A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Saturday, January 31, 2015

It's Important to Be [Kind]

While watching the recent movie adaptation of "Into the Woods" (which was AMAZING, by the way), two lines stood out to me and I have been thinking about them ever since. When Little Red Riding Hood is saved from the Wolf, she sings a song about what she's learned, stating: "Nice is different than good." Similarly, the Witch accuses some of the other characters when they try to save Jack from the Giant: "You're so nice, you're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice." We don't typically use "nice" in a pejorative sense, but the Witch and Little Red Riding Hood seem to. Being Mormon, "nice" is kind of ingrained in us. They got me while I was young with this MormonAd:

"It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice" (see footnote 1)

But do we really want people to be "nice"?  Nice is different than actual charity, kindness, or empathy. Nice is a thin veneer of an outward show of respect that may or may not be truly felt. Nice is basically politeness. As Little Red Riding Hood notes, NICE is different than GOOD.  This is expressed by Chieko Okazaki, one of my favorite LDS leaders:

When the apostle Paul says, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4), he’s not just talking about being nice and wearing smiley-face buttons. He’s talking about the core of the disciple’s life. Kindness without love is not kindness at all. It’s patronage, it’s condescension, it’s smugness and superiority. If you have been the recipient of this species of “kindness,” you know that you would much rather do without it. But with love, kindness is refreshment and rejoicing. It strengthens bonds and creates new ones. And it’s a tough, patient virtue, not a frilly, fluffy one. (Sanctuary, 75)

When we think about politics I think we sometimes want our politicians to be "nice" to each other. We want them to avoid yelling, to show that outward deference to another's point of view. But I think we may actually get condescension, smugness, or superiority to dominate our political discourse when we expect this type of behavior from our elected leaders. What we should be seeking is politicians and leaders who will risk empathy and true charity towards those who disagree with them. 

One of my friends worked for a Senator and I remember her telling me that they would get nasty phone calls from constituents when the Senator was simply talking to members of the opposite party on the Senate floor and it was on C-SPAN. She noted that it had a chilling effect on relationships between Senators. If we can't even deal with our elected officials being nice to each other, I don't know how we would handle them compromising and seeing things from the point of view of the "other"! 

Nick Kristof, a New York Times opinion columnist recently wrote about a high school friend of his who had died - I thought he made some good points about how we need empathy for those who suffer, instead of judging them. Unfortunately, reading through the comments just proved Mr. Kristof's point - many commenters did not stop to consider that they could have been in this man's place - they hadn't walked a mile in his shoes, but were perfectly willing to judge him (and by extension anyone receiving government help). Where is our empathy? Where is our compassion and kindness for those who struggle? Where is our understanding for those who disagree with our politics? I don't have answers to these questions, but I know that part of fixing our broken political system (and world) is breaking through niceness and getting to true charity for others. I just wish I knew how to do it.

Footnote 1: Note that I could go out on a whole different (feminist) rant about this MormonAd. I think it has a subtext that encourages us to be doormats and downplay our own importance. For another time...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Read/Do/Be All the Things!

You've got to admire my consistency: I'm 100% on New Year's Resolutions this year. That is, 100% unsuccessful. Some of them I don't even remember, which is a sure sign they are unfulfilled. I started 2014 with grand plans to "make a difference" and be a better person, and don't feel like I did any of it last year. And yet, I'm planning on making New Year's Resolutions again this year. Call me an eternal optimist, but I have a much better chance of improving myself if I make concrete goals than if I have an ineffable future "aspiration."

Is it a coincidence that I just typed gaol (jail) instead of goal? Sometimes goals can fence us in, but I think they represent a really hopeful view of the future, because a goal posits that we have the ability to change and become better. Goals present us with the vision of what we want to be. There's a fresh start and in a way that's exhilarating. It's much better than being paralyzed by your weaknesses.

Of course, goals are good if they lead us to greater vistas of knowledge and awareness, but they're bad when they become checklists that determine our self-worth if completed. As a wise woman once said: "Goals are stars to steer by, not sticks to beat ourselves with." Put another way, goals aren't actually about goals, they're about what the goals are leading us towards - a better and more abundant life filled with good things.

Lately for some reason I have been thinking of Sisyphus (despite the fact that I don't think I can pronounce his name correctly - hence the thinking and not the saying). Sisyphus, a character in Greek mythology, was doomed to roll a large bolder up a hill and then eternally have that bolder roll back down the hill. Kind of the definition of fruitless and pointless endeavors. Sometimes my New Year's Resolutions seem Sisyphean, especially when I realize that I am eternally rolling the same boulders up the same hills year after year. Yet, maybe that is the point. 

As an example, I usually want to spend more time reading as one of my New Year's resolutions. A few nights ago, I spent about four hours catching up on blog reading - friends' blogs, recipe blogs, Mormon blogs, news blogs, etc. For the most part, I skimmed headlines and first paragraphs, weighing in the balance whether I wanted to read the post, skip it, or save it for later. Inevitably, those posts I did read lead me to other sources and additional items for my reading/listening list. An article about tax policy lead to additional detailed statistics on poverty in America. A post about Christmas books lead to new Christmas music I want to download. Various posts on great women authors lead me to want to read more of their books and poems and life stories. 

I simply want to READ ALL THE THINGS (except maybe Ernest Hemingway), but there isn't time. Even if I devoted every waking moment not spent at work to listening to or reading books and articles, I wouldn't ever "arrive" at the destination of having read everything I want to read. So maybe the goal of reading isn't about finishing, but enjoying the journey - one that includes great literature, poetry, well written news coverage, simple updates on my friends' lives, and re-reading Jane Austen (again). There is so much to enjoy about life, and I need MORE joy, reading, fun, charity, friends, outdoors time, and family in my life in 2015, along with LESS stress, worry, self-pity, selfishness, time spent at the office, and stubbornness.

I love reading because when I read, I start making phenomenal brain connections (some of which connect politics with religion which I then proceed to poorly explain on this blog!). Other goals remind me of my ability to do hard things and help me develop into a better person. And that, dear readers, is why I keep rolling my boulders up my hills - I hope that in the journey I will see some magnificent sights from the hilltop, and develop my (emotional/physical/intellectual/spiritual) muscles. In the journey, is joy: real and tangible and hard-fought, all at the same time.

So, here are (some of) my New Year's Resolutions for 2015.  What are your resolutions?

Spiritual: Study scriptures and pray daily.
Mental: Read at least 12 new books this year.
Physical: Gym time four times a week, and an outdoor nature walk/bike ride at least once a month.
Social: Travel internationally with a friend.