Some years ago, I read Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983), which got me to thinking about the nature of hospitality. When one reads the Bible and other narratives of antiquity, one is struck about the importance of hospitality in the past, and how wicked it was to abuse one's guests. In our day, it seems like hospitality is understood more in terms of ingratitude, rather than in terms of one's obligation of being a good host. While I, like most, decry those who bite the hands who feed them, I feel that we have downplayed the moral obligation to help the less fortunate. I will be following up on the hospitality concept later. Right now, I would like to share a parable, or allegory, regarding what I perceive to be the root of humanity's discontent: our inability to recognize, or appreciate, one another's gifts. Please see this also in the context of Pioneer Day and the global refugee crisis.
The Story of the Gifts
Once there was a family. They were given everything they needed by the Lord of All. They had bodies, they had a wealth of resources to sustain themselves. They would have to work to use these resources properly, so they would be fed, clothed and sheltered. But if they didn’t work, their bodies became sick from disuse. They also became sick or hungry if they overly consumed resources, or didn’t clean up after themselves, or didn’t try to replenish the supply. Somehow, that wasn’t enough for some, so they went elsewhere. A brother who stayed behind decided that he wasn’t getting enough recognition, so he killed his brother and claimed his property. He was sent away, but went around to the others and persuaded them that it was better to take than receive. So, whereas people received their gifts for free before, they started resorting to force and deception. People found all sorts of excuses to fight. They felt they were disrespected. They didn’t like how property was divided up. They felt they were more deserving of ownership than the actual owners. They felt that their beliefs were more important than someone else’s. They thought they were simply better than the others. So much better, in fact, that they decided some ought to be owned by them. If they didn’t own them, they should at least serve their putative masters for the rest of their lives.
So, war became a strategy. It became the most important activity for a lot of people. When they weren’t fighting wars, they were daily devising ways to keep people away from the gifts to which they were formerly entitled. Soon, there were big gaps between what people owned, and what they didn’t. Some had more than they could ever possibly use in their lifetimes. Others never had quite enough. Some became sick because they overate and exercised too little. Others were sick because they didn’t have enough to eat, or to wear, or because they didn’t have adequate shelter. People forgot that they used to all have just what they needed. So, they thought that those better off deserved to be, that they were more favored by the gods. Those who were poor, they thought, were that way because they were too weak, unambitious, inferior, poor managers. The gods had accursed them. If others brought up that this was unfair, they were condemned as being too weak or overly indulgent.
After fighting for a long, long time, people rediscovered faith. They thought it would be better to help the less fortunate, to be less proud, to remember who gave them the gifts to begin with. People became so convinced that this was a good idea, they decided that everyone needed to believe this. If they didn’t, it was back to the battlefield. If people were robbed, maimed or killed, that was just an unfortunate consequence. The higher purpose was to convert people to the Truth.
If other people did not understand the Truth because they spoke another language, or had a wholly different culture, that didn’t matter. They deserved destruction if they didn’t convert. Fortunately, the conquerors didn’t destroy everybody. After they ran out of heathen and infidels to convert on land, they went across the ocean and discovered people who had moved away long ago, who had so forgotten the ways of the Lord of All that they were sacrificing men, women and children to other gods. The other people had done away with this practice long ago. So, they converted them to the higher way of living. It became easier to accept this, because they didn’t do away with human sacrifice altogether. Instead of sacrificing members of their families to their gods, they sacrificed them to bondage, prostitution, backbreaking toil in behalf of their masters, addictions, and mortal combat in behalf of the state.
Over time, it became harder and harder for the powerful to be satisfied with what they owned. Sometimes, the less powerful gained ground. They now would be paid for their work, they began to own property, they began to have enough to eat, a roof over their heads. They even began to live longer. The powerful began to be concerned.
What was always difficult for the powerful to understand is how someone who was less powerful could be beautiful, talented and even smart. The powerful liked owning things. They were frustrated that they couldn’t always own bodies, just people’s time. If they did own bodies, they couldn’t own talents, beauty or minds. So, in their dissatisfaction, they thought that if some couldn’t be owned, they might as well be eliminated. It was no longer a question of converting or enslaving them. It was becoming easier, after all, to get rid of people with greater and greater efficiency.
People got so good at destroying great numbers of their fellow men that they decided they couldn’t afford to live like this. War was becoming too successful. War didn’t go away, however. It was just waged on a smaller scale. Slavery didn’t go away, either. It was practiced on a wide scale by landlords, pimps, and sweatshop owners who found ways to convince their employees that they owned them. The powerful also found ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, convincing them if they just worked harder, they could be rich, too. They gave the poor loans, which they found very difficult, if not impossible, to pay back. But the poor thought this was generous, because they now had goods and services on credit. Occasionally, a poor person would win at lotteries or at gambling ventures, which seemed to prove that the wealthy cared about the poor. Poor people sometimes became famous entertainers or athletes, so this was proof the system worked. The powerful also promised that if they just acquired more, it would be easier to share their surplus with the needy.
As the needy grew more and more needful, it became harder and harder for the powerful to convince them to be contented with their lot. When the needy started to rebel, the powerful convinced them that strangers were their enemy. When they finally decided that strangers weren’t to blame, the powerful convinced the needy that there were some among them receiving more than their fair share. This, too, worked for a long time. Finally, the needy started to demand more of the largesse of the powerful. The powerful had seductive storytellers and entertainers, craven rulers, all sorts of inane media distractions, mind-numbing food and drugs, and mighty armies at their disposal. The needy had their anger, their faith, and their vast numbers. It was time for a showdown.
The Lord of All had intervened many times in their history, to stave off the total destruction of the descendants of the first family. Since people now had the means to totally destroy themselves, He paid them a call. There was still a lot of destruction, but at least a lot of people were spared. Some had been powerful. Most had been needy. After so much was lost, people decided once again that some things just weren’t worth owning. They saw once again that the original gifts, such as having a body, having a life, having a family, having a home, food to eat, a roof over the head, a place to lay one’s head, responsible work to do, service to perform, were quite valuable indeed.
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Rick Casady posted about Grounds for Bitterness, for Gratitude, and for Mercy on Facebook 2016-04-24 23:59:55 -0700Grounds for Bitterness, for Gratitude, and for Mercy
Anyway I look at it, I have had a privileged upbringing. My parents weren't wealthy, but I did live in upper middle class neighborhoods in San Jose, California, before the place managed to price itself out of the reach of the middle class. I grew up healthy, with both parents, and with all of my siblings. I didn't think of myself as privileged, though some friends envied us our surroundings. I was the 5th of 6 kids, so my parents didn't pressure me like they did my older siblings. I was far from a valedictorian, but got good grades in school. I was a social misfit, but since my parents and siblings had a lot of friends, and we were active in the LDS Church, I never felt completely isolated.
My parents had some trauma growing up, including my father's parents divorcing, frequent moves, the Great Depression, World War II (where my father and several uncles saw combat), culture shock (my father moved with his stepfather and family to San Francisco in the Thirties from Salt Lake City, where he also learned to drive), and the vicissitudes of being part of a religious and political minority in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. I was very shy growing up, but learned to flout my otherness as a Mormon and a conservative among friends and associates. There was certainly crime in San Jose back then, but we weren't personally touched by it. We had no security systems at any of our houses where I grew up. My father taught junior high school math for 25 years. My mother worked for Santa Clara County's welfare department and later for the California State Department of Health. In other words, they never led sheltered lives, but they did their best to keep us unspotted from the world.
Now, in my sixtieth year, I want to look back on what I have seen and experienced, and what I have learned from it (at least what I can halfway remember). I haven't always cared for my health, but at least I never got into promiscuity or substance abuse, as did many I have known. I could be healthier, but would not call myself ravaged by disease. I lost both parents to death between my thirtieth and thirty-first years, but they had at least lived to see their older children grow up and marry. My paternal grandfather, my father's stepfather, my maternal grandmother and grandfather were all gone before I was 6. My mother's stepmother lived in Salt Lake City, and didn't visit much. I knew my father's mother the best. She died a few years before my parents. In later years, I lost my father's sister, my father's half-brother, and three of my mother's siblings. I had a couple of unsuccessful marriages, and have experienced estrangement from my own children, stepchildren, and their children. Some of my siblings and some of their children have had bouts of ill health, which have caused a great deal of hardship for their families. Some nephews and nieces aren't participating Latter-Day Saints, which has been difficult for their parents. A few nephews and cousins have divorced, which at least made me feel less of an anomaly in the family, though I wouldn't want to wish a failed marriage upon anyone. In the last month, I lost two nephews to cancer and a traffic accident, leaving seven little boys for their widows to raise. This, I think, has been the toughest blow to my immediate family. My cousins have had much worse to deal with.
On the other hand, I have been aware of other people's lives for a long, long time. I got into history as a child. Though I read books adapted for a younger audience, my early fascination with war exposed me to some of the gruesome facts of life early on. I knew my father had been wounded in combat several times, as I could see his many bodily scars when he bathed me as child. I didn't know how athletic he had been before his military experience, until his half-brother shared some stories about him after his death. My mother would occasionally share some traumatic stories from work, with no identifying details, of course. My parents took people into their home from time to time, sometimes for longer periods. I heard some traumatic stories from them. Someone I knew committed suicide in junior high school. Our former bishop's 11-year-old daughter was abducted after school, sexually tortured, and strangled. My high school classmates knew about it before I did. I collected fast offerings from a family whom I later learned had been running a DIY pornography ring out of their home, featuring the wife, father, their underage girls and their school friends. I've known people who were either victims of domestic violence, or perpetrators. Personally, I haven't suffered much from the criminality of others, other than getting jumped once in junior high school by a group of toughs, being defrauded by a Redevelopment Agency employee, and sustaining false charges on my bank cards. So many others have.
As a child, I was one of the first couch potatoes. Watching TV was more important to me than going out and playing. I was mortally afraid of social embarrassment. I was afraid of heights, afraid of ever being in a position where I wouldn't be in control of my actions, sometimes afraid to leave the house. So, I played it relatively safe, didn't get too involved with girls, didn't play dangerous sports, avoided confrontation. I was no one's champion, though I liked to speak up for obscure writers and recording artists. I wasn't bullied much, but neither did I do much to defend others who were tormented, sometimes siding with the aggressor. I admired heroes, but never thought of myself as one. I was a missionary in a safe place (Switzerland) and have lived in relatively safe places (Provo and Salt Lake County) for the past 37 years. Most of my career has involved working in library settings. I haven't shown much of a confrontational nature there, either.
So, I would say I feel the most penitent about my many sins of omission, of not speaking out when it was my opportunity, of not magnifying my talents. I know of so many who have taken considerable risk, who (like my father) have fired a shot in anger, who have been severely afflicted by others, who have suffered from horrendous personal reverses in life. There are so many who have been in toxic relationships, who have lost almost everything in catastrophes, or who have never known what it is like to live in a nurturing environment. So many suffer from poverty, disease, oppression, war, famine, drought. So many are in mental torment. So many waste away from slow, painful injuries and incurable illnesses. So many suffer, watching their loved ones slowly deteriorate from dementia, unable to arrest the destroyer of memory and bodily mastery. So many are refugees from loveless homes, economic and political security, or outright persecution. So many, who live on our streets, could benefit from psychiatric treatment if the lure of self-destruction weren't so powerful. So many are slaves to a host of addictions. Where is God in all this?
Why did I have it so easy, when so many others have been at the mercy of others' depraved fantasies? Why did I get to grow up unabused by my parents? Why did my parents not lose their jobs and homes, like others did? Why didn't my siblings or I have life-threatening illnesses? Why weren't my brothers and I drafted and sent to Vietnam, like so many other young men of our age group? Why wasn't I born in some gang-infested slum, or brought up in an outlaw subculture? Why didn't I have to grow up under totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships? Why was I never a victim of colonial exploitation, of slavery, or genocide? Why didn't I have to be displaced because someone coveted my land and its resources? Why was God so good to me, and not to so many others?
I cannot reproach someone for being bitter about his or her life, since I haven't been in their shoes. I admire those who have survived a tough upbringing, who have succeeded against all odds. I try not to make fetishes of their misfortune. At the same time, I can only look back upon my limited experience and try to gain some perspective. It is easy to see some as whiners and murmurers. They don't know how good they have it, some say. We can always think of someone who has had it worse, who doesn't complain. What would it be like, if you grew up in a sheltered, affluent life and suddenly lost everything to disaster or human destructiveness? What would it be like to have a simple peasant's existence and then have to relocate to a modern urban metropolis? To have to leave a familiar home and live among strangers who don't speak your language or practice your faith? What if you are struck by crime, by disease, by forces majeures, with no prior warning? Would you hold on to your faith? Could we all be like Job, who, by the way, didn't submit mutely to his fate?
No, I can't fault people for saying they've lost faith in God, because He has seemingly proved He is sadistic, as C. S. Lewis posited in A Grief Observed. It is easy to question whether God exists, because He may seem pitiless, partisan or even impotent, in the face of so much evil, so much natural destruction, so much capricious "natural selection." It is the problem of theodicy; how can an omnipotent God be good and permit evil, unless He is also its author? Some people of faith rationalize God's omnipotence as proof that people must suffer because of something they, or their wards, did wrong. It would be blasphemous to assume that God is powerless to stop evil. If all are born with Original Sin, then all, including infants, are capable of wrongdoing. If your child dies suddenly, we have the example of God smiting King David's son in 2 Samuel 12 because of David's adultery with Bathsheba and precipitating her husband Uriah's death. You, or your child, must have done something wrong to merit this affliction. If your child is born with some chronic illness or deformity, you must have sinned, or the child did something in the premortal existence, to deserve this. Maybe it was in-breeding. You should have been more exogamous. Defective genes. If you believe in reincarnation and karma, on the other hand, then you don't worry about the suffering and injustice of life. It's all illusory, anyway; no matter how many times we are reborn, it will eventually work itself out.
This, of course, can extend to both justice and benevolence. We like God to take vengeance upon people for making poor choices. I have heard the saying, "Poor folks, poor ways." If people would quit expecting others to take care of them, then their condition would be alleviated, through their personal efforts, many believe. We like the idea of people getting what they deserve. In other words, those suffering from compassion fatigue, or who are unashamedly prosperous, live as much in an idealistic fantasy as those who believe working minimum wage jobs will someday lead them to riches. Or, that buying lottery tickets and gambling is tantamount to capital investment. Or, that lending money to the poor at usurious rates will teach them fiscal responsibility. Or, that an unregulated free market will encourage people to act out of rational self-interest, which means that they will play fairly, and not be susceptible to greed, fraud and mere rent-seeking.
No, in life, true justice doesn't seem to happen. There is an uneven distribution of wealth, which no government has succeeded in rectifying, without fostering captivity, capital cronyism, confiscation, corruption, capital punishment, and capital flight. I believe that all of what people might lump under misfortune comes as a consequence of being cut off from the direct presence of God, AKA the Fall of Mankind. Everyone experiences loss, pain, trauma of some sort, with the reassurance that it won't last forever. Evil people, as well as righteous people, die. I wish some people would live longer, but am grateful that bad people don't last longer than they do. I don't ask God for trials, because I don't feel entitled to counsel Him on what is best for me or anyone else. This recognition that we all need toughening up, however, does not excuse us from trying to lighten one another's burdens, when we can. Nowhere in scripture are people praised for their "benign neglect." People should no more be left to ignorance, inefficiency, wastefulness, addiction, illness, and incapacity because we assume "it is God's will" than that we should wear hair shirts, live in caves, starve, blind, whip, mutilate and burn ourselves to bestow piety. People learn from consequences, when they choose to be willful, and not teachable. I am not about to leave toddlers to wander in traffic, however, so they will learn what happens when they are in front of a speeding car. Sometimes, the lesson comes too late. I wouldn't want to play Russian roulette with my children's health and not get them vaccinated, for the same reason. One outbreak can be too much. So, it is up to me to warn, and do more, when necessary.
Those who come through their personal Gethsemane without bitterness, on the other hand, are in a much better position to comfort those facing similar agonies. Think how much more powerful an ex-convict's or recovered addict's counsel is to an inmate or addict, than what someone like I might say. Veterans prefer sharing their stories with fellow veterans only, because they have a shared understanding.
I prefer not to get too much into hero worship, because if we spend all of our time being in awe of pioneer forebears, of policemen, firemen, athletes, paramedics, soldiers, or of self-help gurus, we seem to just hold ourselves back from evolving. Learn from others, but don't hesitate to try doing them one better. I admire artists, thinkers, dissidents, martyrs, inventors, discoverers for making something new, for blazing a path to follow, for laying it all on the line, but I prefer using them as guides, not final destinations. In a sense, we are still collecting relics, still trying to buy indulgences, still trying to tap into that mythical surplus of past righteousness, still hoping that the zeal of present missionaries, apostles and past Saints will somehow rub off on us and mask our own inadequacy. While not all have been Great Men and Great Women, it is surprising how many of our predecessors were decent people. Even if they didn't live exemplary lives, they did something to ensure they would have posterity. They were more familiar with death in their communities than we are now, since so many of us live in communities with high standards of living, which are relatively free of violence, and modern in public health practices.
So, let's champion people who maintain sobriety, who are honest workers, who treat their families well, who serve in their communities, and who refuse to be captive to a dark past. Let's stop trying to say God picks winners and losers. Let us neither minimize what others go through, nor puff ourselves up because we think we merit God's favor. If we are going to envy anyone, envy those who have the ability to empathize, because they have already been there. Those who have lived to tell about it, without boasting, without desiring self-mortification. Let us be grateful for what Elder Maxwell called life's tutorials. Let us not try to justify what did, or did not, happen to us or somebody else. Instead, we need to mourn with those who mourn, comfort those in need of comfort, and be witnesses for Christ at all times and in all places. We need to protect society from predators, but should realize that we can forgive better than we will ever mete out punishment and restitution.
I am interested in ideas in general, and see MormonPress as an outlet for these. I want to help promote progressive ideas within an LDS context, which I feel receive inadequate public attention. I see a wide disparity between what people say they believe in, and how they vote. There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias going on here. There is not so much blind obedience, as unhealthy hero worship, defeatism, and passive aggression, going on in our society. I think engaging in healthy dialogue is a step in the right direction. I like to tell people that they govern, that civil servants are beholden to them, and that politics is not just another lifestyle choice, but integral to our own well-being.