These are a few of the crude boxes we are sorted into by our society and culture, or by ourselves. The problem with boxes is that they block what we could learn from others.
Not long ago I ran across a children’s bookthat belonged to my mother when she was a little girl in the 1920s. Merely mentioning the title of the book would be considered racist and offensive today, but it was about little black children. I loved it when I was little—too young to see what some would see in it now.
The little children in that book were a lot like me. They liked the same things I did, got into trouble for the same things I did, were scared of the same things that scared me. I thought I would enjoy playing with them. Of course I could see that their skin was not the same color as mine, but why should that make any difference?
As a little boy, I also had a colorful storybook called Little Black Sambo. The title character was dressed like a young Indian prince and obviously lived in a place where one might encounter tigers. I thought the way he outwitted those tigers was pretty darned clever. I was afraid of tigers—an older cousin had tricked me into believing a tiger might be lurking in the dark in our attic—so I hoped I might be just as brave if I ever met a tiger.
There were few African-Americans around me in the area of South Texas where I grew up, but there were many Latinos. When I had opportunities to play with other children, it didn’t occur to me to think of the color of their skin or their way of speaking English or their family background. Why should that matter?
But something happened to all of us on the way to growing up.
I am reminded of a song sung by the character of Lieutenant Cable in the movie South Pacific: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” The song tells us that we are not born with prejudices, but we learn them from people who are influential in our lives.
As a person of faith, I believe that prejudice is not natural to our spirits—that in spiritual terms it is an aberration. Why should one child of God distrust or dislike another because of something so superficial as skin color? Prejudice and bigotry are worldly, mortal concepts taught and instilled by people who let fear and hate dwell in their hearts.
But we live in a world where hate and fear are strong, and they have created a social atmosphere in which words are weaponized. More and more, government and special interest organizations focus on the differences between us, convincing us that the differences are more important than the similarities we all share. Efforts to remove barriers somehow seem to drive us farther apart.
For some people, the differences between us have become insurmountable obstacles that prevent open discussion of the things we have in common. In many instances, extremists on both ends of the spectrum of opinion control the debate, and they seem more interested in living behind walls than in an open world.
As an old white man and a person of faith, I feel that in today’s world I might not be permitted to have a dialogue with someone of another race or gender orientation without first agreeing that they are right and I am wrong; I would be required to accept the idea that I am a member of an oppressor group and my religious views are simply the product of prejudice. The choice seems clear: give up my own heritage and my faith if I want to have any common cause with them.
And yet, as a lifelong believer in “justice for all” and “one nation, under God . . . indivisible,” I find it hard to discuss some issues with fellow conservatives. Any talk of breaking down barriers between us and others who see things differently is dismissed with the “woke” label.
I am reluctant to express my feelings openly on social media for fear of reprisal. Some liberal thinkers have said this response is a cop-out, a refusal to face the issues. No, it isn’t. I mean it. I’m afraid. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has paid a high price for expressing views that differ with others on transgender issues; she has been labeled a hater, verbally attacked, and threatened with rape or murder. She has been villainized for writing of her own experiences as a woman. I realize some will not agree with her opinions, but I have not been able to find any hate in them.
Briefly, I opened a Twitter account, hoping to engage in dialogue on important issues. What I found on that platform was hate, anger, bigotry, and a lot of misinformation that people clung to because it affirmed their biases. Civil discussion on social media seems almost nonexistent.
I don’t know if there’s any way to achieve this given our current social climate, but I long for a day when we might actually talk about public issues with each other as reasonable individuals without retreating behind our shields of self-identification and keeping one hand on our ideological swords or spears.
Whatever our color, ethnic background, commitment to faith (or lack of it), we are family. Why should we be at war with one another?
Sometimes it is in mundane, everyday moments that we receive insights about life on this earth and its relationship to eternity.
I was hanging some rugs out to dry on the old-fashioned clothesline in our yard when I heard the rustling of the gold and red leaves on the nearby trees. It was almost as though they were chattering to each other, having a rushed, last conversation before they fell to earth to die. And I thought: “But there will be new leaves again, next spring. Life will be renewed, according to our Creator’s design.”
And I remembered that according to His design, we, too, will be renewed. We will be resurrected. Jesus died not only for our sins, but so that we, as He did, may come forth again (Isaiah 25:8, 26:19).
I am old now. The number of my future autumns seems far more limited than when I enjoyed the gold and red of fall leaves as a boy. But in the chattering of those leaves I hear whisperings of hope.
There will be a spring, and new life, and that life will be eternal. Jesus said so (John 11:25, or Moroni 7:41 in the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ).
The first vehicle that catches my eye as I walk into the car show at the park is the red and white 1955 Chevy. The man polishing it up tells me he bought it for $200 out of someone’s garage decades ago. He drove it as a second family car, garaged it for a while after the engine went bad, then saved it with a series of engine replacements. That original paint has some flaws, and the car shows its almost 70 years. It’s not really a show car, he tells me, but that’s not why he drives it. Behind the wheel, he explains, “you feel like you’re 16 or 17 again.”
I know what he means. This was the first car I could call my own—almost. Mine was a used 1957 Chevy, same white-on-top, red-on-bottom color scheme, same economy model. And it represented freedom. I could go where I wanted when I wanted—to high school activities or out to drag the drive-ins with my friends to see who else was there. (No social media or texting back then.) I could go off to college across the country.
A little deeper into the car show, I come to a 1970 GTO, the fabled Pontiac “muscle car.” It brings powerful memories too.
My 1967 GTO—the car I was driving when I met the woman I fell in love with—had the big 400 cubic inch engine and four-barrel carburetor combination that was supposed to beat almost anything on the street. I wasn’t a racer, but I admit that I had to try the car out once to see how fast it would go. On a deserted stretch of freeway in rural Idaho, I jammed the pedal all the way to the floor. The speedometer needle passed 130, but I didn’t keep it there very long. The steering didn’t feel very reliable at that speed. (Isn’t it always that way with power? It may thrill us to use it, but we may find it difficult to control.) My GTO was ideal for a 23-year-old in the dating scene, with no family responsibilities yet. Best car I ever owned.
Fortunately, my wonderful wife didn’t love me only for my car, because even with premium gasoline under 30 cents a gallon back then, the GTO wasn’t a family car when we started having children and I was commuting to work.
Just a little farther along in the car show, I find a 1971 Dodge Dart Demon that the owner has had since he bought it new. This one brings memories too. For our growing family, there was a succession of economical family cars—a used Pontiac sedan, a new VW Beetle (too small with two children), a Chevy Nova (there’s one of those in this show too), and finally we owned a sensible 6-cylinder ‘74 Plymouth Valiant, a lot like this Dodge Dart. The Plymouth we bought during the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s, when the price of gasoline went over $1.00 a gallon!
In the car show, I don’t see any signs of the station wagons that we ended up with later as our family got bigger, or of the practical minivans we drove for many years as the children grew up and grandchildren came along. Maybe I never will see any of those in car shows. Maybe minivans will never be old enough to be considered classics by people who had to give up GTOs for “sensible” cars.
There is something of a joke in my family about the Porsche I covet and will never own.
But why, I ask myself, do I measure milestones in my life by the cars we drove?
Why not by the wedding date, more than half a century ago, when we promised each other eternity together? That ranks among the most significant dates in my mortal experience.
Why not the birth dates of our children? I remember all of those very well. The children were wonderful gifts and have been great blessings in our life.
I suspect I am not alone in choosing less lasting things as milestones on the path of memory. Probably a lot of people have marked the progress in their lives by things like the day they moved into their first house as a couple, the day they began their first jobs, the day they bought that boat or that Rolex watch or designer dress, the day they scored that important victory they had sought so long. We look back so fondly on the days when things we wanted came to us.
But maybe we ought to be remembering as milestones days like the one when we helped one of our children achieve a breakthrough in the struggle with reading, or the day we sacrificed something we wanted so our spouse could achieve something important to him or her, or the day we fully committed to something that would bless our family or our community.
Maybe the milestones we each ought to treasure are the times we did something that will leave this world better after we’re gone, that will leave someone else stronger—something more like what Jesus did as He ministered to people.
Maybe that was part of what He meant about laying up treasure in heaven. (See Matthew 6:21, also 25-33.)
I’ve just been out in the backyard talking to Grayson, the wild bunny that lives under our shed, and to one of the deer that hangs out here from time to time.
They don’t talk much. But they listen carefully. If they don’t hear any harsh tones in my voice, they’ll stay.
It’s nice to think they’re not very afraid of us.
Our daughter says my wife is the “animal whisperer.” She loves animals. She talks softly and kindly to them and she’s very good at getting them to come to her. She’s never met a horse she didn’t like. She stands by the fence and talks softly to them, and usually they come—especially if she’s holding some of the nice grass that’s greener on this side of the fence.
We don’t know where Grayson came from. We don’t know if it is a he or a she. Grayson is just the name my wife gave to the bunny when it showed up with a white albino companion, Daisy. We haven’t seen Daisy in a while, but we found a patch of scattered white fur out by the old grain silo. We’re afraid Daisy’s gone. My wife feeds Grayson carrot peelings and other vegetables scraps. He will eat the carrots out of her hand.
The deer live up in the foothills that begin behind our house. They wander down across our property and into town all the time—young bucks, does, and fawns. This past week, there has been a lonely little fawn in our yard a couple of times bleating for its mama—I’ve never heard that sound from a deer before—and mama is never very far away. In a month or so, when apples are falling from our trees, we can expect the deer to be hanging out in our yard a lot.
I’m sure some will say it’s not a good idea for these wild animals to get used to hanging out close to humans. They can be pests; we have had to put up fences around my wife’s garden and the new little tree she planted last year. The deer leave droppings behind.
But in general the bunnies and the deer are welcome here. They are some of our Heavenly Father’s creatures, and they’re each beautiful in their own way. We don’t want them to see us as enemies.
It’s nice to know that we don’t automatically strike fear in their hearts. It’s nice to know that they can feel peace here.
When the news broke in the early 1960s about birth defects caused by the drug Thalidomide, I was in high school. I was shocked and alarmed by some of the reactions I heard and read. Some mothers wished they could have aborted their babies; they saw their child with a defect as a curse, a punishment, a life sentence to onerous service. Some women said if abortion were an option, they would get rid of an unborn baby rather than risk having a child with a burdensome defect.
It was frightening. They might have been talking about me.
Abortion, in my case, could have wiped out four generations of productive people.
The reactions of those women made me wonder how people really felt when they looked at me. I was used to strange looks from little children who would point at me and whisper to their parents, or the furtive side glances from adults when they thought I didn’t see them. When I was a little boy, I had seen the look in the eyes of some women when they complimented my mother on how well she was doing with me; it was a look that said, “Thank God my child didn’t turn out that way!” Sometimes those conversations went on as though I could not hear or understand, and there was a subtext to them: How wonderful that you’ve been able to teach him to be independent, so he won’t be a burden to you.
When I started school, there was some bullying and taunting, but I learned how to deflect it. I learned that I could not afford to let what other people thought of my defect matter to me, and by my mid-teens, I thought I was past all that.
Not long ago, I read an article by a well-known woman who had aborted a child during the Thalidomide panic because it might have had a defect. That article brought back some of the old hurt and fears. The woman wrote that she would make the same decision again. Her words reminded me of those years in high school, when I, like every other teenager, was trying to figure out how I fit into this world, and I learned to my horror that some people would never have given me the opportunity to live.
When I was born, there were no ultrasounds, no ways for a couple to know the sex of the child a woman was carrying or whether the baby had a normal, fully developed body. My birth was difficult for my mother. She woke from anesthesia to find her mother and sister sitting somberly by her bedside. They told her that her son was missing one finger on each hand, that his left hand was split like a Y, and that his right foot was similar to that left hand.
My father was across the country in the Navy’s officers candidate school. Alone, my mother wondered what challenges she and he might face in rearing and teaching me. When she was finally able to talk to him, he gave her the right answer: we’ll face them together.
“Together” ended when my father was killed in an accident 21 months later. My mother was left a widow at 24 with a young son who had what people called “a handicap.”
Mom proved wise enough to make sure my life would not be defined by my defect; she taught me how not to be handicapped. She challenged me to learn to use both hands well. We had a country store and service station with her parents. She would toss pennies or nickels on the floor and challenge me to pick them up with my left hand. She saw that I learned how to tie my own shoes very early, to play with a ball and bat like any other boy. Never once did she say, “Oh, you can’t be expected to do that. Let me do it for you.” I learned that the world wasn’t going to change to accommodate my needs. If I could not do things the way others did, my mother taught me, I could find a way of my own.
She set an example by the way she met the challenges in her own life.
Before she met my father during World War II, she had worked as an aviation instrument mechanic at a naval air station, repairing the flight instruments out of Navy planes. She went back to work there after his death. But before many years passed, she realized she was getting little growth out of her work and there was no way to advance; the next higher position in the shop was “leading man.” She quit her secure civil service job, we moved 1,500 miles away to live in my other grandparents’ low-rent basement apartment, and my mother enrolled as a freshman in college at 31 so she could get a degree in something she found rewarding. We lived below the government’s official poverty line during those years. Sometimes I wore hand-me-downs; my Boy Scout uniform belonged to someone else’s son first. But we were blessed, and my mother was such a good manager that I only realized decades later we had been poor. Mom was resourceful and loving enough to deal with my emotional needs and her own too. It was only later that I realized how hard some things had been for her.
After six years, with a master’s degree in sociology and some postgraduate work behind her, she spent the rest of her life counseling and teaching young people. I am a witness to her strength and determination in facing opposition and discrimination when, in my childhood and youth, a single woman did not enjoy many of the legal protections she would today.
When that Thalidomide panic hit, with women lamenting that abortion was not available so they could avoid the possibility of a baby with a deformity, I wondered briefly: Would my mother ever have considered abortion if she had known about my defect? But no, the love she gave me and her commitment to the sanctity of life assured me that it would never have crossed her mind.
Then I wondered about other women who knew me—some who looked on me as one of the challenges my mother faced. If they had seen me in the womb, would they have said, “I can’t keep this baby”?
By the time I began high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I could see that the typing classes my classmates signed up for would not work for me. Between my freshman and sophomore years, my mother’s parents let me borrow the antique typewriter that had belonged to my great-grandfather, and I experimented on it until I had taught myself how to type.
Am I good at typing?
Well, only fair. But it was good enough that I was able to build a career as a writer and editor for a major newspaper, a university, then an international magazine.
I lived for more than 70 years without thinking very much about my birth defect. It is, after all, “normal” for me. Then, after retirement, volunteer work for our church called on me to do presentations before family and school groups. I realized the important messages I was trying to share were not getting through sometimes because my hands were a distraction. I could not ignore it. Often, I would say to a child who was staring or whispering to a parent, “I hope you won’t mind talking about this, but I notice you were born with five fingers. Is that extra finger a problem for you? Does it get in the way?” Most of the time, this would get laughter and we could move on. The child might protest that I was the one who is different. I would answer that some of us are able to handle life with four fingers, but it’s OK if others need five, most of you seem to be able to deal with that extra finger. It was a way of pointing out, with good humor, that we can all be different without one of us being less valuable because of the difference.
I have been fortunate, really. Many children are born with far worse defects than mine. I have always wished for them to have parents who will help them be all they can be. I wish for them a mother and father who will teach them they are capable of handling much more than others believe. I cheer for the parents who give support, get out of the way, and watch their children achieve.
It took great courage for the beautiful young woman I fell in love with to marry me, knowing her children might suffer from or carry my birth defect. Her attitude was that we could handle it together. So far, we have five children, 18 grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters, all with the normal complement of fingers and toes, all contributing individuals or children showing great promise.
Before me, there is no record of the birth defect I carry in my extended family. My mother’s younger brother had six children, three of whom showed the same defect. A few of their children also have inherited it, but the defect has stopped none of them from being contributing members of society.
Some would say I have no right to speak about the issue of abortion because I am, after all, a man and will never know the pains or trials of pregnancy and motherhood. I disagree. When there are voices saying they would abort individuals like me because we could be too much of a burden on them and on society, I have a right to speak up.
It is true that I can never know the pain, confusion, or fear of a young woman or girl pregnant because of someone else’s evil actions. I can’t imagine the emotional trauma of pregnancy after rape and incest. I am not qualified to decide how the victims should deal with this, and I know that decisions on this issue cannot be trusted solely to politicians whose actions are dictated by political winds blowing from the left or right. Laws and medical practices need to be flexible and compassionate enough to deal with the agency and the choices of the victims.
My wife and I are not unfamiliar with health issues in pregnancy. After several children, it was obvious that doctors could not identify or provide a cure for the transient heart problem that had gotten worse with each pregnancy. What would be the effect of another pregnancy? We studied the doctrine of our church on the issue and exercised our faith in prayers to our Heavenly Father. The decision we made about our family size was strictly between us and Him. Government input was not wanted, not needed, and not appropriate.
But absent the aftereffects of victimization or real concerns for the mother’s health, I cannot imagine a justifiable reason for destroying an unborn child.
I cannot bring myself to refer to a baby growing in the womb as a fetus, and it seems that people often do so to depersonalize the child—to treat it as a piece of tissue that can simply be excised.
Debates about abortion often center on when life begins after conception. Those debates are far off the mark. My faith teaches me that inside every one of us is an eternal spirit that lived in the presence of God long before it was given the opportunity to inhabit a mortal body. In this spirit is the essence of what we are—personality and intellect—and when this spirit leaves the body, the body remains behind inert, or what we call dead.
Our Heavenly Father gave mortal men and women the power to be co-creators with Him so that eternal spirits could come to earth to live and learn in mortal bodies. It is impossible for me to believe He would be pleased by mortal parents-to-be (or a mother-to-be) who, having willingly created a mortal home for one of His children, decide that, no, they cannot welcome it after all.
Again, I look at this issue from a very personal viewpoint.
I wish I could speak to women who are unsure, who have not yet decided whether to keep the baby. There are two things I would want to tell you.
First, you are capable of more than you know, and you can do more than you think you can.
Some people could give you a hundred reasons why you should not let the baby be born, especially if it might have a birth defect. They would say you don’t have enough income to support this child the way it will need to be supported, you don’t have the training to handle the issues you will face, the child will wear you down physically and emotionally, you’ll never be able to have the life you wanted to make for yourself, etc.
A lifetime of experience has taught me that they’re wrong.
No one can tell you what your life will be, how hard it may be if you have this child—or if you don’t. With any child, birth defect or no, there will be heartache and difficulty. There will be sacrifice and weariness. But there will also be joy and blessings. The same Heavenly Father who loves you also loves the child, and He will bless both of you in ways seen and unseen, if you ask Him. People who tell you that you can’t do it or that the sacrifice isn’t worth it may be underestimating you. There will be ways to increase income, to handle the issues that arise, to build a life that may not be the one you planned but will still be rewarding. You will find emotional wells and wells of faith that you have not yet tapped. You can do this.
Some may say I am being impossibly idealistic. Perhaps. But my mother taught me never to say “I can’t” until I explored my own capabilities.
Second, you don’t know who or what the child may become.
I had a friend, a botanist and environmentalist, who said the supreme irony would be for us to wipe out the last of some obscure, seemingly useless plant and then discover it had been the cure for cancer all along. Stories of intelligent people who have achieved great things even though they have imperfect bodies are numerous. You’ve seen them.
But if your child doesn’t rise to that level—if he or she is not physically or emotionally capable—then what?
I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. I’m confident there will be lessons to learn and blessings to receive, for both you and the child. After nearly eight decades, I still don’t fully understand why it was important in my mortal experience for me to be born with only four fingers on each hand. There are still lessons for me to learn.
But if you feel you absolutely cannot handle this child, you know there are options other than eliminating the baby. There are people who would gladly take it if you let it live. Through some adoption agencies, you can help pick the parents and even be involved in other decisions about the child’s future.
You will know that what is growing inside you is not simply a piece of tissue to be removed and discarded. You will feel it move, feel its will to live.
So please, if you can find it in your heart to do so, give the child a chance.
Growing up in the South, I was introduced to bigotry early. I heard what we now politely call “the N word” frequently. In South Texas, I often heard the word Mexican used not as a description of someone’s heritage, but as an epithet. When I was a little boy, World War II was less than 10 years in the past, and I rarely heard Japanese people referred to as anything but “Japs,” particularly by those who had fought them in the Pacific.
I don’t believe bigotry is born into little children. It was not so for me. I cannot remember shrinking from playing with another child whose skin was darker than mine. When I was learning to read, my mother would sit me on her lap and help me with the words. One of my favorite children’s books had been given to her when she was learning to read—probably around 1928. It was about little black children, and it would no doubt be considered highly offensive today. But the lesson I took from the book was not that those children were lesser people because their skin was darker, but that they were little children like me—enjoying the same things, getting in trouble for the same things, growing in the same ways, loved by parents and grandparents the same way mine loved me.
There’s a song in an old movie musical, South Pacific, that holds an important lesson: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” We are taught bigotry and prejudice, beginning very young, by the attitudes of those around us. As I grew older, I learned that some families didn’t live in our part of town because there were people who didn’t want to live by them. I learned that some people assigned negative characteristics to everyone of a particular ethnic heritage—whether they knew any individuals from that group or not.
The Texas border town where I lived during my high school years was divided by the railroad tracks next to U.S. Highway 83. Generally, neighborhoods south of the tracks were full of white Anglo-Saxons and neighborhoods north of the tracks were occupied by Mexican-American families. Some of my Anglo classmates seemed to feel they were more deserving of respect or deference because of their family’s ethnic background, position in the community, or prosperity. Some of those Anglos looked suspiciously at me because I enjoyed friendships with Latino classmates. Sixty years on, ethnic background, prosperity, and social status do not seem to have made much difference in the achievements of my classmates. Many, both Latino and Anglo, became great contributors in their communities, noted for their service, but it was not the ethnic or social backgrounds they came from that dictated whether they were successful. Individual effort and commitment seem to have been more influential. What they became was not determined by what someone called them or thought of them when they were younger.
I have lived long enough to learn that bigotry and prejudice are universal; they are present in people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. I have heard African-Americans use the N word against other African-Americans just as viciously as any white person. I have heard plenty of bigotry toward other races or ethnic groups from my white Anglo-Saxon peers. But I have also heard bigotry toward Latinos and Asians from African-Americans, bigotry toward blacks or Latinos from Asians, bigotry toward Native Americans from those of European ancestry, bigotry against Jews from people of almost all races.
I have toured Auschwitz-Birkenau, walked through an old slave exporting castle on the coast in Ghana, followed the outlines of a now carefully erased World War II Japanese internment camp in the Utah desert. I know where unchecked bigotry based on race or ethnicity can lead.
There is no excuse or justification for prejudicial practices toward others. From small, daily microaggressions to large-scale genocide, actions of prejudice are usually committed by people who don’t understand the relationship of their fellow men and women to God, or even their own relationship to God. Every great religious faith that I know, in its original, pure form, teaches that we are all children of a loving God. For example, Malachi 2:10: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” (See also Ephesians 4:6.) Anyone who persecutes another person is turning against family.
The Old Testament teaches that He is “the God of the whole earth” (Isaiah 54:5). The New Testament teaches that “God is no respecter of persons:
“But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35).
The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, reaffirms those Biblical teachings: “[H]e manifesteth himself unto all those that believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders among the children of men according to their faith.
“. . . and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:13, 33).
When we speak with disdain, with prejudice, with hatred toward other people on this earth, we are speaking against people God loved so much that He allowed His only Begotten Son to sacrifice His life in order to redeem them—to redeem you, and me. (See John 3:16.)
The cure for bigotry is for us to treat each other like the children of God that we are. We must learn to live by the Golden Rule taught by Jesus Christ: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). This teaching is found in some form in every major religion and has been taught throughout human history by inspired teachers God sent to bless His children. This cure is simple, yet profound. We stumble over it not because it is hard to do but because we are hard of heart.
People concerned about the effects of bigotry and prejudice in our society have often sought to end it through new laws, amendments, decrees, or government programs. Those may help to some limited extent. But bigotry and prejudice will not end in human societies until we learn to appreciate others as brothers and sisters, as members of our family whose hopes and dreams and eternal development are just as important as our own.
The road to this blessed state of human relationships starts in just one heart at a time—yours, and mine.
We were at the end of a fast-paced, exciting trip through six countries of Northern Europe, feeling something of a let-down because it was over. We were going home—but all the processes in the airport seemed to be working against us. I am not what most people would call a world traveler, but over the years, I have passed through major airports on six different continents, and I felt justified in calling the security clearance process at this airport the most inefficient, and the airport and airline employees the most indifferent, I had ever seen. The flight left an hour late, and it seemed likely we might miss our connecting flight when we arrived in the United States. I let my irritation be known.
It was about 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, watching movies and eating snacks in our padded seats, when I remembered my ancestors who made this trip some 180 years ago. I was immediately ashamed of my petty impatience.
Those pioneer ancestors left the beautiful, green country of England, went down to the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and joined other converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a sailing ship bound for America. Some knew they might never again embrace the families they left behind, never again see the beauty of their English countryside. In faith, they were going across an ocean to the place where they hoped to build their Zion, a city of peace and harmony and love.
Their ocean crossing would take at least six weeks, often in cramped and unpleasant conditions and with frightening storms at sea. Some would arrive on the East Coast and travel overland while others would arrive in New Orleans and take a steamer up the Mississippi to what was then their Church’s headquarters, a city called Nauvoo, Illinois. In the mid-1840s, after mobs drove these “Mormons” out of the thriving city they had built, they would face a slow, exhausting trek by ox-drawn wagons across the middle of North America to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. A few years later, in the 1850s, some converts from Europe would gather in Iowa City, Iowa, at the end of the railroad, to assemble handcarts in which they pulled a meager food supply and a handful of personal belongings across the plains, step by painful step, to Salt Lake City. The physical challenges they faced are unimaginable, but some who survived them would later testify that received divine help and came to know God “in our extremities.”
Wherever the immigrants came from, they hoped to be part of building Zion, a place of peace, love, and security for which they longed.
Arriving in Utah, they would learn that their city of peace and love was a work in progress—that the “Saints” among whom they lived were like those New Testament “saints” often chastised and exhorted by the Apostle Paul—imperfect mortals struggling to live by the faith they had pledged to follow.
Today, we can easily cross an ocean and two-thirds of a continent in less than 24 hours. We will never know the challenges that some of those pioneers faced. Their physical struggles and suffering along the trail westward have become legendary. Many who didn’t make it were buried on the plains. When they saw the semi-arid Great Basin that would be their new home, they must have longed for those green hills of England. (Drive a few miles beyond Salt Lake City today into Utah’s West Desert and you can still see the uninviting sagebrush-and-cedar landscape that awaited them.)
The Great Basin may not have been the kind of place where they expected to find Zion, but with faith, irrigation, and hard labor they made it work anyway. They took root and grew.
Objectively, we have to say they never faced some of the challenges we face today. They never faced a world in which basic moral values were largely questioned or ignored, a world in which faith in God is constantly challenged or ridiculed, a world in which self-serving, dictatorial leaders have in their hands the power to destroy humanity, a world in which weapons meant for war are used by unstable people full of hate to mercilessly slaughter children in school.
Searching for Zion today, where would we look?
The holy scriptures prophesy that in a future day, Zion will be established among people obedient to the Lord, and that the Redeemer will rule in Zion, where He will gather His people and they will find refuge (see Isaiah 14:32, Romans 11:26, and 3 Nephi 21:1 in the Book of Mormon, for example). But until that day comes, we must look to Zion not as a destination or place where we can finally arrive, but as a spiritual state which is developed within us. Like those pioneer ancestors I remembered, we follow the road to Zion through the choices we make each day. Zion is not so much a place as it is something that exists in our hearts—something we become.
There is no high road to Zion, except the road of faith and service to our Heavenly Father and His other children.
I do not think that Zion will be an exclusive club only for those who practiced Christianity during their lifetime on Earth. Many good people never had the opportunity to know of Jesus Christ during their mortal lives. But throughout the history of the world, a loving Heavenly Father has sent His children inspired teachers to help them live according to true and righteous principles so they could prepare for greater blessings He has in store after this life. (Parenthetically, throughout history there have been those who co-opt and corrupt religious beliefs—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and others—to justify their evil acts of slaughter and depredation. But so far as I know, every system of belief that promises happiness calls for peace and love toward our fellow beings.)
It is a tenet of my faith that all Heavenly Father’s children will have the opportunity, either in this mortal life or the life that comes after, to choose to follow the principles of charity and service taught by Jesus Christ during His mortal ministry. All will have the the opportunity to become more like Him. We prepare for Zion by what we become.
It is also a tenet of my faith that, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (Doctrine and Covenants [a book of modern revelation] 130:20-21). Surely all who obey those heavenly laws will receive the decreed blessings, no matter what religion that person professes. The name of the Church we attended in mortality will not in itself save us or condemn us. It is what we practice that will make the difference.
The Church of Jesus Christ, the one He founded during His mortal ministry, has been established again on the earth to administer certain blessings that lead to eternal progress after this life. This Church provides a way foranyone who lived on earth without knowing Jesus Christ to have the opportunity to choose those blessings. And according to those laws decreed in heaven, people who lived on this earth will be rewarded by a loving Father for everything they did in mortality to become more like their Redeemer.
After we returned home from Europe, I went again to look at a a historical marker on U.S. Highway 89 a few miles from where I live. The marker tells of British settlers, some of those pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who made this area productive and green like their beloved England. One of them was Ann Elizabeth Walmsley Palmer, described as the first woman from Europe baptized into the Church. She was carried into the waters of baptism as an invalid but walked out of the river on her own. Emigrating to America in 1842, she would drive an ox team across the plains to Utah in 1849 and in 1863 moved to southeastern Idaho with pioneers called to establish a new settlement. She died in 1890 after a life of faith and service.
If we are looking for the route to Zion, we can start by following the path those pioneers took, the path that leads us to become something more.
On an impulse, I bought a rose for my wife from one of those supermarket displays because I thought the most beautiful woman I know ought to have a rose that day.
But after she put it in a vase at home, I looked closely and found it was not perfect. It irked me that the rose had blemishes. I looked closer. Yes, there was one there, and there, and there. For a moment I regretted buying it.
But the truth was that from a normal viewing distance, those blemishes were hard to see, and the rose brought some brightness and warmth to our kitchen table on a day when the temperature outside was well below freezing and the snow on the ground said spring is still a good way off.
Why do we focus so much on imperfections and overlook the whole picture? There are plenty of imperfections in our lives and in the people around us. If we look for imperfections, we will surely find them.
There is much talk today about “microaggressions.” This seemingly refers to things that people say or do, intentionally or unintentionally, that we could potentially see as slights or insults. If we look for those, we will certainly find them.
But why spend our time looking for those?
If we make a habit of looking for and cataloging every small thing that might be categorized as aggression—especially the ones when people say hurtful things unknowingly—we may damage or lose valuable relationships. And we may satisfy the cravings for power in the people who deliberately try to hurt us. I know this from experience.
My hands are not like yours. I have a very visible birth defect that draws attention. Children stare and may say things like, “Your hands are weird!” Adults glance at my hands when they think I won’t notice. Some talk to me slowly and carefully as though I might also be mentally deficient. If I were to let those things bother me, I would be constantly upset. I simply have to deal with the fact I am not like what others consider “normal.” (Few realize that this is normal to me.)
In grade school and junior high, I was bullied by people who called me names or made hurtful comments about me because I was different. I was jumped more than once by boys my age who took turns punching me, trying to make me fight back when they knew I couldn’t make a fist. I was always the last one chosen for any sports team in P.E. class because the other boys believed I wouldn’t be able to handle the game. But I was raised by a wise widowed mother who knew what I would face in life and taught me early on to deal with my challenges. I found that I could learn to do anything others can do.
I learned that you give bullies and toxic people a victory when you respond to their taunts. I like the old saying that the best revenge is living well. If you show them that their deliberate nastiness cannot control your behavior, they lose their power over you.
If someone has said something unintentionally that you find hurtful or demeaning, you may be able to educate them—to help them see why those words hurt. But I can almost guarantee that if you respond in anger, you will not feel better, and anger, even justifiable, rarely improves our ability to build healthy relationships.
When I was a senior in high school, I turned my back on one of my best friends because he told me that something I did was hypocritical. It took me years to realize a that first, he was right about me, though I didn’t want to see it, and second, both my life and his were less rich because I threw away a friendship.
I am an imperfect, flawed person. I have spent a lifetime struggling with some personal weaknesses that I hate. But I manage to do some good things too. As a person of faith, I have learned I do better at repentance and spiritual growth when I: (1) try to focus on doing more of the good things; (2) ask forgiveness from God and the people I may have wronged; and (3), don’t spend a lot of time replaying in my mind all the wrong and tawdry things I do. My life goes better when I concentrate instead on replacing those ugly things with more of the good.
I’m also happier when I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the things others may have done that I didn’t like. I don’t always have to pay attention to people who are deliberately trying to be toxic—those angry or damaged individuals who so desperately want to see my response.
I’m trying to get better at seeing the good in other people before I simply discard them. I’m trying to look at each individual as another child of God who is of great worth to Him even though that person might do things I wish they wouldn’t.
That rose I gave to my wife was not perfect. But as I sit here looking at it across the table, it looks pretty good from this distance. It is a work of heavenly design, a gift of beauty from our Heavenly Father to His children in a world that is not perfect.
Why should I focus on the flower’s flaws when I can enjoy the 90 percent that is perfect?
This expression of gratitude for blessings of freedom–no matter how flawed and in need of change our country may be–is impressive.
If you want to know what it’s like to feel conspicuous, try being the only white person in a small room in an old slave prison in Ghana watching a movie about the history and evils of slavery. When the movie ended and the lights came up, I could feel eyes staring at me, wondering what I was doing there.
I wanted to say out loud, “It was ugly, it was evil, it should never have happened.” It was horrifying and saddening to see in that place what people were willing to do to other human beings. Even some Africans had contributed to the slave trade, helping trap and transport people of other tribes.
My visit in Ghana, more than a quarter of a century ago now, was delightful, really. I was visiting among people who shared my faith, people who hoped and dreamed of the same kind of peace and unity among men and women on this earth that I hope for. I truly forgot there was any difference between us until I reached out to shake someone’s hand and noticed the contrast in our skin tones. I believe there was no such contrast in our hearts.
A large part of the discord in our society today seems to come because we have forgotten how to deal with people as they are in their hearts. We insist on categorizing everyone, usually based on some particular interest or ethnic group: Mexican American, African-American, Asian-American, and other hyphenates; liberal or conservative; LGBTQ or straight (as though everyone who is not LGBTQ can be classified in just one category); young or senior citizen; “able” or “differently abled.” In some people’s minds, my very obvious birth defect would put me in that last category.
I hate being categorized.
I was born different in body, but I am not “handicapped” and I do not have a disability. I am religiously and socially conservative, but I can gladly work with and respect people whose experiences and background have led them to see social problems differently. I am not LGBTQ, but I do not hate or fear those who are, as the pejorative, convenient labels homophobic and transphobic suggest. I wish LBGTQ people peace, happiness, and all the achievement they seek in this life. I am not their enemy.
And this suggests the damage that categorizing people according to groups does in our society; it casts people who are not part of our own category as opponents, or enemies.
On a road trip a few years ago, my wife and I visited the site of the World War II Topaz internment camp for Japanese Americans, in the desert of Utah. Almost all traces of the old camp have been removed, but it is still a shameful blot on the history of this country. Japanese Americans were herded into camps because they looked different; German Americans and Italian-Americans were not bothered. Call it racism, call it hysteria, call it what you will, but at base it was a bigoted failure to see or consider what others are in their hearts. Loyal Americans were harmed by people who could not see beyond categories.
The group of people shown in the above photo, taken at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington a few years ago, are my kind of people. I have never seen them before, I don’t know who they are or where they live, but it seems we have this much in common: we love our country and the freedom it affords. People who are grateful for the freedom we enjoy are my kind of people.
Maintaining our freedom, however, will require us to be more concerned about the welfare of others than about whether those people are in our category. Any other attitude breeds divisiveness. We must aspire to be as our Savior, and other inspired teachers sent by God through the centuries, have taught: “. . . be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. . . . let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:2-3).
We will not have peace in our society until we are able to broaden our definition of “my kind of people.” We will not end contention over social and political issues until we recognize that we all fit into the same overarching category: children of God.