Note: The events of recent months have prompted some significant wrestles for faithful members of the Church with sincere questions about vaccines, even leading some to the edge of estrangement. That has compelled me to write this. Although directed primarily at Latter-day Saints cautious about some of the dominant public health messaging about COVID-19 over the last year (and sympathetic to alternative, more natural approaches to healing), I hope some of it might help foster more understanding among those who are neither of these things. Where we disagree strongly about important matters, I keep feeling like the Lord wants us to keep reaching for each other, with love, gentleness, and curiosity.
Come along with me, for a moment, on a little imaginary thought experiment. It’s General Conference, and President Nelson is mid-way through a fall 2020 message on “letting God prevail in our lives.” Then he pauses, and says the following:
As a prophet of God, I must raise my voice about another matter. We are sincerely grateful for new inventions and technological discoveries that have improved the quality of life for so many, including in matters of health. Too often, however, I fear the degree of trust we place in external interventions can unintentionally lead us to discount the Lord’s power in our lives, along with simple adjustments He can inspire us to make in order to improve our health. For instance, scripture and science are both clear on the value of improving what we eat and getting better sleep – with abundant evidence that less stress, and even a little more physical activity can help boost our immunity against disease. Brothers and sisters, now more than ever, may we relish the benefits of greater faith, and inspired daily repentance, including in how we take care of our bodies. Even when we need additional assistance from competent medical practitioners, may we continue to appreciate and explore ways to better care for the “temple of our spirits” – including in serious periods of pandemic.
Stop pretending your friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters with serious questions about prevailing COVID-19 policies are simply selfish, ignorant, or dishonest. As gratifying as that might feel to those of you frustrated over their dissent, it’s simply not an honest or fair position to take – at least, not if you intend to represent the full scope of people’s motives. If you’re open to it, there’s another way to explain much of the public resistance, in a way that doesn’t misrepresent the experience of those who continue to maintain it.
David Brooks wrote recently suggesting that people hesitant to go along with the program and get vaccinated (or mask up) demonstrate an insufficient trust and willingness to “sacrifice for the common good” and support “collective action.” Jay Evertsen similarly argued in recent days that hesitancy around wearing masks among those who have opted out of the vaccine largely reflects a question of “basic honesty of Americans” – hinting that those resistant to these measures are perpetuating at least some “sort of lie.”
Many others have insisted that those harboring such skepticism for prevailing public health guidelines are willingly ignorant – even hostile to – “the science” and the common knowledge they see as indubitable and obvious.
Ignorance. Dishonesty. And selfishness.
That’s about the extent of many people’s conceptions regarding what’s behind the skepticism significant portions of America feels towards prevailing medical dictates. And it baffles me, to be frank, that so many of these same people struggle to imagine any other explanations for resistance.
If you’ve read any commentary about Latter-day Saints of late, you’ve likely read the sad tales of Cal Burke and Natasha Helfer Parker – two of the latest entries in the modern Roll of the Martyrs of Religion.
To be clear – satire aside – neither of these individuals is a true victim by any stretch of the imagination. By many accounts, both had earned the actions and words directed at them. But public commentary has largely side-stepped both of these realities, to paint a picture of their treatment most likelyto generate sympathy for their views, while metastasizing even more grievance, resentment, and suspicion towards orthodox perspectives…exactly what we need more of these days, right?
Let’s also be clear, no true victims of anyone or anything should be minimized. Not of any brutality. But precisely because we are awash in a world of so much real, heart-breaking violence, we owe the many victims of true brutality the clarity to acknowledge the difference between true aggression, and something else.
So, in other words, to honor true victims, we need to see through the creation of false ones. But it’s arguably precisely the abundance of aggression all around that makes accusations of any kind of victimhood so believable.
If a central aim of public discourse is establishing truth, I believe there are times to confront persuasive, impassioned rhetoric, even satirically – especially when that rhetoric leads so many to conclusions destructive of their own faith.
And I believe now is one of those times.
Without further ado, the Five Steps to Making a (Psychological) Martyr:
In the days since a Church Handbook update offered a new point of caution against “seeking miraculous or supernatural healing” from those who claim to have “special methods for accessing healing power” (outside of prayer and God’s priesthood power), some members have taken the opportunity to publish their additional concerns on these matters publicly. Here, one man shared his own feeling that the whole of energy healing was inextricably tied into spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, conspiracy, and “going beyond the mark.”
This brother went on to reference an instance of “sorcery” in the Bible to encapsulate what he saw embodied in energy healing. I’d like to go deeper on this argument – as a way to gently push back on this thoughtful and faithful brother (who is voicing honest thoughts many other members have) – while also raising some of the honest questions about this point of view held by many other members, myself included.
For the sake of brevity, I will only focus on his reference to sorcery– which is a good stand-in for all the other words he cited in his commentary, and a good entree into the discussion as a whole. My essential argument is that this good man is stepping beyond the text of the handbook in an important way – and extrapolating beyond the spirit of the counsel given, which some of us see as more bounded than many members seem to presume.
The words SORCERER, SORCERERS, SORCERIES, and SORCERY are used 15 times in the Bible (7 times in the Old Testament and 8 times in the New Testament – with four in the Book of Revelation alone). Most of the biblical references to these words (including the specific Old Testament story this man cites) refer to either the Greek word Mag-os (meaning Magician, wise man, or sorcerer) – or the Hebrew word Kashaph (meaning to whisper a spell, practice magic, sorcery, witchcraft).
Summary: Laura Delano’s life changed when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager. Even after nineteen medications across a span of fourteen years, she felt deep emotional pain. This is her story of finding deeper, and more lasting healing – along with a happiness she could not have imagined possible.
This will be different than anything I’ve ever written. My intent is very simple: to tell a story that I believe many could benefit from in our faith community.
Why? Because Laura’s story is that of many Latter-day Saint teens and young adults growing up today – or at least it could be. Her story ends differently than many people you and I have known and loved – but that’s precisely the point. While many have started a story very similar to Laura’s, they haven’t yet found her ending (which is actually a new beginning – as Laura’s story continues today hopeful and vibrant).
I believe it’s possible that many of these we love could also find a similar change…if they became aware it was even possible. That’s why I’m writing today – to highlight this woman’s experience because I believe the trajectory of her heartening account could represent a path for many other Latter-day Saints with mental health challenges to find renewed hope and healing in their own lives.
What follows combines quotes from Laura’s other videos, and my own observations of her, with a condensed adaptation of a remarkable feature piece in the New Yorker last year. I supplement this narrative with some additional references to the larger context and some clarifying comments from her directly, having worked with her on a volunteer basis for the last couple of months in her important non-profit organization, Inner Compass Initiative and their signature effort, The Withdrawal Project. As a way to make this more accessible, I have necessarily shortened many parts of the story – and encourage you to review original sources to go deeper. I’ve also embedded here a shorter, recent video of Laura providing a more personal glimpse into her experience.