Friday, November 16, 2012

Humanization of the Other.

[First, apologies to anyone who's using Google Reader.  You may have noticed an incomplete version of this post appeared on accident earlier today.  For some reason I can delete the post on my blog but it is still in your Google Reader.  Here is the finished version!]

Okay, let me start by telling you a story about an old friend of mine named Jesse.  I have known Jesse for about twelve or thirteen years, but we haven't been in contact very much in the past six or seven.

About two or three years ago, Jesse came to town to visit his brother.  He went to my congregation for church and we chatted and caught up a little bit.  At one point during the church meeting, I made some kind of immature disparaging joke about the speaker's voice.  My remark was not too offensive, but it certainly wasn't Christlike.

Jesse shrugged.  "People are people," he said.

My friend Jesse doesn't know it, but that sentence changed my life.  It's become sort of a motto to me.  See, here I was making sarcastic comments about another human being, and why?  Not because I'm a bad person, but because I didn't humanize the Other.  Because when I heard a guy with a funny voice, he became a stock character - a dimensionless, expressionless, emotionless, experienceless being whose existence was defined solely by his entertainment value.  Not a genuinely unique, wholly other creature whose experience of the universe is unlike mine in ways I can barely fathom.  I didn't have empathy for him.

Maybe empathy is the key to virtue.  Maybe the key is to realize, as Jesse pointed out, that "people are people."

If you've been reading my blog for a little while, you may have seen this theme re-emerge over and over again in my musings.  I've written about the dehumanizing effects of technology, about the dehumanizing effects of pornography, about the dehumanizing effects of religious dogmatism, and - most recently - about the dehumanizing effects of political rigidity.  It's probably my biggest pet topic, my soapbox of choice:  we oversimplify the world and its inhabitants, and we need to stop.

This theme keeps coming back to my mind because I believe if we all were to humanize the Other, it would literally change the world.  C. S. Lewis said that if we were to see each other's true, infinite potentials (as eternal beings, we are each destined to become either godlike or devilish), then we'd treat each other differently.  I'd like to adapt that claim and suggest, as Nietzsche perhaps might, that we needn't look to the distant and supernatural future to find existential meaning in our (or in one another's) lives:  we can look to the present!  It certainly requires less imagination.

You see, regardless of the afterlife, we are all important.

My claims rely somewhat on a theological stance I took in an earlier post about God.  I argued that God is not a micro-manager, and that we are legitimately co-actors with Him in this universe.  God cooperates with us to try to make our world the best place possible.  Therefore He isn't omniresponsible for evil things happening, because part of His plan is for each of us to have genuine agency, which means that we make genuine choices given genuine possibilities.

Given this theological assumption, we are not scripted actors on a stage, playing out a predetermined plot, reciting lines that have already been written.  Instead, we are improvisational actors!  God is still the director, but our stories have not been told already.  We are telling them right now.

Why does this matter?  Because it means that everyone that "we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit," everyone we even just see in passing, is writing their story right now.  They are determining their future.  In a sense, they are creating the universe, every day!  They are not stock characters or "extras" in your story.  They are the main characters in their own!

When I walked home from campus the other day, I counted how many people I passed by.  The final number was something like 75.  Think about those 75 people.  You'll probably walk by 75 people sometime soon, too.  Maybe one has fallen in love for the first time; maybe two just found out they're going to be parents; maybe three are about to interview for their dream job.  And on the other hand, maybe one thought about suicide this month; maybe two got in an argument this morning and told each other to go to hell; maybe three are addicted to pornography.

Maybe you walked by someone for whom today is literally the best, the worst, or the last day of their life!  Or maybe you walked by someone who just lost a father, a sister, or a child in a tragic accident.  Maybe you walked by a girl who is so stressed about school that she is going to drop out, and she doesn't know how to tell her parents.  Or a guy who has been struggling with whether or not to "come out" and tell the people he loves that he is homosexual.  Or a couple who are struggling financially.  Or a couple who are going through divorce.

You get the point, right?  Everywhere you go, you are the "extra" in dozens and dozens of private, autobiographical films.  Perhaps there aren't any cameras, but there are narratives nonetheless.  Everyone is telling a unique story, with highs and lows, with inspiring moments and devastating moments, with existential crises and moments of clarity.

Anything we can do to humanize the Other, to bring people to this realization more often and more effectively, will change the world.  I am saying this without hyperbole.  This is what it's all about.  This is what poetry and art are for; this is what postmodern psychology (like Viktor Fankl's "Man's Search for Meaning") is for; this is what novels are for.  I'd even argue that this is what films are for.  That isn't to say that all films accomplish this end.  But the best ones aim to.

Films like "Ray" (about Ray Charles) or "Walk The Line" (about Johnny Cash), for example, take the lives of famous musicians and try to bring them down from the pedestal of celebrity.  They refuse to let us idolize, deify, or demonize famous people, insisting instead that we feel their human sufferings vicariously.  The other day I had a long conversation with some friends about "Ray" and what does or doesn't make it worth watching.  Let's be honest:  it's hard to watch!  It has a lot of heavy subject matter, and it's often unpleasant!  But I believe bio-pics about unpleasant lives like that are worth watching because they force us to recognize people behind tabloid-headline oversimplifications (think of Michael Jackson, and what comes to mind?  The scandal of perverted rumors and lawsuits?  The glory of his iconic "King of Pop" status?  Either way, you don't think of a human being who - just like you or I - tried to get through life as best he could.  That's why we need films like "This Is It")!  But it's not just celebrity bio-pics or documentaries that do this; in essence, this is an inherent function and purpose of storytelling in general.  Part of why we tell stories is to humanize the Other:  to force our audience to recognize that the person they reduce to a caricature is actually a soul - with all the complexities and imperfections that implies.  Francis Ford Coppolla filmed "The Godfather" not to glorify a life of violence and crime, but to show that the people who live those lives, and make those choices, are humans, too - not descriptions or objects, but people!  Remember, the world is not a scripted play with Good Guys and Bad Guys (indeed, there's no such thing as a good guy or a bad guy!). The world is a community of souls.

I've just used up far too much space trying to articulate what my friend Jesse said the last time I saw him, because I have a tendency to over-explain and over-analyze.  It will be easy for you to forget the 1,300 words you just read; I will not blame you if you do.  But please, try to remember at least these three:

"People are people."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why I didn't say "amen" in church this week.

So, this past Sunday was Stake Conference.

(For my non-Mormon readers:  what this means is that instead of a typical worship service with one congregation, several congregations will meet together in the same building and listen to various sermons, with hymns sung in between.  There are no Sunday School classes; the whole thing is just in that one same room.  Attendance percentages are typically lower than usual - many probably feel like it is a less personal worship experience because it is just so big, and because of the lack of sacramental ritual, or what most churches call "communion" - but there are maybe an average of a thousand people in attendance?  I'm bad with big numbers.  Anyway.  It's large.)

In my opinion, because Stake Conference is so large, it's extra important that the speakers preach true and good things from the pulpit.  Maybe that's the consequentialist in me speaking, but I figure the more people are listening to you, the greater your responsibility to share insights that ring eternally true (on the other hand, the deontological rule at play here is that even if just one person is listening to you, every time you speak in the name of God you had better be speaking as He would speak).

And if you don't teach entirely true principles, then I won't say "amen."  It's a small gesture, and probably doesn't make any difference, but it makes me feel better at least.  One of my many New Year's resolutions was to say "amen" only when I truly and completely agreed with what was said or prayed for.

Now, don't get me wrong:  five days ago when I sat there and listened to the messages that were given, I felt spiritually uplifted most of the time.  And I felt like most of the things said were in accordance with what God would want to have taught in His name.  So I said "amen" to most of the talks... until the very end, that is.

The discourse in question was given by a lovely man whom I won't name here.  And certainly, a lot of what he said rang true.  Then, towards the end of his remarks, he started going off on "the media," and "the world," and all the terrible things "they" want to do to us, all the terrible things they want to teach to our children.  He presented an awfully black-and-white picture of the world, and by so doing unfairly demonized scores of decent human beings, though none by name of course.  His comments reinforced an unhealthy thought process that is prevalent in Mormon culture:  the "us and them" mentality.

I hate the "us and them" mentality so much.  It's a painfully oversimplified way to look at things.

We Mormons think too often that it is us against the world, that everyone else is out to get us.  But that is simply not the case.  Virtually no one actually wants to see family values destroyed, or the Temples burned to the ground, or God dethroned, etc.  We live in a world surrounded by people who, in a lot of ways, are very much like us:  people who want to be happy.

Did anyone watch the 84th Academy Awards show that recently aired?  There was a man who won an award (and I'm embarrassed to admit, I don't remember who he was or what he won - I know, I'm a bad blogger!), and when he got to the stage, he primarily thanked his wife, to whom he'd been married for many years.  Without hearing him mention anything else, the entire audience applauded.  The fact that he loved his wife and stayed with her was reason enough for all those actors and directors and writers to put their hands together and smile.  But why?

My roommate looked at me after that moment and said something like this:  "Sometimes we accuse Hollywood of wanting to 'destroy family values' or whatever, but really these people love family values.  Just because they want gays to have rights doesn't mean that they hate families."

And he's right.  Hollywood isn't full of demons possessed with some malicious plot to drag the rest of us to Hell.  Hollywood is full of human beings (again, just like you and I), who are trying desperately to tell good stories - stories about love and loss and learning.

Furthermore, I'd argue that the best stories, the stories that get the most critical acclaim, actually support eternal truths that you'd find in the scriptures.

For example, what are some "Best Picture" winners?  I haven't seen "The Artist" yet so we'll have to skip a year.  Back in 2010, the award went to "The King's Speech," a beautiful story about faith, friendship, courage, living up to your responsibilities, and the power of communication.  What about the year before that?  The main message of "The Hurt Locker" was that war is a drug, a psychologically and morally damaging disease:  sounds like a topic that the Book of Mormon spends, oh, about 54 chapters dealing with.  The previous year?  We get "Slumdog Millionaire," a story about conquering all obstacles to save someone you love.  And the year before that?  The Coen Brothers' twelfth film, "No Country For Old Men," a beautifully tragic tale about the incomprehensibility of evil.  Tommy Lee Jones' character in that film reminded me of Frances McDormand's character in "Fargo" (also a Coen Brothers' film), who embodied innocence and the sentiment that you don't have to understand evil.  Sometimes it just is, and sometimes it is absurd, but if it is truly incomprehensible, then maybe that says something good about you?  The character's confused innocence in the face of evil reminds me a lot of Nephi, who never really understood his brothers (I have more thoughts on the Nephi narrative to come in a later post).

(A side note:  I know my most recent blog post condemned an award-winning film pretty harshly, even calling it "pornographic," but I was very careful with that review and I watched every frame of the film in question.  I don't think it would be fair for me to say any of what I said without actually seeing the film and judging its objectionable content in its full context.  And even after watching, I had to think long and hard about my reaction.  To dismiss the entire piece of work casually or without thought would be to show great disrespect to the many men and women who, in my opinion, simply failed in their thematic goals when all was said and done.  Saying a film failed in its ideological aspirations is different than saying that the whole media industry is intentionally trying to bring down righteous principles in our society.)

Of course, maybe I'm reading some of those films wrong (especially the Coen Brothers ones - I won't pretend to understand their work completely; all I know is they somehow make great films).  But I don't think the film industry ever really congratulates hidden messages glorifying adultery and murder and blasphemy.  And, though this isn't meant to be as cocky as it sounds, I might understand film a little better than those who stand at a pulpit and condemn all of the media, all at once for allegedly "trying" to preach godlessness.

The speaker on Sunday demonized more than just the film industry:  he demonized any story, in any medium, that "makes you feel bad."  The general thesis of one of his paragraphs was something like, "if it makes you feel good, it's of God, and if it makes you feel bad, it's not."  And I'm hoping that's not really what he meant to say.  But nonetheless, it's what he said.  I won't condemn him for his word choice, but I will correct him on it, because at best it was terribly misleading.

"Shindler's List" is a film that makes me feel bad.  It ought to.  It's about the Holocaust.  And it's horrifying.  But it's also indescribably uplifting and watching it was one of the most spiritually worthwhile couple of hours I've ever spent in my life.

Beyond film, though:  even in the scriptures there are many, many stories that will make you "feel bad" but are nonetheless good, worthwhile, inspiring stories.  We shouldn't condemn the gut-wrenching stories of war or damnation in the Bible or Book of Mormon just because of the way they make us feel.  They make us feel bad for a reason, and it's an edifying reason!  Again, this is probably not what he meant, but it's what he said.

The media isn't out to get us.  And other religions aren't out to get us, either.

It's not us against the world.  It's us and the world, hand in hand, trying to see what we can accomplish together, trying to get back to God together.  What do we have that they don't?  Well, the Priesthood.  The ordinances. In short, the Restoration.  But that doesn't mean that they don't have things we don't.  We're all in this together.  We're all part of the same family, on the same team, and inter-faith dialogue will never be effective until we realize that.

I cannot say "amen" to any talk that teaches, explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or accidentally, that the world is some sort of battleground on which our enemies are our neighbors.  I believe that my neighbor is my neighbor, and that my enemy is in my own heart.  That's what Jesus taught.  He hung out with "publicans and sinners," remember?  And he was criticized for it by devout Pharisees and scribes, the same sort of people who today would want Mormonism to be a microcosmic bubble-society, separated from the rest of the world.

The Church leaders in Salt Lake have tried very hard in recent decades to preach a doctrine of acceptance and worldwide teamwork.  In the mid-nineties, Gordon B. Hinckley taught us to approach missionary work with the invitation:  "bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it."  This is wonderful.  And it directly opposes the attitude of the more rigid, argumentative, and antagonistic rhetoric we heard in the sixties and seventies.  However, we still have a little of that old mentality left over in our culture.  We still want to "Bible-bash."  We still want to argue.

And maybe it's cultural leftover from our persecution in the 1800s.  For whatever reason, we're still on the defensive.  But we don't need to be.

We need to join with others on this Earth and collaboratively try to be edified and exalted together.  Remember what Joseph Smith taught:  "one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may."  So let us receive truth.  Let us vigorously seek it, like the 13th Article of Faith claims we do.

With this goal in mind, I am starting a new blog soon, called "Finding Zion in Babylon."  It will be at zioninbabylon.com, and I will let you know here when it is officially launched.  On that blog, I will focus on combating closed-mindedness, and on championing nuggets of truth that I find outside of Mormonism - in other religions, in psychology, in philosophy, in film, in literature, and elsewhere.  I have a copy of the Koran, and I've recently acquired a copy of the CCC, both of which I intend to dive into for cross-religious research purposes for the new blog.

It will be a grand adventure, and I hope to see you there.

In the mean time, thanks for reading "Food For Thought" (which, by the way, isn't going anywhere, I assure you!  It'll stay, and I'll keep updating it from time to time).  Thanks for being patient with my ramblings.  My writing abilities, like my powers of observation and my reasoning skills, are a work in progress.  And I appreciate your support every step of the way.  Even if you disagree with things I've written (which is likely).

If you do disagree, however, I urge you:  do not say "amen."