Swimming Lessons

July 15, 2005 | 21 comments
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Sam Swimming

My children have been taking swimming lessons. Naturally, this provides me with both motive and opportunity for asking self-indulgently angsty existential questions.

My youngest is the only one of my children who is really very fearful of the water–it took most of the first week before he was willing to let a teacher hold him in the water. As I’ve watched her patiently help him overcome his fear, it strikes me that I spend a good deal of time trying to get him to pay more attention to his fears–I want him to be afraid of jumping off cliffs, of going too fast down a hill on a bicycle, of getting too close to the loud explosions of fireworks. Be very afraid, I say! It strikes me as mildly perverse that I’m investing this much time and money in getting him to ignore what is surely an evolutionarily adaptive fear.

As I try to teach my children about the life of the spirit, I’m also trying to get them to pay attention to irrational perceptions, that is, to things that they feel without necessarily being able to explain. Much of what they need to understand about God is not easily captured in logic or in words, and, in our rational, verbal world, those feelings need to be amplified, rather than ignored. Here, too, as in learning to swim there’s a balance to be struck–feelings are not an infallible guide to action. Indeed, one potentially useful (if not particularly original or profound) lesson from Jon Krakauer’s deeply flawed look at Mormon fundamentalism is that excesses in religious feeling unchecked by reasoned consideration can send people over cliffs as readily as a healthy fear would hold them back.

Another trouble with an overreliance on religious feeling is that it is atomistic–if I rely entirely on my feelings and spiritual impressions, without evaluating those impressions by common standards of reason or trying to explain them in a shared language, my spiritual life will be profoundly lonely. Worse, I will be inclined to discount everyone else’s religious experience, as some of the comments on Nate’s cannibalism post demonstrate: if I am guided entirely by my discomfort with Nate’s methods and terminology, I will be quick to say that the discussion should not happen, or at least that I will not participate. If, on the other hand, I can employ some of the tactics of the swimming teacher–entice myself to dip my toe into the water of discussion, watch carefully to see if others are able to participate without drowning, not let my fear be the final arbiter of action, I may learn something.

My question is not really whether there are reliable guidelines to help us interpret religious feelings and spiritual impressions–the usual ones would include checking for harmony with scripture and other authoritative pronouncements, an appropriate scope (the usual caveats about personal revelations not applying to those outside our stewardship, etc.), and some sort of commonsense cautions about violence (!) But, of course, exceptions can be adduced to all of these guidelines, and I suspect we’re left with a Potter Stewartesque (hey, look! you can learn something from hanging out with lawyers!) “I know genuine spiritual impressions when I see ‘em” standard, which is, while deeply unsatisfying, probably the best we can do.

I think I’m more interested in how we make room for each other’s standards in practice, how we negotiate with the bishopric counselor who thinks every whim is a whisper of the spirit, or how someone like me, who mostly has to think through everything with a very occasional nudge from the spirit or welling up of poetic emotion can explain herself to people with a different religious affect. I think Nate’s response to me and Adam was a good example (if a little too sarcastic) of the kind of swimming lessons I have in mind, and it did, in fact, leave the door open for an increasingly productive discussion. I suspect that such differences in style are actually at the root of the most painful ruptures between “liberals” and “conservatives”, “Liahonas” and “Iron Rods”, etc., even more than substantive doctrinal disagreements. Are there ways we can deliberately and consciously teach each other to understand and get past such stylistic differences?

C’mon in–the water’s fine!

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21 Responses to Swimming Lessons

  1. Audrey Stone on July 15, 2005 at 1:49 pm

    One of the most valuable skills I hope to be able to teach my children is to see situations or ideas, despite their own personal emotions/opinions/prejudices, from another person’s point of view. To understand that person, and then with that understanding be able to state their own viewpoint in a way that the other person will comprehend.

    Why do we love our loved ones more than strangers do? Because we understand them. We know them.

    Often I am far more interested in why a person has a certain opinion rather than what the opinion actually is. This is the downside to blogging, that I can’t read a face or body language, I can’t see the flash of pain or joy in someones eyes as they are sharing their thoughts. I can’t read how strongly someone feels about something.

  2. gst on July 15, 2005 at 1:59 pm

    My little 18 month-old aqua-rock has her last private swim lesson today. She cried through every single session (she only cries in the pool with the teacher, not with her parents), but she learned quite a lot despite the tears.

  3. Jud on July 15, 2005 at 2:27 pm

    Kristine,

    Interesting post. Before addressing the meat of your question, I would like to address an assertion you made in cautioning an overreliance on religious feeling.

    “Another trouble with an overreliance on religious feeling is that it is atomistic–if I rely entirely on my feelings and spiritual impressions, without evaluating those impressions by common standards of reason or trying to explain them in a shared language, my spiritual life will be profoundly lonely.”

    I agree whole-heartedly that such an approach is lonely but disagree that it is atomistic. Rather, it is intended to be dyadic and that loneliness, I believe, is what drives us to our knees to engage in that dyad. As Joseph Smith said (roughly) about the First Vision, “I had seen a vision and I knew it–and I knew that God knew it.” In having this experience, Joseph did try to his dying day to share that experience in a common language. Successful as the message has been, I think history bears out how lonely Joseph felt at times. He was, for example, relieved for witnesses to be permitted to view the plates and share in his experience. In our own personal spiritual situations, we most often do not have the luxury of having someone witness our “plates”. Your frustrations, I feel, are in response to an imperfect form of communication that is extremely purposeful. I think the best we can do is respect each other and be lonely.

    Maybe I’ve gone off the deep end.

  4. Kristine on July 15, 2005 at 4:17 pm

    Jud, that’s a better answer than my fumbling question deserved. Thanks!

  5. Kingsley on July 15, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    “If, on the other hand, I can employ some of the tactics of the swimming teacher–entice myself to dip my toe into the water of discussion, watch carefully to see if others are able to participate without drowning, not let my fear be the final arbiter of action, I may learn something.”

    Nice.

    There is also the danger of mistaking good ol’ clowning around and splashing for drowning. There is the danger of interpreting a good-natured dunking as attempted murder. The temptation in these cases is to blow your whistle, leap into the water, and rescue the victims in the pool, when all you are doing, of course, is crashing the party and making an enormous ass of yourself in the meantime. I suppose it is up to the swimmers, though, to recognize righteous intentions and not get too huffy about that brawny forearm clamped around their necks. My tendency is to try to bite the forearm, which I suppose makes me cannibalistic in a way.

  6. Jim F. on July 15, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    Kingsley (#5): It is up to the swimmers, though, to recognize righteous intentions and not get too huffy about that brawny forearm clamped around their necks.

    I find this incredibly difficult to do, but doing so is at least as important as trying to avoid the mistake you describe. Like you, I tend to want to bite the arm rather than recognize in it a sincere act of religious devotion (even if mistaken). Perhaps no intellectual act requires Augustine’s charitable reading more than that of hearing and understanding someone who has called me to repentance when I don’t think I need to repent.

  7. Travis Anderson on July 15, 2005 at 8:46 pm

    Here’s a related question I often wonder about as I listen to members of my ward and to church leaders who clearly assume no statute of limitations when advocating obedience or faith in a (currently) endorsed LDS gospel principle (however superficially understood or applied), but extend no such charity to a principle (religious or otherwise) that has some alternate source–say, another religious belief system or a scientific study, or who consider every natural or non-natural event as an answered prayer, a heavenly manifestation, or some other supernatural communication: why shouldn’t the “Prove me herewith” principle apply to other faiths or practices as generously as to our own, and why should we assume that the only legitimate spiritual promptings or experiences are those that superficially accord with our momentary, provincial and sometimes pathetically murky understanding of things?

    I have a Catholic friend, for instance, who speaks of spiritual experiences in much the same way we do, and who not only acts on them as we do, but interprets them as evidence of the truth of his own religious beliefs. On what ground can or should I legitimately dispute such claims? Or discriminate (as we must) between evil and good, between religious fanaticism of the Islamic terrorist or ritual murder kind, and divinely sanctioned acts like those we believe were carried out by Nephi and Abraham? Though Krakauer wrongly assumes that religious believers are inherently more prone to making irrational judgments than non-religious people (an assumption belied by his own adventures, which he himself confesses often cross well over the fool-hardy into the life-threatening and down-right mad), he is undeniably right in claiming that once the Pandora’s box of personal revelation is opened, there is no rational or consistent way to legislate its use. And checking feelings against scriptures or official proclammations is much more difficult in practice than in theory. My friend Dillon recently recounted to me the fascinating history of a man who was excommunicated for rejecting the Adam-God theory only a few years before it became an excommunicable offense to endorse it. And I’ve lost track of the times that I or someone I know has received conflicting counsel from different church authorities on the same issue, or has followed religious counsel or ostensible promptings with disastrous consequences.

    The older I get, the less I wrestle with questions concerning whether or not I have the fortitude or dedication to follow spiritual guidance or advice, than with questions about their meaning and veracity. And as my oldest son approaches missionary age, how (and how to teach him) to sink or swim in such waters has become a vital concern rather than a compelling theological puzzle.

  8. Kingsley on July 15, 2005 at 11:32 pm

    Jim F. –

    It is difficult, as evidenced by my replies, to, well, everyone.

  9. Matt Evans on July 16, 2005 at 10:57 am

    Travis,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. How have you managed to postpone teaching your son how to navigate the waters until he approaches missionary age? I’m already struggling with my young kids, realizing that no two Mormons agree on how or when God answers prayers, or how to distinguish spiritual promptings. Should I teach him to pray to find his missing library book, or to be taller and have nicely-arched feet so he’ll be a better athlete? My concern is that I now believe God prompts people much less frequently than I did when I was young, and fear that if I teach my kids what I believe now, rather than what I believed as a child, then if their trajectory is like mine, they might grow to believe God doesn’t prompt people at all. I guess this shows that I’m uncertain my current belief is sufficient to inspire faith.

  10. annegb on July 16, 2005 at 11:06 am

    This is a very good thought-provoking thread. I will ponder all your comments.

    An aside: I was always terrified of the water, took swimming lessons at the age of 32, and actually learned to swim. I’m not great at it, sort of like a big awkward walrus, but nevertheless. We can always learn new things.

  11. Audrey Stone on July 16, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    “My concern is that I now believe God prompts people much less frequently than I did when I was young”

    Interesting thought. It caused me to contrast how I personally view spiritual inspiration and blessings now as opposed to when I was younger (child/teenager). I don’t think I feel much differently. I still hope that someday it would be spiritually necessary for me to gain the ability to move objects with my mind!

    I have two general beliefs about spiritual inspiration, the first is that every individual has their own learning pattern, weaknesses, strengths, etc, and that some people may require a little more “inspiration” (hand-holding) than others. The second belief is that each individual also has their own unique self-developed (or undeveloped) spiritual sensitivity.

    I feel that I’m more of a good-judgement-occassional-inspiration type, but I also believed that if I spent more time in spiritual development, I would be more in tune with the spirit and therefore perhaps receive more inspiration–or perhaps recognize it more easily.

  12. Travis Anderson on July 16, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    Matt, many of your feelings echo my own–although I don’t think I would want to say that spiritual promptings don’t come frequently, only that the frequency seems to differ considerably from person to person, and from circumstance to circumstance, and that they are often cryptic at best.

    How do I teach my kids? Not very well, probably. Aside from the usual discussions, and as often as prudence permits, I take my kids with me when I give blessings, make my HP group leader rounds to ward members under my stewardship, or do end-of-the-month home teaching for members of the quorum who didn’t do it themselves for whatever reasons. And I talk with them as occasions arise about some of my experiences as a temple ordinance worker. Etc. But while I haven’t postponed frank discussions of gospel doctrine or hard questions with my kids, or neglected sharing with them some of my own faith-promoting experiences (though I don’t do it as often as perhaps I should), I will admit to being cautious about fully sharing the views I now hold on complicated matters (and to tailoring the discussion to their age and readiness), since it seems plausible that not only the answers are important, but the itinerary we follow in finding them, and I don’t want to adversely influence their own unique trek through the wilderness, so to speak.

    On the other hand, I ‘m not willing to abandon them to making that journey alone or without the benefit of what little honest help I can offer, and considering the many ambiguous and troubling experiences I’ve personally had–including a Mexico mission where most of the trials came from within the Church, not from outside persecution, and which eventually resulted in the President and several elders being sent home early–I haven’t been willing, as my parents and local leaders have been, to whitewash over problem issues, refuse to acknowledge troubling questions, or deny mistakes. And my kids are smart enough on their own to wonder about teary testimonials and canned answers from people whose behavior outside the chapel is inconsistent with the level of spirituality to which they publically lay claim. It doesn’t help, of course, when well-meaning leaders (to give them the benefit of the doubt) force my kids (and everyone else present) to bear testimony to things they don’t feel they yet know (as happened at a recent priesthood encampment), or try to scare or bully them into church service or participation.

    So, nurturing (or helping others nurture) a faith that is both clear-sighted and trusting is no easy task. And it doesn’t take a very extensive search of doctrinal writings to realize that the authoritative answers we now receive to difficult questions are far less detailed, specific, nuanced–and dare I say, helpful–than they were a century ago. The lead article in this month’s Ensign, for example, raises some very compelling questions in quoting from a letter written by a father whose children died in consequence of performing charitable service. But having raised the expectation that he was going to answer those questions, or perhaps share with us the answer that poor man himself (hopefully) received, the author does neither. Which is why it is such a great gift to have access to spiritually mature people you trust who can and will share their own personal experiences and hard-won answers.

    Alas, a forum such as this is not conducive to those kind of exchanges.

  13. Travis Anderson on July 16, 2005 at 6:52 pm

    Audrey, your response (#11) came up while I was writing mine, but I very much agree with you–and I liked your observation about blogging as well (#1).

  14. Heather O. on July 16, 2005 at 10:06 pm

    Matt-

    I prayed as a kid to find my lost soccer socks in time for a soccer game. I found them a year later under a dusty box in the garage, obviously having been kicked there as they fell out of the car. As a kid, I felt confused that God would not have told me that they were in the garage. Now, as an adult, I understand a little bit more about promptings and the whisperings of the Spirit, and I could have used some of that knowledge that stressful day. (I had to wear WHITE SOCKS to the rest of my soccer games. It was mortifying to my 9 year old self.) My point is that teaching kids more adult knowledge about the Spirit will not necessarily send them on a trajectory towards atheism, but rather may improve their own current spiritual experiences.

  15. Kristine on July 16, 2005 at 10:21 pm

    OK, OK–could you guys stop making serious, insightful comments and note how breathtakingly adorable my son is?!

    Thanks.

  16. Matt Evans on July 17, 2005 at 12:20 am

    Thanks Audrey and Travis for your help. I guess I’m more skeptical of other people’s claims to revelatory flashes — I probably reject about half of the explanations I hear from people about their experience with God. (“I prayed to have a missionary experience, and the next morning when my alarm went off, the radio was playing ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, which was my non-member friend Allison’s favorite song when we were in junior high. I knew this was God’s way of telling me I was supposed to call Allison and tell her about the church. We hadn’t spoken in several years, and I couldn’t find her phone number after trying for a few hours, but I’m now praying to find her phone number because I know she’s prepared to hear the gospel.” Etc.)

    I guess one of my questions is, besides wondering when it’s appropriate for me to doubt someone’s testimony (an otherwise thoughtful friend of mine, who’s a leader in his ward and has a college degree, essentially bore to me his testimony of astrology! To each of my arguments he asked, “Have you prayed about it?” To which I answered, “Of course not, and I don’t ask God if my cookie fortunes are true, either!”), is to wonder how much I should teach my kids to be skeptical of other people’s testimonies.

    Heather,

    Thanks for your story. I remember praying for lost things a lot as a kid, and being completely wracked about finding a school library book the day it was due, but I can’t think of any time that I didn’t find what I was looking for. Given your experience, how would you counsel your child if he couldn’t find his soccer socks on game day?

    Kristine,

    Your Sam is certainly adorable, but the small picture doesn’t due him justice. I remedied that with a larger version here, and a close-up here.

  17. Andrea Wright on July 17, 2005 at 1:06 am

    I was dying to comment on how adorable your son is, but felt too stupid to limit my comment to him due to the fact that I got lost in the depth of your post :) He is SO CUTE, and that smile –wow how do you ever say “no” to him?

  18. Kingsley on July 17, 2005 at 2:31 am

    Kristine, your son is like something you see on the edge of sleep, a fairy from the magic wood. He has the sort of face that cries Come away! to children who believe.

  19. Kristine on July 18, 2005 at 7:55 am

    Thanks, everyone–that’s much better. Kingsley, I feel like I *should* say that you’re a little over-the-top, but, honestly, he is *that* perfectly beautiful. (He looks nothing like me, so I can say that, I think).

    Heather, Matt, Travis–thanks for your reflections about teaching kids. I think you’ve pointed up the difficulties of translating from an adult view of spiritual promptings, which necessarily makes room for the disappointments we’ve suffered, mistakes we’ve made in interpreting them, to a child’s point of view, where absolute trust and hope is still both possible and appropriate. I also really struggle with wanting to encourage that perfect, childish faith and wanting to cushion the disappointments which seem inevitable.

    Between adults, I wonder how much of our differences come from temperamental inclination to be trusting and open vs. analytical and more closed, and how much comes from different experiences. I have a brother, for instance, who is *much* more likely than all of the rest of us siblings to accept authoritative pronouncements without question, to expect and receive answers to prayers about things that I wouldn’t think important enough to bother God with (or willing to invest the time and agony apparently required for me to feel confident that I’ve received an answer I can understand). Some of this difference must be innate, but he’s also the one for whom following the program has worked out the best–there seems (so far) to be a pretty straight line from obedience to blessings in his life, while the rest of us have to draw more complicated patterns sometimes to see the blessings.

    Anyway, I have no answers or even any very good questions, but thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  20. Kingsley on July 18, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Kristine, I was under-the-top, if anything; he’s the spitting image of Peter Pan.

  21. Travis Anderson on July 18, 2005 at 6:27 pm

    Kristine, it sounds like you’re wanting to wind down this thread and move on, but I though I’d offer one last response in case there’s anyone still reading who’s interested (as I am) in these issues.

    Almost all my kids have had experiences with what they took to be answered prayers–and some of them were pretty dramatic, even though they sometimes involved concerns similar to the “lost soccer socks” mentioned above. In talking it over with my kids afterwards (sometimes in response to similar prayers which–to all appearances, at least–didn’t receive an answer), my take on the matter has been that such prayers are sometimes answered not because the immediate concern was (or is) terribly important to God or the child (for after all, even a child doesn’t have to have a rocket-scientist IQ to wonder why God might answer a child’s prayer regarding some lost possession while allowing millions of holocaust victims to perish, when at least some of those victims must have exercised faith with equal or greater worthiness). Rather, it seems probable that such innocent prayers are answered to build the child’s (or someone else’s) faith or instruct the child in how to discern spiritual promptings, etc. And I’m not convinced by the tired refrain that all prayers are answered even if we don’t discern the answer. If my child asks me a question and I whisper an answer I know he or she is not going to hear, then let’s face it: I didn’t answer—at least not in any genuine sense. If I make an honest effort to answer, and the child doesn’t hear due to willful neglect or some similar cause, that’s a different situation. But if the child is trying to hear my answer and I simply provide it in a manner that is too cryptic, evasive, complex or subtle for the child to understand, then the lack of communication is my fault, not the child’s. Of course, this is not an argument that all answers to prayers need be immediate, or in a form we can immediately recognize, etc.; it is an argument against those who would claim that the answer must have come, but that despite the petitioner’s best efforts, he or she simply didn’t perceive it or perceive whatever he or she should have done to qualify for it.

    The apparent link between obedience and visible blessings I’m much more suspicious about, partly because what counts as a blessing is so variable and open to dispute, and partly because I’ve lived long enough to know that some of the more “blessed” people on the planet (at least in terms of worldly good fortune, health, etc.) are among the least deserving of such blessings, while some of the kindest, most devoted and spiritual people are precisely those who sometimes suffer the most. I have no explanation for why that is (and I’d love to hear one that actually holds water), but it makes me very cautious about believing tales regarding someone who increased their tithing or fast offerings and immediately got a raise that financed the new houseboat they’ve been drooling over, or about the ubiquitous college athlete who refused wine at a reception and consequently won his event at the track meet the next day, etc. I find it highly doubtful that God would reward an athlete with a medal for obeying the Word of Wisdom while simultaneously refusing to bless an equally faithful asthmatic or diabetic with the health necessary to perform daily tasks or even survive—and it annoys me no end when such “faith-promoting” stories are preached from the pulpit, since that’s exactly what they imply. Such tales seem to me to involve the same questionable reasoning pointed out by a young priest in my ward, who complained when our bishop chiding him for tossing a football around before church. He couldn’t understand why it is that when a famous Mormon quarterback plays football on Sunday before millions of people (and make millions of dollars doing it) he is a missionary and role model, and yet, when a sixteen year-old boy plays football in his backyard on Sunday (or even watches the “role model” play on TV) he’s breaking the Sabbath. Well, it seems to me the kid’s got a point.

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