I adapted this post from a talk that I gave in my ward on June 24, 2018.
We See the Same Things Differently
I do not know what it is like to live without glasses. That’s because I have been wearing glasses for longer than I have memories. There’s a photo of me—it might be hanging up in my parents’ house—when I’m less than two years old. I’m straddling a toy horse with wheels on it, standing up, looking back at the camera, and I have prescription goggles strapped to my little baby head.
The reason that the doctors knew I needed glasses when I was that young was that I had a serious infection that damaged my eyes. I had surgery at the time, back when I was a baby, but it wasn’t really successful. As a kid I needed really powerful prescriptions and even with coke-bottle glasses and bifocals it was still impossible to get my eyes to point in the same direction.
I had surgery again when I was a teenager and the results were better. I’m not nearly as cross-eyed as I used to be, and my glasses aren’t as thick as they once were. But my eyes still don’t cooperate with each other. For the most part, I don’t notice or care about this, but it still bugs me when I see myself in photos and only one eye is looking at the camera or when I try to call on someone to answer a question or say a prayer and they don’t know if I’m calling on them because one eye is looking at them and the other eye is looking at someone else.
All these years of growing up with uncoordinated eyes messed with my brain. For people with healthy eyes, both eyes look at the same thing at the same time, and your brain takes the two images—one from each eye—and it merges them together to give you binocular vision. It helps with depth perception. But when one eye is pointing in one direction and the other eye is pointing in the other direction, the brain can’t merge the pictures together. Eventually, my brain gave up. I don’t have binocular vision anymore.
This isn’t a huge deal. I’m absolutely incapable of hitting a baseball except by blind luck (pun intended) and I can’t see 3d pictures or 3d movies. The way 3d technology works, is that they show slightly different things to your left eye and your right eye and rely on your brain to merge the pieces. It’s like hacking your brain to trick it into seeing 3d. But since my brain doesn’t do that anymore, the hack doesn’t work on me. Back in the 1990s, I could stare at those Magic Eye books for as long as I wanted. Eventually, other people would see 3d objects emerge out of the randomness, but I never saw anything. I can sit in a 3d movie and put on the 3d glasses, but all I see is a regular, 2d movie.
On the other hand, I do have a completely useless super-power now. Since my brain only looks out of one eye at a time, I can pick which eye to see out of. Just by thinking about it, I can bounce my vision back and forth between my left and right eye. It’s like the whole world is shifting left and then right and then left again, but nothing’s actually changing. Like I said: it’s a totally useless super-power.
I see the world around me, just like all of you do, but I see it in a very slightly different way.
Same Book, Different Story
The topic I was given to talk about today was the impact of the Book of Mormon on my life. The only way to do that, really, is to imagine what my life would be like without the Book of Mormon. But I tried, in preparing for this talk, to imagine my life without the Book of Mormon, and I couldn’t do it.
Theoretically, I know there was a time when I saw the world in 3d, but I can’t remember it. The way I see the world now is the only way I can ever remember seeing the world.
I don’t remember the first time I read the Book of Mormon, and I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. I was probably around 8 or 9, and so I do have some memories of life before the Book of Mormon, but not really. I remember falling off of the top bunk of the bed in the single-wide trailer where we lived while my dad was still in grad school. There were Legos scattered on the floor, and I landed flat on my back on top of them. It was my first experience having the wind really knocked out of me, and as I lay there on the ground it felt like there were tight cords wrapped all around me, squeezing the air out and preventing me from breathing. And what I thought to myself was: “This must have been what Nephi felt when his brothers tied him up in the desert.”
So, even before I’d actually read the Book of Mormon, the stories from it were already part of how I understood the world around me. It wasn’t just the Book of Mormon, by the way. When I was like 4 or 5 years old—just before starting kindergarten—I would spend all day playing with my toys on the floor while listening to the Old Testament on tape. Yes, the Old Testament. We didn’t have too much in the way of electronics in those days, but we had a cassette player and some headphones with a really, really long cord and I would just listen to tape after tape of old-school, fire-and-brimstone, Abraham-sacrificing-Isaac Old Testament. And while we’re on the topic, let me tell you that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac comes across in a whole new light when you’re hearing it as your father’s eldest son and you’re only 4 years old. That one left an impression! Another time, when my dad came home from school and we were eating dinner together, I told him that it was really important that he not marry a Canaanite woman. I knew that he was already married and so it probably wasn’t an issue, but the prophets had seemed really insistent on that point, and so I wanted to make sure he got the message. It seemed prudent to make sure we had all bases covered in that regard, just in case.
I’m not the right person to ask about how the scriptures have impacted my life—the Book of Mormon or others—because I don’t know any differently. It’s like asking me what my is like without seeing in 3d. How should I know? It’s all I’ve ever known.
Besides, even if I could remember a life before and after reading the Book of Mormon, I’m not sure that it would really mean anything to anyone but me. Just like we can all look around this chapel and see the same things, but see them in different ways, when we read the Book of Mormon we’re all reading the same book, but we each have our own individual understanding of what we read.
We read the Book of Mormon at different points in our lives, for different reasons, with different questions, and with our own assumptions and hopes and fears. And so the Book of Mormon becomes something unique for all of us.
So I decided to turn the topic around. My kids are reading the Book of Mormon for the first time this year. And I want to talk about the things that I hope they learn from reading it.
Lesson 1 – God Is Real, and He Is Involved in Our Lives
Gravity is real. It’s invisible and we never see it directly, but it’s definitely there and we can see it’s effects. But gravity isn’t very interactive. It doesn’t care about you.
God is not like gravity. God is not a distant, powerful creator who set the world in motion and walked away. God cares about you. God reacts to you. God has plans for you, and those plans involve you as an active participant.
The story I like here is the Brother of Jared picking out 16 bright stones to use for light while they were in the watertight barges crossing to the Promised Land. I don’t think God intended for the Brother of Jared to pick that solution to the problem. I think He would have been just as happy if the Brother of Jared had brought some regular old lamp oil and said, “please touch this lamp oil so it never runs out” or something else. But the Brother of Jared shows up with an armful of rocks and God just rolled with it.
That’s the template I want my kids to have when they are working with God. First, that they are supposed to work with God. Second, that there isn’t necessarily one right answer. There doesn’t have to be a perfect solution. There are goals, there are obstacles, and there’s limitless scope for us to use our talents and our inspiration and our friends and everything we can think of to get past the obstacles to the goals, and God will work with us collaboratively in that process.
Don’t worry about doing the best thing. Just try really hard to do good things, and know that God will have your back.
Lesson 2 – Prophets Are Not Superheroes
Let me get back to that story of Nephi being bound in the wilderness. It’s a great story. Nephi, Mr. Large-in-Stature himself, gets tied up and so he prays to God and asks for the strength to burst the ropes. He’s imagining himself going all He-Man and using his big muscles. Instead, if you read the actual scripture, it just says that the ropes loosened.
17 But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.1 Nephi 7:17-18 (emphasis added)
18 And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.
It’s such a human moment. Nephi has one thing in mind, and he’s got faith and he’s got good intentions, but his plan and the Lord’s plan aren’t coinciding this time, and what he gets is something surprising, totally unexpected, and not what he’d actually asked for.
It’s important to keep in mind that prophets are people like us. They aren’t a separate breed. It’s important to remember, because if we forget and start to think that prophets are superheroes then we might think of ourselves as just sidekicks or maybe even innocent bystanders. But there are no superheroes, no sidekicks, no bystanders. There are just children of God, and we all have the same potential and we all matter just the same to our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.
This should comfort us.
And it should also make us a little bit nervous. If there are superheroes around, then regular people are off the hook. But if all we’ve got is regular people, then all the regular people are still on the hook.
Lesson 3 – Life Isn’t Fair and Things Don’t Make Sense
This is gonna get just a little bit dark, but bear with me.
When Christ was crucified a whole list of cities in the Book of Mormon get buried in avalanches, drowned in the sea, or burned by fire. And sure, those are the wicked cities, but what: do you think that there were no children in them?
Or how about Alma and Amulek and their preaching? When the people of Ammonihah didn’t like it, they took the women and children and burned them alive using the scriptures as fuel. Amulek wants to save them, but Alma says no. “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand.”
So, the same God who spared Isaac, who shut the mouths of the lions when Daniel was in their den, who made Sahdrach, Meshach, and Abednego impervious to flame told Alma the this time the kids had to burn. I don’t know why. It’s tough. It’s hard. It’s nobody’s favorite chapter in the Book of Mormon.
But I’m glad that story is in there. Because life is like that. There are people—right now—who are going through more suffering than I can even imagine. I have nothing to complain about. I’ve had it pretty easy my whole life, but there are other people who confront a stack of tragedies a mile high. If the Book of Mormon didn’t have that kind of story in it—an awful, terrible one that doesn’t make sense to us—than it wouldn’t really be about the real world. It would be about a kind of Disney-version of the real world where the good guys always win, the story always has a happy ending, and everything makes sense.
I believe the good guys will one, in the end. I believe the ending will be happy, one day. I believe it will all make sense, ultimately. But it doesn’t here and now.
These stories are hard, but I’m glad they’re there because I hope they can prepare us to face the small disappointments or large tragedies that we might face in our own lives. We all go through hard times, and you may as well learn to start wrestling with questions that have no easy answers now, because they will never ever go away.
Lesson 4 – Jesus Is the Christ and the Restoration Is Real
The Book of Mormon is another witness of Jesus Christ. It’s job is to testify of him and of his mission. Along the way, it also serves as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. We’re supposed to know prophets by their fruits, and the Book of Mormon is one of Joseph Smith’s. If it testifies of Christ, then Joseph Smith was a prophet of Christ.
I can’t remember reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, but I have clearer memories of praying about it for the first time. I was older, probably about 16, and I realized that I needed to know for myself. I couldn’t rely on my parents’ testimony. I needed my own. Just like Nephi wasn’t satisfied with Lehi’s vision. He wanted his own.
The biggest obstacle for me was how much I wanted it to be true. It’s hard to pray for an answer when you really, really want to get one particular answer. It took me a long time to work up the courage to be willing to receive “no” as the answer to the prayer. When I believed that I was willing to tell my parents, “I don’t believe this is true” (if that’s the answer that God sent me), then I felt like I was ready to pray.
Well, I’m here, so obviously that’s not the answer that I got. But it’s not like I got a once-and-done, testimony-is-solid-forever answer, either. I got, just enough. Just enough of a feeling to keep going. Just enough light to see the next step.
In general, I hope my kids don’t follow my example. I hope they do better. But in this case, I hope they do what I did.
Seeing Eye to Eye
These are some lessons I hope my kids learn, but when and if they do learn these lessons I know they’re going to learn them in their own way. They won’t see things exactly the way that I do. They will see things a little bit differently.
That’s how it goes. We’re all here worshiping together. We all made the same covenants when we were baptized by the same authority into the same Church. We’re all trying to be obedient to the same God and we’re all washed in the same blood. But we don’t see eye-to-eye quite yet.
We will, one day.
Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.Isaiah 52:8 and Mosiah 12:22
One day it’s going to make sense, and one day we’ll understand, and one day we’ll be one. But in the meantime, in the interim, we’re all a little bit alone, struggling to reach out to each other and learn how to come closer together. Even when we have testimonies of the same thing, the testimonies aren’t identical.
That’s one of the most important things scripture does. It gives us something in common. God could, in theory at least, write an individualized book for each one of us. But he didn’t. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is to give everyone the same guiding star.
I can’t just give my kids my testimony. I can’t just forklift the lessons I learned from my mind and heart into theirs. They have to get their own testimonies. They have to learn their own lessons. And so their testimonies and lessons will be different from mine.
But not entirely different. There’s going to be some overlap. There’s going to be some common ground. We are, I fervently hope, going to share one faith. That is one of my highest hopes. That reading the Book of Mormon is going to be part of the process of my family coming together. The older you get, the more life pulls family members—kids from parents and siblings from each other—in different directions. That’s entropy. That’s the chaos of the world.
Scripture, testimony, sacrament, covenants, the atonement: these are the forces that pull in the other direction. These are the things that keep us together. These are the things that can—one beautiful day when Zion comes again—make us all one.
Thanks, Nathaniel. This is a fantastic post.
Thanks for this, I appreciate your insights and you express them beautifully.
This is so beautiful. Thank you.
Well, I’ve disagreed with a lot of things on your posts over the last few years. But it seems we do share that lack of binocular vision, and the ability to switch the dominant eye providing the image to our brains…
“Scripture, testimony, sacrament, covenants, the atonement: these are the forces that pull in the other direction. These are the things that keep us together.”
I am an atheist ex-Mormon. This has not been me experience at all. Just the mere mention that I didn’t believe in God or the Mormon Church drove my parents and believing siblings to completely ostracize me. And I never once criticized their beliefs or openly showed contempt towards them for so believing. I am not alone either. I have heard similar stories from other ex-Mormon atheists. The teachings of the Mormon Church condition its believers to have high intolerance for family members and friends who leave it. The whole idea of making a covenant only seems to give license to other members to heavily shame family members for supposedly breaking it. The teaching that families can be together forever seems to cause people to have more fear than joy. For it causes them to worry excessively if a family member decides no longer to participate that that family member becomes an impediment to the eternal family (which is how my in-laws treated me and even told my wife to divorce me) and must therefore be cast out.
The Mormon Church’s teachings and ordinances have high potential to tear mixed-belief families apart.
I’m truly sorry for your experiences, K Wilson. While it’s not my place to judge, it certainly seems from what you’ve said as though your family was not following the teachings of the Church. I happen to have read a talk yesterday that is relevant. It’s a talk from the April 1981 General Conference and it includes the following story:
That is the Church’s teaching on the topic. It seems as though your family didn’t get the memo. I’m sure that it probably came from a good place–they were afraid of what it would mean, for them and for you–to have you turn away from the faith. Maybe they had the very best of intentions. But their response (again, based on what you told me) came from a place of fear and was not in line with the teachings of their own faith.
I’m very sorry for what you went through–are going through–but this “excessive worry” is not what the Church teaches. It’s what ordinary members, failing to live up to the teachings of the Church, do out of their human imperfections.
We all suffer or are redeemed through our biases. True those biases change as we acquire knowledge and understanding, we then see biases as part of the learning curve. Thanks for your insights, I enjoyed it.
Really liked your post Nathaniel. Makes me think of the fact that Scripture’s function is pretty complicated with regard to the world it builds us. I agree about the potency of it’s unifying potential. But there’s a whole lot in the scriptures like the experience of Alma and Amulek and plenty of commands like don’t marry canaanites—things that are difficult and things that resist our attempts to understand or make sense of or see as divine. I suspect it’s precisely this struggle that scripture calls forth for us collectively and the proliferation of perspectives that result that is part of the point. I rather suspect that the unity we experience in Zion won’t be on account of or exemplified in all of us having binocular vision.
Thanks for sharing this. It made my Sunday.
Just another response to K. Wilson from a mother of 5 who has sorrowed to see 4 of her children leave the faith. K– I’m so sorry for the fear and worry and rejection you have felt from your family. I am sad to admit I also fell short of showing the level of unconditional love I should have shown when navigating this situation with my own children. Nathaniel is correct- we have been taught better than this. But sadly fear leads many of us to fall short. My advice is to be patient and try to be generous in your assumptions. Don’t stall in your judgment of your family- give them a chance to progress in your relationship with one another. It may take some time for them to get their head around the new reality. For our family it has helped to focus on other areas where we have mutual interest where we can rebuild connections and continue to find joy together. It has taken a few years and a lot of love and generosity on both sides to get there but I think we have made good progress.