Friday, August 26, 2016

Pornography: My Personal Story; A Plea to Change the Conversation

I was exposed to pornography for the first time when I was a young teenager. 

It was minor, in comparison to what it could have been, but it is important to understand what happened and what I have learned from it.

I am sharing more details in this post than I have shared with anyone previously, since all of the people involved back then have passed away - and because I want my children and their children to understand why I despise three things regarding pornography: the industry itself, what it produces, and, just as importantly, how badly we have messed up our conversations regarding it within our religious culture. 

Of these three things, I am focusing most in this post on the final one: the way we converse about and deal with it in our culture. This post is an attempt to explain why, without writing the novel that would be required to address all three. It is not an attempt to be comprehensive, as I am not dedicating weeks to the task of writing this post. 

With that introductory explanation: 

My first "real job" (not delivering newspapers or doing manual labor tasks for a few dollars) was at an elementary school in the neighboring town helping the custodian over the summer. My father, a custodian at another elementary school in that town, arranged for me to get the job. For someone raised in poverty, it was a blessing.

The custodian with whom I worked was an extremely good man - a Stake President with a family he loved dearly and a rock solid, genuine testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He also was a regular consumer of pornography. It wasn't visual, as far as I knew, although it might have included magazines and/or movies of which I could not have been aware. 

My first exposure occurred one day when I was ready for my break, went into his office to clock out for that break, and saw a partially covered book on his desk. I liked stock western books, especially Louis L'Amour (even though I knew they were formulaic brain candy), but I didn't know the author of the book I saw. It obviously was a western, so I picked it up and started reading it. It took only a few pages to realize it wasn't like L'Amour's books, and my curiosity (and hormones, I am sure in retrospect) got the better of me and propelled me to keep reading - that book and the others he brought to work throughout the summer. 

That custodian really was a good man, and I am convinced he would have been mortified if he had known I was reading those books - that he had been my introduction to pornography. Looking back, I am sure he was ashamed of his habit, and especially the hypocrisy of his actions and what he had to preach in his church calling. 

It has been roughly 35 years since I picked up that book, but, occasionally, when I am not thinking actively of other things, one memorable scene from the book will flash across my mind - and I will wonder, once again, at the ability of pornography to embed itself into our neurons and refuse to be deleted. Since then, I have been exposed to pornography at various times (to differing degrees, through multiple media sources), and, with me, the same issue exists across the spectrum: my physiological tendency to have images appear unbidden that I would prefer remain unseen or, ideally, deleted. 

From decades of experience, education, conversation, and introspection, I have come to a few conclusions that I feel the need to share now regarding our treatment of this issue within our religious dialogue. I will start with a few comments about our warped cultural view of all things sexual and end with a summary comment about the nature of the porn industry and its impact on society. I hope nobody reads this post as a defense of pornography or the industry that produces it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1) Nudity is not pornographic by nature, and we fail miserably when we make that overly-simplistic and damaging connection. There is nothing - absolutely nothing - pornographic or shameful in nudity in and of itself, even in nudity that is depicted through the written word or visually. Conflating the two causes deep, destructive, nearly innumerable issues. We need to stop doing so. Full stop.

2) Repeat the last paragraph, inserting "sex" and "sexual activity" for "nudity". (Seriously, re-read the paragraph that way, please, before continuing.) Even visual images of fully nude sexual activity are not automatically pornographic. It is critical to understand that fundamental concept in order to deal with true pornography in a constructive way and stop perpetuating incorrect and debilitating misunderstanding among us.

3) One of the reasons I have not shared my own experiences more often and in greater detail is the culture of shame in which I was raised. When I realized as a teenager that I was acting, in practical terms, like an addict (creating isolation in order to read the books, hiding my actions from everyone else, acting on a compulsion, etc.), shame was the primary reason I kept it a secret - and that shame robbed me of the only chance I had to get the support and help I needed to stop reading them. I questioned my morality, my self-control, my righteousness, my very nature - specifically because what I was doing was described as an ultimate evil - not the natural curiosity and hormonal reaction it actually was. 

4) We need to stop demonizing people who are struggling with occasional (or even regular) engagement with pornography.We can demonize the industry and what it produces, and rightly so, without condemning those who are exposed to it and even engage with it. Simply allowing them to admit engagement, especially early in the process, without any form of discipline or punishment, would go a long way toward eliminating the binding shame that too often accompanies even simple exposure. 

(I need to add a specific note at this point: I am not talking here about users who then act on what they see with people in their lives. I also am not talking about all categories of pornography. There is a proper place for formal discipline and punishment relative to the use of pornography, but we tend to make that place far too broad and inclusive than it should be.)

5) We need to focus on the practical reasons why pornography is so evil as much as the spiritual dangers - and we need to discuss those reasons openly and without shame. We need to be open about how natural it is to be stimulated by nudity, sex, and pornography - and the differences between them. We need to stress that sexual arousal is not a sin. To emphasize that point, we need to stress that sexual arousal is not a sin. We need to incorporate real sex education into our practices, at the very least by supporting it in our schools. Just like educating people about the practical and physical health dangers of smoking and drinking is more effective for many people than focusing on addiction as a spiritual loss of agency, educating people about the evils of the pornography industry itself can provide a powerful motivation to discuss usage openly and constructively - as long as we balance such discussions with a rejection of the personal shaming that has been such a core part of our culture for so long. 

I no longer am ashamed of my reading that summer, since I now understand much better the physiological foundation of why I continued to read those books, but I reflect on my experiences throughout my life and wish someone had talked and would talk now more openly and scientifically about pornography and its allure - and also about the damage it does in practical terms, not just in spiritual terms. I wish the dialogue surrounding pornography had not been so extreme and condemning of the people who read (and viewed) pornographic materials, even as I believe the industry itself is one of the best examples in our world of the evil that exists in the hearts of conspiring humans. It dehumanizes people, both men and women; it degrades people, both men and women; it drives much of the sex slave industry that is vile and depraved to an extent that is beyond my ability to express. 

Ironically, the way we approach pornography actually inhibits our ability to fight the industry that produces it, since that approach drives its use among us underground - which deepens the debilitating shame (and fear of punishment and communal rejection) that keeps it underground - which silences productive discussions about it - which aids and abets its continued production and use. 

Compassion and real charity toward people is the key. We simply have to separate in our rhetoric and in our hearts the consumer from the producer, particularly the good people who are so different from the evil people who are striving to enslave them.  We need a loving understanding of that Stake President so many years ago who unwittingly introduced me to pornography, not a culture of judgmentalism, punishment, shame, and scorn. 

Currently, we are adding chains to their lives, instead of helping to free them. Shame on us. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Disrespecting Jesus of Nazareth by How We Treat Others

There are no qualifications, limitations, or disclaimers on the commandment to love others. 
"Inasmuch as ye have done it . . . " means, literally, if I call someone a mocking or demeaning name, I have called Jesus of Nazareth that same name. It means if I won't try to listen respectfully to someone, no matter what they are saying, I am refusing to listen respectfully to Jesus of Nazareth. 
The commandment to "do good" to people includes those who curse, persecute, and spitefully use us. We are commanded to be "perfect" in this love - and, in the original, that means being "complete; whole; fully developed" in love. It means, in practical terms: 
There are no qualifications, limitations, or disclaimers on this commandment.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Political Memes: Flaxen Cords and Itching Ears

When we allow ourselves to become outraged over little things, we lose our ability to recognize, appreciate, and respond to truly outrageous things. 
When we allow ourselves to become outraged over manufactured, fabricated things, we lose our agency in a fundamental way - and we give it to people who intentionally are conspiring to take it. 
Political memes can be as addicting and damaging as alcohol and cigarettes, appealing to what has been called "itching ears". Prohibition isn't the answer, but using restraint and at least an attempt at simple fact-checking are good ways to retain one's integrity and agency. Ignoring such measures is a guaranteed way to tighten the flaxen cords that enrich conspiring men and women and harm everyone else in real and lasting ways.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Easy Outrage: When Hearts Grow Cold

We live in a society where people get outraged far too easily. Some things truly are worthy of outrage, but when outrage is the foundational orientation . . . 
Honestly, I think this outrage-orientation is one of the most insidious and alarming aspects of our society (fueled by one-sided, 24/7 media programs (on both - or multiple - sides of every issue that are focused on stoking outrage for ratings and the attendant profit) - and I think it is a manifestation of the concept of hearts growing cold and real charity being lost. When we don't even try to listen to those whose views are different than ours, with real intent to understand and respect (even when we still don't agree), we lose an important part of our humanity. 
I could have gained a quality education from professors at a lot of institutions, but the students at Harvard gave me a deep respect for people who saw the world differently than I did - and a deep respect for their views, even when understanding and respect didn't create agreement. In a real way, they gave me the world. 
I try hard not to fall into that trap, but I have not been entirely successful lately while posting on Facebook - not so much in what I post, since there truly hasn't been real outrage for me in those posts, but rather in how I have reacted a few times to respondents who appear outraged and derail the posts completely. I have committed to practice better what I preach - so if all someone wants to do is argue, with no attempt at understanding and respect, please understand if I ignore their comments and/ or simply don't continue to engage. 
Hopefully, that won't happen often; hopefully, we can converse civilly and respectfully. However, if that is not possible, I will try harder to respect everyone by not perpetuating and fostering increased outrage.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Beautiful Brokenness

Kintsugi: The Japanese art of finding beauty in broken things 

(The link above shows examples of this art.)

The following is from a friend. I hope it touches and enlightens others as it did me.

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I didn't know for sure if I could let go of perfectionism, and accept my life, my family, and my faith will never be what I thought it should be.

Then...I found my dear sweet wife.  She went through divorce like I did. She was broken like me.  She was perfect for me...not because I could try to compromise my views and just deal with it...

...but in all reality, for me...she was perfect precisely because of what she went through and how she could see me in a light others could not.

And I came across this term in my readings:

kintsukuroi - n. "to repair with gold"; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

It is not simply any mended object automatically increases its appreciation but…that the gap between the vanity of pristine or perfect appearance and the fractured manifestation of mortal fate is precisely what deepens its appeal.

In other words, the proof of its fragility and its resilience is what makes it beautiful.

In every sense of the words, my wife is simply more beautiful to me because she is who she is today over and above anyone else who might have had a perfect life with no suffering ever.

This can directly apply to our testimonies of the gospel.  They can be broken. Not because we are weak. Not because we don't have enough faith.  Sometimes it is because God wants us to see that it can be mended, and afterwards never be the same...

...but better.  Precisely because we have been broken, we are better.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Jesus Showed All Lives Matter by Focusing His Ministry on Specific Lives

This post is not a defense of Black Lives Matter. Seriously, it isn't, so please don't make it about that. It is a broad statement about the stupid meme that is going around Facebook saying Jesus made the definitive statement about all lives mattering when he died on the cross for everyone. 
Yes, he died for everyone. That is a fundamental tenet of Chrisitanity, and, ironically, Mormon theology affirms it even kore than most Protestant theologies. However, he did that by explicitly focusing his mortal ministry on the marginalized and rejected in his society. In other words, he showed that all lives matter specifically by highlighting and working to change the inequities of his culture that made some lives NOT matter - or, at least, not matter nearly as much. He made all lives matter eternally when they didn't matter equally within their politic and socio-economic system - but he also worked tirelessly to convince the religious and political authorities (and the citizenship, by extension) to change the views and practices that disproportionately disadvantaged and harmed specific people. He beleived it so strongly that he died for it.
That is indisputable in the Gospels, and it boggles my mind how some people don't understand it. BLM being a good or bad organization doesn't change Jesus' ministry at all. He showed all lives matter by valuing publicans' lives - and lepers' lives - and sinners' lives - and adulterers' lives - and, importantly, Samaritans' lives. 
Truly beleiving all lives matter, as a Chrisitan, means doing everything possible to make all lives as equally valuable and sacred and protected and honored and loved and served in every way as possible.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Sacrament: Honoring the Literal or Metaphor through Symbol

In a Gospel Principles lesson recently, I mentioned the Catholic idea of trans-substantiation, wherein the people literally ingest the body and blood of Christ. I said I know we view the sacrament symbolically but that the idea of "partaking of Christ" in a way that changes us is powerful and beautiful.

In that light, I love the idea of the sacrament table as Jesus' self-sacrificial altar (and as his final step in the process of perfection - "It is finished.") and the congregation as partakers in that sacrifice and similar pathwaybtonperfection - even though that image is grossly archaic and barbaric to our modern society. It's okay for me, specifically because I view the Garden and Golgatha suffering as representatively symbolic to begin with, so extending the former literal or metaphorical to a current simile doesn't bother me.

I can honor the literal view while not adopting it myself.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

When Jesus Said, "Love Your Neighbor"

When Jesus said, "Love you neighbor," he knew your neighbor would act, look, believe, and love differently than you do. That's the whole point. 

Love should have no boundaries, even when we disagree with others' choices, opinions, beliefs, actions, etc. 

We can't say we love everyone if we regularly speak in strident, aggressive, attacking words and tones - if we constantly talk in us vs. them language - if we wouldn't sit down with them over a meal or go on a double date or put our arms around them - if we refuse to respect them and their differing opinions - if we ridicule and criticize and assume stupidity - if we won't shut up and simply listen with a heart that is trying to understand. 

Want to show your Christ-like love - or develop such love? Seek out someone you naturally would shun and get to know them well enough to gain a friend - not by changing them but by really getting to know and respect amd accept them for who they are.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Learning to Hit the Curve Balls

Life is interesting, with opposition in all things.

Much of my life can be encapsulated as learning to hit the curve balls. As I have said in the past, the grandiose dreams of my adolescence and early adulthood lie shattered on the floor around me - but the mosaic we have created from the shards is beautiful and glorious to behold.

I have hit the curve balls adequately thus far, I believe - but I would like a fastball right down the middle this time, if that would provide the ultimate result that would be best.

Perhaps, however, fastballs right down the middle aren't what I need. Perhaps a steady diet of curve balls is my destiny. If so, I am okay with that - as long as what they produce continues to be wonderful and visible in retrospect, as is the case thus far.