Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Loving as Religion

We spent the past weekend in St. George, Utah for Rivs' Iron Man 70.3 race. A few years ago, I would have been self-conscious and resentful about entering the heartland of conservative Mormon culture; self-conscious about my visible tattoos (thanks a lot 17 year old punk rock Steph), and resentful towards all the faceless Mormons who would undoubtedly make me feel like an outsider. I had never been to Utah before, but I was sure it was seeping with beautiful, stylish, self-righteous Mormons who had the innate ability to look into my soul and see that I was (gasp)... A LIBERAL! And I thought that they would judge and treat me accordingly. It's taken me a few years of introspective humility to understand the irony and hypocrisy of my reasoning. I was judging an entire geographical state of human beings to be judgmental. In thinking I was so "open minded", I was closing myself off to those I deemed bigoted before ever having met them. Wow, way to go, Steph.

I've grown very comfortable with the fact that I have visible tattoos, and I'm slowly learning that political ideology does not define a person. It can, but it doesn't have to. With that mindset, accompanied with the new found self-realization of my aforementioned hypocritical thinking, I went to Utah with no expectations, no pre-conceived judgement (other than the hypothesis that I would see a lot of heels, blonde hair and fake eye lashes), and with just a minor inferiority complex.

The first thing we did on our way to Utah was drive through Colorado City, which is famous (or infamous) for being a Polygamist settlement. For those of you who are not Mormon, let me clarify that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints do NOT practice polygamy. Just as Protestants broke away from Catholicism due to a divergence of beliefs, a faction of Mormons broke off from the official LDS church and formed their own religion in 1890 when then-LDS president Wilford Woodruff officially terminated the practice of polygamy. From this schism was born the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or FLDS), a religion that holds faith in the same Book of Mormon as the official LDS church, but believes that the practice of Polygamy should have never been dissolved.

I guess I expected to see bonneted women hoeing wheat in the field as children ran down dirt roads chasing large wooden hoops with sticks in the their hands. What I saw instead were extremely modern mansions, outdoor pools and SUV-lined driveways. I saw a teenage boy walking down the road with school books in his hands, presumably on his way to Mojave Community College down the street. Sure, his Levis were riding pretty high around his waist, and he held a Walkman in his right hand and a TI-89 calculator in the other, but he wasn't the posterchild for polygamist depravity I had envisioned.

I began to feel guilty about gawking at these "different" people as we drove down the street. I felt I was making a spectacle of a people who were just living a life they believed to be right and true, just as much as I believe my way of life to be.

We left the compound and continued on our way to St. George. At the back of my mind, a thought began to form like a word on the tip of my tongue. I knew it was there, but I couldn't quite bring it to fruition. It wasn't until the end of our trip that I understood the scope of my budding epiphany.

Our weekend in Utah was pleasant. The scenery was beautiful, Cafe Rio was dangerously delicious (I may have gained 5 pounds derived solely from pulled barbacoa pork) and although I did see a plethora of heels, perky fake boobs and perfectly styled hair, I also saw lots of genuine smiles and met some sincerely friendly people. I have never been in a place where strangers are so excited to strike up a conversation, give a compliment or make a passing joke. It occurred to me that despite the cultural and political viewpoints with which I disagree, the sense of community and family emphasis is truly wonderful and unique within the Mormon culture. My budding epiphany was slowly reaching the surface.

We were sitting in Sunday school on our last day in St. George, surrounded by grey-haired couples who were following the lesson from their shiny new iPads, when my thoughts finally came together. I began to feel the intoxicating sentiment of self-consciousness creep in as I imagined how "ungodly" my nautical star neck tattoo must appear to the conservative generation of Mormons surrounding me. For all of the non-judgment and warmth I had felt from the people of St.George, I began to think that perhaps this 'final frontier' of senior uber-conservative Mormons would be the ones to make me feel out of place. Perhaps their liberal-radar was more in tune. Rivers was wearing flip flops, blue corduroys and a beige button down and was sporting a beard (well, a Fu Manchu mustache, but I think that may be even worse). I was wearing an Urban Outfitters bird T-shirt and the stretchy skirt I had worn the day before. My neck tattoo was clearly visible. Just as I was beginning to get lost in feelings of insecurity and diffidence, the elderly lady sitting behind me tapped my shoulder and whispered "I just love your blouse!" I thanked her warmly and went to turn back around so as not to disrupt the Sunday school lesson, but the kind lady was keen on carrying a conversation. We tacitly spoke about the weather, the Iron Man competition and where I had bought my "blouse". Her husband, hearing of Rivs' accomplishments in the race, reached forward and gave him a firm pat on the back, as a proud father would give his son. After the lesson there were smiling elderly faces waiting with kind smiles and hand shakes for me, and lots of proud back pats for Rivers. Sure, there had been culturally conservative Sunday school comments throughout the lesson, but I felt utterly at home. And that is when my epiphany was made manifest.

It occurred to me that it isn't our beliefs that define us, rather it's the way our beliefs translate into the way we treat other people that makes us who we are. We can be proud of our nationality, religion, political views or sexual orientation and use it as a means of identification. "I am American." "I am Mormon". "I am a Republican". "I am Gay". I don't believe there is anything wrong with feeling burning pride for our religion, or any other identifying factor. In fact, as human beings we need identities in order to feel self-worth and understand our place in the world. But what I came to find on my weekend in Utah, as trite as it sounds, is that our true identities are found in our ability and willingness to love others.

It's too often that our terrestrial identities keep us from recognizing our potential to love unconditionally, just as my 'liberal' ideology led me to write off the entire state of Utah. When we are so entrenched in our views, it becomes easy to pass judgement on those who think differently, and to treat them accordingly. I am supremely guilty of this.

This is not to say that it is inherently bad to be passionate about ideologies and beliefs. I wouldn't be writing this blog if I wasn't zealous in my worldview. But in a state of introspection I came to find that in comparison to love and charity, most of my other beliefs are quite trivial.

As this thought sequence unfolded, the Bob Marley lyrics "Love is my Religion" came to mind. Although these words are stigmatized as a free-loving left-wing hippie slogan, they are quite similar to the Christian mantra "Love one Another". Unfortunately, these polarized groups are often at odds with each other due to differences in belief, lifestyle and culture. In their polarized disagreements, they come to forget (myself included) that their basic core value is the same: just love.

Another song that came to mind as I was mulling over these thoughts were lyrics from a Church hymn:

"By this shall men know, that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another"

These words adopted new poignancy for me. The hymn doesn't say "by these white shirts and ties", or "by your clean-shaven face" that others would recognized followers of Christ. It simply says that our ability and propensity to love others is the greatest indicator of true discipleship.

And so, on my Utah vacation I came to learn that whether we're old or young, liberal or conservative, polygamist or monogamous, the only thing that truly matters is love.