Of Johns and Mean Old People

Today I learned an old friend, 61, architect of all 3 of the homes we’ve owned over 30 years, my husband’s sometimes fishing buddy, enthusiastic gardener of rare hibiscus,  fundamentalist Christian who homeschooled his children to protect them from the world, and seemingly devoted husband was charged with soliciting an underaged prostitute. The FBI says he will be charged with additional offenses. His wife and children must be devastated.

Contemplating his self-interest, oblivious to or uncaring of its effects on both a young girl and a family he loves, I thought, oddly enough, of people in my mom’s retirement community.  I often think about self-interest when I am with them.  All have reason to complain. Most don’t. But a few otherwise mentally healthy people are so self-absorbed, so mean, insensitive and demanding they suck the spirit from those who would befriend and help them.

Like my friend, most of them were and are actively religious and, if 30 years ago, he or they were shown a flash forward of what they would do to others in the future, most would have been aghast. So, when I consider what drives people to choose self-absorption which leaves healthy self-interest in the lurch and becomes destructive to our fellows, the answer must be more specific than “go to church, read your scriptures, pray.” My mother’s friends tell me they think religion plays a role in maintaining a generous character, especially as they consider hope for an eternity and accountability before God. Beyond that, they see little pattern to predict who will grow less caring of others.  Do we have a tendency to become more self-interested as we age?  Or as we age, do we dispense with the masks and disclose our true character, for good or ill?  What study, what actions, what attitudes gird us against selfishness? How much more nuanced are the answers than a consideration of eternal reward and punishment? Do we start to feel entitled to do whatever we want because we do or do not realize our dreams or don’t view life as fair enough?  Tonight, as an old friend faces 20 years on 1 count, with more counts to follow and all that means to his family, this is on my mind.

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  1. Naismith says:

    “His wife and children must be devastated.”

    That he was arrested, surely. That he was seeing a prostitute, maybe not. Of course I don’t know the particulars of this case, but I know of families where the wife knows and supports that her husband is seeing a prostitute, so that she is not expected to provide for his sexual needs.

  2. Neal Davis says:

    mollysmb, it always hurts so much to hear these stories. My heart goes out to you–and him–and his family.

    I can’t really reconcile the traditional LDS view of salvation, that you’re going in the direction you were AT THE EXACT MOMENT you died, with what we understand of the atonement and grace. It seems to me that God will liberally give grace to us–if a lifetime of good is marred by a single bad act (I don’t use evil, because I don’t think we’re competent to judge), I don’t think everything is thrown away. Similarly, we have to understand that good always trumps evil; a lifetime of guilt is washed away by baptism.

    Aging is a complex process of setting aside masks and picking up new ones, even as the internal true character alters and grows.

    You wrote, “Do we start to feel entitled to do whatever we want because we do or do not realize our dreams or don’t view life as fair enough?” That question may be too painful to answer.

  3. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Neal, I’m not sure you can call that the traditional LDS view of salvation. In 30 years in the church, your comment is the first I’ve heard of such a view. We know God is more compassionate and just than that. We know He takes the circumstances of our lives into account. We don’t escape the consequences of our sins but neither does He throw the book at us just because of our actions at that precise moment. Nor does he give us a free pass because of our actions at that moment.

  4. Neal Davis says:

    @#3: You’re right. That’s what I get for trying to write something coherent too early in the morning.

  5. It’s funny, I’ve contemplated an idea related to this for a while – especially where you write, “Do we start to feel entitled to do whatever we want because we do or do not realize our dreams or don’t view life as fair enough? ” .

    I haven’t known a situation as dramatic as the one that you’ve described, but I have seen people I love kind of “give up” as it were – they seem to stop “fighting the good fight.” Perhaps they become complacent or apathetic, but the same thing is happening: A few people to whom I once looked as an example of strength in life and in the gospel, as they have aged, seem to have become cynical and apathetic.

    Anyways. In response to this idea, I try to remember that life is more of a long-distance race than a sprint. I’ve run a marathon, and it was kind of an object lesson to me. Despite all of my training, nothing could really prepare me for the wall I hit after running about 21 miles. I had to “dig deep” to get over the desire to quit. It wasn’t just a mental desire to quit either, I think that even my eyebrow muscles were faltering. However, I finished the marathon – of course it helped knowing that I only had 5.2 miles left.

    Endurance may be the hardest part of our earthly experience. I like when Paul teaches the Hebrews, “These all [Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah] died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” (Hebrews 11:13). Sometimes we forget that our blessings/dreams may not be realized while in this mortal realm. It is hard to continue in faith when we have that expectation.

    Oh – and I also like the following scripture concerning this matter: “Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast doen; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. …” (Helaman 10:5). I have not endured many of my trials with “unwearingness”, but I hope to be able to obtain this quality since I have a faint idea that real salvation will come to us as we have the kind of faith that will inspire us to work without getting weary.

    Anyways. thanks for the post.

  6. I don’t know about this man, but your talk of the people in the nursing home who are mean and don’t seem to think about others at all reminds me of my grandfather. When I was little he was a kind and gentle man. As he got older, he grew mean. He often verbally abused my grandmother (and others, too), and he no longer thought of anyone but himself. The thing is, he had some mini-strokes in the parts of his brain that affect reasoning, compassion, and ability to tell right from wrong. He literally was a different person, and it was in no way his fault. But if I had not known and loved the man he once was, there is no way I would have wanted to be around him. When I see old people who are mean or selfish, I try to remember him and look on them with more compassion.

  7. Vada, I think your comment gets at some really interesting issues that Molly’s post raises–how much of “character” has to do with brain health? How many of our “masks” are evidence of healthy capacity to care for others, and how many are evidence of soul-sickness and deception? How much of what happens in old age has to do with the aging of the gray matter in our skulls, and how much with our hearts and souls? We do know that neural pathways get reinforced as they are used habitually, so maybe making a habit of caring for others, looking beyond our self-interest, strengthens the bits of our brains that do those good things, and leaves us with a better hope of becoming kindly old people instead of mean ones.

  8. There was a guy in my ward that was arrested in the same type of thing a few years ago. It wasn’t a single act it was years of decisions that lead him to look for underage girls. I don’t think you can link this behavior to the dementia that you see in rest homes that leaves old people scared or paranoid. They act out in self preservation even if it looks mean to us. Lowering the bar of morality to looking for underage girls is something completely different and is a different kind of selfishness completely that I don’t think has anything to do with age. There are lot of people arrested every year of all ages for this same thing.

  9. God bless him and his family – and you, as you strive to understand.

    I wish I knew the answers to your questions. This is one area where I simply don’t have a clue at the individual level.

  10. The Right Trousers says:

    I have a few items on this.

    1. Nobody really has a clue, but we like to pretend we do. After all, we’re human too. But that assumes that we’re pretty much all the same in every mental capacity, which just isn’t true. Some people are born with dyslexic brains. Some have very vivid and anxious imaginations. Some brains are more tightly wired to their senses than others. Some have desires that would drive you to drastic action in less than a day if you suddenly had them.

    This kind of variation doesn’t mesh well with common LDS notions of agency, which often assumes sovereign control. The problem is that it just isn’t true. Our brains do most of the work without our conscious input, and there are certain things about every brain that will not change without trauma or drugs.

    2. People’s brain chemistry changes as they get older. It’s common to lose certain desires, but also to lose inhibitions. What you experience as you age is kind of a crap-shoot. Hopefully you’ll get lucky.

    3. I very much doubt this is new. Soliciting a minor is near the end of a very long process.

    For a shot of compassion, imagine trying for 40 years – and repeatedly failing – to NOT have inappropriate, intrusive, impulsive fantasies about every attractive teenage girl you meet. Who’s the monster? You, for feeling this way, or God, for making you this way? In your weakest moments you simply don’t care – anything that will take away this wicked craving will do. It’d be like finally eating after decades of starvation…

    We’re commanded to forgive for very good reasons. I believe one reason is that we simply can’t know what’s been going on in someone else’s head.

  11. Thomas Parkin says:

    We don’t see other people’s hearts. We think we do. As we get A LOT of relevant experience we can make some good guesses. We can learn to see, for instance, the image of Christ shining faintly in the countenances of those baptized with fire. But we do not see other people’s hearts, we’re always apt to make mistakes. So, God judges, we don’t.

    Lots of whited sepulchres are full of dead men’s bones. Lots of otherwise wicked men contain, deep inside, a powerful spark of goodness that exhibits itself in ways we can’t foresee.

    My project is to try to keep my nose out of other folks business unless something seems to demand otherwise. ~

  12. Molly Bennion says:

    Interesting comments. Of course the admonitions against judgment are well-taken. Our judgment is invariably wrong and harmful. Regardless of his actions, I feel great compassion for my friend. When I was a law student, I organized a program in a large county jail to teach civil law to inmates. I was in one of the toughest jails in the country frequently for 3 years. It is not a good place to be. I shutter knowing what inmates face daily. My concern is with trying to avoid harming others myself and with the victims. If my friend goes to prison, he will be one too.

    For the purpose of this post, assuming I am spared brain events which nullify my will, I am most concerned with how to become more, not less, concerned with the effects of my actions on others. Toward that end, knowing fully that answers are elusive, you have some good ideas. The suggestion that LDS concepts of agency and our limited understanding of the brain collide in fascinating ways is especially intriguing. The difficult or unanswerable questions are the most interesting, yes?

  13. Molly, this topic is deeply personal to me, as much as my initial comment might have seemed a bit flippant. I have thought about how to comment in a way that is both honest and open about why I say I have no clue in the end.

    Just to add a layer of complexity, which person is the “real” person: the paranoid schizophrenic who hears and obeys voices or the “rational” person who functions perfectly well in society and appears to be “normal” when on effective medication for his paranoid schizophrenia? How can we be sure if those who do not fit a clinical diagnosis are free from that categorization only because of their relatively low *degree* of disability – simply because their lives have not included an “episode generator”?

    I contemplate these questions occasionally, because of the history within part of my extended family. Understanding their conditions has given me a much better picture of some of the complexities of the human mind, but it’s very difficult to know if I share any of those conditions to a degree that is not recognizable and diagnosable – to know if any of that lies dormant in me, waiting only for the wrong circumstances to bring them to the surface – to know how much I actually control my own thoughts and beliefs and actions.

    If I thought or worried about it too much, would it surface – like in the case of my mother? I don’t know, so I try to set it aside, not think or worry about it personally and go about my life with the hope that I actually do control more of my life than I might.

  14. What a painful story. I hope his family has the support they need.

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  16. the traditional LDS view of salvation, that you’re going in the direction you were AT THE EXACT MOMENT you died

    This is a very, very strange description of “the traditional LDS view of salvation”. So strange, in fact, that I’ve never heard it before.

  17. “the answer must be more specific than “go to church, read your scriptures, pray.”

    Hmmm… I think that is always the answer. Just add in the word earnestly or sincerely and you’ve got it figured out, n’est ce pas?

  18. Molly, even people who don’t go to church, read their scriptures or pray can avoid crimes of pedophilia so I’m not sure whether asking what more could have been added to your friend’s Evangelical Christian piety to prevent this is the right approach here.

  19. Molly Bennion says:

    johnf, Of course the religious have no monopoly on character. But something is missing in this case, not necessarily traditional measures of piety, but something, unless one considers his choice predestined. What? It’s not an isolated question. My concerns broadly address all our selfish cruelties. But just take the prostitution of underaged girls, a huge business in this country alone. An idealist’s partial right approach to prevention: no market, no business. End of kidnappings, druggings, beatings, disease, and spiritual and emotional pain of hundreds of thousands of girls. And, in the mix of deciding whether to follow one’s passions into a $10/hour motel should be the effects of discovery on the others in one’s life. Most of us do consider that and seek help when we are close to a disastrous choice. Why?

  20. My mother has always said that when people get old, the person they are at their core comes out because they quit putting up facades. I don’t know if this is true or not. I think there can be physiological reasons behind changes in personality as a person ages, but I suspect there’s some truth in my mom’s idea.

    I’m making this comment with regard to the mean people mentioned at the retirement community – not the pedophile. I’m afraid I have no insight into that.

  21. Emily, I think your mother is right. I agree with the Buddhists, we should all live with our last breath in mind. It will all come out better that way.

  22. Molly, are you asking why people commit crimes? I also do not believe it is because it was predestined, either spiritually or biologically. Not sure what else I can say. Some people commit crimes as a mistake; crimes of pedophilia are graver than a mistake.

  23. Molly Bennion says:

    Johnf, No, I am not asking why people commit crimes. I’m asking why they fail to consider or consider too lightly the effects of their crimes and general bad behavior on those closest to them, why those effects are not an effective deterrent and perhaps especially so for at least some behaviors as we age.

  24. Thank you, Right Trousers (#10), for your compassion, though no one has paid any attention to it.

    I understand the desires for teenage girls (which is NOT pedophilia). I’ve resisted them for a long time. I hope I continue to, but I understand someone who doesn’t.

  25. ICK

  26. The Lolitas are just asking for it, aren’t they?

    (Disclaimer–um, no, they’re not.)

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