To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.

PW

How to Choose a Stick

Dear Will:

In our country, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to take an active role in politics and elections. Pastors and preachers do not hesitate to endorse individual candidates, often inviting their favorites to speak to their congregations. Some sects and their leaders become explicitly associated with specific parties and openly instruct their followers how to vote.

In contrast, my church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) remains quietly on the sidelines, unwilling to engage or endorse, even when our own members rise to prominence and run for office. Here’s the official Church policy on such matters: “As citizens, Church members are encouraged to participate in political and governmental affairs, including involvement in the political party of their choice. . . . While affirming the right of expression on political and social issues, the Church is neutral regarding political parties, political platforms, and candidates for political office. The Church does not endorse any political party or candidate. Nor does it advise members how to vote.” And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.

Case in point: This very weekend, my church held its 190th General Conference, a semi-annual event that features ten hours of instruction stretched across five sessions on a single weekend. In two days of remote “gathering,” we listened to over 30 sermons, maybe a couple dozen previously-recorded choir numbers, and a bunch of prayers. Here we are, just a month away from an election, and yet there wasn’t one mention of a specific candidate or political party. As you might guess given the rancor and divisiveness that dominates public discourse these days, we did get a healthy dose of admonition regarding racial equality, civility, peacemaking, and loving our neighbors, but not one word on whom to vote for. That’s just how we do things.

I think that reticence is consistent with something Joseph Smith said maybe 180 years ago in reference to how he governed a growing church. “I teach them correct principles,” he said, “and they govern themselves.” There is an expectation, in other words, that members of our church will make their own decisions, that we will strive to align our actions with the principles taught from our pulpits, that our lives and choices will reflect our desire to exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ. That’s the theory, anyway.

So what are the principles my church teaches with respect to elections? These, and these only:

In accordance with the laws of their respective governments, members are encouraged to register to vote, to study issues and candidates carefully, and to vote for individuals whom they believe will act with integrity and sound judgment. [Members of the Church] have a special obligation to seek out, vote for, and uphold leaders who are honest, good, and wise. (See D&C 98-9-10.)

I think that’s pretty good advice—“correct principles” indeed. While I admit that it’s not easy to assess the character of a candidate based on 30-second TV spots and out-of-context soundbites (or, God forbid, the latest muck shoveled into our social media feeds), for some we do have a substantial public record by which we can assess the integrity of their actions, the soundness of their judgment, their honesty and goodness and wisdom—or their lack thereof.

For me, those things matter a whole lot more than dubious campaign promises and posturing as I try to make my votes align with my stated beliefs. Alternatively, I suppose I could choose my candidates based on a single issue or party-first loyalty, but increasingly I find that doing so would force me to compromise too much. As they say, when you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other as well, and too often there is so much gunk on the other end that I just can’t tolerate the stench.

However you choose to exercise your franchise, I hope you’ll “vote your conscience,” as they say, and celebrate with me the honor of being part of a democracy in which we each get a say in how we are governed and by whom. Like it or not, those choices say a lot about who we are and what we aspire to become.

PW

P.S. Two days after I published this Letter to Will, my Church sent this letter to all congregations in the United States reiterating its neutrality and encouraging members “to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.” However, the letter didn’t mention anything about sticks.

Less Attitude. More Beatitude.

Dear Will:

I was in elementary school—couldn’t possibly tell you what grade. But let’s say I was eight or nine—just old enough to know better, but probably too young to realize it. You know that age when boys are just starting to notice girls but they have no idea—NONE—how to interact with them? That hair-pulling, pencil-swiping, name-calling phase when their basic instincts are not just wrong but WAY wrong? That age.

It was a school night, and my mother was not happy. Not angry, really, but sooo disappointed. (That part you don’t forget.) She had just gotten off the phone with the mother of one of my classmates, a quiet, blond girl whose name I can’t recall. Earlier that day, on the walk home from school, in a simian display of prepubescent manliness no doubt meant to impress some other kid, I had done something vile, said something cruel, acted belligerently toward the little blond girl. Later, through many tears, she had reported the incident to her mom.

Confronted by my own shocked, disenchanted mother, of course I got defensive. “It was a JOKE,” I bellowed. “She’s just being a baby.” This lame attempt to deflect responsibility for my own crude behavior only added to my mother’s deepening sense of disappointment. She shook her head in disbelief. “Peter,” she said, “you were raised better than this. We don’t treat people like that. Not ever. You know better.” Her words pierced me, and the shame was overwhelming. But shame was not my mother’s ultimate purpose. She had a boy to raise and a lesson to teach, with high expectations she surely had learned from her own mother years before. And so in spite of my strident objections, we then drove to the blond girl’s house, and my mother stood, arms folded, as I scuffled my way through a mumbled, mortifying, lesson-teaching apology.

I hope that girl has long forgotten that after-school encounter, but it has now been more than 50 years and I cannot forget. Thank God for a mother who refused to let her son become a bully, a rude, confrontational, self-absorbed reprobate more inclined to cruelty than compassion. But more than that: Thank God for a mother who taught me to try to be more like Jesus—more inclined to kindness, unselfishness, good cheer, and virtue. Less attitude and more beatitude. The gospel she taught in our home is about radiating pure love and goodness, and while we lived it imperfectly, she always wanted it to be clear what we were striving for. In simple terms: She envisioned a son with whom any girl could feel safe while walking home.

Perhaps you, yourself, have been there: You’ve felt the shame or delivered the disappointed correction. Or both. Perhaps you remember what it was like to be that other kid, afraid of what might await you on the journey home from school, the kid sitting at the tiny desk in the tiny chair just wanting to be liked or simply left alone. And perhaps years later you’ve sat at that same desk in the same awkward chair, hoping (praying) that in the parent-teacher conference the teacher says, “He is so nice to the other children” or “She is such a delight to have in class.”

Most of us, I think, want those selfsame things for our children. Kindness, generosity, honesty, fair play—these are simple virtues we expect of our kids from the earliest age. And yet if you pay attention to grown-ups these days, it’s hard to miss the belligerence and aggression that dominates social media and the public square, with name-calling and bullying modeled by some of our most prominent citizens. How did this become OK? I can’t possibly be the only one called out by a mom for such conduct. Doesn’t it seem wrong that we now tolerate in adults behavior we would never put up with in a nine-year-old?

Well, we shouldn’t. We mustn’t. For our kids’ sake. As my mom would say: We were raised better than that. Weren’t we?

PW