Is it Time for the Latter-day Saints to Taper Off Prozac?

Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.

Between 2005 and 2009, I conducted a dissertation study exploring the contrasting narratives of people on anti-depressants after years of treatment. During my defense, a professor asked me “so why are so many people in Utah on anti-depressants?”[1]

Most people have heard the Salt Lake Tribune explanation, which attributes this pattern  largely or entirely to the LDS Church itself, especially to the so-called implicit pathology within the Mormon faith experience (e.g., perfectionism, shame, high standards, busyness). Without denying these as real issues to keep exploring, it’s never felt like these cultural elements quite capture what’s really going on.

So in that moment, I raised another possible answer for my dissertation committee: “Conservative people trust authority! And compared to my liberal friends who pepper doctors with all sorts of questions, when a physician informs my neighbors in Utah that this medication is going to take care of your problem….well, they believe it.  And they follow!”

Some immediate fruits of compliance.  In many times of life, of course, this “willingness to obey” is a good thing – including even with a doctor’s prescription.

And, indeed, studies show that a certain percentage of people on an anti-depressant can experience some kind of short-term relief (varied figures depending on the study, the sample and the severity of depression),[2] with another group sometimes finding relief in a second or third or fourth attempt. For someone in a desperate place, this bit of relief can mean a lot – and even be life-saving.

I am definitely one who is supportive of people following their intuition and personal sense of what is best in seeking whatever relief they need. That, however, is sometimes where our conversation stops. We talk a lot in our public mental health conversation about moving from a place of fear or stigma – to an openness to receive help. And we focus extensive attention on vivid stories about people finding heartening shifts after starting something like an anti-depressant.

No wonder, then, that people are excited to try something – anything – with a shot of bringing them relief.  And it’s totally understandable that we’re grateful when any sort of relief actually comes.

But here’s the question we’re not thinking about:  what happens next  – after the miracle moment? Curiosity about that long-term picture is what drives much of my own writing and research.

Looking long-term. In 2009, after losing a friend to suicide, one of my colleagues Bob Whitaker started exploring the same question.He gathered together every single medical study exploring long-term outcomes of psychiatric medications, including anti-depressants. And what he found surprised him…no, it shocked him.

As expected, anti-depressants showed short-term improvements for patients (which is why the FDA approved them for public use). But looking long-term, these same medications begin to have more counter-intuitive effects. Similar to other drugs (anti-anxiety, anti-psychotics, and pain-killers), their longer-term results are consistently underwhelming, and even alarming. In particular, the following pattern kept emerging:  People on anti-depressants long-term, compared to comparison groups, were more depressed than those not (see pages 164 -169, in particular).

You don’t need to believe me on that! Several different research indicators point in the same direction (see also pages 157-163).  Generally speaking, people taking anti-depressants long-term don’t fare so well. That’s the simple truth.

I can’t live without you. If that’s true, then why do people stay on them long-term? Because they become convinced they cannot live without them – and the withdrawal effects they experience in attempting to taper seem to only confirm that.  

In my own study, I found that when people tried to get off, they often tapered so quickly that withdrawal effects overwhelmed them. Rather than see this turbulence as reflecting withdrawal effects, however, most people interpreted them as the “return of depression.” That, in turn, became evidence of how much “I really need this” – even though, by this point, many people seemed to experience little to no real therapeutic effect. After many years, in other words, many people end up essentially deciding to stay on the drug to avoid the bad effects that sometimes arise when they taper (which they interpret as a “return of the depression”).[3]

One woman told me, “I’m grateful that I was born in this day and age where I could get the medication that I need so that I wouldn‘t be locked up in the attic somewhere, or indisposed all the time (laughs).” Another person added commented, “I’d really like to be off the meds, but the person off the meds is scary” (p. 90).

As reflected here, many people learn at some point that they cannot be okay without the anti-depressants. What may have been a helpful message to prompt people to get help in the first place, seems ironically to contribute to a longer-term dependency on the medication. And indeed, many professionals now just assume that depression has a natural long-term course – without questioning why so many people seem to be finding that to be true now, compared to previous eras.[4]

Another way forward. But it doesn’t have to be this way! The medical research confirms literally hundreds of potential contributors to depression, alongside hundreds of things people can do to begin moving in a direction of long-term healing.[5]

To be very clear: If an anti-depressant has helped you move towards healing, wonderful!!  All I’m adding here is that anti-depressants were never intended (or tested or proven) to be a long-term remedy. So appreciate whatever help they have offer you now; and be sure to leverage that time to create an infrastructure for longer-term healing.[6]  As part of that plan, consider the possibility of tapering off anti-depressants as a part of your sustainable healing package.

When that time is right (and you and your loved ones are the best ones to know that, ideally in consultation with a doctor[7]), you can begin the task of tapering off anti-depressants. For people who have been taking anti-depressants for years, this will not (and typically cannot) be a quick process, with a need for careful medical management and support. The time and way of doing that needs to be carefully considered – and hopefully with the supervision of a doctor.[8]

And please read this important caution:  The purpose of this blog is to raise a question and point towards a possibility. This is not to be confused for medical advice.  The information contained here does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on as advice for specific medical conditions that depend on a medical examination by a doctor licensed to practice medicine. Although I have received a doctorate with a focus on this area of research, I can only make general statements – and do not have authority to make any particular prescriptive recommendations. This means I cannot say whether or when it’s right for any given individual to consider the possibility of tapering off anti-depressants. I am simply raising this possibility and question as something each person (ideally in consultation with a doctor or other medical professional) can consider for themselves.  Furthermore, these are my own thoughts and do not represent any institution or person with whom I have collaborated. 

 I acknowledge (and expect) that some will see this as a dangerous possibility to raise – especially those convinced that patients have an inherent need for the medication.[9] Clearly it’s not time for everyone to taper off Prozac – since for some, it may be an important part of their well-being for awhile. I acknowledge that possibility here.

To not acknowledge this other possibility however – the possible benefits of tapering off at some point (and the possible detriments to not doing so) – is I believe unethical. In a moment when one in 10 Americans (and one in four middle-aged women) is on an anti-depressant and the burden of chronic mental illness only accelerating,[10] the last thing we want to do is foreclose fresh possibilities.

141010110439-mental-health-infographic-3-horizontal-large-galleryIndeed, this could be phenomenally good news for people facing long-term depression. Instead of looking forward to yet-another-year simply “managing or coping with their depression,” this invites space to at least consider higher levels of well-being potentially available to that person.[11] And indeed, the good news is that it’s not only possible, but that long-term, people can start to feel more themselves again after getting off anti-depressants.

For those interested in hearing more about this broader approach to working with mental/emotional distress, check out this free online course available here – Mindweather 101: Creative ways to work with intense thoughts and emotions.  drawing on insights from many professionals and researchers.

For those who remain skeptical at any of this and see it as falling somewhere on the spectrum from silly to dangerous, I leave two challenges:

After doing both, ask yourself the following:  “Is it dangerous to let people know of the possible benefit of deep, long-term healing available (and not exclusively dependent on medication) or is it dangerous NOT to inform them of this?

In order to expand my own understanding, I’m gathering stories of people’s long-term experiences with depression (whether on or off anti-depressants, whether doing well now or not so well).  If you have a story you’d be willing to share, contact me at Jacob@alloflife.org. I would like to better understand more of people’s long-term experience – especially those who have interest or experience pursuing tapering after many years.

I welcome any and all questions and inquiries.

 

Notes:

[1] The evidence for this contention comes from a single 2002 study that has been widely cited and more often than not taken to be definitive causal proof that Mormonism is causing people to be depressed.

[2] For instance, this conclusion from one 2010 meta-analysis: “The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo increases with severity of depression symptoms and may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms. For patients with very severe depression, the benefit of medications over placebo is substantial.”

What exactly it means for a treatment to be “successful” or “effective” is another point of sharp disagreement, however, as Jeff Lacasse and I explore here:  “What Does It Mean for an Intervention to ‘Work’? Making Sense of Conflicting Treatment Outcomes for Youth Facing Emotional Problems

[3] Physicians often make the same interpretation – “see? That just shows why you need to say on this medication.”  Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, associated with Harvard University, was one of the first doctors to suggest another interpretation – namely, that withdrawal effects were at play in these negative effects arising after people begun tapering (and that these were often being misinterpreted as a simple return of depression.”

[4] In previous eras, depression was taken for granted to be time-limited  – with early reports consistently suggesting high rates of people finding recovery (See Bob Whitaker’s summary of the history)

[5] Our own review of the medical literature has pointed towards numerous factors contributing to serious depression – each suggesting a possible point of intervention and adjustment.

If true, of course, this would be a possibility for anyone on anti-depressants, Latter-day Saint or not (with the latter the primary audience of my blog).

So what does this have to do with mindfulness anyway?  Mindfulness is about increasing our awareness – of body, mind, heart and the world around us. I raise this as an area of exploration with vastly insufficient awareness currently – hoping that greater awareness will be helpful to individuals and families who are struggling.

[6] If you are interested in learning more about this approach to healing, check out Mindweather 101 – a free online class prepared over several years and drawing on 35 professionals.

[7] But what if you cannot find a doctor willing to supervise you? This is especially common given how many doctors have been fully convinced of the long-term chronicity of depression. Despite that, there are doctors willing to work with people interested in tapering, and who will support individuals following their sense of what is best.  It is ideal when professionals support individuals in families in following their intuition of what is right, rather than overriding that by strong counsel.

[8] Read all you can about the process to get informed.  I will only provide this guideline written by a doctor I trust at Harvard Medical School, since I want to stay far from the line of any specific recommendations. But with enough searching online, you can find various additional recommendations for a thoughtful wise, gradual, stepped, withdrawal plan.

[9] There are very different views of the physiological basis of mental/emotional problems. Depending on the view taken, it leads to very different conclusions about treatment. For an academic length treatment of this question, see this peer-reviewed paper published with several academics across the country: “Narrating the Brain Investigating Contrasting Portrayals of the Embodiment of Mental Disorder

[10] This comes from an analysis by Elizabeth Kantor at Harvard University of a survey of nearly 40,000 adults, from 1999 to 2012. She found that the percentage of Americans on antidepressants had doubled over this period .

[11] There are, of course, very different views about recovery from depression and serious mental/emotional challenges:  What exactly does it mean? What is realistic to expect, either short- or long-term? In collaboration with a set of diverse (and disagreeing) collaborators, we explored these questions in this peer-reviewed article here: “’Is There a Getting Better From This, or Not?’ Examining the Meaning and Possibility of Recovery from Mental Disorder.”

If You Disagreed With God…What Would You Do? 

Monique and I have been enjoying the writing of an Asian-American pastor out of San Francisco, Francis Chan. article_franchan

We’ve been touched by the simplicity, honesty and power of this man’s words. (Relishing truth wherever it exists are, of course, central to our own Mormon faith – as something Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught).

I’ve recently appreciated Francis’ teaching about what happens when we come into personal conflict or disagreement with God. From the introduction to his latest book, he reflects on the larger conversations happening around Christianity (starting here at 2:58):

Maybe the thing I’m most concerned about is this arrogance – look, in Isaiah 55 God says “Your thoughts are not like my thoughts and your ways are not as my ways.” He says, “as high as the heavens are above than the earth, that’s how much higher my ways are than your ways – and that’s how higher my thoughts are than your thoughts.”

So when we begin an argument with, “well, I wouldn’t believe in a God who would….who would what?  Do something you wouldn’t do?  Or think in a way that’s different from the way that you think?

Do you ever consider the possibility that maybe the Creator’s sense of justice is actually more developed than yours?  And that maybe his love and his mercy are perfect – and that you could be the one that is flawed?

See, when we make statements like “well, God wouldn’t do this would he?” Do you understand, in that moment you’re actually putting God’s actions in submission to your reasoning. You’re in essence saying, ‘well God wouldn’t think that way or act that way because I wouldn’t act that way or think that way. And yet if – when I read the scriptures, man all through this book, I’m like, ‘God – there are things you say that I wouldn’t think to say.  There are things you do that I wouldn’t think to do.

Chan then repeats a number of examples in scripture of instances completely at odds with how he thinks. Then he continues:

Look, there are a lot of things in this book that I go, ‘wow, God – you did that.  You thought that.  I wouldn’t think that.  And I wouldn’t have done that. But when I come to those passages – and when you come to those passages, does it even enter your mind that maybe he knows something that you don’t?  Or is it always – ‘I have this ability to reason. And I have this level of morality…and so something in him must be off or I won’t believe in him.’

I know there are things that I want desperately to be true.  And I also know that there’s a part of me that thinks God ought to do things a certain way – and I don’t want to put him under me.  I want to be honest and say ‘look, here’s all that God has written. I don’t want to draw any conclusion that aren’t there. I don’t want to read into it too much.  I just want to present this fairly – and I don’t want to misrepresent him.

He concludes, “It’s good that you discuss these things – but do it with humility. Confess. Pray. Fast. And study diligently on this one – because we can’t afford to be wrong.”

When Francis was recently asked about sexuality questions, he reiterates:  “So before we get to what this book actually says, I have to say, ‘would you surrender?  I mean, if you disagree with God on an issue – would you submit to him?  I really believe that’s the core issue here. I really think we jump to [discussion of sexuality] too quickly, rather than saying – at the core of your being, do you believe in a Creator?  And if He is your Creator, would you surrender to whatever He would ask you to do?”

He continues, “And then, if so – and that’s the kind of person I want to be as well – let’s look at this book [the Bible] together.  Because a lot of following Jesus is to deny yourself, picking up your cross and following me…it’s about not doing very much some of the things you very much want to do.  That’s a major part of following Jesus.”

And he concludes,  “Maybe I’m wrong about some of this – I’m just a human being, I’m going to be off on things. If your interpretation is different than that, help me see that – in scripture.  Let’s study this book together – and you tell me, what does it say?” (Watch the full clip here)

These teachings, of course, could be applied in a way that challenges the confidence of Church leaders or orthodox members in their interpretation of scripture. I don’t have a problem with that interpretation – and appreciate truth that acts as an “equal opportunity challenger.”

Imagine a conversation where we both acknowledged the potential of being wrong – of the need to keep searching. To keep listening…and to stay open to the wild possibility that there is more for both of us to learn.

If we believe in God, I’m not sure how we can talk in any other way.

‘Praying away’ vs. ‘Accepting’ mental illness: Are those the only two options?

Over a decade ago when first starting to research mental health narratives, I was struck by one pattern that kept coming up in my faith community – seemingly everywhere I turned. Individuals newly diagnosed with mental illness would recollect a previous time in life when they held the notion that praying or reading scriptures might be a central or powerful engine for alleviating their problem. From their new vantage point in understanding the “truth about mental illness,” however, that idea was now seen as naïve – compared to their newfound appreciation of the reality that mental illness doesn’t easily ‘go away’ in response to this kind of direct spiritual effort.

And of course, for the most part, they’re right. When was the last time you tried begging God to make something go away in your life – or make something happen…or make something right?

Awhile back, my two toddler boys started demanding certain things from Daddy and Mommy with loud, dramatic, insistent voices – “I want that NOW…No, NOW!…I really, really want it!”  Daddy and Mommy’s responses went something like, “Ummm, guess what.  It’s really hard to listen to you when you talk that way…”

I can’t imagine that God almighty is eager to hear similar desperate begging from us, despite a popular interpretation of the Parable of the Importunate Widow (Luke 18) that advances  the effectiveness of precisely that kind of entreaty.[1]

Apart from the occasional story of dramatic and miraculous intervention, I’ve rarely seen the practice of singularly desperate and urgent worship to be that ‘effective’ in making anything change. This is epitomized, once again, by the commonly heard disappointment after people facing mental illness pray and plead for God to “take this away” or “heal me”!

When that kind of a plea doesn’t ‘work,’ well then, it’s time to move on to something else, right? Many people thus push away from this ‘pray it away’ option into what is often assumed to be the only ‘other option’:  just accept that your mental illness is what you have to face, that your body and brain are just this way…and that your life is going to be like this for good.

Once that sort of acceptance happens, other things follow – including a willingness to identify with a particular diagnostic category and its likely prognosis, and a willingness to accept whatever treatment is prescribed in an attempt to remedy the illness. Acceptance thus seemingly floods across the whole experience – embracing the experience, the mental illness, the prognosis and the prescribed treatment, etc.

Isn’t this mindfulness at its best? Accepting things exactly as they are?

Well, sort of…

Another kind of acceptance.  In our Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction classes, we DO invite participants throughout various meditations – starting with the body scan – to “accept whatever they are experiencing in that moment” – with this one caveat: “without trying to force or fix or control or make things change in any way.”

Compared to the acceptance of mental illness described above, this mindfulness approach aspires for a deeper allowance of whatever feelings, thoughts and physical sensations  exist to be exactly as you find them…without trying to make them change.

Wow!! How would that ever make sense with serious mental or emotional distress? After all, if someone starts to have hallucinations or delusions, we need to do something to make them go away, right? And if someone’s moods are fluctuating up and down, we better get them something to make sure they level out, right? And if someone’s sorrow is too great or anxiety to big, we need to ensure that those symptoms come down, right?

That is not only commonly the unquestioned assumption; it is often the urgent demand made upon people. One man told me in an interview of his mother’s response when he was started getting symptoms of depression: “We’ve just GOT to do something…”

This urgency is understandable given the intense pain people face – and the dark outcomes that can ensue. Indeed, that same man also spoke of his own urgency to make something change: “Things had gotten so bad for me that I said, ―I‘ll do anything . . . I will do anything if you tell me that it will make me feel better… If you told me the problem lived in my finger and I had to cut it off…I would have done anything to make that go away.”

On one hand, this kind of urgent concern is, once again, understandable in the face of the intensity of serious mental or emotional problems. On the other hand, infusing an intense situation with additional fear, worry, panic and often even some aggression, might actually make things worse (See Fighting Against What Hurts Part I & II). Indeed, it all starts to feel like quite the opposite of acceptance.

What would it mean to bring a different level of gentle acceptance to a painful experience like depression or anxiety? That’s essentially the question that researchers have been asking about mindfulness-based interventions for two decades. And the answer has surprised pretty much everyone:  It helps…like a lot!

Most immediately, a gentle, mindfulness-based approach appears to offer some immediate relief for depression and anxiety, with 8-week groups showing significant improvements compared with control groups (see here and here for depression and here for anxiety). This is true for both adults and youth. In collaboration with colleagues at Florida State and the University of Utah, I recently conducted a randomized-controlled trial (RCT) of a teenage adaptation of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction developed by the University of Massachusetts. Over the course of 8 weeks, we saw depression, anxiety and attention all moving in the right direction for teens in the mindfulness group, compared to a wait-list control (results forthcoming).

The Madness of Mindfulness. Despite these results, this kind of a mindfulness-based approach is by no means a ‘no-brainer’ for everyone.  Especially when compared to efforts that promise a decrease in immediate symptoms of emotional distress, it can be hard to understand why you would want to pursue mindfulness-based approaches that, in fact, involve an increase in awareness of distress initially. This happens as individuals are invited to turn towards symptoms with careful, gentle attention to what is going on (see Witnessing the Storm).[2]

It’s worth asking why anyone want to feel or experience their distress more – especially if there are so many ways to apparently avoid it?

The answer to that question only really becomes clear over the long-term, where empirical studies confirm that mindfulness-based and conventional approaches lead to very different places over time. On the one hand, attempts to control symptoms and make the distress go away initially have been shown in long-term studies to lead (generally and statistically speaking) to an aggravation of those same symptoms over long-periods of time; this is especially true when those treatment attempts are used continuously over a long period. By comparison, more gentle mindfulness-based efforts (which invite people to work immediately with initial symptoms in creative ways), have been shown in long-term studies to lead (generally and statistically speaking) to an alleviation of symptoms over the long-term – e.g., including a decrease in relapse of recurrent depression.

So there you have it…another way to approach ‘acceptance’ distinct from the popular way of ‘accepting mental illness (and its treatment).’  We might even think of this as a discussion comparing ‘Two Kinds of Acceptance’ in working with mental illness.

All this begs the question of what prayer and scriptures would or could mean for mental or emotional distress – IF, rather than employed in an instrumental, means-end attempt to MAKE THE DISTRESS GO AWAY, they were practiced out of this same sense of gentleness, mindfulness and deeper acceptance. For instance:

  • Praying not to make something go away, but to commune, to seek intimacy, understand and insight in God’s presence (seeking His agenda – not ours).
  • Reading sacred text not to garner divine favor in hopes of making something go away, but instead to deepen our understanding, insight and especially our intimacy with the Divine (that being the desired outcome).

From a place of mindfulness, my experience has been that personal worship becomes a very different, richer and more relational experience. Rather than a daily entreaty for God to do what I want Him to do…it becomes something else.  Something intimate…and soothing.  A dialogue.  An exploration.  Not a mean’s to my end – but a mean to His end.  And our relationship together.

For anyone – including those facing distressing thoughts and feelings – I hope a mindfulness-based approach to worship and intense emotion itself could offer some significant relief. I’m curious to hear others experiences and thoughts?

Notes:  

[1] When my brother Sam was facing cancer, we were taught that a proper interpretation of that parable in the New Testament meant if we wearied God with our prayers, He would probably listen…(IF we plead long enough and hard enough)!! This interpretation turned out to be as disappointing as it was a mismatch of our experience of God and His will.  After Sam died, it became clear that our focus in prayer should have been more on Him, than on the outcome that we wanted ourselves.

[2] Apart from this initial discomfort of paying closer attention to the pain and surfacing discomfort already there in the body or mind, there are no other significant ‘side-effects’ associated with mindfulness-based interventions – and certainly none that endure.

Three Questions about the LDS Church’s New Mental Health Initiative

Three Questions about the LDS Church’s New Mental Health Initiative

Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D., Co-Founder AllofLife.org

Like most families, ours has faced the exhausting and exasperating burden of mental illness. And like most Mormons, I’m grateful for the growing efforts in the Church (punctuated by Elder Holland’s seminal talk in 2013) to support an increasingly sensitive and thoughtful conversation about mental/emotional challenges in our faith community. From recognizing the brutal legitimacy of these struggles, to offering wise counsel for loved ones and hopeful encouragement for those struggling, to the impassioned witness of Jesus’ ability to heal – there is so much to love about this new Church effort to raise awareness around mental health.

Soon after Elder Holland’s talk was given, though, I noticed some concerning ways his message was being interpreted – including perspectives that felt quite at odds with the spirit of his remarks. For instance, I personally heard accounts of individuals with personal concerns about anti-depressant treatment being pressured to drop their silly questions, along the lines of, “SEE…God expects you to use everything He has provided – including Prozac. That’s what Elder Holland said[1]!”

Far less attention was given to the other verb Elder Holland used in the same paragraph– namely, to “prayerfully and responsibly consider” counsel and solutions recommended – not to mention the broad, multi-faceted picture of healing portrayed in his talk.

After 15 years of studying contrasting interpretations of questions like these, I’m fascinated by the diverging ways that human beings narrate suffering and grief in various forms (with depression the focus of my dissertation research). Out of this narrative interviewing research, I’ve been especially struck by the practical, real-life consequences of various narratives we adopt for choices made (or not made) and paths taken (or not taken).[2]

Because the particular mental health narrative adopted by people clearly matters in all sorts of practical ways, I can’t help but raise three specific questions about the LDS Church’s new mental health page. Although relevant to anyone facing mental/emotional challenges, these questions are addressed specifically to the creators of this new mental health campaign.

I raise these questions sincerely, hoping simply to add my voice to the ongoing conversation.[3].

1. Are you aware how acutely the professional, medical and research communities are divided over the nature of mental health problems – and what to do about them? It’s common to hear some mental health organizations proclaiming the “truth” about mental illness – as if researchers had uncovered clear realities that are now generally accepted consensuses. For those closest to the research, however, such a declaration is baffling, given how quickly and dramatically the scientific landscape has changed in the last 15-20 years. This includes paradigm-breaking discoveries of brain changeability (neuroplasticity) and the advent of mindfulness-based treatment approaches.

Taking in a full view of this research literature, it would be more accurate to say (a) we are in the middle of a dramatic period of expansion in mental health understanding (“further light and knowledge” in Mormon lingo) and (b) thoughtful, smart researchers and professionals (and patients) currently hold remarkably different views of the nature of mental illness, and what to do about it. All this, one could argue, is expected – and even inevitable – in a period of such rapidly shifting paradigms within mental health and medical science.

Rather than declaring one perspective as indisputable truth, some colleagues and I have experimented in recent years with a different approach – publishing careful explorations of key mental health questions in peer-reviewed journals[4] and then creating materials that help promote thoughtful public conversation around the same issues.[5]

What we’ve found is that people are often relieved to have the space to explore for themselves different perspectives and options in response to the serious problem of mental/emotional illness. Rather than being pressed in one direction or another, individuals and families who have a chance to explore their sense of what is best often find not only a pathway of healing more authentically chosen – but also one that is literally more effective for them. No matter their choice, our goal as mental health collaborators has been providing support for people’s exploration and deliberation of different options.

2. Can you help me understand why you’ve chosen to advocate one particular (disability) perspective on recovery, without acknowledging other viable approaches? One of the key questions that continues to be explored in the larger mental health discourse centers on the nature, meaning and possibility of recovery. On one hand are those arguing that mental illness is most accurately described as primarily reflecting an enduring deficiency in the body that may persist over one’s life, but can be managed or controlled through medical means. Daniel Fisher, former member of the White House Commission on Mental Health, calls this a “rehabilitation” or “disability” approach to mental illness. While recognizing that some people may find deeper and longer-term levels of healing, this approach de-emphasizes that possibility as any sort of general aspiration and instead encourages people to accept the general reality of mental illness as what will likely be an enduring part of their life – or even part of who they are.

Another perspective speaks of lasting, sustainable recovery as a possibility worth holding out for those facing mental/emotional struggles, however serious. Without raising naïve hopes for quick healing (and while recognizing that some may live with struggles for a longer than expected period of time), this approach emphasizes lasting healing as a legitimate possibility to aspire towards, even in the most despairing of cases. As one woman previously diagnosed with schizophrenia (and now living independently) told me in an interview, “never predict the recovery of another individual.” In particular, this approach resists labeling mental health conditions either as life those struggling must simply accept for good or who these people are (“my son is ADHD…my husband is bipolar”).

Depending on the distinct interpretation of recovery adopted, it seems clear that practical, measurable consequences for prognosis and long-term healing can ensue (see our in-depth review paper of some of these potential consequences).

So much of the larger message and spirit of the Church’s mental health website centers on hope in the form of ultimate healing through Christ. This is a message welcome to anyone who claims to believe in the Deliverer himself. At the same time, much of the website’s descriptive language about the lived reality of mental health conditions underscores and recapitulates a disability narrative of recovery with striking fidelity. From “living with mental illness” headlining the site, to phrases like “learning to cope with a mental illness,” the nature of mental illness is portrayed as a chronic disability that is best managed and controlled in the practical day-to-day reality. Christ’s help is thus framed as hugely and supremely valuable, albeit without altering the fundamentally chronic nature of the conditions – e.g., “He can help you feel peace and find meaning in life despite your mental illness.” Lest the enduring temporal nature of mental illness was not completely clear, even the e-mail inviting questions is pointedly labeled, “disability@ldschurch.org.”

Without denying that some can and do find these conditions coming up over a life-time (for many different reasons), can you see how this kind of language may set up others to assume this will be the case for them too?[6] This can lead to what we’ve called learned hopelessness – a state of mind that can arguably multiply and compound the despair those facing mental/emotional challenges already feel.

3. Given the scientific picture of long-term outcomes for those on psychiatric medications, are there risks to framing medical treatment as an essential, indispensable part of recovery – or even an expectation from God?  Currently, the website offers fairly explicit encouragement regarding medical aspects of healing (understood by most readers as psychiatric treatment). More than simply raising medical treatment as one option to consider, the website raises this possibility as an indispensable and key part of recovery – e.g., “spiritual healing and medical healing work together to form the key to lasting happiness.”

At best, the current medical literature paints a very complex picture about psychiatric treatment. In my dissertation research on depression, I was struck, among other things, at how widely different the experiences of people on anti-depressants were – ranging from those who saw the treatment as literally ‘redemptive’ to others who saw it as responsible for deterioration.

The FDA has approved these anti-depressants, of course, because of research documenting a particular group of people benefiting over placebo when taking an anti-depressant over a certain amount of time (typically 3-6 weeks).  The existing research base, then, supports a sensible use approach where someone uses an anti-depressant for a short-period of time, and then eventually tapers off with a doctor’s support.

That is not however, how these medications are being used in many (most) cases. It has become common practice to prescribe and use anti-depressants for many years – even decades.[7]

If not for the findings of controlled trials exploring long-term outcomes of people on anti-depressants, there may be little reason for concern. But the consistent results of these long-term studies (summarized here, by a Boston journalist Bob Whitaker) raise questions worthy of at least our serious consideration. I have interviewed Bob twice – and found him a humble and honest journalist. He began looking into the long-term evidence after a friend took his life by suicide.

What he found, contrary to his initial hunches, was an empirical picture suggesting that long-term use of psychiatric medications (in contrast to sensible, short-term usage) is partially contributing to the increasing rates of chronic mental disability in our country (see again the 22 research studies and articles annotated here).

**Note to medical doctors:  Don’t stop reading! Harvard and other medical schools across the country have invited Bob Whitaker’s data-driven presentations because his summaries of the evidence are impeccable and fair. His is not an anti-medication message – and he regularly insists there is an important place for psychiatrists in this picture. He’s simply calling for a bigger conversation – including about the appropriate place of these meds in a larger picture of sustainable recovery.   

At a minimum, these long-term findings might give us pause when it comes to sending any absolute or prescriptive message about treatment in our educational efforts.

I mentioned earlier some of the ways people have interpreted Elder Holland’s original talk – especially three lines right in the middle.[8] Rather than providing some context and nuance around that part of his talk, the new campaign underscores and highlights those three lines at the mid-point of the new video. Rather than encouraging people to prayerfully consider professional recommendations (sorting through what feels right or not), the website takes up a language of compliance – recommending that people “make every effort to comply with your bishop, doctor, and counselor’s recommendations.”

Compliance = obedience. And the Latter-day Saints will obey, if that’s what is asked of them. For instance, I’ve watched LDS parents acquiesce to a doctor’s recommendations for their child to be on psychiatric medication, even though they felt uncomfortable with it.

I respect that many believe this kind of decision is a good model to follow – with the best chance of allaying mental health problems and suicide.

I raise these questions above hoping at least to raise another perspective on how and why other people (who care equally about supporting those facing serious mental/emotional challenges) may be concerned with some aspects of this newly-minted mental health website. And to be very clear, as cited above, there is reason to believe that some elements of your current message may inadvertently and indirectly (and over the long-term) contribute to increasing the chronic burden of mental distress in our community over time.

To conclude, I can’t resist three simple recommendations for the creators of the website that would go a long way towards resolving some of the issues outlined above:

1. Understand and acknowledge at some point in the educational effort that profoundly different perspectives exist in the medical and research (and patient) communities – and that this is okay. The attitude of  ‘there is a lot more to learn’ openness was an element of the MormonsandGays.org website that many people appreciated. A little more of that in this website’s messaging would give leaders and members space to explore different perspectives together.

In the absence of that, you will be read as endorsing one particular perspective. Rather than promoting thoughtful dialogue, the practical result will be insinuating the yielding to one particular course of treatment as reflecting the fulfillment of God’s expectations. Is that really what you want?

If so, bishops, mission presidents and relief society presidents will surely faithfully represent this same message to distressed members – “God expects you to embrace all these gifts…I understand you have concerns, but it’s important to be compliant, etc.”

There are SO many different things that can help someone facing mental/emotional challenges. Why not paint this full-spectrum picture for people, rather than dictating what precisely should happen in response? [9] In this way, you would be encouraging members to explore what felt right among the various options, thus making space for a vibrant conversation among people about how best to respond.

2. Leave open the possibility of lasting, sustainable healing. In apparent contrast to the larger doctrinal foundation of hope in Christ and some lovely interview excerpts, the current descriptive language on the website clearly and consistently insinuates a lived experience of chronic disability for those facing mental/emotional challenges.

Consider at least introduces the possibility of deep and sustainable healing as an aspiration to move towards in this life. More than a wild hope, this possibility is wholly consistent with the optimistic findings of current brain science, epigenetics and the long-term recovery literature across mental health conditions.

3. Respect people’s intuition and space to make treatment decisions that feel right for them. This may include embracing anti-depressants or resisting them as a part of their healing journey. Either way, it seems wise for institutions that hold such power and trust to stay far away from insinuating that obedience to a particular treatment regimen is God’s will.

Within that space, people can then craft a wellness plan that is right for them, incorporating all the elements that they and their loved ones (in consultation with trusted professionals) decide is best.

And that’s it!  Three questions about the new mental health campaign.

Thank you for considering my thoughts.

Notes: 

[1] These three lines, in particular, have been leveraged to add pressure:  “If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”

[2] This is especially apparent over the long-term, with sustainable recovery and long-term outcomes becoming a central focus of my research in recent years (see  Hess & Lacasse, 2011)

[3] I’ve been telling people for years that asking sincere questions is not a sign of lacking faith – and, indeed, welcome in the Church. A belief in the power of open, respectful questioning motivates my involvement in directing Village Square Salt Lake City as well.

[4] Three examples:  “Narrating the Brain: Investigating Contrasting Portrayals of the Embodiment of Mental Disorder” (Hess, Gantt & Lacasse, 2015); “Is There a Getting Better From This, or Not?” Examining the Meaning and Possibility of Recovery from Mental Disorder (Hess, Lacasse, Harmon, Williams and Vierling-Claassen, 2014) “What Does It Mean for an Intervention to ‘Work’? Making Sense of Conflicting Treatment Outcomes for Youth Facing Emotional Problems” (Hess & Lacasse, 2011)

[5] Over the last couple of years, a small team of volunteers at our mental health non-profit interviewed experts and patients around the country – creating a 15 lesson class freely available to the public (see Mindweather 101:  Working Creatively with Intense Emotion.

[6] If it was in the nature of mental health problems to endure over time in this way – if that was their natural course – it would seem wise to do just that. If the outcome literature or the brain science confirmed an enduring, chronic experience of serious mental health problems, then conveying this message is what people should do. But that’s simply not what the brain science or clinical outcomes suggests.

[7] Life-long treatment is a logical implication of a life-long prognosis, as discussed earlier.

[8] These three lines, in particular, have been leveraged to add pressure:  “If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”

[9] As it stands, your message about the nature of mental illness and its appropriate response hews tightly to the messaging of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (which you reference on your website). While NAMI has done commendable work to provide support and community for those facing mental illness, several years ago they were forced to disclose that they receive the bulk of their funding from a wide array of pharmaceutical companies. Consequently, many concerns have been raised in research and professional communities at the selective interpretation of the research present in NAMI materials and classes –reflecting content that virtually always centers on pharmaceutical products while typically minimizing brain changeability and the potential of lasting healing.

Sabbath as Mindfulness Retreat?

Sabbath as Mindfulness Retreat?

Last summer I went on my first 10-Day Silent Retreat. It was a challenging and glorious experience as I joined 40 others laying aside the hurried, pressed madness of daily living to do the simplest of things: watching, listening, hearing, and seeing.

No talking. No looking others in the eye. Only intentional, constant quiet.

By the end of the 10 days, I felt clearer, more energized and hopeful than at most any point in my life before (my good wife Monique’s experience at home with the kids was another story[1]). I walked out of that retreat center feeling a new creature.

All because of stopping.

One of the inevitable questions we discussed in the wake of this experience was this: how can we build more of THIS into our regular family life? There’s only so often someone has the luxury of going for an extended retreat like that. What if we decided to take one day to ‘retreat’ as a family more consistently?

Hmmm…More silence and stillness – and more space. Some slowing down. Once a week…

Sound familiar?

Theoretically, what soccer fans call “stoppage time” is a key part of the Christian blue-print – what we call the “Sabbath.”

Yet there seems to be a major disconnect:  anyone slightly Buddhist knows how essential it is to “retreat! You need to get away from the world.”  And the Christians theoretically are DOING IT…but often superficially or begrudgingly.

Usually, we talk about the Sabbath as a time we can’t do certain things we usually do (things we maybe would like to still be doing).  But I had just returned from voluntarily giving up my day planner, cell phone and 9-5 job (things I usually like to do) – and I felt great!

Hmmm (again)…consciously letting go of ‘usual stuff’ for a period of time – to make time for something deeper.  And then coming away feeling a lot better…??

This didn’t really click for me until we listened to President Nelson’s talk on the Sabbath Day as a “delight” later that fall – and began to hear more and more emphasis from our leaders about making this day something special.

More than a day of not doing things – in so many ways, they were reminding us of all the things we GOT to do on Sunday because we didn’t have to do all that other stuff (we had a great excuse not to…).

And that did it! What if the Sabbath Day could be as refreshing, nourishing and healing as a weekly mindfulness retreat? Could that alone actually be life-changing?

One reason this question intrigued us was how far removed from that possibility our weekly experience was.  It was common at the end of most Sundays for Monique to be more exhausted than after most any other day – since the day became essentially the same Kid Wrestle, but minus the normal weekday kid activities and structure. And for my part, I often ran myself ragged between different callings and people in need. Rather than a “delight,” there were weeks that we admitted dreading the Sabbath.

And yet President Nelson had explained Jesus’ teachings about the Sabbath being made “for man” by saying, “the Sabbath was His gift to us, granting real respite from the rigors of daily life and an opportunity for spiritual and physical renewal.” He later quoting Isaiah’s teaching about how to make the Sabbath a delight to the point that, in the ancient prophet’s words, “Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord” (Isaiah 58:14)

That was not our experience!  So what were we missing?  After another exhausting Sunday, we decided we’d had enough: There’s got to be a better way!  What needs to change for this day to become more like that mindfulness retreat?

My first idea was trying a semi-silent retreat at home where we wouldn’t talk – letting the chatter of the children be the only sound. But we ended up sticking with simpler ideas. Over the next couple of weeks, we explored various adjustments – everything from shutting off devices for at least part of the day, to blocking off more time for just sitting together and talking or reading. The changes were simple.  Overall, we asked ourselves the question President Nelson had raised, “What sign do I want to give to God?”

We decided that we didn’t want to be so BUSY that day that we couldn’t be present to each other – or to God.  And we made changes to remove distractions like internet news, Facebook, e-mail, texting and endless sport updates.

Even more, we tried to replicate some of the things we loved about mindfulness practice – stillness and silence.

And guess what?  It worked! Or better put, silence works.  And stillness too!

In our experience, we found that things settled down in the silence and stillness.  It’s there, when we are present, that we find God…or maybe God finds us?

Even with simple changes, Monique and I have begun to relish and look forward to the Sabbath day again – as one that nourishes our relationships with each other and our God. We’ve begun to feel the rest that the word “Sabbath” itself means in Hebrew.

We’d love to hear about anyone else who has experimented with making your Sabbath more of a ‘retreat’- and a place for silence and stillness…Please share your thoughts below!

Notes:

[1] After my SILENT retreat, she told me she had been on a 10 day NOISE RETREAT!

Does God Love Us Just as We Are?

It’s popular these days to hearing something along the lines of:  “always remember, you are loved just as you are!”

To paraphrase one author, ‘You are loved, worthy and beautiful. You are enough – just as you are. And nothing, and no one can ever change that.’

It’s a lovely sentiment – and something we really do love to believe…about ourselves and about God.

Most often, this message includes an emphasis on “being who you really are” and “accepting who you really are” as central to health and happiness – and therefore, something surely pleasing to God.

“You are who you are,” people are told, “you just need to accept it.”  After all, you need to be “whoever God made you to be.”

This is often characterized as a kind of enlightenment and discovery regarding “true love” – typically set in contrast to others’ teaching on love. Compared to other views of love, for instance, this view aims to affirm the “perfection” of people…just as they are – with other teachings about love, by default, seen as (inherently) hateful, judgmental, and “un-Christlike.”

Does that include Jesus?

On one level, any who know Christ are acutely aware of how much His love meets us in this very (present) moment:  that generosity, grace, compassion…Any who have approached the Almighty seeking repentance have experienced this welcoming embrace first-hand. And it’s something all prophets have taught.

But the prophets don’t stop there. Especially those who have encountered Jesus personally say something more:

And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 27:25-26).

Once the Lord meets us in his uniquely gracious way, what does He say next?

“And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things. And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (3 Nephi 11: 37-38).

It’s worth pointing out:  MUST is a word Americans NEVER use – so forceful as to be almost pejorative in our modern culture. But Jesus used it – including in this, His message to the traumatized people of Nephi soon after they met personally. Despite their fragile state, Jesus made it very clear what He intended to do for (and within) anyone willing to follow Him. He intended to change them. Elsewhere, Alma describes this as the “mighty change” that God Himself can work in us.

Returning again, to the question:  Is God’s love so “unconditional” that He doesn’t care about anything but ‘who we are’?

My own experience is that after connecting with us enough to confirm His love, Jesus invites us to give Him our hearts – to surrender, to yield and to let Him change us.

“And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved” (Omni 1:26).

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1).

Rather than you and I being ‘enough’ to God (just as we are), the teaching of scripture seems to point toward a very different message.

On one level, it’s true that there is fundamental wholeness and goodness in each of our spirits and core ‘selves’ that reflects divine DNA.  On another level, however, it’s also true that those spirits (and selves) can be – and are – hijacked by all sorts of things as we come into world…things that are not reflective of who we really are.

Buddhists speak of this as a “delusion” we are all born into.  Christians call it “the fallen world” – both of which can presumably blind us to things as they really are and socialize us away from our “true self.”

Although the scope and limits of this fallen impact are debated, most Christians would agree that the body, mind, heart and spirit itself can be weighed down, deformed and held in bondage in various ways and degree. As for the Buddhists, they similarly insist that we are all “born into delusion” (not just the “schizophrenics”).

If that’s true, then it makes sense that some kind of redemption and deliverance (or awakening and enlightenment) is also needed. From a place of personal, emotional and even biological captivity, we might even expect this process of deliverance and waking up to be, at times, outright excruciating…Maybe that’s why the prophets say things like this, in reference to God’s people:

“And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (translated elsewhere as crucifying certain “passions and desires”) (Galatians 5:24)

“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Romans 6:6)

If I am reading our theology right, aspects of ‘who we are right now’ may need to be literally destroyed – in order for God to create something else. That’s certainly been painfully true of my own experience.

As is often the case, C.S. Lewis puts it best:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (Mere Christianity)

If Lewis and Alma are right, our God intends this life as a process of becoming…one that radically changes us.

Rather than ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘whole’ as we naturally are, the gospel message is that we become fully whole, perfect and good through Him (and only through Him).  As described in modern scripture, “just” individuals are “made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (D&C 76:69).

Instead of insisting we are ‘enough,’ then, the gospel message is that Jesus is enough:  “My grace is sufficient” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Rather than some self-help project of reducing our errors by our own hard work, this is about becoming whole or “perfected” in Christ (Moroni 10:32). Whatever work is needed to arrive at this point, He is the one who does it – not simply us, for as Paul says ,“I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phillipians 1:6).

While popular voices in society will continue saying, “this is who you are, this is how life is going to be.” The Lord so often says something else, “NO – this is not who you are and how your life has to be. There is such a mighty change of heart.  And you are a child of God!”

To be very clear:  it’s true our Father God loves us right now …whatever is happening. This doesn’t mean, however, that He loves ‘who we are’ without conditions…Instead, because He loves us, His work is to radically change and shape that ‘who we are’ in a pattern where we become something far, far more glorious than we currently believe ourselves to be.

If that’s true, then maybe it’s time to stop mistaking being loved where we are for being loved ‘just as we are.’

From a mindfulness writer that Elder Christofferson quoted in his most recent address, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him” (Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, 2014, 17–18).

Calling on the Prophets (or the People) to Repent?

Calling on the Prophets (or the People) to Repent?

Following the surprising resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eleven remaining apostles were gathered together at Galilee, “into a mountain where Jesus had appointed.”  As if they were not already startled enough, in that moment Jesus left them the following challenge:  “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20).

Over the last two thousand years, anyone claiming to follow the man Jesus – including institutions, leaders and normal ole’ disciples – has made teaching His message of faith and repentance a part of their life.  Joseph Smith himself was told at various points, “Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people” (D&C 18:14) – even as an exclusive focus:

  •  “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation; keep my commandments, and assist to bring forth my work, according to my commandments, and you shall be blessed” (D&C 6:9)
  • “And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost” (D&C 19:31)
  • “Lift up your voice as with the sound of a trump, both long and loud, and cry repentance…preparing the way of the Lord for his second coming” (D&C 34:16)

What Christians call the “Great Commission” is taking the message of Christ crucified to the world at large – encouraging people everywhere to yield themselves to God and His word…especially when doing so is hard.

Those seeking to share the Christian message have never claimed to be perfect – and indeed, accept Christ’s own label of “the weak and the simple” charged to carry this message to the world (D&C 1:19) – or what Paul also called “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…and mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27)

For me, at least, this implies a sense of “we’re all human” and “doing our best” and “learning along the way” for all of Christ’s followers – including the prophets.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing, then, when members raise ideas and make suggestions to leaders.  And I don’t agree with portrayals of the Church of Jesus Christ as purely a top-down affair. That’s neither the gospel or the God I know (who is a lover of dialogue).  The God I know would not be offended by sincere and genuine requests, for instance, from some of my brothers and sisters who identify as gay – for Church leaders to ask God whether there will be any further revelation on their own situation. I’ve personally been touched by the humility and earnestness of some of those written petitions.

Recently, however, something quite different has begun happening.  Over the last couple of years, in particular, I’ve been struck at the number of people flipping the script, as it were, calling not on people in the world to repent, but instead issuing declarations to the prophets themselves.

This has happened for decades, of course, from voices outside of the Church accusing leaders of dishonesty, etc.  But now, more and more, members themselves are making accusations.  On one hand, are those who argue the Church has become too aligned with teachings in the world – somehow losing its sacred mission in the process.  On the other hand, are those who argue the Church needs to align itself more with what is currently celebrated in the world – if it is to “truly reflect” God’s love.

Around the gay rights movement, in particular, some inside and outside the Church have made bold declarations of needed change – perhaps none more forceful and indignant than a recent Sam Wolfe editorial in the faithfully antagonist Salt Lake Tribune:

General and local leaders of this church must repent for failing to follow the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the First and Second Great Commandments. Samuel asked then as now: “How long will you suffer yourselves to be led by foolish and blind guides? How long will ye choose darkness rather than light?” Justice cries out: Wo unto you for professing to lead Christ’s church while failing to love LGBTQ people as yourselves!…I am filled with the Spirit of indignation out of love for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, whom to know is to love, as Jesus has loved you.

Another gay-identifying Mormon man who I personally know and respect wrote recently:

The recent policy changes demonstrate a woeful and intentional lack of understanding of what it is truly like to be LGBTQ…I find that to be an enormous moral lapse – a lapse that can’t help but erode the moral authority of their actions. This is not to say they and the Church are entirely morally bankrupt, they are imperfect and on their own spiritual journey of progression like the rest of us. But when they attempt to exercise authority or power over the Church, its members, and doctrines without the requisite virtues of empathy and compassion, “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man…”

A third man I also respect, Bob Reese, a pioneer in Mormon dialogue – recently wrote recently wrote lamenting the “negative emotions, such as fear and anger” which “likely lie at the heart of the new policies on LGBT families, in spite of assurances to the contrary.”  “Viewed from this perspective,” he went on to describe the recent  Mormon policy as “a failure of love, resulting from our refusal to see all of God’s children as equal, all as ‘alike unto him'”  He went on to suggest that if others could see this through a “lens of love,” they would likewise see this as just another of many “periodic episodes of madness” in the institutional church that “break God’s heart as well as our own.”

Samuel-the-Lamanite

Samuel the Lamanite preaches repentance to wicked Nephites in the Book of Mormon…who try to kill him (Helaman 13)

To be very clear, I don’t have a problem with people either being deeply frustrated or sharing these concerns (even if I don’t happen to resonate with them myself).  A call to repentance, after all, can be and often is a loving thing to do.  If I had personally reached similar conclusions about identity as those who identify as gay, I think I would probably share their frustration.

If there’s something that troubles me in these (three of many) calls-to-repentance directed to the prophets, it is the virtual absence of acknowledgment regarding interesting and profoundly different interpretations at play in the conversation – including meaningful differences in how people think about identity, sexuality, compassion/inclusion, self-acceptance, choice, change, hatred, the source of suffering – not to mention contrasting interpretations of the scriptures being cited.

In my experience, acknowledging these interpretive differences almost always invites both curiosity and new levels of respect in the conversation – “hmmm, that’s interesting that someone could see love or choice so differently – maybe we should talk about this.” Depending on where we fall with these questions, this kind of awareness also underscores how otherwise thoughtful people reach very different conclusions about pretty much everything, including the recent Mormon policy clarifications themselves.

And for some people, I suppose that may have the opposite effect hoped for…after all, if you can rally people to believe Church leaders are calling people to not accept people for who they are – that could translate into some real pressure for institutional change! (Heaven forbid people start considering this as a fundamental disagreement about whether to accept a particular view of identity, rather than whether to accept people themselves…)

To be sure, the kinds of critiques described above often arise from people who have grappled with these questions for decades – exploring the complexities on many levels.  I can vouch for that being the case with two of the authors above – knowing them personally and experiencing with each a genuine interest in fostering a more thoughtful conversation.

To any who shares this interest, in particular, I would ask you to consider the subtle “power play” that happens whenever we fail to acknowledge another way to interpret what we’re convicted about – allowing for another place for people to stand (including the Mormon prophets themselves).

Of course, this kind of a power play happens on both sides – with religious folks just as prone to portraying their message in a way that no sensible person could possibly disagree – without being, perhaps, an “anti-Christ.”

That’s something Mark and I have started writing about – pushing back against on both versions as unhelpful – and pursuing more legitimate space that welcomes conviction, while making space for thoughtful disagreement.  On the conservative side, for instance, I would love to see religious folks sharing their convictions – without insinuating that people who disagree with them are possessed or inspired by Satan.

And on the other side, those frustrated at what they experience as the Church’s failure in loving, acceptance and compassion, go ahead and share that!  And go ahead and invite people to be more inclusive and loving.  Then consider adding something like this, “of course, the people I’m saying have failed to love are coming from a very different view of identity and sexuality.  Even though I disagree with them, I can understand how that may lead them to a different view of what is the “loving thing to do,” in this case.

My gay Christian friend Arthur, is a good example of doing this.  In his summary of the same interpretive question about love, he wrote, “On one hand, the obvious question it raises in my mind is ‘what sort of love can embrace discrimination against others – the deliberate prevention of their fulfillment as human beings?’ On the other, ‘what sort of love can deliberately prevent the fulfillment of their temporal and eternal destiny as human beings?’”

Most fundamentally, my own conviction is that especially on interesting questions such as these (a) thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree about lots of important things and (b) I want to work for greater space where those thoughtful people can (really) come together to explore.

Within this space – think of it! – we get to ask each other real questions – and listen to each others’ real answers.  For instance, in that kind of a space, here is what I would say right now – one question I would introduce.

To those calling on the prophets to repent right now, I would raise one sincere question of my own – a query I first heard from Pastor Francis Chan, whom my wife and I love and admire. Speaking about the cultural debate around same-sex relationships, Chan proposes this is primarily “not about sexuality” or whether something is a “sin” – suggesting that a lot of that is “secondary.”  The “bottom line,” he continues, “What I say to people – whatever issue you are dealing with here: Are you willing to surrender to God, no matter what He says?”

He illustrates, “What if He said in this book, ‘Chinese people have to stand on their heads’ (just an example)…I’ll try to stand on my head!  I mean, he’s God!  What if he said, ‘Chinese people don’t get to marry.’  He’s God!  I don’t like that – but I’m going to surrender, because I understand the difference between a Creator and a created being.  So whatever!”

He elaborates:

So before we get to what this book actually says, I have to say, ‘do you just surrender…would you surrender?  I mean, if you disagree with God on an issue – would you submit to him?  I really believe that’s the core issue here. I really think we jump to [discussion of sexuality] too quickly, rather than saying – at the core of your being, do you believe in a Creator?  And if He is your Creator, would you surrender to whatever He would ask you to do?

He continues, “And then, if so – and that’s the kind of person I want to be as well – let’s look at this book [the Bible] together.  Because a lot of following Jesus is to deny yourself, picking up your cross and following me…it’s about not doing very much some of the things you very much want to do.  That’s a major part of following Jesus.”

And he concludes with something every healthy conversation includes – an admission he could be wrong,  “Maybe I’m wrong about some of this – I’m just a human being, I’m going to be off on things. If your interpretation is different than that, help me see that – in scripture.  Let’s study this book together – and you tell me, what does it say?” (Watch the full clip here)

I love the question he poses here – “How would you respond to a substantial disagreement with God? Would you yield to Him – or not?”

That’s the kind of question that could work in all of us, pressing us all in good directions.  And what if we added to that a healthy collective acknowledgment that, “hey, maybe I’m even wrong!”

Bottom line:  You keep your conviction – and I’ll keep mine…but let’s meet in the middle…where we can have a real conversation.

And from where I stand (making space for others to disagree), the prophets are not people who need to be called to repentance.  They are men who see eternity – and our identity – differently and I would say more clearly than perhaps we see ourselves.  As Elder David Bednar has recently said of his service among the apostles, “I have come to know their greatest desire is to discern and do the will of our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son. As we counsel together, inspiration has been received and decisions have been made that reflect a degree of light and truth far beyond human intelligence, reasoning, and experience. As we work together in unity on perplexing problems, our collective understanding of an issue has been enlarged in marvelous ways by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

I believe that.  And to those who don’t, I’m okay with that too (really!)…as long as we can make space for each of us to stand where we are, without insisting the other is a demon.  That means we respect each other – with no requirement that we respect each others’ ideas.

Do we have a deal?

Notes:

After reaching out to Bob Reese last week, one of the authors cited above, we enjoyed a lengthy conversation this Sunday allowing me to ask questions about his recent writing.  Following that, he sent me a note that illustrates for me an example of raising questions from a healthy and humble place – out of which productive conversation and continued learning can continue to emerge (for everyone involved).

Excerpts from Bob’s note follow:

I really appreciated our conversation/dialogue this morning. I found it helpful and enlightening. Having respectful dialogue is a matter of infinite hope.

I was conflicted as I usually am about what to write and how to write it, which is why I was so late in commenting [on the Mormon policy change]. I have had responses on both ends of the spectrum: those who think I was too hard on the church and those who didn’t think I was hard enough…

I know [some] are uncomfortable with some of my rhetoric. So, I listen and try to learn without sacrificing my essential approach, which is summarized at the end of my shorter piece: “In any situation what is the most loving thing I can do?” Is the most loving thing to challenge the church when I think it is wrong on moral issues that can affect people’s lives in dramatic (even ultimate) ways? I try to do that but hope I always do it respectfully and carefully…

Hugh Nibley said that the prophets and church fathers were willing to challenge God over what they saw as injustices in the world, even at the risk of offending God. Nibley said, “And God loved them for it!” I have to give an account of my moral choices/behavior. Sometimes that behavior is manifest as loyal obedience; other times is is manifest as loyal challenging–being willing to say and do things that I feel bound by conscience to do–even if it elicits punishment from my leaders (as it has done on occasion) or even ultimate disapproval of the heavens. I don’t do it lightly or thoughtlessly and I always hold open the possibility that I may be wrong. I trust God will forgive me if I am wrong.

Coffee and Camomile Tea: More Thoughts on the Third Space

This fall, Mark and I have been laying out some of our ideas and experiences over what we’re calling the Third Space – asking ourselves, Can Current & Former Mormons Have Vibrant and Beautiful Relationships?  And if so, what would that look like?

We’ve been exploring this in phone calls for well over a year now.  This Thanksgiving, he and Elizabeth were in town for the holiday – Capturegiving us a chance to meet in person. Over camomile tea and coffee in a Brigham City cafe,  we spent three hours talking everything from eternity to this moment.

It wasn’t easy – but it wasn’t hard either.  Given our connection, we felt comfortable asking each other direct questions (“so if we died today, what do you think God would think about me?”) and being transparent about our answers…steeping in the messy contrast, like two tea bags.

I left the conversation with all sorts of questions and feelings – and with an appreciation and affection for Mark that had grown.

So why do we avoid these conversations?  Isn’t it because we hardly see a way for them to be anything but ugly?  In a previous post, I threw out five possible conditions for a productive conversation:  (1) Come as you are, (2) Stand where you are, (3) Understanding as top priority, (4) Conviction is welcome, (5) Uncertainty and struggle are welcome too.

Here are a few more ideas – based on my experience with Mark and a few others:

6. Holding out for Real Relationships.  So with all the potential challenges, why would people want to wander into the Third Space?

From the perspective of your friend or family member across the divide, consider this question:  Do you want me in your life – more than an awkward, superficial, pretend-relationship?  Do you want me in your life in a heart-felt way?

Then why not experiment with leaving the ridiculousness behind – and finding a way to do this – working at it to see what is possible?

More than simply a back and forth intellectual exchange, what we’re going for here is actual community.  The kind where you worry about each others’ families – and try to walk in each others’ shoes a bit.

I’ve already mentioned Doc Foster on the phone with me at 10:30 giving advice and reassurance when our 2 year old had a scary illness. I’ve felt his concern in other ways – and found myself worrying about his job in transition myself. It’s sharing sorrows and hopes and challenges with each other – and just enjoying small talk every once in awhile (just once in awhile, though…there’s too many other BIG stuff to explore!)

Above all, it’s trying to deepen our felt sense of empathy for each other:  what it’s been like for Mark.  What it’s like for me. Do I (Jacob) really understand where Mark is coming from?

Compared to when we’ve started, I can say that I better grasp today his goodness and the integrity he’s sought to follow and honor.  I appreciated, for instance, Mark’s latest post Meet the ExMos – and encourage people to read it.

7. Insisting on Non-aggression.  This is a tricky one – and one that we’re both sensitive to and agreed in our conviction. One thing that can happen in the First Space and Second Space many of us occupy in these conversations is that we “preach to the choir” and “rally the base” – sharing things with an intensity and energy that we’re well aware may not be accessible for others.

Mormons, for instance, can sometimes paint a picture of eternity that might leave someone who disagrees with them trembling. Invocations of divine authority on earth can sometimes feel like a cudgel to get people in line.  And mentions of “Satan” and words such as “Anti-Christ” can carry an extra-ordinary rhetorical power as well – and one that can feel anything but welcoming.

On the other hand, former Mormons can likewise paint a picture of Joseph Smith and Church history that might leave someone who disagrees with them trembling. Invocations of scientific authority can sometimes feel like another kind of cudgel – sprinkled with words like “rational” or “blind faith” or “sheep” that can leave Mormons feeling anything but welcoming.

No one is suggesting that people be unable to say what they really think about divine authority or church history. Wouldn’t it be nice, however, to create a space where people in both camps could come together to explore (minus the trembling)?  This isn’t just a matter of language choice – and not an attempt at some kind of language policing.  On the contrary, any and all of these words and concepts can still be explored, as long as it’s in a spirit of mutual exploration – and not of getting people in line (read:  aggression).

In other words, we don’t call anyone an “Anti-Christ” or “apostate” in the Third Space.  Nor do we call them a “sheep” or “delusional.”  We don’t use the “Satan card” – nor do we pretend that all Science is on our side.  Any and all of these concepts is up for discussion – no question.  But in line with making space for people to stand where they stand, the intention together is to preserve a productive, welcoming space for exploration together. 

8. Welcoming differences. Implicit in everything above is the idea that thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree deeply about Mormonism and its history. I believe that. And if not able to feel the same yourself – maybe you could just stay open to the possibility.

To both sides, I would say the same thing:  If you’re asking for others to understand your full experience(s), then can you respect the space needed for theirs?  That may include things you don’t like – such as anger or sorrow – or deep disagreements about the deepest of beliefs.  Are you okay with that?

My experience has been that often the disagreements we thought we had aren’t always the disagreements we have at the end. One effect of entrenchment is to warp our view of the other side – and so it’s common to see differences in a kind of fun house mirror. That’s why so many breakthroughs can happen where you go “oh, that’s where we really disagree – not there.”  David Blankenhorn calls this “achieving disagreement.”

On one level, then, the task before us becomes making MUCH MORE space for beloved neighbors, family members and friends to have VERY different experiences of religion (and of sexuality, of politics), etc. Rather than resist that, fight against it, and resent it, this is about beginning to flirt with the possibility of bringing some generosity and tenderness to these divides – and even a bit of curiosity?

We might find that even historical details like Joseph Smith’s plural marriages have been interpreted in fundamentally different ways by thoughtful, good-hearted people (including me and Mark – who have an ongoing disagreement with me about how much legitimate diversity of interpretation exists within science and history).

Maybe the one thing we can ALL agree on is that “Follow the Prophet” is, indeed, a creepy primary song (Repeated chorus in a minor tone? Really?)  Speaking of common ground…

9. Excavating common ground. Building on all this foundation, comes one of the most enjoyable aspects of Third Space: discovering areas of sharp agreement.

Mark wrote a note to one of his family members who expressed concern with his leaving the Church, in which he proposed real conversations together.  In that note, he said, “I think we’d actually have a lot to talk about in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Seriously! We wouldn’t agree on a lot of specific things, I’m sure, but we would agree on most general things: the importance of honesty, compassion, courage, accountability, family values, healthy living. I don’t think you’d find me threatening at all.”

I agree!  And I mourn the loss of intimacy between current and former members…a loss that may not be as necessary and unavoidable as many assume.

10. Having some fun together. Within this place, I can assure you of one thing: It’s not all hard.  I’ve personally found it quite exhilarating – as kind of an adventure.

One of the magic moments happens where a level of confidence emerges together where you can really press each other – like Mark and I did in Brigham City.

This is where it really gets fun!…Where you can drop the worries and the fears – and really get honest and explore things together.

Looking Ahead.  Some people believe that deep community is dependent on shared ideology. I don’t believe that – sensing a higher (or deeper) understanding that might just subsume competing ideologies.  Something like – we’re all human beings. Needing love.  Seeking understanding.  Relishing respect and appreciation.  Can we rest in that place together for a moment?

Third-Space-logoSome may wonder if this is even okay or somehow contrary to religious teachings.  Elder Holland was once asked about what he would do if a child left the church, and he said this:  “If I had a son, this very day given the office that I have…If I had a son or daughter who left the church or was alienated or had a problem, I can tell you I would not cut that child out of family life” (6:45 – 7:03 BBC interview)

More than ‘not cutting that child out’ – what if you could re-discover a real, vibrant relationship with him or her?

I believe WE CAN DO THIS. We can hear out each other more deeply across even vociferous difference, we can sit with our discomfort – and we can stop questioning the hearts and motives of someone simply because his/her actions don’t conform to our own narratives.

If we end up feeling some anger or defensiveness or heart-ache in the meanwhile, let’s make space for that as well! Because as evident above, those emotions are so very real, and also deserve space as part of this conversation too.

Compared to stewing in our resentments or homogenizing into tribalized factions, let’s give this a shot. Who knows, we might even start having some fun together?!

So there you have it:  Give us feedback.  And then go and give this a try.  Let us know what your experiences are – and we’ll share them in future blogs. After we get more feedback, we will be formalizing some Third Space Agreements – something that we feel we need a lot more input. We don’t have plans of trying to launch a formal organization.  After all, this space isn’t an actual cabin after all.  It is the space between us – not my space, and not yours…a third space.

Two Wildly Different Ways to “Live in the Moment”

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When religious folks hear about mindfulness for the first time, their initial response is often to big stereotypes…“hmmm, live in the moment?  I’ve heard that before.”

In opposition to the Christian life is a world that calls on people to ‘do what you want’…’have as much fun as you can’…’give yourself what you need’…’obey your thirst’…’stop worrying so much about future consequences’…and otherwise ‘enjoy the moment’ and ‘live in the 192c65deef03706c6c132e4d925d4cc0.500x123x1moment!’

Isn’t that the same thing the contemplative tradition and mindfulness community are inviting us to consider?  Hardly.

In response to the ‘obey your thirst’ message, Siddartha Guatama and Jesus Christ would have seen themselves as strong allies, at the very least.  While the Christians are often the ones portrayed as carrying around a heavy cross of commands, the Buddha was no push-over. Among the Four Noble Truths the Buddha taught his whole life about Right Action.  Right Language.  Right Livelihood.  Right Speech.  Right Thought.

“Whosoever looketh on a women to lust after her hath committed adultery in his heart,” Jesus says.  Buddha likewise teaches “craving is one of the central causes of suffering.”

Both Buddhists and Christians, then, strongly hold to there being a right and wrong way to ‘be in the moment.’  To attempt to collapse these ways – or pretend that “living in the moment” means the same thing everywhere would be to ignore fundamental and interesting differences.

For the sake of clarifying this point, I’ve had some fun laying out two fundamentally different ways of being in the moment – broken down by 4 different questions:

Living in the Moment:  Key Issues Around which Divergence Happens. 

1. How Broad is the Inner Presence? On the most basic level, the precise scope of attention brought to the presence differs in significant ways. On one hand, people are mostly present to the impulses of the physical body, as well as to  personal emotional needs: Hungry? Thirsty?  Bored?  Sleepy?  Horny?  In this first kind of ‘living in the moment’ – these inner impulses reign supreme in influencing and guiding action.

In comparison, people may approach the moment largely present not only to inner physical and emotional impulses – but also to other aspects of self:  inner senses, awareness, intuition, spirit, etc.  In this second kind of ‘living in the moment,’ there is a dialogue between inner impulses and the other aspects of self.  While importance is still given to the body and emotion, they are not supreme rulers – and can be checked in a balance of powers with other aspects of self.

 2. How Does Action Arise? Dramatic differences also exist as far as where the power and control mostly resides. On one hand, there is a sense of drivenness to the moment’s absorption – a controlling level of reactivity to  various surrounding forces and inner impulses.

In comparison, the moment’s absorption involves an inherent increase in internal power and control – and a lessening of drivenness and reactivity.

3. What about the Future or the Past? While being in the moment typically means de-emphasizing both past and future, how exactly to do that varies widely. On one hand, the enjoyable part of ‘living in the present’ is cutting oneself off from both undesirable memories of the past and worrisome consequences in the future. In other words, the tendency in this approach is to only focus on the NOW.

In comparison, the present moment can be understood to be intimately and seamlessly connected to both past and presence in a way that is important to remember and consider.  The focus on the NOW, from this vantage point, is not exclusive or blinding to the wisdom of the past or the considerations of the future.

4. How is the ‘Outside’ World Seen? As a final difference, these contrasting approaches to ‘living in the moment’ relate to the outside world in a very different way. On one hand, we are hardly present to anything external. When attention is given to these outside entities, they are most commonly framed as an object for our own use.  If push comes to shove, and you need to sacrifice something – you more likely to opt out. Life ‘in the moment,’ in this sense is primarily focused on pursing the well-being of self.

On the other hand, we are very much present to external needs – with a strong interest in the needs and well-being of something outside oneself.  To the point that the ‘outside’ world is not actually outside in the sense of separable.  Life ‘in the moment,’ in this sense, is primarily focused on primarily pursuing the well-being of others.

The first set of answers correspond to what is most commonly seen as “living in the moment:  Driven, prioritizing physical/emotional aspects of self, as well as one’s own well-being and hardly present to anything external, let alone the future or the past. For those who adopt this approach, the entire focus goes towards the experience of pleasure – my pleasure – in this moment occupies the whole of attention.  “I want to feel good!!”

The second set of answers correspond to what Buddhist and Christian thinkers would see as “living in the moment”:  In charge, fully present to all aspects of self and equally attentive to the well-being of others and external obligations – not to mention the  as well as to contingencies of past and future.  For those who adopt this approach, the entire focus goes on the entirety of the moment – whatever it is – not limiting oneself to only the body or emotions, only oneself, or only this moment.

Obviously, these approaches are seen and evaluated in dramatically different ways.  As many point out and even more have to discover for themselves, there is a narrowness to the first approach, not often acknowledged in its slick marketing campaigns.  Indeed, the first approach to ‘living in the moment’ is touted in its highly superior marketing budget as the uniform key to happiness, joy and peace:  Want to enjoy life?  Do whatever you want, whenever you want it – no matter what others say or what might go wrong:  Live in the moment!  Live the Vida Loca!  From this perspective, even the driven aspect of life is welcomed and romanticized as exciting and ‘sexy.’

The second approach is celebrated in sacred text – and the life of believers – as a pathway to happiness.  For me, at least, this same contrast is reflected in the scriptural duel between being “carnally-minded” and “spiritually-minded” (Romans 8:62 Nephi 9:39) – both present and engaged…but in very different ways, with very different pathways ahead.

The purpose here is simply to point out that there are two very different kinds of “being in the moment”- acknowledging these differences – so a choice between them is more distinct.

Salvation by Stimulation

For believers of many faiths, salvation is a word of most supreme importance.  For others, however, I’ve learned that the word “salvation” connotes something foreign and off-putting at best, and offensive or threatening at worst (reflecting, as it often does, an implicit sense of eternal judgment on the non-saved).

drugs_saved_my_life_tshirt-r5a06c063864c45559aea381f5d34d643_v9uiq_1024In other moments, however, when I have witnessed suffering in people of all backgrounds, I have found myself wondering, “whatever term we happen to call it, don’t all human beings seek some sort of reprieve, relief and release from suffering?”

While Christians might call it “salvation” and envision additional meanings beyond the here-and-now, don’t we all seek the very abatement of suffering that many great religious and philosophical teachers have sought in various traditions?

Beyond the exclusively Christian definition, the dictionary defines salvation as “a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss” or “preservation from destruction or failure…deliverance from danger or difficulty” or “liberation from ignorance or illusion.”

This starts to get at a sense of salvation that everyone – no matter their conceptual differences – might resonate with…due to the simple fact of universal human pain.

It was this insight that became the First Noble Truth in the Buddhist tradition – namely, “There is suffering, dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood.”

This insight, one teacher elaborates, “applies to everything that you can possibly experience or do or think concerning the past, the present or the future. Suffering or dukkha is the common bond we all share.”

For me, at least, that insight potentially helps move the conversation about salvation itself beyond the wearisome “saved or not” debate (only feeling relevant to Christians) – towards something much more juicy:  opening up a fascinating inquiry into the various kinds of “salvation” we seek from pain and suffering (clearly relevant to anyone that is alive).

Just look around! Go ahead and google “statistics” and any one of the following:  “pornography” or “hours watching television/playing video games” or “gambling” or “prescription painkillers” or “anti-depressants” for starters…

Don’t get me wrong…with some exceptions, many of these can be healthy parts of life when used in sensible, balanced ways.  Every one of them, however, without exception, can and does become for many people a kind of domineering influence that controls many people’s lives – and multiplies suffering.

Among other things, it seems to me that these various attempts to “save” people from discomfort and woe share a similar characteristic – especially when compared to what the Christian or Buddhists might portray as “liberation” or “salvation.”

In each instance – drugs, alcohol, sex, television, gambling, shopping, food – there is a substance or behavior encouraging and permitting us to step away from what is hard and what is painful.  Each allows us to “leave behind” the pain (at least temporarily, at least on the surface) as we occupy and preoccupy ourselves in one or another form of stimulation.  

Whatever exactly stimulation it is matters less than that you are distracted, and taken away from the moment.

In that moment – no matter what lies ahead, no matter the side-effects or long-term consequences – in that moment we are “saved” from whatever discomfort may be bothering us.

In this way, we can come to cling to some kind of pleasant sensation as our primary relief, comfort and joy.  Even if not calling it “salvation,” isn’t this relief something all human beings seek?

If the interest is there, we might fill entire days with Netflix alone – or porn or food binging.  In the modern world, the distraction is potentially never ending.

Over months and years, individuals can be reduced to nursing their pain through the daily injection of some kind of numbing/stimulating agent.

Little wonder, then, that the Buddha taught that this kind of grasping or avoiding was itself a primary cause of suffering (rather than the “liberation” these things seem to promise).

Other kinds of salvation, by contrast, including Buddhist liberation and Christian salvation, always involves some degree of turning towards what is hard and what is painful.  In bending of the knee, the opening of a communion with God, the confession of a sin, or the partaking of the sacrament (similar to the sitting on a meditation cushion), the mind and heart are turned more directly and attentively towards one’s circumstances and condition first of all.

Out of that, of course, the Christian plea then turns towards God – not necessarily to distract from or take away all the pain magically (although this is how we all pray sometimes), but to ultimately and fundamentally to seek a relationship that promises redemption from it.

Although this path often involves letting go of some immediate forms of pleasure and stimulation, there is conviction that “as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Of course, from an outside perspective, these religious attempts at “salvation” seem like dressed-up attempts to take away all fun, pleasure, stimulation, satisfaction and positive sensations in life (!!)

Contrasting narratives aside, the point here is more simple. Whatever exactly call it, and whatever we decide it is, isn’t “salvation” something we are all seeking on some level?  SOMETHING for the pain…?

If so, then maybe the fundamental question becomes simply:  where will we turn?  Where will we seek our salvation?

Elsewhere, I’ve written about this query in other contexts – including Pornography as a quasi-religion and Satan’s plan of salvation.

Needless to say, the Christian answer starts with an insistence that “man cannot live by Netflix alone…or porn alone…or anti-depressants alone.”

Far more than saying “these other salvation’s are not enough,” however, our message as Christians goes one step further.  As King Benjamin put it, “There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.”  He then encourages all men and women to “humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17-18).

As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to long-term relief and reprieve, there is only One fundamental salvation.In the communion of prayer, the remission of sacrament and even the stillness of meditation, it is Christ whose light is “in all and through all things” and “which giveth life to all things” (D&C 88:6 & 13).  As King Benjamin added, it is He who “is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another” (Mosiah 2:21).

Moment by moment, then, this becomes our choice:  Do we run after some kind of stimulation – anything – to not feel this!  Or do we take whatever we are feeling to Him –  the One who has the authority and power (and empathy) to reveal the unique lessons this moment offers and to ultimately “wipe away our tears” in a redemption unmatched by all the other wanna-bees…