Authenticity; Keeping it Real

Jackson VanDerwerken plays Nephi in the new Book of Mormon series. He was just 16 when they started shooting. He is currently serving a mission in Brazil.

The church has put out a whole series of new movies about the Book of Mormon.  I don’t know what I expected; wooden acting, flat characters, scriptures being read in radio voice……the typical church videos.  Maybe that’s why it took me so long to start watching them. They are really good! I know when the movie is good when I read the book and the characters in my head look like the characters in the movie.  That only happens when the actor is able to capture the character. After thirty years of reading the Book of Mormon, when I think of Nephi now, I can see the actor in this series. That’s pretty impressive!  The acting, the script, the set, the filming is all first rate. If you want to know more about the Book of Mormon, but don’t feel like reading it, this would be a good place to start.

And not only am I a fan, my thirteen year old son snuck out of bed last night to watch the next episode.  Impressive. The fact that he spends hours each day watching low budget YouTube gamer videos might indicate that something as useful as scripture videos would be boring. On the contrary, I think these Book of Mormon videos have some serious appeal to teenagers. I’m no expert on teens, but one thing I have learned really fast; they can smell hypocrisy. They expect inauthentic behavior and they invent them in parents even if they aren’t there. They are creating their mask of perfection and they know you have yours. On the flip side, they seem to love authenticity. Ugly and honest reality resonates with them.

Nephi is his willing to tell the story of his family.  It isn’t the whole truth about it of course. It is his perspective and should be recognized for what it is and what it isn’t. Every family is defined differently by each member who has their own memories and perspective. We’ve all had those weird moments when a sibling recalls the details of a family vacation we can’t even remember taking. For some reason, that vacation was meaningful to that person and it was seared into their long-term memory. It wasn’t meaningful to you, so you forgot it. It isn’t that your memory or theirs is wrong. Together, your memories can create a more complete picture of the reality that is and was your family.

Family is so intimate. Our siblings and our parents shape us. Telling the ugly truths about them can feel very personal.  Life is messy. There is snot, slobber, and poop. There are addictions, mental and emotional disorders, chronic illness, allergies, muffin tops, cellulite, and a hundred other distasteful things that exist behind closed doors.  Nephi lays it all out as he tells his story. He doesn’t spare anyone, even himself and his own father and mother. When they doubt, murmur against God, and cause problems for themselves and their family, he writes it. Maybe no one really wants to have a family like Nephi’s.  We would all like to have things be a little more pretty and simple; suits and dresses sitting in a row on the bench at church. No problems here!

Nephi shares his and his family’s personal and physical struggles as they strive to obey God’s commands and make a new life for themselves in a new land.

The truth is, life is hard and messy when it comes to families and the scriptures don’t paint a rosy picture.  Jacob and Esau were in a constant state of sibling rivalry even in the womb. Joseph was beaten, imprisioned, and sold into slavery by his brothers.  In his misery, Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die.” These accounts aren’t flattering for these families. No one wants to be Job’s wife in this story. No one wants to be the brother who sells his sibling into slavery. Still, a mature reader can have immense empathy for a wife who has lost everything and feels despair or a brother consumed by hatred and jealousy for a favored sibling. The unflattering details in these accounts are important because we can learn from them. Life is hard and sin, death, and disease are real, yet not many people in the history of the world have been willing to talk about the ugly in their families.  Often no record at all is made of a person’s life and family. I have talked to people who plan to burn journals before their death; determined to keep their inner lives a secret. This seems such a waste to me. So much can be learned about oneself and the world when we look at life through the eyes of another person. Also, no sin or problem is so great that the Savior’s atonement cannot save. Where is our faith?

Nephi was one of those rare people who recorded his inner thoughts and feelings about his family and gave them to the world. Something about the story of Nephi, Sam, Laman, and Lemuel seems to reveal so much about family relationships to me as a mother of four sons. I’m glad that Nephi made the choice to share the truth about his family even if it wasn’t always pretty.  It makes him relatable. Honestly, I relate to Laman and Lemuel too. I relate to Sariah and Lehi. They are real people to me because their lives weren’t perfect. If Nephi had only written the flattering things, I think I would have seen through the deception. Brothers tying one another up and beating each other with sticks…..sounds like my world!

So millions of people have read and will read the Book of Mormon.  Now they have made a decent video series that will be watched by many people.  Judgements will be made about Lehi and Sariah, their parenting, their children and their posterity.  Laman and Lemuel surely would have felt that Nephi’s account was not fair to them. Of course, they were free to make their own scratchings on metal plates if they wanted their story told.  Something tells me they never bothered to do that. Will their anger against Nephi be fueled unnecessarily by this willingness to make an account with so much detail and honesty? Does their resentment still smolter against their brother in the afterlife as millions read his story and their unflattering portrayal? Was it okay that Nephi wrote about his family? What about you and I? Should we write the truth about our families from our perspective? If so, when and how should it be shared? These questions are not simple or easy to answer.

I’ve been doing some digital portrait art.  It’s so hard to artistically represent a person!  One portrait I looked at for hours. Something was not quite right.  I had to erase much of the face and redo it because the jaw line was wrong, the ear was not quite long enough, and the eyebrow was too far from the eyelid line.  I was trying to be accurate and fair with my first rendering, but it still wasn’t right. Writing about people can be just as difficult as drawing them. How can you reproduce a person accurately and fairly without caricature?  How can you convey the essence of a person whether in print or in art? When you are finished, there is no guarantee that the person will like it or want it to be shared. What then? You drew the bags under their eyes, or the lines on their forehead.  You drew what was there and if you took those things out, it wouldn’t be them, but they don’t like it. They want a more flattering image, but what if that image comes at the cost of authenticity?

Authenticity makes things meaningful and we humans are very good at being able to tell whether something is authentic or not.  Check out this video of a robot pretending to be a person. Some very smart people have spent a lot of time and effort to make an authentic human being, but even a very young child would be able to tell that something isn’t quite right with Sophia.  Pick up a stack of Christmas family letters and read them out. Do you get a sense of who these people are? Are the authentic contours of their lives clearly seen? Probably not. The people described are probably more like stick figures than real people.

To clarify, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the way we write Christmas cards or make robots.  I’m just trying to point out that authenticity is not something we do very often outside of art. Artistic expression is limited to very few people. There are advantages to this.  The drama of authenticity can be exhausting. Sometimes we don’t really want to know about Grandpa’s indigestion or Aunt Francis’s depression much less their deep dark secrets and sins.  There are also disadvantages to hiding our authentic selves. When the grandkids read the Harry Potter series and cry for days over the death of Dumbledore, but then don’t seem to care much at all when Grandpa dies, don’t be surprised.  Grandpa may not have seemed much like a real person to them compared to Dumbledore. We make emotional attachments to authentic human beings we can relate to. J.K. Rowling managed to make characters that connected on a deep level with many different people.  She did it by making them authentic. If we fail to share our authentic selves with those we love, we may find ourselves alone and disconnected.

I’m finding in my own life that authenticity is extremely important.  Meaningful connections keep depression and anxiety at bay not just for me, but for everyone.  No person can thrive in isolation. Yet today we live in a world in which individuals are increasingly isolated.  Transactional relationships are everywhere in our highly specialized and civilized world. We can pay people to cook for us, clean for us, take care of our children for us, and even help us process emotional trauma.  Behind those transactions, can we see the humanity? Can we make authentic connections? We can, but it can be difficult. For me it has taken some vulnerability. I have taken off some masks that I got comfortable wearing.  My blog has been a big part of making the journey toward authenticity. 

As my parents and I go through the family counselling experience, the blog has become the elephant in the room that is at last being addressed.  There are benefits to family counselling, but it is hard. I’ve had a resurgence of depressive symptoms as I have attended these sessions. I’m also reconsidering the purpose and content of my blog in light of my parents’ feelings. I’m trying to answer these tough questions.

In spite of my discomfort and my parent’s discomfort, I feel compelled to share my story with authenticity. It may seem that my efforts at expression are more trouble than they are worth to me and the people I care most about. Maybe they are. Maybe I’m wrong to share. Maybe there are things that are better left unsaid, as I’ve been told. Or maybe Nephi was right. Maybe if we share the ugly truths about our families we can put things in perspective. Our family’s ugly might not be so bad when compared with others! Also, we can learn from each other’s experiences to be better parents to the next generation. I am working on my privacy settings to try to create a blog that works for me and my family. I appreciate your patience as I go through posts and try to decide what audience I want to share with.

I pray that as I go through this process that I will be guided by Him who is Mighty to Save.  I know that as dark and difficult as this journey feels right now that it will have a happy ending.  There is hope and peace and blessings at the end of this road and maybe even along the way. Thank you for walking this path with me!

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