Thursday, September 8, 2011

First Love

Flogging Molly. "Laura." Whiskey on a Sunday.  Borstal Beat Records, 2006.

The last few posts have shared a little of the hurt I feel as a result of my unique experiences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).  This hurt is understandably strange to people who have not felt it, especially those LDS close to me whose experiences have been very different from mine.  Contrary to what some might think, I do not deny (or even begrudge) others' positive experiences with the LDS church and culture.  I know that not every LDS suffers the way I do.  I do not want every Saint to experience for him- or herself the betrayal and the pain that I experienced.  But I don't want to pretend like my suffering never happened, either.  I need the freedom to express that suffering, if I am ever to turn it into a positive stepping-stone instead of a negative stumbling-block.  I need to be able to share my real self (and the real pain that I feel) with the people I am close to and care about.  But I need to do this without hurting them too much, too.  With that in mind, I have come up with a gentle metaphor for my experience with the church.  (There is no profanity in this post: it is not necessary.)

My metaphor begins with a personal story.  I was about fourteen years old.  I remember being at my local church building before or after a meeting (I think it was a Sunday afternoon, though it might have been Wednesday night).  The lights were dim in the building, and there were not many people around.  I was on my own for the moment, but was heading toward the genealogical library (I think) to look for my dad, so that we could go home together.  Like many LDS meetinghouses, ours was built with three central rooms (chapel, overflow, and gym) circumnavigated by a long, horseshoe-shaped hallway.  I was on one side of the horseshoe (by a water-fountain in the foyer), and the genealogical library was on the other.  Without thinking much about it, I decided to cross over toward the library via the overflow.  As I opened the door to the overflow and began to step through, my life changed suddenly.  There was a girl approaching the door I had just opened.  I had seen her somewhere before.  Her family were recent converts, and she was a little younger than I was.  Up until this moment, she was nobody special (as far as I was concerned), but something happened when I opened the door and she was just right there, coming the other way and looking me straight in the eye.  Before either of us could swerve or apologize, our eyes met and something happened.  I fell in love.

In the wake of this disaster, we (the girl and I) managed to avoid collision, mumbled incoherent apologies at one another, and hurried on our respective ways (toward opposite ends of the building).  But it was not over.  In the weeks, months, and even years that followed, she was always somewhere in the background of my thoughts, torturing and enchanting me with her impossible (and utterly unexpected) beauty.  She attended church meetings, Sunday School, and youth activities.  I was never safe.  Of course I was desperate to talk to her, but (being who I was) I couldn't.  Lacking any real idea of her character, I imagined her as a kind of angel (morally and aesthetically), a perfect being who by some miracle managed to coexist with mere clod-hopping churls such I was.  I spontaneously reinvented the medieval game of courtly love, with this girl playing an exalted Guinevere to my lowly Lancelot, only the complete lack of any real relationship between us meant that we were more like the Grail and Perceval.  I longed always for a glimpse of the sacred Beloved, but would never presume to speak to her, let alone have any carnal knowledge of her (such as touching her hand or, heaven forbid, kissing it).  Too incorrigibly wicked to be a Galahad or Bors de Ganys (as I was beginning to realize from my inability to keep from waking up during wet dreams), I had to take Perceval's route of penance and tears, of hair-shirts, self-flagellation, and perpetual exile in the service of the Holy Beloved.  I spent many hours weeping on my knees, begging God to forgive me and remove my sexuality from the picture, so that it might not taint the impossibly pure affection I felt for this perfect being.

Oddly enough, despite all my fervent prayers (which were as much on her behalf as mine), the object of my affection was rather perplexed by me (and perhaps a little put out).  Looking back, I think she might have liked it if I actually dared to say more than two words to her.  I think she might have appreciated it if I had had the guts to get to know her (maybe even dance with her at one of those creepy church dances, which for some reason were always done in the dark to really awful music: was it to make us think that dancing really is devilish?).  But I was oblivious (and psychotic).  There were times when she made valiant efforts to break down the barrier between us, inviting me to youth activities in person and once even volunteering to read the scripture "Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you" (D&C 88:63) right after I had read in class.  But these attempts only made me feel vaguely uneasy.  Though I was naive, I was fortunate to have wiser people around me.  I remember one older lady in our ward in particular, who happened to be my Sunday School teacher when all this was going on.  One day in class she casually remarked that many of us thought we were in love now, even though we weren't really: "You think you're really in love, but it's just puppy love.  In a few years, it will blow over and you'll laugh at it!"  I snorted inwardly and recoiled in horror at the blasphemy to my Lady (who as a perfect being could only be loved perfectly, i.e. eternally, chastely, and without any rival: one does not "get over" a goddess).  But, as often happens, time eventually vindicated my teacher's pragmatic realism over my youthful idealism.  After several years, I realized that my initial love, my first true love, was not really that girl.  It was Love itself (or herself, if you want to personify it).  I was in love with Love.  The girl (poor thing) was just an object onto which I projected my naive ideas about Love.  I did not love her (how could I when I didn't even know her!), but my idea of her (Love).  Her real attentions disturbed me because they revealed that she had a personal identity outside the angelic mold I had created for her, i.e. that I was not in love with her (the real her), but with a phantasm of my own creation.  There were some funny moments of cognitive dissonance which also pointed this fact up to me, like the time when I realized that she liked rock music.  (How could my pure Lady like rock music!  Inconceivable!  She might even have normal bodily functions, too.  Gross!  Is she only human after all?  I'll have to start praying that I can help her overcome these flaws.  These thoughts are utterly ludicrous now, but when I had them they were serious business.)

As things turned out, I survived my first love without hurting anyone too badly.  I annoyed the girl, yes, but at least I never managed to make her expect too much (since all I gave out were long looks, sighs, and prayers that she could not receive).  I caused myself some grief, but I also learned important lessons about human relationships, the most important being that I need to deal with other people on their terms (trying to see them as they are as much as possible, not as I imagine them).  Now, let's do a thought experiment. Imagine that my Sunday School teacher was not wise.  Imagine her telling the class that first love is the only true love, that we have to maintain it no matter what, that it is wicked to get over it.  Assuming I took this advice, where would I be today?  If the girl was as naive as I was (as I have no reason to suppose she would not have been), I would be unhappily married to a person unknown to me, a person whose real character I would always be trying to overlay and stifle with impossible adolescent illusions of perfection.  Our relationship would be completely dysfunctional, with one or both of us failing to engage the other meaningfully.  It would also be a perfect metaphor for my relationship with the LDS church.

My love affair with the church is much like my first crush.  It began relatively suddenly and even unexpectedly, when I was eleven years old.  My mother was put on bed-rest early in her last pregnancy (which ultimately resulted in my youngest siblings), and my father had to work, so I was detailed (as the oldest child) to look after making everyone breakfast and overseeing most of the daily housework.  I would get up early in the morning while everyone except my father slept and go to work making oatmeal in the kitchen.  Waiting for the stuff to cook gave me an extended period of free time, which I spontaneously decided to fill with scripture study.  I had no real reason, no motive for this decision, and what followed from it was largely unexpected (just like my accidental encounter with the girl and everything that resulted from that).  I became a scripture junkie.  I was hooked.  Reading from the Book of Mormon every morning gave me this incredible emotional high.  It was so powerful, that when I finished I went on to read the King James Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price (all of which I eventually read through several times).  I prayed fervently to God about the scriptures, just as I did about my Beloved, and I had a firm testimony that they and the organization that produced them were true (just as I knew my Lady was true and pure and everything else wonderful).  I believed that God wrote these books (whatever imperfect human tools he might have used to pen the actual words and then typeset them for me), just as I believed that he created me to worship my Lady (an unworthy servant to a perfect angel).  When the scriptures mentioned God and his servants (prophets, seers, revelators, apostles, and so on) as active figures in real history, I took them at their word.  I believed in the magical powers I found in the scriptures: I thought that servants of God really could heal diseases with their staves (Numbers 17) or their saliva (John 9:1-7), that they brought people back from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-35Luke 8:49-56), that they could call fire down from heaven and burn up God's enemies (2 Kings 1:5-15Luke 9:51-56).   And when the church added that such divine servants exist today and preside in perfect righteousness over the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I took them at their word.  In other words, I projected my own, naive ideas about Divinity onto the church and its leaders (the way I projected my naive ideas about Love onto the girl).

Unfortunately, there was no one to keep me from "marrying" the church, no one to warn me that my devotion was unbalanced, ill-informed, and generally ridiculous (expecting more of humanity than humanity has to offer).  Instead of deflating my naive adolescent enthusiasm, people around me mostly treated it as a kind of virtue, as though it were a good thing to expect impossible things from church leaders, as though they could live up to the excessive esteem and deference I held for them as healers, saviors, and mouthpieces for God.  I might be Perceval (a mere worm struggling to live worthy of the lowest kind of holiness), but here at last was Galahad (my church leaders: the closest thing to human perfection in the world), and the Grail Quest would be won.  We were going to build Zion together, a utopian society in which there would be nothing bad at all.  With God and Christ on our side, who could stop us?  Well, apparently we could.  Unfortunately for my absolute faith in the church, I thought she had no dark side, no serious skeletons in the closet.  When she demanded everything I had (my time, talents, love, and devotion), I gave it to her willingly, because she alone was worthy (as the body of Christ, led by his hand-picked leaders: Romans 12:51 Corinthians 12:12-31).  I wanted to know everything I could about the church (naturally: learning about her in the scriptures made me very happy, and what evil could be known of something as perfect as the very kingdom of God on earth?  Did not the Lord himself command us, "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" [D&C 88:118]?).  I was ready to give the church the benefit of every doubt, as I had already done when I gave my entire life to her, first at baptism and later when I entered the temple.  Unfortunately, she had not been entirely forthcoming with me.  I gave her everything of mine, but she held back (a lot, as it turns out).

Here my story becomes very personal.  Different people need different things to be happy in a relationship.  Some people don't need transparency, brutal truth, or the freedom to ask difficult questions.  As it turns out, I am not one of those people.  If you really like rock music, I don't want you to pretend that you don't just to make me happy.  (I might never have realized this if I had been unfortunate enough to marry my first crush: in a worst-case scenario, I would have resented her constantly for failing to live up to my fantasy in which she was the perfect Lady, the Holy Grail of womanhood.  I might have thought that it was her duty at least to seem as "perfect" as I thought she should be.)  If you really have a rather sordid past, I don't want you to pretend that you don't just so that I'll feel good about dedicating a huge portion of my life to you.  I want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  I am at once an idealist and a realist, which means I want to see things as they really are (warts and all) before I start trying to change them for the better (in a way that actually improves them).  Because nobody warned me about idolizing the church and its leaders early on, I had impossible expectations going into my career as an adult Saint.  I wanted my adolescent fantasy of Divinity to correspond to reality, the way I used to want my adolescent fantasy of Love to correspond to a certain young girl.  After years of experience and research, I discovered that my adolescent religious fantasy is not real.  (No working magic props.  No heavenly fire.  No Galahad.)  I'll be honest: this broke my heart.  It turned my world upside down, and I am still struggling to recover.

My feelings are not unlike those of a bereaved lover who wakes up one morning to discover that his beloved has perished utterly (and irrevocably) overnight.  Songs like the one that heads this essay still make me cry:

Feel the words from my lips
To your heart's fingertips
Then you know where I come from
'Cause I know, yes I know
Everything there is to know
'Cause I lost everything I had
See, I could have danced on the sun
But my world came undone,

There's no need for tears
There's no need to cry
The love that you leave
Will never be denied
This pain in my head
Escaped from my heart
No woman alive can touch
Who you were

So bye-bye, Laura!
Nobody can take your place
Bye-bye, Laura!
Your beauty will never fade

My world came undone.  I lost everything (including my dreams of hieing to Kolob, i.e. dancing on the sun).  My head hurts, but my heart hurts more.  It is surprisingly like growing up and feeling nostalgia for the way things used to be (when you were five years old, ten, nineteen).  But I know that my youth is irrevocably gone, and with it my naivete.  I can never trust the LDS church naively again (or any other group of people claiming to speak for God), just as I can never again fall head over heels in love with someone I have never met (a circumstance for which I am sure my wife is grateful).  Growing up and leaving our youthful fantasies behind is a necessary and healthy part of life, I now think, but that does not mean that it is easy or painless, especially when you are not well prepared (e.g. when you think that it is a virtue to hang doggedly onto those fantasies, as I used to).  For all those who think that they have separated reality from fiction and discovered the universal meaning of life at age eleven, I repeat the observation of my Sunday School teacher (with a slight twist): "You think you know, but it's just youthful hormones.  In a few years, it will blow over and you'll laugh at it, unless you make it the defining cornerstone of your character.  Then, you will cry."  The price for taking our naive fantasies too seriously is deep grief.

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