Friday, August 10, 2012

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").

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