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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Happy Valley Syndrome

by Seattle Jon (bio)

Charlie was traveling, so I was alone in the pew with my three kids on Easter Sunday. My two boys saw me listening to the first speaker, so stopped being quiet and started bugging me to draw them "awesome army bases and medieval castles" so they could stage mock battles on paper. I obliged, but realized listening time was over, so pulled out a book. I've found it's much easier to shush them during sacrament meeting with "I'm reading a book" than with "I'm trying to listen to the speaker."

I keep a few books in my church bag for just such occasions. I chose Richard Poll's History & Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian (available free here, email me for Word doc), a collection of his interpretative and reflective essays, for no particular reason other than it includes his famous, and to me personally meaningful, sacrament meeting talk What the Church Means to People Like Me. I opened to The Happy Valley Syndrome, a speech given at Brigham Young University in November 1969, and started reading. I've summarized what I took from the speech below, but I encourage you to read it yourself when you have time...preferably not during sacrament meeting (unless someone from the high council is speaking).

"But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called ye out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). *underline mine

Interestingly, Poll points out that "a peculiar people" appears in both the Old and New Testaments with different meanings. In the Old, the phrase "meant both physical and psychological segregation to ancient Israel." In the New, it "meant a ministry of light among nations in darkness to the disciples of the Lord."

Poll's thesis, and concern, is that some latter-day saints are preoccupied with an Old Testament interpretation of the phrase. He labels the preoccupation Happy Valley Syndrome ("HVS"), and suggests doses of self-examination and repentance to those who are afflicted by it. How do you know if you have HVS? Poll gives the following three symptoms: first, a marginal awareness of past reality; second, a myopic perspective on present reality; and third, a mechanical approach to divine reality.

I don't want to get into how Poll feels about each of the symptoms, although I will say I think he approaches each from a very faithful point of view. I will tease you with what he suggests in order to combat each symptom.

Past Reality: Poll encourages us to (i) gain a sense of our history, (ii) read the great scholarly writings about Mormon history (Arrington, B.H. Roberts), (iii) embrace institutional change within the church and (iv) exercise the principle of common consent to drive change, not to "gripe to peers or engage in passive resistance, both of which are indirect ways of producing change."

Present Reality: Poll encourages us to (i) become interested and informed about the problems of the world beyond our own homes, (ii) get involved in our communities to make the world a better place and (iii) relate to both one and two as a believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Divine Reality: Poll encourages us to (i) focus first on those requirements (love others) upon which our regular rituals (home teaching) depend, (ii) look to God in situations "for which the church has not provided neat answers" and (iii) examine the nature of our communication with our Heavenly Father.

Poll ends his speech by questioning whether, for some, it is even a good idea to recover from Happy Valley Syndrome. I have friends, and family members, for whom I might answer in the negative. They have a kind of security that other mormons, including myself, lack. Whether you're in the valley or out, though, I think we all can and should take Poll's final challenge to heart in a way that feels genuine to our situation.

"Let us, as part of our commitment as latter-day saints, face the reality of our past, seeking understanding of the processes by which the unfolding of the divine plan has so far come to pass, so that we can relate constructively to present developments, trends, and possibilities."

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