Sunday, September 30, 2012

Struggles, part VIII: Finding relevance

 My first mission president asks us to occasionally send life updates. This is an excerpt from my most recent e-mail.


I believe the last time [July 2011] I sent you an update I just returned from India, full of fire and energy and starting my new job.

For various reasons after I sent that e-mail I hit a bit of a spiritual skid, from which I've recovered. The main theme has been finding the gospel's relevance in my life.

As I launched myself into my new job in San Francisco, I was in a new environment, both in the macro sense (new city) and micro sense (new ward, new housemates, new colleagues).

I was suddenly doing lots of work, all the time, all very technical, not really interacting with the gospel. Or the hanging out with my new friends in the ward -- we would chat or watch movies or go out salsa dancing. Or even when I went on dates -- we would talk and chat about interests, but often times the gospel -- other than setting the mutual underlying expectations -- didn't really seem relevant. I found a couple friends in the ward with whom I could have the type of discussions about the gospel that I would have with my Stanford ward members, but even so it was intellectualizing.

This feeling cast a pall over everything I did -- I would try to read my scriptures, and not see how the stories were relevant to my life. I would go to church, and wonder the same thing.

While there's nothing that I can quite put my finger on, things started to turn around and change as fall turned into winter. Maybe it was watching a good friend -- the sister of the girl that introduced me to the Church -- be sealed in the temple over Christmas.

Quite luckily I was called as assistant executive secretary, which let me get to know the members of the bishopric and have someone around as a model. It reminded me that there were more important things than the worldly stuff that would make me get ahead at work.

I was pretty sick of my job though -- the people there weren't nice, no one really cared about each other, and I had an offer on the table with a startup down near Stanford. I gave two weeks notice -- coincidentally, my last day was the day before I flew out to Las Vegas and saw you last. I moved down to Stanford and got back in touch with my old friends.

One of them was an old home teacher who I had grown close to, and we started having weekly planning sessions, talking about our goals and the things we want to achieve, and making plans to do so.

Of course, there were lots of small things I thought about -- worrying about being consumed by Facebook, wanting to get things certain things done at work. But my flaws and weaknesses, how they were preventing me from achieving my goals, and the importance of applying various gospel concepts in overcoming them, became more apparent.

In May a good friend of mine from Stanford got back from her mission.

If you're counting months you'll see that she left in October 2010, two months before I got home. We'd been writing each other on and off for the last 3.5 years, and I was eager to be in closer contact. I'd told Laura about my feelings for her a couple months before, and I nervously wrote her an email a couple days after she got home. Soon enough we were talking once a week, then twice a week, then twice a week for two hours. We made a plan for me to come visit (she lives in upstate NY), which I did.
She was full of mission zeal, and in swapping stories I probably did more talking and thinking about my mission in two months of phone calls than I had in the last ten months.  I came, and we decided to start dating long-distance.

I feel like in many ways, being in a relationship is a daily tutorial about living the gospel. Talking to someone every day, seeing their weaknesses and fears and hopes, having them see yours, deciding through our actions and words whether to be supportive or not, caring or not, thoughtful or not, selfish or not.

Though most of the time being around each other is just natural (as it should be), but often these decisions will come up. They occur in each aspect of the relationship -- when we're hanging out with her family, at church, or by ourselves; if we're doing something together or if we just talking to each other; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And at the same time, these decisions often don't come up when you're doing technical tasks and work or forming superficial bonds. I think that's why I found it difficult to see gospel applications in my life for a while.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Struggles, part VII: decision

June 2012: I’m talking to a friend from Stanford, recently returned from her mission.

“How’s job search going?” I ask, and get a long answer. She had just unearthed some old letters she sent to professors asking to help them in their research. The letters listing her accomplishments in college, the things she was passionate about academically, and wanted to achieve.

An old self had come back, the person she used to be – driven elite college student, devoted to understanding a few certain areas that she was passionate about, to learning. Who saw this quest as her identity.

Yet once she arrived in her mission, she realized that her persona was setting her apart from those she was charged to serve. Purposefully, consciously, prayerfully, she had shed elite college student in order to be more fully Hermana.

Now elite college student had come back. She was conflicted.

In response, words tumbled out of me, words from a similar conflict I had faced.

I too had Sam and Elder Bhagwat. Both are absent-minded, lose things, have a very distinctive laugh, and focus on a few things with a laserlike intensity.

But the primarily motivation of Sam is to know, to learn, to understand. His primary favorite happy emotion is fascination, accompanied by a wonderous “that’s really interesting.” He was shy in social situations, preferring to discuss and debate abstract topics. His motivating carrot is achieving penetrating insight and understanding.

Elder Bhagwat is more forthright about talking to people, asking them about themselves and telling them about himself. He was still kind of awkward. He cares less about finding the right answer than the emotions. He had a rocky companionship with the son of a Harvard economics professor and an amazing companionship with a Wyoming community college graduate. His motivating carrot is seeing others change their lives for the better and feeling the peace of knowing his Heavenly Father is happy with his actions.

March 2009: I once (accidentally) signed my weekly e-mail home as Elder Bhagwat instead of Sam. Upon receiving an angry response from my mother, I wrote a miffed reply, insisting “Sam is Elder Bhagwat and Elder Bhagwat is Sam.” My tone was wrong, obviously, but my argument was also incorrect, though I didn’t realize it at the time. On my mission, I was mostly Elder Bhagwat; occasionally Sam emerged (such as when we were teaching my favorite investigator, a Google employee who described her height as ‘Lilliputian’).

Back to my conversation with the recently returned Hermana.

June 2012:  “I was doing well for the months after my mission when I was at Stanford, because Sam and Elder Bhagwat were united in purpose. It was really clear that the next part of my life was to graduate from college. And both parts were united in that.”

“But I really struggled after that, when I was at work [at the management consulting firm Mars & Co]. Suddenly the main important thing was to be able to work with a spreadsheet. To SUMIF or sort or INDEX(MATCH()) correctly. And Sam was good at that, but Elder Bhagwat wasn’t. So Sam became the dominant part of my personality again. Because he was useful. Elder Bhagwat wasn’t really useful – charity and service weren’t terribly helpful in working a spreadsheet.”

I’ll call this new person SMB, since we used our initials to identify ourselves on Mars & Co documents. SMB had far more of Sam, than he had of Elder Bhagwat.

Even parts of SMB where Elder Bhagwat should have shown up, such as communication and a good relationships with teammates, he didn’t. SMB’s new teammates played a different ballgame than the people Elder Bhagwat was used to. More businesslike, less nice, less caring of efforts, less egalitarian.

August 2011: On weekends and evenings, I would wonder if I should still be Elder Bhagwat – after all, he didn’t seem terribly useful during the week. And being a Sunday Christian didn’t appeal to me.

So was it just time to say “screw it”, ditch Elder Bhagwat, and turn into SMB?

SMB was fairly familiar -- kind of like Sam. But he was less nice, more thrill- and status-seeking, and certainly far less religious.

I thought so at one point. But I changed my mind.

I wish I could say that I was struck down by an angel, or saw a risen Christ on the road to Damascus, or was reborn in one moment.

But it was more of a process. Looking back, I see six main parts.

First, I realized SMB wasn’t very happy. (Though a skeptic would say I simply hadn’t yet learned to fill the shoes).

Second, I remembered a big reason why I had joined the Church and become Elder Bhagwat in the first place. Because I really really really want to have a happy family, and loved the language of eternal family as I heard the words, along with all it entailed. SMB was not helping me get there.

Third, I looked back beyond my recent dearth of spiritual experiences, to remember those I once had.

Fourth, I resolved my internal tensions in Part VI.

Fifth, I made up my mind, then made up a goal and clung to it. A good friend, the sister of my girlfriend in high school, was getting married in the temple in December in Michigan. I made up my mind that I was going to be there, and stay temple worthy in the meantime. When that passed, I found other reasons.

Six, in March, I quit my job, the main generator of SMB, and found a different job where Elder Bhagwat and Sam could again be united. I was lucky in this.

With a little help from my friends.

A letter from my friend, the above Hermana, arrived at a really, really opportune time.

I ignored my roommates’ questions, but a “where have you been?” from a friend in church was more effective.

I got called as the assistant executive secretary, and took the meeting minutes for bishopric meeting. I had a purpose for being in church again.  

This entry feels like the end of this series. Or at least the beginning of the end. 

I guess I'm not necessarily writing everything in order. I could, and should, probably expand on the six things that happened. I probably will. Some are more tied up than others.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Struggles, part VI: Internal dialogue:

Somewhat later, after Part IV and Part V, I ask myself, “What are you doing?”

“What does the Church, gospel, whatever mean to me practically? I ask myself. “Well, it means several things, the aesthetic element, difficult to describe, that deals with the kind of world that I want to live in. There’s the friend element. And there’s the aspect of what the church, gospel means to me. Of the experiences that I’ve had.”

I think about the spiritual low I’ve been going through.

How could I understand this?

The church explanation: “It’s part of the returned missionary experience, going through the ‘lone and dreary’ world again.”

The rationalist/humanist explanation: “You’re finally out of the closed system you were on your mission and are in a better position now to see the way things really are.”

Hmm…then from a rationalist or humanist perspective, how should I understand the act of going to church?

Rationalist: “It’s part of being part of a group and having group identity, loyalty, feeling, emotion, etc.”

So if God doesn’t exist, do I have to leave the church?
The rationalist continues: “Why would you stay? The point of life is to discover truth.”

Now the pragmatist on my shoulder kicks in, channeling C.S. Lewis.

He brings to mind a scene in the Narnia series, where a group of people discovered at the last day that the god they had been fighting for was a false idol, yet it had led them to do and be good. Brings to mind similar passages in the Screwtape Letters.

So what’s the bottom line?

Pragmatist: “Well, think about your life at church. Perhaps, as you were ‘by staying here you can do more good than by any other way, you will live a happier life than any other way of living life.’ Then you should stay. With caveats; forge your own path, but stay.”

I start thinking again about the various worldviews.

In the rationalist worldview, words like holy and sacred and the accompanying emotions are, if not entirely lacking, than definitely muted. Value to things like sacrifice and self-mastery are difficult to see. Do I want to live, only in that world? I am more than a bit unsettled about that.

Struggles, part V: "I'm done"

It’s a few days earlier, before part IV.

Wednesday, sitting and reflecting, I bring out my journal, the capstone of Mormonism in my life. In it, I write: “I think I’m done.” Done with the church.

“I just don’t want to fight anymore….fight myself. Fight the truth. I don’t know what anymore….there is no God…There are a lot of things I want to keep with me. But I need to find a new home….”

Since around April, I’ve been kicking this argument around in my head.

It’s basically an extension of Occam’s Razor, called minimum message length, or MML.
The basic form of the argument is that if you are explaining a particular situation, you need evidence in proportion to the complexity of your argument. If there are 1000 possible, equally complicated, explanations for a situation, then you need evidence that is 1:1000 in favor of your hypothesis to bring it to even odds.

An example is that the probability of some woman Jane being a blond-haired bank teller is equal to the probability of her being blond-haired (say 1/4) times the probability of her being a bank teller (say 1/100). By adding the extra detail ‘blond-haired’ you have made the likelihood of your statement being true smaller by a factor of 4.

The argument against God is that any explanation of God is very complicated and thus exponentially less likely to be true. If there are 100 independent pieces of information (“Moses led 5000 people across a water bridge” etc), then the “prior” probability starts at around 2^100:1 against*. (Think of the prior probability like really good bookies making odds on a game before it starts, or at least while it’s still going on, before it’s over.) As the evidence rolls in (as the game is played), you adjust the “prior” probability to get the real probability.

But at 2^100:1, you’re starting really, really far in the hole here. You’d need stuff like “Jesus is speaking on CNN now” as opposed to stuff like “I had a spiritual experience and felt the Holy Ghost.”

It bugs the heck out of me, because I don’t have any good response.

I talk about this with my friend Arandur, the handle of another Mormon on the blog I read, called Less Wrong. It’s a rationalist blog, and fairly hostile to religion.

We decide to embark on a Crisis of Faith together, and begin trading e-mails with a fellow I knew named Larry Judkins. Larry is the atheist columnist that I had known at the Sacramento Valley Mirror. He and I had traded barbs in the pages of the newspaper debating the origins of the Book of Mormon.

We trade e-mails. Mostly concerning the origins of the Book of Mormon. There are any number of reasons why a divine origin of the Book of Mormon makes sense to me – its composition process, dictated out loud steadily. The complicatedness of the narrative. Hebraisms in the text. There are other things that seem 19th century-like or otherwise demand explanation, like Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and can generally be solved in some sort of a synthesis. Like “The Book of Mormon is of divine origin, but sometimes runs through a 19th century filter that results in seeming anachronisms.”
Larry’s last post is on the topic of Nazareth. He argues that ‘a Nazarene’ is a title, the location of the village of Nazareth was folklore originating in the centuries after Christ, and that the use of the word Nazareth as a location in the Book of Mormon is evidence that it is a historical anachronism.

Something about his post his me. Not necessarily his specific arguments, but more his timing, hits me, along with the idea from MML that I do need a lot of evidence.

As I read Larry's e-mail, I write in my journal those possibly-fateful words: “I think I’m done.”

*Actually more than that, but we’ll just say this to keep it simple.

Struggles of a returned missionary, part IV

It’s Sunday evening, mid-October in San Francisco.

I’m slightly out of breath, having just walked up a hill to get to the Frat House. It’s in West Portal, a quiet residential neighborhood in San Francisco situated between the Twin Peaks and the Castro on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The three and four bedroom houses around me probably run between half a million and a million dollars, including the one I’m living in. I live with seven other guys from church in the so-called “Frat House.” which lets us get our own rooms and still keep rent at 700 bucks a month each, here in a city where the average studio apartment rents for a cool 1600.

I open the door and walk inside and down the stairs in front of me.

I walk by my roommate Drew; he’s dressed in a shirt and tie. “Hey, where were you at church,” comes the inevitable question. “Had some work,” I reply.

Not really. I just figured I’d take off so as to avoid questions.

The calculated church-skipping was a culmination of a variety of factors:

• Increased skepticism about the existence of God in general
• Dullness of life related to a frustrating work environment
• Not being able to see the gospel’s relevance in my everyday life.

You’ll see these as repeated themes.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Too many windows open in my life


It’s a recurring scenario.

A friend was over at my house and I wanted to show him my desktop picture – except it took 5 minutes to close everything.

As my computer struggled to open an large Excel file, one of my colleagues pointed out it might be easier if I closed the other 10 Excel data files I had open.

Another colleague noticed it as she saw my Chrome window. So many tabs were open, you couldn’t read the headlines on any of the pages.

I have too many windows open. On my computer, and in my life.

I start doing something and I pause, but I don’t clean it up, close the picture, pick up the “sock weeds” growing around the house.

This isn’t purely a technical problem.

My wallet was, until recently, bulging with tons of old cards I never use anymore.
My pre-21 drivers’ license (yes I still have that, I didn’t destroy it like I was supposed to. My Stanford student ID. My health insurance card from my dad’s work.

A lot of these I hadn’t used in over eight months, some for two or three years. Yet they were still making my wallet thicker and harder to close.

Nor is it a purely physical problem.

These are the windows I currently have open in my life.

Just my obligations, not counting my social life:

• I have a 50-to-60 hour a week consulting job, plus 7.5 hours of weekly commuting. (day job)
• I’m the CFO of a startup my friends are running down in Sunnyvale. (night job, ~10-15 hours/week in the fall, but only 2-3 hours/week now)
• I’m the assistant executive secretary at church, which tacks another three or so hours onto regular 3-hour Sunday church meetings.

How did I get there?
- I took a management consulting class my senior year of college, and found the methodology of analyzing businesses utterly fascinating. I had an assignment to write a 15-page paper for the class. It turned out to be 29 pages, as I explained in great detail why newspapers making their content available for free online were stupidly cannibalizing their business model.

Ultimate decision: to get a job in the field.

I skipped class one Friday back in 2008 and attended a conference ~1 hour away on seasteading. In a nutshell: there are three ways to change government: win a war, an election, or a revolution. Solution: build ships on the ocean where people can leave their current government costlessly. It’s a brilliant idea, crazy, and radical, and I loved it.

Ultimate decision: to work for a related project, Blueseed, which is trying to create an international visa-free startup incubator off of Half-Moon Bay. As the CFO, I prepare financials, and occasionally accompany them to VC pitches.

As the assistant executive secretary, I prepare minutes and agendas for the two main regular leadership meetings in my local congregation.

Because these are the main regular meetings of the local leadership, being the one with control of the agenda is a unique position. When I was asked to fill the role, at the time I was a bit unsure generally about how much I wanted to attend and participate at church.

Ultimate decision: to accept the responsibility in large part because I thought it would be interesting. (I’ve since recommitted independent of this current assignment, fyi)

Okay, but really. Why did I choose to do all of these different activities?

You’ll notice a common thread running through all of these. Interestingness. I optimize for interestingness. When I find something interesting, I am drawn in.
So what’s the problem? That’s bad…why?

The things I find interesting are fairly limitless. But I only have twenty-four hours in a day.

Plus, I haven’t even counted social activities. Talking to family. Just chillaxing.
When you have lots of windows open on your computer, it slows down the processor. When you have lots of in-process projects in your room, it gets cluttered. And when I have too many windows open in my life, I get stressed out. I only have so much time, energy, and loyalty to go around.

Moreover, sometimes my system crashes.

For example:
• There were definitely times at my day job where I was tired and exhausted from my night job, or my social life, and I’ve blankly stared at my computer screen from 5 to 6:30pm.
• There was a girl over the summer who I was interested in and vice versa. However, it was time-intensive to see her and somewhat complicated. So when Blueseed ramped up, the time I might have spent with her I used on Blueseed -- effectively vanishing off the face of the earth. Later, I curtly cut things off. I regret my rudeness -- it was an unintended product of system overload. Call that the blue screen of death, or something.
• This has happened many times before.

For example, I had from a similar situation my sophomore year of college. I was trying to work 30-hour weeks in leadership positions of two different jobs, and take a difficult courseload, including an honors multivariable calculus class. As a result, I got my only C ever in that class. Oops.

I could go on. I won't.

Time to close a window!

The bottom line is: I needed to close a window.

I put in my two weeks’ notice at my management consulting firm.

When I wrote this, I didn’t think they would be able to pay me. So I thought I would stay in the spare bedroom of the apartment/office. I figured that I had enough money for a year, if I cook for myself. Two years, if I don’t have to pay rent. (My job gave me money. I saved ~35% of my salary. Management consulting pays well, and I’m a huge cheapskate.)

Now they can, which is even better. And I can get a place of my own in Palo Alto.

I’ll get stock, which is worth a lot on paper, at the current valuation our investors are giving us (though most startups fail, in which case my stock would be worthless).


Monday, January 30, 2012

Struggles of a returned missionary, part III

This is more backstory -- I'm trying to take you up from January to where the story actually starts, in maybe June or July. Because the fact that it didn't happen in January or March or May is also a story

Luckily in the days and weeks after my mission I was very good about my journal-keeping, which helps me to tell a tale broader than memory.

I carried my journal - one of those 80-page spiral-bound college-ruled notebooks, with me everywhere – almost lost it twice, too. Filled two of them up between January and June. A lot more than I filled up in subsequent weeks.

Reading it today is interesting. It was only a year ago, and looking back on it, I often shake my head. My otherself seems impossibly eager and excited – I’ve become more burned-out and cynical, segmented between a Sunday Christian and a work persona in whose day-to-day life the gospel lacks relevance.

I shake my head.

I feel like I made some mini-Faustian bargain.

On the one hand, I get the “management consulting experience” with technical skill development. On the other, I accept negative job-related factors (being at the bottom of the totem pole with no one watching out for me, a stress-filled work environment, long hours), that seem to bleed over into my spiritual life.

Of course, some of these are just general first-job-out-of-college problems – I remember my friend Marisa recounting them to me.

I made an equation – Potential for Good = Desire x Skills. The second part of the equation is increasing while the first decreases.

Some of the differences I see in my old self:

The successes he notes in his journal, the things he’s excited about, are related to the duties he’s performing: home teaching, his calling. He brought Jenn to a home teaching visit with a sister and she really helped to break the ice. He is taking the authority he has in his FHE co-chair calling seriously and trying to be a gracious host and delegate tasks for people’s personal development.

He seems to have lots of free time – how did he keep up this journal? He is often pondering and meditating.

Meanwhile, I can see some crucial events in fast-forward, as January turns to February to March, April, May.

A job fair, followed by lots of practice consulting questions, following by descriptions of the people I met and my interviews at Mars & Co, followed by my offer and acceptance. I was pretty stressed and worried about it at the time, though of course reading it at the time it seems like “of course it happened this way.”

Scripture study, of course – Institute was going through the Doctrine and Covenants. While I often take notes on scripture study in classes, I rarely if ever find anything useful in my notes when I review them. Maybe just by writing it down, I helped get it into memory, but maybe I need to take more complete notes of fewer points.

I describe wonderful and happy times with Jenn. Then these start to be interspersed with doubts and worries about our communication and whether we’re right for each other. Finally, the last predominate, and by May we break up. That happens, and I come up to San Francisco to scout out a new place to live after graduation. I find the place where I’m living now, the room with the bed on which I’m laying now.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Struggles of a returned missionary, part II

December 16, 2010. -- I get the typical farewell interview. Thank you for your service, bearing of testimony, and of course, the mention of what my next goal should be. But take the time and find the right girl, my mission president told me in the soft-spoken way he has.

December 22 -- I arrive back home -- long story. I hit the ground running.

December 28 -- breakfast date with my friend Beth. I’d corresponded regularly, if platonically, with her over the last two years.

My parents, who hadn’t been happy with my choice to go on a mission, welcomed me back with love and joy. My mom said that I seemed like a calmer, more mature person than when I left two years ago.

December 30 -- flew back to Stanford.

First week back: met the elders’ quorum president in the Stanford ward, who had already Facebook friended me. Was called in by the bishop and extended a calling as the FHE co-chair. Wrote up a set of goals – reading my scriptures, going to church, doing my home teaching. “KIPs for a Post-Mission Life,” I called it. Stuck it up right next to my bed. (Yeah, a bit full of myself.)

A bunk bed, in an apartment I shared with two other members of my posse from my pre-mission days.

Life wasn’t perfect, but it was familiar. Date, check. KIPs, check. Friends and familiar faces, check. I even went “finding” at a multi-stake New Years’ Eve party. (successfully -- met a girl there who I went on a couple dates later)

Kept rolling.

Next week, Friday. January 7, 2011.

Normally on Stanford campus, we have Friday Forum, kind of a social hour with lunch for the LDS students on campus. My first Friday back, I wasn’t sure where it was, so I called my friend Jenn who I had known before leaving. “It’s cancelled this week,” Jenn told me. “Oh,” I replied. “Umm…want to grab lunch then?”

Two Fridays later, we at one of those artsy place where you paint glaze on ceramics, and then they fire them up for you. I had carefully selected the location for a fun, joint activity. In her car on the way home, I asked her nervously if she wanted to be boyfriend/girlfriend, in something like those terms.

“I would like that,” she said, slowly, thoughtfully.

I wasn’t sure how to ask her, and I don’t think she was quite sure how to respond, but it still seemed to work out reasonably well.

It was Jan 21 - a month, minus a day, since I had gotten back.

Not even a whole transfer.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Struggles of a returned missionary, part I

This is a new series I'm starting on. Don't expect to see things neatly wrapped in a bow here. They're messy and untidy and complicated. Kind of like life. Hope you can relate to it.

“As we begin to understand that the first principles and ordinances of the gospel are the way to the abundant life,” reads a well-highlighted part in my Preach My Gospel missionary manual, “we will appreciate that these principles help answer any question and fill any need.”

The statement is repeated a couple of sentences later: “The gospel can resolve almost any question or need.”

When I was a missionary I made an activity based on this idea for when we visited members: I would write out a few pieces of paper with situations or needs, have them draw one, and have them list a couple of gospel principles that would apply to it.

“Building a strong family,” read one slip. “Eternal marriage,” the chorus would go, along with “law of chastity" and a more occasional “repentance” or “forgiveness.”

I’m not so sure that the gospel can resolve any question or need anymore. At the very least, it's more complicated. Let me explain.

The gospel definitely solves some problems pretty well.

I mean, think about those people you know, who lost a brother, sister, husband, wife. If you were a missionary, maybe you looked into their eyes and told them “I know you will see your son again.”

Or they had a physical handicap. And you read Alma 40:23 with them: "the body shall its perfect form" “not a hair of the head shall be lost” and all that.

Or sin and forgiveness, or addiction recovery.

One of my investigators, we’ll call him Justin, wrestled with the question of forgiveness for his substance addiction. He knew it was wrong, so he got depressed, so he took more. So he got depressed again. His father relapsed into his alcoholism as a result of Justin’s behavior – at least according to Justin – which compounded the situation. My companion and I isolated this problem and followed up with him every day. To make a long story very short, it worked.

In econ-speak, we might call these low-hanging fruit. They are questions which the gospel paradigm answers well.

Other questions, the gospel provides answers, but less well.

For example: how can teenagers navigate the perils of their age group?

We have “I am a child of God” and modesty as a response to body and self-image issues; the Word of Wisdom instructing us to abstain from drugs, and the law of chastity emphasizing no sex before marriage. We even have “For the Strength of Youth” standards for some of the other issues, like friends, appropriate media, dating, and so forth.

But (generally) what teenagers want isn’t really any of these things, except incidentally. They really want to have friends, to be accepted.

Sure, if they consciously follow these standards for a while (or violate them and feel really guilty) they will probably appreciate the benefits. Even so, it requires lots of small details that must be learned from others, or need social support. What do you do on Friday night? How do you nicely reject sexual advances? It’s really hard and lonely to figure out that stuff out by yourself.

Well, duh, you’re probably thinking. What’s your point?

My point is that the answer to the question “how can teens navigate the perils of their age group” is highly dependent on other people.

(This was something I learned in practice as a missionary when a couple of the teenage guys I brought to church stopped coming because they didn't make any friends)

And so, in an imperfect world, in an imperfect ward, imperfect people will get imperfect answers to this question.

And I’m just getting started here.

Other questions the gospel answers even less well.

For example, many of the questions I currently need answers to go something like this. “I am trying to sort this data in Excel, but it is in a table format with rows and columns and thus I can’t put it in a PivotTable. What should I do?”

Unsurprisingly, the gospel doesn’t provide a lot of guidance in answering that question.

Or consider this one:

“I often spend my days at work on the computer performing repetitive tasks and often get distracted. This results in me being less productive and happy. Also frustrated at myself. What should I do?”

What answers does the gospel have for that? Prayer didn’t really work. Neither did putting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on my headphones. But Katy Perry did work --

So when evening comes and I’m walking home from work, I’m humming “Teenage Dream” -- “We drove to Cali/And got drunk on the beach/Got a motel and/Built a fort out of sheets.”