Ep 167 – Embracing Contradictions

Listener Essay

Posted March 22nd, 2015

How reliable are the stories we tell ourselves about our own experiences in life? How reliable is memory? Are we simply surrounded by fiction?

Glenn, Tom, and Jake talk to special guest Tierza about her excellent listener essay “Embracing Contradictions.”

  • It almost boils down to: If you can argue about it, it’s not true—not really. If a “truth” is demonstrable then you simply demonstrate it and the argument’s over. The truths that one must know and embrace to build a functioning jet engine are only arguable to a point and within pretty tightly constrained limits. If you vary from them much, your engine will fail—demonstrably. The Challenger disaster that Tierza mentioned was a flaming example (pun viciously intended) of faith-based engineering. It’s just important to know, I think, that arguable truths have only the meaning we give them; they are only as true and important as we say they are. In my opinion, we can drop them any time we wish and repair to the garage to build a bird feeder practicing the inarguable truths of hammers and nails.

  • hetaira

    I really enjoyed Tierza’s essay – I’ve found increasingly now that I’m past middle age (unless I live to be over 113) that I scrutinize the stories I’ve told myself about my experiences. Most stories serve as self-justification but some are self-flaggelation – all with a hefty dose of blame to go around. In reconsidering the pieces from many angles I’ve found more complexity and forgiveness for myself and understanding/forgiveness for others. Of course this can lend to the unintentional construction of new stories which in themselves will bear reexamination. Total reality is in the end, unknowable, but opening up to life’s many shades of technicolor is richer and more interesting, albeit sometimes confusing, than perceiving in only black and white.

  • Craig Keeling

    Great topic and discussion. Love the essay, Tierza!

    Remember when you’d hear someone in the media describe Mormons/Mormonism and there would variably be one or two minor details they’d get wrong? It used to confirm my bias of “the other,” the outsider news reporter who **obviously** didn’t understand the Mormon religion if they got that seemingly important, but insignificant, detail wrong.

    But of course… they’re not going to convey the intricate details of some small religion in one news report.

    Plus, it’s difficult to understand and likely impossible to convey reality in a way that all individuals are going to agree on anyway.

  • Craig Keeling

    Glenn, LOL at not meaning to be derogatory about “leading the sheep.” I didn’t even catch what you meant at first. That’s still in my memory of the shepard narrative.

  • Carmen

    Man, that bit near the end about attempting to be friends with a TBM despite that undercurrent of their consistent need to bring you to the light really hit home for me, even as a nevermo. Tom’s experience with his stake president is basically my experience with my Institute Director to a T (even the thought experiment you’ve tried, which always frustrates so much…). I feel like he’s super dismissive, and recently when I’ve told him how I felt about that *he’s* gotten very offended! I don’t know about you Tom, but I’m about ready to cut off my talks with him on religion, because it’s starting to take an emotional toll on me. You’re really strong if you can keep it up, at least on the hope that it might make it easier for any other doubting (non)members that cross your stake president’s path. Keep being brave.

    • Malachi

      All my talks with my stake president were geared towards getting me off the fringe and back into the light. He asked me to share my concerns with him, but I feel like he just wanted to know which apologetic arrows to put in his quiver. Now whenever he comes to my ward to speak he always touches on issues that I’ve brought up with him and he’s pretty dismissive of them (Like Holland’s infamous “Safety for the Soul” talk). This made me feel like his interest wasn’t genuine and I’ve stopped meeting with him. This could be the whole leadership roulette thing. If Tom’s SP is legitimately concerned, good on him, but I agree with Glenn, no matter how sincere it is, it inevitably stems from his personal responsibility as a shepherd. He worries for Tom’s eternal salvation.

      • Craig Keeling

        I agree. I don’t think it takes away from leaders’ character or diminishes their motivation that their incentive is to help with someone’s “eternal salvation.”

        From the outside it can seem misplaced or ridiculous, but they’re operating in their worldview and if they’re being authentic to that, it should be expected and, dare I say, appreciated.

        • Malachi the Pika

          I agree Craig, but boy it can be hard to appreciate it sometimes. Especially when conversations feel one-sided, like they’re not really listening to me, just waiting to pounce and bear their testimony.

    • Craig Keeling

      A lifetime of playing in the believing arena, with its perimeters and rules, is difficult when you start to see that the arena is not representative of reality.

      Engaging with those still in (thought experiments included) will inevitably lead to challenging those perimeters, I suppose.

  • Orrin Dayne

    I was there for the Cody Judy incident. Unlike Tierza, I heard him say “bomb” and started booking it up the stairs towards the exits. By the time I reached the top of the stairs, people were singing “We Thank Thee, Oh God, for a Prophet” and, for some reason, I decided to stay.

  • Homsar

    Was that Game of Thrones thing at the end an actual preview of an upcoming episode? Because I totally posted a comment about doing that, and I think that would kick ass.

    Do you guys listen to the “You are Not So Smart” podcast? Because that guy totally just did an episode all about false memories about a month ago, and he has a ton of stuff on personal narrative, self-deception, and cognitive bias. I’ve also noticed a lot of things from the Freakonomics podcast crop up on Infants on Thrones. Maybe I am experiencing the Baader-Meinhof Complex.

    I really appreciated Tierza’s perspective on the complex nature of belief v. non belief in the church. Good episode, thanks.

    • Tierza Rose Askren

      “You Are Not So Smart” is my (2nd) favorite podcast right now. The human brain is a tricky little devil!

    • Glenn

      An actual preview of an actual… something? Look in the flames. Go ahead. Look. What do they tell you?

  • Holly

    I remember the Challenger vividly. I was telling my husband about this episode last night, & I started sharing that memory. And as I was talking, it dawned on me that it kind of sounded like that Punky Brewster episode about the tragedy. So, maybe my memory is not entirely mine. :/

  • Jared

    The last bit was very frustrating to listen to. I know that everyone has their reason to hold on to that hope of (de)converting but it’s frustrating to hear.

    More than likely your Stake Pres. prepares himself before seeing you. I can imagine him standing in front of his bathroom mirror in his saggy “yellowing” garments literally acting out the movements of girting his loins with truth, shodding his feet with preparation of the gospel of peace, buckling on his breastplate of righteousness and grasping shield of faith to protect him from the fiery darts of Tom. Finally after searching around for a few minutes he yells out the door to his wife, (who’s seen this “pre-game ritual” all before, but gets a kick out of it every time), “Honey, have you seen my helmet of salvation and sword of the Spirit?” To which she responds, “It’s in the hall way closet where you left it last time.” They giggle as he puts on his Mr. Mac suit and walks out the door for your appointment.

    I guess what I’m trying to say, is that he knows your tactic and prepares every time you two meet. Doesn’t seem like the best way to try and convince someone. The better tactic, I would think, is, as suggested near the end of the pod-cast, to pretend like its no big deal, like you don’t care one way or the other and as soon as you build that relationship of trust you can start looking for that loose loop on his spiritual sweater and whamo!, before he knows it you’ll have unraveled the whole thing and he’ll be standing, in his yellowing garments, wondering how the hell he got there.

    Then you two can go out and grab a beer and look back and laugh at this whole experience.

    Done! Easy peasy!

  • Orrin Dayne

    The cynic in me agrees with Glenn regarding the futility of Tom’s conversations with his SP. But the idealist in me hopes that I’m wrong. I’m rooting for Tom.

    • Glenn

      Tom brought out the hopeful idealist in me, as well.

  • document

    This podcast was especially applicable to me right now as I’m going through a divorce. A very wise person warned me about narratives. I tend to be highly empathetic so I continued to tell people _her_ side of the story, and she warned me that it is not my place to excuse her nor tell her side, but to tell my own. They will hear her side.

    But it is interesting in the divorce going over memories that you have had together, both good and bad, and having entirely different reactions to them.

  • Sean

    The memory point regarding Loftus’ research is always a edgy one for many. As someone who has spent a fair bit of time doing trauma work, and other mental health work, with children and families I always feel the need to speak out as how that research is interpreted. I think it can lead to some significant harm. This is a huge topic but I just wanted to bring up the one point mentioned regarding adults remembering sexual abuse and that because the memory “came back” as an adult means it is likely false (not the words used but a potential interpretation). I see memory as complex and a lot less like a video camera and more like a shitty calculator than people think. Bits of information are analyzed and linked together. So, memory is not 100% perfect but rather, and this is so related to the overall discussion on this podcast, our best guess based on sensory input and clues stored in our malleable brain. Susan Clancy, a Harvard post doc fellow (loads of street cred in that), argues in her book The Trauma Myth that sometimes children don’t remember sexual trauma because of the way that it is encoded. To a pre-sexual child a sexual act has a different meaning, often one hard to place. The behaviour is traumatic because we know what it means either cognitively or physiologically; something kids often lack at the age they are abused. Later in life even a portion of that event that encoded with no more significance that a strange bedtime story or a tickle fight recalled can create that “Oh Shit” moment when the behaviour now fits into a whole new meaning. Further, children’s ability to process and link memories are still forming as the human brain doesn’t reach organizational maturity till about 25 (give or take a few with the ladies tending to mature a bit quicker). This means that children’s memories are especially likely to be challenging to interpret but, regardless of flaws in the memory or odd timing of it, IT DOES NOT MEAN IT IS FALSE! I just wanted to emphasize that point as someone who has spent many many hours working with teens attempting to sort through memories and help them re-organize these; slowly peeling the emotional and narrative memories away from the the intense emotional arousal (often pain and fear). I enjoyed the podcast as always. I know this is really an aside to the main conversation but think its an important one.

    • Tierza Rose Askren

      Thank you for making this point. I was actually thinking about this as I re-listened to our discussion today. It feels like the new understandings we have about the malleability of memory require us to think about these experiences in two ways – 1st – we have to go slowly. These memories may not be “True” in the legal sense and we have seen how over-reliance on witness testimony can destroy innocent lives – BUT – 2nd – Those memories and stories are coming from somewhere and they mean something. They are worth taking seriously. It is worth examining where those memories come from. I am a big fan of the kind of therapies that take narrative creation seriously and help people examine, own and understand their own stories in an active and creative way. I would also say we are a long, long way from actually understanding any of this stuff – we need to approach all these studies on how the brain works with humility and patience.

      • Sean

        Agreed. I also think we need to re-examine the value we place on truth. Truth is typically a fairly quantitative measure where we tally evidence based on “objective” (through a glass darkly) evidence. If we look at therapies for example, I know from our current research that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a statistically superior treatment to Interpersonal Therapy for Depressed teens. However, I also know that statistical significance only means there is a difference between groups beyond what we could expect by error. Does this mean that because one shows a greater likelihood of producing a different group it will work for Sarah, the 17 year old who comes into my office for assistance with “depression” with a maternal history of bi-polar and some queries of autism spectrum…not always. People are shades of grey. Clinical significance and statistical significance are different. Truth and value are also more grey that mere empiricism would suggest. IMO. I think when we look at peoples narratives, “truth” is but one of many variables considered. Many people use this argument to justify the Book of Mormon. They may say, “I know it is inaccurate but I cannot deny the positive influence it has had on me.” Fair enough. I still think it’s a bad bit of fiction but thats my reality and not theirs. Similarly, if I had found out Kurt Cobain was actually an oil executive digitally producing brooding teen music for money and nefarious opportunities with the fairer sex would that change the significance of his music and image to my teenage brain years ago… I don’t think so. I don’t think the construct “truth” has zero value, far from it, but I’m not convinced it bares the weight heaved on it in post-mystic modernism. Thanks Tierza for the thought and discussion. Good luck with conference season. Before we came out to my in-laws I used to hate awkwardly pretending what my most meaningful moment of conference was… “Gosh…they were all so good…how do I pick one?…”

  • Pink-lead

    Thanks for the discussion. While I listened I thought a lot
    about the differences that exist between the reality and/or truth of personal experience vs. objective historical truth. I think the distinction is important. Certainly the emphasis came across that personal experience by nature is subjective; everyone has their own filters (or coagulants). In this I agree with Glenn that regardless of how objectively true one’s memory is, the experience is still very real. The result is our version of truth is based on what we have experienced or felt to be real. This construct is meaningful and yes malleable and imperfect. There are articles out there that touch on how ‘fake experiences’ can be just as real to the brain. One example, that reading can increase empathy. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study

    So while Scrooge (or Moroni) may not have actually existed I
    have experienced something real from reading his-story.

    As for objective reality, it is (hard video evidence aside) a construct of several filtered versions of the event. When enough of these colored accounts combine, reconstruction can be possible to
    varying degrees. This is where I empathize with Tom. The Church™ resists any reconstruction not in line with what has been declared true (eternally no less). The question for me is which apostles/leaders truly can’t read the data in any other way but to confirm the church’s narrative (see Holland’s church ed speech) vs. those who can or do but deliberately cover up, obfuscate, or suppress in order to preserve the machine (i.e. cover up their sins or gratify their pride or vain ambition).

    Coincidentally I recently produced a short film that subtly conveys some of these same ideas. If any are interested see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrLJQmM_5Mo

  • Daved6

    I admit, I never listen to the whole episode. Too long. I enjoyed the essay but was a little disappointed by the commentary. It was almost as if the commentators think that they know the truth but no one else does. Recognize. We simply don’t.
    No, for instance, we don’t have a record from Joseph Smith that the moon was inhabited with quaker-like people. We have a late (like in the 1880s or something) third hand account of someone saying Joseph Smith said it. 40 years after Joseph was gone. Who knows what Joseph actually said on the topic?
    That’s one of the problems when we discuss history. History is not a hard science. We can’t make things all fit together nicely. We have pieces of data, and that data is either reliable or not. But we don’t know whether it’s reliable. I think the author of the essay said something a long these lines for a sec. So we have anyone and everyone seeing a piece of data and then stating things like, “it was true, Joseph Smith said the moon was occupied by quaker-like people”. No, we don’t know it’s true.
    There is, in our day, no truer explanation of all of this then reading/hearing people’s “exist stories”. In everyone I’ve seen the exiter is some sort of hero and the Church, family, friends are in some way portrayed in a way that I’m sure each of those portrayed would object to. Granted the degree of hero and villain shows some diversity. But what do we end up with? One story shared by all–ya hear one ya hear them all. The story’s been crafter, over time, by many. Now everyone knows how express it. None of the stories are true, in an objective sense, but all are true in the practical sense. None of them are fair or balanced in the objective sense, even if the teller is being “fair and balanced”. But what I see crafted in it all are a couple of things–LDS people are one thing and we, the enlightened leavers, are something else. odd that the roles have switched in one people’s minds.
    Ah well, enough said. See ya….hope that no one gets too upset with me for posting something here.

    • Glenn

      You are selectively hearing again, David. I gave the “moon men” example to illustrate that we don’t know what my ancestors back then thought when they heard things “like” that — “if they heard it at all.” Remember me putting it that way?

      And we could argue about the probability of Jospeh Smith saying something like that, especially given the Great Moon Man Hoax of 1835 — which, if nothing else, illustrates that this was not a completely uncommon (or unlikely) thing for people to believe in back then — especially a guy as prolific and interested in Celestial/Telestial Kolob-type things as Joseph Smith.

      But one of the main points of this episode is that we selectively edit life around us to fit our narrative and justify our own perception of truth, and I did not hold myself exempt in that area. So fixate on the moon man thing if you want. Or don’t. But there is much more going on in this conversation than whether or not Joseph Smith REALLY taught about moon men.

      But the probability is that he did. And the fact that I choose to accept that probability and you choose to challenge it says much more about me and about you than anything that actually did or did not happen in history.


      • Daved6

        Hey glen, thanks for the response. I didn’t fixate on that issue. It was a great example up for discussion and am glad you brought it up. I was adding to what was said. Seriously didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I don’t care whether Joseph said anything of the sort, not really the point. Just saying we treat history that way, saying for instance people claiming someone thought this or that while not really knowing what was thought. Calling probability (which is what histiry relies on in its conclusions) as established fact.

        I gotsta stop replying on my phone. But since I’m on a roll here… My main area of focus in that post was my allusion to exit stories. Should have been mentioned by you guys (can’t say chumps, hoping not to get Randy’s ire up again). Probably one of the best examples I can think of. When our dear author friend mentioned the 9/11 victims I understood exactly what she was saying.

        And of course I selectiveky hear. We all do. Besides I got things to do. When I feel satisfied I stop listening and go off to take care of other business. U of u losing to duke right now., come wigglers stage a comeback.

    • Matthew Bryde

      David, if you didn’t listen right to the end, then you missed a fabulous outro… 😛

      • Daved6

        I’m missing so many fabulous things in this world, it’s hard to feel concerned.

  • albertinamel

    I love Tierza’s comment about people’s not really wanting the truth if it ruins a good story. It hits very close to home.

    A close family member did extensive research on the story of John Alexander Clark, an early missionary to the Turkish mission, which then included Palestine. He traveled without a companion in those days, and his journal (detailing his morning cup of coffee, etc.) is fascinating. There was a small pox epidemic. He was told to evacuate. He didn’t, and he tragically died alone at a young age. He was buried in a plot in a nearby Lutheran cemetery.

    Today, many people have heard the myth that, because he was buried in the Holy Land, Israel considered the LDS Church to have a foothold in the region prior to 1948 and was therefore agreeable to allowing the BYU Jerusalem Center to be built. This is a complete falsehood. My relative interviewed Elder Holland directly, as he had been President of BYU, to find out if Clark’s grave had anything to do with the lease agreement to allow construction of the Jerusalem Center. His answer was an emphatic, unequivocal “No.” (How would it have anyway? It was a Lutheran cemetery, not an LDS one. The whole story makes no sense.)

    Still, groups of tourists are told this faith-promoting story, perpetuated by Truman Madsen. Madsen and family members alike have brushed aside the thesis paper and have chosen not to read it or completely disregard it. The sad truth is that this young man’s mission resulted in no great conversion but his own, and he died alone from an illness he could have avoided. But people don’t want to hear about a man who left virtually no legacy. They want the myth. They want the silver lining, even if they have to believe a fabrication to get it.

  • Man-cat

    Ok – the Stephen Hawking thing was freaking hilarious! Please tell me where you made these! Boobs!