Sunday, April 17



It's a Wednesday, and I am in an Internet cafe far from my apartment and thousands of miles from home. My spot is along the right aisle, on the left hand side, three chairs from the front.

I pull out the chair and try to tune out the chaos of Naples. The train station a block away draws tens of thousands of people... and this cafe is different from the deep downtown where I spend my everyday.

I pull open my email and read.

The chaos doesn't die down. The people keep walking on the street. The ceiling fans still move, slowly churning the air in quiet circles. But, for a moment, my world stops. My heart catches in my throat, and I find myself crying.

A man who lived just across the street from my childhood home for years, who opened his home when his daughters invited me over to play Sonic, just committed suicide.

I don't know him well. They were divorced, she stayed in the house and remarried, and he moved away. I was little for many of the years he was there, and I don't know many people well. Regardless of the reasons, all the excuses that youth can give me are still excuses in my eyes.

Maybe if I had been a better kid... something different would have happened. I could have befriended his daughters better, known him better, been a better neighbor. I've been suicidal. I know what it feels to walk the line between life and death, and I've been closer to death far more times than I can count. And maybe I could have helped. 

I can't now. But maybe I can help the people left behind... who must be feeling pain and guilt far more than I feel.

I can't go to the funeral. I'm a missionary thousands of miles away, and yet I want to be there so much more than here. I write a short message to my family and the family across the street... and like that my time is up.


That wasn't the first time someone I knew had taken his life. It wasn't the last, either. Each time, I've felt like my heart was broken into pieces... and even today, 11 years after this flashback (have I really been writing that long?!?), the feelings are just as real. I know that as a little kid I likely had little impact on this man's life - that mental illness and other factors effected far more powerful influences than a 9-year-old would have been able to create - but I still wish I had been "better." I still wonder if I could have done something to help him stay alive.

Suicide seems to be far more common in the worlds my life intersects. People with bipolar seem far more likely to commit suicide than even those with depression. People with autism seem higher risk as well - especially those who want personal contact and can't make it happen. And it seems that being gay - and the isolation that can create regardless of moral and emotional support - makes suicide yet again more likely in those with concurrent mental conditions.

This post isn't about how to fix the problem. If there were a simple way to fix suicide, depression, mental illness, and loneliness, then we would have found it. Sometimes a random act of kindness can make a difference, and sometimes all the love in the world can't make it through. Medications are imperfect and have dramatic, soul-sucking side effects. Psychiatric and other interventions only sometimes work. Each person is unique, and each story different except for the underlying themes of inexplicable pain, isolation, and sadness.

I just want to remind myself that people are important... and that life is fragile. The people I meet, who come into my shop, who pass me on the street, my family and best friend and everyone else - they all live with real issues in their lives. Under the surface, they struggle with pain, sadness, and loneliness just as I do.

And hopefully I can be a better man to help them thrive - not just survive - another day.

Thursday, April 14

Entitlement: Family, Friends, Food, Life, and Other Things I Don't Deserve

There wasn't a firestorm this General Conference. In the past few years, usually at least one talk each Conference will have something that the gay, anti/ex-Mormon world can dredge up as proof of the Church's alleged discrimination. This time, however, all was quiet. There were definitely times that it could have erupted - from the talk about children from non-ideal parenting situations to the multiple about marriage - but it didn't.

That means I can just reflect on Conference.

There were a couple talks this time around that I fell in love with. The one that has stuck was on entitlement - and the basis was this: "The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement." ("That I Might Draw All Men Unto Me")

The speaker spoke about how the Church's welfare system (focused on self-reliance) exemplifies that knowledge, but went on to say that this change in feeling comes about in every situation, from personal relationships, to those with governments and organizations and stores, to those with God.

Looking at my own life, I can see that it's true.

When I walk into The Thai Kitchen - a small restaurant where the owner knows my name, I feel bad about using the carefully folded paper towels she's placed next to the bathroom sink. I haven't developed a sense of entitlement here - I know how much paper towels cost over time, and I want her to be successful, so I shake my hands dry or wipe them on the sides of my shirt instead.

But when I walked into the bathroom at a huge, international convention center just a few weeks ago, my first thought wasn't saving paper towels. It was on the other extreme of entitledness - "Shouldn't they be providing natural soap to wash our hands with, instead of the artificially-made stuff in these dispensers? This is a natural products expo." I don't have a positive relationship with either the convention center or the group that organizes the expo - in fact, it's quite the opposite... you could say I hate their guts and I'd only tell you that hate is a really strong word. That emotion, mixed with time, has allowed a sense of entitlement to grow without my even knowing it.

Thinking about it took me aback. I usually tell myself that I'm never entitled to anything... and that has honestly been a point of (ironic) pride for me. But I obviously still have a ways to go.

Inside, I still want to be proud of my growth, though. When I go to Church functions and there's nothing for me to eat, I'm honestly okay. I used to get angry that no one offered healthier food options at local gatherings. I don't feel the frustration and loneliness I once did, and I've lost the overzealous desire to preach people away from buying tithe-funded sugar-stupor-inducing brownies and ice cream. I just eat before I go to a church dinner, and I don't expect or feel entitled to food. The rare time there is food I can eat (when it's vegan, doesn't have sugar, and falls on an every-other food day), I feel special.

When I go to Elder's Quorum and a leader who's been married for decades talks about how "everyone" in the quorum can get married if we're willing to date often and just choose a nice girl from the ones available, again, I don't get offended or feel emotionally bitter because he just ignored the people in the room (not just me) who will probably never have that chance. I don't bring up the research that says that Millennials are, on average, far less likely to get married and far less likely to be religious and that we're way ahead of the average game. (Though sometimes I do think, "How absurd would it be if we switched roles and if I, an unmarried guy, went to a married ward full of people two generations away and preached about something important to me? It would be probably just as awfully misinformed as this is.")

When I go to Church or firesides and there never seems to be anything focused on me and my situation (I'm gay, I have major invisible mental issues, I want to be active in the Church, and I want to feel like people know who I am and care about me), I don't get angry or walk out. I just go to feel the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, every generalized message becomes personal.

When the only relationships they talk about at General Conference are marriages... and the word "friendship" is mentioned only once, inside I am still frustrated with my world that has hyper-sexualized and over-romanticized relationships to the point of sacrificing friendship on the altar of sexuality... but I don't feel rancor towards a speaker who didn't mention it. I'm not entitled to telling someone (whether in reality or just talking to myself or a screen) what to say in their Conference talk.

And this has become a self-aggrandizing post. That wasn't where I wanted to go with this... but at least there's emotion now. Obviously I'm still trying to come to grips with the fact that I do sometimes feel entitled, as much as I may tell myself otherwise... and that, as many times as I may deny it, something deep inside me still feels that I deserve.

So that brings me to the next point in the talk.

The solution to entitlement, from the talk, is to close the distance in the relationship. In the case of The Thai Kitchen, I keep a close relationship with the owner, and I'll always want to help her succeed. In the case of the Natural Products Association... um... I don't really care to develop a personal relationship there. Hopefully I can combat the entitlement without having to get any closer (Wow. I didn't realize I felt that intensely.) In the most important case, I can come closer to God and Christ in order to not feel a sense of entitlement in life itself.

In a way, I honestly feel that entitlement is the great temptation... and the great sin... of today's generation. Pornography, immorality, financial fraud, dishonesty, violence, unethical business practices - everything that plagues today's world stems from feelings of entitlement. If I deserve to have my needs met, and they aren't being met, then it makes it easier to justify doing something to meet them, regardless of how bad that action may be. Entitlement also makes it easier to place blame after the fact or when I plan my sins. If I deserve something, I can then claim that any of my unmet needs are proof that someone is denying me a necessary part of my life - whether God, the Church, an organization, government, someone else, or the world - and it doesn't take a lot of mental gymnastics to claim that, since they have denied me what I deserve, the "logical consequence" of their actions (my sin) was their fault as well.

The scary thing is that entitlement doesn't look bad by itself. It almost always masquerades as something else - something logical, persuasive, and even good. It hides in the darkness where few can see it, fueling feelings of anger, frustration, and hurt that ultimately destroy the relationship and hence create even more feelings of entitlement.

At its core though, entitlement is simple:

When I feel that something should have happened to me.

When I feel that something shouldn't have happened to me.

When I feel that I deserve a blessing from God - as great or small as it may be, and as much or little effort as I've put into making it happen - and He should give it to me.

When I feel that I deserve anything from someone else - from love, to food, to a safe place to sleep at night - and they should give it to me.

Since entitlement is a common human condition and always claims innocence, just reading the statements before will probably bring up a dozen objections. What about little children? Aren't they entitled to food and safety? What about people who are in dangerous or toxic relationships? Aren't they entitled to safety and security? What about them and the things they deserve?

That actually brings up another, even darker aspect of entitlement.

Entitlement also rears its head, and is often far more deadly, when I feel entitled to things that aren't even for me:

When I feel that something should have happened to someone else.

When I feel that something shouldn't have happened to someone else.

When I feel that someone else deserves a blessing from God - as great or small as it may be, and as much or little effort as they've put into making it happen - and He should give it to them.

When I feel that someone else deserves anything from someone else - from love, to food, to a safe place to sleep at night - and they should give it to them.

Entitlement comes from a sense of pride - a sense of knowing what I need or knowing what someone else needs better than God or the Church or someone else. And with that sense of pride comes the feeling that, even though a need is unmet, it's up to someone else to meet it. I've even had the audacity to believe that God - an all-powerful being who has deigned to care about my existence - should give me blessings simply because He is perfect, even though I'm not willing to be perfect, or anywhere close.

I look at little children and my heart goes out to them. But that's not because they deserve it. It's because my desire to protect them is an innate social function that is necessary for the survival of the human race. It's a feeling that God gave me, and an instinctual feeling that extends even to animals. Birds will raise nestlings even if they're different from the others. And sometimes I take it a bit too far. I assume that since I have a feeling and a desire, every being in the Universe must also feel the same way, and must devote every possible thing to making my desire come true. Reality is far from that.

The reality is that I don't deserve anything. I don't deserve love, or sex, or family, or friends, or money, or a great job, or even food or health or safety or a place to sleep at night. That's because deserving requires my doing something to deserve it... and, in the grand scheme of things, I have either done absolutely nothing (in the case of myself as an infant) or far worse. At the end of the day, I am a no one or a sinner. The only One who deserved anything was Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life, and hence truly deserved. But, instead, He chose to die and suffer so that I could receive something other than a place in everlasting Hell.

That's right. Hell, and death, are the only things I can ever truly deserve.

Let me say that again.

Hell, and death, are the only things I can ever truly deserve.

Thus all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost... (Mosiah 16:4)

But that doesn't mean life isn't worth living.

Because, even though I may only truly deserve death and Hell, the God of the Universe has shown me Grace. He has chosen me to be one of His Sons. To live on a breathtakingly beautiful world, surrounded by complex, breathtakingly awe-inspiring beings. To navigate a complicated life full of twists and turns and meanderings, designed specifically to help me find who I am and grow into a better man.

Once I get that - once I realize that it's only through the Grace of God that I am breathing, alive, and mentally sound, once I realize it's only through the kindness and love of my parents that I survived birth, and the founding fathers that I live in a country where I can blog about my beliefs - life actually looks a whole lot more beautiful. Because, at that moment, everything becomes a gift.

Entitlement assumes that I deserve to live life at 100%. Anything less than 100% becomes a "defect," "injustice," or "flaw." Oh. And, by the way, since life can only subtract, it's impossible to reach 100%. The negative percentage points pile up around me, and I use coping mechanisms, self-help, or positive thinking to manage them. Enough of them, and they pull me down, convincing me that, since I have so many flaws, my life isn't worthwhile.

Grace assumes that I deserve to live life at 0%. Anything more than 0% becomes a "talent," "miracle," or "gift." And, by the way, life is full of gifts, and when I start at 0% and add, 100% is only a stepping stone on the way. The positive percentage points pile up around me. Enough of them, and they give me the strength to do anything, convincing me that, since I have so many gifts and talents and blessings and proof that people and God love me, life is amazing.

Life is a gift. I begin deserving nothing, and while the gifts given to me by friends and family and God may seem imperfect, God is completely in control. He knows me, and He knows what I truly need in order to return to Him someday... and, no matter what I face, He is there with me.

For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. (D&C 46:11-12)

In my case, I needed the humility that I found in the depths of depression, where I learned that I was nothing and walked the fine line between life and death. I needed the pain I felt in the darkness of being alone and knowing that only God could get through to me. I needed to have my world shattered by abuse so that He could put it together again. I needed to be loved and rejected and worn and battered and torn.

I'm grateful to have a God who loves me enough to give me His Grace.

It may not be what I want... but it will always be far more than I truly deserve.