Sunday, January 27, 2013

Happiness and Depression

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?  Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents.

So I had the wonderful opportunity today to attend my parents' ward, the ward I grew up in--and the even more wonderful opportunity to attend actual classes that weren't aimed at 3-year-olds.  I didn't realize until today how much I actually missed those classes.

The EQ lesson was on being happy.  Things were going well, and then someone noticed a bit of a problem--Abraham Lincoln was by most accounts a great guy, and yet he wasn't often very happy.  I should have brought up George Albert Smith's apparent depression and anxiety disorders at this point--the poor man spent literal years in bed suffering from it, and it affected him quite tremendously when doing missionary work.  Of course, he then went on to be the prophet, although I imagine he probably still struggled with his mental health issues.

Prior to that point, the lesson had been on how to be happy--it's a choice, and our choice in how to behave (be productive, choose the right, etc.) combined with a decision to be happy leads to happiness.

I'm fine with that, as a general idea.  But once Lincoln was brought up, I thought it essential to bring up depression (the mental illness, not the phase).  Essentially, I stated that happiness is difficult for some not because of sin or other issues like that, but because of genetics--mental illnesses are just as real as physical illnesses, and they can affect happiness.

I was disappointed by the response, to say the least.  Basically, it was this: people who are depressed can get out of it and become happy by turning their lives around and by stopping their sinful ways.

I was a lone voice.  And a visitor.  When I was EQ President that idea would've died a quick death--I would have killed it quickly and firmly--but I wasn't in a position to deal with it like that here.

I think there are three things that determine how happy we are.  First, our choices.  Second, our genes.  And third, our environment.  We have full control over our choices, no control over our genes, and no control over the part of our environment that's not controllable by our choices (and much of our environment we have no control over).

Mental illness, whether depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or whatever, is largely hereditary.  Anxiety and probably other disorders run on my mother's side of the family, and many of us have varying degrees of these illnesses.  I should also mention that those with these illnesses often seem to suffer from higher IQs.  Genes largely control this (although the genes may be triggered by environmental factors).  Someone with untreated depression--not just the phase, but the mental illness--is going to have an extremely difficult time being happy, regardless of how righteous they are.  I'm not going to say it's always impossible, but often it may be.  And if you have the mental illness, it's not like alcoholism (which some well-meaning soul brought up in the class to try to prove that we always have a choice, even if we're depressed).  With alcoholism, there's no huge desire for it unless you actually become addicted to it, and you don't become addicted to it if you never try it.  How is that at all comparable to a mental illness?  If you have a mental illness and you're ever conscious, you're going to suffer from that mental illness.  Not at all like alcoholism.

Our environment also makes a huge difference.  I take that word from my biology background, but I could also call it our situation and surroundings.  I've been unemployed and very worried about ever finding work, and I've been self-employed and very worried about making enough money to pay the bills.  Being unemployed was the worse of the two, but both are very difficult places to be at.  And, at least for me, it's a lot more difficult for me to be happy in those situations.  Last month I wasn't getting business and I was very worried about paying the bills.  This month I've gotten three new clients and I'm not so worried anymore, although continuing to get new business is always a concern.  Am I happier this month?  Oh yeah.  Because it looks like my family's basic needs will be taken care of, and so a huge amount of stress has largely disappeared.  I'm not any more righteous now than I was last month--I'm just having better luck with how the business is going.

I think many church members who aren't unhappy like to attribute any happiness they have to their personal righteousness, and any unhappiness others have to those individuals' wickedness.  And here enters pride, in one of its many forms.
The blind man wasn't to blame for his blindness, and unhappy people are often not to blame for their unhappiness.  Happiness has never been a marker of righteousness, at least not in this life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The International Church

The LDS Church prides itself in being an international church, with stakes and temples in many countries.  With large numbers of members in Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and the Philippines, and with stakes, temples, wards, and branches throughout most of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the rest of Asia, we are indeed an international church.  But the message sometimes has trouble getting through.

Being an international church requires adaptation.  Scouts is strongly touted as an important arm of the Young Men's program in the church.  But only in the U.S.  As this is an international church, how will the church deal with this?  I don't see enough interest internationally in young men joining their countries' version of the BSA.  Clearly they have working programs without involving the scouting program.  So why is it continued here in the U.S.?  How much longer will the international church continue its strong ties with the Boy Scouts of America?  Couldn't the church create its own program for both Young Men and Young Women that stresses life skills (cooking, first aid, etc.), outdoor experiences (camping, hiking, rafting, etc.), and introductions to different career paths?  Frankly, I'm not convinced the BSA is doing a great job here.  I think the church could create a better program and involve all young members of the church, regardless of their gender or country, in that program.  It would be great if young members in every country could have access to those same resources, tailored of course to the individual country.

Release time seminary is another issue.  Go a couple hundred miles outside the Mormon Corridor and no one does release time seminary.  So the question is, why does the church do it here?  In Cincinnati, seminary teacher was just another demanding calling, the seminary teacher was unpaid, and kids got up bright and early in order to attend before school.  There was no issue with potential priestcraft, no paid want-to-be-clergy.  (Well, excluding potentially-paid CES professionals, and I've only met one of those outside of Utah, and most of his students knew more about the gospel and about real life than he did).  Here in the Mormon Corridor, vast amounts of tithing money pays for teachers to teach your kids gospel subjects.  And quite honestly, professional seminary teachers don't have any more special gospel knowledge than unpaid seminary teachers in Cincinnati do.  The international church does things one way, and the Utah church does things another.  It would be incredibly easy to call volunteer seminary teachers from each ward and have them teach early morning seminary in a church building each morning before school.  Why the discrepancy? 

The other growing pain issue I've noticed is that those who speak to an international church often forget their audience and start to think that everyone they're speaking to grew up in small-town Idaho.  (For the record, my kids are growing up in small-town Idaho.)  Concepts like American football are referred to with the expectation that everyone knows what football is, and without even thinking of the fact that many listeners will become confused because many English speakers understand "football" to mean "soccer" and the speaker doesn't make himself clear by referring specifically to "American football."  Listeners are told to not delay marriage or lobby for women's rights when some of the listeners live in or come from countries where women typically get married before age 18 or where women don't have many rights.  Granted, remarks made in General Conference are more likely to make it to a wide international audience, but even university-level devotionals will include as their audience many international students, and in this information age devotionals can just as easily be listened to in Pakistan as in Provo.  Those speaking to a world-wide church need to remember they're speaking to a world-wide church.  Discussion of scouting and many other issues should be done at the local, and not the world-wide, level.  And if they're done at the world-wide level, by all means they need to be qualified by a statement like, "Here in the United States..."

We're an international church.  We're experiencing some growing pains.  But we need to get used to our new position and adapt if we truly want to be seen as an international church.