The year was 2008. An election year. The month was November when voters cast their ballots for candidates along with state and federal initiatives. The most controversial and emotional proposition on California’s voting ballot was Proposition 8. This initiative would amend the state constitution by declaring marriage to be between a man and a woman. Many of our church leaders encouraged us members to engage in the political process by posting “Support Prop. 8” signs in our yards, bumper stickers on our cars, setting up phone trees, walking precincts, and standing on street corners waving signs. Local church leaders also encouraged us to donate money to help pass Prop. 8. Consequently, many church members—especially those of us living in the gay-friendly Bay Area—felt conflicted about getting involved in the political process. (As we know, many church members are still divided over the legalization of same-sex marriage.)
Meanwhile, my place of employment was pressing me to fight against Prop. 8. As a 15-year instructor at San Jose State University, I had been well-versed in the policies (and politics) of “tolerance and diversity.” The university’s code of ethics required us, as employees (and especially as professors), to stand against anything and anyone deemed racist, homophobic, sexist, or classist. My particular department even designed t-shirts with the slogan, “No on Prop Hate,” for us to buy and wear as “representatives against hate and inequality.” My department also encouraged us to stand together and protest at San Jose’s Marriott Hotel because the owner of the hotel chain (Willard Marriott, a Mormon) supported Prop. 8. Furthermore, my department head emailed us with an offer to donate money to the “No On Prop Hate” campaign. And faculty office doors (including the office I shared with six other professors) displayed “No on Prop Hate” signs.
On top of that, the public fall-out from the Church’s support of Prop. 8 grew increasingly contentious and downright vitriolic. Marching in the streets, anti-Mormon protesters chanted and taunted. Some scrawled hateful messages on LDS church buildings and on the wall of the Los Angeles temple.They protested outside the gates of the Oakland Temple.They threatened to storm our church meetings. Some burned Prop. 8 signs on church grounds. Local newspapers criticized the Church and its members for helping fund Prop. 8. Names of church members (along with their personal addresses and places of employment) along with any businesses who donated to Prop. 8 were posted on the internet for purposes of shaming and harassment.
Since the birth of my blog three years ago, I’ve never taken political stances nor criticized the Church in any way. I don’t intend to criticize now. But I will be perfectly honest: Rightly or wrongly, I grew resentful during this painful time. I felt pressure from my place of employment and my place of worship to publicly “pick a side.” Many of my university colleagues knew I was Mormon. Several of my colleagues were openly gay and friends of mine. Furthermore, I knew that as an adjunct instructor, I could easily jeopardize and even lose my job (regardless of “equal protection” laws) for funding and promoting a campaign of “hate and inequality.” So for the first time in my life, I felt real fear and anxiety in being a Mormon. (To this day, Mormonism and Prop. 8 are negatively connected here in the Bay Area. Regardless, I will always stand with the Church; I’ve made that very clear to friends and colleagues. Sounds simple enough. But in this context, it wasn’t—and still isn’t—simple to me.)
Driving home from work that November evening—feeling angry and anxious—I began to pray—again. I pleaded for strength, for courage, for guidance, for utterance. I prayed for wisdom to know when to open my mouth—and when to shut it. As always, God spoke peace to my heart. The familiar verses from D&C 121 came to mind:
Peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment. And then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes. Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands….thy friends do not contend against thee…
God also reminded me that overall, I was living in peace. No one was threatening my life or my family, or burning down my home, or forcing me to leave town. I didn’t have to deal with the violent and relentless persecution like that of the early saints.
As I look back, my fear and anxiety were rooted in more of a pseudo fear than genuine fear. Yes, I was afraid. But, I was more afraid of being afraid. Too often, we forget (as I did) that our perception of those in power is distorted; we give these “powerful” people more power than they actually have. We make them larger and more ominous than they really are. Adding to our fear, our opponents can (and will) emanate a false bravado or facade for purposes of intimidation. However, we should remember: What looks like an enemy’s advantage over us could actually be to our own advantage. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this distorted and disproportional fear In his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. He claims that our distorted perceptions about our disadvantages compared to our enemies’ advantages undermines our ability to fight:
We are often misled about the nature of advantages. Now, it is time to turn our attention to the other side of the ledger. What do we mean when we call something a disadvantage? Conventional wisdom holds that a disadvantage is something that ought to be avoided—that it is a setback or a difficulty that leaves you worse off than you would be otherwise. But that is not always the case. I want to explore the idea that there are such things as ‘desirable difficulties.’ [Thus] when people see themselves at a disadvantage, they’ll use more resources…and they’ll process more deeply or think more carefully about what’s going on. If they have to overcome a hurdle, they’ll overcome it better when you force them to think a little harder. Difficulty turned out to be desirable. There are times and places where struggles have the opposite effect—where what seems like the kind of obstacle that ought to cripple an underdog’s chances is actually [a variable for a better outcome] (p. 100, 105).
Furthermore, using our compensating mechanisms “requires that [we] confront our limitations and overcome [our] insecurity and humiliation” (p. 112). In other words, we must confront fear, experience fear, and redefine fear in order to overcome fear. Jesus Christ repeatedly taught this same principle. The wealthy young man who wanted to be Christ’s disciple, exemplifies the “disadvantage of advantage” coupled with distorted or false notions of power. Christ told the young man, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me. When the young man heard that saying, and he went away sorrowful for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19: 21-22). We can see how this young man’s fear of losing his advantages/security caused him to forfeit or “lose” the ultimate advantage/freedom: companionship with the Savior in this life and in the next. Thus, the youth’s obvious economic advantage became a disadvantage. Christ’s “poverty” compared to the young man’s wealth looked disadvantageous, but in reality was advantageous.
Gladwell uses the courage of British citizens during WWII to further illustrate this point. Anticipating the German blitzkrieg against British civilians, England’s government officials built psychiatric hospitals around London to help victims traumatized by German bombs. Surprisingly, most Londoners were able to overcome their “fear of disadvantage” compared to the power of Nazi bomber planes intent on bombing London into oblivion. Gladwell explains:
In the fall of 1940, the long-anticipated attack began. Over a period of eight months—beginning with 57 consecutive nights of devastating bombardment—German bombers thundered across the skies above London, dropping tens of thousands of high-explosive bombs and more than a million incendiary devices. Forty thousand people were killed, and another forty-six thousand were injured. A million buildings were damaged or destroyed. In the city’s East End, entire neighborhoods were laid waste. It was everything the British government officials had feared—except that everyone of their predictions about how Londoners would react turned out to be wrong. The panic never came. The psychiatric hospitals built on the outskirts of London were switched over to military use because [none of the citizens] showed up [in need of psychiatric care]. As the Blitz continued, as the German assaults grew heavier and heavier the British authorities began to observe—to their astonishment—not just courage in the face of the bombing but something closer to indifference. [Another] thing that soon became clear was that it wasn’t just the British who behaved this way. Civilians from other countries also turned out to be unexpectedly resilient in the face of bombing. Bombing, it became clear, didn’t have the effect that everyone had thought it would have (p. 128).
Gladwell further explains this mentality by quoting psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy:
We are prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration… When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage (p. 133).
We see this phenomenon time and again in the scriptures: Joseph of the Old Testament thrived as a disadvantaged slave. David thrived during his battle with advantaged Goliath as a disadvantaged shepherd boy. The Prophet Joseph Smith—like the the original apostles—grew so accustomed to his disadvantages and persecution that he became unencumbered by it. In other words, like a vaccine, the persecutions inoculated Joseph Smith against the disease (or disadvantage) of the “fear of persecution.” He persevered and completed his work. He thrived rather than allow himself to be paralyzed by fear. Indeed, knowing he would be martyred as “a lamb to the slaughter,” the Prophet Joseph willingly turned himself over to his enemies at Carthage Jail. And while doing so, “felt as calm as a summer’s day.”
Gladwell further admonishes:
We underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage [for us] (p. 91). The idea of desirable difficulty suggests that not all difficulties are negative. Being a poor reader (dyslexia) is a real obstacle, unless….that obstacle turns you into an extraordinary listener, or unless….that obstacle gives you the courage to take chances you would never otherwise have taken. Too often, we make the same mistake as the British [governmental officials] did and jump to the conclusion that there is only one kind of response to something terrible and traumatic. There isn’t. There are two (p. 133).
Martin Luther King, Jr. told his followers that he welcomed time spent in jail. He said, “Jail helps you to rise above the miasma of everyday life. I catch up on my reading every time I go to jail” (p. 186). He encouraged civil rights leaders to have the same mindset; to be unafraid of arrest and incarceration and embrace it. King told them, “The only way we are going to save the people is we who are the leadership have to give ourselves up to the mob” (p. 174). We, too, can thrive under extreme disadvantage. Franklin D. Roosevelt strengthened American resolve during WWII by saying, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I’m beginning to understand this concept.
Gladwell again defers to MacCurdy’s teachings:
We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid. Because no one in England had been bombed before, Londoners assumed the experience would be terrifying. What frightened them was their prediction about how they would feel once the bombing started. Then German bombs dropped like hail for months and months, and millions of remote misses (people who lived in close proximity to bombed neighborhoods) who had predicted that they would be terrified of bombing came to understand that their fears were overblown. They were fine. And what happened then? Again, the conquering of fear produces exhilaration. Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all. Do you see the catastrophic error that the Germans made? They bombed London because they thought that the trauma associated with the Blitz would destroy the courage of the British people. In fact, they did the opposite. It created a city of remote misses, who were more courageous than they had ever been before. The Germans would have been better off not bombing London at all (p. 147).
Gladwell closes his book with this thought:
There are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine (p. 274).
The prophets have warned us of increasingly difficult times ahead. I rejoice in these opportunities! We can prepare and brace ourselves—and also live unencumbered and unafraid.
Fresh courage take,