What holds couples and families together? What keeps people connected to each other and converted to their Father in heaven and to their Savior, Jesus Christ? I’d like to share a few thoughts that came to me yesterday morning as I discussed this with my wife.
The Rat Park
My wife told me she had watched a Ted Talk by Johann Hari about addiction, published a few days ago. Hari talked about the research of Bruce Alexander who observed that when a single, lone rat was placed in a cage with two water bottles, one filled with water and another laced with heroin, the rat would, almost without fail, become addicted to the drug water and kill itself in a matter of days.
Alexander also did research on a rat park—also called “rat heaven”—where a group of rats were placed in a pen together. They were given all kinds of cheeses, colored bowls, places to play and explore, and plenty of rat friends to connect with. They too were offered the drug water freely, but they almost universally ignored it. They were so happy and connected they had no use for drugs. Why would they need to run from reality when reality was so good to them?
Hari concludes that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety: the opposite of addiction is connection. Watch the video and judge for yourself.
Converts Are Connected
I’ve been thinking a lot about conversion lately—conversion to Jesus Christ and His gospel, that kind of conversion that sticks. I’d like to make a few observations about what I’ve seen and continue to see. These are not scientific observations, like Hari’s; they’re anecdotal.
When parents are loving and caring, teach faith through love, are involved in their children’s lives, are supportive, nurturing, and set clear boundaries, their children tend to thrive. They remain connected to and continue to stay close to their parents. These families often stay connected and their offspring tend to be and stay connected, and stay converted to the faith they were brought up in.
When parents are strict, harsh, or forceful, duplicitous or judgmental, their children tend to scatter, from their family as well as their faith. When love, attention, and acceptance seem to be contingent on behavior alone, and when love is conditional, children or parents often feel isolated and withdrawn from each other—disconnected and prone to experiment and wander. They tend to lose faith and leave the fold.
Consistency and Connectedness
Have you heard stories about a home or visiting teacher who wouldn’t quit, who in spite of rejection, kept coming back to the doorstep, year after year, sometimes decade after decade, always showing kindness, acceptance, and love, no matter how they were treated? Then, eventually, the door to that home miraculously opens, and then the door to a heart. Maybe that visiting teacher sits next to a beloved sister when she returns to a sacrament meeting for the first time since she was a teenager, or a home teacher is asked to ordain a father an elder after a long absence from the Church.
It’s hard to resist genuine love and acceptance and it often leads to higher ground. Consistency in love, kindness, and acceptance tends to be a seedbed for conversion. Converts planted in this soil tend to get the nourishment they need to blossom and grow.
My Story, in Brief
My family was not well connected when I was a child. My mother had multiple sclerosis; she could not rise from her sickbed to care for her children as she would have liked. My father became an alcoholic, like his older brothers, and for many years, he seemed more attached to Scotch whiskey than to his wife or children. It was a cycle of unhappiness. We scattered.
When I was introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I found many families in the Church who were strongly connected. They spent lots of time together. They talked things through. They spoke kindly to each other. They said, “I love you,” and meant it. They were supportive and patient with each other.
I wanted a family like that. To get that, I had to risk disconnection with my family of origin and the faith of my childhood. The more I sought that peace and connection, the more my parents raged against it. Forty years since my baptism into the Church, I am in a loving, close family. I have remained active in the Church, trials and afflictions notwithstanding, largely because of a close connection to my wife, our three darling children, devoted Church leaders, and many faithful friends.
Getting and Staying Connected
I know some of you who are reading this have strained relationships. You have loved ones who have slipped into inactivity, are deeply involved in sin or addiction, or who may have become offended and disaffected themselves from the Church and loved ones. You can’t fully trust them and, honestly, you don’t want to be around them. I understand. I have lived that nightmare myself. What do you do?
First, no matter what, my advice is to always stay connected to your Heavenly Father. Pray to Him daily, or better yet, many times every day. Believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in His Atonement. Read their words daily, faithfully. Study those words and make them part of how you live your life. Don’t give up on God just because someone has given up on you or the Church. Trust God, even if you don’t understand what’s going on in your life. Hold onto Him and don’t give up.
Secondly, keep on loving people, even if they hurt you. Be kind and patient. Forgive them and don’t hold onto grudges and past hurts. Seek justice, but let go of malice and the desire for revenge. Accept others without accepting their sins. Hold onto your faith and don’t give up.
Lastly, seek wholesome connection. If you can’t find it in your nuclear family, look for it elsewhere. You need it. If you didn’t need it, you wouldn’t be a human being—a child of God. Seek partners and friends and leaders who uphold standards, who face toward the light, who are unselfish and kind. Hold onto these friendships and don’t give up on them.
Sometimes connection is hard to find, but I promise you, if you will seek it from the heart, hold onto your faith, patiently forgive, and free yourself of bitterness, you will find connection and love. It takes time and patience, but there are people in your circle who need your connection just as much as you need theirs.
Find your own heavenly “rat park” and you won’t need the drug water. It will help you stay converted. It will help you endure to the end and be prepared for greater trials in the future.