Monday, 18 May 2015

Freedom of speech?

It is not that long ago that many were linking arms in protests all over the world, chanting the phrase, "Je suis Charlie". Even if the flush of those protests is long over, it was a very loud message designed to let all know that we believed in the right of free speech, that no-one should die for that expression. This should not be confused with support for the actual message which Charlie expressed but for the journalists' right to express it without fear of their lives. At the same time I have somewhat shocked at the level of abuse hurled by both liberals and conservatives at those who would dare to disagree with them, including death threats in some instances. I have seen people lose their jobs for expressing their personal opinion on certain topical subjects.

So how do we make judgements as to where does freedom of expression end and abuse begin? The sad thing is that our society does not have a good track record for consistency in those judgements. Perhaps it is my perception but it appears that instances of abusive behavior and expression are escalating. At the same time, I have more frequently witnessed efforts to suppress oppositional thinking. In these instances there have been no large parades, no signs, no leaders coming out in solidarity for freedom of speech.

I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject and I am treating this more as a learning exercise because the subject of freedom of expression is not simple or straightforward. These are the principles I understand but I welcome others that you see may equally apply.

1Every person has the right to seek, receive and impart information and opinions freely under terms set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I note that this description does not talk about the right to abuse, shame or vilify others. 

2. It applies to all or it is not free: The above principle in Article 19 applies to both the giver and the receiver of information and opinions. Freedom of speech means not only do I have the right to my own opinions and beliefs but it means that I have to respect your right to self-expression also.

3. For freedom of expression to work in a democratic society it  requires patience, tolerance and compassion. It cannot work without mutual respect and with some large measure of giving space to others.

4. Freedom of expression means that you don't always have to be wrong in order for me to be right. While we have every right to state when we believe that someone is wrong (in our minds) we do not have the right to attempt to suppress them from thinking or believing their own truth. However, I think that we would go a lot further in being able to exchange information and opinions if we were to remove much of the personal insults out of the equation. What I am witnessing so often with the personal abuse that is hurled is that this distracts from true, principled discussion. We are focussing too much on the personalities and not enough on the issues. We look to denigrate and stomp out any opposition with abusive rhetoric about the PERSON and not the topic. This lowers the level of intelligent conversation in our homes, in our workplaces and in our society as a whole.

5. Freedom of expression should be largely principle based and not personality based. Yes, we can have an opinion on someone, we can feel emotionally moved or upset by someone's behavior but when we allow those emotions to boil over into abuse and an attempt to manipulate another person then we have gone too far. This is disastrous not just because it hurts others but because we lose the ability to truly discuss opposing principles and to learn from each other.

6. There is a fine line between free speech and hate speechIn my opinion, we will know when free speech has truly enhanced democracy by its fruits. True exercise of freedom of expression can inspire, promote thought, clarify, adjust and/or strengthen our opinions and understanding. It does not mean that we will necessarily come to agree with all opinion givers. 

Conversely, when I read comments on some articles and blogs that speak of "idiots", "that person should be dead", "I hate them" or similar statements, then I feel nothing but their anger and I feel fear for our society as a whole. Such statements do not encourage free and intelligent thinking. I have witnessed such statements made by top influencers in our society, by and about politicians, lawyers and judges, top businessmen and other personalities who are able to personally denigrate without impunity and where the message is one of suppression for anything but their particular opinion. 

Name calling can never equal intelligence nor encourage sound debate. This is perhaps our current problem with so many in our society where debate is not the objective but the forcing of people to step in line with a particular belief. I question whether this arises from our insecurities. Do we need to make sure that all others believe as we do in order for us to justify our position? Are we afraid that real debate will undermine us and our choices? If so, then we are coming from a place as victims and not from a position of personal power. Threatening others personally to avoid a true discussion is sign of personal weakness and never a position of authority.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Lessons from the Brother of Jared

For some time now I have been debating the receiving of revelation from our Heavenly Father and trying to make sense of what I perceived to be mixed messages. I have been particularly curious about the experience of the brother of Jared in the Book of Mormon.

Here was my dilemma: Doctrine and Covenants 9: 8-9 describes a process whereby we must study something out in our minds before we ask for the Lord to grant us an answer. We further read the phrases, "Ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you" to tell us that the Lord wants us to use our own minds, work out what we want from him and then ask. It goes well together with the excellent counsel to not be a slothful servant and not having to be commanded in all things (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26).

However, there is given in other scriptures and in talks by our modern prophets and apostles a different understanding of revelation. Let's look at the Savior's example in the first instance when he cried in anguish at the very moment of despair in the garden of Gethsemane, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26: 39). He stated this many times that he had come to do the will of the Father and not his own and he submitted himself completely to his mission as given by the Father. In relating that to us, the scriptures tell us in 1 John 5:14:

"And this is the confidence that I have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will he heareth thee"

There is some further illustration of this in the Book of Mormon when Nephi is granted a wonderful blessing:

"....And now because thou has done this with such unwearingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will."
(Helaman 10:5)

So how do we both exercise our ability to make decisions at the same time as submit our will completely to the Lord? I looked for answers to this in the story of the brother of Jared which has become a signature scripture for my life. When we think of the story of the brother of Jared our minds tend to go to the section where the Lord told him to find a solution to having light in the barges before heading off for the Promised Land. In doing this we tend to take the teachings out of context and lose the whole message. I have heard it used many times to illustrate that we need to think for ourselves before we go to the Lord, that revelation comes as a result of our instigation. My study tells me that the Lord has a number of ways of answering prayers and of giving personal revelation.

Let's begin with Ether 1: 34-35. In these verses the brother of Jared pleads with the Lord not to confound their language at the time of the tower of Babel. It reads in verse 35:

".... and the Lord did have compassion upon Jared; therefore he did not confound the language of Jared; and Jared and his brother were not confounded."

 In this example, the Lord answered his prayer, his request, directly and immediately. The conversation was instigated by the family of the brother of Jared. However, in this second example it is the Lord who instigated the conversation and had a request or a direction to give to his people. We read in Ether 2:5

"And it came to pass that the Lord commanded them that they should go forth into the wilderness, yea, into that quarter where there never had man been. And it came to pass that the Lord did go before them, and did talk with them as he stood in a cloud, and gave directions whither they should travel."

and again similarly in Ether 2:16

And the Lord said, Go to work and build, after the manner of barges which ye have hitherto built. And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did go to work, and also his brethren, and built barges after the manner which they had built, according to the instructions of the Lord."

In these instances the Lord expressed his will to the brother of Jared and gave specific directions on where they were going to go and what they were to do. He gave very specific directions on the kind of barge they were to build, much like he gave Noah exact instructions on how to build the ark.

Are you still with me? Let's go onto a different way again that the Lord provides personal revelation, also illustrated in the story of the brother of Jared. In the course of building the barges to cross the ocean, the brother of Jared expresses two problems: having neither light nor air to breathe if the barges were airtight. (Ether 2:18-19). The Lord does not say, "Go and figure it all out yourself." Interestingly, the Lord provides the solution very directly to the air problem. By contrast, the Lord asks the brother of Jared to come up with the solution to address the light issue giving rise to one of the greatest occurrences in the Book of Mormon. Even here he does not go straight into the "find your own answer" speech but informs the brother of Jared about what would not work. He says that neither windows nor fire will work so another solution is needed.

Did the Lord not know how to fix the problem of the light inside the barges? I am very sure he could have solved this easily himself but by letting the brother of Jared work this one out He was able to trigger off an incredible event of faith. The solution proposed by the brother of Jared was for the Lord to touch a series of stones with his finger so that they gave light. As the Lord affirmed his agreement to this suggestion, the brother of Jared's faith was so great that he was able to see the finger of the Lord and then ultimately for the Lord to completely show himself. This was a learning exercise whereby man was instructed on the importance of both using his own intelligence but also to remember to call on the Lord for assistance.

While we may think that we are somehow different from the people of ancient times, I like to believe that the Lord remains the same yesterday, today and forever and that principles remain the same. If we believe there is only one way that the Lord provides us with revelation then we may be limiting ourselves. For example, if all we ever do in our prayers is to ask for what we want or to ask the Lord to confirm whether the path WE have chosen is the right one then we may just miss out on some precious communication from the Lord because we are not open enough to the possibilities of something completely illogical and yet marvellous to happen to us. We may not hear what the Lord has to say because we have a fixed way we believe that the Lord works and we may miss out on our being led to our particular "promised land."

Friday, 29 November 2013

Its a Gratitude feast

As I woke up this morning and said my prayers, I had this overwhelming feeling that I should be happy and grateful. Wonderful memories started to flood into my head bringing thoughts of all the wonderful parts of my life.

I have been studying recently about mental strength and those who have it. One of the aspects in common between mentally resilient people is gratitude, even in difficult circumstances. I had a client recently in the grips of anxiety and depression who looked at me as if I had two heads when I talked with him about changing the way he viewed his circumstances. I suggested that he had a great deal to be grateful for in his life and that even his challenges were opportunities to gain strength and confidence. He just couldn't grasp the concept because he was in victim mode. He wanted to dwell on past, hurtful events and stay in his misery.

It was not appropriate for me to talk about myself but I am so grateful for ALL my experiences in my life, the good, the amusing, the challenging and the downright anguishing moments.

A great article on millenials recently defined happiness as expectations minus reality. If expectations are greater than our reality than we are miserable and frustrated. If our reality reaches higher  than than our expectations then we are happy. Given that life is never easy or straightforward for the majority of us, it is a marvel that we are not all unhappy. Not many of us lead fairy tale existences. And yet, I am happy.

Gratitude is a panacea for my discouragement. Discouragement and gratitude do not make comfortable companions. Beginning from a point of gratitude enables me to view the world with enthusiasm and excitement because I am already in a good place.

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” 
― Eckhart TolleA New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose

If I am able to view the world from this positive place there is little room for anger or frustration because I am focussed on what I have instead of what I don't have. Gratitude allows me to trust more because I am able to look at whatever happens as a blessing, a means to grow and progress. It softens the blow of disappointment because I can be thankful for the very experience itself and its teachings. Speaking of teachings, gratitude makes me more teachable too because I am more open to the learnings and less focussed on that to which I am entitled. I am working to approach every situation from a point of view of finding something wonderful, inspiring and edifying. Gratitude does that for me.

When I have an attitude of gratitude it is also very hard to blame others. It is almost impossible to express gratitude for someone and to be on the attack at the same time. It is my expectations that lead me to blame others for things that go wrong or for goals that have not been met. When I begin by looking for those aspects for which I am grateful then I am less focussed on what they did not do and more focussed on their positive aspects. Sometimes, when someone has been particularly difficult with me or even nasty, my gratitude might be more about what personal characteristics I am developing because of this relationship but it still means that it is much harder to be angry with people in my life. I get a real thrill when I have succeeded in not letting a particularly nasty incident get to me.

Gratitude is not something I had naturally in me but was something I have needed to consciously develop. I am still not there by a very long margin because I keep falling into the "O woe is me, I wish things were different" mode at times. I think about missing my children in NZ rather than dwelling on an incredible husband who loves me. I get homesick for my old country instead of being grateful for the opportunity to learn a new culture. I wish I had more money instead of being grateful that I live in a lovely home and all the bills are paid every month.

Gratitude is about switching my thinking around and beginning from the positive rather than from the negative. And when I express that gratitude out loud, it begins to develop a life of its own and to grow. I just love my new country's tradition of a Thanksgiving Day when I literally get an opportunity to voice my gratitude about those things that matter most. I am grateful for a Heavenly Father who loves me enough to guide me every single day. I am thankful to find out that soulmates really do exist because I found mine. I am deeply grateful to have six beautiful children, 4 gorgeous granddaughters and the men in their respective lives. I am thankful for my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all of the experiences that brings me. I am surrounded by beauty and music and love.

This past year has brought challenges of a hurricane, severe snow storm, a malicious court case and an IRS audit as well as estranged family members that I love and miss. But those very experiences have built my resilience and helped me realize that I am part of a team that is my husband, the Lord and I. I have learned to trust Alan with all my heart and to trust the Lord even further that all these things are for my good and growth. Life is good and I am grateful!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Dreams come true in all kinds of ways

I was watching the General Conference meetings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently and as always I admired the music of the Mormon Tabernacle choir. I have a confession that ever since I joined the church more than 34 yrs ago now I have longed to sing with that choir. While I can hold a pretty good tune and I make a loyal member of our stake and/or ward choirs, I am pretty realistic that I don't have the musical expertise to make it through the audition processes of the Mormon Tab choir. For those who don't know this choir well, to gain entry there is rigorous auditioning process that involves demonstrating sight reading, knowledge of music theory as well as obviously having a good voice. Choir members are usually very accomplished musicians.

My distance from Salt Lake City while living in New Zealand was of course a natural excuse for why I would never be able to participate either. I want to share with you however, that dreams do come true and sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. I have learned to look for the unexpected and to take real pleasure in the simplest of things. Let me explain:

It was announced to us that the Mormon Tabernacle choir was going to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1988 (boy does that make me feel old!). As part of their agenda, it was requested that the choir be given a tour of the city of Auckland by bus shortly after they arrived in the country and prior to their concerts. I was excited to have been recruited as one of the "bus hostesses", one per bus, so that we could answer their questions as they drove around a few of the sights.

We began this tour from the Auckland museum. The choir and entourage were escorted into this slightly cramped room in the middle of the museum so that we could have a opening service before heading off: including an opening and closing hymn and prayer. It was here that my dreams took on a new dimension because the presiding priesthood authority invited me to conduct the opening and closing hymns and my good friend, Kim was to play the piano. As I got up to conduct the opening hymn, "I believe in Christ" I looked down and it suddenly hit me that before me was the greatest choir in all the world and I was about to wave my hand in front of them and we would all sing together.

I had not completely understood the attraction in being a conductor of choirs or orchestras prior to that moment but that wonderful day the spirit of this magnificent choir almost blew me off that little podium. There was a power in their voices that I had never experienced in all my life. It pierced my very soul and it almost physically moved me. It is a moment that I will never forget. If I get very amused with myself then I tell myself that I had an experience in conducting the Mormon Tabernacle choir but that would be presumptuous. I waved my hand but they were the ones teaching and leading me. While I may never be an actual member of the choir itself, the Lord blessed me with a wonderful experience so that I could strike that one off my bucket list.

What a blessing this choir is to us as a church but also what a blessing they are to the whole world. It is the Sabbath day today and I will be doing my usual thing today at some point and will be turning on some Mormon Tabernacle choir music to uplift and edify my day. I love being a Latter-day Saint!

Friday, 30 August 2013

In Defense of Difference!

I am fascinated by people. On a recent flight I was surrounded by such a variety of people in age, look, culture. In front of me was a young mother with a very chatty 3 or 4 year old girl. I was touched to hear her squeal with delight when her mother received a text from her Dad, "I love you" in reply to her little love note she had sent him while we were stuck on the tarmac.

As a single mother for many years, I recognized the importance of fathers in the lives of not only boys but also for girls too. There is a completely different interaction that goes on between children and their mother and children and their father. It is not very politically correct to talk about these differences at this time in our history as if we have become androgenous somehow. Somehow wiping out differences between the way children relate to the different gendered parents is meant to wipe out discrimination, make us all "equal".

My problem? I can never understand at what point "equal" became synonymous with "same." We have come a long way to ensure that women have access to the same rights as men and I for one am a huge proponent of those rights. While living in France in the past few years I realized just how far my home country had come in this area. I was shocked to find women in France had only been given the right to open their own bank account and to own property in the 1970s. I was further shocked to discover that there is still a law in France granting conjugal rights to a spouse which didn't seem to take into account the desires or agency of each spouse. I am grateful that we have made strides in these areas.

So we do need to keep pressing forward to grant more equality for us as women. However, in our haste for equality, I also believe I want the freedom to be different, to choose my own path. I am a woman and I love
all that entails for me. Would it not be depriving me of a right to be who I want to be if equal meant that I had to be the same. Would it not be depriving me of my right to self-determination if you made me believe what you believe? Is this what our feminist sisters fought for?

I believe that it is our right as men and women to choose who we are and how we express ourselves is a fundamental principle that I fight for. We each have a right to our personal beliefs and it is a sad state of affairs that we are having to fight for that right, no matter which side of the equation we are on. I have noticed so much lately that some who fight for the rights of non-discrimination are now in turn discriminating against others because of differences in beliefs. I get it that the pendulum has swung from conservatism to liberalism. If truth be told, neither side has the right to impose their viewpoints on others.

Society is made up of so many colors and hues. It would do society an injustice if we try to make all of us the one color with a single set of beliefs.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Ode to Hummingbirds and Squirrels

One of the best things about moving to a new country is seeing completely new places and new things. I have come to realize that we are often blinded to the beauty around us because we become too familiar, we have seen it all too often.

When I first arrived in New Jersey, Alan and I would take these walks around the neighborhood. Jackson is beautifully wooded and almost feels like being out in the country. On one of these walks I happened to spot a squirrel and I started to jump up and down. "Look,sweetheart it's a squirrel!!!" He looked at me as if I had two heads because for him squirrels were just a regular part of life but for me they were a fascination. In my country of New Zealand they just don't exist.

I know that I am belaboring the point but last night and this morning I was able to have new firsts. On our walk through this trail in Freehold I heard the sound of a woodpecker and got super excited again when I finally spotted it in the trees.  Sheer joy flowed through my veins. The picture I took does not do it justice but it will remind me of my first ever woodpecker sighting. On the way home, as if to emphasize the point, two magnificent deer bounded over the road in front of us, right through the front yards of these homes in Freehold. Yes, there are deer in New Zealand but I have never seen them in an urban setting the way they are here.

This morning, Alan yells at me to come real quick! And there it was hovering at the front door window, a tiny hummingbird. I didn't have time to capture him on film but what a thrill! It was worth it to rush away from what I was doing to capture this moment.

I hope that I can always see things with new eyes and stay excited. Life is too short to get so wound up on the mundane things and to miss the magical events. Keep your eyes peeled everyone!

Friday, 3 May 2013

Brambles and Dinner goodies

Which do you eat first on your plate: the nicest bits and then leave the less tasty until the end? Or do you save the best food until last? How you eat your food may say a great deal about your approach to life. I was wondering whether our food order preference could reveal whether we have a tendency to procrastinate in our life. I can definitely remember as a child that I put the food I didn't like to one side of the plate and concentrated on the good stuff. Eventually however, I was forced to face the food that was not my favorite, not so enjoyable! This habit has now been reversed as an adult and I leave the best bits until last.

I thought about this principle again in the weekend in another context. Alan and I were out in the back garden on Saturday where there is quite a forest of trees. Over the years in successive storms, limbs have fallen off, whole trees have crashed and the floor of the forest is littered with logs hidden under the very thick carpet of fallen leaves. I had begun to drag some of the logs into one corner of the forest for eventual disposal when I kept getting struck by masses of brambles that attached themselves to my legs and arms.  They were all over the ground and then they had created a curtain as they climbed up some of the living trees. I had a decision to make. Either I continued to drag those logs through the obstacles or I stop and take care of the brambles first. The brambles didn't seem as fun as the logs. They were a twisted, horrible mess of prickly vines.  I made the decision that the brambles had to go so that I had an obstacle free path to achieving the rest of the work.

I was right in that it was not a fun experience with my scratched arms and lower legs evidencing that the brambles put up quite the fight. There is still more to do to clear them completely but by the end of the day there was a real sense of accomplishment as I saw the obstacles begin to melt before my clippers.
There was also some sense of team work that came into play as Alan suggested we work on them together. We pulled the brambles out of the trees first and then Alan pulled them away from me with the rake so that I was able to cut at the roots quickly. In the end the very defense mechanism of the bramble became its own means of destruction. Once the roots were cut, it was easy to pull all the brambles out with the rake because they became entangled in their own thorns. Working like this enabled us to speedily clear a large section and it looked great afterward.

It is interesting that in life we often seem to come across obstacles in our life and we do all we can to avoid dealing with them. Our society tells us to play hard, enjoy life at full speed, self-satisfaction is king.  More than ever before I believe that people are looking for the easy way out so that obstacles can be avoided or at least we put off dealing with them. Addictions are one example where we put off dealing with the obstacles or the difficult bits in our life. ‘Let’s numb out and focus on the fun bits rather than confronting our challenges head on’.

Like the brambles however, the longer that we leave certain challenges the more difficult that they become. What started out as a few minor difficulties in the beginning can end up being one large tangled mess that is hard to unravel. Relationship problems between family members, for example, often grow in significance if not attended to as soon as possible. I have witnessed so many people seek help for their relationship issues once the entangled mess is just too large to manage and they are being wounded at every turn.   How much easier it would have been to have attacked the problems when they were small.

I also learned something else from my bramble encounter. It is so much easier to deal with challenges in our life when we enlist the help of someone else, when we work as a team to resolve them: someone in our community circles, a friend, a parent, a family member, a spouse. Facing challenges with someone makes the job that much easier and frankly so much more fun.