Over the weekend, I attended a cousin’s funeral. My family on my mother’s side is extensive. My mother is the youngest of seven children. When my Grandmother passed away nearly a decade ago, she left a legacy of love behind but also a family that consisted of these seven children, 35 grandchildren, 75 great-grandchildren, and 3 great-great-grandchildren. This is the large family that I grew up with. I was one of those 35.
Growing up, I recall many wonderful memories of coming together with cousins for 4th of July hot dog roasts at my uncle’s farm, large Christmas gatherings that outgrew Grandma’s house and had to be moved to church cultural halls, and many baby blessings, baptisms, weddings, and much more. These were all opportunities that I got to get together with my family. Since Grandma passed away in 2014, these events have vanished. Yes, we are all older, and we have growing families of our own, but do we not have a responsibility to carry on this legacy together?
As I attended my cousin’s funeral, I was able to visit with cousins, aunts, and uncles that I had not seen for years, but we all seemed to know pretty well what was going on in each other’s lives to some degree. I heard a few times the comments, “I see you’re doing this on Facebook,” or, “Your kids are getting so old, as I see on Instagram.” Does that really make us connected and aware of each other? Or is this sense of digital social connection robbing us of real connection?
Over the past several years, I have used Facebook less and less in my life. I rarely post on there or even open it up. When I see birthdays come around, I try to text or call the individual instead of being one of the many who post on someone’s social media wall. I am trying to find more real connections. It is nice to have these ways to stay up to speed on some of what is going on, but does it tend to be too much of a replacement for a real connection? One of the hardest things for me is when I am with someone, and I would like to connect, but they are too busy trying to see what is going on on their social media feed.
Recently, I have read two very good books about belonging. The first was from social scientist Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” and the second was Emeritus General Authority Bruce C. Hafen and his wife, Marie K. Hafen’s “The Belonging Heart.” As these books were both written before social media, I had to think how much the advent of such systems would affect how they would write these books today. They could see the waning of belonging occurring long before social media. Interconnectedness has been disappearing from our society over the past couple of decades. Then you add a global pandemic and political unrest to the picture, and it has escalated it. It could be argued that the contempt that we have for each other in politics and policy is primarily because of our lack of real connection.
When we are involved in small group settings with our phones put away, it requires us to get to know people that are different than us. We get to understand their views and beliefs and have a greater appreciation for them. I have had a few opportunities to do this very thing over the past several years, and it has blessed my life and given me a much more inclusive view of the world than I would have otherwise had.
Our world is growing ever more diverse, and that can be a very good thing for us. Whether people come from different countries, or different cultures, or have different skin colors, accents, religious beliefs, or sexual orientations, we need to learn to love them, or we are going to struggle to succeed as a community, nation, or people. Being around people that are different than us helps us to see the world through their eyes and can open us up to greater inclusivity.
As I work on writing my first book focused on Book of Mormon stories and what we can learn from them for today’s application, I am drawn to three distinct stories that illustrate the power of belonging. The first two are two individuals that saw the crumbling of their society and the need that they had to belong to a faith and hope of things in the future after they departed from this earth. These individuals were Ether and Moroni, two kindred spirits. They both lived their later years isolated from society. They had to rely on the grace of Christ to get them through. Thankfully, we do not have to live isolated lives. We can share in our daily struggles and suffering with friends, neighbors, and the community around us, and we can lift and bear one another’s burdens.
The third story to highlight this would be the people of Ammon. When Aaron, Ammon, and their brethren went to preach to the Lamanites, they did so out of concern for their welfare. They wanted to share the joy of the gospel light that they had felt through their own repentance. As they learned to love the Lamanites, who were different than they were, they learned to serve them and open each other’s hearts. Then, after many of these Lamanites were converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sought to change their lives, they gave up their desire to kill, murder, or fight anymore and even buried their weapons of war. Because of this, they became vulnerable. They were subject to other Lamanites that sought to go to war with them because of their newfound beliefs. Without taking up arms in defense of their country, they needed another way to find protection. They were fearful to ask the Nephites for help because of the wrongs that they had committed to them over the years. However, Ammon convinced them to trust in God and ask the Nephites for help.
“The voice of the people came, saying: Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon…and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance…
“we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren, on account of their fear to take up arms against their brethren…
“And it came to pass that it did cause great joy among them. And they went down into the land of Jershon, and took possession of the land of Jershon; and they were called by the Nephites the people of Ammon; therefore they were distinguished by that name ever after.” (Alma 27:22-23,26)
The king of these now people of Ammon told Ammon that if the Nephites would willingly give them land and protection, then they would come and become their servants. The Nephites willingly offered them the land of Jershon and required only enough to support their soldiers that would be placed to protect these new friends. The Lamanites and Nephites at this time were hated by one another. They feared each other. They believed very differently. They chose different paths, but then when they got to know each other in a situation that required love, sacrifice, and service, they put away their prior concerns and found ways to not only tolerate each other but love and support one another. They became one people and were united together. They were considered brethren.
There is a great lesson in this story for us today. We may have been raised to dislike people that are different than us. We may have been taught or ascribed to certain political beliefs that cause us to argue or hold contempt for those that are persuaded by an alternative belief. We may think that our religious beliefs are correct and thus considers others as wrong or false. These beliefs might be core to who we are, but we need to stop letting them become stumbling blocks to keeping the second great commandment.
“Community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. In measurable and well-documented ways, social capital makes an enormous difference in our lives…Social capital makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”
Robert D. Putnam
One of the greatest things that I learned from my Grandmother was the power of interpersonal connection. She sent a birthday card to every single one of her progenitors, and they were always on time. Not only did a card go out, but it carried a personal note from her. These are sacred mementos from when I was away on my mission and for each of my children as they got cards from Grandma Great. She loved to bring the family together. There was nothing that made her happier than being surrounded by family and seeing their gifts and talents magnified. At 97 years of age, she was still trying to make it to school plays, baptisms, and other key life events. When she was confined to her home in those final months, she embraced having family around her. One of my most sacred memories was having my then 8-year-old son sing “O Tannenbaum” to his German-born Grandma Great. She loved her family. This love gives me great concern for our lack of keeping these traditions going. Our family needs to remain connected.
What we often refer to as “The Greatest Generation” was one that had to find a sense of belonging in a community. They needed the support to get through some of the greatest trials that we faced as a nation. Now, the majority of us live in relative comfort and ease. They had to endure some of the hardest moments. Did social media and Zoom calls help us get through the pandemic? Or did it cause us to not pick up the phone as much and check on that neighbor? Yes, we needed to social distance, but did we distance ourselves too much? Now it is time to break down those walls of separation and come together. We owe it to ourselves, our families, our friends, and our neighbors. Let us keep in mind the parable of the good Samaritan and think about who our neighbor really is and what we can do to help them as they are suffering along their own road to Jericho.
There are always going to be people that are different than we are. They may even be in our own extended families. How we treat them is going to impact our ability to connect and help them feel like they belong. We can stop the waning of belonging. We can avoid social isolation. We can rise above the negative effects of social media and find real connection.
By looking for more ways to foster community, reach out, serve and love our neighbor, create “stone soup” moments, and stop bowling alone, we can find more love and unity in our homes, our families, our communities, our churches, and eventually throughout the world. Contempt and hate can be avoided through love and compassion.