The Laman Problem

Disclaimer: This is full of Mormon jargon and references. Feel free to message me if something gets lost in translation.

 Older siblings have it rough. We have stricter rules, higher expectations, and greater responsibility in the family than our younger siblings do. Our parents haven’t yet quit believing in the virtues of corporal punishment, and they’re inclined to still believe that less tv and video games are both desireable and enforceable. We are supposed to be an example to our younger siblings, so when we mess up, we’re punished for our own misdeed along with failing to be a perfect example. Somehow this means that when my sister bites me, it’s my fault. When she bites someone else, that’s my fault, too. The fact that younger siblings are invariably cuter than we are only adds insult to injury. I didn’t ask to hit puberty just when he was learning to talk. I know not every family has these same dynamics, and I know I’m terribly biased. All I’m saying is, sometimes it’s really hard to be the oldest.

Oldest children get a bad rap in the scriptures, too. Here is a list of some bad (or at least imperfect) oldest siblings:

  • Cain
  • Esau
  • Ishmael
  • Reuben
  • Laman

It’s not a long list or anything, but it does have some significant figures in it.  As a mean oldest child, and as someone who habitually “likens scripture,” it’s difficult for me to NOT identify with Laman.  I feel a little guilty every time I read The Book of Mormon. I totally understand the temptation to whop a sibling one. I think, “Heck, if Cheryl talked to me like that, I’d probably tie her to the mast of a boat, too (1 Nephi 18). Beating with a stick (1 Nephi 3)? Man, have I been there! Don’t you preach to me!” Surely I’m not the only oldest sibling who has identified (to one’s chagrin) with Laman and Lemuel? Surely I’m not the only person who’s felt (with a guilty twinge, perhaps) the injustice of Jacob’s trickery at Esau’s expense?

That said, I don’t mean to argue that any of the aforementioned Oldests were right in their actions, or that they were merely misunderstood. No, they were wrong, and had they been righteous, they wouldn’t have lost their blessings.  The Doctrine & Covenants speaks to this, I think, in section 121, where it discusses the uses of the Priesthood, or the authority to act in God’s name. While being the oldest sibling is not the equivalent of holding that Authority, it is still a position of power within the family, and these verses provide useful counsel about the use of any kind of power. “We have learned by sad experience,” Joseph Smith writes, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39), and as we all know, “unrighteous dominion” means “no actual power.”  As an evil older sister, I can confirm the truth of this statement. 

But we older siblings don’t have to stop there, trapped between unrighteous dominion and perdition. Just because I’ve been Laman doesn’t mean I always have to be Laman. There are good examples of older siblings in the scriptures as well:

  • James, the brother of John
  • Helaman the son of Alma the Younger
  • Hyrum Smith

and, of course,

  • Jesus Christ, the best older brother ever.

For any person in authority, in our families or elsewhere, we can follow the examples of these righteous older siblings. D&C 121 counsels us not to maintain our authority by oppression, by force, by insistence, but instead through “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile” (v. 41-42). We are further encouraged to be full of charity towards all and to “let virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly” (v. 45). When we need to correct someone, we should do it quickly and pointedly, “showing  forth afterwards an increase of love” to those we’ve corrected, so that he or she will know that our “faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.” In short, we are counseled to become more like Christ, the great example of what being the oldest should look like, not only our Savior but our Friend, a leader who leads by serving.

I can’t go back and be the sort of sister I ought to have been when I was growing up, but I can be a better sibling now. I can resolve, too, against pride (and its attendant selfishness, insecurity, and anger) in other situations. I don’t have to be a domineering spouse or a dictatorial teacher. When I read about Nephi’s struggle to obtain the brass plates, I don’t have to think, “Wow, is he ever bossy.” While I can empathize with Laman’s situation and understand the familial politics that would have made it difficult for him to swallow his pride, I don’t have to read myself there. I can look instead at Hyrum, who stood beside his brother in every trial until the end, or at Helaman, who did what was right regardless of his brother’s apostasy. I could even look to my own sister, (who is older than my brother, so she counts even if she’s not scriptural) who, regardless of whatever other faults she has, has always been a good example of unfailing love, forgiveness, and peacemaking. The Laman Problem is, at root, merely pride, and it can be quickly undone by “The Christ Solution,” so to speak. As we attempt to replace pride with humility and a will to dominate with the will to serve, we become more like Christ and build greater harmony in our homes and communities. “Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God,” the scriptures tell us, “and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever” (D&C 121:45-46). Sounds pretty good to me.

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