Bullying, suicide and animalism: A matter of control

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We aren’t just animals anymore. We can reason and understand. And, usually, we are no longer a slave to our urges.

Yet, when it comes to bullying our animal roots gets used as an excuse. “Bullying happens, people need to stand up for themselves. They need to speak up and put their foot down. It’s how, we as animals, are.”

Animals and us

Except it’s not. Animals flee. Animals can be submissive and meek. Not all animals are fighters. And when an animal that isn’t fit to fight goes up against an animal that is, the result is usually getting maimed or killed. And no matter how much physical training someone partakes in, there will always be those at a disadvantage. And that’s not including those with emotional or mental “shortcomings.” And no matter how much therapy, or how many drugs, some people will never be the outgoing, aggressive, confident type.

And even if that weren’t the case, even if people could train to their peak performance, do away with all physical limitations and psyche themselves into being aggressive, animalistic human beings, why would we want that?

Thanks to technology and science, we no longer conform to a “survival of the fittest” mold. We are beyond it. So why would we confine ourselves to such a basic, outdated way of living?

Suicide machine

What’s truly heartbreaking, and what truly shows some people have no idea of the breadth of human makeup and complexity of the human brain, is when people blame a bullying victim for their own suicide, writing it off as a simple choice the victim had to make and one they made poorly. This is justified by admitting that they, too, have thought about killing themselves before.

Indeed, who hasn’t? But there is a gigantic leap from thinking to doing. Someone who actually tries to go through with the act is wired fundamentally different than those who merely think about it:

The … person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.

The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.

 Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be or you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains constant. the variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.

 It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’ can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

— David Foster Wallace

Suicide is the ultimate engagement of the flight response. Someone who attempts suicide often isn’t thinking in any sort of rational context, they are running on instinct — the same instinct that makes you remove your hand from a hot stove without even thinking about it.

Levels of instinct

“Flight or fight” is one of the absolute basic instincts we as human beings have — and one of the hardest to overcome. At one extreme we have suicidal people and at the other extreme we have people who kill their tormentors. Neither of these are acceptable outcomes.

I’ve been on both sides of the bully equation. I’ve been a bully and I’ve been the bullied, desperate for escape. I know it’s possible to overcome bullying tendencies. I also know that it’s possible to overcome suicidal tendencies and that things get better. But what I’ve discovered is that it is a lot easier to control bullying tendencies than it is to control the basic flight or fight response.

We’re not animals anymore, but there are still some things our brains have convinced us we need to run from or fight. I hope that eventually one of those things will not be our fellow man.

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Elder Ronald Poelman: LDS Church is a guide to enlightenment, not the end goal

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With the LDS Church’s General Conference this weekend, I wanted to take a minute to discuss one of the most illuminating General Conference talks I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Spoken by Elder Ronald E. Poelman of the First Quorum of the Seventy, it covers the difference between the Gospel and the LDS Church, how tradition and cultural norms can be misconstrued as gospel principles, and the extreme importance of free agency and questioning. Even though it is from 1984, it resonates even more today.

Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ are true and divine. However, there is a distinction between them which is significant … Failure to distinguish between the two …. may lead to confusion and misplaced priorities with unrealistic and therefore failed expectations. This in turn may result in diminished benefits and blessings and, in extreme instances, even disaffections.

The Gospel and the LDS Church are two distinct things with two distinct purposes. Elder Poelman states that while the Gospel is an unchanging guide binding us to God, the Church is a delivery system meant to distribute the Gospel. However, misplaced priorities and understanding about the two can lead to devastating consequences: diminished blessings and even disaffection. What kind of misunderstandings? Well…

Traditions, customs and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles. … Those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. … It is important, therefore, to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging, universally applicable and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance.

Cultural norms are not Gospel and the traditional way the Church has functioned does not necessarily mean that is the way it is meant to function in perpetuity. Indeed, it is not enough to simply obey church rules. They must be questioned.

Every church member has … the need and obligation to obtain (a personal witness regarding gospel principles and Church practices) by exercising his free agency … Without such assurance, one may feel confused and perhaps even burdened by what may appear to be simply institutional requirements of the Church. Indeed, it is not enough that we obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders.

An unhealthy focus on institutional requirements or cultural norms, especially without questioning and receiving a witness that such things are necessary, can become a burden for those in the church — as well as the church itself. Those who do pray and receive a witness that things should be done differently are also an integral part of the church.

When we understand the difference between the gospel and the Church and the appropriate function of each in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons. Institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline. Supervision is replaced by righteous initiative and a sense of divine accountability.

As we question the Church and receive Gospel wisdom from Church leaders, institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline. The need to be supervised by the Church also wanes as our own sense of accountability to God and our fellow brethren here on Earth grows. Indeed:

As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.


See part 1 of Elder Poelman’s talk here and part 2 here.

Live and let live: Religion, atheism, and being caught in-between

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Religion has been a part of human life in some form or another for at least 4,000 years. It has provided support for communities, given people a common cause to group around, and been a source of charity and service.

Yet, for those who do not belong to a religion or believe in a God, it has often been a source of pain and suffering. And certainly there have been a number of atrocities committed in the name of God.

The discord between these two groups, I think, doesn’t just stem from a fundamental communication problem, but a fundamental difference in the way both are wired.

A brain hardwired for God

Even 4,000 years later, it’s true that religion continues to be beneficial to humanity. Charity, social support during times of crisis, and a sense of purpose are just a few of the ways religion enriches the lives of many today. There are even indications that humans are hardwired for religion.

So it’s understandable when religious people get angry when Atheists attack their convictions with statements like “Your church isn’t true” or “God is a lie” and retreat into their trenches, often destroying all hope for fruitful and progressive discussion.

But make no mistake, there are certainly things that need to be discussed. While people should be able to believe what they want I firmly believe they must square those beliefs with facts. And the fact of the matter is that religion has also contributed to some truly gut-wrenching things in our modern day: rape culture, suicides and homelessness (especially among gay youth), mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and more.

The ways that religious denominations contribute to these and other pressing issues deserve criticism and discussion. And religious people need to understand that criticisms are not a personal attack, or even necessarily an attack on their church.

I’d be happy to see religion flourish more, but I want to see it happen while lessening the damage and hurt it unintentionally contributes to for both faithful and non-faithful people.

But while some of the problem is communication, the other problem is simply how differently we are wired — which never appears to be taken into account on either side.

While religious people may be hardwired for faith, non-believers are just as likely to be hardwired differently. Just as the idea that someone who attends church is an unintelligent sheep is grossly inaccurate, the idea that someone who doesn’t want to go to church is evil or amoral is flat-out wrong and can be incredibly damaging.

In religion, but not of religion

When I was young, church taught me about the golden rule, being thy brother’s keeper, turning the other cheek and judging not lest ye be judged. I feel that I learned some of my most cherished ideas about humanity and life from church.

But even when I was young, I felt oddly out of place in church settings. The older I got the more my anxiety in church settings grew. I felt constantly on guard — that I could not be myself. I was constantly wearing a mask and it was suffocating me. I began to drift away from the church. My family, many of my peers, and my church leaders were understandably upset by this development. After all, my very soul was at stake.

Church leaders handed me responsibility after responsibility, trying to give me a sense of purpose and place within the church. Unfortunately, these responsibilities only compounded the stress I already felt from church and, truthfully, pushed me farther away.

The more I stressed out, the more I found myself thinking, “Is this what God would really want from me? Isn’t church supposed to be a place of serenity and happiness rather than protocol, stress and anguish?”

My parents tried to prod me to attend services. When gentle pokes didn’t work, I was given ultimatums. When those just pushed me away further, they tried gifts and niceties.

The disapproval about my drifting from friends and family was palpable and created a vicious cycle. I could not be at peace in church — and it appeared I could not be at peace outside of church either. The stress of the paradox furthered the anxiety, depression, guilt and anger issues I had been experiencing in church for years. I had already been self-mutilating throughout the latter half of my high school years as a form of self-medication. Shortly after high school I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Up until this point I had tried to maintain some sort of church presence, even if it was a limited one, partly to placate my family and partly because I felt it was what I was supposed to do. However, I soon realized I could not live a double-life. I finally made it clear that I didn’t want or plan to continue attending church.

Immediately, there was an incredible weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t feel like I had to hide myself anymore. It was like finally breathing after spending 19+ years suffocating.

Technically, it was a great first step toward sobriety and a healthy life.

However, I still felt a lot of guilt over who I was because of my upbringing. It would be several more years before I’d begin to heal the remaining emotional scars with therapy and finally stop using alcohol and drugs, becoming truly okay with the person I am.

Live and let live

I know my family and friends always wanted what was best for me. The things they did came from a place of love, but ultimately also of ignorance about who I was. They were so worried about my soul that they didn’t understand the way they were damaging me.

I often wonder how differently my life would have been if I had been nurtured to be myself, simply be a good person, and make the most of whatever it is I do believe in. Would I have ever turned to drugs or alcohol? Would I be further along in my career?

Religion can be an incredible force for good and, I believe, even necessary for some people. But just as it may be hardwired into some people, I think there are others who are simply not wired for religion. I hope someday people on both sides will understand to “live and let live” and embrace those who live differently and have found their own way to truth, happiness and health.