What follows is the entirety of an essay I have titled Paradox. It’s a little different than the normal things I write in this space, and so, you may find it uninteresting. Or even worse. But I hope not. Part of the reason I have pursued storytelling in my educational and career paths is to “tell the Mormon story”. Whatever that might mean. That story is different for everyone, and is, like any story, largely based on perception and personal experience. Below is a small slice of mine, and some of what fuels and motivates my spiritual quests. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else—your experience probably differs—whether you are a Mormon or not. In fact, I hope it does. Otherwise any originality I might cling to would be obsolete. I’d love to read some of your feedback and thoughts. But in the meantime, I’m going to go ride the White Rim.
I live in a paradox. A world in which an authoritarian government –injected with divine supremacy and farseeing prophetic implications – oversees and advises behavioral and social traditions, from our dietary choices to our clothing and personal appearances. And yet, it is a world wherein men are left to themselves, free to judge the merit and caliber of such seemingly intrusive admonitions, and to act accordingly. Unlike the thugocracies of most authoritarian regimes, there are no jackboots and brownshirts. There are no gulags or prisons for dissenters and heretics. Rather, we are taught correct principles, and left to govern ourselves. I am a Mormon.
And as such, I live out my days in the cultural and religious anomaly of individual personal salvation and the ongoing and persistent command of bettering the larger collective. And like any clash of groupthink and the unique particularity of the self, there are massive contradictions, questions, and wonderment of just how exactly one is supposed to navigate the labyrinth of Mormonism. I don’t have the answers to such questions. However I have found a realm of consistency and clarity that, on its surface, is aloof and separated from the whitewashed method of institutional worship that has come to define the Sunday meeting experience of the here and now. A place more textured and layered, colored and varied. A place that for me, has provided a lucid peering into the spiritual intangibility of God and Gospel. The mountains.
And no, I am not claiming any higher authority or knowledge or experience. And no, I am not acclaiming that the mountains ought to replace the church-house or that I am now intending to trade Sacrament Meeting for aspen and penstemon. I’d hope that if I ever were to leave the Church that I’d be able to come up with an excuse much less cliche and tired and predictable. Alas, there are few original reasons given anymore for shaking off the shackles of the oppressive and totalitarian theocracy—such as it is often called by those who freely walk away—and so, I may as well claim originality and radicalism in my lack of apostasy and unbelief. Indeed, perhaps the new non-conformity is simple and optimistic submission. And anyway, there is absolutely nothing about being a practicing member of the LDS church that prevents me from seeking and finding those ethereal and elusive revelatory moments while above treeline, or deep within the sandstone expanse of the desert. I wonder, in fact if my days in the wilderness are not enhanced by my belief in God and that those places originated in His handiwork.
I think the Prophet Joseph Smith understood and expressed this idea when he wrote:
Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever!
And so, I submit. Except when I don’t.
But to admit submission to religious authority is not to admit that I am mindless and apathetic. In fact, I believe the opposite is implied, insomuch as Mormon culture is concerned. That is, individuality is fundamental in Christian, and especially Mormon doctrine. The power of the one to condemn or to save himself is terrible and beautiful. As the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob wrote, “Men are free to choose liberty… or to choose captivity and death” and such thinking is at the heart of this cultural and theocratic experiment.
And it is why I live in a paradox.
And it is one of the reasons I find myself so attracted to individual and athletic pursuits of excellence and self discovery. And it would seem that those endeavors are best explored in the wild and open spaces where I am forced to look inward and to learn just who it is I am, or better yet, who I want to or could become. I find in those moments of deep and alarming self questioning the essence of my character and being. The core of the man behind the false exterior and the socially acceptable grandstanding. It is, in the depths of physical pain and doubt that I better understand the motivational prodding that fuels the spiritual and intangible reasoning that springs out from my soul and psyche.
Perhaps it seems unrelated, or even a massive jumping to conclusions, but physical effort and spiritual, creative, and even religious understanding seem intricately connected. Which is to say, that both are healthier, more meaningful, and infinitely more enjoyable when pursued in tandem. Like the vision quests of the Navajo and Hopi and Anasazi, or the mountain ascensions of Judeo-Christian prophets, there is a direct connection to wilderness, and divinity. And it is that divinity that I am intent on discovering, both within and without my own sense of self.
And maybe absurdly, part of that self discovery has come in my wearing a beard. My grandpa, who passed away in December of 2009, used to scoff at my facial hair in an endearing, charming, and most likely justified manner. When I’d visit him he’d ask me, sternly, when I would come to my senses and shave it off. “Well”, he’d reply to my noncommittal answer, “we love you anyway.”
In 1971 Dallin H. Oaks, then President of Brigham Young University, and now an Apostle in the Church said that:
There is nothing inherently wrong about long hair or beards, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with possessing an empty liquor bottle. But a person with a beard or an empty liquor bottle is susceptible of being misunderstood. Either of these articles may reduce a person’s effectiveness and promote misunderstanding because of what people may reasonably conclude when they view them in proximity to what these articles stand for in our society today.
I believe that perception has long died and withered. At least among the rising generation of Latter-day Saints that did not endure the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s. In those decades young people in the United States were roiling in a sort of political and cultural unrest. It was the era of mass protest, flag burning, and intellectual and moral free thinking that led to a disdain for authority, constraint and conformity. And the beard was an outward symbol of an inward rebellion. And so those bodies of authority—government, religion, corporations—reacted accordingly, if overly so. But that era is over. And in an ironic twist of history, many of those so-called rebels of then are the corporate, political and religious leaders of now. Clean shaven suits standing atop pedestals and daises preaching the good word of straight-laced social interaction. Free your mind. But only so far as those in charge approve.
It might be, however, that that era is not exactly a bygone relic of the past. Perhaps a beard today is still an outward sign of some sort of rebellion or contrarian nature. But then, perhaps its not even that significant, and warrants far less attention than it did when my parents were my age. At the very least, it keeps the sun off my face in the summer, and holds at bay the biting cold and winds of winter. And again that paradox of personal and singular freedom crashes into the larger social traditions of this peculiar culture. I live in a paradox. I am a bearded Mormon.
Now, where did I put my empty liquor bottle?