Grounds 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.



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