Friday, January 4, 2019

On Happiness - Part One: Mormon Style

I was born and raised Mormon.  Growing up, I was taught "the Plan of Salvation" or "the Plan of Happiness" (search on for "plan of happiness").

The Plan of Salvation or Happiness (which I'll simply refer to as The Plan), was based on roughly the following major points:

We Lived With God Before We Were Born
All humans alive today, dead or soon-to-be-born, lived with God before we were born.  However, any human born on Earth, represents only two-thirds of God's children.  The other third were lead by Satan and will never receive a body.  The reason: Satan and his followers rebelled against God.  Satan and his followers intended to take away everyone's freedom or agency.  But God and his faithful son Jesus Christ, did not intend that.  Because we chose to follow God and Jesus Christ, we were blessed to have a body - to be born on the Earth.  Those who followed Satan were cast from God's presence (this is how Mormons interpret Revelation 12:4, 7-9) and cursed to never receive a body (see Abraham 3:22-23).

God Created the World and Adam and Eve; and They "Fell"
Like most Christians, Mormons believe in the Creation.  Adam and Eve lived in God's presence in the Garden of Eden.  God gave them two commandments: 1) to have children 2) not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  Eve, at the prompting of Satan, ate the forbidden fruit because she reasoned that she could not fulfill the first commandment (to have kids) unless she ate of the fruit.  She convinced Adam to eat of the fruit.  This action then lead to them being expelled from God's presence in the Garden of Eden.  Ever since that event, Adam and Eve and their descendants (us), have been striving to re-gain God's presence.  Mormons believe Adam and Eve made promises (covenants) to God, that if they kept His commandments, they could return to His presence.  In the Mormon church, the core of these covenants are made in Mormon temples.

This is key to understanding Mormon doctrine; we can really only find lasting happiness by returning to God's presence.

The creation, the eating of the forbidden fruit, life, death, making covenants with God and keeping commandments that God gives through his prophets, mark the stepping stones of The Plan.  Mormons believe life is essentially a test; and commandments (both commandments of commission and omission) are a means for achieving happiness in mortal life as well as eternal life.

Obedience = Happiness
A Mormon's life, whether born into a family and raised Mormon, or through conversion, is guided by a series of events.  Happiness is attained through obedience to teachings and commandments and rituals.

As a child, you learn to be happy by obeying your parents, by going to church, reading the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.  You learn to be happy by going to church meetings three hours every Sunday and by attending church activities during the week.

You learn to be happy by having Family Home Evening every Monday night, with your family.  In those family meetings, you learn about The Plan and you play games and eat treats.

You learn to be happy by giving talks in church and by teaching lessons.  You learn to be happy by saying your prayers morning and evening; both by yourself and with your family.  You learn to be happy by reading your scriptures for 30 minutes every day.  You learn to be happy by listening to the Prophets and church leaders every April and October.  You learn to be happy from your home teachers, who come once a month to teach you more about The Plan.  All of this, is to help you prepare to be baptized and confirmed a member of the church when you turn eight years old.

If you do all those things, listed above, you will be happy.  But if you forget to do all of them or some of them, you may begin to feel dark feelings or you may begin to feel lost.  This is God telling you that you are not loving Him and that you are disobeying.  When this happens, you should repent.  You repent by confessing, saying sorry and then by striving to do better - either stop doing the wrong or start choosing the right.  If you fully repent, then you are on the path to happiness again.

After you are baptized and confirmed, you receive a special gift: the gift of the Holy Ghost.  This gift gives you special access to a member of the Godhead.  He is a spirit and can enter your heart and mind and give you promptings to help other people or he can remind you to do what is right or he can warn you against danger.  But since he is a member of the Godhead, he can only enter those people who are righteous - who are obedient to the commandments.  If you are disobedient, you will not have the Spirit of the Holy Ghost with you and you won't be guided in life - you may make a wrong choice or fail to do something right.  After baptism, your happiness is dependent on the guidance from the Holy Ghost, which is dependent on your obedience to the commandments you have been taught.

The process of practicing obedience and repentance is repeated the rest of your life, along with with milestones that help you stay on the straight and narrow.  At age twelve, if you're a boy, you will be interviewed by a local church leader (the Bishop) and your worthiness (level of commitment and obedience) is determined.  If you are deemed worthy, then you are given the Aaronic Priesthood.  For a young woman, a worthiness interview is also given, so that she may advance into the Young Womens' program.  Worthiness interviews are held at regular intervals during your teenage years.  If your parents are good parents, they too will hold one-on-one interviews with you to check in on your progress in keeping the commandments.  Failure to "pass" these worthiness interviews means the young man or woman is not living up to expectations.  Failure to meet expectations means the young man or woman are not truly happy.

By the time you are 18 years old, you will have gone through approximately twenty or more interviews.  And at this point in your life, you are faced with additional major milestones: missions and marriages.  All young men are duty-bound to serve a full-time, two-year mission, in which they travel to a different city or country, in order to preach Mormonism and convert "non-members."  For those young men who don't qualify, a significant social stigma sticks with them for a life-time.  Almost as bad or perhaps equally bad, is when a young man leaves to go on a mission, but then fails to honorably complete it.  Women are not obligated to serve a full-time mission, but many choose to do so.  If a woman chooses not to serve a full-time mission, soft, social pressure increases on her to get married.

Sometime during these crucial years, men and women will make covenants with God in a Mormon temple.  Men promise to obey the law of the Lord and women promise to obey their husband as he promises to obey the Lord (note: this was just changed by the church in January 2019; women are no longer "put under oath" to obey their husband).  They promise to be willing to sacrifice everything they currently have or will have to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to build up the kingdom of God on earth.  They promise not to speak evil of the Lord's anointed ("the Lord's anointed" are people who have also been deemed worthy to enter the temple and have participated in the temple rituals and promises).  They promise to not be "light-minded" or to engage in "loud laughter" or to engage in any "unholy or impure practice."  They promise to be sexually faithful to their spouse.  They promise to keep all the commandments in the scriptures.  And they promise to never reveal the signs and "tokens" or special hand-shakes with unique names, to others.

Once a person "enters the temple" and "receives their own endowment", they are expected to return often and perform the work as proxy for people who have died and who did not or could not make similar promises in a Mormon temple when they were alive.

For all men and women, there is a strong expectation for them to get married and "sealed" in a Mormon temple.  Marriage brings a whole new level of commitment, including fulfilling the first commandment Adam and Eve were given in the Garden of Eden: to have children.  Only by being married and sealed for eternity in a Mormon temple, with Mormon priesthood, can married couples attain the highest degree of heaven (the Celestial Kingdom in Mormon vernacular) and therefore find eternal happiness in the after-life.  And in this mortal life, once married, Mormons find true happiness by raising a family.

Child-rearing brings a new generation of children.  Mormon parents now not only have the responsibility of their own personal salvation and happiness, but they must ensure their children enter into the same path they have lived.  If parents fail to baptize their children and raise them in the Mormon faith, true happiness is put at risk.

Happiness Through Guilt
I have only hit upon a the larger points in The Plan.  As you may see, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities to fail attaining happiness in Mormonism.  Any excuse given as to why an individual is not happy, is met with dozens of questions of the individual's worthiness.  Failure in any of these larger points, outlined above, or even dozens of smaller failures, such as forgetting to pray or to study the scriptures or to not attend a meeting or the temple, will be presented as evidence as to why the individual is not happy.  This is reinforced countless times in the many sacrament meetings, Sunday School lessons, Seminary classes and General Conference talks.  This is key to understanding Mormon guilt and happiness.

If a member takes the dogma seriously, then they should be happy by keeping all the commandments.  But, if anyone expresses discontentment or unhappiness, the first place to look is their level of commitment to Mormonism.  Ultimately, this means any unhappiness experienced is the member's fault!  If you've ever heard the phrase, "heads I win, tails you lose" then you may understand the position Mormons are put in.

Two specific, doctrinal examples of the type of guilt Mormon leaders instill within their members can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants and a quote from a Mormon prophet.

D&C 68:25
And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.

John Taylor
If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty (source).

I watched parents and other members suffer years of guilt and anxiety over things beyond their control (a wayward child, lack of success as a missionary, etc).  The guilt and anxiety cultivated in people for failing in the thousands of big and little "duties" is significant.

Eventually, Mormons begin to have this devastating dialogue with themselves in their head.  They wonder if they should do this or say that or if they should not do something or not say anything.

If you recall, after baptism, Mormons received the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  They are expected to be worthy of the Holy Ghost at all times.  If they become unworthy, they risk "losing" the gift which then puts them at risk for not making crucial decisions that could impact the lives of many.  Failure to "listen to the still small voice" could result in you not saying something that could change a person's life or it could put you at risk in not making a critical decision or worse, making a bad decision.  This gift is supposed to help you in keeping all the commandments.  But in the event you fail, you can always repent.

Repentance ... with a caveat
I briefly mentioned repentance above.  Mormons view repentance as a way to clean your soul in preparation to meet God at judgement day.  Repentance should be exercised often.  There should never be "death-bed repentance."  Rather, you should be thinking of ways, every day, to repent.

Once you repent, you are expected to stay on the straight and narrow path.  And as long as you do not return to those sins, God will remember them no more as outlined in D&C 58:42-43:

42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.

43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.

The last two words of verse 43 are very important in Mormonism.  There is an expectation that you never return to any sin you commit - that you forsake them.  Only then, will the Lord forget your sins.  This scripture, alone, does not sound unreasonable.  But, when put in context of another scripture, we learn guilt can be piled on the sinner exponentially.

D&C 82:7 says, "And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God."

This Mormon doctrine shows that sins, in at least one case, are not forgotten by the Lord.  If you sin, repent and completely forsake, the Lord forgets your sin.  But if you commit that sin again, you are not only guilty of that sin, but all the former sins as well!  The guilt, almost exponentially, returns!  As you can see, there is a built-in feedback loop designed to pile on guilt by the loads.  A camel trying to get through an eye of a needle comes to mind ... and it's the camel's fault to boot!

But I See Lots of Happy Mormons
At this point, allow me to let you in on a little secret: I don't believe in Mormonism - at least as the founder Joseph Smith would have you believe it - that it is the one true church or religion endorsed by God and all other religions are an abomination in God's eyes.

I have since come to the conclusion that if you come across a happy Mormon, then they are probably a (what I like to call) Buffet Mormon.  They are likely surveying the doctrines, dogmas and commandments and picking and choosing the ones they like and ignoring the ones they don't care for.  In my opinion, some never engage in a serious survey of the dogma and are able to ignore many aspects of Mormonism through ignorance or indifference.

Less likely, but still probable, are another set of happy Buffet Mormons who love the current culture of Mormonism, have examined much, if not all, of the unsavory church history and who are able justify current or past immoral (and doctrinal) teachings and behaviors of leaders or founders.  This allows them to live contentedly with aspects they agree with, but turn a blind eye to practices, under normal circumstances, they would find repulsive (God endorsing racial discrimination, plural marriage, a "prophet" marrying other mens' wives and young women as young as fourteen, instilling a culture of soft hate against gay, lesbian and other orientations, deception about authority and the list goes on).

There is a saying about the Mormon church that goes: what is good about the church is not unique and what is unique about the church is not good.

Those who are happy, largely focus on the 'good' about the church and they turn a blind eye to the things that are unique about the church.  I contend that many of these same people who believe the good things about the church, could find happiness in most Christian religions today.

Happiness Broken
For me, I found a lot of the guilt and unhealthy teachings were affecting my mental health and well-being.  I had such a sincere desire to obey and to "purify" myself, that all I could see were my imperfections.  Leaders, both local and general, would remind me of my short-comings.  Those close to me would often compare my actions with others, who seemingly were better than me.  Many weekends, after coming home from a week of work, I would simply want to sit on the couch or front porch and do nothing but sit.  My mind was numb and my head experienced a low-grade vibrating buzz (that's the best way to describe the numbness).  While I watched many friends and neighbors get their batteries re-charged at church meetings, I found myself lacking motivation and I often looked forward to Monday mornings!

I simply didn't have the psychological tools to help myself.  I also didn't have the space to really assess my philosophical foundations.  For me, it felt like God's prophets, "general authorities" and local lay leaders were changing doctrine.  Doctrine, dogmas and teachings, which were once considered core to the Mormon faith, were now yesterday's theories advanced by "men" who weren't really speaking as prophets (despite being sustained as such).  More and more, it felt like the only virtue in Mormonism, was to "follow the prophet, but only today's prophet."  It felt like I was standing on sand and it was shifting underneath my feet.  I yearned for solid rock and a moral compass upon which I could depend.

By late 2013 and early 2014, the number of "dark" weekends became more frequent and would last longer.  Although I had often considered suicide through the years, by 2014 I began to seriously consider it.  I knew I had crossed a boundary and I needed help.  After telling my wife, I made a phone call and scheduled an appointment to see a therapist.

I began to see a therapist in the summer of 2014.  She was able to help me deconstruct my negative thinking using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  She also recommended that I review my values - I took a values system test which helped reveal what my inner values really were.  After a few weeks of talking with her, I began conducting own research on CBT and discovered it was roughly based on Stoic philosophy.  Thus began my journey of learning about Stoicism.  During this time, I also conducted a cold-eyes review of Mormonism.  My research lead me to discover the truth claims of the church were not valid and I no longer felt an obligation to believe many Mormon dogmas and beliefs.

By the end of 2014 and towards the beginning of 2015, I purchased my first copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations which opened a truly beautiful, logical world to me and has helped me reconstruct my philosophical world view in a way that has allowed me to escape the grasp of depression and anxiety.  For the first time, in a long time, I found rock upon which to stand.

No comments:

Post a Comment