Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On Turning 51

Today is my 51st birthday, and I'd like to be able to say it's a happy occasion for me. It's ironic, however, that whereas I said last year that I felt much older at 50 than I did at 40, now I feel like I've aged an additional twenty years just in the last three-and-a-half months! (I have the lower back, joints, strength, stamina, senses, crotchety disposition, and [probably] life expectancy of a 71-year-old.) Not only am I still trying to deal with a sleep disorder that can only be treated with one or another prescription sedative (which I have to take with an over-the-counter antihistamine to obtain sufficient "knockout" strength) and the use of an expensive "PAP" machine, but now I'm dealing with the lingering, extremely debilitating effects of mal de debarquement, which I acquired as the result of trying to show Dorine a good time in the Caribbean for our 25th wedding anniversary. (I think I could be excused for concluding that no good deed ever goes unpunished!) I've also been fighting the sort of feeling of foreboding that only a person who senses his life going downhill can truly appreciate.

I've been drawing a lot of comparisons in my mind lately between serving a church mission and dying. When I went on my mission, was I as prepared for it as I could have been? No. Was I as prepared for it as I needed to be? Debatable. Was I as prepared for it as I ever would be? Absolutely! One reason I had difficulty finding motivation to serve a mission had to do with the "mission prep" priesthood-meeting class we had in the BYU 65th Branch during my freshman year, 1977-78, which was taught by people (including one son of a general authority) whom I regarded as extroverted narcissists. They seemed to believe that there was only one personality type (hard-driving and hard-selling) that could possibly be of any use to a missionary, and that anyone else would be wasting his time in the mission field. It wasn't until my stake president at home in Albuquerque, Jay Payne (who, after I'd been on my mission for only four or five months, died suddenly of a heart attack while jogging one morning), assured me that the Lord needed all kinds of personalities in the mission field, and that I could be an effective missionary without trying to change mine, that I began in earnest to prepare. It's difficult to say how good a missionary I really was -- I did a few things that I later regretted, and I certainly wasn't the hardest worker, by any means, in my mission. However, I had my share of unique struggles -- particularly with my health, as I suffered from low-grade nausea for virtually the entire time I was in Chile. I never stopped trying, and I never stopped working, even if I often wasn't as effective as I might have been had I felt better (and if other circumstances -- certain companions, certain areas, my first mission president -- had been different).

The analogy of a mission to death seems obvious. Per Mormon doctrine, am I as prepared to die, at this juncture of my life, as I could be? No. Am I as prepared to die as I need to be to reach the Celestial Kingdom? Debatable (highly so). Am I as prepared to die as I ever will be? Well, that's the question that's been weighing on my mind for some time. What I struggle with most is the disconnect between (a) the notion that our eternal reward will hinge on what we did with what we had (i.e., that a person's individual circumstances -- his talents, upbringing, DNA [now there's a topic you'll never hear discussed in General Conference!], overall experiences, and sacrifices made relative to resources [whether financial, emotional, physical, or spiritual] -- will be taken into account in the Final Judgement), and (b) the take-away from practically all church meetings, which is that there is some objective (if intangible and unknowable) threshold of personal righteousness or individual perfection -- which applies to all people regardless of circumstance -- that one must achieve before having any hope that the Atonement of Christ will fill in the gaps, as it were, of his personal failings and weaknesses as concerns reaching the Celestial Kingdom. I have church leaders now who seem to believe -- reminiscent of my priesthood instructors all those years ago at BYU -- that one must be some kind of Stepford Mormon and that anyone else (e.g., someone with a sense of humor or who purposely doesn't conform in order to maintain some kind of individuality or to avoid being saddled with what are, for him, intolerable burdens or responsibilities) is wasting his time. I hear church members suggest from time to time that there will be all kinds of people in the Celestial Kingdom, but, since that message never, ever comes from the leadership, I tend not to take it to heart.

So what kind of person have I been? I certainly haven't been precisely the kind of husband, father, friend, breadwinner, and priesthood holder that I could have been. I've done things that I've regretted, and likewise I've failed to do things that I wish I'd done. However, as was the case with my mission, my life in general has posed its own peculiar set of struggles -- my health issues becoming increasingly prominent among them -- and it is true that I've never given up or stopped trying. It's sometimes annoying to realize just how many people in my life seem to regard me as (to borrow a phrase from the movie Little Big Man) a "perfect reverse barometer" -- which I define, in my case, as someone whom others use to feel good about themselves by comparison -- but I've never let that completely discourage me or cause me to hate anyone. I'm not as good a person as I could be, or could have been under other life circumstances, and, again, the question is how much my circumstances will be taken into account (assuming there truly is a Hereafter). If my testimony has taken a battering over time, it is due to the implicit, unrelenting message from the pulpit that individual circumstances are immaterial and that one must be objectively as righteous as Brother X or Sister Y to have any hope of attaining exaltation. I can't be like Brother X or Sister Y (assuming they themselves aren't, after all, whited sepulchres), and I don't want to be, so I continually question whether or not my efforts as a church member are a waste of time.