When it comes to launching home runs, Russell Nelson, the cleanup hitter in the lineup of leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, bashed a 550-footer Sunday at General Conference.
His morning address centered on what this world, this country, this state, this city, this neighborhood, this household, this everyone everywhere could use a thousand scoops of: peacemaking. Not over-the-top contention.
Whether you think the man is a prophet or not, he got good lumber on this one. It was pretty much nails.
He said, in so many words, that in this day and age, there are going to be differing opinions, people and groups who do not share the same points of view, whether those points are political or philosophical, religious or relational, sports-related or social. Whatever they are, in person or online or anywhere else, we can disagree without ripping one another apart.
Criticism is one thing, an OK thing, dropping killer bombs is another.
He said too many insults are thrown around as “pathetic and pithy barbs.” He said it’s time to “lay aside bitterness” and to “bury your weapons of war.”
He underscored that there is no place for prejudice or extreme conflict and contention, the kind that tears human decency and spiritual civility to shreds. Words spoken in hate and anger destroy more than they build. He even unloaded a hint of the familiar what-would-Jesus-do reference.
He joked that those who heard his message might automatically think of someone else or a whole lot of someone elses who should give heed to it, delivering that bit of humor as preface to a more sharply aimed paraphrase, “Hey, doofus, I’m talking to you.”
He did not say doofus.
But I did, talking to myself.
Not preaching here, but everyone with ears to hear could and would do himself or herself a solid by internalizing and giving personal application to Russell M.’s words. So, I will, too.
Columns and criticism
I’ve made a long career out of expressing opinions, sometimes hurling criticism. After I became a columnist a hundred decades ago, I talked with three esteemed columnists — Mike Downey, who back then was at the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke, who remains at the L.A. Times, and Bill Rhoden, then of The New York Times. Each of them stressed something I’ve never forgotten. They counseled: “If you’re going to be a feature writer, be a feature writer. If you’re going to be a columnist, have a point of view.”
I’ve had 10,000 points of view — in print, online, on the radio. And have the scars to prove it.
I have to admit, I kind of like arguing. I like it almost as much as I like agreeing.
The first thing you discover in a role like this one is that the moment you express your opinion, you divide the room. Same thing for everyone, whether you’re writing an editorial or talking with family members between forkfuls of turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving dinner. You speak, you separate.
I was at a restaurant once, gathered there at a large table with 16 friends, when a young man, a complete stranger, interrupted the group discussion by coming over and saying in a loud voice, “Hi, Gordon. I just wanted to let you know my father and I read and listen to you and … we disagree with you — a lot.”
Everyone at the table busted up laughing.
“It’s OK,” I said. “So does my own mother.”
Offering opinions used to be a little more fun than it is now. What’s the old saying? “Everyone can have his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
We’re all guilty of mixing those two sometimes-divergent things. But I’ve written columns before that later, upon receiving more information, saw my opinion change.
My one-on-one with Jerry Sloan
Once I wrote a piece about Jerry Sloan, one of many, during a Utah Jazz playoff run. Before a subsequent practice on an off day, an expansive group of reporters crowded around Jerry, asking all sorts of questions. When the questions ran dry, Sloan looked directly at me with those dead-black eyes and said across the scrum, “I want to talk to you.”
We walked to a far corner of the gym, one-on-one, man-to-man, and he said he disagreed with what I had recently written and he told me in no uncertain terms why. I explained to him why I had written what I wrote. We stared at each other, me looking up at the big man, him looking down at me.
He nodded, then extended his leathery catcher’s mitt of a hand and we shook hands. The matter, though never fully agreed upon, wasn’t spoken of again. I walked away from that encounter with more respect for Jerry Sloan than I’d ever had before. And I’d always had plenty.
That’s often been the case through the years, but not always. I — and by I, I mean you, too, if you reflect upon your dealings with others — have not thoroughly healed every disagreement. I’ve sung praises and held some to account. For example, after years of association, Rick Majerus would not talk with me. I’ve been told Karl Malone won’t answer my questions. And I went after both for one thing or another. There are readers who communicate to me if not hate, something close to it.
I told Larry Miller once that I knew I was wrong about some of my points of view, discovering that after the fact not before. And he said, “You’re not wrong often. It’s just that you write and say what other people are afraid to say or for reasons of their own don’t want to hear.”
Either way, it would be pretty cool if we could share our versions of truth without hating on anyone. That’s not so common, not anymore, not on network news talk shows, not on message boards, not in the halls of government, not on the campaign trail, maybe not among friends or former friends.
If we disagree, we disagree, and that’s all right. If we want everyone to agree with our every thought, what happens when we are wrong? There’s a line that doesn’t have to be crossed, not if productive answers are to be found, even though stepping up to that line is, on occasion, necessary and helpful. Every conversation had, every column space filled isn’t exactly part of a Sunday school curriculum. My editor isn’t my bishop, thank God in heaven. Maybe whomever you disagree with in whatever setting isn’t either.
All good. Have at it.
I’m bound to cross that line, at times, depending on who’s drawing it.
But as Russell Nelson said it, better than I could, we can hold onto our views and express them, we can do our own searches for truth and dish it, we can believe as we see fit, see the world the way we see it, even from different directions, and still treat one another with consideration, creating a measure of peace.
The church’s cleanup hitter, as he swung away Sunday, said that’s what You-Know-Who would do, and You-Know-Who — at least the way Nelson sees it, the way I see it — was the smartest one in the room, in any room, in every room.