General Conference Reflection: The True vs. The New

I know we’re a couple weeks out from General Conference, but I figured I’d get ahead of the reflection pieces this year with one of my own.

For a few years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how General Conference can play a bigger role in my life. I’ll listen to a session here and there, or liveblog one for BCC, and when I was YM president, it was a good forcing function to get me to General Priesthood Meeting with my young men.

But it’s been a long time since I really connected with a session the way I think I’m supposed to. The mind wanders, the clock slows down. I try not to take my phone out, except to take notes or check #ldsconf on Twitter. I pray for guidance and insight, and sometimes it comes, but not in that get-really-excited-about-10-hours-of-talks-this-weekend kind of way that I know some people experience.

I have a friend who feels the conference fire twice a year, and I’ve asked him where it comes from. He couldn’t really explain his enthusiasm, but he watches all the sessions, then he downloads the podcasts and listens to them on his commute throughout the year—I’d be a danger to everyone else on the road if I tried that.

Carl Jung was attributed with saying “The greatest sin is to be unconscious,” and I agree with the sentiment, and yet that pretty much describes my mental state during General Conference, a time when I should be most conscious. There are prophets speaking, after all.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to get more out of the experience. The irony is I love learning. I spend big chunks of my time at work and at home seeking out things that inspire me, or inform me, or just get me excited. Has TED ruined conference for me, with its snazzy presentations and engaging delivery? Has Twitter ruined it, with its million-things-a-minute stream of information and opinion and jokes? Has my “second screen” ruined it with inevitable spiraling into technology loops?

Am I “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth”? Has the quest for truth been replaced by the quest for the interesting?

If so, it seems like an age-old curse of being human. We’ll buy into anything for a few moments, if it holds our attention. I see it in the news media, in social media, in our entertainment decisions. We want to be interested, engaged, and stimulated. We want to be blown about by every new thing. We want to be the first to see/hear/think/feel something.

Conference is basically the antithesis of those yearnings. It gives us reinforcement of things we already know. Reminders about things we may have forgotten. Familiar faces saying familiar things. It re-prioritizes things we might have let slip. And once in a great while, something new and perhaps even interesting happens.

I know all that. And I suspect my life will be better when I grow up and learn to pay closer attention. Those of you who really tune it twice a year, how do you do it, and what do you get from it? And let’s keep the conversation constructive please.

Comments

  1. A lot of really good questions here — thanks for prompting reflection with this post! I haven’t got any answers or suggestions just yet but am glad to think this through with you.

  2. “Am I “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth”? Has the quest for truth been replaced by the quest for the interesting?”

    Definitely not a new problem. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living [in Athens] would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (Act 17:21 NRSV) I’ve seen this in myself particularly when the internet goes down, and I can’t check email/facebook/gizmodo/io9/etc. in a continuous cycle.

    Good reflections. I’ve pondered this myself, as the fire burned on my mission for conference… and now it’s a minor smolder.

  3. Maybe it’s because they’re boring old men caught in their ways regurgitating tired tropes. I think you’re expecting more than they can deliver…it does fill one’s quota for a culturally shared experience centered around commonly held ideas, as well as filling our group think need for hero worship.

  4. Oregon Mum says:

    What works for me is praying before conference starts that my heart will be open to the message(s) I need to hear. I am always hopeful to hear words about our Heavenly Mother (or at least references to Heavenly Parents) but even when nothing like that happens, there will be at least a few moments where my heart will be touched. It isn’t easy when I’m trying to listen to the online broadcast while my three very young boys run amok, but I find it very worthwhile to try. And of course there’s always President Uchtdorf.

  5. Carey Foushee says:

    “Say I’m in church singing a hymn.

    I unshelf the hymnal and flip to the page. I sit up straight and clear my throat. I smile. I sing the opening lines. My pitch slides around. My collar is stiff. I wonder if I should have worn a different tie. I sing louder. I spot an allusion to Matthew 5 in the lyrics. I congratulate myself for spotting this allusion. I rub my jaw. Before the end of the second line of the first verse, I stifle a yawn. My shoes feel a bit tight. I keep singing. I remember that I’m supposed to be thinking about Jesus. Rather than thinking about Jesus, I think about how important it is to think about Jesus. I scratch the tip of my nose. I note who wrote the hymn. I remember a friend whose grandfather wrote some of the hymns in our hymnal. We used to have dinner together on Sundays. I wonder what we’re having for dinner tonight. Before the last line of the first verse, I let out a full, open-mouthed yawn. I wonder if we’re going to sing all six verses. I wonder how many hundreds of times I’ve sung this song. I remember that I like this song. I check the clock: ten minutes in. We start the second verse. I’m barely following along. I’m bored.”

    Boredom, according to Adam, occurs when we reach the limit of what interests us. The implied self-absorption in the adjective “interesting” meets its demise in boredom. Yet, boredom can be a gateway to religious experience; an invitation to move beyond self-centeredness. This is why Adam lists boredom among the fruits of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, boredom…” (Galatians 5:22-23, AMT). In sacrament meeting I almost always find myself reading on my Kindle, largely because the speaker is “boring.” But Adam invites me to abandon my utilitarian approach to sacrament talks and instead seek to understand what the speaker is getting out of it:

    Why did they approach the topic the way they did?
    What makes them view things the way they do?
    What impact did preparation for this talk have on them?
    Are they nervous?
    How did their past week go?

    – See more at: http://www.withoutend.org/leisure-boredom

  6. Good to think about. For me it holds my interest not for the particulars of what is said (though there are a few gems of soundbites here and there sometimes) but for what is said to me. Ostensibly I go to listen to speakers, but invariably, if I go in “open to personal inspiration” mode, what I glean are promptings by the spirit about things that I need to remember or realize or make time to do. Sometimes those things are related to the topic being talked about. Often they are strokes of personal insight that are tangential at best. Those strokes often turn out to be very helpful and insightful to me, but not that pertinent to any of the other listeners around me.
    It’s a different way of learning; not from the speakers words, per se, but from the combination of a willingness to be open to inspiration and the general focus on basic gospel principles of the environment I’m in.

    So, its not so much an intellectual instruction (which I also enjoy) as a personally expanding instruction.

    Your challenge also may be a learning style thing. Some people are focused, long term audio learners, some are not. My dad can’t sit through General Conference. He learns by reading and finds his mind wandering all over if he sits down to listen for long. So he reads it all after it arrives in the Ensign.

    Or it may be, as you say, “a quest for the interesting” that makes the experience less than stellar. If I am only interested in one form of learning and I seek only that kind of learning in all the different fields and venues of instruction I encounter, then many of those fields will feel unsatisfactory no matter how enlightening they may be to other students who understand the venue and the various helpful learning methodologies that may be utilized in those instructive experiences.

  7. Because I sustain all the speakers in their calling particularily the 3+12 as prophets seers and revelators and because god respects my agency God will then speak to me thru them. All speakers will discuss many different topics and in their entirety the body will be edified.

  8. It is boring. It’s hard for me to force my kids to watch when I’m dying to do almost anything else. And I’m someone who wants to listen. Our Mormon Messages are good. Why can’t we make the presentations more interactive and use multimedia (more than the blue screen with a scripture)? Conference is in deep need for a major delivery overhaul.

  9. The PangWitch says:

    conference has lots of problems.. Ghost writers writing the talks (i can provide proof if needed that at least 9 of the 12 use a professional writer for their talks) No improvisation allowed (talks are vetted through interpreters ahead of time). No interactive multimedia presentations allowed as mentioned. Basically eliminating 50% of potential speech givers (women) . and those under the age of 50. Name me any event that would be better by only letting old men participate.

    Add that to the fact that conference doesnt usually provide new information ( unless like a missionary age change ) Conference mostly consists on new ways to view the existing doctrine. How many object lessons ( Airplanes! Pickles! ) and catchphrases ( Doubt you Doubts! Raising the bar! ) Can we endure? It’s been said before, but the members are hungry For prophecies, seers, and revelations . As in predicting the future, and being what the bible says a seer and revelator will be.

    It’s hard to argue that that conference represents a bunch of prophets seers and revelators acting as such. They mostly just give the USA today / readers digest Get off my lawn old white American Male version of the world. Skirts at too shirt! The world is more evil than ever! (nevermind that by any metric it’s not ) Kids are totally into video games and those are bad, No one Dates anymore! And whats with airline food anyway?

    why do so many of the speakers use that condescending sing song tone?

  10. The PangWitch says:

    The music is from the 50’s.. the unlucky guy who draws the short “you have to give the porn talk this year” stick always seems like hed rather be somewhere else ( unless its packer)

    membership is so desperate for something different , that news like subtitles last year freak everyone up . it must be so hard for investigators to be told non stop by elders how awesome conference is, only to find out its 10 (10!!!) hours of droning on about how great the people on the stand are, and how the members have to do better.

    The hardest part about conference as a believer was the yoyo of being told “you’re doing great!” followed by “youre doing terrible! ” “you must do your best, but it has to be your bery best” guilt trips..

  11. I’m more interested in hearing from people who have tips for getting more out of conference…

  12. Kyle: I experience the same thing. I almost always look forward to conference, but I find I tune it out too easily. If I ask myself, “What’s the one message I can take away from this talk?” that helps me maintain focus. Still, I doze off at least once every conference.

    Twitter and the BCC conference threads help; I find it interesting to see the comments, thoughts and humor/sarcasm of others.

  13. The attitude of “I want to learn, but am struggling, and am looking for help” is key. That alone will get you farther along than any suggestions here. That being said:

    – If possible, physically being at the conference center helps.
    – Expect more from yourself, not the speakers – approach conference with a gameplan: I want to learn more about fasting, or spirituality, or repentance, or how to forgive my s-o-b wardmembers. Go in with specific expectations for how to draw closer to the Savior – and they will be met.
    – Use the time as a milestone or checkpoint in your life. During a boring speaker, write a letter to yourself and only open it in 6 months (during the next gen conf boring speaker) – write about personal goals, personal relationship status, etc.
    – Find a friend and play “General Conference Phrase” bingo. It will at least give you something to look forward to.
    – Get Mathematical! Try and find the most quoted scripture in a particular conference – and then ask yourself why its the most quoted.
    – Work out while listening. I have found that Conference messages in the background while I am doing something mind-numbing is effective for me personally – I get more done, and ironically I listen better than just sitting there.

    Good luck!

  14. symphonyofdissent says:

    I echo some of the comments already stated regarding praying to really be able to connect and discern something personal in the talks. I have found that if I focus my mind and heart on thinking how I can apply what I am listening to to my life, that incredible revelation comes. As President Uchtdorf emphasized in his Lord Is It I talk, when we listen we should focus not on how others will interpret the talk, but on how the message being shared is needed in our life.

    It is also okay to realize that not every talk has to resonate with each one of us. Some will address a group that we are not a part of (YM for instance). Others will focus on temptations that we do not struggle with (Pornography etc). But I do believe that when we listen with an open heart we will be able to learn something even from these talks. If not, we can be confident that those who spoke were inspired to deliver a particular message and that someone among those listening to talk needed to hear these particular words.

    I also think we can change our perspective towards talks that seem repetitious. When someone feel familiar, we can be grateful for our knowledge and for our membership in the church. We can also do as President Eyring has suggested his father did, and preach a sermon to ourselves based on that principle. If we are guided by the spirit, we will learn in those moments and be edified.

  15. Kyle, I think the important thing to remember is that not every talk is going to move you. The only way conference can be all things to all people is if each person listens for the message that is intended for them, personally. I do believe the Lord will let you know which message he has in mind for you if you pray beforehand that your heart will be receptive to it when you hear it. It may not be the message you expected or even thought you needed, and you may have to wade through talks that are equally important for someone else, but if you are wiling to do that—if you are willing to be taught—then I think you will find conference to be a gratifying experience.

    I vividly remember a night when my husband was out of town and I was feeling about as low as I can ever remember feeling. I had just brought home the ashes of a beloved pet who had died from lymphoma—the most wonderful animal companion I ever had—and the loneliness was such that I think I must have been vulnerable to the adversary. It was night, I was already in bed, and I heard noises in the house that unnerved me in a creepy sort of way. I have never minded being home alone—am not prone to getting spooked—but this night was different. I was truly scared. I knew I wasn’t being true to myself and the things I had been taught. I was verging on inactivity in the Church and I felt vulnerable.

    With nowhere else to turn, I began to pray and then it occurred to me to listen to conference talks on my laptop—to literally bring the word of the Lord into my house to drive out the negative spirit that was there. The October General Conference had recently wrapped up and I hadn’t paid that much attention to it—hadn’t really gotten that much out of it. Nevertheless, I anxiously listened to one talk after another for maybe half the night.

    I wish I could point to one particular talk or one particular thing that I heard in one of those talks, but I can’t. The only thing I can tell you is that listening to them had the cumulative effect of replacing loneliness and fear with peace and comfort. Karl Marx would have us believe that “religion is the opiate of the people,” but I’m not talking about religion as much as I am talking about the ability to recognize truth. And the truth is, I am a child of God.

    I often feel a longing for “home,” but in the middle of that cold October night, with nary a soul in sight, I felt more at home than I have felt in a long, long time. Sometime in the middle of the night, I came to know something that my spirit—the real me—has known all along. Going home is often a matter of returning to yourself.

    For me, the challenge going forward is learning to travel a little lighter than I have in the past. In other words, wear enough armor that I am able to withstand the slings and arrows, but not so much that I forget who is inside the armor. Despite everything—the missteps and the mistakes I have made—I haven’t forgotten who I am. Though I didn’t consciously realize it, I needed a reminder. That’s what those talks did for me.

    I’m sorry for getting so personal. If conference does nothing more for us than remind us of who we are—that our Heavenly Father is mindful of us—then isn’t that enough?

  16. We always watch all of conference on our computer, and I have to admit that besides one or two talks, I usually walk away not remembering most of it. I think its just too much instruction, on too many topics, in too little time. After conference is over, I then read all the talks again, one a day, until I have finished reading all of them. It is amazing to me how much I get out of every single talk, even the ones that put me to sleep during the “live” conference sessions, and even the ones delivered in a “sing-song” tone of voice, when I read them one at a time. Some how, one at a time, the message speaks to me personally, and the true spirit of the person delivering the talk comes shining through. That’s the only advice I have, although I have enjoyed much of the other advice given here.

  17. Jack Hughes says:

    This has been a struggle for me too. I have a general distaste for Conference, since as a child I was forced to sit perfectly still to watch every session, not allowed to get up (bathroom breaks only during choir numbers) and my parents required each of us to take copious notes on every talk, which they later reviewed for length and accuracy. After I married, I embraced my wife’s family’s approach to Conference, during which we usually go camping or fishing or some other outdoor activity while having the radio tuned in to GC. But never turned up too loud that we can’t talk amongst ourselves.

  18. We have young kids, and it can be a challenge to catch much of conference over the ruckus. So last October my wife had the idea of taking a road trip conference weekend. We picked a destination ~2 hours away leaving Saturday morning and returning Sunday afternoon. We listened to conference while driving via smartphone, plus caught the Sunday morning session from our campsite. We spent the rest of the time doing usual kid-friendly sightseeing. My wife and I were able to pay attention to more of conference than we have in a while, and just maybe the kids did too (strapped into their seats with nowhere else to go). It was such a success that we have another road trip planned the first weekend in April.

    This obviously won’t work for everyone, but I’m glad that we tried out something unconventional.

  19. I, like most of you, struggle to maintain focused attention during all the conference talks. When we were younger with kids at home, we tried all sorts of activities to try and get the children to do what we couldn’t do personally; namely, stay wake and keep the mind engaged. I think it is important to recognize that there really isn’t much new in the way of doctrine that you will experience during a conference session. Given that premise, then what is our goal? I feel that if I can get a few tidbits of insight into how I can improve my life, then the conference has been a success for me.
    I also believe that we don’t spend enough quality time meditating, or in LDS jargon, “listening to the Spirit”. In our busy lives, even if the Spirit is trying to give us direction, we are too busy to hear Him. Most Oriental religions base much of their beliefs on meditation, where their deity communicates while they are focused on keeping a open mind. I remember President Kimball had a talk on the importance of meditation for enlightenment. So if nothing more, conference can be viewed as a time for meditation.
    One activity that I have to confess I do fairly regularly, is to go on a bike ride or walk during the conference session, listening to the broadcast while I exercise. I often find that I actually get more out of the session, because my subconscious mind is focused on the physical activity leaving my conscious mind without distractions. So I get a double benefit. Singular focus on the speaker, while getting some badly needed exercise. Give it a try. It is a little hard to go with a family, but my wife and I have gone on “conference walks” with our separate headphones.

  20. I might be too late to make a contribution to this helpful thread. I usually listen to one general session on Saturday at home, watch the priesthood session at church, and listen to one general session on Sunday at home. Any more than that is too much for one weekend. I catch the rest by podcast or in print later on.

    One way to participate in General Conference that is meaningful to me is to think of my home teaching families and watch for messages I can bring them. I have noticed that all church meetings are more interesting when I have a mind to serve and not to be served. If I go to church to be personally enriched and taught, I don’t always succeed. But when I go to church to enrich and encourage others, to serve, to contribute to the fellow-feeling and spirit of the meeting, I nearly always have a good experience. The same, I think, goes for General Conference, though it’s harder because many of us participate from home, isolated from others. That’s why I try to think of my home teaching families.