Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Our Stories

Our lives are full of stories—we are told stories by our parents; we hear stories in school; we read stories in books, magazines, and newspapers; we watch stories on the television and in the movies; and we hear stories at work and from our friends. All of these stories help us interpret our world.

Some of our stories are ones we tell ourselves about the people and events in our lives, and seldom are these stories based on complete information. We make assumptions about what is happening in order to fill information gaps, form opinions, and draw conclusions.We then respond to events and interact with people based upon these stories.
It's particularly important that we get the story right when the stakes are high. Bad assumptions can lead to a faulty story, which in turn may have disastrous consequences both for us and those around us. The danger of a faulty story is illustrated by the Book of Mormon account of the exchange of letters between Moroni, the leader of the Nephite armies, and Pahoran, the governor of the Nephites.

At the time of this letter exchange, the Nephites were engaged in a prolonged war with the Lamanites. In the midst of this conflict, Moroni received a letter from Helaman, one of his generals. Helaman told Moroni that he had sent the governor, Pahoran, a letter requesting more supplies and men, but they had not received any help. He wrote, "Now we do not know the cause that the government does not grant us more strength; neither do those men who came up unto us know why we have not received greater strength" (Alma 58:34). Helaman didn't make assumptions about the reason for the lack of support from the government. He avoided the human tendency to impute motives for Pahoran's apparent lack of support.

Upon the receipt of Helaman's letter, Moroni wrote a letter to Pahoran. When he didn't receive an answer, he became "angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country" (Alma 59:13). In his anger, Moroni wrote a second letter to Pahoran filled with accusations based upon Moroni's assumptions about the motivations of his governmental leaders. He complained and condemned, accusing them of willfully neglecting the army, thoughtlessly performing their duties, traitorously seeking authority, and idly seeking the comfort and security of the capital while their armies were suffering. With the story he created, Moroni threatened that unless the needed resources were forthcoming, he would lead the army against the Pahoran and overthrow him.

Moroni based these accusations upon his assumptions, not upon facts. He assumed the worst of his leaders. He started from the lack of support and created a story explaining the reason for this apparent indifference. This was a much different approach than Helaman's who stated that he didn't know the cause for the lack of men and supplies—he only knew the result.
Pahoran replied to Moroni's letter and explained that there had been an insurrection in the capital, and he and the government had fled. Pahoran explained,
"I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul. But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up in rebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous. And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get... And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart... I, Pahoran, do not seek for power, save only to retain my judgment-seat that I may preserve the rights and the liberty of my people... My soul standeth fast in that liberty in the which God hath made us free. And now, Moroni, I do joy in receiving your epistle, for I was somewhat worried concerning what we should do, whether it should be just in us to go against our brethren" (Alma 61:2-3, 5, 19, 21).
Pahoran diffused Moroni's false accusations by explaining that the situation in the capital was completely different from the assumption-filled story that Moroni had created. As Moroni understood the actual situation in the capital, he rushed to Pahoran's defense.

Moroni's faulty story could have led to blood shed and civil war. Pahoran was magnanimous towards Moroni even though he had threatened to overthrow the government. He didn't condemn Moroni for his accusations but expressed joy in the greatness of Moroni's heart. Pahoran was able to courageously look past the accusations and threats and see Moroni's great qualities.

The account shows the possible danger in the stories we create. How do we avoid creating a faulty story?

First, we need to gather correct information. Avoid making assumptions. Too often we construct stories based on broad and oftentimes grossly inaccurate assumptions. We don't live our lives with perfect information, but we must be careful in drawing conclusions based on what little information we may have. Helaman didn't make assumptions as Moroni did.

Second, we need to be aware that our assumptions are not facts. It isn't always possible to live without making some assumptions, but we should acknowledge they are just that and not facts. We should recognize that we might be wrong and be willing to change our story when we get better information. This is what Moroni did when he received the second letter from Pahoran. Rather than attacking the government, he went to its defense.

Third, we need to ask questions. What difference would it have made if Moroni had asked "What don't I know here?" or "Where could I be wrong?" Clarifying what we don't know enables us to seek the information we need to create a true story. Identifying where we might be wrong identifies the risks inherent in our story; it's better to take more time to gather additional information rather than jump to conclusions.

Fourth, we need to watch our emotions. Emotions can make it difficult to act rationally. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, "There are many degrees of offense. There are many degrees of hurt. But what I have noticed is that often we justify our anger and satisfy our consciences by telling ourselves stories about the motives of others that condemn their actions as unforgivable and egoistic while, at the same time, lifting our own motives as pure and innocent" (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "One Key to a Happy Family," Ensign, October 2012). Moroni created a story while angry, and that anger colored his perceptions and guided his assumptions.

Stories help us understand and respond to the events in our lives. Every event is not of equal significance, but when the stakes are high, it's critical that we get to the right story. A faulty story can lead to potentially devastating actions. The right story can help us respond appropriately. With patience and care, we can gather the information that is necessary to properly guide our actions as we respond to the events and people around us.

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