Sunday, March 23, 2014

Chasing Dreams

I have been reflecting lately on the spiritual journey I embody. I use the word spiritual deliberately to point to what I see as a junction between my past (as a religious fundamentalist in the Mormon cultural tradition) and my present (as a lay Buddhist very interested in Christianity of all kinds, including Mormonism).

My personal quest has essentially been a search for happiness that is not poisonous, to me or those around me.  I have always wanted to find joy and to share it.  When I was happy as a Mormon, it was because of the joy I found and shared (with my family, my friends, my mission companions, my comrades at BYU, my fellow Saints in graduate school).  When I am happy now, the underlying cause is the same: I find joy and the means to share it.

Looking back into my past, I see a tendency to reify joy improperly.  I see a tendency to mistake it for something too particular, too singular, too unique to one individual set of circumstances (something that Buddhists would refer to as karma; Christians might call it grace).  I choose the word spiritual to describe my journey because I want to dissociate myself from the idea that joy can be equated with a single set of circumstances, that it can be found predictably where particular circumstances appear to repeat.  Maybe the following example will help people follow my meaning.

I really enjoyed studying at BYU.  My time there was one of the best times in my life.  I learned many great things, made lifelong friends, and laid a foundation for my future. Buddhists would say that I acquired a lot of karma there.  Christians might express that as growing from grace to grace, and remind me that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."  I found joy repeatedly, and shared that joy with many others, whose companionship I still cherish today, even where circumstances have separated us since (in more ways than the purely spatial: our minds have drifted apart, too, in many cases).  Over the course of my experience with BYU, the future that presented itself over and over to me was one in which I returned to my alma mater.  The narrative for this future directed me to go out into the world, find whatever joy I might find, and then bring it back to share with the BYU community (where I had a place, a place I worked to build).  Unfortunately for the coherence of this narrative, I encountered a dissonant joy.  At some point in my experience (at BYU and away from it), I became aware that my personal integrity as a Mormon and a scholar was threatening to the personal integrity of various other Mormons (some scholars, some not), with the result that I could never be useful to BYU the way I wanted to be.  My place there ceased to exist.

Given my karma with BYU, it is still possible for me to create the causes and conditions that would allow me to find very good work there.  I could happily do a job I am qualified to do well, among people I respect and enjoy.  But the price for that would be abandoning my dissonant joy (which my enemies would call sin, though I do not name it this way).  I do not want to give up (or pretend to give up, since I cannot really unmake them) insights that seem to me critical to my well-being, to my making a meaningful contribution (that heals people more than it hurts them), i.e. to joy.  I am thus faced with a difficult decision.  I must decide how to deal with the load of karma I carry from BYU (and my Mormon past more generally).  I must put the broken narrative of my impossible future as another Hugh Nibley to rest, and make some other story to give meaning to my life.  I need a story, because that is what human beings do.  We cannot find joy without some kind of story, some illusion of coherence that lets us aspire to goals we worship as worthy.  Life broke my Mormon story, but I can still write another one.  It may not be as good (in my eyes or the eyes of outside readers), but it will always be better than any futile effort I might make to deny what really happened to me as a Mormon.

As a result of my journey through Mormonism (at BYU and elsewhere), I cannot believe that the Great Apostasy is a simple event or series of events in human history, like the Battle of Lepanto or the Hundred Years' War.  As a younger man, I went into the historical records convinced that I would find there a simple vindication of Restorationism (the idea that Christ originally created a single church with coherent institutions that was then lost over time, only to be restored at a later date by reformers).  I did not.  Not only that, I discovered somewhere along the way that my lived experience did not vindicate important tenets of my Christian faith.  I learned that the power of sin in my life did not diminish as I confessed to bishops, that temple worship did not enrich my spiritual practice, that reading the scriptures could lead to all kinds of bad things if one did it carelessly (as many Mormons do, especially in seminary manuals, conference talks, and other official church publications).  I cannot unmake these experiences of mine.  I really had them.  I really noticed them.  They made an impression on me.  I was offended, my enemies would say, and they are right.  But that does not mean that I must be angry, or live my life as a constant bitter war against them.  That would be no kind of joy that I want.

What I must do--my task since I was offended--is to find a place to heal my wounds.  I must move on to something else, some other community or communities with mythology for story-telling that will not be mortally offended by my experiences.  Of course healing will not erase them--the experiences, the wounds, the offense--but it can help me bear them well, turning the pain into joy.  My wounds have alienated me from Mormonism--the Mormonism inside me as well as the Mormonism of my friends at BYU--but they have also brought me closer to other things in my experience.  Today I can derive joy from sitting in a Catholic cathedral meditating on a bloody crucifix, or chanting Tibetan prayers that remind me how the fundamental essence of reality is a pregnant emptiness (not nothing, but the infinite sea of possibility from which all things arise).  I have much less certainty today about my future.  I don't tell stories in which I meet my dream job and live happily ever after, working my way into the eternities.  I know now that these stories need not be true.  More importantly, I see that they are already untrue for me.  I see my wounds, the unexpected end of my Mormon story, and I realize, viscerally, that death is out there.

Everything that I have, everything that I am, everything that I ever could be, is a compound of some kind, an amalgamation of matter or possibilities or desires.  The nature of compounds is to come together, and to fall apart.  There is no such thing as coming together without falling apart.  Life is built from death.  This story is true no matter where I look.  My clothes are made from the death of other beings (displaced so that factories might exist and produce textiles I can afford).  My house too, not to mention my food.  My individual cells are constantly dying to make way for new versions of themselves.  Eventually, I will die to make way for my children (and other living species that need space in this world we inhabit, a world that does not exist simply to serve us humans--as individuals or communities).  I see death at the heart of life now, as before my wound I didn't, and that has become a powerful insight.  Seeing death changes the way I live, not because I choose to be sinful now, but because I see limitations.  I see how my joy is limited: it is not your joy, and there might be good reasons for you to avoid it; maybe it would make you miserable.  I respect your right to find joy that is not mine, to deal with suffering and wounds as I would not, to be wounded in ways that I find obnoxious or disturbing.  That is my compassion now, a very different compassion from the one that charges out into the world determined to make everything better for all people by making us all the same.  What a disaster that would be.  We would have to maim or kill (at least metaphorically) everyone who didn't meet the standard of some committee somewhere.  We would crush their joy and tell them to take ours instead.  That is nothing I want to be part of (in any religion, society, or culture: particulars don't matter).  The compounded nature of my reality means that my joy is always eventually pain, even as my life always turns to death.  I cannot deny this unity or defeat it, breaking life and joy away from suffering and death.  I cannot tell stories in which life and death are separate.  What I can do, what I must do, is learn to find joy in the processes whereby life and death transmute, writing themselves into the matter or possibility or desire that I embody right now. 

If that means that I lose dreams (the dream of being a good Mormon, the dream of working at BYU, the dream of being a successful academic, the dream of writing books, the dream of having time to think and think and write, the dream of having time free to spend with family and friends instead of working hard nine-to-five, etc.), then I must let go of them joyfully rather than grudgingly.  I must give my dreams a good funeral, put them away quietly in their graves, and then let them rot without resenting them for failing to be more than just dreams (mortal, fallible, weak, and so on).  I must see how I am too attached to dead dreams so that I can release that attachment, offering it on the altar and freeing my mind to create new dreams.  I cannot say that the new dreams will be better than the old.  They may not be.  But chasing live dreams will always be better than dwelling on their predecessors that have already died, and resenting these for being dead without finding proper fulfilment (whatever that might be).  

1 comment:

  1. The only point I fail to drive home at the end is that finding joy is the same thing as finding death. The point is not to convince oneself that these are separate ends (they are the same, actually), but to realize that finding joy well requires that you know how and when to release it. Also, I cannot put myself in the position of a missionary who demands that you seek joy with wild abandon: whatever its motivation, this boils down to an invitation that you commit suicide.