Zelophehad’s Daughters

Free to Be…You and Me

Posted by Mike C

The big toe on my left foot is purple and the nail, like the hair on my head, is starting to fall out. I wish I could say this was an unusual state of affairs, but ever since I took up soccer again, I find my body perpetually suffering from minor traumas.

While limping around the house last week I thought about why I do this to myself. It seemed easier years ago. As Paul Simon sheepishly laments, “And all my friends stand up and cheer and say, ‘Man, you’re old.’ Getting old.” But stubbornly in my middle age (can 42 really be middle age?!), I still do it to myself, cursing as I play, that the 22 year-old I know I am inside has mistakenly woken up, through a tragic, Freaky Fridayesque accident, in an over-the-hill body. Now, the easy solution to this discouraging reality would be to stop playing. A less drastic measure might be to not play so hard—less recklessness, lower risk of injury. More brain, less pain.

As an aside, I never excelled at sports—I was always the best player in the group cut from the first team (or sometimes second team, let’s be honest). My first existential crisis was not about belief in God, or the meaning of life, but rather the realization that I was never going to play for the Milwaukee Brewers. Why would God make my spirit such a sports fanatic while making my body so ordinary and my athletic skills so thoroughly average? As a Mormon male I was granted ordination but not coordination.

Anyway, what I’ve come to realize is that what thrills me about soccer, what transports me to that nirvana that lasts not only during the game but sometimes even for hours afterwards, is the opportunity to throw myself into something with wild abandon. In so doing I get outside of my head, forget my problems, and just exist in that blissful moment of play. Maybe that is why I seem to have only two soccer-related settings: off or full volume. I don’t seem to have a low-volume setting. When I play I don’t hold anything back; I am 100% me.

In the rest of my life, on the other hand, I find it more difficult to be 100% me. Authenticity is a scary, challenging, difficult way of being. And yet I’m convinced it is the only way to deep and durable peace and happiness, the way to escape the trap of the senseless, the sterile, the superficial. A dear friend claims we came to earth to see if we’d live the law of our own being, i.e., to see if we would choose to truly be ourselves. Easier said than done. My memories of watching Free to Be…You and Me in grade school encourage me with their sweetness. My memories of the many masks I’ve hidden behind since then trouble me with their cowardice.

Perhaps that is why I blog—I’m working at being myself. Sometimes it is thrilling and gratifying to discover who I am as I write; sometimes it is sad and disconcerting to see myself honestly. I fear it may be even more disconcerting for my readers, especially those who may have stumbled onto this site while looking to meet some nice Jewish girls (this never happens at fMh). Maybe by the middle of each post we’re all thinking, “How do I get off this ride?” Well, you’re still here, so buckle up. For me the goal of this ride, for the time being, is to understand how to be my authentic self as I relate to the Church and my faith community.

What do I mean by authenticity? I believe it means being true to ourselves, not pretending, not misleading. It does not mean that we must say everything we think, or share everything we believe, especially when doing so makes us vulnerable in unhealthy ways. Authenticity must be tempered by good judgment. Authenticity exists as a continuum rather than a dichotomy. We are not either authentic or inauthentic—rather, we become more authentic as we reveal more deeply to others and to ourselves who we really are.

In some circumstances and with some people it is simply not safe to be authentic. For example, it is usually not good judgment to expose our vulnerabilities to people who would use them to harm us, who would trample our pearls and then turn again and rend us. At church we may deem authenticity unacceptable if it forces us to be excluded from social support, from callings, or from the temple before we are ready to deal with such exclusions. As much as I would love to have a heart-to-heart with my stake president about how the thousand cuts of the Church’s gender inequalities bleed me white, I don’t feel it is safe to do so in the context of a temple recommend interview, where he can decide to exclude me, because of my heterodox beliefs, from the temple worship I value. Perhaps some day that is what I will do, but for now I will express my beliefs and share my pain in safer contexts.

That being said, seeking after authenticity will necessarily make us more vulnerable, and therefore more susceptible to being hurt. There is no avoiding this—authenticity is not safe; risk is involved, but it is soul-enlarging risk. Hiding behind masks is much safer, and much more what I’m inclined to do, but it hinders growth and prevents intimacy. So, I really want to step out from my hiding place. I want to try being me.

What I see, when I look inside myself, is that I am no longer a TBM. Many scriptural teachings I do not take literally, and practical infallibility of leaders has become a non-starter. For me, personal revelation, following my conscience, must take priority over obedience to authority. I’ve come to feel that I must become my own authority, that I must be the judge of good and evil, and that I cannot subcontract that job out to anyone, including a parent, spouse, or even the prophet or the scriptures. Furthermore, I don’t believe the Church is the way God ultimately intends it to be—rather, I believe that serious flaws in our doctrines and organization persist, which is why the label of a living church, open to glorious changes and improvements, resonates with me more than the label of a true church. Because of these beliefs, I often feel that I don’t fit in with many of the people I attend church with. I am a scientist in a church that is sometimes anti-science, I am a donkey in a church that is currently an elephant, I am a feminist in a church that is patriarchal. I find it difficult to be authentic in this setting.

On the other hand, I look inside myself and see that I am not an unbeliever. I believe in God(s). I believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, though I don’t understand it. I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I believe in the goodness of the Book of Mormon, and I come away unimpressed by the arguments against its historicity. I believe in life after death. I believe in spiritual manifestations and spiritual power. And so with some liberal Mormons, or post-Mormons, or non-Mormons, I also struggle to find an authentic place.

I guess I’ve discovered that I am neither here nor there. I am unable to describe myself and my beliefs using an analogy to someone or something else. I am just me. I suppose I can empathize with Yahweh (though I doubt He was going through an authenticity crisis): I am that I am.

And because I don’t fit neatly within the Church and yet I don’t belong outside of it, I’ve decided that I need to create a space for myself (and perhaps for others like me). And no, I don’t mean the Bloggernacle. I mean a real, non-virtual space, an authentic yet sheltered space within my local faith community, the one that meets each Sunday morning in a 1970s, white-washed, cinder-block chapel. So, like Bishop Woolley, who told Brother Brigham that, no, he wasn’t leaving—“This is as much my church as it is yours!”—I’m setting up camp. I belong in my meetinghouse, its chapel, classrooms, bishop’s office, and cultural hall. I’ll call my movement Occupy Ward Suite (sorry, it was the best I could do on a tight blogging deadline).

So, my next series of blog posts will be strategies for making space for myself at church as an uncorrelated Mormon still in love with Mormonism. I plan to go with Nixon to China, to employ the single identified victim, to manage up, and to learn to say no. I plan to draw lessons from the Stanford prison and (to paraphrase Jesus and some other sandal-wearing, bearded hippies) to make love and not war. Maybe I’ll have some other good ideas along the way. Hopefully you’ll share some of yours. If there are other Mormons like me (God help you!), perhaps you will find my musings helpful. And if not helpful, then perhaps funny. And if neither…well, then why the hell are you still reading?!

Stay tuned.

15 Responses to “Free to Be…You and Me”

  1. 1.

    Amen.

  2. 2.

    (Sorry, hope that isn’t awkwardly terse. I just am left with that satisfied post-meal feeling where there isn’t much to say other than “that was good.” Or let loose a big belch, in some cultures, so I hear.)

  3. 3.

    I look forward to your thoughts. Maybe I’ll be able to use some of them. I would only say that the Bishop Wooleys are as much TBMs as the Brother Brighams. I think I believe everything you say makes you not a TBM, yet I feel that those things make me an even truer Mormon than if my beliefs were less controversial. I don’t plan to let anyone define me out of my true beliefs (even were they to kick me out of the institution).

  4. 4.

    Thank you for this beautiful post! I was just talking last night with a small group of friends about vulnerability. I hate being vulnerable. And yet, my deepest friendships have been with those who are secure enough to share their vulnerabilities with me, and give me courage to be more authentic.

  5. 5.

    Excellent & thought provoking post. I’m looking forward to your series!

    I suppose someone should point out that 42 is not merely middle age; it is THE age. One might even call it the age of enlightenment….

  6. 6.

    Thanks everyone. Cynthia L, feel free to belch your approval. Perhaps there is an emoticon for that.

    Jonathan, I agree. I feel I am a true blue/believing Mormon if you define it a certain way, i.e., there is justification for most of my heterodox beliefs in our theology and history, but my approach is not currently ascendant in the Church.

    X2 Dora, yes, vulnerability seems particularly hard to learn. Sometimes I wonder if as adults we’re trying to recover from how painfully vulnerable we felt as children and adolescents, so we avoid vulnerability. Perhaps becoming vulnerable is what the Savior was talking about when he said we must become as little children.

    OldJen, I hear you. 42 is great! I like to tell my kids that science has found that humans are at their prime when they are ___ (fill in my current age). They have gotten more skeptical the last 10 years, partly because they are older and wiser and partly because my theory becomes less believable the older I get.

  7. 7.

    I used to sit quietly at church, silently wondering if I was the only one there who felt like I did not and would never fit the cookie cutter mold. And then one day I realized that there is room in the church for everyone, even liberals, questioners, and non-traditionals. So, I’ve become much more outspoken than I used to be. And what I’m finding is that there are a lot of other people out there silently wondering if they fit in and relieved to find they aren’t the only ones. So far, nobody has kicked me out, and I’ve sort of made it a personal crusade to make the church safer for those who love the gospel but don’t fit the cookie cutter. So, I’m looking forward to more of your posts on this!

  8. 8.

    I really like this, Mike. Particularly this:

    I’m setting up camp. I belong in my meetinghouse, its chapel, classrooms, bishop’s office, and cultural hall.

    A lot about church bugs me, and I understand that it hurts a lot of people I love a lot more than it does me. So I understand when people leave. But I’m happy when some of my friends can stay in spite of the frustrations. I look forward to your series!

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    [...] Ziff: Free to Be…You and Me [...]

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    Mike–I get what you’re saying. I’ve experienced a lot of pain over the years from people who see my differences and assume/imply/outright state that my faith must not be as strong as theirs because I have different social/political/etc. beliefs. I find myself thinking a lot, “Hey, this is MY church, too!” Fortunately, I’ve been in a few congregations over the years (I miss Berkeley!) where I was more the rule than the exception, and I treasure those memories as concrete evidence that I really do belong. My current situation is in a moderately-functional, moderately-dysfunctional, rather gritty urban ward. There are a lot of really high-needs members, and on the one hand, that means that meetings are sometimes really random and not all that uplifting (I’ve started calling Sacrament Meeting “open mic Sunday”–there are some testimonies shared, but there’s a lot of other stuff, too), but it also means that political differences just don’t come up. I’m valued because I’m (relatively) able-bodied and have my life together, and therefore can be a contributor. People (mostly) don’t harp on the fact that I am unmarried, and I’m not sure that very many people even know that I am a liberal or an environmentalist.

    I’m surprised to hear you say that you find the church to be anti-science. I’m also a scientist, and mostly I find the church somewhat indifferent to science, beyond the general endorsement to gain learning through study. I think a lot of the U.S. membership is allied with a political party that has been very anti-science in recent years, and to the extent I’ve heard any anti-science rhetoric, I attribute it mostly to that. Has your experience been different?

  11. 11.

    Kim, totally agree. That’s where I’m at right now.

    Ziff, camping out at church reminded me of my mission where we had a zone conference and many missionaries slept in the building. Some elders had the bright idea of bathing in the baptismal font, while some other elders had the even brighter idea of taking a photo of them leaning against the railing. Seems they forgot that the font had a mirror which showed a reverse view of the bathing elders. Digital cameras were still several years away, so no one caught it until the film was developed.

    Laura, I think our wards must be somewhat similar, although we’re not so urban.There is enough weirdness in the congregation that my weirdness doesn’t particularly stand out, and so because I can contribute some things, people don’t really care that I’m liberal or don’t watch Fox News. So, I enjoy being out of the Mormon corridor where cultural orthodoxy is not enforced nearly as much.

    Regarding anti-science, I agree that indifference is probably a more common response. I also agree that the connection with a certain unnamed political party provides a bigger contribution to anti-science rhetoric than any church teachings.

    However, I still find that literalism surrounding creationism is still taught by some, and that evolution is sometimes viewed with suspicion. Also, why worry about the environment or climate change when we all know that Armageddon will soon be here? I don’t think I’ve ever heard a talk or sermon addressing care for the environment.

    In my parents ward in Provo, a former bishop and BYU religion professor used a lot of anti-science rhetoric in his Sunday school class. My dad, a scientist himself, finally spoke up, not to protect himself, but because he didn’t want some of the students in the ward to feel that that sort of belief was the Church’s party line.

    I guess I’m saying that I still see an anti-science stance in some areas, though perhaps it is mostly cultural now rather than doctrinal.

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    [...] (Previous posts about making space can be found here and [...]

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    [...] posts about making space can be found here, here, and [...]

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    […] posts on making space can be found here, here, here, and […]

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    […] mom, I am more of an uncorrelated Mormon, as you are no doubt aware if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts. I believe in most of the big stuff, at least in my own way. I believe in Heavenly Parents, I […]

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