Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Lesson in Diplomacy

I was fascinated by the string of comments accompanying this HBLL Library blog post about their collection of works related to Charles Darwin (happy 200th, Charles!). I've read a fair amount about the religion/evolution debate (my favorite spot to do so) but the interesting part to me of this discussion was the official blogger's responses to Brad's rather mean-spirited (at least in my view) judgments about the propriety of a BYU website talking about Darwin in a non-bashing way. The author's responses show remarkable restraint and maturity.

My favorite part was the response to another commenter, Joe R, who agreed with Brad that a blog post about Darwin is indeed an "honor" to him and stated "I doubt we would see a similar blog entry about Hitler or others of his kind." The author of the post replied simply "Thanks for the comment. For the record last year the blog did mention Hitler and it was not to honor him. He is part of world history and there are thousands of items in our collections that have a connection to World War II and are therefore linked to Hitler." I just find the curtness and simplicity and honesty hilarious there! And the diplomacy is amazing--the author could very easily have gone on the attack herself, but didn't do anything of the sort. She stated the facts dispassionately and laid out an argument for why there's nothing wrong with her actions. The lack of direct retaliation makes her argument all the more persuasive to me--it sets her apart as "above the fray," mature, and composed.

I would take this as a model for discussions of politics, religion, or any other contentious subject. Even as a model for foreign (as well as domestic) policy. Because to me, it's the Christ-like way to go. Don't retaliate just because it would be justified. Transcend the petty arguments. That doesn't mean you don't have to respond or argue your case, but man, it helps if you do it in a way that doesn't make you look like a whiner.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Daily Universe Editorial

As the title indicates, this editorial will hopefully be published in the Daily Universe, BYU's campus newspaper. I haven't submitted it yet, but I wanted to post it here and get any feedback/comments/suggestions etc. from anyone who cares to read it.


Same-gender attraction at BYU
by Austin Smith (austin.smith@byu.net)

My freshman year home-teaching companion, a mission buddy, my cousin--these are a few of the wonderful people in my life who, through no choice of their own, are attracted to members of the same gender. I fear that here at BYU, talking about homosexuality has for too long been taboo. Same-gender attraction (SGA) is not something we can just ignore, wishing it would go away, because it won't. It deserves and demands a mature, respectful, faithful, and open discussion. We cannot allow our silence, ignorance, or intolerance to push amazing people out of the Church. As the recent Church publication for Mormons who struggle with homosexual attractions, "God Loveth His Children," says, "Some people with same-gender attraction have felt rejected because members of the Church did not always show love. No member of the Church should ever be intolerant." Tolerance does not require one to embrace homosexual behavior, but my prayer is that we, as a campus community, can be more understanding, loving and, yes, accepting of our friends and loved ones who find themselves in this position.

One misconception about those who struggle with SGA is that they simply don't have enough faith. In my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. These are people who spend countless hours in earnest prayer, serve selflessly in the temple, magnify their callings as full-time missionary, visiting teacher, or Elder's Quorum President, and meet consistently with both priesthood leaders and professional counselors. These are people who show me what it is like to go forward with faith despite walking in darkness. Some eventually feel comfortable entering into heterosexual marriages, others feel no change in their orientation, but all demonstrate great faith and trust in God.

The men and women in our lives who struggle with SGA have a difficult cross to bear which we cannot afford to exacerbate with our scorn or disdain. However, no one wants or needs pity. Our friends and loved ones who experience SGA need to be befriended, loved, and accepted. They need, just as we all do, support in trying to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to be able to say, as President Hinckley did, that “Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender. We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and sisters.” Put a face on the issue: if a friend of yours were to tell you about his quiet battles with homosexuality, would you turn him away, or embrace him?

To those of you reading this who struggle with same-gender attraction, let me express my unconditional love and support for you. Know that you are not alone; there are many active Latter-day Saints who experience SGA or who have unanswered questions about this issue. One of my friends at BYU who struggles with SGA told me that for a long time, he thought he was literally the only guy in the whole university who had these kinds of feelings. That is a very depressing and unhealthy way to live, and it simply is not true. It's an easy thing to let depression and despair overwhelm you, especially if you have been unsuccessful in trying to change your orientation, but I plead with you to hang on. Remember the words of Nephi, who acknowledged that he did not know the meaning of all things, but nevertheless testified "I know that [God] loveth his children." You do not need to bear this burden alone, there are many resources where you can find help and support. Seek out close friends and family members with whom you can confide and discuss your trials, missteps, successes, and goals. Speak with your bishop, chances are he has counseled with others in your situation. BYU offers free counseling where you can confidentially work through your feelings with an empathetic professional. The website NorthStarLDS.org is a resource and community for Mormons who experience SGA, with the aim of helping them cope with their struggles and stay active in the church. Above all, search out the best in life and enjoy the abundant blessings of the church and the fellowship of the saints.

As a BYU community, it is my fervent hope that our attitudes on the issue of same-gender attraction can be open and tolerant. That does not mean we need to compromise our beliefs or condone sexual activity outside of marriage, but we should always strive to love our brothers and sisters as God loves each and every one of us: unconditionally, no matter our struggles.


Update: You can read the final, published version (which only uses the term "struggle" once, when paraphrasing the words of a friend with SSA) here on the Daily Universe website.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Both Sides Now

I attended a really cool fireside last Monday in Lehi put on by the Matises (or Matis'? I can never pluralize family names that end in s). Stuart Matis was a gay Mormon young man who took his life on the steps of his Stake Center in California back in 2000 during that state's Prop 22 campaign. Now his parents live in Lehi, Utah and do a lot to help Mormons who have same-sex attraction (henceforth SSA) come to terms with it and hopefully still stay active in the church. The speaker was Ty Mansfield, who co-wrote the book In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-gender Attraction along with the Matises. It was published by Deseret Book, and while I haven't gotten to read it, I've heard it's really good. I did read the little prologue at the beginning and it's a wonderful little vignette about the scripture that says the Lord sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. It talks about some really cool symbolism behind that, but you'll just have to read the book to get the whole story.

It was really interesting to be one of the very few straight people there. It gave me a small glimpse into how it would feel every day of your life if you have SSA--everybody else is attracted to people that you aren't attracted to and you don't really understand why. It's obviously a bit alienating, just by default. Fortunately for me, everybody was super friendly and welcoming, plus I didn't even have to worry about anyone shunning me or calling me heterosexual epithets if they found out I was straight!

Ty's presentation was really good, he talked a lot about the pre-mortal life and stressed a lot how short this life is in the eternal perspective. I have heard that a million times, but maybe because it was coming from someone for whom this life is a constant struggle to not act on his homosexual desires that it took on a new meaning for me. I can say that my respect and love for anyone who is choosing to remain celibate so that they can stay in the church grew even more after meeting many of them. At the same time, I definitely don't feel like I'm able to judge anyone who leaves the church over this issue. But the faith and determination of Ty and everyone there was amazing and definitely an example to me in all of my own struggles.

Another of Ty's points was about trying to view this challenge in his life as a blessing in some ways. He talked about how he has been able to help out a lot of other people who struggle with these issues and how it has helped him become more patient, meek, and submissive. I'd like to share the first verse (and chorus) of a song I love from a CD my dad gave me for Christmas; it's called "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell, and I think it speaks beautifully to how one thing can be looked at through very different lenses:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all


Great song, I recommend you go listen to it all ASAP.

It was also fun to hang out with some of the friends I had known before the fireside (as well as some others I met there) at IHOP afterwards. One thing that struck me about that was that at the fireside, it was kind of like the Sunday version of coping with SSA--spiritual, edifying, gospel-centered, etc. Then afterwards, hanging out with all these awesome guys in a totally secular environment was like looking into the day-to-day living with SSA. Just like I don't concentrate on the gospel for three hours in a row on any day except Sunday, they were just friends after the fireside--joking, laughing, sharing stories, talking about school, etc. I think both kinds of support--through the gospel directly and through good friends--are necessary for these guys to stay strong in the church. I have seen how those same two elements have been integral in keeping me active throughout the years, and I'm pretty sure the same thing will help all of my friends from the fireside too.

So, the conclusion: I fear that homosexuality is just a super taboo topic in the church. One friend I met at the fireside told me how just over a year ago he literally thought he was the only guy at BYU who struggled with SSA. I think this subject needs to come out of the shadows, because let's face it: it happens. More than you might think. And it's not just going to go away--these people are some of the most devout, honest, and hard-working Mormons I know, and they still feel attracted to members of the same sex. Their stories of endless prayers to be "changed," their thought process of "if only I work hard enough in my calling and serve well enough in Church I'll be straight" are heart-breaking because despite years of completely earnest effort, they still have SSA. Without any positive role models in their lives, without any friends who can really understand them, it makes it insanely hard to not get pessimistic and depressed.

I wanted to ask anybody who reads this blog, whether you're gay or straight, what thoughts you might have about how to make homosexuality not such a taboo topic among church members. I would first of all encourage you to talk to family and friends about it, just start discussions, try to understand all the points of view, etc. I would also encourage you to watch what you say in everyday conversation, because you don't know if one of your roommates or a member of your Elder's Quorum or your visiting teacher is struggling with this. I was also thinking about writing an article on this subject, perhaps for the BYU Political Review (although I don't want to get into the politics of the subject, so maybe that wouldn't be the best venue for it. Regardless...), to try to increase sensitivity to the topic among straight people and also to let members of the church who struggle with SSA know they're not alone. It is important that they know that there are good, active, temple-recommend carrying Mormons with SSA who they can talk to and get support from and look up to. Any ideas for how to share that? What has been your experience with this subject among church members?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

In Honor of Aunt Janet


I just re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring in honor of my Aunt Janet who just passed away this morning. She was Buddhist and my dad was talking about how peaceful she was as she got all her things in order before she died (she had a brain tumor so she's known for a while that she didn't have much time left) and he credited a lot of that to her strong faith. One of the things I love about the movie is how it shows the cyclical nature of life (and moving on to a higher plane each time around) through the lives of Buddhist monks who live on a monastery that floats in the middle of a lake. The movie is very optimistic and reassuring and peaceful and beautiful. I highly recommend it to everyone. If you want to borrow it, I'd be happy to lend it to you.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ugh

Just kind of a follow-up to my lengthy rant a while back about the US government's warrantless wiretapping program: in that article I mentioned how the Maryland police had infiltrated and surveilled numerous peaceful activist groups. Well, it turns out it was even worse than originally disclosed. Not only is this just more distressing because the problem was bigger than I thought (they were even spying on Critical Mass, a bicyclists' rights group!), but also just because it is a perfect example of how even when the government is caught doing something bad, it still denies as much as it can get away with. It's just the nature of people in power, no matter what side you're on--if you get caught, you minimize the damage, even if that means not actually coming clean about the extent of the problem. It's this sort of opaqueness and dishonesty that irks me, and at the same time makes me skeptical of things like the US finally admitting it has used waterboarding on prisoners at Guantanamo after years of pressure BUT that it was only used on 3 people. Right. How can you expect us to trust you when you lied about using it at all for years? I'm sorry, but I just can't muster that kind of trust in the government, especially not this administration.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Yes Man

I saw Yes Man in theaters yesterday, and I thought it was a pretty darn good movie to watch on the first day of the year. It's message is what's behind basically all new year's resolutions: live life, don't be afraid to change and do new stuff and be a better person. I would not, however, recommend watching it with your mother, because mine at least was very disgusted by a scene in which Jim Carrey can't say no to an old grandma's sexual advances. Yeah, it was gross, but decently funny. I give it a 7.5 out of 10.

The most interesting part to me was the "covenant" Jim Carrey's character made. Quick summary/spoiler: Carrey is convinced by a self-help guru in front of everyone at a huge seminar to make a covenant with himself that he will agree to every opportunity presented to him. Hilarity and spontaneity ensue, and Carrey's previously depressing life changes for the better. But towards the end, he begs the guru to "take away the covenant" because, as you can imagine, saying yes to everything can cause problems (see above paragraph for exhibit 1). The guru's answer surprises him: there is no covenant. Turns out the guru was just "riffing" because Carrey was going to say no to him and embarass him in front of his audience. The point, the guru explains, is that the covenant is just there to get you started, but you should start saying yes to good opportunities because you want to, not because you have to. This also opens you up to saying no to bad opportunities as long as you generally stay open to new experiences.

I found that part interesting for a couple reasons. First, it's a great way of looking at the Mosaic law, and all "lower" laws in general. A schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, if you will. [random aside: in doing the obligatory two seconds of research (a.k.a. googling) for blog posts, I ran across this article on that verse. I have no idea if it's true, but I hope it is] I also thought it was cool that the word covenant was used in a mainstream film in a pretty similar sense to how us mormons use it [the guru was kind of a God figure]. Of course, we consider covenants to be between us and God, whereas Yes Man portrayed Carrey's covenant as just with himself, but in some sense it's only our half of the covenant that is in question so (if you squint just right) you could consider mormon covenants to be with ourselves too. But not really :)

And finally there is the potentially troubling revelation from the guru that "there is no covenant" basically saying that the covenant was just a made-up thing that didn't really have any power [when giving the covenant the guru had claimed that if Carrey broke it he would be stricken with very bad luck]. I do believe there are consequences for breaking real covenants--they are serious and sacred things--but I think it's not often what we assume it will be. Oftentimes it feels like we want the punishment for breaking a sacred covenant to be righteous wrath of God poured down upon the insolent backslider--we're talking house burning down, spouse leaving, going bankrupt, or something deliciously big like that. The kind of big thing you can make an example out of or say "ha! told ya so!" if it's somebody else, or really wallow in if it's you. But I think our punishment for breaking covenants is much more subtle than that. In fact, the worst punishment is often your own guilt. Or often we just won't be as happy if we break our covenants--there's sexual disease, there's hangovers, there's the emptiness when you spend your life chasing material success instead of serving and loving your fellow men, etc etc etc. If we truly magnify our covenants, I believe we can largely avoid these pitfalls.

So yeah, I enjoyed the movie. There were some pretty good funny parts, but maybe I'm just biased in favor of Jim Carrey. I really must warn you though (in addition to the gross scene mentioned in the first paragraph) that the first half hour or so is really quite crappy--slow and unfunny and blah. But then it gets a lot better. Also, there's some fun music by "Munchausen by Proxy," the fictitious band that Jim Carrey's girlfriend is in [think Moldy Peaches meets David Bowie], plus the Eels.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

4th Time Around

After three false starts, I won my fourth game of minesweeper with a time of 172. Not bad for expert and not having played for a whole year and only having the stupid touchpad on my laptop.

...I am such a loser :)

Happy New Year's! I think 2009 is gonna be great.