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Lousy Memes

By Linda Hoffman Kimball


Hey, girl. Wanna think about memes with me?

We’ve read or seen a million of them.

Online. On bumper stickers. Over the pulpit. On wall decor.
Some are deep and motivating:
“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” Stephen Covey
Some are funny:
“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know yet.”
Some are spiritually rousing:
“PEACE: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise trouble or hard work; it means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”

Some are just wrong.

Take that vintage one from the movie “Love Story.” This movie, set in Cambridge, MA, came out when I was a dewy eyed freshman at nearby Wellesley College, the alma mater of the female lead Ali McGraw. Of course I was predisposed to be smitten with it.

But even back then I could sniff out an off aroma:
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Say what?
I didn’t know much about love back then, but I knew that was hooey.

Honest, contrite, humble and appropriate apologies make relationships stronger. And it’s not just between loving couples. How many kids could grow up not to need therapists if their parents apologized for their own bad behavior?

Another one that makes me cringe is:
“Everything happens for a reason.”

This is often trotted out as a supposedly faith promoting image of God with a master plan micro (and macro) managing our lives. If we can find a way to see God’s hand in our lives, we at least know S/He’s involved, right?

I get what this is supposed to mean, and there is a measure of consolation in it, I guess. But the words are squishy, and potency breaks down pretty quickly. What kind of capricious Higher Power puts trials in our path with the express purpose of making us guess why? Would a worship-worthy Deity say, “I think I’ll send Alyson and Craig three children with autism. That’ll keep ‘em on their toes.” Or “I think it’s about time for another spiritually-strategic slaughter of the innocents.” Or “Those folks in southern Utah haven’t been up to snuff with their tithing lately. Let’s hold off on the rain for a spell.”

Bad things happen because the mortal experience is loaded with all kinds of experiences. In the Mortality Stew we’re dropped into when we’re born, we will inevitably come in contact with nourishing veggies and gnarly, gristly bones. Some folks seem to bump into the pig knuckles more than other people, but we are all in the same pot.

While many of life’s hardships may result from poor choices or bad planning, I believe the majority are morally neutral. It’s just what life is made of. (See my book review of Adam S. Miller’s Nothing New Under the Sun)

While I’m not willing to credit or blame God for planning life’s miseries for reasons we have to suss out in our agony, I do believe part of the mortal experience is learning lessons from what we experience. What does this difficulty teach me about patience, frustration, service to and from others, about grief and joy and loss and love?

I once heard of a woman who had had a near death experience and returned from her experience saying she had been asked two vital questions: “What did you learn?” And “How well did you love?”

Another meme I have trouble with is familiar in Mormon circles:
Obedience is the 1st Law of Heaven.
At first blush this sounds like an honorable willingness to submit our will to God. On second blush it sounds like we had better buckle down, snap to and follow our leaders. Stop challenging decisions and get with the program. One visiting General Authority in our ward invited us (good-naturedly) to “be sheep.” Is that something to be asked of people who have already fought battles – in mortality and before – to preserve freedom of choice?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of obedience. I just think this phrase knocks us off track from its liberating and love-infused powers.

This phrase first came to us from Apostle Joseph F. Smith in October Conference, 1873 . In the past few years there have been some juicy and interesting online explorations of what that concept might mean here, here,  and here.

I recognize that in some measure this is a semantics issue of the meanings of the words “obedience”, “law” and “first”. In context, Elder Smith makes it sound like obedience is a cosmic force that keeps the universe spinning in an orderly fashion. That’s intriguing to me. (Don’t get me started on his take on women’s submission to men, though.)

For my money, Love comes before everything else and is the drive behind all the rest.

Judd King from the LDS Business College’s refreshing take
on “re-thinking obedience” from 2011 includes these words of wisdom:
From my point of view I have a three-fold mission on earth:
(1) To come to know God’s will for me and then
(2) To make my will be the same as God’s will and then
(3) To seek to do the Father’s will for me throughout my life….

The primary empowering force for purifying my soul comes from the reciprocal relationship of love that I have with God.
“If I love God, I will keep his commandments” but not because of a lifetime of self-focused disciplining, winning the war within my soul or the war between Satan’s enticements and me but rather because in my weakness I have successfully accepted God’s love for me and have sought to make God’s will be my will.

What memes, quotes, inspirational messages do you think need more airtime or ink? Any that you think should be jettisoned?

About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

8 thoughts on “Lousy Memes”

  1. As far as the "sheep" thing goes with regards to obedience, one thing that has spoken to me is to think of us not as sheep following sheep, but sheep following The Shepherd. This distinction makes the sheep analogy much more profound for me and less apt to be labeled blind obedience.

  2. Thank you for this!! From the first few sentences, I was thinking "(my friend) Alyson would love this….." And then you referenced her. Perfect. 🙂

    I struggle constantly not to take things too literally, especially at Church. But sometimes well-meant "memes" given as scripture feel like a hit below the belt. Sometimes more discussion as to context and circumstance are necessary….and kind.

  3. I love this. I had just been thinking about the phrase "obedience is the first law is heaven" and wondering where it came from and why it is so often quoted without context. There are a lot of phrases, memes and metaphors that we up doing more harm than good when simply shared or repeated without thought to the receiver of the message or the best context for application. Metaphors (like sheep and shepherds) can be helpful to a point, but they fall apart when stretched too far. Unless you are literally talking about sheep and shepherds, eventually you have do face the inconvenient reality of people with a different purpose and potential than sheep.

  4. The meme that "God will not give you more than you can bear" is false. The scripture says that God will not allow you to be *tempted* beyond that which you can bear. I have seen many, many people who have an trials far greater greater than they could bear. That is why we covenant to bear one another's burdens when we are baptized. Some burden in life are far too heavy to bear alone.

  5. My friends who are therapists say the following meme's lead to depression and anxiety:
    Whatever you do, do it well. (That can create perfectionism.)
    Work first, play later. (That can create obsession with work.)

  6. Exactly!
    One of my friends liberated my thinking when she said that one of the adages she lives by is: "That which is worth doing is worth doing in a mediocre fashion." That takes a lot of fear away and makes me willing to try new or challenging things

  7. "I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it" is scripturally incorrect. Matt 11:29-,take my yoke upon you… For my yoke is easy and my burden light.

    There is a really good article on Mormon mantras by Phil McClamore which lists positive and negative common sayings.


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