Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Affirmation and the Gay Mormon Hero's Journey

Carol Lynn Pearson released her book The Hero's Journey of the Gay and Lesbian Mormon just a couple of short weeks before the release of Peter Jackson's film version of another of my favorite hero's journey stories: The Hobbit.  And all this, just as a change in the leadership of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons and lots of media buzz about the "Mormons and Gays" initiative signal a crossroads in the "hero's journey" for many LGBT Mormons.

Having been asked to play a leadership role in Affirmation, I'm more aware than ever that every hero's journey is always the journey of a band of heroes -- whether we're talking about Odysseus and his men; or Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion; or Dr. Who and his "companions"; or Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Kili, Fili, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Oin, Gloin, and Bilbo.  I kind of love the fact that the "hero" in The Hobbit is the smallest and seemingly least important member of the party that sets out to regain the Gold Under the Mountain from the Dragon Smaug! Ultimately, there are no "unimportant" members of these kinds of bands of heroes.

I realized that committing to join others in Affirmation in a collective journey was frightening to me.  I would no longer have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and criticizing, which is something I admit I've done my fair share of.  I could no longer easily distance myself from what I didn't like in the organization.  I had to cast my lot in with the goals of the organization, not just focus on my own personal goals, though I had to feel that my personal goals could align closely enough with the organization's goals for me to do that.  I had to take responsibility to actually do something.  I could be judged for my failures as an individual.  I could be judged for our failures as an organization.  I would be judged by the company I was keeping and they by mine, and I had to be OK with that (and feel like they were OK with that too).

The fears didn't really detain me too long.  Something deep inside of me said these were all risks I had to take.  There was an almost irresistible voice deep within me that insisted: NOW is the moment when all my personal fears and my personal agenda pale in comparison with the opportunity before usThis is the gay Mormon moment.  Every journey starts only at the moment we recognize that call, however we ultimately recognize it.

But does a sense of call make us a unified band of heroes from the get go?  Every story tells us No.  What is interesting to me when you look at every tale of a hero's journey that's ever been told, is that there is inevitably as much conflict among protagonists as there is between protagonists and antagonists.  The heroes themselves can clash with each other over every significant decision that needs to be made, and at every major stage of the journey until the very end.  They can clash over the goal itself, over the best means to achieve the goal, and over the roles each of them are supposed to play.  The personalities of some heroes will clash with the personalities of others.  They get angry at each other.  They harshly criticize each other's failings.  The conflict can become so intense, they can even doubt each other's loyalties and wonder if they are all actually members of the same team.  Heroes can even betray and abandon each other at critical junctures of the journey when their suspicions and insecurities get the better of them.

We see this type of drama played out in stories and movies and art time after time.  And yet we are taken aback when these interpersonal dynamics play out in our own hero's journeys.  Disillusionment sets in quickly and easily.  We think: "This isn't the journey I signed up for."

There's a natural reason for this.  These conflicts among protagonists occur because each of us embarks on the journey from our unique perspective.  As spectators in an audience watching a movie like The Hobbit, we see things from a more objective, third-person perspective.  As actors in a real-life journey, we see things only from our very subjective, first-person perspective.  For us as real-life heroes, the journey ahead is the one we personally envision, and it's hard for us to understand why everyone else doesn't just see it our way.

But this is good news, not bad.  We know we're on a journey worth having the moment conflict strikes. If this journey were going to be easy, our objectives would have been achieved a long time ago by somebody else.  If we have to work hard at this, it means we're working on something hard, something that requires our own personal best efforts and the collaboration of many others.

This is also good news because the diversity of our perspectives, our strengths and our weaknesses is what makes us stronger as a collective than we possibly can be individually.  Will we fail each other?  Yes!  But fortunately, we won't all fail each other in the same way.  That's a good thing.  My weakness is somebody else's strength.  Your strength becomes my strength the more I learn to let go and trust you when I've stumbled, just as my strength can become yours as you learn the same.  Each different perspective is a vantage point from which different opportunities can be spied out, different threats assessed, different options explored, so long as we can learn to listen to and value one another.

What we often find in these stories is that complete unity is achieved only at the very end of the journey.  Heroes often seem to triumph in spite of themselves.  They may learn that the one course of action they thought would fail, that they failed to prevent, was actually the course of action that led them to victory.  We rarely recognize our friends as friends -- more often see them as competitors or obstacles -- until after victory is achieved, and with hindsight we see how the contributions of others enabled our own contributions and vice versa.  Almost always, heroes in the end are saved by grace after all that they can do.


I need this perspective now more than ever, because as I join the hero's journey Affirmation has been on for three decades now, I'm already running up against obstacles, finding areas of difference and disagreement.  I've experienced personal criticism and even attacks, both in public and in private.  And to be honest it hurts, as much as I'd like to just be able to rise above it.  Yet, I think it's important to try not to take it personally, to try not to assume the worst of people who say things that hurt.

I remind myself: ours has been a uniquely painful journey.  The toll of excommunications, family alienation, depression and suicide is proof of this.  So the stakes feel higher for us.  Listening to the perspectives of others is more difficult, the more intensely you feel the stakes in pursuing this your way.  That's just a fact.  And the more intense the pain you've experienced in the past, the harder it becomes to trust in the present.  This is true of every single one of us.

Sometimes the attacks get personal.  It is so easy to demonize the people we ought to consider our friends.  But we won't get there ultimately without each other.

I remind myself: things seem to be changing fast.  We're seeing rapid political and social change in relation to the place of LGBT people in the larger society and in the Church.  We experience this change as both opportunity and uncertainty.  That raises the stakes as well, and makes everything feel that much more intense.

I'm not sure there's a sure fire way to do this.  But here's what I'm willing to say I'm sure of.

Our number one objective is to save lives, both literally and figuratively.  We need to be about love and healing, as each member of our band of heroes understands and defines love and healing for themselves.  Some think the journey must take us far, far away from the LDS Church or even from any organized religion.  Some (I'm in this latter category) think the journey must take us right back into the heart of the LDS Church.  Maybe the party needs to split up at key parts of the journey.  Sometimes success means not putting all your eggs into one single basket!  But that doesn't mean we can't still be part of the same band.  It doesn't mean we are no longer obligated to each other; that we can any less afford to be about saving each other's lives; that we can abandon each other, or abandon the notion that I cannot be saved without you nor you without me.

We are on a collective journey, but we also need to recognize that we are on individual journeys.  You must achieve your personal goals in order for our collective accomplishment to be worth anything.  Without that sense of personal home-coming, "victory" is hollow.

And finally, in that spirit, we can't be superficial about this.  We have to be honest.  We have to speak up if things aren't working.  We have to be ready for anger, for frustration, and for sidetracks and backtracks and delays.  If someone gets lost or left behind, we can't win without finding them and reuniting with them first.

I'm trying to prepare myself for it mentally, though I know the only ultimate preparation is in the doing of it.  You have to just jump in and see where it goes.


My husband Göran and I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for the second time earlier today.  (Spoiler alert, for those of you who haven't seen it and who want to experience the end of the movie without hearing it second hand from me!)  I love the end of this first of three parts.  Bilbo and his dwarf companions stand on a mountain peak together, and in the distance they can see their objective: the mountain home of Erebor.

I was reminded of the first time I saw the mountains of Utah from the window of an airplane.  I grew up out East, but Utah is where I was born, and in the land of my dreams, and in my spiritual life as a Latter-day Saint, the Wasatch Mountains have a special symbolic significance: the same signficance as "the Lonely Mountain" in The Hobbit.  For me, they symbolize both my literal homeland and my spiritual homeland, my Church.  Like the dwarves in The Hobbit, I'm in exile, trying to find my way back.  Home is my objective.

The gold under the mountain in the story of The Hobbit is like the gold of faith, love, hope and perfect communion I yearn for in my own spiritual journey.  I want to be welcomed back into Zion without losing my integrity.  Without having to deny the love of my life and without losing the family I've worked so hard to forge.  The hero always brings back home that part of him- or herself that he or she has forged throughout many wanderings.  That is as important a part of the journey as the home coming itself.  Perhaps the more important part.

I love Bilbo's journey as an ally.  Bilbo is not going on this journey to find his own home.  He already has a home which -- to a certain extent -- he's put at risk by going off on this journey with dwarves.  But he learns to empathize with his friends, to realize that if they don't make it home, he won't be able to live with himself, even if he stays safe at home.

I love that in the end, Thorin Oakenshield, who had once thought Bilbo useless, acknowledges how wrong he was, and acknowledges that without Bilbo, they could not have come so far.  That realization was itself a kind of mountaintop.  One of those rare moments when we see ourselves in the other; when we experience our unity.

Those moments of transcendent perspective never last forever.  But I pray for it for me and for us, even if only in flashes long enough to keep us all in this journey together.


Actually Textual said...

John, as always, I am deeply moved by your thoughts. As always, I am made somewhat uncomfortable by the rawness of feeling, for although details are different (I am a member), the sense of longing for the mountain home, that destiny where I am truly welcome and relevant, remains the goal. Where will I be in ten years? I have my hopes, my aims, but I may yet have my rude awakenings. Keep up the journey; it is one many of us share, and your openness helps forge a refuge. God bless. James

J G-W said...

James, thank you. I appreciate your word "uncomfortable." :-) It's usually present where real sharing is taking place.

It's reassuring to me to hear promises from each other that we'll stick together in this journey (it is one single journey even as we each have different paths), that we won't abandon one another. I wrote this post partly to help remind (reassure?) myself of that most important part of the heroes' code.

Ron Schow said...

pubJohn....I've been on this journey long enough to have had many different experiences and companions along the way. It has often been important to be reminded that each of us has a different perspective, often different short term goals, and that we can still continue to communicate, to offer good will to others, and to realize we all don't need to do exactly the same thing at the same time. You offer some useful insights here and I fully concur. When we take the time to listen to others with empathy, when we engage in "kind and reasoned conversations" we can continue in a spirit of unity toward the mountain. I could tell a few stories to reinforce your message....but this comment is long enough for now and you've given us good counsel and advice.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Ron. You've been part of the band of heroes traveling toward the Mountain long enough to know! You've raised plenty of weary arms, and given courage to so many despondent! I'm so glad you're with us!

Arlo said...

As one who has very recently joined with the leadership of Northstar, I share with you a bit of trepidation going forward. Not only does that disagreement you speak of exist within organizations, but it is even more prominent between organizations. Yet, we share the same goal, to save lives. If we can hold on to that common focus, perhaps we will be able to work together for the sake of LGBT Latter-Day Saints. With this new era comes a new opportunity, and if we can work together in a spirit of respect and cooperation wherever possible, I think we will be able to accomplish much good.