January 13, 2015
The response to the first essay was so enthusiastic that I started writing part 2 almost immediately. However, it's taken me several revisions to be happy with it. Enjoy!
See Part 1 at http://dhtmaster.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-daily-honky-tonk-203rd-edition.html
The Personal Narrative – Part 2
A year ago this February, the Booher family filled the better part of a chapel to remember the life of my grandmother, Skeeter. I always wondered how I would handle the death of someone close to me. I’ve never felt overly emotional about death. Part of Heavenly Father’s gift to me, I think, is an absolute certainty that I will see people after this life. And though I haven’t really mourned her departure, I can absolutely say that it has changed my life over the last year. In part, I think, because I can’t get the words from her eulogy out of my head.
“She refused to be defined by the things that happened to her, but chose to define herself, and her life, in her own way.”
If you spend enough time with any of Skeeter’s 10 children or 50+ grandchildren/great grandchildren, then you will realize many of the narratives we tell of Skeeter make her out to be no less than a superhero. And we’d be hard pressed to make her out as much less, despite her weaknesses.
In the past couple months, I’ve wanted to pay tribute to Skeeter in writing. However, the best tribute I can think of to Skeeter has been to live the best principles and practices that she taught. She organized and prioritized each day by lists defining what she needed to accomplish. She planned the task, executed the task in whatever time it required, and then moved to the next one. She was always teaching. She taught grandchildren, neighbors, friends from the church and community, how to cook, how to be thrifty, how to coupon, how to grow a garden, how to raise children, how to love books, how to keep a house clean, how to build a stand for a chicken coop, how to collect eggs, pick berries, get up before the sun, and how to work, work, work.
Long before DIY magazines and HGTV, Skeeter was the queen of Do It Yourself. I remember in a visit not too long ago I saw a DIY magazine sitting on the table. I picked it up to look. She saw what I was reading and expressed her disappointment with the DIY magazine because it didn’t teach ingenuity and resourcefulness (like she practiced) but rather spending money on prefabricated projects. Skeeter didn’t like to throw things away, she would save things for years with a plan for how each object, seemingly trash to many, could become something greater. And frequently the projects on the farm we did, were the realization of those plans. If she could do it, then anyone could. She taught that way, with the full confidence and belief that you would learn it. She told you what to do, and you did it right. If you didn’t do it right, she corrected your actions until you learned to do it right. In short, not unlike the Savior, Skeeter found that special balance of teaching with love and with firmness
The lessons I could record from her life are numerous. My goal is to record them in my heart as I weave the narrative of her actions into the narrative of my present and future decisions.
In Part 1, I referred to the idea that people sometimes make them out to be the epic hero or the embattled victim of life. And while Part 1 looked at how personal narratives related to jobs, I want to look in Part 2 at how the stories impact other parts of our lives.
Skeeter was a hero rather than a victim. She passed on that desire to me, especially through my mom. I hope the following experiences will illustrate what I mean. I hope you recognize that as important as the individual plot points of our lives are, it is the inner dialogue during those plot points that helps us to define who we are.
Changing the weight narrative:
An easy way to illustrate the influence of inner dialogue is to tell you about my weight. Between fourth and fifth grade I started putting on weight. By middle school, I was a chunky monkey, a “marshmallow puff”, erroneously defining my narrative by the elementary peer poking my belly while making the Pillsbury dough laugh and by the doctor who commented that I could us a little more exercise. Inside my head, I believed the weight couldn’t go away.
In middle school, I discovered a growing interest in the opposite sex. I decided if I was never going to be skinny, I would need to have great character, despite my weight. I believed that would best happen if I increased my devotion to Christ. That decision was one of the best I ever made. But, I still believed the weight was permanent.
Sophomore year, my story changed when I joined the soccer team. I was getting so much exercise, my weight dramatically changed. And yet, I still believed I was fat.
Nine years later my weight steadily climbed past the two hundred mark. So, I tried counting calories, dropped twenty pounds, and then put it back on in six months. Then, last spring, I finally had a break through when I completed a healthy challenge, dropped thirty pounds in eight weeks, and kept it off.
Much of decreasing my weight has been altering my narrative. I love eating great food, sharing great food, and recounting great food experiences. At night, I read cookbooks in bed.
For a long time, I thought I might have to abandon those things. But altering a narrative isn't ignoring it or lying to ourselves, but rather seeing things in a new light. I changed my mentality- I can enjoy foods in smaller portions. I can still be fascinated by cooking and learning new techniques. I may dislike counting calories, but increasing exercise and the intake of better foods, reducing sweets, and controlling portions all were internal changes that didn't have to remove my love of food. I had to remind myself that "Never trust a skinny chef" is just a saying and not an absolute truth. Instead I adopted a P.S.A. poster from the teacher’s lounge - a picture of an athletic girl running with an the overlaying text, “Healthy by choice, not by chance.”
Internal dialogue isn't just what we say to ourselves in thought, but also the images, ideas, and people we let inspire us. I frequently thought about my parents who have worked hard in the last decade to be more healthy. Also, Michael Symon and an Our Best Bite’s blog author who changed their lifestyles to be at healthy weights while being public food figures.
Change is possible, especially when we start to change from the inside.
Changing the anxiety narrative
For a long time, as many of your remember, I used the DHT to relieve stress and work through the anxieties of my youth. During that time, I believed that my high anxiety would continue for the duration of my time on earth. Two things contributed to my anxiety.
First, in my spiritual narrative, I knew the Lord expected a lot out of me. Because I had been given much, I was expected to give more back (think parable of the talents). I understood very well that we gain spiritual knowledge:
“line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away that which they have.” - 2 Nephi 28:30
I didn’t want to have that which I had learned taken away. (And when I’ve been slower to act on the right things, the Lord has taken away). I also was the oldest and felt a strong need to be the best example. I was a perfectionist, but internally I knew I was doing it because I loved the Lord.
Another part of my anxiety narrative included family history. In my family, I get anxiety and neurotic tendencies from both sides. From my dad’s side a highly anxious grandmother and a obsessive compulsive grandpa. From my mom’s side, a history of stay-up-late-into-the-night thinkers, and anxiety/mild depression issues. And, perhaps most interesting to reflect on now, thinking that my family had similar issues made me feel connected to my family in a meaningful way. We were anxious about life, but at least we were anxious together.
Of course, personal narrative is also built on the building blocks of experience. I had countless nights to remember of not being able to sleep, long periods of extended anxiety that didn’t end, and the fact that often my great anxiety could produce enough pressure to get some pretty fantastic results. It is easy to tell yourself something won't end when you have a lot of experiential evidence to back it up.
Despite all these things, President Ellsworth helped me reframe my narrative. I remember sitting in his office for an interview about how things were going as a missionary. I described some of my anxieties and fears, some of my guilt complexes, and probably more details than most humans share. The response I got wasn’t expected. “Elder Tonkinson, you seem to be trying to live your life without Christ’s Atonement.” All along, my narrative had been that my perfectionist obsession was because I loved Christ (which it was). But I hadn’t realized that in so doing, I was trying to live such a life in which I did everything so right that I wouldn’t have to rely on Christ for any mistakes. The great mistake was not trusting Him. Furthermore, my mission President helped me to see that in some way, I was addicted to my stress. Their was some sick part of if that I enjoyed. When I wasn’t stressed, I would go through withdrawal and work myself up again.
Over time, I started viewing my own spiritual narrative in new ways. I lived life without as much fear of failure and was willing to allow the chance that mistakes might happen, but that they would come at an even better price, more trust in Christ and greater learning. Furthermore, I started to change my life narrative. No matter what my family history was, it didn’t mean that I would always have to be that same stressed out Mark. No matter how much experience I had being stressed, didn't mean I had to keep doing the same thing. As I changed those thoughts, I became a more relaxed person and better able to cope with anxiety and stress. I’m not saying it’s all gone; but I find that if I don’t define my life by my stress that the waves of anxiety are much less significant. I don’t buy into them or allow them to grow.
My Parent's Narrative My parents are fairly private about their younger lives. I know they try and define themselves by who they are now and what they are becoming tomorrow rather than by who they were in the past. And while their is nothing in their past that was terrible, they weren't the same people they are today.
Through little pieces of their narratives I've stored away over the years, I’ve come to believe that one of the most defining moments came for them when I was very young. After I was born, and before Taryn was born, I have a sister named Kelsey Danielle who was stillborn. And while I know those were hard years for my parents, I also know that they made themselves into the heroes of their narratives rather than victims. They didn’t say, "this is awful, we will never have any children again" - Taryn was born one year later. They didn’t curse God and believe he didn’t love them, instead, they increased their commitment and devotion to the Lord so that we could return as a family and be with Kelsey forever. And while it was certainly sad, sadness was never the focus of our talks about Kelsey. We usually talk about her around her April 3rd birthday. We talk about our decision to continue as a family to keep our covenants so we can be with her. And we talk about our gratitude for the plan of salvation.
The fact that my parents made a decision not to be victims of the incident, but rather to make something better out of it is like the two paths diverging - they chose the one that made all the difference.
Some Closing Thoughts Recently, I have delved into the writings of and about the movers and shakers of the world. A heavy dose of Malcolm Gladwell here, a nice dose of Ed Catmull’s “Creativity Inc.”, the story of Google, commencement speeches by Steve Jobs and other heavy hitters, and a book called “The Tastemakers”, a treatment of how food trends move by David Sax. With each of them, I have come to see that the way they tell the story of their life matters. And more than that, the way to see how stories define and shape lives is one thing they understand.
In a world where people have an increased fear to stay in relationships, to face economic hard times with hard work and sacrifice rather than bailouts, and people fighting to stop outside factors (bullying, fatty foods) rather than help people face their inner battles, I think it is critical that we know how to shape our own stories. It’s also critical that we have enough empathy to first understand people and then begin to assist them in shaping their stories.
I find myself increasingly grateful for the Savior's sacrifice. All changes in our narratives are made possible by Him. If it weren't for the Atonement, we couldn't leave our mistakes in the past and define ourselves by who we are becoming rather than who we were.
One saying that I added to my internal dialogue in fighting anxiety came from an LDS psychologist who I met with before my missionary service (he was asked to make sure my Tourrette's syndrome wasn't going to be an issue). Because I was interested in psychology, I asked him what he thought of the profession. He said he loved being an LDS psychologist because he could focus on the Atonement. In repairing relationships, or on working through issues he said that "While much of the world of psychology focuses on a person's past, I love how the Gospel allows me to help people by focusing on what they can become tomorrow." As I have come to greater understand the Savior's sacrifice, I have found the Atonement to be empowering in all aspects of my life (anxiety and weight loss included).
To bring this back around to Skeeter, I think one of the attributes I want to carry on most is her ability to lovingly build other people up. In meaningful ways, she impacted the trajectory of other's narratives. The following is from the closing of the eulogy.
Jeanetta Ann Talley Booher lived her life to the fullest, in the way she wanted to live it. She never traveled the four corners of the globe, but she taught children that did. She never rose to high status in business or government, but she taught children that did. She never changed the course of human history, but she changed the course of many personal histories through her tireless and stubborn efforts to see justice done, see children taught, and see the truth conquer. She never allowed the past to define her life, but constantly looked forward to defining herself anew everyday.
I’m sure she will continue that quest in the eternities.
Jeanetta Ann Talley Booher was indeed a defining woman.
I can and you can be a defining person as well.