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This I Believe

National Public Radio produces a regular series of short essays submitted by listeners called  This I Believe.  The series is based on a 1950s-era radio program that was hosted by Edward R. Murrow .  In the spirit of the series, I present my own original essay, aptly titled This I Believe.

I believe in life. In all its glorious complexity, ambiguity, and paradox, I believe in life. Life is not a clean-room; it’s a junkyard. Life is not a binary series of ones and zeroes; it’s analog, not digital.

Like an old vinyl record, life is punctuated by hisses and pops, bumps and ridges, smudges and skips, crackles and snaps. Many audiophiles insist that vinyl records sound better than digitally produced music in spite of, or perhaps because of, these imperfections. A music file on my Ipod sounds exactly the same every time it is played. A vinyl record, though, with its superior dynamism, generates a new experience with each journey round the phonograph spindle.

Life is disruption, surprise, and chaos. Life is not black and white; it’s a fireworks display.

Life is not an Ansel Adams photograph; it’s a Jackson Pollack painting.

A human being is life in microcosm—beauty and wonder and miraculous complexity mingled inseparably with vulgarity, pain, and darkness. Like the earth seen from space, the body viewed from a distance is a singular thing, parts working seamlessly together in a semblance of perfect union. But beneath the veneer of order is disarray and decay. The illusion of design gives way upon closer examination to a vision of messiness—blood vessels cavorting this way and that, electrical impulses careening through neurons and synapses. And so it is with the world—as The Temptations called it, a “ball of confusion” spinning wildly in precarious orbit round a second-rate star in the suburbs of the Milky Way.

Each of us is an individual spinning through life like that record on the turntable or the earth circling the sun—our personal thoughts, emotions, and acts imbued with ambiguity, wrapped in riddle, pierced by paradox.

I embrace the hisses, pops, smudges, and skips I see in my own life. And I take pleasure in the bumps, ridges, crackles, and snaps I observe in others. Sometimes we expect reason and order to reign in our minds and hearts when we ought to revel in the depth and dimension that randomness, irony, and whimsy yield in our souls. Partners in intimate relationships too often judge one another’s thoughts and desires as if such things can be made to bow before the throne of sensibility and sense. In a committed partnership, no thought or feeling ought to be out of bounds, no genuine sentiment worthy of censure, no passionate desire left unexpressed because of a misplaced sense of guilt or fear of rebuke. I believe this is the key to deep, lasting, satisfying intimacy.

When I view myself as I really am rather than as others would like me to be a vibrant, beautiful world opens up. I am filled with a sense of relief, at peace with who I am and my human limitations. I no longer need to maintain an illusion of adherence to some artificially imposed standard of thought and behavior. I am freed from judgmentalism and hypocrisy. I become capable of defining the boundaries of my marriage relationship around mutual trust, admiration, love, and respect. My intimate companion is able to burst from the chains that tradition and dogma have clamped on her soul. I accept the flaws, weaknesses, incongruities, and magnificent mysteries she embodies. I rejoice in her ambiguities, complexities, and paradoxes. And she can know that I love her all the more because of them.

This I believe.

Comments

Lunar Quaker

Beautiful post, Eric. I hate to ruin the moment by mentioning Mormonism in the context of your words, but I must say that life cannot be a beautiful as you describe within the TBM mindset. There is little room for human complexity within the Mormon paradigm.

Equality

It doesn't ruin it; I totally agree. Mormonism requires us to smother errant thoughts and stifle "inappropriate" feelings rather than consider them and confront them. It forces us to conform our personalities to certain dimensions, prescribed by religious zealots. It is an anti-humanist religion in that it imposes feelings of guilt and fear for what are, at root, fundamental human characteristics. Not only that, but normal human impulses are attributed to unseen, nefarious spiritual forces rather than to their natural source: our bodies.

Lunar Quaker

Take sex, for example. Despite all of the lip service that the Mormon leadership gives to the symbolic beauty and the deep emotional binding of the sexual union, the message that gets communicated to the masses is that sexual feelings come from the devil. The female body is to be feared. But give a girl a holy handshake across a white tablecloth and suddenly her legs and breasts become sacred.

Mayan Elephant

Lunar, that was classic.

E, well done. i believe you. very well done. i wish i had written what i believe every few months for the last few years. i would like to see how that has transitioned, and what was critical to me at various times.

i like the snapshot this gives of you, especially today.

best to you, my friend.

Sister Mary Lisa

Holy smokes, Equality. This is the most beautiful thing I've read in a long time. And I've read some beautiful stuff.

Wow.

wry catcher

EQ, that is a beautiful essay. Sometimes I read things, like this, written by people who used to be truly believing mormons, and have changed their whole worldview, and I get a little envious. Yes, envious. I never believed mormonism enough to have such a powerful paradigm shift, more like a drift toward the real me that never quite got fully sublimated. So I envy the surge of life and sparky brain-ness that the Big Change causes. Ah, life.

Equality

Thanks, y'all, for the positive reviews. I'm rather pleased with the Jackson Pollack line myself. The ideas I have in my head are difficult to get down in print in a way that effectively communicates them to others. Like Mayan, I wish I had a similar essay from a few years ago. Maybe I'll pull out an old journal entry to show the change.

Randy

Your record analogy is lovely. Coincidentally, I cited to the same radio series a few monts ago. Here was my own little "this I believe":

I believe in love, compassion, and empathy, especially with regard to my immediate family. I have learned much from our sometimes joyful, sometimes painful experiences of the past several years, but nothing more than that I deeply love my wife and children. I am fortunate, I suppose, that compassion and empathy seem to be part of my nature. Strangely, however, love was an emotion that pretty much had to be learned. I think I feared it, quite honestly.

I believe that we are all interconnected to some extent, a phenomenon that helps me to think in terms of compassion and empathy. I'm not sure exactly how this interconnectedness works--beyond my circle of family and friends, this connection may be more spiritual than material--but I sense that it is real.

I believe in spirituality, whether or not it is tied to any particular faith tradition. For me personally, spirituality is an experiential and experimental phenomenon; however, I respect those who find their way in more traditional structures. I believe that we are born with everything we need spiritually already implanted within us--whether by God or nature--and that the challenge is to discover that and develop it.

I believe that freedom of speech and expression of ideas is the most important principle in our political discourse. That is not to say that all ideas are valid or equal--I certainly believe in shouting down, disproving, and discrediting ideas I find offensive or wrong. I tend to have knee-jerk reactions to any restrictions on speech (other than reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner), even outside of the political sphere. Having said all that, I'm perfectly willing to be bound by the restrictions on my own speech that go along with my job, but that is a matter of choice.

I believe in equality. This comes in part from my religious upbringing. I really believed that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and that He is no respecter of persons. That was when I was sure there was a God, and that the Church actually believed that all people are equal. Moreover, I've always been something of a "small-d democrat," at least on a philosophical level. I still get pissed whenever the highway is closed for a presidential visit--why can't he drive in the damn traffic like everybody else? In practice, of course, it seems that some people are more equal than others, as Orwell wrote, but it sure is nice to at least believe otherwise.

I believe in reason, scholarship, science, and the scientific method. This should go without saying, but with antiscientific, ahistorical worldviews seeing something of a resurgence, I thought I'd throw it in. I do not believe that science and scholarship are necessarily at odds with sprituality and religion, though they may occasionally suggest reinterpretation of cherished beliefs.

I probably believe some other stuff too, but these are some of my biggies.

Jordan

Eric:

I loved this essay (and, incidentally, love the "This I Believe" series on NPR, which I listen to commuting every day).

However, I disagree with this sentiment in describing the essay:

It doesn't ruin it; I totally agree. Mormonism requires us to smother errant thoughts and stifle "inappropriate" feelings rather than consider them and confront them. It forces us to conform our personalities to certain dimensions, prescribed by religious zealots. It is an anti-humanist religion in that it imposes feelings of guilt and fear for what are, at root, fundamental human characteristics.

I think there is plenty of room in my mormonism for confronting, appreciating, and enjoying the wonders of human complexity. The very leadership of the church. both past and present, offers a delectable course in human complexity, and in the idea that God loves us and uses us to fulfill his work as complex humans, warts and all. I remember reading, not very long ago, a wonderful biography of J. Reuben Clark, Jr. by D. Michael Quinn. This was a very complex individual in the very way you mention in your essay. He struggled with political ambition and in balancing that with church service.

What about David O'Mckay? I recently read a book about him- David O'Mckay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism which was a fascinating glimpse into the inner world of this beautifully complex man.

What about Joseph Smith, probably one of the most complex individuals to have lived in the last two hundred years?

Perhaps it is not so for every Latter-day Saint- there are many who tend to "cling" to the "Iron Rod" in a way actually condemned in scripture- but this one thinks that the study of the Gospel only has enhanced his appreciation of human complexity.

That's another reason why I am fascinated by certain sites in the bloggernacle, the DAMU, and the exmo world- I greatly appreciate the complexity, angst, and beauty of being that I find there.

wry catcher

Randy: Awesome. I love your essay.

Jordan: I'm really glad that there are people in active mormonism who feel like you do; it gives me hope that some of my family members might have the same experience, rather than the one I did. Also, I really like your last paragraph - these are pretty much the same reasons that I like reading some DAMU and Bloggernacle sites.

Equality

Jordan,

Thansk for your kind comments. I agree with much of what you say. I agree that Mormonism has produced a number of high-profile members who exemplify well the human traits I discuss in my essay. Two recent editions of Mormon Stories were actually catalysts for my post. Professor Bushman talked about the "paradoxes" of Mormonism and Joseph Smith, and Nate Oman spoke in similar terms about the messiness of Mormon history. So the fact that Joseph Smith was a complex character is uncontroversial.

But the point of my comment in response to Lunar Quaker was not that Mormons are not complex people. My point was that, like all people, Mormons ARE complex. We are deep, complicated, sometimes paradoxical, incongruous, conflicted, and so forth. But Mormonism seeks to take these traits and hammer them out of us.

Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. Sex. The Church teaches that sexual acts should be engaged in only by man and woman married to each other. That's all well and good. There may be good reasons for such boundaries around physical sexual expression. But the church goes far beyond this standard. The church teaches people, from the time they are very young, that sexual thoughts are evil--they are the product of Satan tempting us, or a "weakness of the flesh" given to us by God to try and test our faithfulness. The church tells us that sexual thoughts in and of themselves are sinful (unless directed to one's spouse after marriage) and that having feelings or desires for one to whom you are not married is the same as committing adultery. (The fact that this idea is found in scripture and others besides Mormons teach it, does not excuse the church for promulgating such a pernicious doctrine).

The church teaches us to deny ourselves of such thoughts, to suppress any feelings that fall without the very strict boundaries established by the church. Thoughts and feelings are given the same weight as actions. And the church indoctrinates its youth to feel guilt and shame for feelings and thoughts that are natural, human, harmless and, indeed, good.

And I think the church is wrong to do this. I think the church teaches people to hate themselves, to deny themselves of their humanity. To despise thier own humanity (the "natural man is an enemy to God" and all that). This is just one example. But I believe the church, through its doctrines and the formation of its culture, is at war with the depth and breadth of true humanity and is seeking to mold people into a one-size-fits-all model of so-called perfection, as decreed by the men in the big red comfy chairs. There isn't room in Mormon culture for people to just be themselves--to be open and honest about what they think, feel, and desire--unless those thoughts, feelings, and desires adhere closely to the company line. That's why there is a Bloggernacle, and a DAMU, and a more-than-50% inactive rate.

Equality

Randy said:
"I believe in equality."

Randy, thanks for your support!

Equality

Jordan,

As another example, let's take Joseph Smith. All who study him in any detail agree that he was very complex. "No Man Knows My History" was a great title for Brodie's biography not just because it was a statement he made about himself, but because so many have written about him and studied him and come to wildly different conclusions. No doubt he was filled with ambiguity, incongruity, and paradox. So, what does the church do with his story? is the story told of Joseph Smith in Primary lessons, Priesthood lessons, Relief Society lessons, Seminary lessons, Gospel Doctrine lessons, and church movies and videos one of ambiguity and paradox? Complexity? Or is it a cardboard cutout version? And what the church does to its foiunding prophet, it does to its everday members. That some are fortunate enough to break free from it and still maintain a faithful membership in the church is a testament to their fortitude and strength of character. If you are such a person, I congratulate you.

BTW, let's do lunch sometime this week.

Randy

Equality:

Think nothing of it.

Mike Kessler

Man, that was beautiful. I second Randy - the vinyl record analogy is perfect, pun intended, though I think my favorite part is "Life is disruption, surprise, and chaos. Life is not black and white; it’s a fireworks display." I've been thinking of doing a "This I Believe" for a long time. I think you pretty much expressed it for me, for today at least.

Jordan

Just checked in today for the first time since leaving my comment. Lunch would be good.

from the ashes

Great essay, E. I wrote one of my own a couple months back; I plan to rewrite and rewrite and see how I change.

Do you think you'll submit it?

Equality

fta,

Do you think I should?

Sister Mary Lisa

You SHOULD submit it. This is one of your finest pieces of writing yet.

GDTeacher

Great stuff Eric. I'm going to share this with my wife and a few others.

Vivek

After understanding and studying, different philosophies, schools of thought, isms, religion, history, science and present world around, I am compelled to put forward two points which I feel are most important for our survival, for leading better and happy life.
They are: (1) Helping others and (2) Healing the earth.
Helping others:
All the men and women are equal. The difference is only in manifestation. Irrespective of their caste, religion, region, class, color, race and country all human beings are equal. One should help others and serve them as if they are serving themselves or their own family. All major religions and philosophies teach this.
You receive a lot of benefits spiritual, mental and even material when you treat others equal to you and help them. Real happiness lies in helping others. All great philosophers and great men said that all are equal and help those who are in need. There is a deep meaning in that. One way of looking at is, helping others is you helping yourself. Other way of looking at it is when people help each other, unity among those people increases. In history we can observe that united societies progressed more and prosperity showered on them. When society grows an individual also benefits. So, also benefits by helping others.
Healing the earth:
We are enjoying benefits the earth provides us. While we utilize the resources available from earth, at the same time we are damaging the earth. So, it’s our responsibility to balance development, scientific advancement and protection of earth. All three things are important, but we need to balance and re-think strategy at regular times and then move ahead. We need to heal earth by practicing more environmental friendly practices like energy efficient cars, less pollution, minimizing the utilization of resources, etc. We should plant more trees and protect natural eco systems. We when perform these activities, we give a better place to live for our future generations. In last 100 years some places around the world have become uninhabitable. We should work towards stopping this deteriorating situation. This world is like a beautiful garden and life a gift. If we damage this garden, the birth will be like a punishment. To enjoy the fruits of this garden and to rest in its shadow we need to take responsibility to water the garden. We need to heal the earth.

To live a happy and beautiful life it is essential to help others and to heal the earth. These are two things if you believe and practice it well make your life a very fulfilling. Try it. It works. Liked it, please spread the message.

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