Saturday, January 30, 2016

Switching Tracks and Switching Opinions

Gordon B. Hinckley shared a story on several occasions that had a profound impact on me as a teenager.  I've been thinking recently about how I've come to view it as nothing more than manipulative hogwash.  Here it is from the October 1972 General Conference:
Many years ago I worked in the head office of one of our railroads.  One day I received a telephone call from my counterpart in Newark, New Jersey, who said that a passenger train had arrived without its baggage car.  The patrons were angry.
We discovered that the train had been properly made up in Oakland, California, and properly delivered to St. Louis, from which station it was to be carried to its destination on the east coast.  But in the St. Louis yards, a thoughtless switchman had moved a piece of steel just three inches.  
That piece of steel was a switch point, and the car that should have been in Newark, New Jersey, was in New Orleans, Louisiana, thirteen hundred miles away.
So it is with our livesa cigarette smoked,  a can of beer drunk at a party, a shot of Speed taken on a dare, a careless giving in to an impulse on a date.  Each has thrown a switch in the life of a boy that put him on a track that carried him far away from what might have been a great and foreordained calling.  And as Nephi said, "...thus the devil cheateth their souls and leadeth them away carefully down to hell."
Hearing this story as a child intensified my fear of doing anything wrong.  Hearing this story as a teenager intensified my sense of despair because of what I'd already done wrong.  Hearing this story as a doubter intensified my hesitancy to indulge my questions.  Here's what this story teaches that I find so awful:

1.  Don't Question the Destination
Why is Newark such a great place to go?  In the literal interpretation of Hinckley's story, obviously the luggage belongs in the same city as its owners.  But in the figurative interpretation, it's not nearly so obvious that the eternal destination the church tells us to strive for even exists.  If there's no way of demonstrating that Newark is a real place and that everyone's interests are best served by the baggage car's arrival in Newark, then why should we care that it was sent to New Orleans?

This story only works if you accept its premise that where we're supposed to be travelling is real and worth going to.  Hinckley sidesteps that issue by focusing on the importance of the little deviations along the way and the dramatic consequences that can result.  Because if people start to question the value of the destination, people will start to question the value of his advice.

2.  Change Can Only Be Bad
This story heavily implies that the original course is the only acceptable one.  While this makes sense in the context of a railroad, it doesn't apply so obviously to our eternal destinies.  Hinckley is trying to illustrate that change is a bad thing and that the course that you're on when you hear his voice from the pulpit should never be deviated from in any way.  It's not just the destination that shouldn't be questioned—it's every single mile on the way there.  Any slight modification of your path or any minor shift in the plan is akin to a monumental mistake that can lead you away carefully down to hell.

But change can be good.  If your destination isn't as great as you initially thought or the way you're getting there isn't as efficient as you'd like, altering your course here and there should be considered a positive step.  Staying locked into a particular track simply for the sake of being locked into a track isn't necessarily virtuous.  It's more likely to be just plain stubborn.

3.  Every Drug is a Gateway Drug
The basic principle here is that little things can change our direction and remove us from our intended course.  The examples he gives are smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, taking speed (which seems funny coming from an old guy), and what is perhaps an oblique reference to anything from "petting" to actual fornication.  Not only are these all treated as though they are of equal severity, but they're also treated as though they entail equal consequencesany and all of these options can land you in the spiritual prison of New Orleans when you really wanted to be in the righteous paradise of Newark (which, clearly, is not a literal paradise of any kind).

I had some anger issues as a kid.  What if swearing was my fateful switch point?  I definitely liked looking at girls.  What if masturbation was my fateful switch point and I was already halfway through Arkansas?  What if it was even simpler than that?  I tried to read my scriptures faithfully, but sometimes it was so boring...what if skipping a day last week meant that I'd never make it to Newark?

While it's wise to be mindful of seemingly small decisions that can have possibly disastrous ramifications, teaching your faithful disciples that every small decision is a potentially damning bombshell waiting to drop its eternally ruinous payload is manipulative, irresponsible, and reprehensible.

4.  For Dramatic Effect, Let's Ignore Repentance
This reminds me of high school physics class.  We were taught that air resistance was a real thing, but that for the sake of all the examples, homework problems and test questions, we'd just pretend that it wasn't important.  Why?  Because air resistance is pretty complicated and this was just a high school class, so for the sake of learning the basics, we'd just ignore it.

Which is pretty much Hinckley's approach to repentance in his story.  How many switches did his precious baggage car go through between Saint Louis and New Orleans?  And once the car arrived in New Orleans and the mistake was realized, weren't arrangements made for it to reach its intended destination?  Plenty of bad decisions can have unavoidable outcomes, but smoking one cigarette does not doom a man to eternal damnation.  He has all the travel time from Saint Louis to New Orleans to repent of it.

And, in fact, the beauty of repentance is that it's so much easier than switching train tracks.  The baggage car could only have been transferred to its correct track at specific locations.  With repentance, you can immediately start to fix your mistake the moment you decide you want to.  But none of that comes into play during Hinckley's one-sided, fear-mongering parable.

There's nothing wrong with altering your course, as long as you make your decision carefully and proceed in good faith.  And while it's perfectly possible that your current trajectory is the correct one—or at least the best one for you—changing it should never be taken off the table.  The ability to change your mind, rearrange your priorities, and progress in a new direction is one that should be nurtured and celebrated instead of demonized and stifled.  After all, if our society doesn't learn these skills, how are we supposed to stamp out sexism and racism and homophobia?  How are we supposed to recognize our problems if we aren't willing to face the possibility that some of our preconceived notions may be erroneous?  How can we improve without working to overcome our flaws and correct our behaviors?

Sometimes you need to switch tracks and switch opinions.


  1. Here's what I thought as I read his quote from conference. I think Hinckley missed the whole point of his story, which is why these types of analogies/object lessons/etc. fall apart so quickly.

    The people actually made it to their intended destination!

    Here's another way to look at it. What if the baggage were our "sins?" He could have said, "If you repent in St. Louis, a little bit of change there will get your sins far away from you by the time you reach Newark." You can repent, leave your sins behind, and still reach your destination.

  2. Yes! How does it feel to know that your interpretation is more edifying and uplifting than the interpretation of God's prophet, seer, and revelator?