Hope is real. God is not.
But that’s alright, because there are plenty of people in this world trying to sell you things that don’t work because they know that if you can feel scared enough, they can make you feel “hopeful” enough. To get a better life? No. They have no impetus to make your life better. Their onus is on getting money. Your money, if they can, but your loved ones’ money will do just as nicely.
In The Korihor Argument, I write about how I had to learn to adapt to life as a Mormon missionary and that included something called “The Commitment Pattern”. As a Mormon missionary, the so-called “Commitment Pattern” is as much Gospel as any words in the Bible. Every Tuesday, in every District meeting, a group of us as missionaries – sometimes as few as 4, sometimes a dozen or more – would meet in a Church or a house somewhere and someone (sometimes me) would rise to say these familiar words:
“What is this?”
“The Preach My Gospel Manual.”
“Who wrote it?”
“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”
“Do we sustain those men as prophets, seers, and revelators?”
“Does that make this book Scripture to us?”
“Then why aren’t we living it?”
Then we would get a familiar lecture about how God had actually given us the Commitment Pattern, which looks like this:
The Commitment Pattern was not just sold to us as a missionary tool. It was understood that this model of teaching was an effective way to run a household and a marriage, to raise children, and most importantly: to succeed in business.
You can deduce by looking at it how it really works but here is the gist: “Why would I sell you on Mormonism when I can convince you to sell us on you?”
“I sell cars. You sell you.”
Let’s say that you really want a new car. There are plenty of sensible options out there that actually give you good reason to hope for a better future with that car. That is where values are assessed in making a purchasing decision. If the car has good brakes, good seatbelt and airbags and strong safety ratings, it is reasonable to presume that your family is safer because they are riding in that car. A good car like that will run you somewhere between $20,000 and $35,000 brand new and maybe $10,000 or thereabouts buying used.
But there are cars that cost $250,000 or more and are not safer and are not more economic. In fact, most of them are arguably less safe and far less economical. What convinces a person to buy such a car? Perhaps for some it is still about values: performance, handling, the thrill of going fast. But most will still use that car mainly just to get to and from work.
So why buy the Maserati instead of the Accord? It is still an emotional buy-in. I love the line of commercials that Jerry Seinfeld wrote for Acura that channeled his inner-Mad-Men with the line “I sell cars. You sell you.”
Jerry Seinfeld actually dug out old Honda and Acura car ads to come up with some of the cheesy one-liners that Honda’s spokesman uses in the ad, always culminating in a cheesy-if-confident “I sell cars. You sell you.”
That is perfect. I don’t need to sell you on that an Acura MDX makes you a shoe-in with pretty young things that look like your wife did twenty years ago. (You know that’s got to be the dreamy machine that office honeys get chatty about around the water cooler).
Old Madison Avenue could not be more on-point with exactly how American consumerism works: if I can convince you to sell yourself to me, I will make far more money than I ever made selling you gasoline-guzzling, inefficient machines that chain you by the ankle to Saudi oil-men like a 21st Century slave.
Now, I have worked in video production for twenty long and painful years. I’ve seen a lot of bad advertising come out of boardrooms and CEOs’ brains. I have been asked to do things – I kid you not – that were 100%, blatantly ILLEGAL to get you to buy something that you can buy a better alternative for at a much better price, somewhere else. I always say no when it is illegal, but the barely-legal alternative that they come up with, I always go ahead and make.
Most of those videos never turn a dime. To be quite blunt with you: as a video producer, I do not need to make a video that makes you money. I just need to make the video that you ask me to make and I will confront you a total of ONE TIME if I think that you have a chance to make better returns by changing your tactic.
Once. After that, forget it. It isn’t my job to make you money. It’s my job to make you videos. I’d like for you to make money, but if you don’t value my advice then fuck it, because I need to be concerned about my making money.
But occasionally, I make a video that makes HUGE money. And when I say HUGE money, I mean hundreds of millions. Almost always, it is a video that someone high up in the company hates, but the message is simple: this company is where you want to be and you aren’t.
I learned that from my mission.
Now I want to go ahead and say something controversial.
Mental health works on the same principle.
If I want to sell you God, this is the pitch:
“Jamie, you need hope in your life. Don’t you see that you need hope in your life? You don’t want to go to Hell, do you? You want to go to Heaven, don’t you? How are you going to convince me that you deserve God’s grace?”
Then, when Jamie makes a commitment that requires sacrifice – real sacrifice – then I have something to follow-up with, later.
“Jamie, I distinctly remember that you told me that you wanted your kids to grow up with better values than they are now. I remember that you said that you would take them to Church every week to learn those values. I remember you saying that you would give 15 minutes a day to reading the Book of Mormon. These are the things that you wanted for you, Jamie. I just want you to have what you wanted.”
Selling insurance works the same way.
“Scott, you need hope, man! How are you going to sleep at night without the hope of a better future for your family even if something happens to you? Why don’t you tell me what you can do now so that they can have one last act of mercy and love from you and be able to mourn you without being concerned about money?”
MLM works the same way.
“Mindy, you gotta have hope! Do you think that your life is going to improve if you don’t have hope of a residual income? Aren’t you tired of throwing money away when you could be buying the same products from Amway while making your money work for you? I know that you need these products, Mindy, and so all that I want to ask is: what can you commit right now to do to set yourself up for success with Amway?”
And therapy works the same way.
“Joe, you gotta have hope! I think about where you are right now, without any hope, and I’m concerned for your safety. You need to meditate! You need to take drugs! You need to do something – anything – that makes you feel hopeful and stop thinking about things that rob you of hope! Why don’t you convince me of what you are going to do in order to get what you want out of therapy?”
The brilliant part is that they think that what they are actually doing is just setting benchmarkable goals to get you to succeed. What is really happening is “I sell cars. You sell you.”
We who live in Mormon communities need to be concerned about suicidal ideation.
Mental health isn’t real. Suicide is.
In America, while we carry on pretending that our country is made of red, white and blue bacon-wrapped Jesus cakes, you are more likely to kill yourself than you are to be killed by someone else.
Does that sound like a country with hope? Bacon-wrapped or any other variety?
The thing is that there are real, benchmarkable goals that we can set for our society to reduce the number of suicides that are happening in our communities, particularly in Utah, where more young men commit suicide than in any other state in the Union.
Don’t expect hope from the Church on this one – in a recent statement, they blamed the recent run of suicides of gay Mormon teens on the victims and their families for allowing themselves to become distanced from the Church. “Don’t blame us, we could have helped,” one could paraphrase “but we can’t help if you aren’t showing up and if you aren’t confessing your sins and participating. What are we supposed to do?” This is how “I sell cars. You sell you.” takes advantage of suicide rather than take responsibility for their own part in it.
So, we must do it if it is to be done. No Jesus is coming. No God is here. We are here.
Suicide prevention, I have said before, is unethical. There isn’t time to go back over that now but I will in the near future. But resolving suicidal ideation is not unethical. it is one of the noblest that we can do.
- Do tell them all ways that they are not a burden to you. No matter what they say, reaffirm and repeat the ways that they add to your life, even if it is little things and even if they act like they don’t appreciate it.
- Do not lie to them. That ruins the whole point. Show them genuine concern and honesty.
- Do offer to spend time with them if they like.
- Do not – I repeat: DO NOT – refer them to the National Suicide Prevention hotline. There is absolutely no accounting for what they are told there and it really is just a capture system to send emergency services to their home to assess whether or not to imprison them against their will. At best hope, it will only compound their problems, further.
- Do listen and answer honestly, not just argumentatively. Do tell them how you feel and what you think.
- Do not take offense at their responses.
- Do offer to take them for hospitalization or to find treatment. Any emergency room can check them into an in-patient watch. The difference here is that the person gets to choose if they want to go to the hospital. Make sure that they understand that they will be held and that they cannot leave for 24-48 hours but that they will be kept safe.
- Do not try to convince them to go to therapy or to suicide watch. That is counter-productive.
- Do not guilt or shame them with judgemental phraseology like “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” or “I hear you crying for help” or “you don’t know what’s in the future for you.” Listen more and judge less.
- Do not try and convince other people that what worked for you or did not work for you will work for them or not work for them. Your brain chemistry is yours and theirs is theirs.
A few weeks ago, I spoke in St. George about The Korihor Argument. We quickly derailed into talking about the recent Mormon teen suicide outbreak and I mentioned that there is solid research into suicidal ideation and what causes it and that there is a major problem with it:
Most people think that therapists and mental health professionals are trained in the most recent research into suicidal ideation. That is not even remotely true. Suicide is treated as a specialty and not basic training in any mental health discipline, including psychiatry. Suicidal people are only passed between these services. They cannot just be dropped into anyone’s lap and left to be dealt with as “your problem, now” because they will not get help that way.
I mentioned that these are the two convictions that suicidologists say convince people that they want to escape their pain, forever:
“I am a burden on others.”
“I am running out of options.”
If a person feels convinced that these two statements apply uniquely to them, they are at serious risk of hurting themselves. It is good to be concerned. But try to address these convictions and not to just placate your own ego by convincing yourself that there is some tough love that you can show them or some guilt-and-shame conquest about something that you think that you know.
As long as I feel like I am a burden on others and I am running out of options, I am at risk of killing myself. Mormonism has engendered these feelings in a lot of people, myself included. It haunts our every interaction. It prevents us from having fulfilling and enriching relationships. It convinces us to sabotage ourselves, blame ourselves and hurt ourselves and trust people that we should not trust because we feel that we have failed to sell ourselves to others.
Can we convince ourselves to not sell ourselves so cheap that others can use it to extort us and to hurt us?
Isn’t that what Korihor meant when he said “I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.” (Alma 30:23)
I don’t want to turn this spotlight onto myself but I do want to lend my personal voice to this question. I am a survivor of childhood trauma. I have tried in the past to kill myself and most days, I think about doing it, again. I’ve tried drugs and they don’t work for me, though they might work for you. I’ve tried therapy though only half-assedly because I have an averse reaction to selling myself to another religion. I have very little hope of making it out of this life by accident and I know that our culture has become obsessed with the fantasy of live-as-though-you-will-never-die and only-die-by-accident, but I have made peace with the fact that I am not getting better and I will choose my own end if I in any way can.
The last and most important thing: do not accept guilt for someone else’s suicide. Suicide is a choice that they have made. Yes, they usually do it for altruistic reasons – because they are convinced that you are better off without them. But their whole lives have been feeding into those sentiments, not just what you have done or neglected to do.
The hardest thing for a suicidal person to do is to forgive themselves. Most of us can relate to that problem. Learn to forgive yourself if you can because condemning yourself to be worthy of other people’s hate and ire may be the last thing that you ever do.