Thursday, December 5, 2013

Debunking the Sound Bite Gospel: Selflessness is Not the Virtue You Think it Is

During the past couple of months I've been teaching the Communications merit badge to my boy scouts.  In the first lesson, we covered forms of communication.  One element of this lesson that produced a lot of conversation was the use of symbols.  What we learned is that symbols are a very efficient way of conveying a lot of meaning very quickly.  When used well, they can be extremely effective at communicating ideas, concepts, and principles.

The sound bite is really just a verbal symbol.  The purpose of the sound bite is to call back to memory broader ideas and themes than the simple words contained in the sound bite itself.  There is, however, a pesky little detail about effective use of symbols and sound bites: they only really work if the intended audience understands the context and agrees on its meaning.  The use of sound bites becomes even more problematic if the sound bite itself conveys bad or false information.

In earlier writing, I've alluded to the problems of what I'm beginning to call the Sound Bite Gospel.  That is, the collection of teaching and beliefs in Mormonism (or any religion for that matter) that relies on brief sound bites.  I specifically called out the "Doubt your doubts" sound bite because its use seemed to obscure the greater context of open inquiry into faith and doubt.  The sound bite, as it appeared, became nothing more than a bludgeon with which doubt and disagreement with orthodox Mormonism is to be suppressed.  Nothing could be further from the speaker's actual intent.  The sound bite, it turns out, failed to convey the full message of the teaching.

It probably doesn't take long to figure out why the Sound Bite Gospel concerns me so much.  Without mutual understanding of the meaning behind the sound bites--and it is nearly impossible to get millions of people to come to mutual understanding on a simple sound bite--the sound bites are wildly ineffective.  Sound bites also suffer from problems of recall bias.  As we get further removed temporally from the delivery of the message, the original context of the sound bite becomes more obscure.  The natural inclination is to take the sound bite as the full and complete message.

In a recent lesson at church, we discussed a talk from the April 2013 General Conference, and I was agitated that there were two sound bites in particular that got a lot of attention from the group.  The text that formed the basis of our discussion follows, and I've highlighted the two sound bites that got the most attention.

Before you go reading this lengthy excerpt (and, ironically, reading the full excerpt isn't really necessary to follow the discussion), let me just point out that there is a wealth of good information in this talk.  In this seven paragraph excerpt, I've highlighted all of two sentences.  Hardly seems like something to complain about, right?  Just remember that my complaint is not that the talk is lacking in good information--my complaint (well, one of the two) is that the sound bites that became the focus of the discussion barely scratch the surface of all of this information.

First, I have observed that in the happiest marriages both the husband and wife consider their relationship to be a pearl beyond price, a treasure of infinite worth. They both leave their fathers and mothers and set out together to build a marriage that will prosper for eternity. They understand that they walk a divinely ordained path. They know that no other relationship of any kind can bring as much joy, generate as much good, or produce as much personal refinement. Watch and learn: the best marriage partners regard their marriages as priceless.
Next, faith. Successful eternal marriages are built on the foundation of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and adherence to His teachings. I have observed that couples who have made their marriages priceless practice the patterns of faith: they attend sacrament and other meetings every week, hold family home evening, pray and study the scriptures together and as individuals, and pay an honest tithing. Their mutual quest is to be obedient and good. They do not consider the commandments to be a buffet from which they can pick and choose only the most appealing offerings.
Faith is the foundation of every virtue that strengthens marriage. Strengthening faith strengthens marriage. Faith grows as we keep the commandments, and so do the harmony and joy in marriage. Thus, keeping the commandments is fundamental to establishing strong eternal marriages. Watch and learn: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of happy eternal marriages.
Third, repentance. I have learned that happy marriages rely on the gift of repentance. It is an essential element in every good marital relationship. Spouses who regularly conduct honest self-examination and promptly take needed steps to repent and improve experience a healing balm in their marriages. Repentance helps restore and maintain harmony and peace. 
Humility is the essence of repentance. Humility is selfless, not selfish. It doesn’t demand its own way or speak with moral superiority. Instead, humility answers softly and listens kindly for understanding, not vindication. Humility recognizes that no one can change someone else, but with faith, effort, and the help of God, we can undergo our own mighty change of heart. Experiencing the mighty change of heart causes us to treat others, especially our spouses, with meekness. Humility means that both husbands and wives seek to bless, help, and lift each other, putting the other first in every decision. Watch and learn: repentance and humility build happy marriages. 
Fourth, respect. I have observed that in wonderful, happy marriages, husbands and wives treat each other as equal partners. Practices from any place or any time in which husbands have dominated wives or treated them in any way as second-class partners in marriage are not in keeping with divine law and should be replaced by correct principles and patterns of behavior.
Husbands and wives in great marriages make decisions unanimously, with each of them acting as a full participant and entitled to an equal voice and vote. They focus first on the home and on helping each other with their shared responsibilities. Their marriages are based on cooperation, not negotiation. ... 

Want to know what else really bothers me about these sound bites?  Too bad, I'm going to tell you anyway.

They're dead wrong. If you're trying to build a relationship, I can't see how you can possibly succeed and follow this counsel.

The first sound bite, "humility means...putting the other first in every decision" is a derivative of the belief that marital happiness is rooted in selflessness.  That philosophy looks good when cross-stitched onto pillows, but it fails miserably when translated into reality.  Taken to an absurd extreme, complete selflessness means a couple would just fight about making sure the other person has their needs met first rather than having their own needs met first--that is, in practice, this extreme wouldn't resolve any problems that existed under complete selfishness.

Avoiding that extreme, this sound bite still fails to recognize the idea of an equitable relationship.  Equitable relationships are those that balance the needs of every entity in the relationship over the long term.  That means that one entity in the relationship may be prioritized over the others for a period of time, but at other times, the prioritization will change.  As long as the priority time given to each of the entities is equal over a long period of time, the relationship is equitable.

At this point, I should probably back up.  I just threw in some odd relationship terminology.  Wouldn't 'partner' be a better term than 'entity?'  Not necessarily.  You see, in a relationship between two partners, there are three entities with needs that must be met1.  In the figure below, one partner is represented by the red circle, and the second partner is represented by the blue circle.  The third entity is the shared needs, or the relationship between the two partners, that is represented by the intersection.  The key to building a successful relationship is not complete selflessness (nor is it complete selfishness) but open and honest attempts by both partners to satisfy the needs of all three entities.  That means each partner should be displaying both selfishness and selflessness.
A relationship between two individuals involves three entities.
Not surprisingly, this takes a lot of talking and listening.  Inevitably, you're going to find that the needs and desires of these three entities come into conflict with one another.  According to the sound bite gospel, the resolution of these conflicts is achieved through cooperation and not through negotiation.  I object to that sound bite on the grounds that cooperation and negotiation are two sides of the same coin. 

Negotiation need not be entirely adversarial.  In a relationship, it probably shouldn't ever be adversarial.  Mutual and collaborative negotiation is the process by which cooperation takes shape.  If the partners can openly discuss their opinions and views on which entities needs should be prioritized, the partners can then negotiate a mutual agreement to how to prioritize those.  Something about persuasion and long suffering (look at that!  a sound bite2!) comes to mind when I think about this.

But let me get back to my point.  I've linked to a talk that has some great pointers on building relationships.  You should read the talk in its entirety, but scratch out the sound bites.  Enjoy the rich context and content of the message; not the narrow, bastardized version presented in the sound bites. 

And remember this: happy individuals make for happy relationships.  Happiness should not be measured instantaneously, but over periods of time (no shorter than a couple of months).  If you can balance the needs of all the entities in your relationships, you'll find better potential for happiness as an individual and in your relationships.  Really, it's okay to be a little bit selfish.

1 In more abstract terms, the formula for the number of entities involved in a relationship between any number of partners is: 

 Clearly, this becomes very complex when you figure in family relationships. A relationship between three individuals has seven entities, for example. 

2 But please, go read up on the context of that sound bite. It should be illustrative on the negotiation/cooperation relationship.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Celebrating Christmas the Correct Way

Are you ready for it to begin? We now have 22 more days of being reminded not to forget the true meaning of Christmas.  We will be exposed to ads, sales, gift wrapping stations. We'll hear radio stations make a big deal about playing Christmas songs all day every day; and they'll ignore the fact that there are only about 20 unique songs arranged in 14,000 different ways each.

We are going to hear about how Christmas is a time of giving and charity; and 1,000 charities will simultaneously try to capitalize on that sentiment and suck our wallets dry.  We are about to be bombarded with Santa Clauses.  And then exhorted to recall that Santa Claus is not Christmas.

Perhaps this year we'll be exposed to hours of commentary about how we shouldn't "take Christ out of Christmas" (by using X-mas).  We're almost certain to hear the tired old complaints about corporate "Happy Holidays" from those who think that the American consumer machine should conform to the cultural traditions of Christianity alone.

We're due for a lot of distractions about what Christmas is or ought to be.  And we'll be due for still more distractions to remind us that those are just distractions.

So let me jump into the middle of this and tell you how to properly celebrate Christmas.

To explain the proper way to celebrate Christmas, let's go back to the first Christmas celebrations.  And I do believe I am correct to use the plural.  The first celebration was shared between newlyweds--for the first time in months, they were free from the stares and gossips about the young brides pregnant appearance.  It would soon be followed by labor and delivery.  Despite knowing the miraculous circumstances of this pregnancy, Mary and Joseph would face their own fears and anxieties about this moment: child birth was the leading cause of death among women.  Joseph would pace outside the stable after the women who came to assist chased him away.  Other men in Bethlehem would offer comfort, advice, and celebrations to the new father.  And relief would replace anxiety when those first cries were heard.

On that night--so precious to us, and so unremarkable to most in Bethlehem--a village would celebrate with strangers the birth of a child.  And for the first time in recent memory, Mary and Joseph would feel that they were a welcome part of a community.

Perhaps that seems like a rather unremarkable celebration. It was unremarkable.  Very little occurred that night that anyone would have cause to remember in future years.

Elsewhere, a party like no other in millenia was taking place.  While Mary lay in a stable, exhausted and flushed following childbirth; while Joseph looked on, confused and overwhelmed with the bustle of women who had come to Mary's aid; while an underestimated child was being admired and cradled in loving arms, it was the men with sheep who would witness the first Christmas celebration.

"I bring you good tidings of great joy," the angel said1.  And a choir of his friends put on an impressive, celebratory chorus.  "unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord2."  And after awe-inspiring jubilation--I can't imagine anyone parties quite like the angels--the shepherds came together.  "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this child.3" And this next part is really important.

They made haste4.

There was urgency.  There was excitement.  There was emotion.  There was curiosity.  And I imagine that there was unsurety of what this all added up to.  But mostly, there was a deep sense that something special had just happened, and they wanted to be a part of it.  And when they arrived, there he was--Wonderful, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace5.

I doubt that anyone really understood what that meant.  But they didn't need to understand.  That was a night full of feeling.  A night of emotion.  A night of expression.  And so the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, and telling the story to anyone who would listen6.

In contrast, Mary--already physically and emotionally spent--quietly "kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."

The first Christmas celebration, you see, was rife with fanfare and chaos; joy and worry; peace and labor (literally!); humility and extravagance.  It was a moment planned from the foundations of the world and riddled with improvisation.

With no knowledge of what the future would hold for this little child, those involved in the celebration were exposed to the full range of human emotion.  It was spectacular!

So the next time you hear someone say that Christmas isn't about presents, or wrapping paper, or bells, or snowflakes, or Santas, or hot chocolate, or sales, or cookies, or ugly sweaters, or ... or ... or ...  The next time someone starts talking about remembering the "true meaning of Christmas," I invite you to ignore them.  Because Christmas is about all of those things (especially hot chocolate).  Christmas is a celebration of the joy of redemption.  It's a celebration of the human condition and the fact that we can rise above it.  It's a period of extravagance and humility.

So, celebrate it.  Do those things that bring you joy (and ignore the things that don't).  Because nothing is going to inspire you to live up to the true meaning of Christmas more than feeling the joy that Christ brings.  Party like shepherds and angels, then reflect on these things like Mary, and let the joy flow.

1 Luke 2:10
2 Luke 2:11
3 Luke 2:15
4 Luke 2:16
5 Isaiah 9:6
6 Luke 2:17, 20

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Making my Proper Contribution

I've become a big believer in running the Church more like a volunteer organization1. I've talked about this before2. There's something to be said for trying to match people to performing responsibilities at church in which they are interested and find fulfilment.

Reality gets in the way sometimes though. For example, based on the reports I've heard from leaders of the children's organization (we call it Primary) at my congregation, it seems that there are really very few people who want to work in Primary, and hardly any more that are willing to work in Primary.  One of our friends was talking about this with Janelle one day and--apparently exasperated by the constant search for people willing to take on the enormous inconvenience--declared "If you don't want to work in Primary, stop having children."

(No really, it wasn't me who came up with that.)

Her reasoning was genius.  Children enter into Primary when they are 18 months old.  They remain in Nursery until the January 1st following their third birthday, and then they progress through different age-based classes until they turn twelve.  All told, they spend about ten and a half years in primary.  For our purposes, we're going to truncate this to ten  years of Primary time for each child.

Now let's assume that the usual class size is about five children (there is undoubtedly a wide variance here, but for most of the young ages, five children seems like a good class size for amateur teachers).  Lastly, we'll assume that we would like to have two teachers per class3.  For a class of five children to go through ten years of Primary with two teachers, you would need to staff 20 teacher-years4.  If we are fortunate enough that all five of those hypothetical children have two parents, then you would have a pool of ten parents to staff 20 teacher years.

Now, do the math--if the parents of the children are going to carry the load of staffing Primary (as is customary in most volunteer organizations), then for each child a parent has in Primary, the parent should expect to contribute two years of time teaching.

To put this in personal terms, I have two children.  Thus, I should expect that I will spend four years teaching in Primary, and that Janelle will also spend four years teaching in Primary.

The total time spent will vary, of course.  Perhaps your Primary only uses one teacher per class--cut the number of teacher years in half.  If the class sizes are larger, the total time per parent will decrease.  If the class sizes are smaller, the total number of time will increase.  If you have some parents who are willing, eager, and enjoy working in Primary, they can stay in Primary and other parents will carry a lighter load.

But at some point, somewhere along the way, if you have kids in Primary, you should expect to be staffing Primary for 1-2 years per child5.

I'm not really sure how a declaration like this would be received.  After all, the way volunteers are recruited in the Church has a bit of a mystical veil over it.  Making the claim that parents should be expected to carry the weight of the weekly church-based instruction kind of flies in the face of the "called by inspiration" model.  I imagine this has helped create the current culture of dreading and avoiding Primary callings but grudgingly accepting because turning down any responsibility in the Church is a sign of diminished faith6.

The reality is simple.  Children need to be taught at church, and adults will be needed to do the teaching.  If you have children, you can't fairly expect to pass off your kids to a volunteer organization each week and never contribute.  So if you have children, don't be surprised or horrified when your number comes up.  You did this to yourself7.


Going back and making this personal now: I have two children in Primary.  And I have yet to spend a day in Primary.  You could make the case that I'm not making my proper contribution to the Church.

Perhaps that will change now that I've just been released from my responsibilities in the Sunday School.  Sure, I can think of a handful of responsibilities I'd rather take on other than teaching children.  But I look back over the responsibilities I've had in the past decade, and let's face it: I've had an incredibly good streak of really enjoyable (for me) responsibilities.  I think it's time I started to pull my own weight around here, don't you?

Oh, and if anyone in my Primary Presidency reads this, I've actually really enjoyed spending time in nursery when I've been there the past few months--especially with the youngest kids.  Just saying.

So please--PLEASE--grab me up before the bishop asks me to do something truly terrible; like working with adults.

1 Probably because it is a volunteer organization
2 See my posts about Informed Inspiration here, here, and here.
3 I suspect this is not standard operating procedure through most of the LDS Church, but it seems to make a difference on the stress level felt by the teachers. If this isn't how your congregation operates, perhaps you should consider it.
4 A 'teacher-year' is a unit of time that measures the amount time a teacher is on active duty. If you have two teachers in a class for exactly one year, you have staffed 2 teacher-years.
5 I will say, however, that the more children a parent has, the closer this number should get to 1 year. Imagine, for instance, a family with six kids. If each parent worked 12 years in Primary, they may only get about 3-4 years outside of Primary, and I don't think that's necessarily healthy for their own development. It is no doubt a complicated balance to find. Open communication with leaders about balancing the needs of the congregation with the needs of the individuals is always crucial.
6 Gag!
7 This does not, however, give ward leaders justification to guilt or manipulate people in to service. I'm grateful that the leaders in my ward are sensitive and compassionate toward the needs of individuals, and I hope leaders across the world will show that same compassion.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What Makes a Really Good Day at Church?

I had a scout campout this weekend.  We went to a scout camp nearby, shot guns, threw knives, and launched softballs out of a six-foot slingshot.  It was awesome.

I got nervous, though, because I realized I had forgotten to make arrangements for someone to teach the youth Sunday School class1. I managed to make way to church in time to teach a lesson, but only with 10 minutes to spare.  And I was wearing the clothes I had been wearing to the campout.  In my defense, I put on my newest shirt.  It really was the best thing I had to wear.  I hadn't shaved in two days, my hair was matted and probably nasty looking.

So anyway, I walk in to the church and hang out by the classroom I'm expecting to teach in.  I see some of the students, and this is the conversation we had.

"Are you teaching us today?"

"I thought I was, but I just saw I have an e-mail from [teacher] that says she's going to be here and teaching today."

"REALLY!  Oh that's so awesome!"

They completely lost any interest in anything I might have to say.  And I was completely dead to them as soon as they saw the little newborn.  It was a good moment.

I went to Sunday School for the first time in...I can't remember the last time I went to a Sunday School class.   I didn't stay long.  I got up to check that the baby wasn't being a problem in the other class.  No problems there.  I took a moment to recommend a second teacher for that class (something I should have done weeks ago, apparently).

Next I got pulled away by a member of the bishopric.  I was informed that they had recruited a new Sunday School president, and, although I had been assisting the former president, I was not being retained in the new leadership.  I have mixed feelings about that, but there's really nothing to be done, and I don't feel like going into it right now.  What struck me as funny was the counselor who informed me and thanked me for my time then asked me, "so what other callings2 do you have right now?  I'm sure you're doing three or four."

Technically, I do have one other calling, but it kind of went defunct over a year ago, so effectively, with the termination of the Sunday School service, I have no official volunteerism in the congregation.  When I said as much, the counselor stated, "That's odd.  It seems like you're always doing something, or someone is always looking for you."

Yes, I'm bragging.  Because I felt good right then.

There were two other moments that really made my day at church. First, one of the women caught me in the hall.  "You just got back from camping, didn't you?"  The tone made it clear that this was a statement, not a real question.

"Is it that obvious?" I asked.

Her eyes scanned me from head to toe, then back up again.  "Yes." she declared.  The she sniffed the air.  "But I can't smell you, so that's good."  And then she went about her business.  I was highly amused.

Lastly, when I sat down in the chapel for Sacrament meeting, I noticed the Deacon's Quorum President coming down the aisle.  It is his responsibility to recruit other priesthood holders to help distribute the sacramental bread and water to the congregation, and since he's somewhat familiar with me, it isn't uncommon for him to ask me to help.  He approached my pew.  I made eye contact, and I saw his lips start to move.  For a second, I thought, He's totally going to ask me to pass the sacrament in my gross camping clothes.  Then he thought better of it.  But the near-invitation still made me smile.


Next month's camping trip will probably be close enough that I'll be able to make it back in time for church.  It's a bit of a bonus for me; the choir is singing that day.  I'm wondering if I should pack something traditionally-church-appropriate or wear the usual camping clothes.  Perhaps I should buy a shirt like this one and wear that for the choir performance.  Put it to a vote?

1 The usual teacher has been in enjoying (enduring? tolerating?) postpartum recovery and I've been coordinating/teaching her class in her absence. Ironically, after making the effort to get back in time to teach, I showed up to find her making her return appearance. It was a happy reunion for all of them.
2 In LDS terminology, a calling is an invitation to volunteer in some capacity of the congregation's administrative or ministerial arm.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I'd Like Another Offspring. I Don't Want Another Child.

First of all, don't panic, Janelle.  Everything I'm about to write is something you've heard me say before.

I recently read some thoughts from an anonymous internet user contemplating whether he should have another child.  As I got to thinking about what he wrote, I decided that airing why I have chosen not to have more children might be amusing.  At least to some.  Undoubtedly, some of you will find it horrifying.

I have two of the most precious and adorable daughters you are ever going to meet.  I say that completely objectively.  Really.  Stop rolling your eyes.

My older daughter, Bug, is just over five and a half years old, and Byrd is just about to turn two.  I can honestly say that the past four years of my life have been the most fun and exciting years I have ever lived.

Are you doing the math?  I can hear some of you thinking.  "Wait a minute?  His daughter is five years old and he only counts the last four as the most exciting years of his life?"  Yeah.  News flash: the first year and a half isn't all that exciting.

So let me be perfectly candid.  Bug and Byrd are the first two children in my life that I have ever really liked.  Most other children I merely tolerate.  I just don't really care for children.  They're fun in small doses, and it's nice that they exist.  But I want them to be someone else's problem--I don't want to spend any significant amount of time with children1.

That starts to change about the time that they turn 13.  Hopefully, none of my young scouts will read this, because I don't really even enjoy the 11 and 12 year olds.  They're still too child like.  But about the time they hit that first growth spurt, develop real physical strength, and begin to explore the world through the eyes of a budding young adult--that's exciting!  I love being around for that.

But I'm only willing to endure so much of children in order to experience their lives as teenagers and adults.  Which is a big reason I'm not having more children.  And now, for your enjoyment, a list of the four biggest reasons I have given to my wife for why I will not have any more children (don't worry, we're in agreement on this topic--unless she's changed her mind in the past couple of weeks, in which case, things will be really awkward at home tonight).
  1. I refuse to deal with another newborn.  After Byrd was born, Janelle ended up taking a trip to California to visit family.  She took the then three-week-old Byrd with her and was gone for about 10 days or so.  Up to that point, I thought I was adapting to having a newborn in the house pretty well.  I had at one point thought to myself, "I must be an awesome parent.  I don't feel all that phased by this whole new-baby thing."  After they left, I felt like a completely different person.  I had energy and motivation.  I felt alive.  Then, after 10 days of solid sleep, Janelle and Byrd came home and for the next three weeks I felt like crap.  I'm not putting myself through that again.
  2. I only marginally enjoy the first 18 months.  Byrd is about to turn two.  It's only been the past six months that I've had much interest in her, or even seen her as a person.  The way I feel about her now is an entirely different universe compared to how I felt about her 8 months ago.  I don't think I have the will to endure another 18 months of only obligingly caring about the food processor bundled up in the blanket.  
  3. I don't want another daughter.  I repeat, I do not want another daughter.  I might be able to convince myself to overcome items 1 and 2 on this list if I could be guaranteed a boy. But I know the probability is still 0.50 and if I were to have a third daughter, it would just be a child I didn't want.  That's extremely unfair to the child2.
  4. I feel like I'm at the limit of what I can handle emotionally.  At least with children.  I could probably take on three teenagers without a problem.  But this childhood stuff is hard on me. I just don't enjoy it enough to do it with a third. 
There are a number of other reasons I could list, but they are far more personal than I'm willing to share.  

1 Though I say this, the past few months, whenever I've dropped Byrd off at the nursery in church, I've stayed to help when there are more screaming children than there are adults in the room. And I rather enjoy helping calm the children and encouraging them to play instead of wailing for mom and dad. But that's probably the difference between meaningful service and living with the brat [there has been some concern raised that my casual and irreverent humor doesn't come across well in my use of the word 'brat' here.  It's nothing personal; and is meant to reflect the difference in attitudes we feel between our own children and other people's children].

2 Yes, I know I'd get over that once the kid was actually born. But this isn't about what life would be like then. It's about how I feel now.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sixty Stripling Warriors

I only expect those with a keen interest in Book of Mormon trivia would catch this reference.  More people are familiar with the Two Thousand Stripling Warriors1. The Sixty Warriors may very well be much more interesting than the Two Thousand.  And that's saying something, because the Two Thousand are a pretty interesting case of manipulative teenage behavior gone right.

Yeah, you want me to explain that one.  Well, keep reading.

The whole things starts with the People of Ammon (or the people ruled by King Lamoni, or the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, or the....I don't think anyone ever really decided what they should be called).  The short story is that there was a group of people who were affiliated with the antagonists in the Book of Mormon that, through a series of events, converted to Christianity.  Their fellow antagonsists didn't like this very much, so they declared war on the People of Ammon.  The People of Ammon, having discovered an unprecedented level of shame and guilt over their war campaigns against the Book of Mormon's protagonists, declared themselves pacifists.  They made a covenant never to go to war again, going so far as to bury their weapons and prostrate themselves before their attackers with hope of receiving mercy.

A grotesque slaughter ensued.  The antagonists went so far as killing 1,005 of the People of Ammon before they got bored (Alma 24: 22).  Apparently there's no sport in killing pacifists.  In fact, many of the aggressors were so overcome with guilt from the slaughter that they joined the People of Ammon and took up the vow of pacifism (Alma 24:24-25).  Soon after, the People of Ammon concluded they were not safe living near the antagonists and procured an invitation to join the protagonists.  They were accepted as refugees, given land, and offered protection (Alma 27:22-24).

If you think that sounds like a happy ending, you'd be wrong.  It would get worse for the People of Ammon.  They took up their residence, and built a happy existence for themselves for about 13 years.  About 8 years into that period, war broke out again, and the People of Ammon busied themselves in growing food and making supplies for their allies who were fighting on their behalf.  But they were good hearted people, and to hear of the massive numbers of men being killed in war--men who would not go home to their families again, and whose children would be raised fatherless--it was burdensome.  The cold irony of being someone who abhors killing others is that it is equally abhorrent to know that others are dying to protect you from doing that which you abhor. Add to that the fact that they seemed to be losing the war, and the People of Ammon were on the verge of making a choice to break their vow of pacifism.

The leader of the Christian church, Helaman, got wind of the rumors, and he rushed out to meet the People of Ammon (Alma 56:7-8). The Book of Mormon is pretty vague on the details of how this came about, but I have an idea of what took place.

While Helaman was busying himself to convince the People of Ammon not to break their oath, their sons developed a plan to save them.

"Mom, Dad, let us go to war.  We didn't make that oath.  We didn't promise God that we wouldn't fight.  Let us go fight the war, and you stay home and keep your vows."

These young men could have ranged from 13 to 28.  I would wager there were more of them close to the age of 20 than anything else.  And I doubt that their plan was well received.  "It's too dangerous.  It's too horrific."  The older generation had sworn off war because of the guilt they felt over killing other humans.  I'm sure they weren't fond of the idea of exposing their children to that same horror.  And I'm certain that they told their sons "No."

Unfortunately for them, they had raised faithful, god-fearing sons that also knew which buttons to push to convince their parents.  "It'll be okay, mom and dad.  We're going to ask Helaman to be our leader."

And their parents said, "Oh, well in that case, go ahead.  Why didn't you lead with that?"

Okay, maybe it took a little more persuading, but in the end, the sons prevailed.  They appealed to their parents' conviction that the prophets of God hadn't led them astray thus far, and so they felt they could put their faith in Helaman now.  And I doubt there was anyone else in the world to whom they would trust their children.

Together, the parents and the sons would have had to convince Helaman.  I'm sure he was terrified of leading these boys into battle.  Afterall, he had no military experience to speak of.  Taking this assignment was probably a bigger leap of faith for him than it was for the People of Ammon.  And so Helaman gathered his Two Thousand warriors, and took them off to war.

Where do the other Sixty come into this, you ask?  They came later (Alma 57:6).  Some of these would have been boys that had come of age, but I'm convinced there were some whose parents forbade them go at first.  And I don't blame them.

To put this in more modern terms, how would you respond if your kids came to you and said, "Mom, dad, I'm going to follow Thomas S. Monson into war."  I even asked my Sunday School class yesterday if they'd follow President Monson into war.  They unanimously said "no."  In the words of one young man, "I'm not going to war with him.  He's old!"  I wouldn't let my kids go either.  And Monson even has military experience.

The parents of the Sixty, for whatever reason, doubted that sending their sons to war with a prophet was going to ensure their safety.  They had to be persuaded first.  Getting the reports back from the other Two Thousand--and seeing that not one of them was killed--probably helped build the case for sending the Sixty.  With time, they developed the faith that was necessary to trust their sons to Helaman and to God.

What makes the parents of these Sixty so interesting is that they had doubts.  And they still had firm convictions.  These were parents who, although they doubted that doubling a prophet as a general would protect their sons, still chose not to break their vow of pacifism.  You can't convince me their faith in Christ was any less than was those who sent their sons the first time.  But with more evidence--and more importantly--more time for the Spirit of God to persuade them on their own terms, they did reach that point in their faith.

And their faith was rewarded.  It's not like they sent their sons late in the game, and then their sons happened to get killed as a consequence of their initial doubt.  All of their sons survived the war.

As with all things in the scriptures, they can be interpreted many ways. I imagine the more orthodox mormons would take this story and spin to to say, "See, there was no need for them to doubt.  They should have just sent their sons to begin with.  Their doubt was in vain."

But such an interpretation, I think, doesn't follow in the spirit of the scriptures.  Those Sixty young men were received with joy.  There was celebration that day.  Celebration of the faith that parents exhibited, not criticism of the faith they didn't have earlier.  Let us not forget that every parent of those initial Two Thousand had to come to terms with the possibility that their sons would not return.  It seems cruel to criticize another parent for not yet being able to live with that possibility.

The story of the Sixty struck me profoundly this time around.  I keep reading about words from General Conference.  "Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith."  And I keep hearing them used to argue that we should put our doubts aside because they challenge our faith.  I hear this quote in that context and it infuriates me, because it completely ignores the paragraph that preceded the quote.
It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding...even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty.
The parents of the Sixty cultivated their acorns into great oaks.  They did so in sandy soil.  They didn't do it alone.  They did it with the love and support of friends and neighbors.  They did it with fellow church members who gradually helped nurse that acorn by replacing the sand with rich soil.  One shovel at a time.

Instead, I feel like we tell a lot of acorns to get out of the sand.

You can't pressure an oak tree to grow.  You can't force it to grow over night.  Growth requires time, patience, and nurturing.  It requires friendship without boundaries, without judgment, and sometimes without completely understanding someone's doubts.

The parents of the Sixty live among us.  Let's grow the forest with them.

1 When talking about the two thousand stripling warriors in Sunday school yesterday, some of the boys teased one person in the room for having once said the "two thousand stripping warriors." However, we decided that based on the picture shown, maybe his description wasn't too far off.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

An Epidemic of Loneliness

The day I heard that the Church was going to broadcast the Priesthood Session of General Conference over the usual broadcast and internet channels, I made a quip on Facebook: "This will be the death of the only Elders Quorum activity in our ward that has any draw."  I say I quipped, but I was dead serious, too.

While scanning some blogs today, I came across a post by Rebecca at By Common Consent in which she laments the loss of one of her husband's1 favorite traditions: the Priesthood Session after party.  She then puts in this nugget, which I have observed before and completely agree with.
It’s harder than you might think to coax adult Mormon men into attending a guys’ night out; many of them feel obligated to go straight home and “spend time with their families” or whatever.
This is absolutely true.  The men in the Church almost never get together.  The only successful Elders Quorum activity in my ward2 is the ice cream social where you show up to the chapel and get an ice cream sandwich before the Priesthood Session that you were going to anyway.  But everyone is dressed in their Sunday dress and no one actually interacts on a level any less superficial than the way they interact at the usual Sunday meetings.

And now, this little tradition may be dead.

But why?  Why shouldn't the men continue to go to the chapel for Priesthood session?  Probably because "many of them feel obligated to go straight home and 'spend time with their families'."  Or whatever.

The fact of the matter is that we've developed some notion that any second a man takes away from home life that isn't absolutely necessary is a disservice to and neglect of his family.  I suspect that if the Elders Quorum planned a quorum activity once every 2-3 months (the usual frequency for Relief Society activities) and had a statement made over the pulpit that "Women are asked to babysit3 their children so that their husbands may attend"--well, I envision a pretty big uproar.  How dare we take the husbands and fathers away from their families so often?

I think a lot of that reaction is rooted in stereotype.  Men get to socialize and interact with people all day at work while women are stuck home with their kids.....blah blah blah4.  What we need to understand is that, while yes, we get to interact with other adults at work, interacting with adults at work is not equivalent to making deep, lasting bonds of friendship.

So this is where I'm going to air some dirty laundry from my ward.

A couple of months ago, we had what I thought was a very interesting lesson in Elders Quorum.  I don't remember the topic (and I'm too lazy to look it up), but the instructor was comparing the level of sociality of friendship in the Relief Society to the level of sociality and friendship in the Elders Quorum.  What caught me off guard was that he started crying when he stated that he was envious of his wife who has so much more opportunity in the Church to build deep and lasting friendships with her peers.

Such a show of emotion is rare in Elders Quorums meetings.  We're too caught up in the stoic, testosterone fueled bullsh--er, stereotypes--to allow our vulnerabilities to show (which is precisely why priesthood lessons suck a lot of the time).  But this display was telling.  I had sometimes suspected, and left this lesson convinced, that there is an epidemic of loneliness among our men.  And we're too cowardly to admit it.

My home teachers came over that afternoon (I love my home teachers by the way.  If the Elders Quorum presidency ever assigns me someone else, I may start refusing home teachers.  Joe and Brandon have been absolute lifelines of sanity for me, though I doubt they know it--I'm too cowardly to admit it).  One of them is in the Elders Quorum presidency, and I shared my thoughts with him and made a case that we need more Elders Quorum activities.  We talked about LAN parties, board game groups (Dungeons and Dragons anyone?), encouraging the book group, hiking days, to name a few.

Not much has happened yet.  I hope something does soon, though.

Perhaps I should be more proactive and just set some things up myself.  Maybe I still will.  I definitely think something needs to happen, and I'd be more comfortable just doing it if I knew I had buy-in from the Elders Quorum presidency.

But before I really start agitating for this, let me ask some questions and sincerely request some feedback.

To the men:
  • What activities would you be interested in attending? 
  • Would you be more interested in whole-quorum activities or localized groups?
  • How comfortable would you be having an activity once every 2-3 months and being asked to attend an activity at least once a quarter?
To the women:
  • Do you recognize this as a need?
  • How burdensome would it be for you to help make arrangements for you men to attend?
  • Do you believe that strengthening your husband's friendships outside the family would benefit the relationships within your family?

1 Not to be confused with - one of her husbands' favorite traditions
2 Thanks to the diligent efforts of one brother, there is a gathering at a restaurant before the meeting that is probably more socially productive than the ice cream, but I think it gets limited attendance.  (Full disclosure: I rarely attend this as I'm very often on a trip with the scouts.  If I'm not on a trip, I've taken to skipping based on that fact that I haven't stayed awake through a session of Conference in over 5 years, even at the meetinghouse)
3 Don't get me started on the impossibility of babysitting your own children; but for some reason we say this to our men all the time.
4 Please don't interpret this as dismissal of the strain and frustration stay-at-home parents experience. I just don't want to rehash all the details that are so broadly known and think that what has been said is sufficient.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Saving Ordinances

A new bishop was called in my ward just over a week ago (9 days to be exact).  This is the fourth bishop called in six years, but that's an issue for another day.  The fact that I have a new bishop is relevant because, well, I don't believe in cautiously easing your way into these callings and trying to find your feet.  So, I'm going to do my part to welcome my bishop into his new role with a bit of a head turner.

Having said that, please understand that I'm not about to write a bunch of stuff I don't actually believe just for the sake of provoking a reaction.  I've been thinking about this topic for a little bit and I genuinely mean everything I'm about to say.  The fact that it could cause some head scratching is just a bonus.

While washing the dishes one night, I was absently thinking about ordinances and trying to identify where the scriptural background may be.  As my line of thought evolved, I began trying to identify the scriptural background for what the Church defines as the "saving ordinances."  More than that, I was trying to figure out what scriptural background there was for denoting those ordinances as necessary for salvation.

The Church stated in The Church Handbook of Instructions, "The ordinances of baptism, confirmation, Melchizedek Priesthood ordination (for men), the temple endowment, and temple sealing are required for exaltation for all accountable persons. These are called the saving ordinances" (Handbook 2, 20.1).  Usually, the Handbooks are pretty good about showing the scriptural background for statements such as these, so I'm a little surprised that there aren't any references for delineating these ordinances as saving ordinances.  No matter, I think we can easily find these on our own.
  1. Baptism -- John 3:5
  2. Confirmation --  John 3:5; D&C 20:41
  3. Melchizedek Priesthood ordination -- (??)
  4. Endowment -- "Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels" (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971], page 416, quoted in Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple).
  5. Sealing -- D&C 131:2
So, a couple of observations.  First, there is no strictly scriptural foundation to include the Endowment as a saving ordinance.  I'm willing to take Brigham Young's statement as a foundation, however, since it is included in the introduction to the endowment itself.  And considering the Doctrine and Covenants is really only a small collection of the revelations received, I'm willing to give a little leeway here.

The second observation I make is that there is no scriptural foundation for ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood as a saving ordinance.  It's tempting to sweep this under the same rug under which I swept the justification for the Endowment.  However, I don't know of any statements regarding the Priesthood that don't assume that the Priesthood is required (for men) because it is required to enter the temple for the Endowment.  In fact, the best justification I can come up with is Doctrine and Covenants 105:3, "Verily I say unto you, it is expedient in me that the first elders of my church should receive their endowment from on high in my house...."  That's fairly weak evidence, if you ask me--and I don't imagine anyone would use that as justification for calling ordination a saving ordinance.

So here's the question: Is ordination a doctrinal requirement for exaltation? or is it a procedural requirement for exaltation?

Fill me in if I'm missing something.  But from what I can see, I think it's a procedural requirement.  Which has me wondering--could we drop the requirement that men hold the Melchizedek priesthood in order to enter the temple?  Could we allow men to be sealed to their wives without requiring them to hold the priesthood?  How would such a policy change affect the way we read and interpret our scriptures and doctrine?  Is the Melchizedek priesthood truly the essential to government of families?

I'm not so sure any more.

I'll probably have more to say about that later, but first, I'll give a chance to people smarter than me to point out if I've missed the scriptural basis for ordination as a saving ordinance.

Oh, and Bishop [new guy], have fun.  You're going to be great1!

1 And with any luck, you'll be great long enough that we don't see 5 bishops in 7 years.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I Take it Back

Remember that thing I said about being a terrible father?

It turns I was completely wrong.  In fact, I may be the most awesome father ever.

I took Bug and Byrd to the Daddy-Daughter camp out this weekend.  We got to the camp ground around 5:00 PM, and it wasn't long after that Bug told me she needed to pee.  So we walked down to the bathrooms only to find that they were locked--no one in the camp ground at the time had the key to unlock them.

"Okay, Bug, we're going to have to try something new now."  With a slight nervousness, but a sense of urgency and necessity, she allowed me to teach her how to squat down, support her back against a tree, and pee in the woods.  To my relief--and I'll admit, a little bit of pride--she successfully relieved herself without getting anything on her clothes.

About 45 minutes later, while I'm setting up our makeshift tent, one of Bug's friends ran over to me to report, "Bug needs help with her pants?"

Uh-oh.  Now what did she do.  Bug's friend told me that she was back in the woods and pointed in the same direction we had gone for our earlier adventure.  When I arrived, she was standing there with her pants down.  "Bug, what are you doing?  Did you need to pee again already?"

My five-year-old Bug looked at me with a big smile and her eyes positively gleaming with pride.

"No, Daddy.  I pooped in the woods!"

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Data Suck (A Ranting Tour Through the Life of a Statistician)

You're probably complaining about empty promises.  I told you few weeks ago that I was going to deliver commentary on the abortion debate and illustrate the reasons why I vote pro-choice.  So far, I've failed to make good on that promise.  I assure you, it isn't for a lack of trying.

The next phase I've been trying to present is the impact that a blanket ban on abortion would have on the US population growth.  I'm getting close, but I keep running into problems compiling the data.  And so, today, I'm going to blow off some steam and you get to see why it is so difficult to really make informed decisions about controversial topics like abortion.  It's really quite simple.  Data suck1.

Alright, maybe that isn't completely accurate.  When you have good data that were gathered in a systematic way with a specific goal in mind, they are usually wonderful to work with.  However, with a topic like abortion, no one is gathering data in a systematic manner.  The data to answer a question with any kind of complexity have to be gathered from multiple sources.

My current task is to forecast US Population growth under two separate conditions; one in which abortion remains legal, and one in which abortion is banned.  The idea is to compare the populations between the two scenarios.  It is also a necessary step into broader discussions about economic, welfare, and social policies.  So it's an important base of information in my hypotheses about what happens if we make abortion illegal.

Now, consider what we need to know about forecasting population growth.  First, we need to know the current population.  Next, we need to know the annual birth rate.  Third, we need to know the annual death rate.  That part is easy enough.  But that doesn't tell us much about the population except the gross population.  What would be more informative, especially in light of subsequent discussion to follow, would be an understanding of population growth by race.

So now we need the populations, birth rates, and death rates by race.  A lot of that can be found through the CDC.  And for forecasting population growth under legal abortion (the current state of things), that would probably be enough.  What gets tricky is forecasting population growth if abortion were illegal.  Theoretically, this would have an effect on the birth rate, so we need to know how many abortions are performed within each race.  With this information, we can calculate the new birth rate for each race.  Unfortunately, we can't apply that birth rate to forecasted population numbers.

You see, we can increase the birth rate and calculate next year's population quite easily.  However, all those additional births are less than 1 year old for the next year (thank you, Captain Obvious).  This means that the new birth rate doesn't apply to them because their birth rate is known to be 0.  In other words, the age of the population is important in forecasting population growth when we change anything about the current conditions.

So now we're working in three dimensions.  US Population by race and age.  Still sound easy?  Well let me complicate it further.

I can find population data from 2011 by age and race.  the racial categories available to me are

  • African American
  • American Indian or Alaskan Native
  • Asian or Pacific Islander
  • Caucasian
  • Hispanic
The age categories are divided into 5 year segments starting with 0-4, 5-9, 10-14, etc and ending with > 100.  

Birth rate data are available in the same racial categories from 2009 and in similar age categories starting at age 10 and ending at age 50.  But I had to pick them out carefully from a document over 100 pages long.  On top of that, the birth rates were calculated from the population of women (not the total population) and so the numbers won't translate exactly to the 2011 data.

And we can't get abortion data by age and race at all.  The best we can do is find the proportion of abortions by race and the proportion of abortions by age.  But the categories are different.  For race, I can find 
  • African American
  • Caucasian
  • Hispanic
  • Other
And for age I can find
  • < 20
  • 20-24
  • > 25

In order to get abortions by age and race, I had to assume that age and race are independent with respect to abortions (probably not true).  And then I had to make assumptions about how many of those abortions occurred in 10-14 year olds, 15-19 year olds, 25-29 year olds, etc. 2

So far, I've succeeded in building the US population, the current US birth rates, and I'm very close to having projected birth rates under the condition of illegal abortion.  I even have the forecasting routine written and it produces a lovely graph that I'm really very pleased with.  And at this point, after many hours of searching for data, entering tables, writing code, and scratching notes on paper, I've just come to a crucial realization:

I haven't put together the death data yet!

Head, meet desk.

Okay, if you've made it through all of my rant so far, here are the take home messages

  1. When I finish this analysis, it will be flawed.  I will do my best to admit those flaws and explain my assumptions.  At the same time, while it won't be perfect, it will be a decent approximation.
  2. There's a reason that it's so hard to make informed decisions on controversial issues.  The data are hard to compile.  It's rare to find a data set on a controversial subject that allows you to see all the nuance and character of what you are trying to measure.
  3. My head hurts.
Happy Wednesday, everyone!

1 If that sounds weird, keep in mind that data is a plural noun. The singular form is datum.
2 I chose to assign the abortions proportionally to the number of births in each age group. It seems like a relative safe assumption, but probably introduces a little bit of bias.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Regarding Abortion: The Adoption Fallacy

The debate over abortion is the Great American Melodrama.  The debate is emotionally charged, and almost anyone you talk to is going to approach the issue from a rather unilateral position.

"Abortion is murder!"
"It's about women's rights!"
"It's about letting doctors be doctors!"
"It's about freedom to choose!"
"It's about protecting the innocent!"
"It's about men trying to control women!"

No matter who you talk to, anyone who disagrees with you is wrong, and anyone who agrees with you is right, and there's absolutely no gray area anywhere.  At least that's how it seems.

Here's the thing though--in this debate, everyone has a good point.

Yes, I said it.  I think all of those statements above have validity to them.  I agree with all of them, and I disagree with all of them.  The problem, to me, isn't figuring out who is right and who is wrong (you're all right and you're all wrong).  The problem is figuring out what to do about it.

So before I get started, let me just make one thing abundantly clear.  I find abortion to be a morally reprehensible act.  I will never encourage a woman to get an abortion.  Reading about the procedures makes me physically ill, and at times has made me want to weep.  At the same time, I have lived a privileged life, have never been pregnant, and have never had a menstrual cycle.  I will not ever judge a woman for choosing to have an abortion.  I do not and I cannot comprehend the issues that a woman must balance when making this decision and so I will always assume that she made the best decision she could at the time and leave God to sort out the rest1.

But I am still pro-choice.  That is, I believe that abortion should be a legal option for women as a matter of social policy.  Let's start breaking down why.

One of the arguments I often hear for making abortion illegal is that adoption is a better alternative that protects the life of the child.  Fair enough, I say.  If you can provide an adoptive home for every unwanted pregnancy, maybe we can talk.  I still have reservations about rights of the women vs rights of the child, but let's at least look at the feasibility of adoption.

The figure below shows the annual number of abortions in the United States from 1998 to 20082.  It seems like a nice little trend that abortion is becoming less common.  But you should be aware that these numbers could be affected by better access to contraception, stricter regulations on abortion, and most importantly, states dropping out of the reporting program (that is, we may just not be counting the abortions that are happening).

So, in 2008, a little over 825,000 abortions were reported to the CDC.  So we only need to come up with 825,000 adoptive homes per year!  Should be easy enough.  But wait--not all states report their abortions to the CDC.  Most notably, California does not participate in this reporting.  In 2010, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that there were 1.2 million abortions in the United States. This would suggest that each year we could be failing to account for almost 400,000 abortions.  The 1.2 million number is frequently cited by all sides of the abortion debate, so we'll stick with that number for now.

Now, let's go find out how many adoptions take place every year.  It turns out that in 2008, there were 135,813 adoptions in the United States3.  This includes all public, private, and foreign adoptions.  That means that in addition to our current number of adoptions, we need to find 1.2 million additional adoptive families every year in order to replace all of those abortions.  That's an 884% increase in the number of adoptions.  We've got our work cut out for us here.

The idea isn't without merit, however.  We know that not everyone who seeks to adopt is able to succeed.  The question is whether there are enough people who would like to adopt.  The 1998 National Survey on Family Growth found that for every successful adoption, there were 3.3 adoption seekers.  That means an adoption success rate of (1/3.3) = .303 per hundred, or 30.3%.  Applying this information to our adoption data, we can generate the graph below which shows the number of adoptions, their source, and the number of adoption seekers who failed to adopt.

What this tells us is that in 2007, there were 267,794 adoption seekers who ended up not adopting.  In 2008, there were 272,314 such adoption seekers.  The next graph puts it into perspective, but in short, if we were to allow any and all of those adoptions seekers to adopt a child, we still would have only accounted for 22% of all of the abortions that happened in a year.  That means we still need to find homes for 78% of the unwanted children that are aborted each year.

This assumes, of course, that we would even want every adoption seeker to be able to adopt.  Surely, some are not permitted to adopt because they fail various screenings, etc.  You could make a case that the screenings are too rigorous, but any time you loosen the rules on the screening, you expose more adopted children to risk.  There's a certain trade off there that has to be dealt with.  

Also, many people opt out of adopting because of cost, and many people opt out of adopting because the decide not to take on the severe emotional burdens that can accompany adoption4.  We can be fairly certain that we wouldn't be able to give a child to all 272,000 of those seeking adoption.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say we could.  Now let's add another dimension of complexity onto this.  Let's take a look at the number of abortions by race.  The figure below is similar to the previous figure, but stratifies the abortions by race.

Hypothesize for a minute that we make abortion illegal and that we also allow all of those who failed to adopt to go ahead and adopt.  Who are they likely to adopt?  Based on adoption statistics, the children that we are no longer aborting are likely to be adopted as displayed below.  The lighter shaded areas are those children who we adopt out, and the darker areas are those for whom no adoptive family can be found.

Look at that graph carefully.  If we were to simultaneously make abortion illegal and also allow each parent seeking adoption to adopt, in any given year, we would find homes for 37% of the Caucasian children that would have been aborted, 28% of Other races, 21% of Hispanics, and only 8.5% of African Americans.  The rest of the children would either need to be placed in orphanages, foster care, or remain with the birth mothers/families.

There will be a lot of people that argue that children should stay with their birth mothers and families, and that we shouldn't be trying to adopt away all of our would-be abortions.  I agree that we can't and shouldn't adopt them all away.  I agree that the primary responsibility to care for the children should fall upon those who procreated them.  Unfortunately, reality kicks in and the social consequences of such a policy aren't so cheery.  A host of social issues raises its head and far too much of it will tie back into the the disproportionalities contained in that last graph.  We'll dig into that in a second blog post.  Right now, we need to wrap up this one.

Here's my thesis statement: Adoption makes a lousy solution to the abortion problem.  The reasons

  1. We abort more than 1.2 million children each year.  We adopt only 180,000.
  2. Even if we allowed more adoption seekers to adopt, we could only account for 22% of abortions at best.
  3. Though we haven't discussed it much here, if we discontinued all foreign abortions, we wouldn't have much additional impact.
  4. Also not discussed, about 48,000 children are born through IVF each year5.  Since about a third of those are multiples, that's about 32,000 families that could adopt if we disallowed all IVF procedures.  That still wouldn't make much of a scratch.

As you can see, abortion is a big problem.  The hand waving of encouraging adoption (the Texas bill that was recently passed had measures for encouraging adoption, which was one of the aspects used by some to justify restricting abortions) doesn't realistically address the size of the problem.

While it seems to the pro-life advocate that expecting women and families whose children can't be adopted ought to take care of their own children, we'll see in the following post (or posts, I'm not sure how many I'll be writing) the societal cost in terms of economics, employment, welfare, criminal activity, population growth, drug use, teen pregnancy,...... should I continue?

So yes, as a moral issue, it seems abundantly clear that abortion is wrong.  As a societal issue, I think we'll find that banning abortion is much worse for everyone.

1 And I suspect God will be far more forgiving and understanding of these cases that most people here are.
2 Raw data:
4 See the following link for a brief treatment on the reasons people choose not to adopt.

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Let Sex Garnish Thy Thoughts Unceasingly"

In a podcast on LDS discourse around sexuality, one of the panelists pointed out a piece of LDS scripture that has really come to irritate me.  In a letter to Moroni describing the depravity of the Nephites and Lamanites, Mormon explains how far the Nephites have fallen:

many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue—
And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery1. (Moroni 9:9-10)
 What virtue, exactly, did the Nephites take from these women?  Isn't virtue an internal construct?  How can you forcibly remove from a person the goodness of their soul?

The panelist ties this poor choice of wording from Moroni to a couple of things.  First, it is evident that these are historical men interpreting these acts from their historical context2.  Second, this reading only makes sense if you conflate virtue with virginity.  This conflation is a common theme throughout the podcast, and they make a pretty compelling point.  We have hijacked virtue into being a sexual term3.  Perhaps it's time we did something about that.

When Plato wrote Meno, he carefully wrote the dialog so that Socrates would avoid giving a solid definition to virtue (as opposed to the virtues).  Instead, Socrates tried to lead Meno to a more nuanced definition that involved a balance of the three parts of the soul (the physical, emotional, and intellectual).  Virtue, then, is power derived through a healthy and productive balance of competing needs.

The LDS law of chastity is virtuous, then, because it balances the physical needs and desires for sex with the spiritual needs and desires given by the Lord.  I'm going to leave off there.  I'm not quite ready to go off on chastity, virginity, and virtue just yet.  Let's just leave it at virtue is not virginity and virginity is not virtue.

I actually bring up this idea of virtue in order to prepare to take on another difficult topic that has been in the news lately.  I'm going to take on abortion.  I'm a pro-choice Mormon, and that isn't well received in some circles, but the laws being passed in Ohio and Texas are really disturbing to me.  So in the next couple of weeks (when I get back from Scout camp) I'm going to put together the reasons why I am pro-choice, and why I think legalized abortion is a virtuous4 social policy.

Maybe when I'm done with that I can take on virtue and sexuality.

1 Perhaps this is a topic for another day, but is it required of Mormons to believe that being raped is actually worse that being tortured and eaten? Mormon seems to think so, but I have to admit, I'm extremely skeptical.  And don't even get me started on the absurdity of verse 9 being used in the Personal Progress manual to describe to young women to sacredness of virginity.

2 The Book of Mormon was both written and translated in a time when rapes were covered up, never spoken of, and sources of great shame for families. While I am trying to look past this cultural short coming among those who wrote and translated, I've become rather unaccepting of the culture that perpetuates this fallacy.

3This is, arguably, not just a Mormon problem, but a more pervasive problem throughout the human race.

4Remember, the balance of competing needs.

Just a quick note on the title of this post--it's a spoof of Doctrine and Covenants 121:45.  As long as we culturally think of virtue as a primarily sexual term, we're going to distort the great messages that can be found elsewhere in the scriptures.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Leave A Trace

The following are the remarks I gave at an Eagle Scout Court of Honor on 15 June, 2013.


Let me tell you something you may not know or remember about ATS1. He used to bring a very unique sense of style to the Scouting uniform. In his earlier years, I remember bright blue and yellow shoes, and I remember a hat of pink, blue, and green. The bill of the cap never seemed to be pointed in the same direction, and was almost never facing forward.

While discussing this once with another leader, we concluded that it was a shame that ATS would one day decide that he was too cool for Scouts; that some day he would leave the program. ATS would never be an Eagle Scout.

The final nail in the coffin, we decided, would be when ATS went to National Youth Leadership Training. If you’re unfamiliar with NYLT, it is a week-long immersion program for teaching theory and practical lessons in leadership. During the program, however, there is an intense level of silliness. They sing bizarre (and sometimes obnoxious) camp songs; they make bad jokes; they perform skits with debatable laugh value. All of these are things that cub scouts love, but many boy scouts grow out of them around age 13. It was here, we were convinced, that ATS would decide how uncool Scouting was and begin his exodus.

Scoutmasters don’t know anything.

ATS came back from NYLT having decided that Scouting is cool. And gradually, the brightly colored shoes and the funny hats stopped showing up with his uniform. Instead, his uniform was pressed, always had the neckerchief, and always looked sharp.

Very early in a scout’s career, we introduce the principles of Leave No Trace. These principles are intended to help guide our actions in the outdoors so that we minimize the impact on the environment. Following these principles helps ecosystems thrive and leaves them in a condition that others may come and enjoy.

Some of the more obvious applications of these principles involve using established fire rings rather than creating new ones. Outdoorsmen are encouraged to sleep on ground that is durable (another word for hard). One of my favorite applications involves how to act when a pool of mud crosses the trail you are hiking. Most people see the mud and instinctively try to walk around it. But doing so wears down the ground around the mud pool, and eventually causes the muddy area to grow. To leave no trace, it is better to walk straight through the mud, so that less of the area is impacted.

The Leave No Trace principles have served to both protect the environment and enhance the outdoor experience.

There is another set of principles in Scouting that we teach, but we’ve never given them a name. One name we could choose for these principles would be “Leave A Trace.” And you should know that ATS has left a lot of traces.

As I mentioned before, when ATS returned from NYLT, the way he wore his uniform changed. Not only that, but he subtly, and perhaps unknowingly, began to influence other scouts to take pride in wearing their uniforms. Under his leadership, scouting stopped being a place to come and goof off. It became a place to look good while you goofed off. His persistence in encouraging the uniform rubbed off on the adults, even, and his influence continues even now. Leave a trace.

ATS has been an active participant in his high school's Student Group On Race Relations. He has led sessions for children and teenagers to teach them how to prevent bullying and intolerance, and he has trained other people to lead those sessions. Leave a trace.

If you ever get the chance to go down to our meeting space, you’ll see a beautiful, free standing wall separating our meeting space from the dance floor on the other side. This is a large, ambitious, and technically challenging project that not only made our space look better; it also protected the investment of the Verb Ballets dance equipment. Most importantly to our troop, it made possible the return of dodge ball. Leave a trace.

Shortly, ATS is going to be awarded his Eagle Scout. It is most certainly a well earned award. And at this time, I want to remind you, ATS -- this is not an end. This is only a beginning. I want you to pin on that medallion, hold your head high, and walk out into the world ready to leave traces of yourself that make better all the places you go. Leave a trace that improves your university; leave a trace that improves your family; leave a trace that improves the lives of those you associate with; and leave traces that improve yourself. This is the charge of an Eagle Scout -- to earn the rank of Eagle now, and to spend the rest of your life showing the world why you deserve it.

Thank you, ATS, for the traces you have left in my life. We are all looking forward to seeing the many traces you leave in your future.

1The honoree's initials

Monday, June 24, 2013

Stories I Probably Shouldn't Tell My Scouts: Vol. 2

My father has always had a gift for making a point.  He chose a Sunday afternoon to make a point to me about driving.  I had had my learner's permit for a couple of weeks and was resigned to driving the Ford Ranger throughout my driving education.

We were coming home from church--my dad driving his 1986 bright red Camaro, and me in the passenger seat--when my Dad pulled off to a parking lot.

"Switch seats with me," he said.


"Yes."  He got out of the car and I wasn't going to argue.  What 17 year old gives up the chance to drive a Camaro!?

I sat in the driver's seat and was about to turn the key when Dad stopped me.

"First, the rules."  Oh great!  What kind of ridiculous rules is he going to try to make me follow.

"You're seventeen," he reminded me.  "You're friends are seventeen, and I know what you're going to be doing with this car.  So first: you drive safe.  Second: you drive to win."

It turns out Dad understood reality a lot better than my seventeen-year-old self thought I did.  And thus began my driving education.

I got a great education, too.  He drilled me on how to look for peripheral cues of upcoming danger.  Drive on the yellow line at night, he said, so that I have a little bit longer to react if an animal jumps out of the woods.  Watch for mailboxes; they mark the places that cars come out of driveways.  In the dark, keep an eye on power lines; if they light up, there's a car around the bend.  Accelerate into the hill; it's easier to maintain speed up a hill than it is to gain it up the hill.

I took my new education to heart, and when I got my license, I put it to use.

I didn't always get to race in the Camaro, however.  I still drove the Ranger more than anything else.  But really, how different is a 4 cylinder Ranger from a V6 Camaro?  Well, they're a lot different.

I raced a friend home from seminary once.  I was in the Ranger, and he in - oh, I can't remember what he had.  But it had a much bigger engine, which was why he was ahead of me turning onto my street.  I couldn't just give up, so instead, I tried to take the sharper-than-90-degree turn at about 45 miles per hours.

In case you're wondering, that's a bad idea.  I managed to make it through the turn (mostly thanks to the liberal amounts of dirt left on the road by the snow plows from earlier storms), and then I immediately decided I was never, ever going to try that again.

A little over a year later, I got into a race with one of my friends going from his house to another friend's house for a party.  Again, I was driving the Ranger.  He was driving his father's BMW.  I really had no business racing him, but I was too reckless to care.

By some miracle, I got ahead of him through the use of a clever short cut.  But he was coming up on me and had better acceleration than I did.  I figured my only hope was to control the road.  I tried moving into the center of the road so that he couldn't get around me.  He got onto my side anyway.  I tried to startle him by pushing him closer to the dirt shoulder.  He didn't flinch.  He passed me, with his tires on the edge of the pavement, and I watched the passenger side mirror of his BMW pass under the driver's side mirror of my Ranger.  There couldn't have been more than 4 inches between us.  I gave up and moved over so that I wouldn't kill him.  I figured I would lose this race.

But wait!  He missed a turn!  I had a second chance.  I pushed my little Ranger as fast as it would go.  He was catching up.  I knew there was only one way to win this race.  I had to take the sharp turn ahead faster than he did.  I kept up my speed.  The turn was approaching.  Andrew's headlights started to fall farther behind me.  He was honking at me.  He recognized the danger I was in and flashed his high beams.  I was almost on the turn!

I swung to the outside of the turn.  I dropped the engine from fifth gear to third gear.  The truck lurched.  I cut the wheel to the inside of the turn.  The tires screeched; inertia was trying to push me back to the outside of the turn.  I made it out of the turn, with a foot of pavement to spare before the shoulder.  At last, I pulled into the driveway, claiming victory over Andrew and his BMW.

Andrew was furious.  He came into the party ranting, "No one should ever race Nutter again!  That guy is crazy!  I thought he was going to die!"  I didn't admit it then, but I had scared myself again.

That pretty well ended my racing days.  One, everyone seemed more than willing to admit that I was psychotic about trying to win a race.  Two, I was afraid I'd used up my luck.  How many more times could I attempt something like that before I made a mistake?  How much would such a mistake cost me?  No, I had enough stories to tell.  It was time I decided that I wanted to live to tell them.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Historic Event! Maybe

I am heading out backpacking in about an hour, so I won't get the pleasure of seeing or commentating on tonight's special broadcast on the Work of Salvation. I keep hearing speculation of some big announcement or some big policy change.

I think we'll be underwhelmed. Here's my reasoning.
  1. The ward councils are specifically invited.
  2. The missionary force is about to increase by about 30,000 bodies.
  3. We're sending out the first batch of new mission presidents with these new missionaries
My guess is that there will be a lot of focus on how to make the most of the increased missionary force.  And the principles emphasized will be the same principles that have been emphasized for the last 30 years.  Namely, the missionary effort won't succeed unless the membership are involved.  I think we'll hear new platitudes and sound bites that will get repeated ad nauseum for the next 4-5 years until it's decided that these sound bites aren't creating the desired effect so we need new sound bites. (lather, rinse, repeat).

I'd love to be wrong.  I'd love to hear an announcement of some kind of a program like the one I dreamed of here.  But I'm not holding my breath.  Instead, I think we'll hear more about the same model we've been using for the past century, and we'll continue to get disappointing returns (see here for a crude analysis of what may happen with the expanded missionary force).

If I'm wrong, however, you'll have a whole week to bash on me without any retaliation.  Enjoy it.  Have fun.  I'll be having the time of my life.