Monday, January 31, 2011

Self-Definition and Love

In sociology, we are discussing and critiquing modern society. One particular statement concerning identity construction stands out to me: We are, we define ourselves, by what we consume. Not only are we what we eat, but also what we buy, what we wear, what we choose to pay to experience.

Although the Gospel does instruct us to be "neat and comely" - to look good and to take care of our appearance - that is far more open-ended than is found in most of our cultures. I am as guilty as almost anyone; I make snap judgments about people by the clothes they wear, by the music they listen to, by the television they watch. The latter two are probably more defensible than the first; books and movies/television are essentially available for free, to almost anyone, in my community; websites like Hulu and Netflix, along with the public libraries, mean that selection of written and visual media is more a matter of choice than of social constraint. I ought to judge someone based on their choices (judge: evaluate, consider, weigh, orient myself in a particular way towards, NOT condemn) rather than their wealth.

However, what I or others choose to consume, especially in media, has an immense impact on the type of person I become. If I continually watch crude, raw, or vulgar material, I will eventually become raw, crude and vulgar, by sheer force of association if by nothing else. Unfortunately, most of what we define as normal in society is codified and learned through material that is coarse, crude, vulgar, and raw. Consider the relationships depicted on television: does anyone actually want to live in a soap opera? Does anyone actually want to live like Edward Cullen and whatever-her-name-is, forever staring into each others' eyes in a lifeless relationship of lust? Art and entertainment take extreme, even ridiculous positions to capture our attention (South Park and Family Guy, for example) and hold our interest, but as we are socialized into the entertainment culture, entertainment has to take ever more extreme positions to remain provocative. The pornography industry offers an example in microcosm: people begin by looking at pornography and often acclimatize, and so seek more and more intense visual (or written!) stimulation. Similarly, once you have seen Iron Man, or movies like it (Transporter, for example) enough times, three explosions are no longer exciting. Five are necessary, or ten, etc. The second Transformers film, I am told, is an example.

Either way, if entertainment and social norms lead us to withhold love from others based on their refusal to participate in cultural events, alternative selections of entertainment, differing interests, etc., then following Christ requires being socially unusual (for Christ's sake, and not for it's own. Kierkegaard has a wonderful critique of people who are weird to get attention, as does the Savior: those who are strange to be seen of men have their reward already, and miss the Heavenly rewards for those who just follow the Savior without thinking about how other people will react to it, and without trying to create a stir.) Additionally, where social norms of humor, for example, require putting down other people, Christ requires us to be more like the people we otherwise wouldn't associate with, "dorks" who don't "take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for [their] neighbor;" and so forth (2 Nephi 28:8).

The Savior seemed to make it a point to seek out the weary, the downtrodden, the rejected, and the unpopular; or rather, as the parable describes, He seeks all, and is accepted by those who are humble enough to heed. Consider the parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, "Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage." But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. - Matt 22:2-10.

Especially thinking of heaven as a state of mind - a divine harmony of the thoughts and soul with the will and love of God - rejecting others is excluding ourselves from the blessings of Heaven.

The difficult option is to evaluate someone based on their choices and behavior, rather than on their social skill or lack thereof. The quality of someone's laugh, or a particularly quirky sense of humor, even somewhat obnoxious conversation, is still the expression of a divine daughter or son of God. Bearing that in mind, I find no justification for my own exclusionary behaviors based on ascriptive traits. In other words, if it's outside of someone's control, how can I judge (condemn) them for it? With what right do I have to withhold love or service from someone?

More than that, even if it's something in their control: what right do I have to withhold love for that? I must act wisely, as the Lord directs - I am not suggesting opening savings accounts with known bank robbers, for example - but where is the justification for a lack of love?

I have at various points in my life been considered popular and considered a loser, and most of the spectrum in between. I feel somewhere on the lower end of that spectrum now; I suspect that I am not highly thought of. Fortunately, the requirement to love extends even to those who treat us poorly or with apathy or disrespect; I say fortunately: how many people have I treated poorly or with disrespect? How often has that same condescension, which I loathe crept into my own voice? How often have I deified humor at the expense of a human heart?

As a result, I cannot complain; justice craves that I reap what I sow, and I have sown the east wind and justifiably can reap the whirlwind. The Atonement provides redemption and forgiveness, and God and my Savior provide comfort and strength, but I have no right to claim love from others. I have no right to demand or expect it.

Returning to sociology, the alternative to defining ourselves by what we consume is to define ourselves by our relationships with others; I am who I am because of how I interact with those around me. In terms of self worth, I think that quickly becomes, "I am valuable because others love me." However, as discussed previously, that human love is imperfect, fallible, and cannot be craved. This is perhaps my biggest contention with "Through a Glass Darkly" - faith in the possibility of "mänsklig kärlek" (human love) is not a sufficient "anchor to the souls of men." Human love is beautiful and inconstant.

So I critique that sociological perspective. Relying on human relationships is like trying to find footing in quicksand; when the rains descend, and floods come, and the winds beat upon that person, they are swept away (Matt 7:26, 3. Nephi 14:26) Even reliance upon the self (a la Descartes* - see footnote) is uncertain - again, based on my own behavior, what claim can I make to love? Or what claim can I make to compel myself to love myself?

As far as I can tell, the only solid piece of anything to which one can attach is the choice to believe that God loves us. If we start there, and receive confirmation of that love, and feel it, and grow in it, and share it, and express it to others, we can have a firm foundation. The ultimate expression of that love is the Savior's Atonement; that's also the ultimate foundation for the soul.

With that unshaken and un-shakeable foundation of God's love, we have a reason to love ourselves. God loves us, we want to be like God (because we enjoy His love, because we feel it, because we want to emulate it, feel more of it, be a part of it) - so we love ourselves. We love others, even those we otherwise shouldn't or wouldn't. (Again, I am not speaking of love as permissive behavior here- I am speaking of the emotion and motivating power of love).

A great theological debate continues over whether or not God's love for us is unconditional; I will not take a position on that here. I can say this: I know that God wants what's best for each and every one of us, from the vilest sinner to the purest saint to the purest saint who has become the vilest sinner. That is an unchanging source of His motivation; even Hell is a merciful alternative to dwelling in the physical presence of God while one's mind is racked with guilt. He wants us to succeed, to be happy. He loves us.

Why? I don't know. I just know He does. I feel it. I choose to believe in it.

That is what has to be the basis of my self-definition. God loves me. I recognize that in these ways. This is who I am.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Brett. Can I just say, I think you're something special. You are great! Anyway, I think this post was very interesting. I find that I have no problem accepting others for who they are and loving them. The only problem I have is loving myself. Which I think is apparent in my appearance and maybe a few other ways. But I am aware of it and I know that God loves me so I'm trying more to care about myself. I was just thinking about that and then I saw this post. Anyway, thanks for the discussion. :)