Apr 6, 2015

The earth's elliptical rotation (hint: it does not revolve around you)

This is a weird title for this post. It's something symbolic, though, for me. I used to think the earth turned a perfect circle around the sun, and when I realized the orbit was in fact more elongated, it was hard for me to conceptualize. I like things orderly. I like things to come out even. Eliptical just seemed disappointing.

It was even more disappointing to find out that the earth isn't perfectly round; is in fact, slightly pear-shaped. Did you know that? Is your mind bending just a bit?

This weekend was my church's big bi-yearly meeting. Every six months, at the beginning of October and the beginning of April, we meet for two days to hear our leaders speak. We spend a total of ten hours or so if you count the sessions for the women of the church and the priesthood meetings. I love these meetings. I feel a lot of peace--perhaps more than I feel at any other time. I also, suddenly, seem to find perspective, which is hard for me, sometimes--I am often very stuck in the moment and stressed. Being able to see and feel a more long-term, gestalt perspective of my life, of why I'm doing what I'm doing, being reminded of how much I love what I believe to be true and how much I appreciate and am grateful for all I've been given, is so refreshing and important. I wish they had general conference every three months instead of every six.

I used to be a part of an online community that took in LDS people from many different perspectives, mostly the off-beat among us Mormons. Radical feminists, disaffected members who still wanted to be part of an LDS-cutlure-based-community, members struggling with feeling sidelined because of things that had happened to them like divorce, or same-gender attraction, or infertility or whatever else gave us a need to go someplace to feel included. For a while I felt like Mormon Culture did not know what to do with me, a divorced 22 year old woman with a child. I went there to feel like I wasn't alone.

I loved being a part of this community for a short while, but I quickly realized that this community had its own standards of inclusion and non-inclusion. They were talking, one day (sorry, this is a bit gritty but it's my example) about female genital mutilation in Africa (a terrible thing, which I have read and thought a lot about because I knew I'd be adopting girls from Ethiopia. BTW my girls are fine.) Anyway, I brought up male circumcision. Jeffrey and I have had a lot of discussions about this, and we read a lot of information on both sides of the issue, and I wanted to discuss how our cultural expectations/norms also brought us up against something similar. In other countries, you see, they don't do it. But we do. Why?

I was pretty much kicked out of the discussion. Angrily sent on my way, in fact. I tried again a few times, and found that the same thing happened... kicked out, ignored, mocked even. It was strange, to me. If LDS culture has been so hurtful and non-inclusive to this particular collection of people, why the heck, after feeling all of that, experiencing it firsthand, would they turn around and do the same to others?

I had kind of an epiphany yesterday as I was watching Elder Packer talk. For those of you not familiar with Mormon stuff, Elder Packer is the most senior of the LDS apostles. He often speaks on the topic of difficult moral questions--pornography, marriage, etc... all the hot button issues. And he does it unapologetically. So he gets some flack.

Lately he has been very ill. In this last conference, I couldn't understand what he was saying. He was tired. He was struggling. I felt a great deal of love for him... the man's personality might not be mine, or mesh well with mine, but what he has to say has a great deal of merit. I remember one conference a couple of years ago, a talk of his that just struck me as powerful. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I may not understand him well as a person but he has valuable things to say.

Anyway, just out of curiosity, because I'm like that, I went over and peeked at this website I've stopped following. They often take conference talks and dissect them, discuss why they disagree, etc. Often, Elder Packer has been the butt of a lot of angst on this site. But seeing him struggle, with so much courage and humility, to deliver his conference address, nobody could possibly make fun of him, right? Because we're kind people. Even if we don't agree with the man, we're decent human beings.

Well, I shouldn't have looked. The thread on his talk was all about his garbled speech, making fun of him for a word people had mis-heard, talking about how they're ready to take offense because of all else he's said, etc. It made me pretty sad and pretty angry.

I shouldn't bother myself with this stuff. I know that. But this, for me, speaks to an overarching theme that disturbs me a lot. I see examples of it everywhere.

People think they're the center of the universe.

I've been thinking lately, about leadership and why it's hard. I was given a calling in my church a couple years ago (still plugging away) that involved an element of leadership. I got to know my bishop pretty well, and he'd talk to me about the struggle of being a leader and also being a principal. Jeff and I have been watching some star trek. You won't believe me but, if you want a good treatise on leadership and what it means, go watch a few episodes of Patrick Stewart in the role of Jean Luc Picard. I've learned a whole lot about being Young Women President from Jean Luc Picard. I don't think anyone ever thought that sentence would exist.

I've had a lot to chew on, thinking about leadership and what the job really is. Do you know what it is?

Making people upset.

Ok. Not on purpose. A leader shouldn't go out of their way to offend, to sideline, or to disagree with those who serve with them. But the thing is, the hardest part of leadership... the part of it that is the front-line, the part nobody else can take on no matter how much you delegate, is that very thing: having to make decisions based on careful consideration of all information, all opinions, all situations brought to your attention. I've learned that you have to expect that whatever decision you make will make a few people unhappy. Because that is just how it works--a collection of people with all different ideas of how something should, or could, or ought to or it would be nice!, to have it done this way, is just not going to agree. And so that's what a leader is for. To listen to everything and then make a decision. And then, the way it's supposed to work is, everyone accepts that decision and works together to bring about the common goal.

Of course, in order for that to work, all the people have to trust that their voices were heard, and that the leader is capable of making wise choices. That's the other ucky part about being a leader... you have a sort of obligation to try to get people to trust you. It's not about being liked, it's about giving whatever group you're trying to bring together confidence in your ability to make the choice that's best for the whole.

And generally speaking, it works out ok. There are a few who aren't all that glad, but they come along and work good-naturedly alongside everybody else and then the next time, it'll be their idea that gets put into practice. It balances. It comes around again. Everybody gets heard and eventually, everybody's ideas will be implemented and everybody's causes given attention. In an organization like the LDS Church, we fully expect that everybody who is there is there for a reason, and God will inspire each individual with something important to the whole.

The problem is, this doesn't always work. Do you know why?

Because there are some people who really struggle to see another's perspective. Their ideas are more important than others' ideas. Their cause is the most important cause. Their perspective is the only perspective.

It's like some people really struggle to see the universe as anything but revolving around them. THey see through their eyes, and feel with their feelings, and see the world around them as being only that way--the way they see it. They struggle to notice or give importance to anything but their feelings, their needs. And that even goes so far as spiritual feelings. One leader will have their heart touched, hard, by a certain issue or a certain individual they have stewardship over. Another person will have another set of needs and ideas come into their heart. A good leader will make sure each issue and each need and each individual is eventually addressed, but as there is only so much time and only so many resources, unfortunately all can't be addressed at once. Some understand this, and others see it as their ideas and promptings going ignored or being pushed aside as unimportant, no matter how you reassure them their issue is important to you as a leader.

In the case of General Conference, there are people out there who are hurting. I'm one of them. I really struggle with priesthood authority, with the issues of single parents, pornography addictions, and children in need. So when those issues come up my heart is extra-sensitive. THere have been times when the speaker went the direction that didn't necessarily nurture and help me, and if I wanted to, I could take offense and become angry and feel unlistened-to and hurt. Or.

The OR is this: Or I could realize that the Mormon faith is made up of many, many individuals with different and sometimes contrasting pains, hurts, and needs. I need to remember: the leaders of my church lead everybody. Not just me. The issues they address are everybody's. NOt just mine. A woman struggling with years of infertility might feel a lot of heartache over a talk about motherhood. But another woman, struggling with severe postpartum depression and feelings of inadequacy, needs that talk.

A woman who is divorced or single and struggling for perspective may be hurt by a talk about the importance of marriage, but another woman, contemplating marriage with a great deal of fear because of events in her life, perhaps parents or a sibling who has endured a painful divorce, needs to hear that message--that marriage is wonderful and important.

A man struggling with a pornography addiction may feel horrible during a talk about the damaging nature of pornography, but there are twelve year old boys who need to hear it, to have that salient in their minds as they negotiate the difficulties of junior high school and cell phones and sexts and free videos and all the stuff.

We all have very real needs and we all look to those who lead us for comfort, reassurance, and validation.

I think that the thing that has helped me most, is to *look* for those things in what my leaders say. Be on the lookout for those messages of peace and validation that speak directly to my heart. Expect to come away with a handful of messages that were meant specifically, specially, personally for me. I need to see and feel the love in that: this is a big church, 15 million people, and Heavenly Father, and my leaders, took the time to say these few, special things, just for me.

I remember how emotional and grateful I felt when President Hinckley, addressing BYU during the time I was there struggling as a single parent, mentioned divorce. Mentioned single parenting. How it was so hard. How he knew that those of us going through it spent long hours sorrowing. He said Heavenly Father knew our sorrows, and that he also knew our sorrows, and sorrowed with us.

Heavenly Father knows me and my sorrows. And the leader of my church was aware as well, and sorrowed with me. That's something I have cherished in my heart ever since. And I've cherished the countless other times when this has happened.

General conference is not just for me. The earth revolves in an ellipse... it moves in response to all the different forces pushing and pulling on it. And it does not revolve around me.

One popular phrase I find very frustrating:

Yes. Well, only from your perspective.
To someone else, It is something else.

This applies to more than just religion and religious discussion and policy. It applies to politics, policies, issues. It applies to Stuff. All Stuff. People struggle because they see out of their eyes and feel from their bodies and think from their minds and forget that other people, just as smart, just as caring, just as wise, are feeling and seeing and thinking from another place entirely and so they see something different. And both are important, valid, real, intelligent places to think and see from.

I hate guns.
You love guns.

I have eight children.
You are passionate about the environment and feel large families are irresponsible.

I am very religious, and I believe the gospel I've been brought up in holds important and necessary keys to salvation.
You believe that organized religion causes unecessary pain and conflict.

You think our country’s on the brink of socialism.
I feel frightened of the hysteria that seems to have gripped our nation on the topic of socialism.

We’re both here for a reason. Every human is born with passion and perspective, and over time all gain experience. We are all here to create what needs to happen and to be, together, what needs to be.

And that takes *All* perspectives. Yours, mine, the guy ranting in your politics class. The REAL killer in our society is apathy.

We need to step out of our lonely solar systems, where all the planets seem to pass around us in perfect symmetry and circumference and we're standing there on the sterile, lonely ground of our own making, and start seeing the universe for what it really is--a balance of so many crazy elements and objects and forces that we really can't even begin to understand how it all works together (though some really enjoy trying, and I dig that). To truly enjoy life we must enjoy the richness of a home, a church or social group, a society, a country, a world, made up of everything you don't understand. And we need to fully comprehend how every different perspective plays a part in that, even if we can't fully comprehend every perspective.


merrilykaroly said...

Yes yes yes. Yes. Beautiful.

Krista Quintana said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! You really have taken it in a direction I haven't seen before, and I think you're absolutely right. We're all going through our own personal experiences, and each of us have different needs. For church leaders to reach all 15 million of us, there's bound to be one or two talks that don't apply to me, but is exactly what the other person needs. I think it depends on the spirit, which can give us what we need, even if the words don't.

Sarah Dunster said...

Thanks, Adele :)

Krista, yes. I sometimes feel like conference, the scriptures, etc, become more like a urim and thummim for us. If we let them.

Janell said...

Well written, and your message resonated well with me because my take away from all of conference was simply, "What are you looking for?"

Sarah Dunster said...

That is such an important question.

Joshua Weed said...

I really loved this. For some reason, the title made me scared. It felt like it might be excoriating to those who sometimes feel like the earth revolves around them (read: me). But it was so thoughtful and inclusive and well written and true. Well done!

Sarah Dunster said...

Josh, I think we are all that way often. Maybe we just get glimpses of the universe from time to time to keep us on track :) BTW I enjoy being part of your universe. ANd thank you!

Hannah said...

I adore you, Sarah! I feel much the same way, but I couldn't have written it so eloquently. I also spent a little time trying to understand some of the "fringe" groups, but soon realized we are ALL in the fringe group called sinners, but there are some who can't stand to just talk to their VT or bishop about their struggles and doubts privately. They would rather make a scene and/or get pats on the back for their witty, sarcastic comments and feed their pride. Being Mom to a larger family has taught me that SOMEONE is called and set apart to be in charge, although an imperfect mortal. If no one is in charge, it is chaos and nothing is accomplished. I used to think it would be such an honor to be a prophet's wife, but now I cringe to think how hard it would be because people can be so mean.

Sarah Dunster said...

Leaders make convenient vessels for people's angst. Also, customer service reps.

Margaret said...

You are wise, and I like you and your thoughts. Getting out of our own niche is hard, but knowing that there are other people in other niches is so, so important.

Sarah said...

So beautifully articulated, Sarah. Thank you! I have come to this open perspective with maturity as I was raised in what I now see as a fairly closed-minded world. I think the ability to appreciate others even when they are different from us, and to recognize that they are not "bad, dumb, stupid, ignorant" (for the most part) just because they are different from us is a view that has the power to make so much more peace in this world.

Sarah Dunster said...

I think we would find much better solutions to a lot of our struggles if we could see each other's perspectives.