Friday, October 21, 2011

Of Veils and Tests

I once had an interesting philosophical discussion with my brother about the nature of moral tests.

I have, over the years, come to the conclusion that many of the moral tests we face here in this life are tests in which God deliberately keeps us in the dark about certain things, to see how we will respond if we think things are a certain way.

I've expressed this idea to my brother, a philosopher who teaches at University of California Riverside, and he has taken issue with me.  He told me that without complete disclosure, without full knowledge of the conditions of a moral test, we cannot truly be tested.  God will judge us and judge our moral decisions based on what we knew at the time that we were being tested.

Now, I like my brother's idea.  It certainly appeals to my sense of justice.  It doesn't seem fair that we should be judged on the basis of decisions that we made without complete knowledge.  Or if we are judged, our lack of knowledge when we made those decisions needs to be taken into account.  It needs to mitigate the final results of the judgment.

Nevertheless...  While I believe there certainly are the kinds of moral tests my brother speaks of in this life, I cling to the nagging suspicion that tests of this sort are actually fairly rare.  My reasons for insisting that God tests us by keeping us in the dark about certain key things and watching to see how we behave are philosophical, experiential and scriptural.

My philosophical reason for believing this is based on the simple fact that the human condition is governed by ignorance.  Compare, first of all, the total knowledge of any one individual -- even a very smart and well-educated individual -- to the sum total of human knowledge.  Take everything that person thinks he or she knows, and filter out all misinformation.  That person will know only the smallest fraction of everything it is humanly possible to know, everything that human beings, collectively as a race, know.  Now compare the sum total, the collective knowledge of all human beings who have ever lived, everything that is gathered in every book that has ever been written, everything that's stored somewhere on the Internet (filter out all the misinformation! which probably ends up deleting something like 99%), and then compare it to the sum total of everything that can be known.  All truth that is out there in the Universe to know, past, present and future.  (This is the D&C 93: 24 definition of "truth.")  If we believe in an omniscient God, that would be, basically, everything that God knows.  And I think we must agree that the collective knowledge of humanity is only a small fraction of the truth of all things.  So any given individual -- the person who is making all important moral decisions in life, the person who is being tested -- is making every single moral decision of any consequence based on the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction of the truth.  From a purely philosophical perspective, one must conclude that human beings as decision-makers decide mostly in the dark.

You might argue, Ah, but the moral decisions that I make are of limited scope!  They are limited to things and people and interactions that are well within the scope of my knowledge, no matter how limited that knowledge may, in the grand scheme of things, be.  Yes, But...  I would argue that there are certain things that we don't know, that we can't know, that have a huge impact on moral decisions even of limited scope.  For example, what happens to me after I die?  What do I know of this?  My brother's favorite philosopher, Heidegger, has had a lot to say about what we can and cannot know of this, and of the impact that this lack of knowledge has on moral decisions.  If I knew that my life would completely end at death, if I knew that there was no part of me that continued on, no immortal soul, that would completely change how I behave in fundamental ways, across the board.  The same is true of how it would change my moral choices if I knew that there was life after death, if I knew my soul was eternal, if I knew there would be some kind of final judgment before the throne of Christ.  Most people act as if they know, but they in fact don't know.  So the moral test is conducted in conditions of ignorance.

Is it that part of the moral test involves seeing which set of unproven assumptions we are willing to go on?  Is it to allow us to set the terms of our own test...?  But I digress...

My experiential reason for believing this is simply because of what I know about my own moral decisions.  I know at some fundamental level that I go through life making the bulk of my decisions based on gut feelings about things.  I often discover that things I thought I knew, that played an important role in making some past decision of considerable weight were actually just plain wrong.  I am often forced to make a decision quickly because there's some time limit built into the decision, and I am often in a situation in which a decision that must be made now would be much easier if I had certain facts at my disposal, and despite my best efforts to obtain those facts, I don't have them, and so...  I make a decision.  Based on a guess about what those all important facts are or how they will unfold to me at some future time.  I'm often aware that information I would like to have, I simply cannot obtain.  And so I must intuit, and go from there.

My experience, in other words, seems to confirm what I posit philosophically...  That I am a being of limited knowledge and limited intelligence, who am forced to make decisions very much in the dark about things of ultimate relevance to my decisions.

I have also observed that, while I often make decisions in the dark, the consequence of any decision I make is to obtain more light.  I've learned that life decisions are very often a kind of trial and error process.  And it is possible to look at life as something whose end goal is, after all, not to judge us, but to educate us.  So every decision, bad or good, that I make is, well, all good.  It's all part of the process of getting more and more hands-on learning.  But I digress again...  (or do I?)

Finally, there are my scriptural reasons for believing this.  And here I've already somewhat laid the groundwork for this by pointing out that philosophically we posit that we live mostly in the dark, but the scriptures purport to be a source of divinely inspired light.  From a philosophical point of view, I might ask, "But how can I know that the scriptures are what they purport to be?  How can I know they are true?"  I'll leave that weighty philosophical question aside for the moment, and say that by my own process I've come to accept the scriptures as trustworthy.

LDS scriptures in particular present a picture of the human condition in which the state of darkness we posit philosophically and confirm experientially was intended by God.  According to the scriptural account of mortal life, we all entered this life by way of a veil of forgetfulness.  And we are separated from ultimate knowledge of God and eternity by a veil that -- though occasionally briefly parted -- for the most part remains firmly in place.  God purposely set it up this way.  God purposely thought that the best way to test us would be to see what we do and how we react when knowledge of ultimate truth is veiled from us.

Now we can choose to try to live close to the veil.  That is generally what I try to do.  I've had some really remarkable spiritual experiences.  I've experienced at least a partial parting of the veil on numerous occasions.  I can say, based on those experiences, that there is a different state of awareness when we are in the midst of experiencing that parting of the veil than there is before or after the parting.  In the midst of that experience of the divine, it is like dwelling in pure light.  There is nothing like it.  It is life-changing.  After the experience is over, we are in darkness again.  We still have the memory of the light; of how it made us feel, of how it transformed our awareness, and of how it transformed us.  But in the absence of that experience, we are forced to live off of its memory.  We are plunged into the darkness again, and are forced to make our way in the dark.  So the parting of the veil doesn't alleviate us of the basic conditions of mortal life.  We still need to struggle with doubt and darkness.  And this is why it is possible to see and experience incredible things, and to eventually turn away from what we've experienced.  We can lose our grace.  We can lose our testimonies.  Unless we continue in prayer, faith, good works and repentance.


Now, I think this is generally a disquieting thing to reflect on.  It requires humility of us.  Humility as in: I don't know, so I won't judge you.  Just do the best you can do.  I will try to do the best that I can do.  We're all doing the best we can here, under difficult circumstances.

I find there's a natural human tendency to want to deny that there are important things that we need to know that we just don't or can't.  There's a natural human tendency to want to deny that we could well be wrong about everything that matters, everything that's important.  To acknowledge that possibility, forces us to live in a certain way that, I think, is more gentle, is more careful, is more compassionate.  But we generally prefer certainty (and the arrogance that comes with it).

So Mormons -- despite what our scriptures teach us about the conditions of mortality -- have a tendency to want to insist that we of course know all the answers.  And if we personally don't have a direct pipeline to God, our leaders do.  "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets," etc.  The typical exegesis of this Amos text goes: "We have living prophets, so we know all of God's secrets, if we just do exactly what they tell us."  Well, OK.  But I think another valid exegesis of this is to confirm what I've said about living close to the veil.  Yes, God parts the veil for us occasionally.  But this doesn't change the fundamental conditions of the test of mortality.  Making decisions in uncertainty.

I was reading this morning in the Book of Mark, chapter 6.  And there was a particular turn of phrase that caught me, in verses 51-52.  These verses were speaking of the twelve, and they say: "they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened."  In other words, even though the twelve had -- just the previous day! -- experienced the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, they had already forgotten, or perhaps even never understood, its significance.  Now the twelve were Christ's chosen leaders, the leaders of his Church, and here is as clear a statement as any that even they did not fully understand something crucial about Christ's nature and about his mission.

What particularly intrigued me though was the turn of phrase, "their heart was hardened," which reminds me of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and that disquieting phrase repeated several times in Exodus that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart."  There are definitely texts in the Old Testament as well as the New that suggest that God sometimes keeps certain information from us in order to accomplish some grander purpose.  God wanted to demonstrate that it was by his power, and his power alone, that the children of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt.  So God hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that Pharaoh would make things as difficult as possible.  Only then would the conditions be right for God to liberate the children of Israel in a way that they always and forever would acknowledge that it was God and God alone who freed them.

Similarly, Christ's true nature and his true mission seem to have been veiled from the minds and hearts of the apostles.  There were momentary partings of the veil, as when Peter, James and John witnessed the transfiguration.  But even these temporary partings eventually faded into the uncertainty of memory.  The twelve were genuinely shocked, overwhelmed, and surprised when Christ appeared to them alive and resplendent, three days after they had buried him in the tomb.


I have often had a discussion with other Mohos about the challenges of being gay and Mormon.  I have stated elsewhere, and I'll state here again, that I've had numerous very powerful spiritual experiences in which I have plead with God to help me understand why I am gay and how that fits into his plan.  And I've received personal revelations on this score that have helped ground me in my path.  They haven't answered all my questions; nor do they alleviate me of the responsibility of struggling in the dark, so to speak.  But I do feel certain that my gayness is an integral part of my eternal being; that it is a natural and very good part of who I am, and that my relationship with my husband Göran is blessed by God; and that someday, we will all have a full understanding of how my gayness and my family fit into the grand scheme of things.  This has been of great comfort to me.

And I am not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences.  Over the years, I have been able to connect with other gay LDS -- and even non-LDS -- who have had similar spiritual experiences.

But then comes the question: If we know this, how is it our leaders don't know?  How come the Church still treats us as unclean?  How come the Church says that our homosexuality is a mortal affliction that will somehow evaporate in the next life, so we need to remain alone, celibate and single in this life to avoid the pollution that comes from homosexual relationships?  How can the Church's official teaching and understanding be so at odds with our experience?  And if I have a testimony, how am I supposed to deal with this contradiction?

All I can say is that scripturally, there is precedent for the Lord veiling our understanding in a variety of ways.  Just as the Lord had a purpose in veiling his true identity and mission from the twelve until he was ready to fully reveal it after his resurrection, the Lord, I believe, has a purpose in veiling understanding of this aspect of human sexuality from the Church until such time as we -- collectively -- are ready to receive a full understanding of it.

In the meantime, lives are in the balance.  Individual gay men and lesbians have lost their lives over this -- are losing their lives over this -- because of the intense pain and uncertainty created by the Church's condemnation of something that feels not at all like a temporary, mortal "affliction" to us, but like a core and good and key part of who we are.  So we have an immediate need for understanding and knowledge on this.  And I think that if we try to live "close to the veil," if we humbly seek understanding from the Lord on this, we will receive what we need in order to live and thrive and fulfill whatever missions the Lord has individually for us to fulfill.  So I guess that's a way of trying to resolve the contradiction.

Could I be wrong about this?  Well, part of the whole point of this essay is that, yes, absolutely I could be!  Nothing, no personal revelation certainly, could alleviate me of the fundamental conditions of the tests of mortality, which involves walking mostly in darkness by faith.  I'm doing the best I can to find as much light as I can and to live by it.  And I find that the love and the light I have experienced in my relationship with my husband and in being true to him and caring for him nurture hope and faith and patience in me.  And I find that the love and the light I experience at Church and in staying as true as I can to the Gospel also open things up in my life, they help me to be a better, more loving, more patient person overall.  So I can say that it feels right to affirm both my testimony of the Gospel and my relationship with my husband together, simultaneously, as part of a whole.  But I may yet learn many great and amazing things that will totally change my perception of everything.  So I have to learn to accept my limitations with some humility and openness and patience and trust that God will unveil things to us in a way that will work toward some ultimate good.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, and a Mormon Christian Reflects on "Brother Joseph"

My fairy god daughter Daphne had to write a report based, at least in part, on her reading of this wonderful little book by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Doubleday, 1993).  After reading her thoughtful paper, she allowed me to borrow the book. It's a quick read. I was able to finish it in about three sittings of about an hour per sitting (about as long as it takes me to read one of Original Mohomie's blog entries).

Rabbi Neusner, in a way that is perhaps a model of respectfulness, carries on a conversation with the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew. He argues with Jesus, specifically about the Sermon on the Mount. For the rabbi, argument is a high form of respect, a form of honor. Rabbi Neusner honors Jesus by arguing with him. He takes Jesus seriously enough to think deeply about what he has to say, and to reflect on the implications of what Jesus has to say for him and his family and his nation. And ultimately the rabbi disagrees with Jesus. He explains to Jesus why, after all, he will not follow him, why he chooses instead to let Jesus go his way, while he returns home to his wife, children, dog, and garden, and goes on with his life as he had lived it before.  Rabbi Neusner hopes that at least one effect of this encounter is that it will encourage Jews to be better Jews and Christians to be better Christians.  He hopes for greater respect between Christians and Jews.  But he does not expect ever to become a Christian.

I encourage folks to read this book.  It seems timely, especially for Mormons, given that high profile Christian leaders are accusing us of belonging to a "cult."  I suppose we're long used to the slur that we are not "Christian," or rather, the denial that we are "Christian" being used as a slur.  (It's one thing to acknowledge that Mormons are not Christians in the same way as Protestants and Catholics, and another thing to defame us by denying us the Christian label we apply to ourselves.)  I think Rabbi Neusner's book is a model for how people of differing beliefs and values can talk to one another about their differences.

The rabbi's argument hinges on Jesus' statement, in the Sermon on the Mount, that he came "not to abolish [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them."  Rabbi Neusner thinks that Jesus does in fact abolish some fairly important aspects of the Law and the Prophets (the Torah).  Jesus' teaching, he argues, has no place in it for the "we" encompassed in the revelation of the Law on Mount Sinai.  Jesus' morality, he argues, is a too-individualistic morality of the heart.  It includes teachings that are potentially profoundly anti-social ("do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth...").  His abolition of the holiness code, the rabbi argues, makes irrecoverable any sort of sacred "now" in a Kingdom of God on earth.  Yes, he accuses Jesus of other-worldliness, of looking too much forward to a Kingdom of Heaven after death, rather than a this-worldly Kingdom of holiness.  ("Holiness" for the rabbi means emulation of God in the here and now.)

For me, however, the most electrifying part of Rabbi Neusner's argument came when he insisted that it is ultimately impossible to separate any evaluation of Jesus' theological positions from Jesus' claim to divinity.  More shocking, the rabbi came to this conclusion through a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  There has been a tendency, the rabbi acknowledged, to want to separate "the historical Jesus" from the dogma of the Church.  Many people -- Jewish and liberal Christian alike -- hold the view that Jesus must obviously have been a "great moral teacher," but that he could never have actually made any claim to divinity.  The apostle Paul is accused, in this account of Christian history, of inventing the expiatory atonement theology that required making Jesus into a God.  Jesus himself would never have made such claims.

But Rabbi Neusner argues that if you look very closely at what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount you cannot conclude anything different than that Jesus is putting himself above the Torah.  The rabbi makes some very close comparisons of what Jesus says to some of the great commentary on the Torah from the Mishnah and the Talmud, and he acknowledges that much of what Jesus says sounds very much like what you would expect from a classical teacher of the Torah.  But there are points where Jesus makes critical departures from the Torah, departures that, he argues, undermine its integrity as a divine commandment.  And it is at those very junctures where Jesus places himself at the center of any Christian moral system.  Without a divine Jesus, there is no sense in which Jesus could possibly have come to "fulfill" the Law and the Prophets.  Without a divine Jesus, the rabbi essentially argues, Christian morality comes apart at the seams; and it certainly can make no claim on the loyalty of Jews, who must reject Jesus in favor of the Torah.

This is simultaneously the boldest and most humble part of Rabbi Neusner's argument.  He never anywhere impugns Christians' belief in the divinity of Christ.  To the contrary, he says in essence, if this is what you believe, you have no choice but to follow Jesus' teaching, even -- or especially -- where it contradicts the Torah.  But, he simultaneously points out, it is impossible to gloss over the significant differences that separate Jewish and Christian moral teaching and theology.  At some point, Jew or Christian, in evaluating the claims of Christianity you must decide what you think about the person of Jesus Christ, and that will make the difference between whether you "follow Jesus" or go some other way.

I found these arguments particularly relevant to the debate over whether Mormons are Christians.  A lot of that debate hinges on Mormons' particular beliefs about the nature of man and the nature of God, and whether Mormons believe in Christ's divinity in the same way as Nicene (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) Christians.  By Rabbi Neusner's criteria, I think it is impossible to conclude anything but that Mormons are indeed Christians, and very solid Christians at that.  That's a conclusion I find myself startled to accept.  I've always been happy to concede that Mormons, if they were Christians, were not Christians in the same way as other Christians.  (I've never particularly worried if other Christians thought we should be excommunicated from the family of "Christian" communions.)  But from the point of view of Judaism, from the point of view of the question, "Do you see Jesus as greater than the Torah, and do you subordinate all other moral considerations to the imperative of following Jesus?" Mormons most definitely are Christians in no fundamentally different sense from anyone else who claims that label.

At the same time, just as the person of Jesus forms a kind of crossroads dividing devout Jews from devout Christians, the person of Joseph Smith, Jr. becomes a similar kind of crossroads dividing Mormon Christians from every other kind of Christian.  Either Christ was divine, along with all that implies, or he was not, and there's no meaningful Christian "system" if he wasn't.  Either Joseph Smith was a prophet, or he was not.  And just as many students of Christian history, embarrassed by claims of Jesus' divinity have tried to make Christ a "great moral teacher," so many students of Mormon history, embarrassed by Joseph Smith's claim to be a prophet, have tried to make the prophet Joseph into a great "theological innovator," or a "moral reformer" who sought to reframe Christian theology for American modernity.  But, I would argue, there's no meaningful Mormon "system" if the prophet Joseph did not literally speak with and receive authority from God.  "Mormonism" comes apart at the seams if Joseph Smith was just a theological innovator or reformer.

When I attended the Affirmation Convention in Kirtland, Ohio, I was particularly intrigued by a lecture I heard there on Mormon history delivered by Community of Christ historian John Hamer.  His lecture boiled down, I think, to the notion that different branches of the "Mormon movement" could be accounted for in relation to their acceptance of successive revelations of the Prophet Joseph.  At the very core of Mormon belief, you have "Restorationism," the idea of the need to "restore" the "primitive," ancient Church of Jesus Christ, as established by Christ himself in the meridian of time.  At this level, Mormons look very similar in their belief to other radical "restorationist" Christians (like the Campbellites or certain kinds of Baptists).  Acceptance of the Book of Mormon and of the divine calling of Joseph Smith is what separates "Mormons" from other restorationists.  On the other hand, the "Nauvoo theology" -- polygamy, theocracy, temple sealing, and the King Follett theology regarding the divinity inherent in human nature -- is what separates Latter-day Saints from the Community of Christ.  The Community of Christ was ultimately constituted of those Mormon communities that rejected Brigham Young's leadership; and the main bone of contention in relation to Young's leadership was the Nauvoo theology.  (It's why Emma Smith ultimately aligned herself with the "Reorganization"...  She never could reconcile herself to her husband's polygamous teaching.)

This is why, ultimately, as much respect as I have for the Community of Christ, as grateful to them as I am for their compassionate moves toward greater inclusion of GLBT folks, as much as I love individual members of the Community of Christ, and as much as I honor their testimonies and their profoundly Christian commitments, I can't see myself joining the Community of Christ.  For me, there's no making sense of Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet without coming to full terms with the Nauvoo theology he revealed.  And at that crossroads that divides me from other Christians -- at that all-important question regarding the divine calling of Joseph Smith the prophet -- I am firmly decided on the point that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God, with all that that implies.  For all my human frailty and sin, and for whatever judgment I may come under to acknowledge it, I cannot retreat from the conviction at the core of my being that Joseph Smith was a revealer of divine truth and a restorer of divine priesthood.  I must come to terms with that in all its fullness, let the chips fall where they may, even if to do so ultimately condemns me.

Whatever conflicting emotions I may have about this, oddly, the one emotion that comes to the fore is gratitude.  I am thankful to know what I know, to know it with every fiber of my being.

I cannot possibly judge or condemn others for what they believe or do not believe.  I cannot speak for what they know or the ways in which their consciences may hold them responsible to that knowledge.  It is too awesome a responsibility for me simply to be obedient to my own conscience to try to account for anyone else's.  And my conscience commands me to love others completely and unconditionally, to seek their happiness and welfare as I would my own.  So I am grateful to people of conscience everywhere.  Rabbi Neusner, thank you.  My Christian friends who think I'm slightly crazy for being Mormon but love me anyway, thank you.  My friends in the Community of Christ who extend a loving welcome to me as a gay man and as a "Mormon," thank you.  My LDS brothers and sisters who don't know what to make of me as a gay man, but who love me and are willing to wrestle with me and on my behalf, thank you.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Expecting... Again

Saturday was my birthday. Göran baked me an incredible, super fantastic chocolate chocolate chocolate cake. His gift to me was a love story, Habibi, by Craig Thompson, a book I couldn't put down until I had read it cover to cover. I want to read it again... and again... It is so full of wonderful, incredible stuff, and taught me so much about the gift of love Göran and I share, and my responsibility to everyone else I share this beautiful planet with, and what it means to be a child of God and to be human.

Glen has been thriving in college. He's been living independently for a little over a year now, and is doing so well. On my birthday, Göran and Glen and I had a great time at a nearby apple orchard, going for a hay ride, eating cider brats and apple pie, visiting the petting zoo, getting bitten by little black gnats, and successfully avoiding any actual apple picking. We are so proud of Glen. I love him and miss having him around the house, though we are usually able to spend time with him every week or two, and I find I don't cry when I see little reminders of him around the house quite so often as I did in the months just after he moved out!

We had promised Glen that we wouldn't take in any new foster kids for at least a year, until we were sure that he was doing well and successfully living on his own. We wanted his bedroom to be available in case he needed it! We're satisfied now that he's well on the road to independent living. (Glen insists he doesn't want to subject himself to our rules again!) So last night, we met with a social worker for about an hour and a half to fill out paper work for our foster care licensing renewal, and we are finally actively looking for a new placement again.

I feel a great sense of peace about this. In the month of November, we will finish paying off our house. We will own it free and clear. We have been blessed with material prosperity and good health and a loving relationship. So it would seem supremely ungrateful not to share that with another child in need.

We're expecting again!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Obedience as Principle of Creation

Lately I've been reading the Book of Abraham, and a few verses particularly struck me as I read the fourth chapter this morning:

And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed....

And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good....

And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth the beasts after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind; and the Gods saw they would obey....

And the Gods said: We will do everything that we have said, and organize them; and behold, they shall be very obedient. (Abraham 4: 18, 21, 25 & 31)

This all brings me back to a Sunday School lesson taught by a member of our Stake Presidency years back, that made a profound impression on me. He was using D&C 121 as the text, particularly a phrase in verse 46: "and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever."

Unfortunately, the worldly understanding of the principle of obedience has become imbricated with the notion of compulsion, force. Worldly governments coerce or force obedience with armies, police forces, jails, torture and corporal/capital punishment. But that is a satanic principle. (Something that the Book of Moses develops, in chapter 4:1-4.)

The idea of obedience in itself, in its purity, is actually an expression or manifestation of the principle of freedom. The concept of obedience requires the possibility that the one obeying may go a different way than to obey. When we obey, we willingly collaborate out of trust and love. In this account of creation in the Book of Abraham, we see creation as a kind of divine dance. The gods (it's a collective endeavor! one in which we participated!) say, "OK, elements, let's do this!" Then they watch (!), as it's the elements' turn to respond. The elements obey; they join in the dance. They move, they coalesce, they cooperate! And marvelous things happen!

In my practice of yoga, I've learned that a similar principle operates within my body. My mind says, "Move! Hold! Breathe!" And then it watches, to see if my body will obey! Sometimes it does so more perfectly than others. Obedience takes practice.

This life is that wonderful opportunity for us to develop the discipline that enables us to join the divine dance. God calls to us out of a deep hunger to create joy. "This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man [and woman!]" (Moses 1: 39). "Adam [and Eve] fell that men [and women!] might be; and men [and women!] are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2: 25).

Yes, we make mistakes! Yes, we frequently fail miserably and fall flat on our faces! (That's happened to me a couple of times in yoga class!) This life is our chance to get back up and try again! Keep trying until we get it! Until we enter into the dance of joy that the gods -- that our Heavenly Parents -- have invited us into!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Choices and Relationships

Recently, the committed relationship of two friends of ours came to an end after 15 years. This morning, in my email in-box was a message from another good friend, announcing the end of his relationship of 3½ years. Earlier in the weekend, a friend of mine texted me to let me know that a relationship of several months was now over. Over the years, we've had many friends who've gone through break-ups or divorces. Sometimes both partners in the relationship have been friends of ours, and we've had to negotiate the challenges of preserving our friendships with each, even as their relationship with each other ends.

Whenever this has happened before, I've observed mixed emotions. The anguish of loss is almost always accompanied by relief that a difficult -- perhaps impossible -- situation is finally coming to an end. People wrestle with the hopes and aspirations they had for the relationship at one point or another -- usually including the hope that it might have been a "forever" relationship -- versus the recognition of the ways this particular relationship fell short of that aspiration. There's usually a kind of grieving that accompanies this recognition. Sometimes the grieving includes cynicism about relationships in general; sometimes it includes shame and feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

The truth almost always lies at some paradoxical intersection of the various conflicting emotions. It is possible that a relationship simultaneously facilitated growth (in some areas) and stagnation (in others). In any relationship, we are (with rare exceptions) both the victims of bad choices made by our partner, and the perpetrator of mistakes that harmed our partner and us and the relationship. (It's seldom useful to try to figure out how much we are the former vs. the latter.) No relationship is predestined to end. Any relationship can be preserved if both partners are willing to make the requisite shifts in perspective and to act on their shifted perspectives. At the same time, no relationship is required to last. Ultimately, a relationship begins or aborts, grows or fades, endures or ends based upon the interrelated choices of two people. We choose what we want, and consciously or unconsciously we go for it, with consequences.

It should go without saying that no matter how committed one partner is to a relationship, a relationship is only possible if both are committed.

Is a relationship the be all and end all of existence? I guess the answer to that question always, always depends on the person answering it. Relationships always have the value that we invest in them. They can be of eternal significance, of incalculable worth, capable of rewarding any effort to preserve and nurture them. Or they can be of contingent worth, mere temporary stepping stones on the much greater journey of self-discovery, needing to be let go once we have outgrown their usefulness. Or they can (paradoxically) be both.

I think if a couple manages to live long enough together, they actually experience several different relationships with each other. The relationship I have with Göran, of which we recently celebrated the 18th anniversary, has actually been at least four different relationships that I can name. In a very real sense, in order for us to stay together, we've periodically had to let go of an existing relationship, renegotiate, and accept the terms of a new relationship. We've had to learn to accept that as time went on, we grew and became different people, and we had to be willing to enter into a relationship with that "new" person.

The different relationships Göran and I have had have included: (1) the passionate, idealized, romantic relationship of our early years; (2) the "shared yoke," the trials and difficulties and challenges we somehow managed to support each other through once the blush of romance faded (working through my depression and unemployment; his family and identity issues); and (3) the time of trial as our relationship reached "middle age," as each of our faults and inadequacies became increasingly apparent to the other, our illusions about each other and ourselves and the relationship were shattered or withered, and we had to decide, with eyes fully open, "Do I still love this person?" (Or, more importantly, "Do I feel worthy to be loved?" The questions are interrelated.)

In the third stage, Göran and I have each gone through significant transformations. It is as if our relationship has been a cocoon from which we now emerge as different creatures. He is stronger, more self-confident and assertive. He finally knows who his family are and has answers to questions we've been trying to answer for over a decade. He has a much stronger sense of who he is. And my sins and failings have taught him to be more self-reliant. He is, in many ways, the opposite of what he was when we first met. I, on the other hand, have "discovered religion." I've abandoned many axioms I once accepted as rock solid, and accepted others. I've lost a sense of myself as the center of my own universe. That's part of what confessing God is all about. So in significant ways, we're switching places. I used to be the confident one, he the more dependent; now I'm having to learn the nature of my own dependence, while he spreads his wings. It's not easy!

I believe that in this third stage, we each caught glimpses of what our life missions are. We began to understand what it is we are called to do for the rest of our lives. We increasingly found ourselves in parenting/mentoring relationships with the next generation. And so in the new and fourth stage we are entering, the question becomes, How can we facilitate the other accomplishing his life calling? In a way, this part of the relationship is as perilous as any that came before it. We could easily spin off, putting mission before relationship. Or we could find out how mission and relationship are interconnected. After all, our relationship has always been the home base from which all learning has been made possible before. It's been the framework within which we've each learned who we are by studying ourselves in the mirror of the other.

What if Göran and I had broken it off at the end of relationship (1)? This happens often enough... So many relationships end once the initial electricity goes from ecstatic jolt to modest current. There's still energy flowing, but if you're addicted to the "jolt," you'll pull the plug and go in search of the big charge again. We could have ended it at the end of relationship (2) as well, once we'd made it past some of the early challenges of life and felt like we didn't "need" each other any more. Stage (3) has got to be the hardest. How does a relationship survive when you've become disillusioned with each other? When you've become disillusioned with yourself? I think this is where so many long term relationships end. These are the break-ups that happen after 15-20 years of shared life. And these are perhaps the most painful. But with disillusionment comes truth, so it's hard for me not to get excited about the potential for stage (4). I'm not sure what I would do without the bedrock of affection and shared experience we have after eighteen years together.

If we break off and seek a new relationship, do we pick up where we left off with the new person? Or do we have to start over at stage 1? What do we learn if there is no new person, or rather, if the "new person" is just ourselves?

In the eternal scheme of things, I'm still far too young to answer any of these questions. I suspect the answer will be different for each person and each relationship.

I'm painfully aware of my own inadequacies at the moment. But I am cautiously hopeful that that awareness can be fertile soil for good things.

I'm praying for my friends right now too... Those whose relationships are ending... I pray for them to grieve well and to learn. I pray to be an adequate friend to them. And I am looking to them as teachers too. Whatever becomes of our "relationships," none of us are islands, neither in our singleness nor in our relatedness. Specific relationships are just part of a web of relationality within which we all exist, within which we all learn and grow, and within which we all have a responsibility to nurture and care for one another.