Thursday, December 13, 2012

Judgment and Meaning

     ^That my friends, is a nice little Mormon facebook controversy that's been circulating much more widely in the last day or two.  Isn't it fascinating that EVERY little disagreement among Mormons or with Mormons immediately becomes "a controversy"?  I find that fact particularly fitting in this case. That up there is a link to a facebook group of Mormon feminists who are inviting Mormon women everywhere to wear pants to Church this Sunday, while the cultural norm is for women to wear dresses or skirts.  If that's the only description of it that you hear, it sounds like women are trying to say that they should have the right to wear pants.  In some ways that is true.  However, if you read the very first paragraph on their page, it makes it clear that at least one of their main purposes in staging "Pants day" is to make the statement that when we come to Church we shouldn't be judging each other based on the clothing we are wearing.  They explicitly state that the Church officially doesn't discourage women from wearing pants, but that we often overtly or silently judge each other upon this cultural expectation. They are trying to say that we need to stop making moral judgments about each other based on something as silly as wearing pants or skirts.

     As soon as this page got passed around widely, what began to pop up?  Big debates about whether or not women should wear pants to Church or participate in this event.  I've even seen some people who disagree with the idea say things like, "Why do they have to make Church about what we wear instead of just being about worship?"  To which I say, That is their whole point!  If we all just refused to judge anyone for participating and decided to stop worrying about what people are wearing, then the entire thing would be over, period.

     And I must confess, this is one of my struggles with being part of the Church.  EVERYTHING must be meaningful.  In other words, everything must be either good or bad.  There is no such thing as something just being.  Rather than just taking things in as they are, and letting them be what they are, we have to interpret everything as having a positive meaning or a negative meaning.  On the one hand, this can in some ways make life feel amazingly and vividly meaningful.  On the other hand, it can begin to collapse upon itself when an individual begins to feel constant social pressure about valuing things differently than others.  In such a situation it seems one cannot choose a behavior without also having to consider how this behavior will be interpreted by everyone else, which can get exhausting.  I sometimes long to relax and just be.  This is why meditation is so healthy.

     I've heard the purpose of meditation described this way.  There is a philosophy that the mind and the brain are two different things.  The brain receives input through our senses, and the mind interprets that input and makes judgments about it.  Both of them are tools, and every tool needs to be at rest occasionally to keep everything functioning well.  What we tend to do is let the mind do too much.  We start trying to let the mind take over the job of the brain and it seems that judgment occurs before perception.  This creates problems and prevents us from seeing things as they are.  The purpose of meditation is to quiet the mind, and for a period of time STOP making judgments about everything that enters our brain.  Taking time to be non-judgmental and to just observe mindfully is critical to mental health.  Having time to just let things be what they are helps us maintain equilibrium in a world filled with paradox and cognitive dissonance.

     One of my personal struggles as a Mormon is that in our scriptures we are told not to be judgmental of each other, yet nearly every teaching in the Church is about what we should and should not do, and making judgments about what is good and bad.  It is so ingrained in us as human beings to apply rules to everything and everyone.  Telling Mormons not to pressure each other and judge each other seems almost laughable.  We do it SO MUCH.  I do it too, even though I know it's wrong.

     The Church does not look kindly upon moral relativism, for good reason.  We all want to protect ourselves and each other from unhealthy, dangerous, or just plain wrong behaviors.  We want to feel safe by having clearly defined rules that in some way guarantee that we aren't going to head down the wrong path.  And I firmly believe that there are indeed paths that are wrong for everyone.  (Genocide might be one example?)  I'm just currently trying to understand if there is such a thing as one path that is right for everyone.  The Church says yes.  And this might be true, but how can I believe that and not judge others?  My desire to not judge others isn't only based on scripture, but on my personal experience.  I know how painful it is to not be allowed to interpret my own experience for myself.  When someone with a different world-view tries to tell me the meaning of my beliefs and actions rather than letting me tell you my own meaning and intent for my beliefs and actions, I feel as though someone is taking away my most critical God-given right: freedom of the mind and freedom of conscience.  What am I and who am I if I can't speak for myself?  I NEVER want to make another human being feel that way.  It is devastating.  THAT is why I don't want to judge people, and why I don't want to be judged.

     If you're feeling confused by what I mean when I say "someone interpreting my experience for me", let me give an example.  For the sake of brevity, I'm going to over-simplify here, and I'm aware of that.  Please don't be offended.  In politics, many conservatives believe we should not tax the rich to create social programs for the poor.  If we let many liberals interpret this position, they would say these people have no compassion and are "mean" and "selfish".  Maybe that is true some of the time.  But it is a judgment that doesn't consider the intent or the context of the person who was stating the position in the first place.  This is what I mean by judgment being someone else's interpretation of your experience.  If you actually know a particular conservative with this view-point and you really look at who they are as a person, you might discover that they aren't selfish or mean.  To the contrary, you may likely find someone who is deeply compassionate and full of love, but who sees things differently.  I know one such person.  She believes that it is her personal responsibility to help those less fortunate than herself and she is consistently generous with her donations to good causes as well as in her face-to-face interactions with people who are in need.  The reason she believes we shouldn't "re-distribute wealth" is that she feels that we need to be accountable as individuals for caring for the poor, and that we need to be taking the initiative on our own, rather than have the government do it for us.  There is no disagreement about compassion.  The real disagreement between this idea and the idea that the government needs to step in has more to do with our understanding of what poverty is, the scale of the problem, and whether it is functionally possible for individuals and private organizations to address the whole problem.  We can try to understand the facts, but we cannot possibly make a moral judgment of someone based on their opinion.  We may be right or wrong about the facts, but it makes no sense to label each other as moral or immoral because we disagree.  How dare we tell someone that THEY lack compassion, when they know full well their hearts are full of compassion?  We cannot interpret what is in their heart for them.

     So why are we forever interpreting people's behavior for them?  How can we possibly say that there is one unified and true way to interpret people's behavior when there are millions of different possible reasons and motivations for one singular behavior?  How can we tell someone that what they eat, drink, wear or say must conform to one standard for the sake of one higher meaning, when there are millions of ways to approach those behaviors?  How can we judge?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Identity and Choices

     The Church recently published a new website about homosexuality.  I just spent some time watching some of the videos, and I found it fairly interesting.  My already existing respect for Mormon homosexuals who choose to stay faithful in the Church was magnified.  And I truly don't say that as some underhanded way of judging those who leave the Church.  

     In fact, let me digress for a while and talk about that.  I think it can be natural for us Mormons to respond to someone leaving the Church by thinking things like, "Well, they just didn't work hard enough" or "...if they just hadn't misapplied this principle or that doctrine they wouldn't have been so deceived" or anything that starts with, "If they just...".  Any one of those things could be true.  But you may not fully understand or appreciate where that person is in their journey.  Life is a paradox, and there are more paradoxes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ than just about anywhere.  It's those paradoxes that cause me the greatest struggles with my faith, but it's the same paradoxes that make the faith so compelling and beautiful, because they somehow have a way of revealing some deeper truth.  The Church may not always like to talk about them as paradoxes directly, but think about it.  The only way for the Plan of Salvation to succeed was for Eve to disobey God's commandments regarding the Fruit.  We're here in mortality to become like God by learning from our own experience, and we're commanded to be perfect.  Who learns anything by being perfect all the time?  We learn by making mistakes.  (This is only intended as a statement of fact, not as some excuse to ignore one's conscience.)  After all, wasn't it Eve's conscience that led her to disobey God?  I'm not saying we should use this to justify anything.  My point is, we can call something a mistake, and we can even say it's wrong, but with God's mercy you never know where it will lead.  

     Especially as it pertains to homosexuality, another thing to remember is that the heaviness with which these issues weigh on people's minds has led far too many people to think that suicide is a valid option.  Before you react to someone leaving the Church with "If they had just...", think about that for a moment.  A person can literally drive themselves insane by forever saying "If I had just...".  I think we need to be very careful about putting that kind of pressure on someone.  My personal feeling is that if it came down to someone either having suicidal thoughts or walking away from the Church, it might be time to walk away.  Perhaps in time they will find their way back in a healthier way.  Or perhaps they will just live and that's enough.  I don't believe a person can sacrifice their mental health and be spiritually healthy.  And "walking away" from being gay isn't an option.  We should appreciate that; I think God does.  Only he knows how to judge us.

     All of that being said, back to my respect for gay Mormons who stay fully faithful in the Church.  I know plenty of people who believe that it is a betrayal of oneself for a homosexual to remain fully faithful in the Church.  In other words, that choosing to never have sex with someone of the same sex when you are homosexual is living a lie.  Maybe there are cases where that is true.  But I also think it's important to think of the whole person and to consider that we all have different parts of us that rub up against each other and often conflict, and that in such cases we either have to find a way to create harmony between those parts of ourselves, or simply prioritize which parts matter most to us.  This is never easy.   And sacrifices must sometimes be made.  A lot of people will think that sounds cold.  But I think we must respect each other's choices.  We may not understand them because we may not understand why that other part of their identity is so important to them.  Whether or not you agree with the Church's stance on homosexuality, is it fair to blame gays and lesbians for the choices they make to follow its teachings?  Have you asked them why they do it?  Maybe they actually get more out of being Mormon than you realize.  If they truly feel that how they respond to their sexuality has an influence on their spirituality, and their spiritual experience in this life is that critically important to who they are and how happy they can be, why should we judge them for their choice?  Do we go around telling Nuns that they are betraying themselves?  I agree that we should be liberated from the control of others, but when an adult thoughtfully makes a choice for himself or herself, who are we to say they aren't free?

     I agree that it is a betrayal of oneself to deny one's feelings.  If someone hides from themselves or ignores or denies that they are homosexual when they are, that can become a really unhealthy situation.  I think it is critically important for people to love and accept themselves as they are.  To accept that their feelings are what they are and not hide from that.  But I know gay Mormons who can say, "Yeah, I'm a guy and I'm attracted to guys.  I'm even attracted to that guy over there.  But I'm choosing to live a Mormon lifestyle because it's too rewarding, and too much a part of who I am to give it up."  And that's just fine with me.

     Also, this blog is part of my attempt at expressing myself honestly despite the fact that everyone will probably disagree with me on one or more points here.  Mormon friends may disagree with different points than non-Mormon friends, but none of this is intended to start an argument or upset anyone.  It's just me figuring out where I am on the issue for now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My Occasional Obsession

I sometimes have this fantasy/"day-mare"(?) that I am on a little tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, just a speck in the incomprehensible vastness.  I look down to see a dark area in the water.  What is it?  It's hard to tell.  But then I realize it isn't just an area, it's the form of something rising closer to the surface.  Terror strikes my heart as I realize the enormity of this thing and I'm rapidly feeling smaller and smaller as it approaches.  It's the length of three Great White Sharks.  And even though it's harmless, I find myself paralyzed.  Wishing I could reach out and touch it, but too small and puny to reach it, and even if I could reach it, too bewildered to do so.  It's a blue whale.

Ooh I want to see one so bad.  That's one way I sometimes dream of it happening.  But sometimes I just imagine I get to go out with experts on a boat and they can tell me all about it.  I don't really care how it happens as long as I get to see one and I don't drown or get lost.  I sort of tucked this dream away and had forgotten about it for a while and then when I was at the beach the other week and saw those dolphins, I rediscovered my fascination.  Just the idea of animals who have some things in common with me; the fact that they're mammals, they're intelligent and playful, and yet they are so at home in a world that is full of danger and mystery for me.  The ocean is foreign and beautiful and it makes me nervous.  The thrill of just seeing dolphins at a distance but in person was enough to make my whole week.  What would it be like to see them up close, or to see a whale?  Not to mention a blue whale?

There is something about scale that can create such a humbling thrill for us humans.  We long to reverence something and to feel incomprehensibly small at times.  I've felt it out West, surrounded by mountains or overlooking a valley.  It's why we visit the Grand Canyon or the Redwoods.  It's why I want to see a Blue Whale.  I can't wrap my brain around it.  It weighs more than 3,300x my weight.  I could probably swim through its arteries.  Its heart only beats once every ten seconds.

I'm sure I'd experience enough of a thrill just seeing any whale or being close to a dolphin in the ocean. That would make me so happy.  But I'm pretty sure one of the biggest dreams I've dreamed is to see the biggest animal that ever lived.

P.S. How cool is it that in all of evolutionary history - and speaking of scale, take a minute to review how LONG evolutionary history IS - WE are alive at the same time as the largest animal that has EVER lived on Earth!!!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Back From Vacation

Last week was vacation with my family.  It was superb!  What can be said about the ocean?  I still felt its rhythm as I fell asleep for days after leaving.  One day while we were swimming Ben saw dolphins on the horizon.  (He has better than 20/20 vision)  As we swam, they kept getting closer and closer.  My brother, Taylor, and I both began to swim in their direction.  But then they were just close enough that I was suddenly struck with terror.  What would I do when I got there?  What would they do when I got there?  I was swimming toward WILD animals in a place where they were at home and I was utterly helpless.  I stopped where I was and just watched.  A few seconds later Taylor stopped, apparently with the same thoughts going through his mind.  I frantically scanned the bobbing waves and my heart pounded as I saw them playing and jumping out of the water, slapping their tails against the water.  Taylor went under and came back up and yelled like a little kid "You guys!  You can hear them under water!!"  Ben and I immediately ducked under the water to hear the squeaks and chatters of the dolphins.  We watched them a while longer as they lingered and played.  When they slapped their tails on the water, we slapped our boogie boards back.  Taylor tried to squeak back to them under the water.

It was good to be a kid again for a week.  But coming back was all the harder for it I'm afraid.  I came back to life decisions and situations too weighty and personal to go into any detail here.  I have at least four major areas of my life that I'm seriously trying to work on and plan ahead for and I feel like all of them are too much to go posting on the internets.  All I can say is, all things considered, stuff could be a lot worse.  I'm so glad I have Ben and a home and that I get to watch my little niece who I love dearly.  All I can do is my best.  The end.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lessons From Paul Simon and Emily Dickinson

Music is back in my life. And oh, how I've missed it. Music and I are not always the kinds of friends that pick up where we left off. Upon reuniting, I definitely want to connect like we used to, but it takes a little bit of work and a lot of putting myself out there and being vulnerable. Today I watched a documentary I'd heard about and have been wanting to see for a long time. I've searched for it multiple times on Netflix and today was the first time they actually had it! It's simply called "Paul Simon: Graceland". The documentary goes through the story of Paul Simon putting this album together and it is mainly focused on how the music itself came together. He didn't write anything before he hopped on a plane to South Africa in 1985. He went to jam, collaborate and collect. He did most of the "song creation" back in the USA by moving around clips he had recorded and turning them from jam sessions into songs. The process is astounding, as are some of the quotes from the film regarding the process of writing music. Here are some of my favorites:

At first I thought, "I've got a problem." Soon after that I began to think, "No, now I have an adventure." And instead of resisting what's going on, I'll go with it and I'll be carried along. I'll find out where we're going instead of assuming that I'm captain of the ship. I'm not, I'm just a passenger. -Paul Simon

Good art isn't there to instruct but to evoke. -Linda Ronstadt

What if they laugh? What if it doesn't work? We had put all of this [work] into it. You have to have the confidence in the work to carry it right through to the end, even though in point of fact you don't really know. I think that was particularly true for Graceland. In retrospect it seemed like, as they say, it was an instant classic, what was the big deal; what was to worry about? But we didn't know that and I don't think Paul knew that. -? (I forgot who said this)

So here is my question- how to artists have the guts to put years of work into a project, with absolutely no guarantee of the outcome? How does one handle the emotional risks of a venture like that? Hearing the people who were involved with creating this album talk about how risky it was and how the record company thought they were insane just leaves me wondering- how did they do that?

A few days ago I also went to the home of Emily Dickinson in Amherst, MA. In the process of the tour of her home, the tour guide mentioned a poet Dickinson had sent some of her work to, asking for feedback. Because he was a traditionalist and her poetry was not as rigid in its rhythm or rhyme as traditional poetry, he basically told her that her poetry wasn't much good. Although she didn't make any effort to get her poems published in life, surely for reasons other than the one bad review, she continued writing it and putting her heart and soul into it. She didn't let it hold her back.

Other jobs have their challenges. But being an artist has got to be one of the scariest. There are lots of careers or callings in life that can be inherently labeled as worthwhile. When I worked with kids with autism, I never felt any doubt that what I was doing was meaningful and worthwhile. I questioned whether I did it well, or whether I was doing my best. But even in the moments when I wasn't at my best in that job, I still felt that at least I was doing good in the world. With art, for some strange reason, I don't feel that same assurance. It's like I have to be doing something extraordinary or I'm not doing anything at all. Why is there that pressure? Is it just me who feels this way?

I want to create something beautiful and meaningful. I want to create something that I can look at with confidence and say "I'm doing something good. I am taking my talents and making something important with them." I want to have confidence in myself and in my talents and I want to develop the ability to skillfully ignore nay sayers and place full confidence in what I'm doing to the point that it will create success in my life's work. Obviously, success requires more than confidence; it requires skill. But no matter how much skill you have you're bound to fail if you have no confidence. My work is cut out for me.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Hairs on My Head

It's been a long while since I posted on here! This post is just a fun one. A while back I decided to grow my hair out. I've been a short hair girl for a while but I have often had this intense desire to grow my hair "hippy long". Of course, when I imagined my hair long, I often pictured it like this:

Wavy, just barely enough frizz to give it oomph and a little of that beautiful hippy free-spirit wildness. And then I spend two years growing my hair and I suddenly remember, I don't have any frizz or curl in my hair at all. Why did I think my hair would ever look like that? Shoot. And even though it feels that long, what it actually looks like is this:

But that's only when I bother to leave my hair down. But most days I get so tired of hair tickling my neck and face or getting pulled by a baby or by sitting back on it, that it usually just ends up looking like this:

Anyway, after a couple weeks of being tired of the bun I decided to just go for it.