Happiness and Religion

Over the weekend, I had a chance to watch General Conference again, the twice-a-year series of talks by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s about 10 hours of talks in all, and we always make a weekend out of it with the fam. (Sessions go from 12-2pm, 4-6pm, and 8-10pm on Saturday, then 12-2pm and 4-6pm on Sunday.) You would think persuading your kids that they want to listen to 10 hours of church talks would be a difficult task. You would underestimate the persuasive powers of Oreos and Goldfish.

It’s not all just about bribing the kids, though. For that weekend, we just get to hang out in our pajamas and work on crafts or rest (and yes, maybe catch a nap now and then), all while hearing messages centered around how to be better people. Yes, every now and then there’s a talk that rubs more than a few people the wrong way, but having listened to almost all of the talks in the last twenty years or so, I can comfortably say almost all of them boil down to a few basic principles: be kind to each other. Be good people. Principles that you would be hard pressed to have anyone balk at, except perhaps to say they don’t need religion to tell them to do those things.

(Note: just because people wouldn’t balk at the topics doesn’t mean they’d actually follow the advice in the talks. There’s a far cry from hearing something and thinking it’s a generally good idea to then actually doing that thing in real life, whether it’s feeding the hungry, caring for the downtrodden, or just treating your family kindly on a consistent basis. Then again, any truly faithful person will have some hypocrisy involved somewhere in that faith, simply because we’re all imperfect, even if we’d like to be better.)

Anyway, this is just a preamble to explain the talk I want to discuss briefly today. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf has been one of my favorite speakers for years. He focuses on the aspects of religion that generally hit closest to home for me, and his speech this year was very on point. He was a pilot for Lufthansa for years and years before he became an Apostle. (Once that happens, people give up their day jobs to devote their full time to their church positions.) He’s well-known for tying almost anything into aviation in some way, and this talk kept to that pattern, using the Wright Brothers as a launching point to discuss how devoting yourself to God and Christ can bring you greater joy.

The whole talk is lovely, coming full circle in the end in a way that really tied it together wonderfully. I encourage you to read or watch it, regardless of your religious persuasion, though it’s definitely fully rooted in Christianity. But here’s one snippet that stood out to me:

Jesus taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”23

Can it be that in our search for joy, the best way to find it is to bring joy to others?

Brothers and sisters, you know and I know this is true! Joy is like a barrel of flour or a jar of oil that will never run out.24 True joy multiplies when it is shared.

It doesn’t require something grand or complicated.

We can do simple things.

Like praying for someone with all our heart.

Giving a sincere compliment.

Helping someone feel welcome, respected, valued, and loved.

Sharing a favorite scripture and what it means to us.

Or even just by listening.

“When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God,”25 and God will repay your kindness generously.26 The joy you give to others will return to you in “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.”

I know that religion can be a very (very) sore spot for many, especially when it comes to some of the hot button topics in the world today. Generally, religion is far slower to make changes than many would wish, and we could definitely have a very long conversation about that. But I think our society is generally becoming too focused on finding the things where we disagree instead of looking for areas of commonality. Two different flavors of Christianity might agree on 80 or 90 percent of their teachings, and yet all anyone will look at is that remaining 10 to 20 percent. A Republican and a Democrat might have very similar goals or world views, but are unable to work on anything together, simply because they can’t get over who the other person voted for.

The more we focus on these differences, the more we will struggle to actually get anything done. To effect any positive change in the world. Instead, we become mired in labels and prejudice. It’s ironic that both sides of the political spectrum fall prey to this trap. There’s a laundry list of acceptable and unacceptable labels on both sides of the aisle. One person will loudly object if someone uses the wrong pronouns, and another will be very insulted if they’re casually labeled a “Nazi.” We scurry around deriding some labels and enshrining others, debating what matters and what doesn’t, arguing that labels are irrelevant in some cases but of supreme importance in others, unable or unwilling to see how alike we all are.

The war in Gaza is another example, with some people decrying the actions of Hamas and others pointing the finger squarely at Israel, ignoring whatever pieces of evidence or history might disagree with whatever viewpoint they’ve chosen to espouse. And while that name calling and objecting goes on, people continue to die on both sides.

I think that’s why Elder Uchtdorf’s talk about bringing joy to others resonates with me so much. It’s not about inflicting your opinion on someone else. It’s about finding the things that will bring someone else joy, and then doing those things. Yes, I guess there’s more than a little kumbaya about the sentiment, and it would be easy to dismiss it as naive and trite. But if we were more focused on spreading kindness and compassion, many of the differences that seem so devastating might no longer seem quite as defining. Perhaps we’d begin to be able to see things from a different viewpoint, and if not agree with others, at least understand them and respect them.

When we simply disregard someone else for any reason, we only make things worse.

Anyway. That’s all I’ve got time for today. Thanks for reading this far, and I hope you have a happy Wednesday.

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