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.