Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Death and Faith

When I was a teenager, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I can remember sitting around the kitchen table with my sister and two brothers as my parents broke the news in a serious yet hopeful tone. I can remember the outdated wallpaper with maroon and blue esoteric shapes that lined the walls. I can remember how my hair was wet and pulled back into a tight bun, and how we had just been called up from watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? on the green couch in the basement. I can remember dreading the thought of having to wake up at 5am the next morning for swim team. I can remember my mother's tired face below her '90s Sharon Stone haircut, although now I would say her face was more scared than tired. I can remember all of the unimportant and mundane details about that evening in October, just days after my 13th birthday. But the only word I can recall from the entire conversation is cancer.

Cancer is a word I was already acquainted with. My little brother was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 3 years old. In my home, the word 'cancer' was uttered with reverence and disdain, as though it was hated but not to be angered. To me at the age of 6, the word meant strangers bringing meals to my house, hospital visits harboring kids with tubes going into their frail bodies, and unused gifts bestowed upon a toddler who hid under my bed on lumbar puncture days and didn't understand why everyone was always so careful around him. Cancer was a word that meant a few years of disturbed routine and a major case of jealousy. It was a word that allowed my brother to sit in bed and play video games while I was cooped up in a classroom having to learn my times tables. That was cancer, and sometimes I wished it was me who had gotten it.

The reintroduction of cancer into my life was tainted by naivety and optimism. Sitting around the scratched wooden kitchen table, my only question was "how long will it take until you're better?" Because of my previously immature relationship with cancer, I didn't understand that the question I should have been asking was "how long do I have to say goodbye?"

My father was a strong man in every sense of the word; strong will, strong presence, strong body, strong mind. If anyone was going to defeat the word cancer, it was my dad. He wasn't a religious man, but over the proceeding weeks asked us to pray that he would be able to fight and win against his poisoned body. He told us that my mum was the closest thing to God, and with her on his side, he was sure to make it.

And so I prayed.

I spent the next year of my life studying the scriptures with the voracity with which teenage girls read Twilight. I highlighted verses that applied to our struggle, wrote them out in bold cursive and tacked them on the walls of my dad's hospital room. I spent evenings on my knees in prayer, long after the lights were turned off and the house was silent with a heavy mixture of grief and hope. But grief did not permeate my thoughts. Only hope. I begged God with perfect faith to heal my dad. I knew he would. I knew that if I did everything I was taught to do, if I could be the best possible version of me, then God would have to answer my prayers and heal my father. He had to.

It wasn't until the last month of his life that I began to realize that no matter what I did, no matter how often I read the Book of Mormon, no matter how many hours I spent on my knees, no matter how many times I did the dishes, or bore my testimony, or gave the last cookie to my brother, no matter how fervently I believed, God was not going to answer my prayers. My father would not be healed. And so I stopped praying.

When he died 3 days after my 14th birthday, I mourned the loss of both my father and God. My father had died, God had not answered my prayers, and so how could he have ever existed at all? And if he existed, why would I want to love and honor someone who could deny the thing for which I had promised to sacrifice everything?

I felt utterly betrayed by everything I had been taught growing up; that if you exercise faith and pray earnestly, God will hear your prayers. God had not heard my prayers. I had spent a year crying into a telephone, only to feel that the line had been cut before my pleas ever began.

Over the years, people would attempt to quell my anger by explaining the true meaning of prayer. "We are not supposed to petition God to change His will, but we are instead to ask God to soften our hearts to align our will with His." If my father's slow and agonizing death was God's will, I didn't want alignment.

I continued through my teenage years with a forced sense of independence. I didn't believe that anyone could or would help me, if the One who was supposed to love me most left me to mourn alone. I didn't realize then that the true purpose of prayer is simply to ask God to hold us through the things we don't understand. And so I walked alone, in bitterness and pain.

Throughout my life I have encountered people who endured ferocious trials, who must have spent those hours begging for God to heal, or change or stop only to have God's will play out. Instead of cursing God for deafness and silence, they emerge with stronger faith and appreciation for His divine plan. I was not one of those people, and this made me feel bitterly defective.

It took me years to understand that although my faith in prayer had been shattered, I could still ask God to comfort me through pain. This is the only part of prayer that I can believe in, but somehow, it's enough. Perhaps the feelings of betrayal I felt as a teenager ran so deep that my faith in prayer could never be made whole. Just as I was born with a skeptical mind, maybe I was also born with a deficiency of faith. Perhaps this is why I have such a difficult time reconciling the disparities between my religious and political beliefs, where faith is supposed to fill the void.

But just as I cling to those small moments of spiritual warmth to keep me going through doubts and contradictions, I hold on to the one aspect of prayer that I can believe in. No matter how bitter, how angry or how despairing, if I ask God for comfort despite His will which I often can't comprehend, he will hold me, love me and comfort me. If nothing else, that's how I know He's there.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Chick-fil-Oh My Goodness This is Getting Ridiculous

Man am I glad that Chick-fil-A doesn't have any franchises on this island. Not that I don't enjoy myself a tender, juicy chicken burger with a side of crispy fries (hold the homemade iced tea). I don't, however, enjoy finding myself caught straddling two sides of a controversy that will never lead to reconciliation. What I learned in adolescence (besides the fact that body piercings cause life-long scarring and that punk is in fact dead) is that public protest usually does little to facilitate communication between two sides of an issue. Instead, it often ratifies groups in their own worldviews and fosters resentment toward "the Other"*. I fully support freedom of expression and applaud activism, but using a fast-food corporation as an effigy of political posturing seems a bit over the top. This whole thing reminds me of the time when anything French was renamed "freedom" in the United States, back in the good ol' Bush days. Don't tell me you didn't feel awkward ordering Freedom Fries at McDonalds, or asking for a Freedom Manicure at the spa.

If you haven't already deduced, I'm an advocate for gay rights in civil society. I don't condone what the president of Chick-fil-A has said regarding gay marriage. I don't agree with donating money to lobby against gay marriage. I also try to respect the freedom of speech, and the liberty to spend money as one sees fit. My somewhat ambivalent stance on the Chick-fil-A topic isn't a reflection of my political beliefs, but more the result of an education in conflict analysis. Without boring you with academic rhetoric, I'll try to explain why I believe that public demonstration of opinion exacerbates intolerance. This might also give some context to my feelings towards the LDS church's stance during the Prop 8 campaign.

When we become members of a cohesive group-whether it's through religion, opinion, politics or even sports-we begin to identify ourselves as we. "We believe in aliens". "We think Tom Hardy is a babe". "We like Skittles". As we come to identify with a particular group, our identities cause us to label those outside our group as them. "They don't believe in aliens". "They don't think Tom Hardy is a babe". "They don't like Skittles". "We are not like Them". Of course I'm choosing silly examples that don't stir deep-seeded emotions (unless you're like me and are irrationally afraid of an alien invasion. Or if you don't think Tom Hardy is a babe. That's just crazy). But when the beliefs, opinions and assertions of a group are linked to our deepest sense of what is right and true, we quickly take sides to defend our identity, which leads to ostracism, exclusivity and even hatred.

This is not to say that group identity is intrinsically bad or wrong. There are some people enlightened enough to maintain a strong identity without excluding or judging others. Unfortunately, most of us are so emotionally linked to our group identity that an assertion contradicting our group beliefs is seen as a personal attack, and we get defensive. And when we get defensive, we retreat to our own groups, gather allies, solidify our group identity, and cut off effective dialogue with the "Other". When dialogue is cut-off, conflict escalates into a he-said she-said game of hearsay, until we have such a distorted view that we lose the ability to see humanity in others. This often causes ignorance, intolerance and hatred. This is where war is born.

Bringing it back to Chick-fil-A, are we really so entrenched in our "us" vs. "them" mentality that we think eating or not eating a chicken burger is going to promote our agenda or engender a more tolerant atmosphere between two groups with differing opinions? Do we truly believe that shouting hurtful slogans and wielding signs is going to change the "other's" minds and soften their hearts? In my opinion, the only way to truly reconcile a seemingly irreconcilable debate is to see the humanity in one another, especially within those holding views that contradict our own. Unfortunately, verbal warfare in front of a chain restaurant is not going to foster extra-group hugs and effective communication. Instead, it will only lead both groups (supporting gay marriage/supporting traditional marriage)to justify their insular view of the Other.

Having said all this, I think it's really funny that people are making a point to eat at Chick-fil-A three times a day to show support for the owner's religious views. Next thing you know, Mormons are going to go bankrupt from sleeping at the Marriott (a hotel chain with a Mormon CEO).

Joking aside, what do you think about the Chick-fil-A debate? Are you starving yourself of crispy nuggets or getting fat on fast food and ideology?

This is Tom Hardy. Case in Point.

This is an alien invasion. Scared yet?

*this doesn't necessarily relate to all types of public protest. The Arab Spring protests as well as demonstrations to change public policy are effective ways to give voice to "the people"...Oh wow. I did it. I really did it. I used footnotes in a blog post. I'm such a nerd.