I got accepted into graduate school and accepted the graduate instructor position in February 2020, so I had no idea my first year of teaching would be entirely over Zoom and Canvas. Prior to that, I think it was some time during the orientation week when we met virtually with high-ranking people in the English department and they assured us that they were all here to support us and Brian McCuskey said something to the effect of, "This is hard. We know this is really hard." At graduation last week, one of the speakers talked about the pandemic and how it had made us resilient and hopefully able to handle whatever happens to us in the future. And I thought to myself, Yeah, I guess the pandemic has left a lifelong scar on my psyche.
In some ways it didn't seem that hard for me. I didn't have much of a social life to begin with; in February, I was already so lonely that I played stupid and let an MLM scammer talk to me. I didn't lose anyone close to me; my grandmother died during that time, but for unrelated reasons. I didn't have children, I didn't own a business, I was only unemployed for a month, I had reliable internet access, and I had access to the vaccine as soon as I was authorized to get it. The worst part, I think, was living in a state full of robots who wouldn't stop repeating "99.9% survival rate" as if everyone who didn't die was just fine, throwing temper tantrums about perceived violations of their God-given right to breathe on strangers, and doing absolutely pathetic mental gymnastics to lie to themselves and others that their prophet didn't ask them in plain English to get vaccinated. Of course I suffered, but not as much as billions of other people did, so why should I imagine that anyone is interested to hear about it? The thing is, it went on for so damn long. The trauma was not immediate and obvious like the trauma from being threatened and yelled at by officer Hayden Nelson in January 2020, but day after week after month after year it accumulated until this graduation speaker made me take notice of it.
It's left a scar on my entire nation and the entire world too. I wouldn't want to overstate its severity, since we went through a much worse pandemic a hundred years ago and a huge economic depression and a couple of world wars and we turned out f- er, we managed, but its impact will be felt for a long time. Trauma doesn't go away; one just grows around it. And it's not evenly distributed by a long shot. A lot of inequities were laid bare by the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on certain countries and on certain groups within this country, as was the political right wing's contempt for scientists, doctors, teachers, and expendable old people. But I think many of the long-term effects will be positive. We've become more adaptable and learned more efficient ways to do things with technology. Donald Trump lost re-election in large part thanks to his mishandling of the pandemic, which cost God knows how many preventable deaths. The movements against systemic racism and police brutality got an astronomical boost from all the people who were bored and stuck at home and couldn't ignore the latest story of a police officer murdering a black person. Also, I used to not remember the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, but I'll never have that problem again.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the young children who have fallen behind in education and social development come of age. Again, there are huge socioeconomic and racial disparities in the severity of these problems, but if they've all fallen behind to an extent, I can hope that they won't be penalized in the long run for being unable to reach an entirely artificial educational standard and that they won't bully or shun each other for being socially awkward. Like the speaker said, I think they and all of us have become more resilient for whatever fresh hells await us in the future - and await us they do, because if I've learned one thing from studying history, it's that the "good old days" are BS and this world has always been a dumpster fire.
On Wednesday evening before graduation, there was an optional event for graduates to be toasted by their thesis chairs. Charles recounted how I didn't talk much for the first few weeks of his undergraduate class, and then I turned in my first story and he was blown away first by the grammatical correctness of the sentences, and then how funny they were, and how thoughtful and so on. He recounted how for my thesis I'd wanted to write satire about the pandemic and race and war, and he'd said that it could turn out to be a highly offensive disaster but if so, it would still be a learning experience, and then my stories were great and not offensive. He called me the next Douglas Adams. Of course he knew that was the highest praise he could give me after what I said about Douglas Adams in my thesis.
After that endorsement, the husband of one of my colleagues asked her, "Why haven't you had me hanging out with him this whole time?" And then when all the toasts were done and I was snacking again, Charles asked whether I planned to get a PhD and briefly made me more interested in that possibility than I had been a moment ago. He's the one who convinced me to do graduate school too. Maybe I'm just too wishy-washy.
Some of the toasted graduates after the toast:
The main graduation ceremony took place the next morning, early enough that only one of my classmates bothered to participate and I shouldn't have. I rested in the grass afterward because I'd gotten three hours of sleep for no reason other than God hates me. A nice lady offered to photograph me. It was much appreciated, because scheduling conflicts prevented any of my family members from being there to photograph me.
In between that and my college's luncheon, I noticed that I had gotten some emails from the library about my thesis. It was my fault that I hadn't reached out to them before, but it wasn't my fault that the university inexplicably misplaced all of the digital forms I filled out weeks in advance and didn't have my folder put together until absolutely the last minute after the graduate program coordinator emailed me late Monday afternoon asking me to fill out the forms that I'd already filled out as soon as possible. So that got put together on Wednesday, and then on Thursday the library was like "You need to schedule an appointment to drop off a printed copy of your thesis by 5 p.m. today or you can't graduate." The story of getting that straightened out is not interesting enough to justify the effort of typing it out, but I got it straightened out and I lost my tassel in the library. I got it back the next day, and now I hope someone will be kind enough to photoshop it into all the subsequent pictures.
Here I am with classmates waiting in the Wayne Estes Center prior to walking over to the Spectrum for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Commencement Ceremony. I didn't get to participate in this ceremony as an undergraduate because of my sister's wedding, and some of my classmates didn't get to because of the you-know-what.
Here we are waiting in the tunnel for twenty minutes to enter the Spectrum proper.
At the mouth of the tunnel one of my least favorite non-murdering cops, the one who sent the Logan City cops to abuse me and give me PTSD and then never spoke to me again even though he was in my bishopric, stood guard. As I walked past Brad, he took a very large and obvious step forward like he thought he might need to grab me. Not for the first time, I discreetly flipped him off. On stage a while later I had another opportunity to make eye contact, which I knew from experience would make him visibly uncomfortable, but I wasn't going to waste my special moment on him.
The thing I'm carrying is just for show and doesn't contain an actual diploma. There's always the theoretical possibility of going through all this pomp and circumstance and then not actually being allowed to graduate. Awkward. So anyway, of course I experienced a mix of emotions on this day and graduate school was amazing and it just zipped by unbelievably fast and I love my classmates and my professors and my students so much and I'm so grateful to have had this experience. I'd do it all over again. So maybe convincing me to get a PhD won't be all that hard.
I stopped going to Elders Quorum a while ago because of the occasional sexist comments that I didn't feel like tolerating, but I figured I should give it another chance. So of course this last week we had a lesson on marriage. I thought about walking out, but I figured God would bless me if I endured the pain. It started off with the obligatory acknowledgement that gay people exist before proceeding as if they don't. Then for most of it, the floor was open to ask questions of the stake president, the bishop, the bishop's second counselor, the Elders Quorum president, and a relatively new high councillor who's at least four decades younger than the previous one. And the first question asked was this: "How do we handle conflicts, like if my wife wants to work and I want her to stay home?" Really, of all the examples he could have chosen, he chose that one. I impulsively said "She should get a better husband" at what I hoped was the right volume for him not to hear but for the row between us to hear. I don't have a lot of patience left for this nonsense. Even before I became an angry feminist, there was never a point in my life when I would have seriously considered trying to stop my hypothetical wife from getting a job, unless the one she had in mind was prostitution or multi-level marketing. And of course I was set to walk out if I didn't like how this question got answered.
The bishop's second counselor answered first. He's very quiet, and I've never had an opinion about him until now. I wish I could remember all his exact words, because in conveying the gist of them it sounds like he was totally shutting this guy down, but he wasn't, he was just sharing his perspective. He said that his wife has a passion for working in special education, and it doesn't bring in much extra income, but it makes her happy and it makes her a better person, so why would he try to stop her? He said it's important to treat his wife like a person and make decisions together and not just be like "I want you to do this" or whatever. He said she only worked while the kids were at school, but different families have different circumstances and just saying the woman needs to stay home all the time to change diapers or wash dishes or whatever (which is pretty close to an actual Spencer W. Kimball quote) is sexist. I was very pleased with his answer and politely pretended not to notice how much it contradicted what the bishop said almost a year ago. If what the bishop taught us about gender roles in his Family Proclamation lesson is true (spoiler alert: it isn't), then the second counselor's wife needs to repent for not being completely fulfilled by motherhood and homemaking. On this occasion the bishop shared how happy his wife was with only motherhood and homemaking, but he held back on saying that God requires all women to do the same. It's a good thing his second counselor spoke up first and that the stake president I complained to after his Family Proclamation lesson was in the room.
(Pic to prove I'm not lying)
Toward the 1:09:30 mark of this video, if you are so inclined, you will see me reading an excerpt from my story "Do Robots Dream of Electric Horse Debugger?" that won second place in the Graduate Fiction category of the USU Creative Writing and Art Contest. Ironically, the excerpt I read had been cut from my contest entry to fit the length restriction, but the contest director was my thesis chair and after my defense I mentioned this and he said he loved that scene and offered to get it reinstated for publication. My story and some other stuff can be read in the latest issue of the USU English Department literary journal Sink Hollow.
Despite my terror of public speaking, it was a really great experience except that I noticed a typo in my excerpt that I, my thesis chair and Graduate Fiction Writing professor, my eight Graduate Fiction Writing classmates, and the Sink Hollow editor had all failed to notice before, and also when an acquaintance in the audience said "Great job" afterward I responded "You too." I ran into Paul Fjeldsted, a bishop I had years ago who was there to support his niece. I love that man. I won big in bishop roulette with him.
On Friday another stalker came out of the woodwork.
The catalyst for this, I believe, was a meltdown on my Facebook timeline from someone I knew growing up who used to be a phenomenal guy but now has a pathological hatred of our the church we grew up in. I have many friends who have left the church, including the majority of peers who grew up in it with me and the majority of my graduate school classmates, but I'm not accustomed to someone on my Facebook timeline going ballistic about how the Latter-day Saint pioneers were the personification of evil and deserved to be persecuted. It was most unfortunate. I didn't waste much time addressing his thoroughly un-nuanced historical sound bites (other than pointing out that the pioneers did not "introduce slavery to Utah" because the native tribes were selling each other's children to Mexicans well before then, after which he moved the goalposts on the definition of slavery) but fortunately another friend was willing to engage with him more and call out his toxic behavior until he stopped. It really just reinforced my sense of where I stand, since I've become more critical of the church lately, but I still feel defensive when it's unfairly attacked, and I criticize it because I want to make it better, not burn it to the ground. I understand that he's angry because he learned a lot of things that weren't in the paint-by-numbers version of history he learned at church. I've been angry about that too. But he's merely traded it for a different paint-by-numbers version of history, one with the colors reversed. It's most unfortunate.
Last night I felt the Spirit pretty well during a session of stake conference, helped by a 19-year-old speaker who inexplicably was even funnier than I am. I went out to eat with some people afterward and we didn't get our food until 10:30, so I was up late and too tired to feel the Spirit today, but these things happen.
At my suggestion, Rick Satterfield's temple website now has all the temple matrons (female) listed along with the presidents (male). This started late last year, but he's very busy. I don't know if my feminist blog posts have had any tangible effect on things within the church, but I know that this suggestion did, so I can die happy because I'm not useless.
Two Fridays ago, a full week before I expected to hear back from them, I got an email from the FSY people saying in part, "We regret to inform you that we will not be able to hire you for this particular job at this time." I was pretty qualified with my teaching experience and they were desperate for male counselors, so I first assumed it was because of my blog and/or social media posts. That was a known risk that almost dissuaded me from applying in the first place, but I wasn't about to lie or censor my true feelings and beliefs about anything. Anyway, while they have a right to try to hire those whose values and believes they feel are in line with their own, the chance that they've managed to only hire young people who agree with the church position on same-sex relationships is zero. Another possibility that occurred to me was that they'd discriminated against me for being socially awkward, but while that was a definite possibility and a thing that has been done to me throughout my life, I gave them the benefit of the doubt because the first option was sufficient and reasonable enough. In either case, though, I assumed they had been spineless and dishonest (albeit no more so than most people) to write "we will not be able to hire you" instead of "we have chosen not to hire you."
But on Monday I found out the real reason. Several FSY sessions have been canceled due to low enrollment. For a moment, that news made me feel better about myself and their honesty. Then it alarmed me. At worst, this means that a sizable percentage of the rising generation is not interested in church stuff at all - and everyone knows the church has a severe retention problem with this generation, but I wouldn't have thought it this severe. At best, it means that the leaders who have been hyping this thing up in vain are out of touch with the youth's actual wants or needs - and that problem has been apparent since Brad Wilcox's talk earlier this year went viral for all the wrong reasons, but I wouldn't have thought it this severe. I think it's a real shame because EFY, the North American precursor to FSY, was a mind-blowing, life-changing experience for me at age seventeen. It's hard for me to comprehend that any young Latter-day Saint who cares about or believes in church stuff at all wouldn't want to go. Granted, being surrounded by thousands of church members wouldn't be the same thrilling once-in-a-lifetime event for anyone who's grown up in Utah as it was for me.
Speaking of cynical young church members, I read this very balanced, very relatable article on "Five Real Reasons Young People Are Deconstructing their Faith." I'll resist the impulse to quote the entire thing and try to just go through each of the reasons. The author notes, "Depending on who’s using the word, deconstruction can be a complete demolition of Christian belief, a critical re-appraisal of one’s faith tradition, or an honest acknowledgment of doubt and questions." For me, deconstruction has been a process of rejecting and trying to replace false paradigms that I was implicitly or explicitly taught in the church. For example: everything spoken in General Conference is scripture, scripture comes straight from God's mouth and isn't filtered through human culture or limitations, scripture and science describe the same things and consequently the latter must be reconciled or rejected, prophets and apostles never make serious mistakes with long-term consequences, the "traditional" gender roles promoted by the church aren't sexist, and same-sex love is less authentic or meaningful than opposite-sex love.
Right now there's a big push within the church from scholars and laypeople alike to deconstruct the implicit paradigm of prophetic infallibility that simply doesn't hold up under any amount of scrutiny and often causes people's faith to shatter altogether. What most of them fail to acknowledge is that these incorrect assumptions didn't just grow up in a vacuum, but have been actively promulgated by generations of church talks, manuals, and magazines. Encouraging members to put exclamation points next to everything the prophet says and question marks next to everything else they hear or read is functionally little different from claiming the prophet is infallible. One article I read recently conflates "fallible" with "imperfect" (a much broader term) and then claims, "When a prophet is speaking or presenting a message in his official capacity as prophet, seer, and revelator, he does so under the direction of the Lord. His imperfections outside of his role as prophet do not limit his capacity within his role as prophet." If that's true, then prophets are infallible. We can't have it both ways. We can't pretend fallibility doesn't actually mean anything. We can't say we don't teach that prophets are infallible, and then claim that prophets have no human limitations in their role as prophets - which, by the way, would reduce them to nothing more than God's ventriloquist dummies. It also leads to the unhelpful circular logic that if a prophet is wrong about something, he wasn't acting within his role as a prophet (but you're not supposed to say so until after he's dead).
Now, getting back to the other article. Point 1: Trust in Large Institutions is Declining All Across the Board. The author notes that this is for good reason, and that "Younger generations appear far more eager to hold institutions accountable for their misdeeds and misconduct than the institutions themselves, especially regarding sexual abuse, sexism, racism, and fiscal irresponsibility." I believe my church is a fundamentally good institution and that most of the people in leadership positions are good, but I still don't entirely trust it. It's let me down before and it will again. It wasn't transparent about its history until the internet and hemmoraghing membership gave it no choice, and it still isn't transparent about its finances. My last bishop gave useless advice about a situation he didn't understand and was less than honest with me. He isn't "the church", but as a leader or even just as a member, he is inseparable from it. The church is the people. Without the people it's nothing. "And since the church claims to hold itself to a higher moral standard, institutional failures and distrust will always cascade and ripple outward." (When this author says "the church" he's referring to "a multitude of denominations, movements, and traditions from all over the world centered around the life and teachings of Jesus," but most of what he says is word-for-word applicable to mine.)
Point 2: We Live In a More Diverse, Accessible, and Global World. The author notes, "In contrast to previous generations, Christians Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to attend school, work alongside, and develop relationships with people who live, look, and believe differently. Relational proximity has massive implications for cultural acceptance, social awareness, and interpersonal empathy." This isn't a bad thing - nobody should believe in a religion for the sole reason that they were born into it - but it is a challenge. Of course, most Latter-day Saints in the world are used to being a minority and have lived with this challenge for as long as they've been Latter-day Saints. I suspect that those are Utah are far more likely to be thrown for a loop as the population diversifies or they venture out onto the internet and encounter different, often openly hostile perspectives. Personal acquaintance with LGBTQ+ friends and family members who no longer have to remain closeted in this day and age is also a huge factor in young people, including myself, rejecting what the church teaches about their lifestyles. From the USU English department alone, I'm acquainted with five LGBTQ+ people who have left the church because it made them miserable, and one who has stayed but whose beliefs are far from orthodox.
Point 3: High-Performance Christians are Simply Burning Out. "No one loses a lot of sleep if the spiritually apathetic or consumer-centric churchgoer deconstructs their faith. But when it’s a popular Christian singer/songwriter, a former missionary, a member of the worship team, or a heavily-involved church volunteer, people start paying attention." Yeah, some of the people who leave and subsequently devote all their free time to ranting about their former religion aren't much of a loss, but the church is also losing some of its best and brightest people. Some remaining members look at their departures as "the separation of the wheat and the tares," which is not only uncharitable but flat-out wrong. The tares in the parable are deceitful and actively trying to cause trouble, and the whole point is that you can't tell which ones they are until Jesus (not you) gets rid of them. I've burned out a little myself. It's impossible to maintain the enthusiasm I once had for sharing the gospel with the entire world when the world overwhelmingly seems to not give a crap.
Point 4: The Prideful Prioritization of Conformity Over Unity. "If everyone in your church is expected to look, talk, think, and believe exactly like you, your church isn’t as welcoming as you assume. Instead, you’ve created a culture that sacrifices unity for conformity." (emphasis in original) Young people want to discuss their legitimate questions and doubts without just being told to study their scriptures and pray more, and they don't care if men wear pastel shirts to church or women have multiple ear piercings. The church has progressed by leaps and bounds in this area but still has a long way to go.
Point 5: The Acceptance of Political Idolatry and Conspiracy Theories in Christian Communities. "It’s difficult to put into words how discouraging it can be to watch the very people who taught you the value of discernment fall into conspiratorial rabbit holes or succumb to inflammatory misinformation. Or, as Carey wrote in a blog post, “When Christians lose their minds, people lose their faith.” (emphasis in original) This. This. A thousand times this. When I see how stupid a significant number of middle-aged American members of my church are on social media, I become legitimately afraid that if I ever get married, my wife will turn into a moron on her fortieth birthday. I don't have much of a desire to affiliate with people who think that Trump is the rightful US president and critical race theory is Communism. Even without the conspiracy theory aspect, I have very little patience for the kind of people I used to be who think their political views are the only ones that a righteous Saint can hold and aren't shy about saying so. I'm not sure what part of "principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties" is so damn hard for members of The Church of Donald Trump of Latter-day Republicans to understand. I think this is much less of an issue in Young Single Adult wards, though I've still witnessed a high councillor's wife get up and bear her "testimony" that "social justice and reproductive justice aren't really justice."
Just one more quote to wrap up, and this is a key takeaway for me since I need to critique myself and not just other people: "Deconstruction without reconstruction is a tragedy. If the path you’re on isn’t making you a more generous, compassionate, hopeful, and merciful person (or, in other words, more like Jesus), then the destination isn’t worth the journey." Ultimately, I only want to believe what's true, so ultimately, I believe that will bring me closer to Jesus. But I know I need to go about it in the right way and I'll keep making course corrections in that regard. I can't not take the journey, though. I was made for it. Everyone should read that article in full, so here's the link again.
Last week in Elders Quorum, the teacher asked us what things we wish we knew about Jesus. I chickened out of sharing my question because it was too weird. My question was this: since we know that the Atonement covers non-human animals in some way, because they will also be resurrected and inherit eternal bliss, did Jesus also experience their lives and all of their pain as He did for us?
This pain is not insignificant. It was a leading cause of Charles Darwin's faith crisis. He wrote, "With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I wish to do, evidence of design & beneficience on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
More recently, militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
Non-human animals deserve to suffer even less than most of us do. And in a way, their suffering is all the more cruel, because they lack the mental capacity that most of us have to contextualize and cope with pain. And yet God requires their suffering as an integral part of their mortal existence, just as He does of us. It seems reasonable to me, then, that Jesus was willing to go through everything that was required of them, just as He was willing for us. And as I contemplate that, I have another question: even though non-human animals are (probably) not accountable when they rape or murder each other, does Jesus still have to pay a price for those violations of moral laws, as He does when humans sin in ignorance?
This is all, of course, just a less considered subset of the problem of evil that everyone knows about. Daniel C. Peterson has said: "Consider... this supremely complacent remark, offered by a vocal atheist critic of Mormonism during a 2001 Internet discussion: 'If there were a God,' he reflected, 'I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me - perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.' Only someone very comfortably situated could be so marinated in smugness about the question of whether or not God exists.
"But the vast majority of the world’s population is not so situated, and, for them, atheism, if true, is very bad news indeed. Most of the world’s population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation, disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life. And such a future life seems to require a God.
"Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims; that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline; that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
"This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great number of other occasions."
First and foremost, I believe in the message of Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead and that all people and other animals will likewise rise from the dead, because without some compensatory afterlife, existence is as depressing and pointless as Richard Dawkins suggested in the rest of his quote: "In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Wanting to believe in a purpose doesn't mean there is one, but if I'm wrong, I've lost nothing. And faith and hope go together for a reason. (I do recognize that other belief systems about the afterlife exist, Christian or otherwise, and there are reasons why I believe mine makes the most sense, but I don't want to denigrate the others by getting into that.)
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.