Heber J. Grant, Beer and Sexual Morality

beer temptationby Greg N.

I like reading comments on the bloggernacle. Especially when the discussion gets into “heated” territory. With popcorn and drink in hand, I was enjoying the semi-intense back and forth dialogue last month surrounding Tad Callister’s Morality article when I stumbled onto this gem of a comment from “rixa”:

“I’m so frustrated that I am raising my 4 children in this toxic sexual culture. It’s meant well but done in just about the worst possible way. I worry if what I teach at home will be strong enough to counteract the negative and harmful messages they’re receiving at church.”1

Wow.  Pretty extreme, right?  Only, deep inside, I think many of us identify with rixa.  So what’s the answer? Where’s the balance? Personally, I’m in favor of a pendulum swing. That’s right, I say we throw in the towel and ditch the metaphorical rhetoric altogether.   

When we take off our boxing gloves, we may find that our opponent only continued to fight because we wouldn’t let him out of the ring. Unfortunately, when we demonize any behavior so strongly, we run the risk of making it even more prevalent in our lives.

To borrow from and paraphrase Natasha Parker’s response to Elder Callister here:

“Provocative imagery language that elicits anxiety and fear gives Satan more power than he deserves in our daily cognitive existence…we need to recognize that this fear-based approach contributes to the types of behaviors we are so desperately trying to stop.”2

I get it. For some people, the rhetoric works. But on the whole, is it really working? Are we not tempted just a little to make the connection between Utah’s #1 showing at the top of the “porn per capita” list and the way we constantly remind ourselves how abhorrent and dangerous the behavior is?

It’s not a terribly difficult concept. Dr. Marnia Robinson explains in an article for the “Good Men Project” that:

“risky activities release extra adrenaline and dopamine into the brain, and are therefore paradoxically perceived as more “valuable.” (The brain’s primitive reward circuitry assesses value based upon how much exciting dopamine is released in connection with an activity.) Threats of future punishment and warnings against “sin” therefore increase [a behavior’s] power to overstimulate the brain, making subsequent [] binging more likely.”3

Now consider Elder Callister’s language, stamped with approval in the church magazine:

“It is a poisonous, venomous, unforgiving snake that will strike the moment you take your first look and will continue to strike with a full portion of venom with each look thereafter.”4

Ask yourself, if you were 15 years old and full of hormones, would this language not release an extra dose of adrenaline and dopamine into your brain’s primitive reward circuitry?

Obviously as parents and leaders, we should be engaged in helping our youth develop a strong moral compass. It’s just unfortunate that so often this includes unintentionally throwing fuel on the adversary’s fire and therefore making the undesirable behavior neurochemically rewarding for our children.

I find Heber J Grant’s experience somewhat enlightening. As a youth, Heber struggled with what he considered an unhealthy addiction to coffee. “Time after time he quit, only to find his appetite uncontrollable.”  His remedy for overcoming the addiction was unusual: “I have promised myself a number of times that I would quit,” he said. But “now I have said I am going to take a cup of coffee whenever I want it and I haven’t drank any for months.”  Did you catch that? He simply caved.

Later in life Heber apparently struggled with an alcohol addiction. Needing to gain weight in order to qualify for a life insurance policy, his doctor simply prescribed beer.  “At first Heber found beer ‘bitter and distasteful’…but he quickly acquired both a business and a personal taste for it. Within a year, he secured the fire insurance business of most Salt Lake City saloons and Utah breweries, an additional ten pounds, and a growing relish for the savor of hops. His daily four-glass limit became five, and occasionally grew to six.”  In time, however, young Heber began to “war[] with his acute sense of conscience” and resolved to stop drinking.

“’I wanted some [beer] so bad that I drank it again,’ he confessed. Finally, he found strength in the same formula he had used with coffee. By telling himself he was free to take a drink whenever he wished, he overcame his obsession and ceased drinking.”5

Did Heber J Grant really win the war against alcohol if he just simply gave up and resolved to drink whenever he wanted? Isn’t this cheating?  Could we not win the war against pornography by “cheating” and simply resolving that it’s not such a big deal?

Before you hyperventilate about the difference between the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity, read this comment posted anonymously on a recent article over at Wheat and Tares:

“I finally came to a place where I told myself that I was a terrible, bad person and I was going to accept that and move on with my life. Once I did that, I no longer felt the desire to see porn anymore. It was an odd experience because I did not expect that result at all…I don’t beat myself up about it and the desire to see it passes.”6

Sound familiar?

Treatment researchers call this technique Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or “ACT.”  Essentially, ACT teaches people to walk in the exact opposite direction than the one suggested by traditional thought.

In a study published in the clinical journal Behavior Therapy, Michael Twohig of Utah State University concluded “that suppression, avoidance, self-loathing and criticism are actually part of the obsessive stew that makes this problem worse.” The research suggests that suppressive avoidance is a “route toward more struggle, more suffering, and ironically toward more obsessive viewing.”

Twohig applied ACT to a test group in eight sessions and found that “as participants learned to accept the urge (to view porn), to watch it rise and fall mindfully, to embrace themselves in a kinder and less judgmental way, and to pivot toward valued actions, something remarkable happened. Viewing became far less frequent, but what was remarkable was how that happened. People softened. Religious obsessions went down but positive commitments went up. Obsessive thinking was relieved and with it worry that unbidden thoughts alone cause harm. They were more able to act in accord with their own values.”

Wait. More able to act in accord with their own values? You mean they’ll have more self-esteem, more self-control and make more positive choices? And all this by simply caving in? Definitely doesn’t jive with what I was taught about “accepting the urge.”

“Instead of controlling urges, ACT teaches acceptance and mindful awareness of them. Instead of self-loathing and criticism, ACT teaches compassion. Instead of avoidance, ACT instigates approaching one’s values.”7

Contrast that to what we do at church.  We diagnose our kids with a “deadly, insidious plague”8 to be treated as an “infectious malady,”9 even though it can’t be “vomited back up”10 anyhow.

Let me clarify my stance. I do not have a beef with our principles or values. Only the way we teach them and allow unhealthy hyperbole to flourish. Increasing sexual anxiety through frightening metaphors does no good and conditions our youth to face damaging mental obstacles when they do get married. We can’t justify the harm as collateral damage if the intended benefits aren’t even realized.

I’m reminded of a swimmer caught in a powerful rip current. An experienced swimmer knows fighting directly against the current will only lead to exhaustion and will potentially drown him.  But if the swimmer starts focusing on something else and swims parallel to shore, he eventually finds himself free from danger and easily navigates back to dry land. So I say we start focusing on something else. Let’s redirect our youth so they don’t spend all their adolescent years concentrating solely on themselves while trying to rid themselves of a “contagious disease” that may not even be there to begin with. Like swimming out of a rip current, they may find themselves finally free from the debilitating current of negativity and shame. And as a bonus, maybe, hopefully, Utah’s porn consumption will recede back to national levels.

 

References

  1. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mormontherapist/2014/02/morality-we-can-do-much-better-than-this.html
  2. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mormontherapist/2014/02/morality-we-can-do-much-better-than-this.html
  3. http://goodmenproject.com/families/boys/boys-and-porn-it-aint-your-fathers-playboy/
  4. Ensign, March 2014, pg. 47
  5. Ronald W. Walker, “Young Heber J. Grant’s Years of Passage,” BYU Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 1984
  6. http://www.wheatandtares.org/12990/women-are-addicted-to-porn-too/
  7. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/get-out-your-mind/201009/watching-porn-the-problem-must-not-be-named
  8. Ensign, November 2002, pg. 46, Deadly- Ensign, November 1999, pg. 38
  9. Ensign, November 2010, Ensign, May 1999, pg. 38
  10. Ensign, May 1999, pg. 38