of M*A*S*H*, I have to share my thoughts.
I grew up in SLC and watched MASH, at 5 PM and 11 PM, every weekday evening and when it aired on Monday PM for original programing. Then Sunday again, at 11 PM, after Dick Norse and Mark Eubank. It was my favorite show from 1978-1988. (I was too young to watch in 1972). I had seen every episode at least 10+ times. (we only had 3 stations during those years). When the final episode aired in 1983 it was the most watched TV show of our generation. A day was not complete without MASH.
It was amazing, how MASH aired on LDS owned KSL, when it had so many ideas contrary to LDS teachings. It also conflicted with FHE on Monday. The irony that KSL ran MASH for so many years for financial profit, but disagreed with the content of the program. MASH was the highest rated program in Utah for years.
Although I was TBM all those years, I definitely agreed, back then even, with MASH’s principles of anti- authoritarian, when the authority figure was bossy. Col Potter was a better balance of leadership, than Frank or Flagg. However, the LDS church I experienced since 1988 from Mission Pres to multiple Stake Presidents and some Bishops have been in the Burns/Flagg mold. Well, Gods pseudo-Army (LDS church) has so many defections at present, if it were the military the ranking officers would be questioned about their approach and leadership, and real change would occur.
Another silly Mormon urban legend from MASH, would be that Radar must be LDS, since he only drinks Grape-Nehi.
The LDS church is a pseudo-community !!!! I just worked my church attendance from being EQ Pres on the front row, to the back row, to the gym, to the foyer, and finally to my house with not returning. No phone calls, no email, no communication….complete silence. As Chadwick relates, the church and its members are really afraid to face the truth and it is easier to name call “lazy learner, etc” than to ask “how are you, we want you back, or why did you stop coming.”
Of the multiple re-runs on TV, M*A*S*H has aged well after 50 years. The LDS church has not aged well the past (xxxxx) years. (Every number greater than 5 is correct!)
Up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with pseudo-community and structural relationships. We all have superficial and situational friendships. Like I was friendly with every mom who had kids the same age as my kids when they were preschoolers and so play dates had to be supervised. I enjoyed chatting about motherhood while our kids played together. We could complain and commiserate up to a point. I was there for a friend as she went through the difficult process of getting her child a lifelong diagnosis. She helped me so much during my divorce. And then I moved and our kids got older and the last time I visited, I definitely got the feeling she was wondering why I still wanted to hang out. I shrugged and quit making an effort and it’s been 8+ years now that we haven’t seen each other. We were in the same ward, shared some difficult experiences, but our friendship didn’t survive me moving out of the neighborhood. It surprised me, to be honest, but I guess she didn’t need my friendship as much as I needed hers, and I didn’t want to be clingy/needy.
Now that I’ve left the Church, the LDS friends that I’m still friends with are ones that I met outside of the Church context. We were friends from work or school first, and only incidentally Church friends. People that I knew mainly through a ward have fallen out of my life, other than as casual acquaintances.
Empathy for doubts and life experiences that don’t fit the mold are definitely missing at Church, and for the reasons others have explained above. That varies by ward though. The ward I was in while divorced and unemployed had SO MANY hard stories that it was the least judgmental ward I’d ever been in. Lots of rental property and low-income housing. The ward had very high turnover — too fast for cliques to form — and people were honest and upfront with the hard things because everyone dealt with hard things. It was very different from the more affluent and stable wards that I’ve been in. And while I had a good experience, I know it was incredibly hard on the Bishop and RSP to deal with so many high-needs individuals.
I can’t decide if the better analogy for the Church is military or corporate. There’s a lot of military in my family and I’ve seen the new focus the military puts on mental health. Plus the military pays people, provides housing, and health insurance without co-pays. The military takes better care of its people than corporations do anymore. The military also can’t demote you without cause and you can appeal decisions. So I’d compare Church more to a corporation that can fire you for any reason at all, cut your pay, or just freeze you out and there’s no way to report a problem.
Also, I loved MASH and now I want to buy the DVD box set.
Great thoughts @hawkgrrrl. These questions deserve longer responses, but I am pressed for time, sadly.
Do you find Church to be a pseudo-community or have you created truer, deeper relationships with your fellow Mormons? What made the difference?
Definitely a pseudo-community. Your calling it a country club is a perfect description. While friendship often swivels on proximity and shared interests, with the exception of a handful, most ward members I have associated with are all mere acquaintances. There wasn’t much real disclosure and there was a lot of masking. If you move, you start all over again. Most of your relationships are severed. Part of the problem is that relationships at church are too often the born out of convenience, the product of our calling. Callings either elevate and expose you, or they can isolate you. Callings stratify a ward’s social hierarchy in ways that can be unhealthy and harmful to members who go overlooked and are functionally left behind. There is a narrow personality fit for those who thrive in a ward setting, and if you don’t bear those attributes, church has much less to offer you. My most enduring friendships are those I have formed with work colleagues (most of whom are not members of the church), and friends from my youth and adolescents, and many of us are still very close. I message many of them and have more honest and fulfilling exchanges than I do with any from my ward “family.” It’s quite the contrast. I know there are exceptions to this, but it has been my experience when I lived along the Wasatch Front. I am sure others, likely in places where LDS members are much more of a religious minority, have had different experiences, better ones I hope.
Do you see a lack of empathy as a problem at Church?
I see a complete lack of empathy from the institutional church, and it would be easy to list dozens of examples. Locally, I know some individuals who are empathetic, but often that empathy seems to put them at odds with the attributes the church values the most in its members, particularly in its leaders. Part of why I think many members lack empathy is the fact we don’t focus on developing personal morality, or developing a personal moral conscience. We don’t focus on moral decision making. Instead, we focus on obedience. Personal morality starts with developing empathy, at least that’s what many experts in early human development have found in their research. Since the church values obedience and fealty to leaders over members who are guided by a strong sense of personal morality, empathy is a casualty. Because if empathy and moral conscience were a central feature of our religious teachings and culture, far more members simply would not stand for much of the behavior we see coming from the institutional church.
Are you a M*A*S*H fan?
M*A*S*H* is my all time favorite show, and I’m just old enough to have enjoyed the series as a young boy growing into early adolescence. It’s simply brilliant and it made a big impression on me as a kid. When I was 17, I found the video of the movie upon which the series is based at our local video store. Despite it being rated R, I rented it and waited for an evening when I knew my parents would be gone, and I watched it. It blew my hair back. I loved it. I watched it twice in fact and had to pay a late fee. Robert Altman directed a masterpiece. It was also my first introduction to dark comedy. Of course the lyrics that accompany the theme song are far too dark for TV, but they were sung in the movie. That was a revelation to me. I had no idea all of those years I was listening to the music of “Suicide is Painless.” I rewound the tape and stopped it so I could write down the lyrics. The chorus haunted me–it still does to this day. And Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Frank Burns is so much darker and cold blooded than the bumbling idiot Frank Burns of the TV series. When I read your account of the episode featuring the gay soldier, @hawkgrrrl, all I could think about was the theme song, it’s chorus, and how that episode would have felt had Robert Duvall played Frank Burns. It sent chills up my spine and made your thoughts all the more poignant to me. For those of you who have seen the series and like it, find the movie and watch it. It will redefine how you process the TV series.
BigSky: Well, your assessment of the movie vs. the TV series is quite different from my own. While I love the series, I found the movie really hard to watch! It is much more mean-spirited, and the misogyny is off the charts. I had a hard time finding the characters likeable. The secret to the series’ success, IMO, boils down mostly to the moderating influence of Alan Alda as Hawkeye. There were things that he simply would not do or support as an actor that the movie did. He wanted the nurses to be treated as people, not just props or prizes. He had a glib optimism where Donald Sutherland had a darker streak underneath his pranks. And while I agree that Robert Duvall brought a whole different interpretation (much darker and more sinister) to Frank Burns, Larry Linville made his hypocrisy feather-light. It made it much easier to laugh at, and to even root for his redemption. Despite my dislike of the movie, I am glad I saw it. It gives me newfound appreciation for what the series was able to create.
EagleLady: Hmmm, that’s a good question, maybe even hard for me to express. I was raised in a very unemotional household; while I feel empathy, I don’t love the idea of too much open rawness in a public setting, and personally, I’d rather deflect with humor due to my discomfort. Add to that my experience when the 2015 PoX came out, and our gospel doctrine class had what was basically a raw, vulnerable discussion about it. It wasn’t an entirely negative experience, although I was emotionally wrecked as were a few others. The bigger issue was that there were several in that class who shrugged it off (while others whom it affected were sobbing right next to them), and their reasoning was “whatever the brethren say is OK with me.” Lives in our ward were being torn apart, people were sharing what it was doing to them, and these people didn’t care, or at least not much. In one case, it was a couple I had known for years, people I had admired, and their adult daughter was visiting that day. She was weeping, and they just kind of rolled their eyes. I have never looked at them the same since, although not long after that our ward split.
Two funny stories about Radar. I had always wanted to try grape-nehi but could never find it. One afternoon in the town where I attended graduate school there was a mom and
pop grocery store that sold – wait for it – grape nehi. This was in 2000 and you can bet I bought a bunch. It tasted exactly like every grape soda I’d ever had.
Also one summer probably about 1990’when my family was touring church sites I made my Dad drive through Ottumwa Iowa. Not a lot there, but I’ve been there!
@Angela C. Great memory! Honestly, I haven’t seen the movie M*A*S*H* for 30 years. I forgot how badly parts of it have aged. I recall it was one of the early movies to feature colliding dialogue where the actors talked across one another in the surgical tent in a way that was innovative for the time–a part of Altman’s brilliance with the movie. As a 17-year-old who liked to read and was curious, my critical sensibilities weren’t well developed yet. Still, it rocked my world and I remember being totally captivated by it. By season 2 or 3 (I can’t recall?), Alan Alda was exercising creative control over the TV series and shaped it into something wonderful and very different compared to its father film.
BigSky talked about how within the church we don’t talk about developing personal morality, but emphasize obedience to leaders and how developing personal morality starts with empathy. He suggested that empathy is a causality of this over emphasis on morality. But I think there is another part to this. The ability to empathize with others, I think starts with an inborn ability that even infants seem to have. But it grows and develops by going through hard painful stuff. When someone doesn’t ever experience the hard painful stuff, I think they may even lose the inborn ability, or just get so out of practice using it that they just don’t know how.
Now, look at our top leaders. They have to devote tons and tons of time and effort to getting to top positions of the church. They are people who have never had the huge life difficulties that take years to recover from. Think about it. Do any of them come from broken or abusive homes? Did any f them struggle with extreme poverty? Did any of them have learning disabilities or physical disabilities? Disabled children? A disabled spouse? Did any of them get sexually abused as kids? Did any of them get fired from their jobs? Suffer devastating financial loss? I realized once when one of them had major surgery, and talked about how it was the worst thing he had even been through…..at 87. I thought, buddy, I went through worse than that before I was even an adult. Then it struck me. The general authorities have had to lead very charmed lives, or they would never have had the time and energy to make it to the top of church leadership. Everything in their lives had to run smoothly for them to have advanced first in their profession, and then in church leadership. They would not be where they are today if they had suffered any kind of life trauma.
It is no wonder they have no ability to empathize with people going through the painful hard stuff. They have never experienced any of it, so they have no idea what it is like and they have no ability to imagine themselves going through that kind of suffering.
The church lacks empathy because its top leaders lack empathy. They cannot teach what they don’t know.
-Oaks’ father passed away when he was 7/8, and he lived with grandparents for intervals while his mother pursued graduate studies to better support their family (https://www.stellahoaks.org/about-stella). I get more of a “my mother pulled herself up by her bootstraps with family support, so why can’t you?” vibe from him.
-Uchtdorf was a refugee. I have felt that he is the most empathetic towards all struggles, but it’s sad that he’s no longer at the forefront.
Generally, though, I agree that the leadership have had rather charmed lives compared to much of the laity.
M*A*S*H was one of the first TV shows I remember following through all its rerun incarnations. Good times. Also, typing the name of the show is not fun.
I came to an understanding, after decades of effort to be a contributing member of the community at church, that the culture of inclusion there is widespread but without depth. At least it was for me, as my covenant path definitely had black marks and shortcomings. I learned this when I had a complicated crisis in my life, and found that there wasn’t a single friend at church to whom I felt confident or close enough to rely on for support. Not even to share my bad news. And this in a ward where I’d lived for 25 years.
Regarding empathy, while it does seem to be a gift of the spirit that some possess while others lack, such gifts always improve from cultivation. And even those who lack can benefit from cultivating a gift they desire. This understanding first came to me over my lifetime’s experience with my parents. My mother was the least-gifted nurturer ever, yet it was expected of her and she tried mightily to meet that expectation. Though the results were mixed, she was a better parent than she otherwise might have been without picking up that yoke of expectation and dogging through her life anyway.
In contrast, my father was abundantly gifted with natural empathy, and received due credit for it with a reputation for being a great guy. And he was terrific, and had a profound effect on me by providing a benchmark for me, of what generosity of spirit could look like. But he grew up in a time when there was not only no expectations for boys to learn the basics of showing empathy, but too much of that sort of feeling was actively discouraged in a boy. It was only after I was an older adult and my kids were grown, that I was able to see that his native empathy had elements of a feral nature, and that he was more free to pick and choose when and how to show up with empathy. And despite his sterling reputation as a terrific person, there were times in my life when I needed his parenting and I was abandoned. And because such a thing isn’t expected of men, no one noticed, not even me.
Looking back, I think he wouldn’t have many skills to help me even if he had thought to show up, because again, the nuts and bolts of skilled empathy are not present in what we expect young men to learn, and in our leadership development, only a patina of empathy is expected, but not the real deal.
So the acquisition of true empathy — not just the patina — that can be effectively applied to mitigate the suffering of another, is rare, and rather happenstance. Not everyone who is afflicted by trauma automatically grows empathy, but without that catalyst, the entitled ones among us who are groomed for power and leadership almost never receive any other training or cultivation for this quality in their character.
I love MASH, I was born after it it finished it’s run, but my high school english teacher introduced it to us, and I was already kind of primed to accept the anti-war, anti-US imperialism vibe that it had. Luckily we had cable and there were a couple of channels that would seemingly show nothing else but MASH re-runs and I absorbed most of it as a teen and in my early 20s after I my mission.
I like this post, and the notion of community within the church. I’ve mentioned this before in another post, but the need for community is the main sociological element that led to mormonism happening in the first place. As the market structures of the then-developing capitalism pulled apart the social structures of the day, people felt alienated and sought to escape and form more tightly knit religious communities.
Even though I’ve mentally checked out from the church, or at least from its leadership and a good number of its doctrines/policy. One reason I still attend and pretend to go along with it all is for community. 200ish years after Joseph Smith, the way that the economy is organized is turning us into these community-less (and soon to be family-less) atomized individuals who prefer to be alone and interact with the world at a distance by digital means. I think people (in the industrialized world) are more sad and lonely than ever before, and that’s because we don’t really have communities any more.
It’s not just a religious thing either, people just don’t hang out with each other as much as we used to, starting in the 70s really (cf. Bowling Alone). Our means of entertaining ourselves were interacting and bonding with other people. We’ve outsourced all that now to more passive, solo activities like TV, internet, social media, video-games, etc. Our brains are not wired for this, we’ve been shaped by our evolutionary history to want, and need to, be around and talk to other people on a face-to-face basis. We’re not neurologically equipped to having our interaction with the rest of our species filtered through a screen at a distance. There’s a phrase “chronically online” and to those whom that moniker would apply, it seems like they’re often very miserable.
That said, our church communities are not ideal, and probably in many cases, do more harm than good. Some (many?) of our wards and branches are full of Burns’s and Houlihan’s who are out enforcing ideological purity and hunting down and casting out the Klinger’s, as well as the Hawkeye’s if the Hawkeye’s get too uppity, in order to scare the Radar’s into falling in line. And the overarching church leadership seem like they’re mostly Flagg’s, detached from reality, and ideologically driven to the point of delusion. Some of the Burns’s and Houlihan’s may notice this, but kiss up to the Flagg’s anyway because the system/structure demands that rank must be respected above all else.
My current ward has a relatively small proportion of Burns’s and Houlihan’s running around, so it’s generally tolerable for me (it helps that this is a non-English ward outside of the USA). I recognize that for some individuals, their local ward might be so hostile and toxic, that withdrawing is the better option. But for me and my family, there’s really no other feasible option out there for having an IRL, face-to-face community. It’s not perfect, but it’s manageable and having to occasionally be physically present around people you disagree with is (generally) better than retreating into the online world. Cats, computer games, and twitter aren’t sufficient replacements for people as far as our mental health is concerned.
As other’s have pointed out, it takes more than going through difficulty to develop empathy. I wasn’t trying to say that it is that simple, because there is nothing simple about going through hardships and coming out a better person. Lots of people go through hardships and just come out tough, and hard as ice. The person can either be taught to deal with hardship by being “strong” or at least pretending strength by never showing vulnerability and despising any one who needs help. Oaks? Or they can react to hardship by becoming self protective, refusing to let other’s close, refusing to show feelings, always acting happy and in control. [Anna raises her hand.] Hurts need to heal before the person can feel safe enough to show that they have empathy. The walking wounded may see others in pain, so they have the empathy, but while they are still wounded they really can’t act on it.
And empathy can be learned in other ways than going through trauma. As MDearest mentioned her mother did. It can be taught to children or therapy clients by asking them to put themselves in another’s place and imagine how they feel. Or mothers, nurses, social workers, anyone in a helping profession, bishops, RS presidents, and others can learn empathy just by working with those going through hardships.
Now, why can’t we teach empathy at church?
Like Faith’s comment, I also grew up in SLC and my parents loved MASH so I grew to love it as well.
Would love to see Elder Gong or Andersen (inactive son) be vulnerable rather than continue to burnish their respective public images.
Suffering takes a lot of forms – when my child was in drug rehab I stopped at a random ward building in Provo to use the restroom and was feeling a lot of sorrow and would have accepted a hug from anyone. Both of my kids were facing big issues but it became clear our ward could offer little support, This was in the early days of RMN as prophet but before the most memorable General Conference of all time April 2020 so I was also a bit jaded.
Wondering about “community” and how much longer I can go through the motions while fighting cognitive dissonance; I am trying to give gentle clues to my TBM wife and have made general statements to some of my siblings. A close high school friend is also quite devout, homeschooler etc. A cousin and husband are serving as mission co-leaders or whatever they are called these days but her siblings are on a wide range of church belief and trials so I think I would find some compassion there.
Sat through a priesthood lesson last month with several judgmental comments and I think going forward I am going to offer polite challenges to the same…
I think ward communities are like many things in the church: in theory a good concept with a lot of potential but in current practice often needs revision, updating, inspired leadership. Some wards offer amazing opportunities to get to know and help people who are totally different from you. I’ve said this before but in our small ward there are refugees, immigrants, unemployed people, mixed with relatively wealthy and privileged people. We have easily available opportunities here to become very familiar with the personal histories of people, some with absolutely incredible stories. We have a ready-made chance to show our children more about the world and the needs of people just by showing up at church and responding to requests for help. There are certainly elements of pseudo-community here also, but one can see the possibility of a sort of platonic ideal for a ward to aim for.
Anna, I sure do appreciate the wisdom in your comments, and your courage to be vulnerable. I’m one of the proverbial walking wounded I suppose, like a zombie in search of healing. My mom was more the hard as ice type, and she never quite got the hang of exercising empathy to help someone heal, but trying to fit into her perceived role as a (female) disciple had a net positive impact on her and on our family. But I’m a child of both my parents, and my observation of my dad and his grace, along with my own natural endowment of some of his gifts, combined with my long experience of the ‘codependency training’ with which women are indoctrinated, (not always creating bad outcomes btw) — I know by experience that empathy is both a gift and a skill, and skill needs recognition, training, and practice. In scripture vernacular it’s known as charity, it’s one of the qualities we aspire to as disciples, and highly praised. But the nuts and bolts practice of empathy is not really taught well, either to men or women, and my experience of it is that the expectation to possess it is heavily gendered.
Pflurp, your description of the wasteland of our communities evoked uncomfortable feelings. Can I sit next to you? We can be lonely together.
For cachemagic & those who upvoted his comment:
I don’t agree with Republican politicians and talking heads much-I draw different conclusions from their rhetoric than they intend-but recognize that they do appeal to many people.
It *is* worth looking beyond the surface of what they say. I deduce that much of their words are actually for their own gain, regardless of its impact on their followers.
Covid PPE and vaccines are a good example:
“People in Republican Counties Have Higher Death Rates Than Those in Democratic Counties” -Scientific American
(Link to follow)
Over the last 2 years, particularly since the vaccine has been available, the rate of Covid deaths of Republicans is nearly twice that of Democrats.
The Pew Research Foundation chronicled the changing mortality picture over the course of the pandemic: it has shifted from large cities, to rural areas.
(link to follow)
It’s worth looking into.