Why I #GiveThanks

Recently, Russell M. Nelson, the Prophet and President of the church I belong to, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, issued a challenge to the world to spend the next week giving thanks each and every day, and post our expressions of gratitude on Social Media.

Millions of people took up the challenge. What happened was a week of almost total positivity on social media feeds and it was an incredible (and needed) change of pace.

Here, then, are my contributions:

Friday, Nov. 20

Stepping up to the challenge to #givethanks this week. I am eternally grateful for my wife who, in every other, more likely alternate universe probably ended up with someone else. I don’t think there was any ball during our pre-marriage gamesmanship I did not fumble. How she saw through my bad plays to the devastatingly handsome and athletic husband I mostly became, I’ll never know. But it fills me with gratitude. (Also, she has the best smile in the world. I should take lessons.)

Saturday, Nov. 21

Today, I #givethanks for the girls who turned my world upside down in the best possible way by making sure the second half of the life I’ve lived so far is the extended gender studies lesson I probably needed. I would do anything for them.

Sunday, Nov. 22

Say what you want about a pandemic, but DO NOT knock week-in-and-week-out church attendance in pajamas. Grateful for my Creator. Grateful for billowy pants that feel like they’re barely there. #givethanks

Monday, Nov. 23

Today, I #givethanks for hair. Not because I have any, but because I once did and I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. Hair really is the whipped topping on the marvelous sundae that is our bodies. Or maybe the cherry. Or the nuts. The point is: my sundae stops at the ice cream now and I’m grateful for the time when I got to have toppings.

Tuesday, Nov. 24

I have to #givethanks for creativity. I went from wanting to be a banker or a lawyer as a kid, to creating comics, writing books, and making movies as an adult. I don’t know why I always seem to walk the wrong path first, but the brush clears away eventually and I am happy to take off running.

However, I don’t run alone. Many, many people support these efforts and have either helped or currently are helping me get these works made and out into the world. And so, I am grateful also to my creative partners: Th3rd World Studios, Cedar Fort Publishing & Media, VidAngel, Stellar Lense Productions, Tremendum Pictures, Pen Name Publishing, Oops Doughnuts Productions, Samaco Films, and the many, many individuals within and without those organizations who are so talented and with whom I am so fortunate to work.

Wednesday, Nov. 25

No matter how brilliant the light—the fortune, the love, the joy, the strength, the blessing, the peace—we can never truly comprehend or appreciate it without the dark—the poverty, the hate, the sadness, the temptation, the trial, the conflict. One without the other is meaningless, so I #givethanks for both.

This may seem like some weird, not-great stock photo, but I actually took it in Venice, Italy about 4 years ago.

Thursday, Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving)

Finally, I #givethanks for faith and science. For that which can give us confidence we will see an end to this pandemic, and for that which tells us how.

#givethanks for the many inspired women and men who are working tirelessly to heal and to prevent. My hope is that they are properly supported and that the rest of are making the small sacrifices necessary–masking up, social distancing, taking time away from family and friends (especially during the holidays), and prayer coupled with fasting–to stem the tide of this thing and be rid of it once and for all.

There are spiritual laws and there are natural laws, and He is the master of them both. I am so, so grateful for that understanding and the peace that comes with it. 

I gotta say, I super enjoyed doing this. I make it a point to be grateful every day, but thinking harder about it and all putting these things out there like this gave them even greater resonance and importance. My contention is that even in the most dire of circumstances we have much to be grateful for, and if we can focus on those things, we might not find our burdens changed, but they will be lifted.

The Lack of Difference Between Patience and Faith

I’ve come to believe that patience is more than just a feature (or, as I once regarded it, a bug) of faith. It’s pretty much synonymous.

I can’t think of any past exercise of my faith that was not also a sweaty, when-will-this-be-over-and-how-has-it-only-been-60-seconds workout of my patience. Sometimes, the wait is brief. But not usually, and however long the question is the same: can we wait upon the Lord? Do we have what it takes to endure his better timing?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially this year. 2020 feels like I’m back in college. I know it’s going to end, and I know this pandemic/studying constantly thing is going to end, but it doesn’t feel like it most of the time and I’m not sure the reward at the end will be worth it.

But it was and it will be. My college degree reaped great rewards and my life settled into a groove afterwards that was never again so frenetic and busy and packed. We will all get our groove back, I’m certain of it. Even while it doesn’t always FEEL like it.

(The groove may be slightly worn and the needle might skip a bit, but that’s okay. It would be weird if we returned to an old record only to find it shiny and new. Maybe we’ll discover a new hidden track we didn’t know was there before.)

And I say all this while acknowledging that 2020 hasn’t been THAT bad for me and mine. Have we been quarantining for over 240 days thus far* in what sometimes feels like a futile and disrespected effort to do our part to minimize the effects of this virus and keep it away from ourselves and Cami? Yes. But, the upshot? Not one of us has been sick since February. Not even a sniffle.

Have we suffered disappointments, job and opportunity loss, and distance from family and friends? Yes. But, the upshot? Other opportunities have come our way (there’s the matter of a little movie I’m putting together, among other things) and we have found joy in being together in new ways. See: Erin’s amazing ability to celebrate every ten (now twenty) days.

Has there been death? Yes. And there is nothing not tragic about that. While I am grateful that we have not been personally so affected, I am saddened, just like all of you, that so many have been lost.

With the announcement of vaccines this week and a return to purple status, a little bit of light seems to be shining between the rocks of the 2020 cave-in, showing us hope and also how much of the collapse we still have to clear to make our way out. The time for patience/faith is not yet over. And that’s okay.

Every good thing I have ever received has been on a time delay. Never when I wanted it, always when I needed it. I believe all things can be for a higher purpose, even the very worst things. But only if we do not with our bitterness shut down that possibility.
I say none of this as a minimization of suffering, only as an argument in favor of faith; in favor of having the patience that we will get to that point of understanding if we so choose.

That’s my prayer: that 2020 is not a pothole to dodge on the way to the next thing, but ultimately a hard-yet-enlightening detour we can be glad we took to fully appreciate the better sights ahead.

*Minus, for me, the two weeks I spent in The Chosen set bubble of tight COVID restrictions and precautions.

Intellectually Dishonest Thieves, Flag-Waving-and-Desecrating Robbers

If you knew the way I voted, you might question whether I’m a good person, a moral person, or even a Christian.

If I knew the way you voted I might raise my eyebrow at how that vote could be consistent with being a good person, a moral person, or a Christian. Whatever you profess to be.

But, that’s dumb. Judging and making enemies of each other based on votes cast is dumb and unproductive and puts us on a dark road where intellectually dishonest thieves and flag-waving-and-desecrating robbers lie in wait.

I’m as frustrated as anyone else by the head-shaking bad takes on the happenings of the day that come across my news feed, but I’m increasingly convinced that no good comes of letting those bad takes–that propaganda, the disinformation and opinion and incendiary headlines of it all–seep into our hearts and minds and curdle into a hatred that turns monstrous those we would otherwise call brother and sister.

My prayer is always–but especially here at the end of the count–that we can recognize that we all have far, far, far more in common than we have different, and that those commonalities can be points of unity between two people with even the most vitriolic of takes.

There is hate on the one hand, and on the other there is the charity and grace we can extend towards each other even while we disagree with each other. Whatever wisdom I have attained thus far tells me this: the choice, when you boil it all down, really is that simple, and anyone who claims otherwise is victim already to the great lie that complicates with ifs and ands and buts the greatest teaching the world has ever known:

Love one another.

Start there, and the path ahead becomes clear.

Should You Punch a Nazi?

Should you punch a Nazi?

There’s a thought in some circles that goes like this: Nazis bad; punching Nazis, good. There are even videos of people smacking modern day Nazis out of nowhere while they’re talking to a reporter or walking along the street, a vicarious cathartic release spread far and wide over social media in a time when racism and the rejuvenation of white supremacy is rightly called out.

But, should you punch a Nazi?

If a person is evil* and is promoting an evil thing, is it a bad thing to knock their block off? How could it be, right? After all, the world would be a whole lot better off if we’d done a lot more Nazi punching back in the 1930’s instead of waiting for the 1940’s to roll on out.

Maybe. Probably.

So, if I hate and oppose evil, I can hate and punch Nazis, right? That tracks?

What about people who disagree with me, politically? Their ideas are bringing the country down, and if the country goes down, people will suffer. Better punch them. What about people who discriminate against others for their gender, race, or how they identify sexually? Or Pro-choicers? Gun enthusiasts? Atheists? Fundamentalist Christians? Non-mask wearers? Progressives? Conservatives? People with mullets in the Year of Our Lord 2020? All doing harm in their own way. All punchable.

Right?

Let’s toss Doug in there, too. Doug was having a hard time and I lent him money when he needed it most and he never paid me back, even after he got that huge settlement. Doug is a jerk and definitely deserves a punch in the face if I’ve ever know anyone who does. And Roberta. She looked at me sour, cut the line at the Save Mart, and ruined my whole day with her nasty face. Punching her would be a blessing to all, and might even improve her looks a little. Bonus blessing.

Look, there’s a lot to be mad about is what I’m saying. You know this. I know this. But, this call to punch, to insult, to disparage, to ostracize, to dismiss. To demonize.

To hate.

And all in the appeal to some moral high place upon which the righteous stand but the unrighteous do not? It’s nuts. Who is the righteous? Who is the unrighteous? Well, that’s simple. The righteous is us. The unrighteous is them.

The othering of those who do not believe “correctly” is not helping. Anything. It’s not helping you or me or anything at all. What it is doing is dividing. It’s defeating conversation and honest debate. It’s defeating kindness and love and change.

That’s right, change. If those who rail against evil do not temper their invective with genuine love and care, they defeat their own cause. They prove that their cause is less important to them than ego and self-satisfaction. Because to what end? What does punching a Nazi accomplish?

“Well, it makes me feel good.”

And how many evils have been done in the name of that?

There’s a great Martin Luther King Jr. quote that’s getting a lot of play lately and that my wife reminded us of during our in-home church yesterday:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Hate is corrosive and evil. It doesn’t matter who you hate or what they’ve done, hate is not justified. Ever.

I recently participated in an online discussion about whether it’s possible to “love everyone,” including rapists, serial killers, pedophiles, etc. The notion that anyone on this planet could love everyone was called “silly.” It was dismissed outright as a fairytale. But, it’s not.

I have love for everyone. Some people annoy me, some I think are toxic and don’t need to be part of my life…some have even killed people close to me, but there’s still love there. Even if I don’t know a person personally, I still see them as my brother and sister in this world.

And I’m not special! There a plenty just like me quietly shaking their heads and hoping for more kindness and a better world.

Because we know hate does not drive out hate and we hold fast to this one truth: no one enters this world determined to be a monster.

Not one.

And so, when someone does something horrible—when they injure or rape or kill or abuse or commit any other terrible number of atrocities—it is a great sadness. I am sad for them. The monster.

And that sadness is a tragedy adjacent to the horrible thing they’ve done.

It’s what we have in common that makes me love them. Our shared humanity and divine promise. Whatever they have lost along the way, whatever someone has done, I still want better for them. And that’s love.

When you have a love like that, it’s hard to insult and disparage and ostracize and dismiss and demonize and hate. It’s hard to feel any satisfaction at all from doing something as pointless as punching a Nazi.

When you love, not only do you not want to punch, you also know it just won’t do any good. You see that so clearly.

Except for Doug. He owes me money.**

* I would argue we should never, ever call a person evil. Acts can be evil. Deeds can be evil. Knievel can be Evil. But people? Sure, they CAN be evil. But for you to say so is to place a judgement on them and their heart, and that you cannot do. You simply cannot know such a thing. Let God sort out who is evil and who is not. It’s just not our job. 

**There is no Doug. Sorry, Doug! You exist only in my heart.

…One last thing. The video below was also part of the lesson my wife shared with us on Sunday. It’s a beautiful rendition of the Savior’s words, direct from the New Testament. He, of course, is the originator of all these thoughts.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

How I Went From #AllLivesMatter to #BlackLivesMatter

I left Rush Limbaugh behind a long time ago. In high school, I served two years as the cartoonist for the school paper and I was known for working signature catchphrases like “Ditto” or “Rush is Right” into every editorial cartoon. Sometimes it was subtle, but most of the time it wasn’t. I still can’t believe they let me get away with it.

By the time I graduated from high school, I left Rush behind. I saw something in his rhetoric that reminded me of what the scriptures call “priestcraft,” and I came to think of him as someone who was less about ideology and more about himself. It didn’t take long for me to start seeing political parties the same way. When it came time to register to vote, I marked myself down as an Independent. I never looked back.

My value system still leans a bit to the right, probably owing a lot to my upbringing, and also my religion. I’ve never been able to completely buy into Progressivism, even though one of the tenets of my faith is an emphasis on change and progression. Though I don’t believe in being stagnant or getting things back to the way they were in “the old days” when, for example, women weren’t allowed to vote and redlining condemned multiple generations to poverty, I’m also wary of the constant drumbeat for change, which can become a moral value unto itself at the disregard of what I believe to be moral constants. We should be moving forward, always, but in the right direction and for the right reasons.

One of the big problems I’ve always had with Progressivism is something I’ve termed “temporary exceptionalism.” It’s this idea that in order for social reform to happen then we must make special allowances for underprivileged groups or bring down the majority in order for the minority to get a leg up (I’m oversimplifying a bit, but quotas would be the most basic example of what I’m talking about). I don’t believe in creating opportunity by taking it away from others. I don’t think we’re playing a zero sum game here and I think, as difficult as it would be to achieve, it’s possible for everyone to have equal opportunities at the same time. I don’t think you get to equality by lifting some above others the same way you don’t get it by pushing anyone down. Otherwise, you’re at risk of swinging the pendulum too far and that becomes another kind of injustice.

Years ago, when I first heard the term “Black Lives Matter,” I rejected it immediately. My first thought was, no joke, “Hey, wait a minute, all lives matter.” I saw Black Lives Matter as more of what bothered me–of lifting up one group over another. I saw “BLM” as saying, as I believe Progressivism often does, “The only way we’re gonna make this right is by giving more advantage to these folks over here than to those folks over there who have had it for way too long.” Elevating black lives over white lives? No, that’s not right—same way the other way around isn’t right. I saw Black Lives Matter as a different kind of inequality and isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be fighting against? My wife and I had a lot of discussions about this, debating it back and forth. I was on one side, her on the other, supporting #BLM. Both of us operating in good faith and trying to convince the other of what was right.

I was, quite obviously, wrong. As a concept, Black Lives Matter isn’t about excluding anyone, it’s a raising of a hand to be recognized. It’s a righteously angry plea for acknowledgement that black lives are the same as everyone else’s–they matter. All lives matter THEREFORE black lives matter, too. This is basic, and I missed it because, try as I might to be an independent thinker, I got infected by a rhetoric that said a particular advantage was trying to be achieved when that wasn’t the case at all. It never was.

It has to be said that Black Lives Matter because too many people are behaving as if they don’t. Particularly, unfortunately, people who have power. Black Lives Matter is a spotlight on an injustice and a plea for change–a specific, righteous change.

The best explanation I’ve seen going around (and that seems to be convincing a lot of Conservatives) is this one I saw on Twitter:

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It’s really as simple as that. My house isn’t on fire. I don’t have fear when I interact with white, bigoted, racist people, whether they have power or a gun or not, because they don’t see me as their enemy and they don’t see me as less than human. But if I were black? George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and so many before them prove there is a real reason to fear. It’s the fear of death, and, after all the strides towards equality we’ve made in the past 60 years, we should not be okay with anyone walking around in our country with the fear of death for the way they look, a thing over which they have no control and is of no consequence to their value as a human being. What inequality could be greater?

Another way of getting at this same idea (and this is another example I’ve seen going around) is to look at what Jesus doing when he left the 99 sheep to go after the one. He was, essentially, saying, “Lost sheep lives matter.” The 99 were safe, so he went after the one that wasn’t. White lives are not imperiled in the same way black lives are, so #BlackLivesMatter.

I’m encouraged by the sea change that’s happening. People are waking up to what Colin Kaepernick and others like him have been trying to say for years, and it’s important for white voices to rise up with them, so I’m adding mine.

I believe in change and progression. They are at the heart of the Gospel of Christ. It gives me a lot of hope in our country’s potential to heal what are some very old wounds when I see the movement that’s sweeping this country. To see mayors and governors and religious leaders and what seems like the majority of people in my social media feeds throw their weight behind Black Lives Matter is an encouraging thing and a positive sign at a time when it seems like we’re more divided than ever.

To anyone who also struggled at one time or another with #AllLivesMatter vs. #BlackLivesMatter, I would encourage you to add your voice. You’re not alone. However you arrived at your change of mind, it’s an important story to share. So, share it. This is the time.

Never Give Up (Unless You Should)

Mike Wazowski
One of the best and most underrated Pixar movies is Monsters University. Though it’s often damned for leaving no cinematic college cliche stone unturned, it’s filled with solid jokes (“I can’t go back to jail!”) and features a subtle, devastating lesson that would be daring even if it wasn’t in a kids movie. But it is in a kids’ movie. And it’s amazing.
SPOILERS if you haven’t seen M.U.: Mike Wazowski is a young monster whose dream is to be, like his heroes, a scarer. The problem is that he is not scary. He’s funny and cute. Doesn’t matter that he’s the smartest and hardest working in class, he’s just never going to be able to achieve his dream because he’s not built for it. The point of this movie–the actual lesson at the end of all of Mike’s striving and years of dreaming–is that he has to give up his dream and move onto something else.
Now, I’m a dad so I feel like I can say this with confidence: giving up your dream is the literal opposite point of 98% of every other piece of kids’ entertainment out there. Usually, our kids are taught to NEVER give up. Keep going. Keep striving. Live your dream because dreams come true if you want it bad enough and put in the work.
We are told to dream big and never give up.
I’ve thought a lot about giving up . I think more than failure, I’m afraid of being like Mike Wazowski and being guilty of kidding myself. I’m afraid of people looking at me like, “Man, if only somebody would tell him it’s not gonna happen.” I’m afraid of failing and never stopping.
I know all the inspirational quotes about how the most successful people have also failed the most–Thomas Edison’s perspiration and all that. I’m not talking about sweaty Tommy Edison. I’m talking about all the other guys who also thought candles were old news that you don’t know about because lights belong in bulbs, not pineapples (or whatever they tried). I’m talking about all the guys (and gals) whose failures led to nothing.
* * *
I had no idea I enjoyed writing until I wrote my first blog at 28 years old. Five years later I wrote a memoir called Raised By a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings about my relationship with my father and the two armed robberies at his store. I sent dozens of letters out to agents over a period of 9 months, received many, many rejections, and finally was fortunate enough to sign with a literary agent who believed in me. She was everything I wanted in an agent: attentive, smart, and had connections to all the best publishing houses. Mine was only the second book she ever pulled off the slush pile and chose to represent. Mine was also the first book she never sold. Raised By a Dead Man went to the top–to gatekeeping editors in big, fancy New York offices who repped Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and sucked down $500 scotch all day (I assume)–and they all rejected it. Some thought the writing not good enough (and they weren’t wrong–I’m much better now), but others raved about it. The big problem? They didn’t know how to sell it.
My agent, still believing in me, asked if I had any other ideas. I told her about another memoir I wanted to do, The Impossible Girl, a romance I pitched as a Romeo and Juliet story between a Mormon and a Protestant. She thought that sounded amazing and encouraged me to write it because it sounded more marketable. If I could sell it, then Raised would be more viable coming from an established author. I spent three long years writing the book and promptly handed it off to my agent once I felt it was worthy. She read it, was enthusiastic about my growth as a writer, and found the story fascinating. Also, it wasn’t quite what she was expecting. She had no idea how to sell it and didn’t see how it could possibly fit in any market, national or religious. I understood and set off to NOT write a wholly unique story no one wants to sell. Forget memoirs, I was gonna write a novel.
So, I wrote Paper Bag Mask, a YA  heist story that’s a bit like The Breakfast Club by way of Ocean’s 11. Seemed like the kind of story that would be pretty accessible and fun. When I brought it to my agent, she had to pass simply because she does not represent YA. I understood, we parted ways amicably, and I headed back to the trenches of emailing and querying potential agents. By then, 9 years had passed since I first decided to be an author.
14 months ago, the rejections began pouring in again. A couple of times, I got really close! There were agents who were incredibly enthusiastic about what I had done and the unique way I’d done it (three sections of the book feature sequential art)! But still I received no after no after no. Over 200 of them by the time I was ready to give it all up. Over 200 rejections on top of the (now) 10 years of rejection I’d already received.
I had to face facts: was I kidding myself? How long do you hold onto a dream before you realize it’s just not going to happen?
* * *
The most nuanced part of the lesson in Monsters University is this: our dreams should be focused on the things we can do. While it’s true that it’s possible to get really good at something (or luck into something) that you’re terrible at, it’s also true that we all have to face this one reality: we cannot be good at everything. It’s just not possible. So, if you can’t be good at everything, then you’ve got to get to terms with this other truth: the thing you want to be good at may not be the thing you CAN be good at. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of American Idol should be able to acknowledge this, but somehow people who can’t not sound like my garbage disposal keep coming back to audition anyway.
And, like the good-for-television-but-not-good-for-my-ears “singers” on American Idol, it’s possible there are people in your life who secretly think you should give up, but are afraid to tell you. Or, your own insecurity invents those people and you doubt yourself. Or, they are actually people in your life who tell you you’re terrible. Or, like me, failure after failure after failure has you doubting yourself. However you’re arriving at the secret suspicion that maybe you should stop dreaming so gosh darn big, the question comes down to the same thing: should you give up?
I don’t know. How could I? But you know who I think does know?
You.
The difference between failures that serve as track being laid down on the path of success and fooling yourself is in how honest with yourself you can be. It’s in your gut, in your soul. I believe we all know who who are and what are our capabilities. I’m not saying you know straight off, but it is discoverable. And when we make that discovery, that’s when either we back off that dream we’ve been holding onto, or we go all in. But knowing the either/or on that is entirely up to your capacity for self-awareness and truth. It’s not up to other people to confirm or deny it for us*, it’s up to us to discover and commit. One way or the other.
*Though they will try and they should not be dismissed out of hand–critique and feedback is part of the process of discovery.
How honest are you with yourself? And I don’t mean that in the way you’re prone to thinking about honesty, which is are you honest enough to know if you well and truly suck?  That’s only one side of it. The other side is being honest enough to say, “No, actually, I’m really good at this.” I don’t know about you, but that’s almost harder. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I’m comfortable enough to say with confidence, “I’m good at this, the world be damned.
I’ve know for awhile now I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know that was who I was until well after college, but it is who I am. I may have hard times and times of doubt and people telling me I suck, but deep in my gut, that’s what I know. I know that I not only love writing, but that I can do it. It’s not arrogance, it’s not fooling myself, it just is.
Paper Bag Mask will be published this Fall by Pen Name Publishing. Those 10 years–all that striving and failure–brought me to this major, major milestone. There will be more. My path to success is not complete, but I cannot help but be grateful and acknowledge that all my failures led to this successThere are many things I’m not good at, but:
I’m good at this. The world be damned.