mnmlist: Facing Doubt and Indecision the Mormon Way
Fortunate for my readers, I have finished watching the PBS documentary about the Mormons, but not without a comet’s tail of inspiration from these hardworking, family-oriented, non-drinking, upright Utahans.
Many know that the two most important figures in Mormon’s founding were Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Smith was the guy who found the gold plates, wrote the Book of Mormon, wedded quite a few damsels and was killed in Carthage, Illinois by an angry mob (apparently a not-too-uncommon way to go back then). He was the proverbial charismatic leader: surefooted, sweet-tongued and good looking. Like Jim Morrison or Tupac Shakur, his glamorous legacy was embalmed by an early death.
Young was the stalwart—more of a Randy Newman or Tom Petty figure. Stolid, long-lived, awkward and not-so-easy on the eyes (see pic above). After Smith’s murder, it was the corpulent Young who led the Mormon’s slog across the plains and over the mountains to Salt Lake City. If Smith was the hare, Young was the tortoise.
Throughout the early years of Young’s tenure as Mormon leader, he was plagued by doubt. He was not blessed with Smith’s speed-dial-with-God variety of inspiration. He didn’t think himself worthy of his position until a vision in 1847. There was a community issue on the table and Young wanted to know what to do. Here’s how Young recounts his vision:
Joseph stepped toward me, and looking very earnestly, yet pleasantly said, “Tell the people to be humble and faithful, and be sure to keep the spirit of the Lord and it will lead them right. Be careful and not turn away the [still] small voice; it will teach you what to do and where to go; it will yield the fruits of the kingdom.”
According to the documentary, Young suffered no doubt from this point forward. His steps became measured and his actions imbued with righteous confidence.
For brevity’s sake I will avoid discussing the pitfalls of having such confidence, but I think there are a few things to take away from this vision.
In the vision, Smith says, “Be careful and not turn away the small voice.” I added the “still” (i.e. calm) in the above quotation as the original account, as transcribed directly after it happened by Hosea Stout, said “still, small voice,” referring to the Biblical quote from I Kings 19: 11-12 (KJV):
And he [the Lord] said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
I’ll give the disclaimer that my Biblical scholarship is the out-of-context, copy-and-paste variety, but I think I catch the drift of what God was telling Elijah (I’m also aided by a helpful interpretation). It basically means that we are often looking for great epiphanic signs indicating which way we should go—the figurative earthquakes and fire—but generally direction is given in a more modest fashion. While sturm und drang have their place, the still, small voice is probably our most reliable source of guidance.
A bunch of years ago I read Neale Donald Walsch’s “Conversations with God.” As the title implies, the book is a dialogue between Walsch and God. Though I don’t remember much of the dialogue, God was a pretty straightforward cat. Ask him something like, “Can you stop war by engaging in it,” and he’d come back with a pretty logical “no.” Writing in my journal at the time, I would allow myself to be the voice of God. I would use this voice to answer whatever question was plaguing me that day, for example, “Should I sleep with my ex-girlfriend?” God would always deliver very simple, sensible replies (to that one a firm “No”). The voice of God rarely rationalized or made issues needlessly complicated.
Last year, I got in the habit of reading a section of the Tao Te Ching every morning. The word “tao” means “the way.” The tao is the way things work—whether that way is produced by some godhead or biological process is academic. It’s just the way. One taoist metaphor is that it’s easier to chop wood with the grain than against it—it’s the way to cut wood. Another metaphor is water. Water always finds the easiest way down. Water never struggles. It flows. When struggling, I try to be like water.
Nowadays, I’m reading a passage from Krishnamurti’s “The First and Last Freedom” each morning. On the topic of doubt and indecision, I think of his thoughts on simplicity:
Our problems—social, environmental, political, religious—are so complex that we can solve them only by being simple, not by becoming extraordinarily erudite and clever. A simple person sees much more directly, has a more direct experience, than the complex person. Our minds are so crowded with an infinite knowledge of facts, of what others have said, that we have become incapable of being simple and having direct experience ourselves.
As a species, we make things difficult and complicated. We seldom ask ourselves, “What is the easiest, simplest answer?” For example, I don’t think love is the right way, it’s the simplest and easiest when relationships are viewed as a whole system. War and conflict require baroque systems of rationalizations; how someone didn’t treat us right or whatever. We don’t ask or answer the above question because the reply almost always undermines what we’re doing, which is suffering and struggling. We are seldom humble enough to admit that it’s all a big show defending petty schemes and limited ambitions.
I am facing indecision and doubt in my life right now. About 6 months ago, I asked myself, if I had to get a conventional job and ego wasn’t part of the equation, what would I do? I wrote down that I’d be a cook, a personal trainer or a teacher—professions that reflect my values and have a low carbon footprint. I’ve done the first two, but not the last one. I decided that I’d become a teacher. It felt so clear. I felt free. I reflected on a positive experience with my high school composition teacher and decided I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I researched it a bit and the easiest way to achieve this was getting my Masters in English Education at a CUNY school. I applied to Brooklyn College and was accepted into the program.
But something happened between then and now. First, I did the Landmark Forum (mentioned in yesterday’s post) and got clear on some stuff, the main thing being that what I really wanted to do is write for a living. I got off my ass, got a desk at a writer’s space, began writing every day and shared what I wrote freely. I treated it like a profession.
This dream had been there all along, but I always concocted complicated reasons for not doing it. I’d tell myself that writers were a dying breed, that no one reads anymore, that there’s no way that I’d ever make money off it, that who was I to give spiritual direction (if you only knew the things I’ve done!)?
I managed to get clear of these stories and now feel committed to writing as what I’m meant to do for a living.
But now I find myself 90% of the way toward completing the registration for the degree program. I need to send in my immunization records and register for classes if I want any chance of starting classes this month. I struggle. It’s far from easy. My reasons for not doing it are complicated. I’ve had this trivial task to complete for over a month now. What gives?
Then I ask:
What would I do if I made this situation simple?
What is the way of water?
If I allowed myself to be the voice of God, what would I tell myself?
What does that still, small voice say?
The answer to all of these questions is the same: I’d put college and being a schoolteacher on hold and write like it was what I was put on earth to do. I’d give it my all, increasing my ability convey my voice and get read. If I ran out of money (a potential scenario), I’d figure out a way of making more in order to keep writing. That’s the simple answer.
What makes it complicated is the clarity I had with the teaching idea. It seemed so right. It still sounds right. But being a schoolteacher does not sound right. Going back to school does not feel right. Getting my teacher’s degree while continuing to write doesn’t sound right either. It just seems like more complexity in my life. One or both pursuits would surely suffer.
Further complicating matters are pride and practicality. I shouted it from the rooftops: “I’m going to be a teacher!” I don’t want people to think I’m a flake. And being a schoolteacher is practical. Do you know what kind of benefits those guys get?
Perhaps it’s a semantic issue. I still see myself as a teacher, as my writing isn’t literature per se (it’s questionably educational). Sure, it includes personal narrative, but it’s always at the service of a point I’m trying to convey. Perhaps I am making teaching too monolithic.
The thing I am sure of is that life on the fence sucks—avoiding the topic with family and friends, putting the final steps for school registration on my to-do list day-after-day. It neither achieves the end of becoming a schoolteacher or a writer as I feel sidled by a generalized lack of commitment.
So what shall I do?
I will keep it simple. I will be like water. I will listen to that still, small voice. I will, it would seem, write on.