Extreme Unconditional Love
I criticized an LDS Living blog post on my facebook wall the other day, saying.
LDS Living has had some surprisingly progressive articles recently, but this is another awful one. Bob Millet is best known for being one of the early leaders in the LDS grace movement of the 1990’s along with Bruce Hafen, Stephen Robinson, and later Brad Wilcox. But his approach here is utterly Pharisaical. It shows a selfish and narrow-minded parenting perspective that’s just ugly. The parents in this article who are “mourning” their children for experiencing life and making decisions differently than they would (duh) need to look in the mirror or ask God to reveal to them what they’re doing to cause problems for their children not obsess about how their children are causing them to suffer.
One interesting reply praised the article for what was deemed as a loving approach to a wayward child. Here’s the anecdote from the article with my bolding for emphasis for the harmful parts.
A dear friend of mine shared the following experience. At a time when he and his wife were suffering over a wandering child, he prayed and prayed for the strength and the heart to love his errant son, no matter what. That was terribly difficult, for he desperately wanted this boy to become all that the father knew he could become. He wanted to be honest with his son, so he prepared and waited for a time when he felt his expressions could be heartfelt and genuine. On one occasion he waited up for his son until about two o’clock in the morning, when the son came in. The father said, “Come in, Bill. Let’s talk for a moment.” The young man back-peddled. “I know I’m late. I know I said I would be in earlier.” The father cut him off. “No, no, Bill. That’s not what I wanted to talk with you about. I just wanted to tell you that I’ve missed you. It’s been a long time since we sat down and spent a few moments together. Do you have some time right now?” Startled, the son said, “I guess so.”
Bill was touched by the honesty of his father and, more especially, by the rich outpouring of a love now devoid of rules and conditions. Through tears, my friend explained that that moment was a turning point in their relationship.
I strongly disagree this is a good approach. It’s not the worst approach to a “wayward” child. Worse approaches could include: shunning, manipulating by withdrawing resources either material or love and affection, going to their siblings to bad talk them and turn them against one another, etc. So, there’s worse ways to do it, and some of us have seen this. So, we may think this is a decent approach.
No, I still think it’s a terrible approach, and here’s why. The parent sends two harshly judgmental and bad messages (bolded above).
1. That what the child is doing is deeply hurting his mom and dad.
A child is never going to have the same perspective on life as the parents. And that’s a good thing. That doesn’t hurt the parents. If the parents decide to be hurt by what the child thinks or does, that’s the parents responsibility. It’s manipulative and judgemental for the parent to put that back on the child.
2. That the father wants more than anything for the child to be active and involved in the Church.
That’s a terrible thing for a father to rank as what he wants “more than anything” for a child. That they are happy, that they feel a purpose in life, that they feel loved, that they have a fulfilling religious and spiritual life. Those seem OK to rank as what wants “more than anything” for a child. But active in the Church. Come on. That’s so shallow. Take a step back. If we saw a movie clip of this experience but it was a Jehovah’s Witness or Catholic, and the parent was giving a heavy handed guilt trip of how bad the child was hurting his mother and father by leaving their religion and how they wanted more than anything for them to stay in their religion, any Mormon would see that as manipulative and shallow. “Just love your kid and let them make their own choices.” I can see even the most literal believing strongest testimony Mormons saying that.
Jordan Peterson says when you have a conversation with someone, you must believe there is something you could learn from them. Or else it’s not really a conversation.
Can we look at our adult children this way? Let’s isolate this on adult children, because I think there’s a big difference. We’re responsible for our minor aged children to help them grow and learn and progress into adults, and there’s a much more active process of teaching, shaping, and sometimes punishing. But our adult children, we don’t have that same relationship. Let’s isolate on that.
It’s natural for us to have an opinion of what our adult children should do. Who they should date. What they should study. What career. Where to live. For Mormons, how active they remain in the Mormon Church. What they believe. What they do.
At what threshold do we feel it’s important to sit our kid down to tell them “you’re hurting me deeply” and “I want you to do this more than anything”?
I’m breaking the commandments.
I’m going to marry Billy.
I’m becoming addicted to drugs and losing my family and job because of it.
I’m going to quit law school and start a band.
I’m going to stop wearing nylons under my dress at church.
I’m going to become a skinhead and join the KKK.
I lost my testimony and I’m leaving the Church.
I’m dressing in a style old people don’t like.
I’m going to become the biggest Anti-Mormon in the world and do everything I can to destroy the LDS Church.
Some are absurd. You’d be a jerk as a parent if you tried to manipulate things at this level. Your adult children are living their lives not yours, so butt out. Some might be difficult for certain types of parents and easier for others. A couple of those we might all agree is appropriate to take that interventionist “judgemental” type of approach.
Something I think is very important in this, is that you actually have to be humble enough to acknowledge that another person can do their life better than you can do it. As much as I think sometimes I could do my wife’s life way better than she could, and make smarter decisions, I actually know I couldn’t. It’s taken me a long time to learn this. But I really do believe it. I can do my life better than anyone else can. But I can’t do your life better than you. Only you know what’s best for you. Only you understand how what you’re doing will affect everything else in your left present and future and all the people you effect, such that you understand what you should do.
I think that’s the main thing missing from the anecdote above. I think that parent absolutely believes he knows what’s best for his child. And his child has no idea what’s best for himself. That’s a real crappy message. So if you’re a parent and you think that, I think you should spend some time working on that and fix it. Repeat after me: your child really does know better than you how to do his life.
There’s a step even further than this. I’d like to throw out the idea that radical or extreme unconditional acceptance might be the right approach. The movie Leaving Las Vegas left a serious impression on me. In it, an alcoholic who is killing himself slowly and intentionally with alcohol consumption and a prostitute meet and have a very interesting relationship. At first she thinks should should try to fix him. But then accepts him. For his birthday, she gives him a flask. He is moved deeply. I don’t know if this is true, unconditional love. Or if it’s co-dependency. Or some other unhealthy approach to relationships. But something in it seems really true and really right. For a moment, I almost thought this feeling of unconditional love would be the one thing that would reach that place inside where he’s so hurt and damaged and maybe change his mind and decide to get clean and live better. Would have been a great story. Oh well. In the story, he is deeply moved. But still is undeterred from his goal to kill himself slowly, which he eventually does.
If my child comes to me and says he is no longer a BYU fan and is going to start cheering for the U. Could I accept it immediately and not just in a begrudging way but in a way that I actually think it’s a smart decision? If my child tells me he’s going to leave the Church and become an Anti-Mormon, what if my first reaction is “wow I didn’t see that coming, but I trust you completely, tell me why, maybe I should join you.”
Now imagine God with this view of his children. That’s a pretty interesting idea. Nothing you could do could change how I feel about you, because I have zero opinion on what you should do, only love and support for you for everything that you attempt. Not sure about it. But this is something I think about sometimes. If God isn’t like this, can he truly love us unconditionally? How can he love and support us if he’s obsessed about us doing what’s right all the time?
My head starts hurting if I think about this too much. I guess there probably is a point where you draw the line and say I just can’t condone what you’re doing. And there probably is a line we cross where God is displeased with our actions and prompts us to repent. But if that line does exist, I think it exists way, way further past “my child isn’t active in the Church.”