Thursday, October 30, 2014

Telling a religious leader about being autistic

Ever since I was denied serving an LDS mission over having Asperger syndrome, I've felt some level of paralysis in knowing how to talk to people about my condition.  My symptoms aren't obvious.  I don't roll around on the floor screaming.  I have a job.  I can talk to people mostly normally- if you want to see it that way.  Since my medical condition can be essentially invisible, it would be all too easy for people to assume that I wasn't allowed to go on a mission for other reasons.  Mormons, at least in the areas I've lived, seem to have this fascination for guessing what sins someone must have committed and can sometimes become intuitively confident that they can know which sins someone has committed based on circumstantial evidence unrelated to the sins in question.  Therefore, I was terrified that if people realized I hadn't gone on a mission they would assume I had been having premarital sex.  Even worse, I got married before the age when Mormon missionaries normally return home.  In other words, the Mormon equivalent of getting married before you are 18.  I felt at the time that I had a spiritual duty to get married as soon as possible, but marrying before the culturally eligible age invited absurd assumptions about my private life.  To make matters worse my wife and I attended "married student wards" where almost every conversation between men started with something like "how long have you been married?" and "where did you go on your mission?" and where young husbands still fresh off their missions could barely give lessons in church without talking about or soliciting comments regarding missionary service.  I didn't know how to cope with all of this missionary work focus and nostalgia- so I frequently withdrew within myself and spaced out- unable to engage with my environment.  I had been raised to expect that a full time mission would be the climax of all of my spiritual devotion.  Being told that my social skills were too poor and that God didn't really want me as a missionary was something of a spiritual shock to my system despite having full faith that God could call me to not serve a mission as readily as he could call me to serve a mission.  Whereas before I was passionate about sharing the gospel I suddenly felt depressed and paralyzed on the subject, feeling that part of me wasn't really good enough for God.

What it came down to was that I rarely talked to anyone at church about being on the autistic spectrum.  I could jeopardize my reputation by getting merely close to talking about it.  I could hardly avoid telling the first Bishop I had after being denied missionary service.  Our main conversation on the subject happened because he found me and talked me down when I was stressed out in a fright nearly to tears because I was afraid rumors were spreading around the ward about me.  After that, I don't think I ever explained it to a church leader even once.  Having always been bad at making friends or sustaining real personal relationships, maintaining a good reputation was always very important to me as if somehow that would make up for my lack of social abilities.

With our son now being diagnosed on the spectrum, I've felt a need to be more open so I can advocate for my son.  For the first time in years, I haven't tried to hide who I am to a church leader.  I was able to be open about it.  Somehow, this feels like it has healed a gap in my soul.  For the first time in the decade since I was denied serving a mission, I don't have to worry about whether some unexpectedly bigoted self righteous person will make assumptions about me because of who I am.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My thoughts on the new Polygamy Essays

Some time ago when a rumor in the ward about my family amplified itself against people's fear into absurd proportions, things were getting pretty bad for us.  The leadership had started treating us as outcasts and saying that they didn't believe we were telling the truth about ourselves and treating us as sinners just based on what we looked like.  I wasn't going to lay down flat for the rumor mill to destroy our standing in our community.  So I went and had a conversation with some of my neighbors about what had really happened- trying to make sure that the people who knew us best knew what was being done to us, why, and what we felt about it.  Unfortunately, one of the neighbors, less driven by sympathy, demanded that I defend myself to him.  When I complained that I felt like we were being treated as heretics, he actually directly asked me if I was a heretic.  Not exactly the "bearing one another's burden" reaction for which I was hoping.  In any case, for some reason he decided to bring up the anecdote about Joseph Smith demanding that another church leader transfer his wife to Joseph to be Joseph's wife as a test of faith.  Annoyed by the example, I agreed and added that Joseph Smith sometimes didn't just do it as a test of faith but actually took the woman as his wife- spiritually compelling the husband to share his wife's affection with Joseph as an act of obedience.  Lets just say I shocked the poor brother who didn't know as much LDS church history as I did.  Neither of us being in a charitable mood at that point, he didn't react thoughtfully and started to demand that I explain how that could possibly be true and Joseph Smith be the righteous true prophet that the LDS church claims.  In other words, how could I be a good person and believe what I had just said?  Perhaps there was a little bit of a plea behind it that if I was going to shake him up like that he wanted me to provide an explanation or a simple answer to make it all better.  I didn't have any easy answers to give him.  I just told him essentially that I thought people were complicated mixtures of good and bad and that I didn't think there was a simple answer or way out.  That probably sealed it in the man's mind that I was an apostate.  I knew things that shook the conventional form of the LDS narrative to its roots and I didn't believe there was a simple answer.  Humanity isn't simple.  Life isn't in black and white.  People aren't perfect no matter what titles they hold or what amazing things they accomplish.

The other day, the Salt Lake Tribune was carrying a front page article in the newspaper talking about how the LDS church acknowledged in print that Joseph Smith married teenage brides, married already married women, that his wife didn't know all about what he was up to, and that definitely some of the relationships were sexual in nature.  It made me want to track down this man and force him to acknowledge the past, and admit that I had my basic facts right, and tell him that it isn't my job to make it better for him.  The fact that the past isn't convenient to modern assumptions isn't my problem to fix for anyone.

We can all take the facts referred to in these essays and use them however integrity of our minds and hearts leads us.  The dentist turned historian, Brian Hales, whose analysis is largely depended upon for the interpretation in the recently published essays is I'm certain is writing from his heart.  I've even heard him speak at a public event before and I honestly did not find his interpretation of evidence to be compelling.  However, I left having felt his humanity shining through.  I am certain that he is a good man trying to do the best that he can to make his spiritual worldview make sense for people who were struggling while himself participating in that struggle.

Any history that politely lines itself up to confirm what you already think you know isn't history, its a moralistic allegory where the names and the places are all the same but where the what the people actually did is edited and simplified to provide inspirational stories.  I don't particularly like shocking people out of that narrative.  However, it can be difficult to avoid.  It feels like I'm not even in the same world anymore, so how can I possibly explain why my path is different without explaining my world?  Its as if I'm in a parallel dimension that can see and interact with the one that I grew up in, but now there are a multitude of additional obstacles that arise because of things that I care about now that I didn't used to care about, and simple paths through things that I no longer care about.

There is no answer, I think, but humility and love.  Any path that leads to sharing in God's love and goodness to the best that you know how is the right one.  It takes humility to not try to shake people away from growing in love because you don't like the view from where they are doing it.  Loving people and helping people grow in love- or in a sense to make love- is something that can only be done with consent.  Though we need a humble view of the past for a healthy future, forced worldview shifts (including ones sometimes made tragically necessary by unhealthy views of the past that push people away from being able to love) can be an abhorrent violation.  I wouldn't wish on anyone the pain that comes from a violent readjustment of his or her worldview.

While learning about polygamy did not trigger the changes in worldviews, it is one more place where I feel liberated to not have to make excuses for the past anymore to myself or to anyone.  The past simply is.

One Day Emma

I wrote this piece a long time ago.  I was feeling very upset regarding some things happening in the LDS church and expressed myself by imagining what would happen if Emma asked Joseph about smoking and chewing tobacco today?  How would the church respond?  Elements of my own life began mixing in with elements of how the church has responded to people (especially women) over its history including the ERA movement, wear pants to church day, and women's ordination.  The whole story took a life of its own.  Previously I've only shared this privately.

One day after mopping up another tobacco spit covered floor while coughing up lungfulls of second hand smoke, Emma decided something wasn't right.  How could such filthy unhealthy habits be of God?  In this very room the most divine revelations were discussed, creating an absurd contradiction of the most pure and lofty ideals being discussed in a pig sty that she was supposed to clean up after.  She was talking to a friend one day and mentioned that she had decided tobacco just didn't seem to be of God and she would ask Joseph to pray about it for a revelation.  Her friend, who up to that point had been sympathetically listening, suddenly blanched with fright.  "But Joseph is the prophet, if God had meant the church leaders to stop chewing tobacco wouldn't he already have been told?"

Emma replied "But he's never thought about it before.  Smoking and spitting for the brethren is a habit, not a revelation.  Just asking the question couldn't hurt."

But for some reason she never got around to asking, or Joseph was too busy to talk to her.  Word got around though that she had a question in her mind.  Soon her visiting teachers brought it up.  Emma was surprised they even cared, but next thing the visiting teachers were talking up how concerned they were for her spiritual welfare.  "What has not liking cleaning up tobacco spit and breathing in smoke have to do with my spiritual welfare?  I just think I should have a right to have a home not polluted by adult spit up and smoke smell.  This place is hard enough to clean without them spewing all over it.  At least they could actually try not to miss the spittoon part of the time."

"Well, you should know that as a woman you aren't supposed to ask for your rights.  All women in the church know that God hasn't given them the keys to ask for anything for themselves.  Our place is just to quietly accept what we are told."

Emma was confused, what did asking questions and having opinions have to do with spiritual gifts or rights?  And since when was she lobbying for anything?  She just wanted to get Joseph to ask God a question.  Joseph didn't seem to believe her that cleaning tobacco juice and breathing smoke should be any burden at all.  It was supposedly part of her womanly role.  The whole cigarettes are a masculine symbol, cleaning is what women do, so cleaning up the liquid emissions of chewed tobacco as a woman was a symbol of her divine role as a sexual recipient of male emissions from the parts of the man symbolized by the pointy cigarette and fat cigar.  He really needed to stop reading the Freud.  If Joseph wouldn't listen to her then maybe he would listen to God on the subject if he would just ask the question.  After a few heated exchanges about whether she was allowed to ask questions or lobby for her rights her visiting teachers left, and Emma was sure she would never let them bring up the subject again.  The idea of change just scared them too much.

More time passed, and to Emma's surprise more women came to her sympathizing that they also failed to get any spiritual or symbolic benefit from cleaning up tobacco juice off their floors.  They all hated cleaning it, they all hated breathing it.  Many thought that it was their proper burden as women, a cross to carry as called upon by God and the men in their lives.  Many were willing to say it was just wrong.  Some of them even looked up what was known about tobacco from medical journals and it started to be known how unhealthy it was for the men, and how second hand smoke actually increased the chance of miscarriage, hurting their femininity rather than somehow vaguely symbolizing it.  Some didn't care about that and simply wanted to be able to smoke themselves without facing social judgment.  While most would give assent to that idea in theory, given how bad smoking is for you, that opinion was pretty rare to find, but people who thought they knew best talked about it as if it was all women wanted.

Emma's Bishop called her in and told her that since spittoons were in the temple they were obviously of God along with all the tobacco juice on the floor that went with it and she should stop being such a heretic.  Emma felt that spittoons were in the temple because the brethren had put them there, not because God put them there.  She didn't appreciate being called a heretic.  The Bishop wouldn't apologize or even discuss the matter reasonably.  It was for her to obey him, nothing else mattered.  He threatened to take away Emma's temple recommend because she wouldn't accept tobacco as being ordained of God.  Emma dared to let him try and find out what Joseph would say, and decided to ignore the Bishop.

Rumors started to fly in the ward.  People said that Emma wasn't a true believer.  They said that if she wasn't on board with all the doctrinal and non doctrinal assumptions of the church she shouldn't even belong, no matter how much she believed in everything else.  Since it was mainly women who expressed concern about this, members of the church, encouraged by church leadership, started spreading rumors that she and her friends were lesbians.  That was particularly hurtful.  Just because Joseph wanted relations with extra women didn't mean she did.  Not that the consensual relationships between the lesbians she knew had much comparison to the "marry me or God will kill you" or "marry me and you and all your extended family will be guaranteed exaltation automatically just as a reward for your sacrifice" or "you can marry me and your husband, just love both of us" deals that Joseph was cutting.  People started to stop her in the street and yell at her, commanding her in the name of God to stop her anti tobacco campaign.  People called for her to be excommunicated if she ever mentioned the subject again.  One radical even said she and everyone like her should be killed.  The ward's response was much more moderated.  Since she had discussed it in Relief Society and the idea had gained popularity there, the Relief Society was dissolved as a den of heresy.  Emma herself was told she couldn't hold callings until she recanted or if she stopped looking the wrong way- apparently someone told the stake presidents that women wearing the color black meant that they were secretly anti tobacco.  Apparently the fact that Emma was in mourning for her latest dead child didn't matter very much- she looked wrong.

It all came down to that revelation in the church wasn't supposed to come through asking questions.  Or at least not most of the time for day to day stuff.  Revelation came through tradition.  Smoking and chewing tobacco was a traditional activity for men, and since the church represented God's chosen people then all of the traditions of the church were chosen as God's chosen doctrines, along with all the traditional reasons given to explain the traditions.  The traditions had been in place for so long it was assumed that the leaders being in tune with the spirit would have resulted in a revelation already.  No additional knowledge was needed or desired.  Anyone who wanted new knowledge was simply wrong because they violated the doctrine of tradition.  If men didn't smoke, it would be erasing the differences between men and women and that was that.

Eventually, the noise from all the fuss got above the day to day level where tradition ruled, and caused even the leaders to doubt.  Doubt allows sincere questions to be asked in faith, nothing wavering.  Faith and study lead to revelation.  The word of wisdom replaced the word of tradition.  The announcement was proclaimed with a special explanation that it wasn't in response to any social pressures or social movement, but was pure revelation.  Years later, Emma was described as having been right all along with all the leadership of her time being in lock step with her idea of how a husband can respect a wife's clean floor.  Only later scholarship would reveal the Hero Emma was.

Why another blog?

I've been blogging at Owl's Cyber Nest for some time, but every once in a while I keep having a great idea for something I want to blog about but I feel like I can't because I'm trying to keep my main blog a friendly place for everyone who I wish would read it- essentially all of my family and friends who might be interested.  However, there are so many things I want to talk about now that just wouldn't fit there for one reason or another.  Therefore, I'm putting up a second blog to talk about those things.  I will probably still mostly post at Owl's Cyber Nest when I feel it is appropriate, but I'll use this blog for subjects upon which I feel more passionately or where I wish to have a place to express myself more openly.  Perhaps in the future I'll merge the two blogs together, but for now as my life is changing very rapidly having them separate will serve better.