Friday, August 31, 2012

Funny Business

These thoughts occurred to me as I interacted with some people arguing that the solution to current economic woes is government intervention (1) to regulate fraud out of existence, (2) to create more jobs (e.g. "build more infrastructure"), and (3) to fix income disparity (e.g. with a "minimum guaranteed income").

(1) People are always going to be initiating fraud and/or making bad business decisions.  Unfortunately, that doesn't stop when they get elected, take an oath, and enter public service.  The fundamental problem with more government oversight as the solution to fraud or bad business decisions is that government workers are just people too (whether fraudsters or simply well-meaning fools).  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Because of the revolving door that Sorkin writes about (connecting the world of big business to the world of big government), the same bureaucrats (the Henry Paulsens, Tim Geithners, and Ben Bernankes) are always running the show, whether they happen to draw a paycheck from private profiteering or public service at any given moment in time.

The recent American housing crisis provides a useful illustration of this.  Proponents of more government regulation as a solution to our financial difficulties tell us that the crisis was caused by evil banks using dishonest tricks to make excessive profits.  There is definitely some truth to this explanation, but it misses an important detail: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were creations of the federal government, which demanded from them a policy like the one that they adopted (to our ruin) -- a policy that would allow and even encourage people to buy houses (give it up for the American dream!) regardless of their (in)ability to pay.  Now, would-be government saviors want us to forget their role in causing the mess (which they are blaming on private industry, conveniently overlooking that the private industry was just doing what they told it to).  This classic dodge is the same trick the LDS church uses to avoid being responsible for any of the uncomfortable things its prophets do or say.  Apologists for the Fed argue in effect that the recent financial crisis reveals our federal overseers speaking as fallible men (when they adopt policies that history reveals to be idiotic), but that we must all nevertheless continue to follow them unswervingly as though they were infallible prophets.  This naked appeal to authority without responsibility leaves me profoundly unconvinced.

The problem of government irresponsibility is a tough one.  Unfortunately, the existence of the Federal Reserve (as presently constituted) means that much of the government's (immense) economic power is entrusted to the jurisdiction of people who owe me (personally) even less than the periodically elected clowns-in-chief who answer to me as one person among 300 million (which in practical terms means that they couldn't care less what I have to say until I have at least a million friends: good luck getting a million people to agree on something that isn't hopelessly incoherent and/or stupid).  If Barack Obama doesn't really mind what I think about my money (any more than George Bush did), Ben Bernanke couldn't care less: he is not responsible to me at all, in any way, shape, or form.  I resent it when his decisions (to inflate the currency, to bail out businesses that I see as bad for society) control my purse more effectively than I do.  I don't make much money.  I am not very important to society.  But that doesn't mean that I don't have desires, that I don't believe in causes, that I don't want my two cents going to good things (things that I approve) rather than bad things (things I disapprove).  I resent it when the meager surplus that I have worked hard for and would like to invest in small businesses in Africa (or whatever) gets siphoned off by Ben Bernanke to keep Bear Stearns or GM alive.  And there is very little I can do about it except rant on the Internet.  (At least we have that!)  When people come to me arguing that people like me should be in favor of more government regulation, that it would actually solve all the problems I experience, I'm not sure how to take it: "Just give the hangman a little more rope!  A few more inches and it'll all be over."  Yeah, right.

(2) Now for those folks who think we could solve all problems by hiring people indefinitely to just "build infrastructure."  The need for infrastructure is finite, as is the material basis for infrastructure in geographical space and physical raw materials.  We don't have room or materials for endless roads (to nowhere), endless schools (to house imaginary students), endless buildings (to be occupied by corporations that don't exist, serving needs for which there is no market).  The fallacy that we can just grow our way out of fundamental weaknesses in our economic system is an enduring one.  It shows up throughout history (as Marx's theory of value to give one notable example: unfortunately, the fact that I spend hours laboring over something does not mean that it automatically has value that someone else must recognize).  In the past, back when there were still acres of untapped wilderness waiting to be exploited, it made more sense: if you can't make it in the city, move to the country (the rainforest, the mountains, the jungle, the bush, whatever, and become a settler "building infrastructure").  But today, in a global economy where every nook and cranny of the world is being explored and exploited (more or less), it is patently absurd (especially when we add the expectation that settlers in the bush live with the ephemeral comforts and luxuries of civilization as though these were some sort of human right).

In this day and age, "building infrastructure" often means destroying valuable resources to make a quick buck.  One illustrative example would be Brazil cutting down rainforests to make fancy furniture and biofuels: the model of eternal economic growth pushes Brazil to exploit the forest (and destroy it) rather than leave it alone (and let it be a source of values and utility that cannot be turned into GDP to fund the entitled lifestyle expected by civilization).  Civilization labors under an historical naivete which assumes that all economic problems can be solved with increased production and consumption: it does not know the meaning of austerity; its vision of wealth is fundamentally skewed toward growth and waste as necessary, even good, things.  They are not.

(3) The problem with guaranteeing everyone a fixed income is that value in society (like value everywhere) is relative.  Prices fluctuate.  More money in more hands means that everything costs more.  Dictators have been fighting this reality for a long time (a famous antique example would be Diocletian's Edict on Prices, which failed as every attempt before and after it that I am aware of has failed).  Inflation is not a viable solution to ebbing liquidity, and increasing production is only a viable solution as long as we retain materials and space to exploit: when we tap out those resources, the Tooth Fairy does not come by to bless us with prosperity (even if we have PhDs in economics, which mean about as much to me as PhDs in astrology or voodoo, to be honest: Long-Term Capital Management was founded by bona fide, certified experts in the field).

Given the reality of our situation, it just seems wrong to me that Ben Bernanke retains the right to co-opt me as some kind of human resource.  I don't mind recognizing real risks in the world and collaborating with others to meet those risks (as best we can: some of them are inevitably going to rock us, with unpleasant results; c'est la vie).  But to me, collaboration means that I get a meaningful say in what my contribution is.  I pick where my two cents go.  I place my bets and let nature do her worst.  I hate it when "doing my bit for society" means giving up all (or most) of my agency to the Ben Bernankes of the world, renouncing my role as a decision-maker so that some bureaucrat in authority can use my money to bail out his friends (Bear Stearns, GM) while my friends get rail-roaded.  I admit that my own knowledge of economics is limited and imperfect.  I admit that I make bad decisions, but I cannot say that the bureaucrats appear any more capable.  Try as I have to catch them saving the world (as they always claim to be doing), all I ever see when I pull back the curtain is them using me as human capital to save their own fat ***es.  Punks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Heroic Resignation: Making Peace with Uncertainty and Suffering

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.  

One last quote from this novel (from page 366):
Crazy Horse shrugged.  Yes, yes, there was white fire coming at him, and the hands of his own people were grabbing at him from behind, and he might be hurt.  He felt the rightness of it.  He wanted to survive, but maybe he wouldn't.  He would ride and feel the rightness under him like a fine, spirited pony.
Life is uncertain.  I am weak.  I cannot prepare against all contingencies.  I cannot answer all questions or solve all problems (in my own life, let alone the lives of other people).  But I can meet them with dignity.  Win or lose, I can strike a heroic pose.  I can do my best work, and the result be whatever it is going to be.  I can tell the truth as I see it, and let the cards fall.  That is all I ask of the world, because that is really all it is able to give me.

Inasmuch as my journey to this realization has come through being "betrayed" by others and by my own unrealistic expectations over the years, I am actually grateful -- yes, grateful -- to have been betrayed.  The closest I can come to forgiving others (especially church leaders) and myself is to reflect that our foolish actions have had at least one happy accident: I understand life better because of them.  The bitter has taught me to prize the sweet.  I don't know how it could be any other way: to avoid one path of bitterness is really just to fall into another one.  As bitter paths go, modern Mormonism seems like a really nice one (better than many!).  So I don't regret being a Mormon.  There are still many things in Mormonism that I like.  I don't want to erase my past, any more than I wish to get out of my present: I cannot imagine living without either.

As painful and as real as my soul-wounds are sometimes, they are not utterly awful.  As the Buddha recognized, all emotion is suffering.  You cannot have pleasure without pain, and every pain comes tinged with some kind of pleasure -- a palliative to help us bear what we must in order to survive.  I see this and accept it.

The Nature of Language

An acquaintance expressed some frustration that a girl he knows identifies herself as a lesbian while pursuing romantic relationships with men.  This made me think, and my first thoughts are on this page.

From my perspective, language is demonstrative. It points at something: sometimes it points badly (in a way that other people have real difficulty following). If you use language too cryptically, I am left in the dark when it comes to seeing your meaning out there the real world as I experience it. You say words like 'lesbian' and I am not sure that you mean what I would mean if I used those words. I sit back and wait for more data from you (language or behavior) before deciding what you are getting at.

There is an interesting problem here: sometimes, especially when dealing with complex phenomena (like sexuality or the economy), we have a tendency to oversimplify. Words are part of that oversimplification. We use them to refer in a general way to specific circumstances that we are familiar with. Thus, one person says 'lesbian' when she means to say something like 'woman attracted to women but also to certain men, i.e. a woman like me.' Maybe for her the point is that she is not entirely straight, and 'lesbian' is the first word that comes to her mind when she wants to put a tag on that. If you listen to her carefully, notice how she uses the word (e.g. what contexts call it forth from her), and avoid projecting your own idea of lesbianism into her idea of lesbianism, then you can understand her (well enough not to be completely clueless every time she speaks about her lesbianism). 

But there is this thing out there known as logic, a thing which maintains such unnatural (and in complex contexts, frankly absurd) idea that A ('lesbian') cannot be not-A ('likes sex with men'). 'Free market' cannot be 'protectionist racket.' 'Too big to fail' cannot be 'too big not to fail.' And so on. Since antiquity, there have been people who thought that words were more real than other phenomena -- that words allow us to deal directly with pure truth, unclouded by pesky empirical data (which is full of logical fallacies and paradoxes, unlike the perfect world academics have historically imagined -- a world in which A is never not-A).  The great power of words is that they generalize, making individual experiences shareable across time and space.  This is also their great weakness, especially when they are used to generalize a particular experience that many people have never had (e.g. being a lesbian the way my friend's acquaintance is) -- and one word is used all by itself to define that experience for everyone, everywhere (logically, A is never not-A anywhere, so we should be able to invoke it as the same thing anywhere, in any context -- people who see problems with this are just fools attracted to 'nuance,' 'paradox,' 'ambiguity,' and other namby-pamby 'unscientific' and illogical things).

But reality is beyond concepts. Things like lesbianism, capitalism, and such resist reduction to simple formula. These words point: they don't define. In the real world, people aren't either homosexual or heterosexual: we exist on a spectrum. And capitalism isn't either the best thing that ever happened to society or the worst: human social behavior, like human sexual behavior, exists on a spectrum. As long as we use language to point at material stuff that historically resists reduction to real dichotomy (good/evil, positive/negative, up/down, gay/straight, A/not-A), we are speaking descriptively, not definitively (unless we want to join the prophets who speak as morons -- prophets who exist in and out of the LDS church). We need to realize the artificiality of our language: it is emphatically not prior to the phenomena that call it forth. Reality is bigger than our reductive efforts to define it (historically: maybe one day, God will come down to earth in the form of a great scientist and give us words that define all things perfectly; it is a cool thought, and I really doubt it). 

Friday, August 10, 2012


Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.  

Since my disaffection, several people have expressed concern to me about "the leaders I choose to follow" since turning my back on Mormon prophets.  This concern is profoundly troubling to me, mostly because I don't believe in following leaders.  I am my own person.  If I do something, then I am the one doing it: I have reasons of my own for doing it, and I am personally answerable for any consequences that result.  I don't do anything merely because someone else told me to.  Even when I act under duress, I am doing the best I can for myself, from my own personal perspective.  For me, that is what being a moral person is.  I cultivate my own spirit, and scrupulously respect the right of other people to do likewise -- even when the spirit that they cultivate is very different from my own.

Just as I don't take unilateral dictation from someone else, I refuse to impose it.  I even give my baby sons choices: there are some things that they cannot do because they are not capable (like use the oven), but among the things that they can do, they have freedom.  I am not going to force them to play cars when they would rather be reading about Calvin and Hobbs.  Respect doesn't mean that they never disagree or talk back to me.  (My wife and I actually like to get them talking, since that often distracts them from acting out in ways that might be dangerous or bothersome.)  Moral education, in my view, is learning to behave oneself without external control: the perfect man is the one who makes and is answerable for his own decisions.  He doesn't hurt other people and then tell them they get no apology because he was simply "doing God's will." 

To my mind, it is acceptable to invoke the will of God as your reason for personal decisions, but it is no excuse for imposing yourself on other people.  I can choose to wear a burkha because I feel that is the will of God for me, but I have no right to make you wear one because of my feeling (which you may not even share!).  People who go around complaining that society is going to hell in a handbasket because we don't all wear burkhas with them (or shop at Whole Foods or vote Republican or Democrat or whatever) get on my nerves.  If you believe in burkhas (or Whole Foods, or the GOP, or the Democratic Party, or Scientology, or Mormonism, or atheism, or socialism, or anything similar), then by all means live your beliefs.  As long as you respect my right to live my beliefs (which are different!), then we are cool.  We can even be friends.  But I have a hard time being friends with people who think that friendship means one of us forcing the other to change his habits for no other reason than "God told me so" (so you think God never talks to me, is that it? you get to speak with God for everyone, and I cannot even get him to talk to me for myself? forget it, kid: I'm a grown man, and I don't need you to change my diapers).

There is a great passage in Blevins' account of Crazy Horse that captures the contrast between moral autonomy (freedom) and moral dependence (slavery).  Crazy Horse's uncle Spotted Tail is describing how the whites (wasicu) see the world (pp. 124-125, 126-127):
"The worst is, they have a terrible blindness, these wasicu.  They do not understand choice."

He was referring to a most sacred subject, and none of his hearers needed any explanation -- no Lakota who had even started on the path to adulthood did.  A human being had skan, something-that-moves, spiritual vitality.  The force of life itself [God?] gave the person skan [agency?] when he or she was born.  It also gave him choice, and through choice he or she grew into the man or woman he or she became.  Skan was the motive power, choice of direction.

A Lakota had a choice between good and evil, the red road and the black road, between what made life beautiful and what made it ugly.  He or she had help in making choices -- the quiet voice that is in everyone, the spirit helper (usually in the form of an animal), what he or she saw when crying for a vision, personal medicine, prayer, ceremonies performed alone or with others.  Still, choice remained, inviolate.

Whether your way was to paint yourself in a certain manner, to wear something of iron or never touch iron, or whether you should charge the enemy first or simply swell the ranks, that was your nature, your vision, the route of your spirit on the earth.  Other Lakota would respect it.  None would try to coerce it or even influence it.  None would mock it.  Your understanding was the essence of you, and to follow it was your sacred choice.

All this was so fundamental as to not need saying.  So what could it mean that an entire people did not understand choice?  It was almost unthinkable.  Were they human beings?

"Among the whites some think they can see and choose for others."  It was so stunning that Spotted Tail just let the words hang in the lodge, heavy and oppressive.  "Then comes what you would expect.  They quarrel with one another not only about small things, but about the biggest.  They fight and kill each other.  Instead of respecting another man's way, they stop at nothing to get him to adopt their way.  Like the Mormons [!]."

The Lakota knew the U.S. government this very summer was sending an army against the Mormons at the big salty lake to make the Mormons live like other wasicu, especially not to take more than one wife.  Incomprehensible.

"They hate our way," said Spotted Tail.  His voice was weary now and faint.  "Their deepest desire -- believe me about this -- is to change our way of living.  Their deepest desire is to make us like them.  I swear it" ...
A-i-i-i, surely they were impossible to understand.  You might fight your enemy -- that had respect in it.  You might even kill him -- respect again.  But to do what the wasicu did: afflict your enemy with disease, pen him up, starve him, and then rescue his body on the condition that he surrender his spirit ... Incomprehensible.  Not the way of men.

But he [Crazy Horse's father] believed Spotted Tail.  Everything about his brother-in-law sang conviction.

What a peculiar people, the wasicu.  They had a certain genius.  They could make things -- wagons, wheels, guns, knives, watches, far-seeing glasses, and much more.  But these were only things.  In return for them ["Let's go shopping!"] the wasicu wanted you to relinquish your own genius, which was not of things but of the spirit.

From the beginning, said the oldest men, what the wasicu wanted was your spirit.  From the beginning, their real desire was for the blackrobes [mantles of authority!] to gouge spirit out of you, like a man scraping seeds out of a gourd.  Then they would fill the empty gourd with their religion.  [Religious freedom means you shut up and wear my burkha!] 
There is such irony in this passage when you consider that so many Mormons today are eager to impose on others the same way other Americans imposed on us back in the day.  Even in the nineteenth century, Mormonism puts a high rhetorical value on agency, the ability of individual people to make choices without coercion.  The only problem is that we also put a high rhetorical value on following the prophet: historically, following the prophet is more important to Mormons than being true to oneself.  For me, this is pure bullcrap.  There is no moral problem I can think of that would not become easier to solve if people took more responsibility for themselves and gave less to leaders.  Grow up and go your own way.  Leaders are for babies.  Grown-ups have friends, associates, people they respect (and even look up to), but they don't have leaders.  Thomas S. Monson is not my leader.  Barack Obama is not my leader.  Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is not my leader.  Christopher Hitchens is not my leader.  This does not mean that I hate these gentlemen (or all the good that they may stand for: quite the contrary!), but I am long past offering them the total devotion of a helpless little boy desperate for a superhero.  For years, I did my very best to believe in superheroes.  It didn't work very well for me, and I am very grateful to have outgrown it (finally!).

I do not adopt a fixed posture toward life anymore.  I don't have final answers.  I don't speak for other people (until they say I do, and even then I do not answer for their behavior: they are responsible for themselves).  And on the other side of the coin, no one else speaks for me (until I claim their words for myself: even then, I am still answerable for my behavior, for my reception and interpretation of the words that someone else has uttered).  I am not standing firm with this band or that one -- with this religion or that one, with this university or that one, with this company or that one, with this philosophy or that one.  I don't believe in leaders.  I am a ronin -- a wolf who goes his own way.  I am all done playing the sheep, no matter who the shepherd is.  God himself cannot separate me from mine integrity (unless he kills me, which is what it would take -- for me as for Crazy Horse: even so, I will die true to myself and to the truth I believe in).

Taming the Beast Within: Aftermath

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690

After Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse surrenders to the United States (whose representatives consistently lie to him and his people, not because they themselves are malicious or incapable of truth-telling, but because they are answerable to politicians in Washington who don't care about native Americans enough to treat them like human beings).  Crazy Horse goes off alone whenever he can, holding small fossils (inyan) and "listening" to them (i.e. counting his breath and being very still, as though he were trying to hear the stone creatures speak).  He makes peace with himself, with the world (his white enemies and native "friends"), and with Hawk.  Then he is betrayed by his friends, and killed.

I'll be honest: beating God and his self-proclaimed spokesmen at their own game felt great.  But the joy was not unmixed: it never is.  I lost a lot of things, a lot of possibilities and hopes that I had cherished for a long time.  Innocence.  Trust.  The ability to take people around me at their word, especially people I don't know personally -- people who work for faceless bureaucracies who pretend to have my best interest at heart while they do whatever they do (which may or may not end up hurting me badly).  I was hurt inside, and I still carry some of that hurt today: it comes out whenever I listen to politicians or church leaders (in any church), whenever people want me to sign on the dotted line for something too good to be true (a job, an apartment, health insurance, etc.).  I don't trust people (in general: it is easy to make exceptions for friends and family whom I deal with personally and have a history with).  I feel like the world is out to seduce me (all institutional friendship is fake) and rape me (we own you; you owe us; shut up and take it).  That is the price I paid for learning to trust myself.

Another hard thing has been explaining myself to other people, particularly other Mormons whom I respect and love, without coming across as hostile or deranged.  While I might be slightly crazy, I hope people (especially my Mormon friends) believe me when I tell them that I really don't judge them for being different from me -- for staying in the church as I leave, or loving it unreservedly as I manifestly cannot.  My journey belongs to me, not to anyone else.  Hawk speaks to me, not to you: you have a different animal spirit, and the counsel it gives you will not be the counsel that Hawk gives me.

The way I see things now, speaking still in the language Blevins uses to talk about the old Lakota, each one of us grows up with a different spirit, a different animal inside.  It is our inalienable, personal responsibility to cultivate that spirit, to tame that animal.  Other people can help us (the way the medicine men help Crazy Horse), but they cannot tell us who we are or what we have to do with ourselves.  They can teach good principles (respect for others and for oneself), but they cannot tell us how to implement them in every situation that we will be in.  That kind of specific guidance comes from looking inward: no outside force (whether man or nature or God) can give it to us.  This insight, which comes across strong throughout Blevins' account of Crazy Horse, resonates well with Mormonism (as I experienced it outside of church, in my own religious conversion, for example): I still believe in personal revelation.  (I just don't believe in institutional revelation: while churches may be people legally, on paper, they are not intelligent the way you or I or the man across the street is.  Every man must be his own prophet: I cannot speak to his spirit animal for him.  I cannot absolve him of responsibility for whatever he does to quiet that animal: he is answerable for himself, no matter who tells him otherwise.)

When the young spirit is struggling to be born in a person, he naturally needs something different.  He needs to go out into the wilderness.  He needs to cry for visions.  He needs to feel the universe talking to him, to find a path that his feet can walk without stumbling into chaos.  Since my showdown with God, it seems to me that how we walk matters more than the particular path.  Let me illustrate with a personal example.  My father grew up outside of Mormonism.  By his own confession, he arrived on the doorstep on manhood an atheist, and he emphatically didn't like where he saw that road leading him.  Something in his spirit cried out against that path, so he turned from it, and became a Mormon.  He could have gone back to the faith of his father (Methodism, Presbyterianism), but he didn't.  He needed something different.  He listened to his spirit, followed where it led him, and has been happy as a Mormon ever since.  There is nothing wrong with that, in my view.  Indeed, my own experience mirrors his rather exactly: I took the same road out of (institutional) Mormonism that he took out of (institutional) Protestantism (which for him had come to mean atheism: the religion of his fathers left him cold, uninspired, dead).  Some people look at our stories and marvel at how different we are, but to me what is more striking is how we are the same.  Confronted with the same problem (growing up in a world full of danger and uncertainty), we came up with the same solution (follow the spirit!) and left the religion of our fathers -- not necessarily because we despise it utterly (my dad recognizes good things in Protestantism as I recognize good things in Mormonism, and Protestantism too, for that matter), but because it did not speak to us.  At the end of the day, what makes us good or bad men is not what path we choose (whether Mormonism, Protestantism, or some other -ism), but how we walk it.  My dad has walked the Mormon path well, I think: when I think of what he has done, how he has managed his personal life and his interaction with the larger community (Mormon and not), I am proud.  He is a good man.  He treats other people fairly.  He takes care of himself: he listens to his spirit, and is very careful not to hurt it -- or impose it unduly on other people.  I still want to be like my dad, even if my path through life is not the Mormon one (or at least, not the same Mormon path that he took).

As a result of my experiences, life for me is more about process than results.  The story of Crazy Horse is a story of triumph, on my reading, not because of its result (Crazy Horse is betrayed and dies murdered), but because of the way that Crazy Horse conducts himself (the greatest heroes know that they cannot guarantee success: the most they can do is live with dignity, no matter what happens to them; if that means dying at the hands of murderers, then they die with dignity).  I spent years sacrificing my dignity in an attempt to get better results -- results that were always put off to some indefinite future (in the eternities, after this life), while I remained hurt and humiliated in the present, lacking even a shred of self-respect to shield me from the all-seeing eye of God (who is emphatically "not a tame lion").  Distancing myself from the LDS church is about reclaiming that dignity, which I need in order to survive, from leaders (whose counsel has hurt me more than it has helped me) and God (who has been content to let me fend for myself, caring for me individually the same way the wakinyan care for Crazy Horse).

For me, researching Buddhism and practicing meditation have been functional equivalents to Crazy Horse's inyan.  When I chant Tibetan prayers and sit still in shamatha, I feel the peace I first encountered reading the scriptures on my own as a young boy.  I let go of the angst and the anger of my adolescence.  I forget that I am angry with the world -- with myself, with other people (including LDS church leaders), with God.  I forget my obsession with finding "the one truth" about everything, resting secure in the perception that reality is beyond concepts: the universe is bigger than my ability to understand it, bigger than any theological or scientific model I could come up with to illustrate its infinity.  For a few moments, I stop trying to understand the world.  I just sit with it, looking at it, marveling at it, noticing my emotional reaction to it, and letting it go its own way (as it always has: the wakinyan wait for no man, and God's ways are not our ways, pace all the prophets who have claimed otherwise since the dawn of history).  I am still a very religious person.  If anything, I am actually more religious since I became what some would call an atheist.  I am also more rational (that may not be saying too much), and (as my wife tells me) calmer and easier to get along with.  Some of my Mormon friends have a hard time believing this, but it is really true: my path is not your path, and the medicine that makes you feel better may make me feel worse.  This doesn't mean that we cannot be friends: we just cannot live vicariously through each other; when I am sick, I cannot expect you to take my medicine, and vice versa.

We need each other.  I need friends and family who take an interest in me -- and you need me to be there taking an interest in you, too.  But we cannot help each other if being together means poisoning one of us.  The good news is that it doesn't have to.  My dad gets along very well with his non-Mormon family, even though they don't take his Mormon medicine for themselves.  We can respect each other and love each other, even if we aren't all on the same medicine.  We agree on the important stuff (respect for others and for oneself): the rest of it -- the theology, the doctrine, the little rules and regulations guiding discretional behavior -- is just window-dressing.  I don't despise you, or the world, or God, merely because I have a cup of coffee every now and then.  And I don't feel threatened when you pray, or read scriptures, or hang pictures of Jesus on the walls of your home.  (It's your home!)  You can even quote leaders of the church approvingly without getting my goat, as long as you refrain from saying that I am evil for withholding allegiance from them (or quoting Christopher Hitchens approvingly when he says something I agree with).  We need each other, and we need each other to be honest.  I put my relationship with you above any institutional relationship I have (or will ever have), and I hope you can say the same for me (though I will do my best to be understanding if you can't).  As the Lakota would say, "Mitakuye oyasin" ("We are all related").

Taming the Beast Within: Showdown

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.

First, two interesting tidbits from Blevins' story of Crazy Horse.

(1) The supreme powers that rule the universe in Sioux mythology (e.g. the wakinyan) are not necessarily benevolent: they will crush you if you cross them, and they will not be sorry.  In the story, Hawk cares for Crazy Horse as a precious individual, a unique reality worth preserving; the wakinyan do not.  Crazy Horse does everything he can to nurture Hawk, who responds by helping him recognize how to respond appropriately (nobly, righteously, correctly) in difficult circumstances.  The wakinyan, on the other hand, make way for no man: you get on their good side (if you are wise); otherwise, they smash you -- ruthlessly.  When Crazy Horse ignores the warning of Hawk and rushes into battle unadvised, he invariably gets hurt, sometimes very seriously.  You don't love the wakinyan: you strive to avoid them.  You pray that your spirit animal gets to you in time to put you out of their way.

(2) The greatest problems that Crazy Horse faces throughout his life come from people close to him -- fellow tribesmen envious of his success or angered by his difference from them.  He expects (and receives) lies and bad treatment at the hands of white Americans (who come out of this story looking like tools, even though Blevins is careful not vilify them as individuals) -- but the worst things he suffers come from other Sioux (right up to the ultimate betrayal, the deliberate mistranslation of his words to Lieutenant William Philo Clark).  We expect our enemies to attack us and hate us.  We are not surprised when they are hostile or hurtful.  But friends who betray us are the worst: when they turn on us, unexpectedly, it really hurts, and it can severely shake our confidence and ability to form relationships of trust far into the future.  Crazy Horse hates the politics of the reservation for this reason, because it pits him against friends and family, making him complicit in plots and counterplots, attempts to control and manipulate others with a sly word here, a veiled gesture there -- and it ends with him being killed in cold blood, betrayed by his own people.

As a result of the personal experiences I have tried to describe briefly in this series of essays, I woke up one day in a very uncomfortable situation.  I realized that God was hurting me, viciously hurting me, and that I had been letting him get away with this for years out of a misplaced sense of duty and obligation.  Up to this point, I have followed Blevins in referring to my spirit as Hawk, but I want to change Hawk's identity here, for dramatic effect.  Imagine that my spirit animal is a bull, living in a pasture somewhere in northern Spain.  This bull grows up surrounded by other cattle, eating grass, enjoying the sunlight, napping, maybe fighting a bit with other members of the herd, but overall enjoying a rather nice life (maybe even having sex every now and then).  One day, men that the bull has learned to trust come and pack it into a cattle car.  They take it to a holding pen near a circular arena.  Then, unexpectedly, they turn the bull out and goad him into the arena.  He is confused.  He starts trotting around the arena nervously, uncertainly.  Suddenly, little men appear waving red flags at him: he is startled.  He charges the flags, trying to defend himself.  The men duck behind paddocks at the edges of the arena, letting the bull bang his head hard against the reinforced paddock doors before bobbing out to taunt him again.  After a few moments of this unpleasant game, a horse and rider appear, armed with padding to defeat the bull's horns, and they gore the frightened animal in the shoulder, so that his blood pours out and soils the dirt.  As he stumbles around the arena in terror, bleeding, another troop of clowns comes out, armed with sharp pins (banderillas) that they jab into his quivering shoulders over and over -- goading him to attack them and then dancing out of range at the last moment.  Finally, when he is sick with fear and woozy from loss of blood, a little man in a fancy suit comes out to taunt him one last time with a sword and a red cape.  Again and again, the bull charges the cape fruitlessly, struggling to fend off the "friends" who have suddenly turned against him, for reasons he cannot begin to fathom (any more than he knows why they were nice to him earlier, back when they used to bring him treats from the hacienda).

Throughout my apostasy, I have struggled to maintain a mask of dispassionate calm.  I have struggled not to appear as just another stereotypical apostate angry with the LDS church.  But if I am brutally honest (pun intended), I am angry.  I am offended.  You see, I woke up in that arena, wallowing in my own blood.  I saw that my spirit was just a frightened animal, struggling to survive, trying to find a way to exist away from the spears and goads -- away from the men in fancy red capes (mantles of authority, if you will indulge me a bit).  Of course I was angry: I was being murdered by inches, for no good reason that I could see.  I was told that it was to save me from myself, from Hawk, from the depravity of sex.  But when I finally found sex, it wasn't depraved.  When I connected with Hawk, she wasn't dangerous: just hurt and very scared (with good reason: I spent years beating the crap out of her).  I was never a sick soul in need of drastic measures for salvation.  I was just naive and weak, with no idea how to defend myself against the authority of the ruthless higher powers bent on breaking me to their will (which they sold to me as the will of God, waving those cursed red capes).  Maybe I should have just given up.  Maybe I should have deliberately broken myself even more -- committing spiritual suicide in the ring for the benefit of my benevolent tormentors and their precious priesthood.  But that didn't seem right.  It felt wrong, like a betrayal of my spirit.  You see, my spirit was not really weak: it was only vulnerable to priesthood holders because I thought that they were agents of God, an almighty Father knew my best interest better than I did and had entrusted it to his chosen servants (whose church I had covenanted to serve with everything that I might be or own, for my whole life).  I gave these men of God everything -- my trust, my faith, my hope, my dreams, my innocence -- and they smashed it all to bits, with me right there helping them, shouting "Deus vult!" at the top of my lungs.

And where was God, while all these shenanigans were going on?  Where was his inspiration?  Why did I get the same deafening silence from him that seems to be the lot of dying children in places like Syria and Sudan?  If he doesn't approve of all the sadism, masochism, and sado-masochism that goes on his name, then why doesn't he step in and do something about it?  I thought he did.  I thought his answer was to found the LDS church, the same church that took my spirit and tore it into little pieces for years while I watched (as helpless as Prometheus on the mountaintop with the eagle of Zeus).  Oops.  And I am not the only one that the Almighty has screwed over.  The more I look around, the more suffering believers I find: among Mormons, I have heard many stories worse than mine, and many faithful outside Mormonism have suffered worse still (much, much worse) while God sat by and did nothing.  For every story of car keys miraculously found, there at least twenty of people who died suffering in unnecessary agony, for lack of things as easy to come by as keys.  From all this, it seems to me that if God exists in personal form, then he is either a sadist (in which case I am not interested in worshipping him) or an absentee landlord (in which case there is little use looking to him for help).

When I became acutely aware that I had to choose between my spirit (which I think of now as more of a wolf than a hawk) and God, it was clear to me that I had to choose my spirit.  I gave God his chance: he got almost two decades of dedicated service from me, and I remain open if he wants to come around and bury the hatchet.  But I am done waiting on him idly, and I am most emphatically done trusting other people (no matter what mantle they wear) who claim to speak to him for me.  I have my own spirit.  I have my own integrity to look to, my own life to live, my own responsibilities that require my attention -- not yours (or God's, as long as he remains a stranger).  I don't go around dictating to other people based on what my animal spirit tells me, and I don't accept others' revelations as commandments for me.  If I am sick, then I will look to myself: I will not prescribe medicine for you.  All I ask, from everyone, is the same courtesy.  Leave me to tend my spirit, as I leave you to tend yours.  I admit that I am still angry with LDS leaders, but I endeavor not to let that make me blind to their good qualities.  Like the men who killed Crazy Horse, they are not utterly evil.  But that does not make them any less dangerous (or me any less angry, come to think on it).

Three hard lessons I took from the arena: (1) people who speak for God have the capacity to be really dangerous; (2) God doesn't seem to care very much about the danger: if you really want to save your soul, you might consider looking inward before you reach out; the remedy others give you is sometimes worse than the disease you already have; and (3) you make your own luck -- if you want God (or his mantled minions) to stop hurting you, you have to step out and throw down.  Put up or shut up.  Fight or flight.  I prefer flight as a general rule, but in my case there was nowhere to run.  So, like Jacob, I wrestled with the angel of God all night (what a long, dark night it was!), and woke up in the morning to an unexpected result: I beat him -- with the help of Hawk, or Wolf, or Bull, or whatever you want to call that animal spirit of mine.

When Crazy Horse and his animal spirit are reconciled to one another perfectly, what happens?  Little Big Horn.  Ironically, the LDS church really had nothing to fear from me (I loved church!) until they went and attacked my soul (with doctrines about sex and confession that didn't work as advertised for me).  What God already had through gentle persuasion (I liked scripture and religion -- still do, in fact), he lost through untimely violence (I don't like being cornered and beaten up -- absolute obedience to an omnipotent bully is not my idea of heaven).

Taming the Beast Within: Moment of Truth

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.

Part the third of my ongoing exploration of how I came of age.

When I finally came face to face with sex in real life, it was not what I thought it would be.  I was expecting something very profound and even solemn -- a serious ritual whose performance would naturally make or break the lives of those who dared to come forward and participate in it.  This fear of sex took a while to dissipate.  (My wife still teases me about our first year of marriage, "back when I had to pester you all the time for sex!")  But even if my deluded misperception of sex did not die all at once overnight, it did suffer a major setback when my wife and I finally made it to the country hotel where we celebrated our honeymoon.  That experience shattered a lot of barriers inside my soul: I went in expecting something like "The Phantom of the Opera" (a dark, tortured dance that would try my soul) -- instead, what I got was more like "The Producers" (a farce in which nothing comes off quite as planned, and the pervading atmosphere is one of irresistable, obscene hilarity).  It was really troubling to me to think that I put myself and Hawk through hell for that.  Very troubling.

The more I looked at history, my own and the LDS church's, the more troubling this experience became.  Even as my inner life settled down to a level of peace and contentment that I had scarcely enjoyed since childhood, something about my whole adolescent experience in the church rubbed me the wrong way, and the more I thought about it, the more wrong it appeared.  The more I looked at history, my own and that of other people, the more distant and impersonal God seemed.  Different people saw him differently, and fanatics of all stripes were equally convinced that they saw him rightly while others were wrong (or deceived by devils).  As I looked at my own experience with God, I identified more and more with the young Joseph Smith, who (in the canonical version of his First Vision narrative) goes into the Sacred Grove completely confused about the nature of deity.  The only difference was that God never manifested himself to me as clearly or directly as he was supposed to have done to Joseph Smith.  Did I matter less to him?  What about all the people suffering terrible things in foreign countries?  Why didn't he do something clear to end religious bickering (like a lot of the "proselytizing" I did as an LDS missionary) and get real aid to these people (basic food, medicine, hygiene, water)?  Why was he more concerned about my boners than about resolving conflicts in (say) the Middle East, where his name is invoked almost daily as justification for bad behavior (including some outright atrocities)?  These were tough questions for me to deal with, intellectually.  Even if I had not been weakened by my (misguided) emotional struggles to suppress my animal spirit, I would have been shaken by them (and my faith would have evolved to meet the challenge, as it has).

I made three important discoveries shortly after getting married.  (1) Hawk is not evil.  (2) Sex is not solemn or frightening (unless you go out of your way to make it so, as I did for more than a decade).  (3) God is a mystery: people who invoke him as though he speaks clearly and directly are usually trying to use him as a cover to manipulate other people.  That they do this with good intentions does not make their behavior ethically defensible (in my view), which brings me to a crucial turning point in my story. 

Taming the Beast Within: Approaching Manhood

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.
This is part two of an extended meditation in which I imagine my soul as a wild animal (the spirit Hawk of Crazy Horse as portrayed by Win Blevins) and talk about our relationship over the past twenty-odd years -- when Hawk was struggling to grow up and I was trying to keep her from killing me.

Serving a mission at age 19 was good.  The mission routine gave me something to focus on that was not my terrible, impossible sinfulness, and Hawk even came back sometimes without attacking me savagely -- though she was not happy when mission leaders told us that it was our lack of faith that kept the people of Spain from converting to Mormonism.  Hawk was just never good enough for God (or the other people that invariably end up speaking for him): he was always trying to break her, and because I thought that was for the best, I helped him do it, actively collaborating to humiliate and torture my soul (for its own good, of course).  But it was on the mission that I started to ask myself sometimes whether I were being too cruel to Hawk, whether there might be a better way to treat my animal spirit.  As a missionary, I learned that Hawk was not as lascivious or inherently unstable as I had been led to believe.  She had no problem being polite with Spanish women who walked around all but naked.  She only rebelled when I demanded that she refrain from thinking about sex, ever, or that I submit to the will of God without discussion, without argument, without complaint.  By the time I came home from the mission, we had a sort of awkward truce: I would do my best not to beat her up too much (when she failed to live up to God's impossible demands), and she would not torture me with impotent rage or impossible fear.

When I returned from my mission to pick my studies up at BYU, I was in a very vulnerable, uncomfortable place.  On the one hand, I knew that God expected me to get married, and I wanted that for myself (not only because God expected it: I believed the Mormon doctrine that family relationships are extremely important, and I was eager to enlarge my own family, which has always been a source of joy to me).  On the other hand, I had no idea how to approach women romantically.  From my training in church and my personal experience reacting to that training, I knew that romance was very close to murder, that it could call down great wrath from God, and that I did not know how to get remotely close to it without calling down that wrath.  Whenever I got close to a woman, Hawk would start tearing me to shreds inside, and I would flee away for safety, bleeding and weeping in the quiet recesses of my mind.  As a result of this situation, most of my time at BYU was devoted to study (not an entirely unprofitable outlet, though it backfired when I started getting really critically interested in Mormon history).  I did not date.  I did not make friends among girls.  I did not think actively about marriage (except to laugh nervously and cry out in pain to Hawk whenever well-meaning acquaintances -- usually older, married LDS men -- asked me, "So, when are you going to find a nice girl and settle down?  You don't want to wait too long!").  I was still trapped.

Then, I met the woman who would become my wife.  She saw past my broken psyche.  She did not judge Hawk.  She did not hate Hawk.  She was not jealous of Hawk.  She was nice to Hawk, much nicer than I had ever been, and for the first time, I felt safe with sex.  I could stop worrying.  I could stop fighting.  I could stop waiting for the world to end every time I had an erection (though it took me a long time to get that far: in the beginning, it was all I could do to let my new girlfriend touch my hand or shudder! kiss me goodnight).  I went into my new relationship full of the old dread -- sure that something awful would happen to overthrow the latest mirage of happiness being thrust upon me unexpectedly.  Right up until the last moment of our Mormon wedding, I expected some priesthood leader to have a moment of discernment and removed me -- firmly and permanently -- from the arm of the young woman I had somehow managed to seduce into loving me despite my obvious depravity.  Somehow, Hawk and I managed to sneak through the whole ceremony without setting off God's radar.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Taming the Beast Within: My Misspent Youth

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.

The story of His Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko) is fascinating, and Blevins is a very good storyteller.  I recommend this book without reservation as one of the most thoughtful, interesting accounts of the old American West that I have read.  Like many good novels, it also offers a great window into the human soul, a window through which I would like to look at my own soul for a minute here.

Blevins does a very good job of portraying the Sioux religion: he is accurate, thorough without being overbearing, and compelling ("almost thou persuadest me to become a Lakota").  The Sioux believe that every human being is born with a special character (unique to them) that it is their personal duty to cultivate.  For Crazy Horse, this character takes the form of a spirit animal dwelling inside him: a hawk, whom he refers to simply as Hawk.  Hawk guides him toward the crucial decisions he must make in life, helping him cope with difficult circumstances and emotions. 

As a young man, Crazy Horse's most pressing task is becoming familiar with Hawk and the other, larger spiritual powers at work in the world: he does this by going out alone into the wilderness, where he fasts, prays, and meditates.  For a long time, he does this with no issue: he feels ashamed, rejected by the universe, worthless.  Then, when he is about to give up and return to his village empty-handed, he receives a waking vision that shows him his place in the world (a Rider with a Hawk going to war alone).  The rest of the book tells how he uses this vision as a tool for understanding and overcoming the challenges that life brings him.

I really like thinking of the individual human psyche as an animal.  We are all animals, in my view, and growing up is about coming to terms with that reality -- hopefully in a way that enriches us as individuals and communities.  In this essay, I want to talk about my personal experience growing up and dealing with the beast within (i.e. with my character, my habits and thoughts, my soul).  I am going to try to be very honest and straightforward, but this is a tough subject, so I apologize in advance if I appear unclear or untruthful.  One very important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that my journey is not someone else's journey.  I cannot talk about someone else the same way I talk about myself.  I do not know others the way I know myself.  I do not judge them the way I judge myself.  I do not expect from them the same things I expect from myself.  In other words, what follows is about me, not you (no matter who you are).  Another thing to remember is that our memories are constantly changing: the more we look at the past, the more it changes.  If you do not like the way I remember myself today, hang on: you may like my memories better tomorrow.

Adolescence is a hard time: it is difficult being trapped between childhood -- with the freedom to learn and explore infinitely without much fear (if you have a good childhood as I did) -- and adulthood, with its larger responsibilities and dangers.  It strikes me, as I look back at my own experience, that I tried really hard to reject my spirit animal.  I did not want to grow up, mostly because this seemed to involve me falling into patterns of behavior that I could not avoid that were extremely evil.  When my inner Hawk began to wake up, I was not always happy with it.  I did not make it a personal guide for dealing effectively with moral crises.  There were times when I hated it and even tried to destroy it.  How did this happen?  How did I change from a happy kid into a brooding teenager?  How did I go from being relatively happy (as it seems now) to being depressed, scared, and paranoid?  Well, the matter is really complicated (resisting any easy understanding), but I think it began with sex. 

I remember when I first learned what sexual intercourse was: I was about eleven years old, and I thought that it was about the grossest thing imaginable.  People "urinate" into each other: how disgusting!  But this also made it paradoxically intriguing (like any weird fact about life).  My mom had the right response to my shock -- she said something like, "Oh, it's actually quite nice: don't give up on it just yet."  About the same time, I started having unexpected, unwanted thoughts about women.  I would be reading or playing the recorder or doing some routine task and BAM! the thought of some woman I had seen would appear in my mind's eye unbidden, unlooked for, and strangely attractive (at first, they were always older women: teachers, newly-weds in our church congregation).  Also, I would wake up every morning with a boner: my dad had already warned me about this, and to do him credit he never said anything about its being any kind of sin.  It was just another weird fact of life, something that adults had to deal with.  So far, so good.  But unfortunately, my parents were not the only people I turned to for help with sex (or life in general).

At the same time of my life, right on the threshold of puberty, I heard the call that drove young Crazy Horse into the wilderness to look for a vision.  For me, answering that call meant reading a lot of Mormon scripture (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible, which I read many times in the King James Version), praying intensely, fasting, and looking for God in the world around me and inside me.  As a result of all this activity, I had a very intense religious experience (akin to the vision of Rider and Hawk that Crazy Horse received).  I was converted to Mormonism -- really converted, wholly convinced.  I went up to the pulpit several times as a youth with no prompting and bore my own testimony (no rote memorization required) that God had spoken to me.  As I look back, it seems to me that the reading, praying, fasting, meditating, and testifying were all important things: they represented a positive attempt on my part to contact and connect with the adult personality waking up inside me.  I was reaching out in a peaceful, nurturing way to my spirit animal, offering Hawk my arm and inviting her to tell me her secrets, secrets that I really needed if I was going to survive the process of growing up.  And then to my delight, she came and perched on my arm.  But success is never simple: every victory comes with a problematic aftermath.

In the story of Crazy Horse, the vision of Rider is a curse until young Crazy Horse goes to his father (the village medicine man) and confesses it as part of a special iniatiation ceremony.  Crazy Horse is initially on bad terms with his father, so he avoids speaking of his vision (and must wear shabby clothes to avoid angering the higher powers that the Sioux recognize behind lightning, thunder, and sudden turns of fortune -- powers that my background would lead me to name God).  Another medicine man from nearby notices Crazy Horse's unkempt attire, reads its significance correctly, and tells the young Lakota that he must confess to his father.  But no one forces him.  No one makes the decision for him: in the end, he goes to his father on his own, receives purification, and becomes integrated into the tribe as an adult.  But this process takes a long time, during which Crazy Horse wanders in the wilderness while his father remains available but aloof (respecting his son's privacy).  Here my story diverges from that of Crazy Horse.  After my epiphany, I wanted to talk.  I wanted to confess to a medicine man, have my dream interpreted, and improve my connection with Hawk.  But my Mormon priesthood leaders were not like the Lakota medicine men who helped Crazy Horse.  While I do not doubt that their intentions were just as good, they did not respect my privacy -- Hawk's privacy -- and I was too naive to defend myself -- to defend Hawk -- from their pointed inquiries about the state of my being, about the welfare of my soul.

I came back from the wilderness far too early.  I came back and walked directly into priesthood classes where my well-meaning leaders told me (1) that masturbation was a sin comparable to murder; (2) that women who didn't wear enough clothing were walking pornography; (3) that I could not participate or integrate with my community as long as I was sexually active (in any way) outside the boundaries of a heterosexual marriage; (4) that the only course for setting myself free from a lifetime of terrible depravity was confessing every sexual misstep I might make to my bishop.  I internalized this message with all the fervor of a medieval Catholic saint, and the results were not pretty.  (1) I became obsessed with making my boners go away, and I felt very bad (sometimes even physically ill) every time random thoughts of women invaded my mind.  (2)  I lost my ability to communicate freely with nubile women and girls my own age.  Since they were sexy and I couldn't have any sexy thoughts (let alone actions) outside of marriage, why bother talking to them?  The risk was greater than the reward (from my naive perspective).  Sometimes, I judged them when they wore clothing that I found provocative (though I am happy to say that I never let this attitude get out of hand: I always recognized that the fundamental moral problem was weakness in myself, not some gigantic flaw pervading almost the entire female gender living outside the burkha).  (3)  I worried all the time about my worthiness to participate in Mormon ceremonies (which I really loved: I relished getting to church early each Sunday to prepare sacrament; I loved saying the prayers; I loved passing the bread and water around the congregation; I loved attending the temple to do baptisms and confirmations).  It tore me up inside to think that something so wonderful might be taken away from me merely because I couldn't make a boner go away in time (e.g. before I had a bad thought or got too sexually excited).  It made me angry, at myself (for being so weak!) and the world (for being so mean!).  (4)  I became a regular visitor in my bishop's office, where I was constantly begging for forgiveness -- more and more wretchedly, as it became ever clearer to me that the only way to make the boners go away for good was to castrate myself (a solution to which I gave more than passing thought, though thankfully I never actually tried it).

Because I followed the well-meaning counsel of my Mormon leaders, the delicious taste of heaven that my religious conversion had brought quickly became as bitter as hell.  Hawk shredded my arm with her talons, gouged my face with her beak, and flew away screaming where I could not follow.  After she left, I would sit up late at night or rise early in the morning, sobbing -- longing for the peace, the happiness, the openness, the safety that I felt before sex came and destroyed everything good in my world.  In my head, I was wearing the rags that Crazy Horse wore.  I hated myself.  I despised my weakness -- my inability to follow simple instructions from God, who reached out to me through my priesthood leaders (generously, continuously, even though I kept letting him down over and over again).  I was the lowest form of life imaginable, worse than the most noxious animal anywhere: animals fulfilled the measure of their creation, whereas I couldn't follow simple instructions from a loving God who just wanted me to avoid things that were bad for me anyway.  Many times, more than I can count, I really wanted to die.  It was awful.

For many years, I lived in a kind of perpetual dark night of the soul: I would be happy momentarily, engaged in some worthwhile pursuit (like gardening or studying or working out), and then I would remember that Hawk was gone, that she was never coming back, that I had driven her away with my sinfulness.  And I would get angry -- at myself (at Hawk), at the world, at people who looked at me askance (or wore bikinis, or did anything to remind me of the gaping wound I carried around inside).  But the overarching emotion that defined my experience was despair, the black hopelessness that comes from being in a caught in a problem to which there is no solution.  The Pretty Reckless have a song that expresses my emotion(s) very well:

Lay my head, under the water  
Lay my head, under the sea  
Excuse me sir, am I your daughter?  
Won't you take me back, take me back and see? 
There's not a time, for being younger 
And all my friends, are enemies  
And if I cried unto my mother 
No she wasn't there, she wasn't there for me 

Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down 

Broken lines, across my mirror  
Show my face, all red and bruised  
And though I screamed and I screamed, well no one came running  
No I wasn't saved, I wasn't safe from you 

Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down  

Don't let me drown, don't let me drown in the waves, 
Oh I could be found, I could be what you had saved 
Saved, saved, saved!
Lay my head, under the water 
Aloud I pray, for calmer seas 
And when I wake from this dream, with chains all around me  
No, I've never been, I've never been free 
No, I've never been, I've never been free 
No, I've never been, I've never been free

It was remarkably like drowning all the time, loaded with chains that wouldn't come off, and other people just didn't understand: my parents didn't understand (though they really tried, I think), my church leaders didn't understand, and I was too ashamed and insecure to reach out to anyone else.  I should emphasize that it didn't overwhelm me utterly, at least not every moment: I enjoyed some very good times as an adolescent, times I remember fondly to this day -- but this mess was always in the back of it, like a monster lurking inside me, waiting for a lull in the action to emerge and eviscerate me.  Hawk felt betrayed, and she really took it out on me (over and over again: I sometimes wondered if we would ever be friends again, the way we were before sex came into the picture).