Thursday, October 11, 2018

7 Devils

Paul's explanation to Timothy,"For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind," has frankly unsettled me for years.

Having fought with anxiety since I was a little boy, it often feels like its interwoven with my every thought, biologically, as if God created me this way. Am I a screw up because of how my brain works? Does God not care about me because He lets me be preoccupied by fear? Where is the power and sound mind I so desperately yearn for?

Of the women from whom Christ cast out devils, the Bible only names one: Mary called Magdalene. The fact that she is mentioned at all is significant, as anyone who's read the Bible knows that female figures are scarce. She seems to play a supporting role in the Gospels, ministering unto Christ of her substance (Luke 8), but there is a deeply moving lesson we can learn from her life.

Why did Mary have seven devils within her, and what does that even mean? Was she demonically possessed like the self-harming man housing "Legion"? From how understand it, such possessions can only occur when the host extends an invitation, and I seem to recall James E. Talmage discussing that this was not the case with Mary in his book Jesus the Christ.

I think it is reasonable to consider that her demons were of a more metaphorical kind. Perhaps she was haunted by the shame of her sins or past mistakes. Maybe she was troubled by mental or physical illness. Was loneliness and a lack of a sense of purpose holding her down? Perhaps she failed to meet societal expectations such as marriage and childbearing.

Whatever the case may be, when Jesus entered her life, these burdens were made light and she was freed. Unlike the ungrateful lepers, Mary became a faithful follower of Christ like His apostles, proving to be more loyal than even they at the time of His crucifixion. It was she who expressed her devotion and great mourning for the loss of her friend and savior by traveling to the tomb to dress Him before His corpse was sealed up.

She never got the chance, for which she was immediately heartbroken. At the sight of the empty tomb, she believed she had lost her opportunity to say goodbye and that her Lord's body had been desecrated. Even the voices of the angels failed to console her in her agony and grief.

But she heard her name called, perhaps remembering the first time that voice had formed her name as it drew her from the depths of her devils, and she knew it was the Master.

The Lord, as far as we know, presented Himself first to this virtuous woman, a woman whom others likely looked down upon at some point for the devils she once fought. The Lord had ordained apostles, leaders who held His priesthood and would bear His name throughout the known world, but the Lord first appeared to someone who met Him while in darkness. Someone who had learned through the pains of her own Gethsemane. A woman who never forsook her Savior.

I often hesitate to share my experiences with mental illness and suicidal ideation. The stigma around mental disorders is rough enough to deal with as it is. To build upon that, the world tells me every day that not seeking romance with other men is the cause of such struggles. I know that members of the Church as well as other religious sects feel that if they admit to having emotional challenges that they are also admitting that their faith isn't strong enough. The Plan of Happiness is supposed to make you happy, right?

Tragedy hits us all. We're all subject to the pains of this fallen world. Many of God's children have to fight every day against their own brains to stay alive. Acting in faith and holding fast to the hope we have in Christ's grace will grant us greater power than we can recognize with our mortal eyes, but to expect happiness every day is ludicrous. There is tension that comes with self-restraint, but fighting the good fight and conquering the natural man is why we're here.

The legendary apostle Paul owned up to the thorn in his flesh, a struggle that he begged the Lord repeatedly to remove. We as followers of Christ shouldn't be ashamed of what sadness or anxiety or weaknesses we endure. It doesn't mean that we don't have testimonies, and it certainly doesn't mean that the Church isn't true. The mockery of the world will use anything it can to chip away at our faith, and our "devils" provide the world with gratifying ammunition.

We should remember Paul's following sentence to Timothy, "Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God;" When we are loyal to Him, God empowers us to bear His name and testify of Him. 

Was Mary embraced by others when she was possessed with her devils? When she was freed? When she dedicated her life to Christ? We don't know, but what we do know is that she was cherished and remembered by Christ. No matter what our personal demons are, we can rest assured that towards us, He feels the same.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

How to (and How NOT to) Respond to Someone Coming Out

Coming out was literally the scariest thing I've ever done. Scarier than any roller coaster I've been on.  Scarier than trying out for the varsity team and for musical performance groups. Scarier than showering with other guys after gym class. Scarier than moving away to college. Scarier than leaving for and staying on a mission. Scarier than looking down the barrels of loaded guns of a gang in Mexico. Seriously. Coming out was absolutely terrifying.

I know that my fears were not unusual. Just as I shook in anticipation of the event, thousands of other people wonder if their parents, family, family, and associates will react to this new information. Most people have done everything they could think of to conceal this aspect of their identity for fear of persecution, rejection, and further shame.

So, when someone comes out to you, it's the greatest form of trust they can show to you. I am often asked how to best respond when someone comes out to you, so I've tried to consolidate my thoughts and produce some tips on how to honor that. In the process, I ended up ruminating on the botched responses I've received over the years; I thought about entitling this post “What I’m Sicka Hearing” but that wouldn’t necessary be an accurate description of its contents. This post will be sloppy but hopefully helpful.

Here are some responses to remember and consider when a loved one comes out to you:

"Thank you for trusting me"
This has been one of the most wonderful responses I've received. It's simple and pure. It acknowledges the extreme vulnerability involved in such a revelation.

"You've dealt with a heavy burden in secret for so long"
Validation is critical. Your loved one has overheard conversations, snarky comments, and jokes about gay people. They've played out the reactions people would have if they were to be outed. Recognizing the price they've paid for their own safety will show your maturity and investment in their happiness.

"How can I support you?" "I'm here for you"
There’s a good chance that your loved one doesn’t know the answer. That's okay! If we all knew exactly what we needed at all times, and I mean, having a perfect understanding of the logistics of how to satisfy our needs, we wouldn't have to have faith in God's plan for us to learn for ourselves and from each other.

Ask them questions
This needs to be done sensitively, obviously, so as to not be offensive, but even if you ask the "wrong question," but when you ask questions, you at least show that you have a degree of meekness and a desire to at least try to understand. Ask them what their experience has been like, for example. When I've come out to someone and they never bring it up again, I've got the feeling that they either don't care how I'm doing or feel too awkward to address the elephant in the room. This can lend a sense of rejection. So, while it may be hard and awkward, don't act like this is a topic too sensitive to bring up with your loved one. If they can't handle the conversation, let them know that you're always willing to talk to them about what they need to discuss.

I love and respect you even more now that you’ve shared this part of you with me.”
Too often hear “I love him/her, but” and then going off about how they can’t support someone making the choice to seek relationships with someone of the same sex. People are terrified of losing the people they love once their secret gets out. The Lord loves everyone, regardless of who they’re dating, and it’s not our place to withhold love in order to leverage change in another person. That wasn’t the Savior’s way.

"This doesn't harm our friendship/relationship"
Closeted gay folk often fear that even if they are accepted, or at least not flat out rejected, their relationship with the person they've opened up to will become awkward or at least diminished in its significance. That's something I've had to deal with and accept myself. To establish that their same-sex attraction will not put a hamper on your relationship will give your loved one hope that they have someone they can count on.

Give give them a hug!
When I first started coming out, I always feared that I would be perceived as hypersexual and malintentioned, particularly when opening up to men. I feared that they would think I was hitting on them or something. I know that I’m not the only one who’s had these fears; people talk about it all the time! And, without exception, receiving a hug in return for this vulnerability grants an enormous sense of relief, validation, and belonging. It helps dispel many of the stories your loved one has been telling themselves for years and sets their fears at ease. If they don’t find love and acceptance in your arms, they’ll seek them elsewhere.

On the other hand, there are many ways you can screw things up, and here are some ways that people have responded to me or my friends. I don't share them to complain, but in hopes that you'll consider avoiding them:

If you just had more faith” or “if you allowed the Atonement to heal you
A lot of the time people who experience same-sex attraction have exercised incredible faith and have undergone intense introspection to rid themselves of their attractions toward their same sex. They’ve read everything the Church has ever published on the matter. They’ve fasted and prayed consistently with furvor. They’ve served faithfully in their callings and have tried to be the “golden child.” By telling them that they don’t have enough faith in the atonement to be freed from their trial is a cop-out answer that leaves the individual ashamed and feeling unworthy. While Christ can heal any wound and enable us to conquer any weakness or temptation, He often chooses not to so that we can learn and progress toward godhood. The choice is yours, however, to learn from your gay friend and to play a key role in their healing, however that ends up looking like. 

Single women are expected to keep the Law of Chastity, too
Ugh I hate this one SO much. One, it mimizes the pain that single women experience. Often times, women are single because they don’t get asked on dates. This can be for a variety of reasons, but the most commonly cited reason is that they’re visually unappealing. Their self-esteem is often affected because of this; they feel worthless and unwanted. Yes, they don’t get the romantic attachment and sexual happiness that comes with marriage, similar to gay members of the Church (particularly gay men). However, there are significant differences between these two demographics. Single women in the Church get special attention from their bishops and ward councils because they’re assumed to be lonely and in need of fellowship. Additionally, and most importantly in my opinion, they can pray at night and fast that someday they’ll meet the man of their dreams, and subsequently be married and have a magnificent sexual relationship (or, at least, have one at all). Obviously, this is not the case with gay members of the Church. We often pray that we won't give into a relationship with someone we're attracted to, or we pray to overcome a crush on a member of the same sex. If we do end up marrying someone of the same sex, we have to accept the disdain and disapproval of our families, friends, wards, etc., as well as recognize that we're distancing ourselves from Christ by allowing ourselves to have a companion.

The Lord isn’t asking anything different than He asks anyone else. We all have to keep the Law of Chastity
This is rather similar to the previous response. But lets take it from a slightly different angle. "The Lord" is often a euphemism for Church culture.

Why are you living a lie? You should be true to who you are
I get this a LOT from people outside the Church and surprisingly from someone within active membership. It’s extremely frustrating, because I have to go on the defensive and explain that I am only true to myself when I am true to the Lord. Heavenly Father has commanded me to honor my divine heritage by living a pure and virtuous life, and that greatly relies on my commitment to the Law of Chastity. Living a life outside of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is accepting Satan’s counterfeit Plan of Happiness, which seems at least to me to be the epitome of “living a lie.”

Rude. Believe it or not, this individual has probably done everything they could think of to conceal their sexual orientation, which has been terribly draining over the course of many years. Even if you were fairly certain that they weren’t straight, at least have the decency to not say so. If they ask, MAYBE tell them that you had a feeling (depending on how you gage them to be emotionally). Rather listen intently and offer support. 

We all have our challenges
Yes, this is true. I found this response helpful to me when I first started coming out. However, if that’s the main response, it can come off as dismissive and unempathetic. Be sure you clarify that no one is perfect, untempted, or free from shame. 

Are you attracted to me?”
UGH I hate this one. Typically, or at least, in my experience, people don’t come out to the people they’re attracted to. Those who do...well, I don’t understand them - that takes more nerve than I typically have (haha!). I sometimes respond by saying something along the lines of “I said I’m GAY, not DESPERATE!” and that breaks up the tension caused by the question. Try not to assume people’s motives when they come out to you (beyond the fact that they need love and support).

"In the next life you'll be happy and married"
A lot of gay people are unsettled by this. Why? Well, does this mean that they'll become heterosexuals once they're dead? While being attracted to the same sex is only an aspect of someone's personality, it has a far-reaching affect into the other aspects of a person. It can affect how they dress, talk, joke, what kind of entertainment they enjoy, etc. (But not necessarily, of course). If my same-sex attraction was taken away, I'd be a different person; my personality would change. Some people feel that it wouldn't be true heaven if they weren't married to someone that they were attracted to, and in this case it would be a member of the same sex. Personally, I know that whatever the reality of heaven is, I know that Heavenly Father will have prepared for me will be better that anything I can imagine. A related comment that can be frustrating is "in the next life, all will be made right and you'll have every blessing promised to the faithful." This needs to be packaged tactfully according to whom you're speaking with, because that just makes some people want to die sooner so they can finally get the peace they're seeking. Give them reasons to stay.

"Why can't gay people keep it to themselves? I don't walk around flaunting my heterosexuality"
I understand why it can be frustrating to see the pride marches celebrating relationships and acts that are outside of the constructs of the Gospel. The fact that they're even called "pride" parades makes people uncomfortable because pride is the opposite of humility, and we're taught by prophets throughout time to avoid pride like the plague. Additionally, interacting with people whose personality seems to be entirely constructed of the fact that they're gay can seem inauthentic as such personas can come across as contrived. After all, most people don't introduce themselves as "straight." However, these comments can come across as homophobic, like the fact that anyone would want to have a relationship with a member of the same sex is grotesque or sinful in and of itself. This message, intended or not, can really hurt someone's feelings even if they're keeping their covenants. Also, for the most part we assume that most people are straight, so there isn't a need to introduce oneself as heterosexual. Some people don't want to be miscategorized as straight because they feel it's inauthentic and/or shaming, so they dress or advertise in a way that makes it clear that they're being themselves (in this case, a flaming homosexual). Whatever the case may be, if someone is coming out to you, avoid shaming comments or questions as much as possible. Also, it doesn't seem like you're flaunting your straight sexuality, but if you're a guy wearing a hoodie and gym/cargo shorts with socks in your Chaco knockoffs...smh

"Don't expect special treatment"
I occasionally get this from members of the Church, and it drives me crazy. I can only assume to understand what they mean by this. Is it that I don't want to be scolded for not being married, or I don't want to be expected to date the opposite sex? Do they mean that I shouldn't feel like a martyr requiring adoration and respect for my sacrifice for the Gospel? I'm getting better at calling people out on their crap, but I'm pretty introverted and I don't want people to dislike gay people more than they already do.

Home remedies:

You should masturbate to straight porn
Believe it or not, I’ve heard this before, and I know I’m not the only one. I have a friend who came out to her relief society president and this was her response. *facepalm* What are you thinking?! Looking at porn is a sin and coupling it with masturbation isn’t going to help anyone lose their attraction for their same sex. If anything, it will lead to or reinforce destructively addictive behaviors and potentially disqualify them from temple blessings. Have some common sense!

 “You should date/get married. Once you have sex with a woman, you’ll understand
First of all, dating is very frustrating to me and many other gay Mormons. Most of the dates I go on, I feel uncomfortable and wonder how I could ever “make it work” with this girl. Some already know I’m into guys, but I typically don’t present myself that way. Besides, if I did, most girls wouldn’t give me a chance. I always tell a girl about my journey once we’ve gone on several dates, by the way.
“You need to take testosterone supplements” 
First of all, I have PLENTY of body hair. But it’s long been disproven that testosterone supplements don’t make you magically attracted to women. It just makes you horny (forgive the term). Homosexuality isn’t caused by not being masculine, either. 

This doesn’t change anything
So, this isn’t TOO bad, as long as you clarify that you aren’t judging them based on this new information. However, finding out that your friend/family member experiences same-sex attraction should at least spark a greater appreciation for the pain, lonliness, and shame they’ve experienced for so long, as well as for the resilience and faith they’ve exhibited by hanging on. Hopefully, a change that will occur will manifest in you being a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear in the future as your loved one continues to navigate their sensitive challenges.

Between my two jobs, my last semester at BYU, studying for the GRE, and addressing my chronic illness, I don't have enough time to write blog posts very often. Then again, who reads these things anyway? That being said, I hope that this post at least brings new ideas and a different perspective to helping your loved ones when they come out to you. Some of the principles within this post are applicable to when someone comes out on social media but not directly to you. Whatever the case may be and however you react, please do so prayerfully. I intend to update this post from time to time when more ideas present themselves. If you have anything you'd like to add or contest, feel free to comment below!