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 be...in 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.”

Great.

1 comment:

KC said...

Don't stop there! The song continues:

"I finally found you:
My missing puzzle piece,

I'm complete."

Perhaps Sister Perry has more wisdom to impart than you have realized.

The better question may be: what piece now fits the puzzle that has thus far been constructed?