The stories we tell

October 22, 2009
By

In sacrament the speaker told a story about a young man who stood up, eventually, against his friends for a disabled schoolmate. That made me think about my oldest child, sweet and mild mannered.  She did the same thing, though on the first event when her social clique was planning a nasty trick. Unlike the boy in the story, whose friends came around, her group threw her out and then hounded her mercilessly. For a young girl, in a new town, two years after the latest death of a sibling left her an only child, it was devastating.  I’m only glad she had not heard the story we heard in sacrament meeting.

There are many stories we tell.  Often they are true, some times they are fables. I would suggest that the stories we tell about virtue being immediately rewarded, about doing the right thing as a painless task, about always being rescued, those stories may fail those we tell them to when they face adversity.

I did the right thing and lost my dream job,it hurt to have the offer withdrawn. Daniel’s contemporaries, when they were about to be thrown into the fiery furnace, noted that they were doing the right thing and that if God allowed them to die, as they expected, no one should take that as a time that their faith was in vain. They were delivered, but they knew that not being miraculously saved did not mean that God had failed them or that their faith was false.

Which is what we might be tempted to conclude from the stories we tell these days.

As an aside, the girls failed to hound my daughter into suicide, though they tried their immature best. When a similar situation arose a few years later, with a group of boys propping a chair to block a door and then ganging up to beat up a Jewish kid in the class, my shy, quiet child rose and berated them until they backed down. She had no expectation, really, of anything but being beaten up with him. She did not really know him (he was quiet and bookish), but she knew what was right and when it was wrong to keep silent. The guys backed down. She wasn’t beaten up by them, nor was the young man.

She was ready to pay a real price. Most people who hear our modern stories are only ready to pay no price at all. I think we betray our listeners by sharing such stories, by the implicit promise they make that we will have no negative side effects, no negative outcomes. We do not prepare them to make real sacrifices.

That is my story about the stories we tell. That easy virtue stories lead to no virtue at all.

18 Responses to The stories we tell

  1. MrQandA
    October 22, 2009 at 8:38 am

    Wow – Thank you – I have long thought had this perspective, but you have presented it in such a clear and direct way.

  2. MrQandA
    October 22, 2009 at 8:46 am

    An author on this site once directed me to a great talk called the Unsaid Sermon.

    It really helped me consider the way I approached giving talks and the faith promoting stories I chose to use.

    https://www.sunstonemagaz…hrase=all&constraint=none

  3. Clark
    October 22, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Great post. This is a new insight to me, but I agree with it. Our stories should create realistic expectations.

    Elder Holland told a story a few years ago (April 2000 General Conference) about a pioneer couple who saved their whole lives for a better home, then donated the money for windows in the St. George Tabernacle. Was the money miraculously recovered? No. They lived in poverty for the rest of their lives.

  4. Wyoming
    October 22, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    It is a little strange, given our history that we have such high expectations of ‘happy endings’ if we do the right thing. I sometimes wonder about this when people say they pay their tithing because they can’t afford not too. I have a really strong testimony of the principle, but there seems to be a tendency to be obedient for the ROI.

    One of my favorite Book of Mormon scriptures is the discussion of faith and hope in Moroni. My take is that life is difficult and unfair – maybe more so if we choose discipleship. The only thing we can hope for is that through the Atonement, we can be saved in the end. My ancestor wrote that he and his family were driven from their homes 5 times for the Gospel sake but, in his words, ‘he never felt to murmur’. I would have liked to heard him give a talk about sacrifice and the blessings of the gospel.

  5. October 22, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Your story is touching. I hope that story, and stories like it can be told all over in church settings. Your daughter’s reward is not immediate, but eternal. I think there is a place for stories with immediate rewards however, only they should be told side by side with those that don’t have them. Especially if both are true.

  6. Rigel Hawthorne
    October 22, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    I hope to instill that type of courage and confidence in my own children. The Friend has had told some stories with the similar virtue leads to reward stories, although the virtue may require some degrees of persistence. Fear and lack of confidence can result in some children holding back in defending others even though they know it would be most virtuous for them to speak up.

    I’m treating a 13 year-old who developed major depression after school bullying that was intense enough to result in a time of home schooling at the end of last school year. His church group was supportive and not associated with the bullying, but he became too depressed to even enjoy going to church activities.

    Sticking up for someone who is being bullied can also be defeating when the victim you are sticking up for is antagonistic towards you in spite of your concern. The sacrifice in that case is even more demonstrative of Christ’s teachings.

  7. October 22, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    ticking up for someone who is being bullied can also be defeating when the victim you are sticking up for is antagonistic towards you in spite of your concern. That should be a given. Otherwise, if they had good social skills, who would bully them?

  8. October 22, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    But yes, Rigel Hawthorne, it is hard, nothing is easy. And it is important to teach our children that those we will serve are the poor, the unwashed, the ungrateful and the ugly, lacking social graces.

    Excellent point.

  9. Jen
    October 22, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    I have a friend who still remembers the pain and heartache of having her friends turn on her in elementary school. They were very cruel to her the entire year and even when she talks of it now, her eyes fill with tears.

    I think of people like your daughter who seem to be friendless and standing alone, but this is the farthest thing from the truth. I know there are legions of friends surrounding her on the other side of the veil, cheering her on for being the person she is. I really believe there is a peace that passeth all understanding for those who suffer and are afflicted because they have chosen to do the right thing. Even though the suffering can be very deep and painful, that peace is there to carry them through the darkest of times. I also think that those who torment or afflict others will pay dearly for what they have done. It may take years or be in the next life, but it will haunt them someday.

    I love the book by Carlfred Broderick called “The Uses Of Adversity”. It talks about how things don’t go well just because we are doing the right things. It really relates to this topic and I recommend it. It is a very quick read and well worth it.

  10. October 22, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Amen, and amen. One of the most beautiful verses in Scripture begins with the words, “But if not, be it know unto thee, O King …”

    I think we do an immense disservice by telling stories of immediate reward for virtue. If they were true, they must lead us to ask if there really was some “hidden sins” in the believing Ammonihahites, who were burned in the furnace; they should, by logic, lead us to question the worthiness of those early Christian martyrs, who faced death rather than recant.

    But I don’t want to heap ridicule. After all, it is true that sometimes virtue is rewarded, most often when it is its own reward.

    The only thing between my daughter and suicide apparently were her having felt the witness of the Spirit, and the love of God. Her depression was induced to some extent by school bullying; she has a strong sense of right and wrong, and she stands up for the rights against the wrongs. And you never won popularity contests that way. I am so grateful she had that testimony. She is returning from her mission in less than two months, and it has been a wonderful time for her. Yes, her faith has pulled her through the furnace.

  11. October 22, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Velska, thanks for sharing that about your daughter, glad her mission has gone well. I think the entire story is much stronger for the words “But if not, be it know unto thee, O King …” and I’m glad you agree.

    Thanks for (and to) everyone who commented.

  12. Thomas
    October 23, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I wonder if the urge to tell “virtue rewarded” stories is cross-pollination from the kind of tithing folklore story, where a struggling couple pays tithing instead of rent and then gets a large inheritance from a long-lost uncle or something.

    And I wonder if *that* kind of story gets told, in order to insulate ourselves from a nagging perception that the present definition of tithing as 10% of one’s income, regardless of one’s affluence, is regressive.

    If the main blessing that comes from tithing is spiritual comfort or other intangibles, then a thought presents itself: These spiritual blessings (in most descriptions) are roughly equal irrespective of how much tithing you pay; you either have them or you don’t. To a rich man making $500,000, those blessings cost $50,000 — which, unless he’s living the kind of ostentatious lifestyle a Saint shouldn’t be living in the first place, he won’t even miss. To a poorer man, those blessings cost a far greater fraction of his disposable income — likely all of it, and more. Nobody ever told a heartbreaking story about a rich couple pawning their wedding ring to pay tithing.

    In other words, if the blessings from paying tithing are spiritual or otherwise intangible, and they are essentially the same regardless of the amount paid, then tithing imposes a far greater hardship on the poor than on the rich.

    I believe that the “tithing as investment” folklore evolved to keep this fact from bothering us. If tithing really does produce a net (temporal) return on investment, then it isn’t a hardship at all; the poor man truly “can’t afford” not to pay tithing, because he’ll surely get at least a dollar back for every dollar he pays.

  13. Stephanie
    October 24, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Wow, this is powerful.

  14. Rebecca J
    October 24, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Excellent post. I think about this all the time. My MIL doesn’t like the Primary song that says, “When your heart is filled with love, others will love you,” because this isn’t always true. Sure, you’re more lovable when your heart is filled with love, but not everyone is going to respond to you with love. I hate stories about refusing to work on Sundays and the boss respecting you so much for having principles that he/she never asks you to work on Sundays. I know just as many stories about people who refused to work on Sundays and ended up either losing their jobs or having their hours cut so drastically that it was pointless staying on. The scriptures tell us we should expect some suffering for choosing the right. Sometimes there are no temporal blessings. That’s an idea people need to get used to.

  15. October 24, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Rebecca The scriptures tell us we should expect some suffering for choosing the right. Sometimes there are no temporal blessings. That’s an idea people need to get used to. — honestly, stories to the contrary seem to deny the faith and to be a testimony against the scriptures. I just hesitated to say it quite so strongly in my post.

    But you caught it four square.

  16. Thomas
    October 25, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Stephen: I suppose you could interpret the scriptures that show virtue being rewarded with prosperity as an allegory for the fact that in the Lord, this will be the *ultimate* result, either in mortality or in eternity.

  17. wayfarer
    November 5, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Thankyou Stephen for your correct teaching of your daughter-she is far more likely to be working with the Lord in creating true followers of Christ.You soothe the souls of the broken hearted when you share such stories of truth lived.A beautiful girl from a beautiful family.Such a woman could convert my children to the truth of the gospel.