Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Painful Nature of Change

No, this post isn't about the one-step-forward-one-step-back process by which the Boy Scouts will gradually embrace gay members and leaders. Nor is it about the lamentations currently being provoked among conservative defenders of heterosexual marriage by what looks like a sudden avalanche of support for gay marriage among both Republicans and Democrats. This post is about change far more personal than that.

I should say, parenthetically however, that while I think extending marriage rights to same-sex couples and allowing equal access to the Boy Scouts are both the right things to do, I dislike rhetorical flourishes that I occasionally hear in the media implying that majority support for these things is proof that they are good. Depending on what side you are on of any issue, your interpretation of the moral meaning of majority support is going to differ, especially as that support fluctuates.

Also, as long as I digress in this vein, I should add that while I appreciate the enthusiastic sentiment that progress for American minorities is inevitable, I don't share it. I believe neither in the inevitability of progress, nor in the inevitability of regress. I am a historian. The history of the 20th century, with its Hitler and its Stalin and its Hiroshima and its Vietnam, was proof that progress is not inevitable, and majorities often do not stand on the side of it. Everything progresses or regresses according to our collective moral choices and efforts. And we can never abdicate personal moral responsibility because a majority supports a thing or opposes a thing.

And change, even good change, even progress, is painful.


Last night I had a dream that our little home here in Minneapolis was in chaos. My mother, who I am afraid we are slowly losing to Alzheimer's, was living with us, sharing Göran's and my bedroom. She was calmly sleeping through my whole dream.  A lesbian Mormon friend of mine had moved in to help us care for her.  A homeless family had moved into my office.  Our kitchen was in chaos, because my lesbian Mormon friend had brought bulk quantities of food to help cook for us; the rest of the house was in chaos because our guest homeless family had left their possessions scattered among ours, and were interchangeably using our stuff and theirs.  My husband was asleep in bed next to my mom, and I was waiting for him to wake up any second and blow his lid when he saw our nice, tidy abode converted into all this madness.

As I took a midnight tour of the house, I noticed the chaos increasing rather than decreasing.  The house was full of men.  There was a new addition to the house that looked like a pub, where men were hanging out and talking and getting ready to go out and perform tasks I was supposed to organize.  There were work crews tearing down walls, in the stairway, in the upstairs hall, in our bedroom, in our sun porch.

At first I was alarmed by what I saw.  The men waiting to be sent out on assignments didn't look very reputable to me.  And I was certain that work crews weren't needed to be tearing down all our walls. But when I confronted a work crew leader, he showed me a window where the wood was literally crumbling because it was so rotten.  The work was necessary.  And as they tore down walls, they revealed old possessions I'd forgotten I had: old photographs of me and Göran as a young couple, falling in love and enjoying ourselves; an old lamp I'd always loved; and a little ceramic statuette of the prophet Joseph Smith kneeling in the Sacred Grove.  The tearing down of the walls was teaching me important things about myself.

The statuette was particularly interesting because I couldn't remember if I had made it myself, or if I had bought it.  I looked for clues on the statuette, but found only sacred words that had been engraved on it in hidden places.  This portrayal of Joseph made him look like he was in a kind of agony.  (There was both suffering and rapture in the experience of the First Vision.)  I realized this was my most treasured possession.

As I interacted with the men waiting for assignments, I realized we had important work to do together, and I was grateful for their presence.

I remember thinking, "Göran is going to kill me when he wakes up and sees all this."  But I also remember thinking, "This is all eventually going to work out for the best, one way or the other."


Last week real life felt particularly chaotic and painful.  I had a miserable cold, but no other choice than to put in several 15-hour days because of craziness at work.  And there was teaching.  (I gave my annual Mormon history lectures through a fog of sinus pain and congestion.)  The foster son didn't stop being a typical teenage boy for all that (both the good and the bad of that).  And when I wanted to collapse after work, there was Affirmation work, getting ready for our next international leadership conference in Salt Lake City.  I felt overwhelmed.  I collapsed after my work day ended 11 p.m. Friday night.  Saturday and most of Sunday I felt catatonic, trying not to get above the horizontal axis if I could help it.  Monday, was still feeling my way back to normality.

And I felt frustrated last weekend, because I felt like I've already spent too much of my life "recovering" since my bike accident last August.  I don't want to spend any more of my life recovering!  I half wondered if dreaming about work men tearing the walls out of the upstairs of my house wasn't about surgeons cutting open parts of my skull last October.  In dreams, our house is almost always our body.  I still don't know what to make of those two numbish soft spots on the right side of my head.  (I still can't sleep on my right side because of the discomfort it causes.)

I woke up humbled this morning.  Aware of my weaknesses and inadequacies.  Realizing there's a lot of fixing up I still need.


The part of the dream that most comforted me was the part about that ceramic statuette of the prophet Joseph Smith.  The fact that I didn't know whether I had made it myself as a child (I got my testimony at the age of 8) or whether I obtained it from somewhere else made sense to me.  There is a kind of existential doubt we all wrestle with at one point or another in relation to the profound spiritual experiences of our lives.  Did I make this up?  Or is it real?  Did it come from without?

The only answer I got to that question from my dream is that there were sacred words of power engraved on it.  There is power in my testimony that I can't deny.  And the dream was a reminder to me: tear down the walls of your mind and your body, and in the deepest part of me, it is still there, my testimony of the Gospel.  And it is my most treasured possession.

I've realized that my life derives meaning not from comfort and order, but from truth.  If my life has worth, it can only be because it is lived in relation to some truth.  Truth demands sacrifice, and sacrifice opens us to more truth.  And that means there's always going to be work to do.  And that work will often plunge my life into chaos, and make things difficult and messy.

And I have to figure out how to do important work that opens my life to chaos, and still hold on to all the pieces of my life that matter most: family, friends, community, social justice.  We have an obligation to try, even when to try is risky and messy and scary.

That's how we grow and progress and become something better.