I don’t remember when I ceased being awed by people in positions of ecclesiastical authority.
It probably started sometime during the first couple of weeks in Provo’s Language Training Mission (now the Missionary Training Center). Already stunned by my stay at the mission home in Salt Lake City, I started wondering about some of the people around me.
When I got to my LDS mission in Uruguay, the process continued through a series of district and zone leaders, and assistants to the president, who couldn’t seem to grasp that their elevated positions were no guarantee that they weren’t still fatheads.
If I had to pin it down to the last straw, it would be when I bumped into my Mormon stake president about a month or so after coming home from South America.
Although it was in the stake center, it wasn’t a church event. I was dressed casually and holding the hand of the woman who, within a matter of weeks, would agree to let me ruin the rest of her life.
Encountering the stake president in the hallway, we chatted for a few moments. How was I adjusting? What were my plans for school? Was I attending the temple regularly?
He suddenly frowned. Digging into the collar of my shirt, he tugged on a string of beads hanging around my neck.
“And what are these?” he demanded.
The implication was obvious. In his mind, they were hippie beads and had no business being worn by a recently returned servant of the Lord.
The truth was that I had worn them my entire mission, something that had also bothered several of my more severe companions.
I told the stake president what I told them — that I wore the beads for protection.
Him • “Protection from what?”
Me • “From people who don’t like me wearing them.”
Proof that the beads still worked was the stake president’s abrupt departure. I don’t recall that we ever had occasion to speak again.
It’s an experience I still cherish, further confirmation in a personally held belief that everyone is bad to some degree. Everyone.
Yes, including your mom. And all religious leaders. Santa, too. Also your spouse, that baby you just had, and every single one of your Best Friends Forever.
My belief in universal human badness was later reinforced by the exposure I had as a cop to the seamier side of sainthood. There are the faces people wear and the real people behind them. It doesn’t take much to bring out the beast.
See, the thing isn’t whether people are bad, but rather to what extent. I know “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that Sonny is bad, but he’s certainly no Jack the Ripper. At most, he’s got some pirate in him.
My wife is also bad — if for no other reason than because she lets me get away with so much.
But when a venerated person slips from behind his or her mask — as more than a few have — it shouldn’t be viewed by the rest of us as damaging our beliefs.
If someone else’s vile behavior causes you to question your core beliefs, it’s only a sign that you had your faith misplaced to begin with.
Since we all are fallible — even those we profess to love and revere the most are destined to fail from time to time. The cool part is the valuable lessons to be learned from such behavior. It can tell us so much about ourselves.