This is Part III in a series of posts about Bruce C. Hafen's talk Love Is Not Blind from 1979. If you missed the first two parts, you can read Part I here and Part II here.
Part II dealt with ambiguity, and Part III expands on that theme. I encourage you all to read the talk in its entirety, if you haven't already, but I wish to include here the parts which are most relevant to the discussion. My personal comments are in red.
"Given, then, the existence for most of us of a gap between where we stand and where we would like to be, and given that we will have at least some experiences that make us wonder, what are we to do? I believe that there are three different levels of dealing with ambiguity. There may be more, but I would like to talk in terms of three. At level one there are two typical attitudes, one of which is that we simply do not--perhaps cannot--see the problems that exist. Some seem almost consciously to filter out any perception of a gap between the real and the ideal. Those in this category are they for whom the gospel at its best is a firm handshake, an enthusiastic greeting, and a smiley button. Their mission was the best, their student ward is the best, and every new day is probably going to be the best day they ever had. These cheerful ones are happy, spontaneous, and optimistic, and they always manage to hang loose. They are able to weather many storms that would seem formidable to more pessimistic types, though one wonders if the reason is often that they have somehow missed hearing that a storm was going on."
If you're like me, these are the types of members that tend to push your buttons. They're the ones for whom church seems to be like Woodstock: everyone is happy, everyone loves everyone, everyone nods in agreement... it's perfect! They seem to have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to quit going to church or not find the counsel of leaders to make perfect sense. And while you're sitting in sacrament meeting fuming mad at the narrow-minded statements from a speaker, they're sitting there seemingly oblivious to the fact that anyone could possibly take offense.
"A second group at level one has quite a different problem with the gap between what is and what ought to be. Those in this category eliminate the frustration created as they sense a distance between the real and the ideal in their world by, in effect, erasing the inner circle of reality. They cling to the ideal so single-mindedly that they are able to avoid feeling the pain that would come from facing the truth about themselves, others, or the world around them. I recall listening to a group of students as they discussed which of the two types of people I have just described offered the most appropriate model for their emulation. They felt that they had to choose between being relaxed and happy and carefree about the gospel, or being intense perfectionists. After listening to the discussion, I felt that both of these types suffer from the same limitation. It is not much of a choice to select between a frantic concern with perfection and a forced superficial happiness. Both perspectives lack depth, and their proponents understand things too quickly and draw conclusions from their experience too easily. Neither type is very well prepared for adversity, and I fear that the first strong wind that comes along will blow both of them over. This, I believe, is primarily because their roots have not sunk deep enough into the soil of experience to establish a firm foundation. Both also reflect the thinness of philosophy untempered by common sense. In both cases, it would be helpful simply to be more realistic about life's experiences, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that leave one a bit uncomfortable. That very discomfort can be a motivation toward real growth. As someone has said, the true Church is intended not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable. I invite you, then, to step up to level two, where you see things for what they are; for only then can you deal with them in a meaningful and constructive way. If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from honestly and bravely facing the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary for our ultimate preparations. It was Heber C. Kimball who once said that the Church has many close places through which it must yet pass and that those living on borrowed light will not be able to stand when those days come. Thus, we need to develop the capacity to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives... ...We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction that are so likely to come along in our lives. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels some may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear. Our encounters with reality and disappointment are in fact vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding."
That last sentence is very interesting. Prior to the last few years, I was a "labeller." Now I hesitate to label anything -- which some could perhaps argue is just as dangerous. But I believe that a vital part of stepping up to level two, as Elder Hafen puts it, is challenging our thinking and being willing to cast aside those labels if we discover that they are not as "clear-cut" as we previously assumed. I think that homosexuality is a good example of this because I'm sure I'm not the only Mormon whose views on the subject have changed dramatically in recent years. Even just a couple of years ago, I think that I had the subject filed nice and neatly under the "labels" that I was sure they belonged. But now, after further investigation and opening my heart and mind to the reality of the situations that many gay members of the Church find themselves in -- even though I do not claim to know what is "right" or "wrong" -- I find things to be not nearly as clear as I thought they were. It's been extremely challenging to me on so many levels, but I hope that that is one of the "vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding" that Elder Hafen speaks of.
"Despite the value of this level-two kind of awareness about which I have been talking, some serious hazards still remain. One's acceptance of the clouds of uncertainty may be so complete that the iron rod fades into the receding mist and skepticism becomes a guiding philosophy. Often, this perspective comes from erasing the outer circle representing the ideal, or what ought to be, and focusing excessively on the inner circle of reality. When I was a teacher at the BYU Law School, I noticed how common it was among our first-year students to experience great frustration as they discovered how much our legal system is characterized not by hard and fast rules but by legal principles that often appear to contradict each other. I remember, for example, one student in his first year who approached me after a class early in the semester to express the confusion he was encountering in his study of law. He said that he had what he called "a low tolerance for ambiguity" and had been wondering if part of his problem was that he had returned only weeks before from a mission, where everything was crisp and clear and where even the words he was to speak were provided for him. To feel successful, all he had to do was follow the step-by-step plan given him for each day and each task on his mission. Law school was making him feel totally at sea, as he groped for simple guidelines that would tell him what to do. His circumstance was only another example of what I have previously tried to describe as typical of college and university students early in their experience. However, by the time our law students reached their third year of study, it was not at all uncommon for them to develop such a high tolerance for ambiguity that they were skeptical about everything, including some dimensions of their religious faith. Where formerly they felt they had all the answers but just did not know what the questions were, they now seemed to have all the questions but few of the answers. I found myself wanting to tell our third-year law student that those who take too much delight in their finely honed tools of skepticism and dispassionate analysis will limit their effectiveness in the Church and elsewhere, because they become contentious, standoffish, arrogant, and unwilling to get involved and commit themselves." Does anyone else recognize themselves in the paragraphs above? "I have seen some of these people try out their new intellectual tools in some context like a priesthood quorum or Sunday School class. A well-meaning teacher will make a point that they think is a little silly, and they will feel an irresistible urge to leap to their feet and pop the teacher's bubble. If they are successful, they begin looking for other opportunities to point out the exception to any rule anybody can state. They begin to delight in cross-examination of the unsuspecting, just looking for somebody's bubble up there floating around so that they can pop it with their shiny new pin. And in all that, they fail to realize that when some of those bubbles pop, out goes the air; and with it goes much of the feeling of trust, loyalty, harmony, and sincerity so essential to preserving the Spirit of the Lord."
I'm not one to try out any of my new "intellectual tools" (if you can call them that) at church. I lack the confidence and ability to express myself verbally in a way that I feel I won't be misunderstood. But I'm guilty of doing so in my head. Boy, am I guilty. If my thoughts at church could be heard, I'd probably get myself thrown out. So I make mental notes and blog about it instead. It's an important outlet for me.
"If that begins to happen in your ward, in your home, or in your marriage, you might have begun to destroy the fragile fabric of trust that binds us together in all loving relationships. People in your ward may come away from some of their encounters with you wondering how you can possibly have a deep commitment to the Church and do some of the things you do. I am not suggesting that we should always just smile and nod our approval, implying that everything is wonderful and that our highest hope is that everybody have a nice day. That is level one. I am suggesting that you realize the potential for evil as well as good that may come with what a college education can do to your mind and your way of dealing with other people. The dangers of which I speak are not limited to our relations with others. They can becomes very personal, prying into our own hearts in unhealthy ways. The ability to acknowledge ambiguity is not a final form of enlightenment. Having admitted to a willingness to suspend judgment temporarily on questions that seem hard to answer, having developed greater tolerance and more patience, our basic posture toward the Church can, if we are not careful, gradually shift from being committed to being noncommittal. That is not a healthy posture. Indeed, in many ways, a Church member who moves from a stage of commitment to a stage of being tentative and non-commital is in a worse position than one who has never before experienced a basic commitment. The previously committed person who developed a high tolerance for ambiguity may too easily assume that he has already been through the "positive mental attitude" routine and "knows better" now, as he judges things. He may assume that being submissive, meek, obedient, and humble are matters with which he is already familiar, and that he has finally outgrown the need to work very hard at being that way again. Brothers and sisters, those are the assumptions of a hardened heart."
Withdrawing from participation in class discussions or activities is something that I am guilty of. I am in the "non-committal" stage and to be honest, I'm not sure how I can leave it without putting on a big act. When I resigned from my RS calling, it was because I felt uncomfortable teaching things that I didn't feel right about. I was also a bit uncomfortable with some of the tactics being used to try to reactivate certain sisters because I doubted the sincerity of certain people. I even doubted my own sincerity. If someone says something that I disagree with, I'm always afraid that my silence will be misinterpreted as being in agreement. And yet if I voice a dissenting opinion, then I definitely risk alientating myself as "the apostate." It's a catch 22. If I commit to something, I feel horribly guilty having to back out of it (which is why I grappled with the decision to resign my RS calling for well over a year before actually doing it), so my natural inclination is to just avoid committing to anything. Do I have a "hardened heart?" Absolutely. But it's not impenetrable.
There comes a point, however, when we have to decide whether we want to be in this Church or not. And if we've made the decision to stay, then we have to decide whether we're going to make it a pleasant stay or just be angry and resentful our entire lives in the Church. I know it sounds a bit cliche, but I do believe that each of us has the power to decide whether or not we will respond to offense, even when we're entirely justified in feeling offended. I don't yet know exactly how to reconcile my doubts and resentment with my desire to stay in the Church, but I am at least committed to doing my part and resist letting my heart become hardened beyond repair. I admit that it's not easy. In fact, it's incredibly difficult at times.
On occasion, I have received e-mails from people who have stumbled across my blog and wished to thank me for a particular post that really resonated with them. This happened recently when I got an e-mail from a reader who was very touched after discovering my blog and reading Love Is Not Blind. In the course of the past couple of weeks, she and I have been writing to each other and discussing many things related to our experiences in the Church. With her permission, I wish to quote directly from the blog that she has just started, Simply Me, in order to introduce her to my readers. I encourage you all to read what she has to say and to share your thoughts and experiences with her, because the connections that we make and insights that we get through blogging are things that are hard to get in your own ward -- and vice versa.
"As I am exploring the creation of my blog I keep reading other blogs and I am intrigued. Today I want to talk about what I've gleaned from one post, in particular, and how I can use the gift of ambiguity as I embark on my journey to return to church and to embrace reconciliation along the way. It is a new journey for me that draws parallels similar to my baptism. When I was 19 years old my grandpa stood in the baptismal font and guided me as I entered the waters of baptism. On one hand I knew that it was a completely personal and spiritual act and on the other it was meaningful to have my grandpa be the one to hold me as he baptized me. It was a special moment for us. On my baptismal program the verse that was shared was from 2 Nephi 31: 20. It reads: "Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life." My baptism was a time when I had broadened my horizons. When the musings of my heart were confirmed by what I had learned regarding the eternities from the LDS church's perspective. I knew that I was on a good path. Approaching the road of reconciliation is similar to having entered the waters of baptism even though one is an ordinance and the other is not. They are both intentional. During baptism I exercised faith in simple ways. During this phase of reconciliation I plan to exercise faith using ambiguity in an attempt to make things a little simpler for me, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Thanks to the writings and examples of people who struggle in that place of ambiguity yet hold to their faith pressing on with hope, love for God and people, studying the word (in whatever form that works for you including these discussions), and staying the course."
Is reconciliation with the Church and fellow members possible even if we have "irreconcilable differences?"
Ride to Church in Hyderabad, India
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