Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Feminism: Into the Fray

Finding myself in an ever-increasing number of friendships with individuals (inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and out) who claim the "feminist" title, I feel impelled to enter the discussion concerning gender roles. I have noticed a wide spectrum of views concerning men and women, from both genders; some of these I have found interesting and uplifting, others I have found patently offensive and bigoted. (For the record, these are NOT divided along gender lines.

I do not and cannot yet claim expertise or even familiarity with the breadth, depth, and variety of feminist philosophy or literature currently available; my attempt in this post is not to survey the intellectual field or debate a specific position. I simply wish to establish three ground-rules for the discussion.

First, debate concerning gender-roles must be centered on cooperation, on the reconciliation of the battle of the sexes. I do not here imply that awareness of gender-differences are to be eliminated - indeed, although I personally intend just the opposite, I leave the specifics of that question to the debate itself. The goal of any discussion of gender-roles, however, should and must be to help both men and women live happier, more fulfilling lives. In religious terms, gender-role discussion must help individuals become more like the Heavenly Parents of us all.*
Therefore, separatist or supremacist arguments from either gender are here inappropriate. If the battle of the sexes is to become a "raw, red war" (Gordon R. Dickson, The Star Road) then discussion devolves into mere intelligence-gathering. A reader may have just that purpose in mind; if so, they may continue as they wish, but I have nothing to say to that individual.

*(As a point of background information, my conception of deity is a perfected union of a perfected man and a perfected woman; however, I leave open for discussion the definitions of "perfect," "union," "man," and "woman." Indeed, my attempts to refine my own definitions of the same are the reason for this post).

In a similar vein, views of both genders must be respected and evaluated based on their internal merit, not based on the gender of the speaker. Yes, the two genders probably do not understand each other completely. Yes, it may be impossible for me as a man to really understand how a woman feels when she is threatened intellectually/emotionally/physically/sexually/spiritually (though I will in the future provide a critique of this position). However, neither of these arguments contribute to more perfect understanding of gender roles. Statements to the effect of: "That's easy for you to say, as a man" or, "That's easy for you to say, as a woman" are somewhat deceitful tactics used to end debates, not to contribute to them. If we are to take the communication barrier seriously, no one woman or man can express anything to any other man or woman, barring a belief in telepathy. If we accept the imprecision of inter-personal communication, let us also accept the imprecision of inter-gender communication and at least try to understand one another.

Third, the purpose of the discussion is to help each reader live a better life, hopefully with a greater respect for and appreciation of members of both genders, and of the unique and wonderful differences gender yields human existence. We speak for understanding, but if that understanding does not change our pattern of existence, then we have not succeeded in our discussion. In short, contributors to a gender debate should love their audience; the purpose ought to be mutual improvement, not the satisfaction of vengeance, the vindication of pride, or the denigration of others. I anticipate that a good gender-role discussion should be somewhat life-changing - for ALL parties involved. Therefore, a plea: to myself and to us all, let us be humble enough to listen to another point of view.

If all involved (including myself!) can abide these rules, then let us "reason together" (Isaiah 1:18) concerning gender. What is a woman? What is a man? What is a perfect woman? What is a perfect man? And what is a perfect union of the two?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

BYU Book sale

I discovered to my surprise today that the BYU bookstore was having a 1$ book sale.


With some difficulty, I limited myself to fifteen selections. My roommates thought they were a little silly. That's alright - they don't get to read them.

Principles of Political Economy and Taxation - David Ricardo. Ricardo is one of the top two or three founders of classical economics, and I've finally gotten ahold of his authentic text. If econ isn't your thing, I understand; if it is, you understand.

How We Think - John Dewey. Dewey is one of top three or four founders of educational and cognitive theory. If you want to know how and why schools run the way they do, this 1910 publication is a must-read. I'm actually doing a research project right now on the application of the big cognitive theorists on e-learning in Utah. Not just for the history majors, guys.

David's Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer - David Meltzer. That was probably a shock, I know. I wanted some poetry, this one was available. If he's awful, I'm only down a dollar. If he's as good as the back cover suggests (hmm)...

Manliness - Harvey C. Mansfield. One would hope not to have to purchase such a book, as a man. This text, however, is a critical defense of manliness, aimed at a feminist or post-feminist audience. A friend of mine keeps a feminist blog, and I've wanted to contribute on several occasions, but have not taken the time to put together a coherent, respectful argument against some of the things that make me angry about feminism. I'll write my first response, and then read the book and see if I can further refine my arguments using it. Incidentally, I received today the invitation to attend a Mormon woman's critique of Christian Feminism on Thursday, that I would actually quite like to attend. I think the entire feminist movement, though positive in some regards, is riddled with hatred and bigotry, and I look forward to contributing to the debate.

What are People For? - Wendell Berry. I've heard of Berry, and heard lots of good things about him, so I selected two compilations of his essays.

Into the Wilderness Dream: Exploration Narratives of the American West, 1500-1805 - Various. Edited by Barclay,
Maguire, and Wild. This book is in direct preparation for my Wilderness Writing class. Why not begin now? Besides, I like exploration writing as a form, and I enjoy the heady romanticism of some of the explorers.

The Writer's Journey (3rd Edition) - Christopher Vogler. I hadn't heard of this one, but picked it up in pursuit of my dream of becoming a writer. When I told my humanities class about the booksale before class started, and mentioned that I got this book, my teacher lighting up confirmed that I had made a good selection.

The Essential Nietzsche - Mostly, Nietzche. He's a nihilist or an existentialist; if the latter, then I can learn from him. A girl I used to date said that it had helped her refine her Christianity and life-pattern (by considering Nietzsche's critiques of religious hypocrisy, etc.). I've heard enough about him, I thought I'd give a Nietzsche sampler a shot.

Making a Poem: Some Thoughts About Poetry and the People Who Write It - Miller Williams. This is by a professor of poetry somewhere; I hope that with it I will be able to improve my prose.

The Contracted World: New and Selected Poems of Peter Meinke - Peter Meinke. Another book of poetry, hopefully for example and edification.

Unrecounted: Poems by W.G. Sebald and Lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp. Also. This picture book also includes lithographs of people's eyes with each poem; it's kind of fun.

Citizenship Papers - Wendell Berry

The Kingdom of God is Within You - Leo Tolstoy. I first read Tolstoy this semester, in The Death of Ivan Ilych. I loved it, so when I saw a chance to read Tolstoy's personal testimony, I jumped at the chance. Apparently, Tolstoy was a very pro-Mormon Christian; his anarchist ideals of widespread, personal moral revolution (to become more like God) certainly harmonizes with many LDS beliefs. (Tolstoy was only anarchist in the vaguest sense of the word - as people get better and better, government is needed less and less.)

Expression and the Inner - David H. Finkelstein. A critical analysis of the author-self in writing, with suggestions on how to use the assumed worldview as a writing tool. My friend at this blog did a whole field study on this topic; seeing the intensity of her interest in it, I decided to investigate the topic myself.

Well, there you have it. More than three, though when I am going to read them I have no idea. One day, a little at a time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gratitude, and the Counter-Offensive

Inspired by several friends' gratitude lists, I post one of my own.

1.) My calling as a hometeacher. This calling, and the associated hometeaching-director calling that goes with it, give me purpose and responsibility.
2.) A developing friendship. I've recently met someone with whom I can discuss the matters of my heart without shaming either of us. I'm not talking here about a romantic gossip in whom I can confide; rather, I am developing a friendship with someone who understands the things about which I am passionate, and who largely shares similar passions (or similar types of passions.) It's someone with whom I share a language; it feels like we understand each other when discussing things that are important. More importantly, it is someone who lives in such a way that I can believe their passion isn't just words, and that they are also existentially familiar with the type of existential experience I strive to gain. In other words, I respect them, and they respect me, and we can talk about important things without feeling or being silly or ashamed.

3.) Time. I feel I have precious little of this, but I am grateful for the opportunities I yet have to change before graduating.

4.) Employment, now and previously. I have been blessed with the financial means necessary to do what I have needed to do and to prepare for the things for which I've needed to prepare. That alone provides an amazing degree of relief and security.

5.) A loving family. This item cannot be described adequately here.

6.) The temple. It is a place of refuge, instruction, and renewal.

That said, as a primer, brings me to the counter-offensive. You may wonder why I post the following; my hope is that one of you may benefit from my explanation of the changes I plan to make.
Here is a list of changes I'll be making in the next year.

1.) I will get into shape. Specifically, I will run a marathon in March, I will increase my chest press by 50 lbs, and I will increase my maximum number of pull ups in a set by 5. The body is a temple and an instrument of our Spirit, and hopefully of the Spirit of the Lord. That means it needs to work, and work well. I watched Dancesport tonight, and i was struck by the degree of control the dancers have over their bodies; I saw what appeared to be beautiful harmonies of body and spirit this evening. I imagine that such a harmony will be very difficult to develop in the Spirit world, when I won't have a body, until the resurrection, when things are to some degree set in stone.

2.) I will take time, on a regular basis, to hike, climb, shoot photographs, cook, write, and to dance (see 4). Renewal is not something that can be done in bursts - there is no life destination, until death. It's always a process in which one has not arrived until one dies. By the same token, ultimately, if a pattern of living is not joyous to the soul now, it will not become joyous simply by a change of circumstances; i.e. it can always be "the best of times" or "the worst of times" regardless of circumstance (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities). I guess what I am trying to say is that happiness is independent of circumstance; as Nephi wrote, "We lived after the manner of happiness" (2 Ne 5:27).

(Note - happiness is a pattern of living, not an emotional state. I distinguish here between being happy, and having happiness- happiness is a pattern that permits one to be happy, but it is not its guarantor "every, every moment" ("Our Town," Oscar Wilde). There are some who need medication to feel happy; although medication is not part of the happiness I'm describing, being humble enough to take it if one needs it, would be. Thus, happiness is series of principles that allow and encourage the emotional state of being happy, cheerful, glad, grateful, etc. even in the midst of afflictions.)

3.) I will read three books for pleasure. Current possibilities include Quiet Flows the Don, and the Don Flows Home to the Sea; Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. The Little Prince is another possibility, as is War and Peace, though both are farther down the list. Suggestions for other possibilities are welcome.

4.) I will begin to learn to dance. Dancing is wonderful and fun, and I love to dance. Like prayer or singing, dance is something that I believe should be able to be shared by everyone; dance-movement should not be an elitist privilege. Many do not regard me as being able to dance, and I do not necessarily regard dance party-dancing as the joy of movement; far from it, in fact. I want to learn to dance "before the Lord" (2 Sam 6:14). In modern scripture, dance is to be a form of prayer: "If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, and with dancing. and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving" (Doctrine and Covenants 136:28).
I find it very difficult to do so at dance parties; I think social dancing comes a lot closer, so I will probably pursue more... defined modes of dance. However, even the samba or the cha-cha or the bolero or the waltz don't quite fit the bill; yoga comes closer. I'm looking for movement as a prayerful expression. Tai-chi and yoga are about as close as I can imagine.
The trick is not so much to learn a form as to learn to praise the Lord through movement, and that is a very different thing. Maybe any form would serve, but somehow I doubt it. Song certainly does not universally serve as a form of prayer - prayer connects a divine child with God, and some song´s weaken that relationship. Some dances do as well - which dances promote it?
What is a divine dance? And how can I learn it?

5.) I will discover and incorporate some means of keeping in contact with friends around the world. This has to become a change in my life pattern - something regular, something with which I can be consistent.

6.) I will incorporate family history work into my pattern of living. Again, consistency over time.

7.) I will begin to write; I will make writing part of the pattern of my life. This blog is a first step. This number terrifies me more than any other; just writing it on the list has made me somewhat short of breath. But, I must declare the evidence of God's hand in my life. What I write will be one of the ways I do it.
The fear comes from the departure from a sprinting lifestyle - writing, of the type I intend to do, can only be accomplished over a long period of time characterized by consistent and sustained effort. Karl Marx's family life depicts a sprinter's attempt at an alternative: starvation, death, and sorrow leading to bitterness of soul and a rejection of God. Even Kierkegaard, that great Christian existentialist, described his experiences writing intensely as something that enervated him - in the midst of producing his philosophical masterpieces, he became thin, weak, emaciated. As he described, walking was a burden that nearly defeated him since food, rest, and renewal were all subordinate to his calling as a writer. I have heard recently of the muse - like lightning - that strikes an artist, electrifies them, and burns them into a crisp. I've experienced some of the same in Africa. It's heady, and exhausting, and exhilarating, and passionate. Shelley's Frankenstein is another example; I feel far too much kinship with Victor. I know the thrill of creation.

Ingmar Bergman, a director-hero in my mind, gives me hope: though his works were productions of genius, his creativity was subordinate to his psyche. He ate, slept, and enjoyed life; he remained in control. Similarly, this woman especially, and to a lesser degree this man, (and to some extent this man) give me a lot of hope. Cassandra Barney is now linked here on my blog; she is a successful professional artist (as you can see); I've actually seen some of her work in galleries and at art shows. More importantly, though, she is a faithful servant of God and member of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, the Spirit aids creation; unlike Frankenstein, our works do not have to rise up and become the elements of our destruction -IF we pursue passion through the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, creation and the pursuit of righteous dreams is not a guarantee of madness. Quite the opposite, in fact: This clip , although less powerful out of context, is an inspiration to me. Similarly, this message released by Pres. Spencer W. Kimball suggests that not only are creative passions acceptable before the Lord, they may be pleasing unto Him and honor His name. J.S. Bach, father of twenty-odd children and composer of many hymns of God certainly provides an example; Carl Bloch, (who is on display for the first time in history, outside of Scandinavia, RIGHT NOW in the BYU Museum of Art - get tickets to see the display here-(for free! If you live within a ten hour drive of Utah, come see this exhibit before it leaves in May!)) certainly provides another.

The big change in all of this, of which these other goals are simply reflections, is that within a year, I graduate. I will no longer be a student, preparing to pursue my dreams; I will simply and directly pursue them. That is not something to be approached with irreverence or flippancy; I will suddenly be responsible for the entirety of my life. The man who faces eternity is forever changed by it, and agency and accountability are together the gateway of eternity.
My realization of this fact has confronted me with the question: what are my dreams, and am I brave enough to pursue them?

To large degree, the next year will tell. How my pattern of life has become, in that time, will be my answer.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Truth

In this case, it is the answer.
I've met some amazing girls lately, to whom I am very attracted. The truth is, sadly, that even a perfect girl couldn't solve my problem. I have nothing to confess - my slate is as clean as it appears to be - except this: I am not happy with who I am, and until I am happy with who I am, I cannot expect a girl to be happy with who am. There is no shortcut, no loophole, no exception. Until I change and become the man I am meant to be, I will not be truly happy. And no girl, no romantic relationship will change that.
I have to change.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chopin and the Awakening of Responsibility

In the first half of Chopin's The Awakening, Edna begins to discover her personal thoughts and desires through an inappropriate relationship with her friend, Robert. Robert, upon realizing the inappropriate intimacy, leaves, which further encourages Edna to seek herself in a rejection of her former pattern of existence. Although the end of the story may change the vector of Edna's course at the halfway point, a translation of her half-way trajectory into real life would result in disillusionment, sorrow, and ultimately despair. Edna's “awakening” comes too late; although her self-discovery is a necessary and good thing, her insistence to discover herself independently of her family relationships ensures sorrow and eventual loneliness.

Whatever the book, or the soap opera, or the television show promises, the Lord's statement in Isa. 50:11 stands supreme and unyielding above them all: “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.” Edna does well in discovering how she truly feels; but inasmuch as she rejects her duties to God and man, she will eventually find that her new entertainments do not and cannot sustain her. The devil is the ultimate example of the path Edna has begun to follow; believing himself better than others, he rejected the counsel of God and the responsibilities of agency and mortality and instead followed his own path into damnation. Similarly, Edna will find no lasting salvation in painting, or in letting her household slip into ruin. Although she may find “joy in [her] works for a season, by and by the end cometh, and [she] is hewn down and cast into the fire from whence there is no return” (3 Ne. 27:11). Interestingly, Edna's rejection of duty eventually will lead her away from her full potential; lacking divine guidance or assistance, she will not and cannot reach her eternal capacity.

There exist at least two possible, acceptable alternatives to Edna's method of awakening. First, Edna could have involved her husband and family in her awakening. Far from being a “colorless existence” (Chopin 86), the interplay between her personal feelings or ambitions and her family responsibilities together produce a sublimity of existence unattainable by the one who acts selfishly. Edna's problem is not that she has a husband and children; her problem is that she does not love her husband or children, and sacrifices their well-being for her own. As she describes, she is not willing to give up anything essential about herself on their behalf; if what she sacrifices is no sacrifice, what has she truly given? Love is not characterized by such hollow performance. Love requires giving of oneself; by definition, she denies the possibility of loving her family. Interestingly, this also cheapens her relationship with Robert to mere infatuation – there is no sacrifice, for her, in giving up her husband and children for her romantic affair. Another possible and acceptable method for Edna to experience her awakening would have been to have sought it earlier, before she married. In the time when she did not have family responsibilities, she could have discovered herself, her wants, needs, and ambitions, and have incorporated them into her romantic pursuits. Though this would have affected her choice of partner and lifestyle, better to have effected a change prior to marriage than to inappropriately attempt to do so after.

In sum, following Edna's pattern and using self-discovery as an excuse to shirk personal and filial responsibility cannot be successful in reality.

As a personal post-script, I am grateful to the story for providing personal insight into something with which I have struggled. I have not yet married, though I have been home for a mission for two years. In many cultures, this would be considered normal and expected; in Mormon-BYU culture, this is a chafing-ly long time. However, in this time (and to large degree as a result of my search), I have come to learn many things about who I am, what I am called to do in life, and what my future life will probably entail. (Specifically, that I will travel a lot, and will live in many different places and at many different times.) As a result, unlike Edna, I have gained the luxury of being able to look for potential companions with whom I hope and believe I can be compatible. I consider this a great blessing, and one which I hope will allow me to avoid an “awakening” experience similar to the character of Edna in the first half of Chopin's story; instead, I intend to “awaken” continuously, daily, with the loving support of a family I am helping to “awaken” as well.

As the Proclaimers put it, more profoundly in context of the novel than I think they meant:
"When I wake up, well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who wakes up next to you..."