Sunday, May 8

Becoming a Parent Someday

My mother is a hero.

She studied rocket science at MIT. Between winning regional diving championships and cooking mass meals for the Institute, she met my dad, who was studying business. He had a year left, and she had two... so she did what her advisers thought impossible and completed her junior and senior years together, taking classes that overlapped and somehow being in two places at the same time.

Her colleagues became astronauts and scientists.

Her rivals won Olympic gold medals.

She became my mom.

Some parents aren't fully present in their children's lives. Many work, spend time with adult friends and family, and spend time in church callings away from home. Somehow, I don't remember that happening with my mom. When my dad lost his job, I always asked to go on excursions to find the sales to restock the food storage we lived on. When I had crazy ideas, she helped me make them work. We built a 12-foot tower from a piece of paper and a foot of tape one night for school, folding and creasing tiny strips into telescoping triangles. I followed her to stake choir practice, to Homemaking, everywhere.

She, like me, has always had trouble making close friends, and we lived hundreds of miles from her family... so she was always there for me. Not overbearing or hovering - I spent plenty of hours hidden in corners reading books and didn't often talk to her about school - but always available when I wanted or needed her help.

Watching my parents has fanned a flame in my own heart - a desire deep inside me that defines me more than anything else in my life - the desire to be a father. To have my own children, to be there in their lives, and to live adventures with them. To teach someone else to build intricate towers late into the night from K'NEX or look through telescopes on the roof at Orion or split hostas and irises until there's nowhere else to put them.

It colors everything I do, everything I plan, everything I want.

I've only ever wanted one thing more:

To be good... and to do the right thing.

In the beginning, I thought I'd get married young, have lots of kids, and live happily ever after with my family. I dated a ton, even though it didn't really work out and caused chaos for everyone involved. I even avoided study abroads and international trips because I thought that I'd have a better chance finding a spouse at home... and wanted to save money for when I did.

As time went on, my concern grew and eventually became enormous. I was getting older, everyone around me was getting married, and I wasn't anywhere close. I realized I had problems that I faced - specifically being attracted to men instead of women - and I hit a wall when I realized that I needed to trust God and let Him worry about the timing of my life. My zealous passion for dating subsided, and I focused, instead of on finding someone, on becoming a better man so that someday I could be a good husband and dad.

I feel like I've made progress.

I've gone to school and learned about myself and others, and found ways to make a difference in the world. I've beaten bipolar and gained enough coping skills that most people can't tell that I have autism. I don't have a lot in financial savings, but I've learned the importance of giving freely and often.

I'm a better man than I was a few years ago. As I've grown older, my dream to be a dad doesn't change, but the possibility of it being realized seems to get smaller and smaller.

Last week I was down on myself as I thought about my life... comparing what I want with what others have... and in my conversation with God He reminded me of the story of Abraham. Abraham was like me. Our childhoods were different, but he wanted to be a dad just like I do. So he did the right things, trusted God, and waited. A few pages later, when Abraham was 100 years old, his son Isaac was born.

The story gave me hope. If God could do miracles for Abraham, He can do miracles for me.

It also opened up my eyes to something that could have saved me a lot of grief. In my patriarchal blessing, it promises that if I "endure to the end," someday I'll be a father. That phrase has always made me wonder. Usually I think of "endure to the end" as something that comes after. I make covenants, see blessings from God, and then endure to the end through the ensuing trials of life. Endure to the end, from that perspective, is a pithy statement that means "stay faithful until I die." How am I supposed to endure to the end before I get married and have kids in this life?

The answer was right there. I was given the same promise that was given to Abraham. And while God always keeps His promises, I have to do my part as well. Abraham waited 100 years for Isaac... which is definitely long enough to count as "enduring to the end" in my book. Maybe that's why waiting is a difficult part of my life, too.

I'm grateful for a mom that has been there for me. For parents who helped me want to be a parent myself. But, most especially, for their focus on doing the right thing. Yes, I may have to wait... but God always keeps His promises, in His time and in His way, yes, but a promise is a promise. If I'm faithful, keep my covenants, and endure to the end, I'll be a dad someday.

Sunday, April 17

Loss

Flashback.

It's a Wednesday, and I am in an Internet cafe far from my apartment and thousands of miles from home. My spot is along the right aisle, on the left hand side, three chairs from the front.

I pull out the chair and try to tune out the chaos of Naples. The train station a block away draws tens of thousands of people... and this cafe is different from the deep downtown where I spend my everyday.

I pull open my email and read.

The chaos doesn't die down. The people keep walking on the street. The ceiling fans still move, slowly churning the air in quiet circles. But, for a moment, my world stops. My heart catches in my throat, and I find myself crying.

A man who lived just across the street from my childhood home for years, who opened his home when his daughters invited me over to play Sonic, just committed suicide.

I don't know him well. They were divorced, she stayed in the house and remarried, and he moved away. I was little for many of the years he was there, and I don't know many people well. Regardless of the reasons, all the excuses that youth can give me are still excuses in my eyes.

Maybe if I had been a better kid... something different would have happened. I could have befriended his daughters better, known him better, been a better neighbor. I've been suicidal. I know what it feels to walk the line between life and death, and I've been closer to death far more times than I can count. And maybe I could have helped. 

I can't now. But maybe I can help the people left behind... who must be feeling pain and guilt far more than I feel.

I can't go to the funeral. I'm a missionary thousands of miles away, and yet I want to be there so much more than here. I write a short message to my family and the family across the street... and like that my time is up.

...

That wasn't the first time someone I knew had taken his life. It wasn't the last, either. Each time, I've felt like my heart was broken into pieces... and even today, 11 years after this flashback (have I really been writing that long?!?), the feelings are just as real. I know that as a little kid I likely had little impact on this man's life - that mental illness and other factors effected far more powerful influences than a 9-year-old would have been able to create - but I still wish I had been "better." I still wonder if I could have done something to help him stay alive.

Suicide seems to be far more common in the worlds my life intersects. People with bipolar seem far more likely to commit suicide than even those with depression. People with autism seem higher risk as well - especially those who want personal contact and can't make it happen. And it seems that being gay - and the isolation that can create regardless of moral and emotional support - makes suicide yet again more likely in those with concurrent mental conditions.

This post isn't about how to fix the problem. If there were a simple way to fix suicide, depression, mental illness, and loneliness, then we would have found it. Sometimes a random act of kindness can make a difference, and sometimes all the love in the world can't make it through. Medications are imperfect and have dramatic, soul-sucking side effects. Psychiatric and other interventions only sometimes work. Each person is unique, and each story different except for the underlying themes of inexplicable pain, isolation, and sadness.

I just want to remind myself that people are important... and that life is fragile. The people I meet, who come into my shop, who pass me on the street, my family and best friend and everyone else - they all live with real issues in their lives. Under the surface, they struggle with pain, sadness, and loneliness just as I do.

And hopefully I can be a better man to help them thrive - not just survive - another day.

Thursday, April 14

Entitlement: Family, Friends, Food, Life, and Other Things I Don't Deserve

There wasn't a firestorm this General Conference. In the past few years, usually at least one talk each Conference will have something that the gay, anti/ex-Mormon world can dredge up as proof of the Church's alleged discrimination. This time, however, all was quiet. There were definitely times that it could have erupted - from the talk about children from non-ideal parenting situations to the multiple about marriage - but it didn't.

That means I can just reflect on Conference.

There were a couple talks this time around that I fell in love with. The one that has stuck was on entitlement - and the basis was this: "The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement." ("That I Might Draw All Men Unto Me")

The speaker spoke about how the Church's welfare system (focused on self-reliance) exemplifies that knowledge, but went on to say that this change in feeling comes about in every situation, from personal relationships, to those with governments and organizations and stores, to those with God.

Looking at my own life, I can see that it's true.

When I walk into The Thai Kitchen - a small restaurant where the owner knows my name, I feel bad about using the carefully folded paper towels she's placed next to the bathroom sink. I haven't developed a sense of entitlement here - I know how much paper towels cost over time, and I want her to be successful, so I shake my hands dry or wipe them on the sides of my shirt instead.

But when I walked into the bathroom at a huge, international convention center just a few weeks ago, my first thought wasn't saving paper towels. It was on the other extreme of entitledness - "Shouldn't they be providing natural soap to wash our hands with, instead of the artificially-made stuff in these dispensers? This is a natural products expo." I don't have a positive relationship with either the convention center or the group that organizes the expo - in fact, it's quite the opposite... you could say I hate their guts and I'd only tell you that hate is a really strong word. That emotion, mixed with time, has allowed a sense of entitlement to grow without my even knowing it.

Thinking about it took me aback. I usually tell myself that I'm never entitled to anything... and that has honestly been a point of (ironic) pride for me. But I obviously still have a ways to go.

Inside, I still want to be proud of my growth, though. When I go to Church functions and there's nothing for me to eat, I'm honestly okay. I used to get angry that no one offered healthier food options at local gatherings. I don't feel the frustration and loneliness I once did, and I've lost the overzealous desire to preach people away from buying tithe-funded sugar-stupor-inducing brownies and ice cream. I just eat before I go to a church dinner, and I don't expect or feel entitled to food. The rare time there is food I can eat (when it's vegan, doesn't have sugar, and falls on an every-other food day), I feel special.

When I go to Elder's Quorum and a leader who's been married for decades talks about how "everyone" in the quorum can get married if we're willing to date often and just choose a nice girl from the ones available, again, I don't get offended or feel emotionally bitter because he just ignored the people in the room (not just me) who will probably never have that chance. I don't bring up the research that says that Millennials are, on average, far less likely to get married and far less likely to be religious and that we're way ahead of the average game. (Though sometimes I do think, "How absurd would it be if we switched roles and if I, an unmarried guy, went to a married ward full of people two generations away and preached about something important to me? It would be probably just as awfully misinformed as this is.")

When I go to Church or firesides and there never seems to be anything focused on me and my situation (I'm gay, I have major invisible mental issues, I want to be active in the Church, and I want to feel like people know who I am and care about me), I don't get angry or walk out. I just go to feel the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, every generalized message becomes personal.

When the only relationships they talk about at General Conference are marriages... and the word "friendship" is mentioned only once, inside I am still frustrated with my world that has hyper-sexualized and over-romanticized relationships to the point of sacrificing friendship on the altar of sexuality... but I don't feel rancor towards a speaker who didn't mention it. I'm not entitled to telling someone (whether in reality or just talking to myself or a screen) what to say in their Conference talk.

And this has become a self-aggrandizing post. That wasn't where I wanted to go with this... but at least there's emotion now. Obviously I'm still trying to come to grips with the fact that I do sometimes feel entitled, as much as I may tell myself otherwise... and that, as many times as I may deny it, something deep inside me still feels that I deserve.

So that brings me to the next point in the talk.

The solution to entitlement, from the talk, is to close the distance in the relationship. In the case of The Thai Kitchen, I keep a close relationship with the owner, and I'll always want to help her succeed. In the case of the Natural Products Association... um... I don't really care to develop a personal relationship there. Hopefully I can combat the entitlement without having to get any closer (Wow. I didn't realize I felt that intensely.) In the most important case, I can come closer to God and Christ in order to not feel a sense of entitlement in life itself.

In a way, I honestly feel that entitlement is the great temptation... and the great sin... of today's generation. Pornography, immorality, financial fraud, dishonesty, violence, unethical business practices - everything that plagues today's world stems from feelings of entitlement. If I deserve to have my needs met, and they aren't being met, then it makes it easier to justify doing something to meet them, regardless of how bad that action may be. Entitlement also makes it easier to place blame after the fact or when I plan my sins. If I deserve something, I can then claim that any of my unmet needs are proof that someone is denying me a necessary part of my life - whether God, the Church, an organization, government, someone else, or the world - and it doesn't take a lot of mental gymnastics to claim that, since they have denied me what I deserve, the "logical consequence" of their actions (my sin) was their fault as well.

The scary thing is that entitlement doesn't look bad by itself. It almost always masquerades as something else - something logical, persuasive, and even good. It hides in the darkness where few can see it, fueling feelings of anger, frustration, and hurt that ultimately destroy the relationship and hence create even more feelings of entitlement.


At its core though, entitlement is simple:

When I feel that something should have happened to me.

When I feel that something shouldn't have happened to me.

When I feel that I deserve a blessing from God - as great or small as it may be, and as much or little effort as I've put into making it happen - and He should give it to me.

When I feel that I deserve anything from someone else - from love, to food, to a safe place to sleep at night - and they should give it to me.

Since entitlement is a common human condition and always claims innocence, just reading the statements before will probably bring up a dozen objections. What about little children? Aren't they entitled to food and safety? What about people who are in dangerous or toxic relationships? Aren't they entitled to safety and security? What about them and the things they deserve?

That actually brings up another, even darker aspect of entitlement.

Entitlement also rears its head, and is often far more deadly, when I feel entitled to things that aren't even for me:

When I feel that something should have happened to someone else.

When I feel that something shouldn't have happened to someone else.

When I feel that someone else deserves a blessing from God - as great or small as it may be, and as much or little effort as they've put into making it happen - and He should give it to them.

When I feel that someone else deserves anything from someone else - from love, to food, to a safe place to sleep at night - and they should give it to them.

Entitlement comes from a sense of pride - a sense of knowing what I need or knowing what someone else needs better than God or the Church or someone else. And with that sense of pride comes the feeling that, even though a need is unmet, it's up to someone else to meet it. I've even had the audacity to believe that God - an all-powerful being who has deigned to care about my existence - should give me blessings simply because He is perfect, even though I'm not willing to be perfect, or anywhere close.

I look at little children and my heart goes out to them. But that's not because they deserve it. It's because my desire to protect them is an innate social function that is necessary for the survival of the human race. It's a feeling that God gave me, and an instinctual feeling that extends even to animals. Birds will raise nestlings even if they're different from the others. And sometimes I take it a bit too far. I assume that since I have a feeling and a desire, every being in the Universe must also feel the same way, and must devote every possible thing to making my desire come true. Reality is far from that.



The reality is that I don't deserve anything. I don't deserve love, or sex, or family, or friends, or money, or a great job, or even food or health or safety or a place to sleep at night. That's because deserving requires my doing something to deserve it... and, in the grand scheme of things, I have either done absolutely nothing (in the case of myself as an infant) or far worse. At the end of the day, I am a no one or a sinner. The only One who deserved anything was Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life, and hence truly deserved. But, instead, He chose to die and suffer so that I could receive something other than a place in everlasting Hell.

That's right. Hell, and death, are the only things I can ever truly deserve.

Let me say that again.

Hell, and death, are the only things I can ever truly deserve.

Thus all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost... (Mosiah 16:4)

But that doesn't mean life isn't worth living.

Because, even though I may only truly deserve death and Hell, the God of the Universe has shown me Grace. He has chosen me to be one of His Sons. To live on a breathtakingly beautiful world, surrounded by complex, breathtakingly awe-inspiring beings. To navigate a complicated life full of twists and turns and meanderings, designed specifically to help me find who I am and grow into a better man.


Once I get that - once I realize that it's only through the Grace of God that I am breathing, alive, and mentally sound, once I realize it's only through the kindness and love of my parents that I survived birth, and the founding fathers that I live in a country where I can blog about my beliefs - life actually looks a whole lot more beautiful. Because, at that moment, everything becomes a gift.

Entitlement assumes that I deserve to live life at 100%. Anything less than 100% becomes a "defect," "injustice," or "flaw." Oh. And, by the way, since life can only subtract, it's impossible to reach 100%. The negative percentage points pile up around me, and I use coping mechanisms, self-help, or positive thinking to manage them. Enough of them, and they pull me down, convincing me that, since I have so many flaws, my life isn't worthwhile.

Grace assumes that I deserve to live life at 0%. Anything more than 0% becomes a "talent," "miracle," or "gift." And, by the way, life is full of gifts, and when I start at 0% and add, 100% is only a stepping stone on the way. The positive percentage points pile up around me. Enough of them, and they give me the strength to do anything, convincing me that, since I have so many gifts and talents and blessings and proof that people and God love me, life is amazing.

Life is a gift. I begin deserving nothing, and while the gifts given to me by friends and family and God may seem imperfect, God is completely in control. He knows me, and He knows what I truly need in order to return to Him someday... and, no matter what I face, He is there with me.

For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. (D&C 46:11-12)

In my case, I needed the humility that I found in the depths of depression, where I learned that I was nothing and walked the fine line between life and death. I needed the pain I felt in the darkness of being alone and knowing that only God could get through to me. I needed to have my world shattered by abuse so that He could put it together again. I needed to be loved and rejected and worn and battered and torn.

I'm grateful to have a God who loves me enough to give me His Grace.

It may not be what I want... but it will always be far more than I truly deserve.

Thursday, March 24

The Sea of Loneliness

I am not alone.

On the outside my life looks simple. Almost idyllic. I run my own business and set my own hours to do something I love. I have family and friends and a best friend who will do anything for me. A ward that loves and supports me for who I am. A culture and society and people all around me who love the good things I do and lift me when I fall. Opportunities to share the gospel in my day-to-day life. Frugality, hard work, and faith that kills all potential financial and social stress. 

And yet beneath the surface - far inside the labyrinth of my mind and deep enough that few can find the way - is a wholly different story.

I am lonely.

Researchers say that loneliness shortens lifespan. The feeling of loneliness heightens stress hormones, creates oxidation and cellular damage, and ultimately contributes to premature death on the cellular level. Some claim that few other chronic conditions have such a dramatic impact on health.

Loneliness ultimately comes from an unmet need based in others. I feel a need to emotionally connect. Then I reach out to others. If they don't fill the need, then I feel loneliness and have to find coping strategies to offset the emotional distress.

In most cases, and for most people, the feeling can go away. Loneliness, while a common human condition, is extremely curable, especially with the help of someone who cares. If not, then the usual prescription is reaching out to others and serving them. Being friendly. Serving. Opening emotions to people and then, by the grace of God, finding people who share passions, interests, and love. That hope - that loneliness is only a temporary condition - is one reason that some researchers have stated that avoiding loneliness is a major pursuit in the human condition.

It's important to state here that loneliness is only loosely connected with another human state - that of being alone. It is possible to be completely alone, surrounded by no one, and to feel no loneliness. On the other side, it is possible to be surrounded by friends, family, loved ones, and people who care deeply... and to feel utterly alone. This is because loneliness is an internal condition - and while it is usually responsive to outside influences, and even acutely dependent on the outside, sometimes it's not.

When I reach out and do "the right things" in my mind to alleviate loneliness, and the loneliness doesn't go away, whether because people aren't available or can't meet the need I have, that abuses the cycle. I lose faith in "the right things" as a source of personal help and now have heightened emotional distress to deal with. I can self-medicate with drugs or pornography or video games - designed to depress the emotion and the need to connect to lower the emotional pain. Or I can invest even more energy into connection - hypersensitizing the need and becoming far more friendly, helpful, and serving. Engage in the community, reach out to others, and do far more of "the right things" with the hope that the need will be met.

I personally have a third option as well - one that isn't as widely available. Sometimes I can just turn off my emotions. No drugs or outside help required.

But none of those can truly displace the original cycle. Video games and drugs and self-numbing can distract from reality, and serving others can temporarily replace the feeling of loneliness with another... but they don't serve as a true replacement. They don't cure loneliness.

And that's what has made my therapists cry.

I'm rarely alone. I have people in my life who honestly care about me and try to understand me. I have time to myself to write and think. I can have deep, honest conversations. My job is amazing. Life looks perfect on the outside, and sometimes I can convince myself that it's true.

The reality is that I am excruciatingly lonely - so much that when I let the feeling stay, it feels like it is choking the breath from my chest. It's an intensely despairing loneliness, one that burns out my desire to even move or breathe or think. It's not depression. Depression is like a heavy fog of darkness that blots out the light and weighs me down, making it impossible to see anything at all. Loneliness is totally different.

I was meditating, and in my mind my life became a bustling city. Relationships, habits, and goals are buildings and parks and foot paths and lights with thousands of people walking and talking here and there, each one impacting my life in its own way. Beneath it all, though, is a pulsing sound, and a pulsing feeling - one that no one else notices but me. I know the feeling. It's always there, pulsing in waves that come and go, pushing and pulling me. It's loneliness. I'm drawn to find it - to see the source - and so I go down, beneath the surface, until I do. 

And there, under the footings of my life, I find a sea. 

A literal sea of feeling and emotion within me. 

Being there overwhelms me. The feeling is intense. Intense like smelling something that makes me gag or a mixture of being smashed and cut and burned and smothered all at once, but somehow more intense than those could ever be. It's crushing and deadening and terrifying and impossibly huge - so much so that trying to look at it and understand it makes me avert my gaze. The first few times I do. With only those cursory glances, this feeling seems somehow more massive than any other emotion I've ever felt. It scares me. And when I look at it in the eye, when I take the courage to look out across and into the depths, I realize that it's far bigger than I ever imagined.

It seems to go on forever. 

Endlessly wide in every direction. Endlessly deep.

It's almost awesome how enormous and enveloping it is. My sea of loneliness is black and liquid, with a viscosity somewhere around thick oil. Does it reflect light? I think so, but I look at it more closely to see, and the expanse consumes everything. I can't see at all. Looking at it makes it impossible to look away.

I don't know if loneliness would catch fire. It has no smell... and, I realize now, no sound, either.

I feel something pulsing in my chest, and I remember that I'm not just a tourist here. Each wave of the sea is actually a throb deep inside my heart. This enormous, seemingly infinite depth of loneliness hidden beneath the surface of my reality... is my reality. And all the buildings and structures, all the people standing on the surface don't change that reality. 

Among the tumult of emotions I face, one surpasses them all.

I am lonely.

Deeply, utterly, inescapably, crushingly lonely.

I go back up to the surface and the bustle of activity has stopped. People wonder what's wrong. They can feel the pulsing beneath the surface. They want to see it. They want to help.

I take one by the hand and lead them through the labyrinths, down closer to the sea. But long before we arrive at the shores, she has felt enough and pulls me back up. She takes me to her own world and shows me that she feels loneliness, too. That everyone feels loneliness, that it is part of human existence or at least part of many or some or even just another. Then she walks away. I stand, stunned, and then realize she simply doesn't understand. She didn't want to. She wanted to fix it. For her, perhaps knowing that loneliness is part of mortality gives her the strength to reach out and befriend others, or to weather a specific trial. She has information that strengthens her, and this information is supposed to soak up the sea within me. It does not.

I try again, and this time the journey is even shorter. We begin descending, then shortly rising up again. He doesn't want to see it. The story repeats over and over and over. Each time, as we rise, I hear advice, counsel, warnings, stories... all given with the hope that they will quench or at least still the rumblings in my soul. Most are well-meant. Be friendly. Serve others. Others, while also perhaps well-intentioned, are subversive. "Get a boyfriend. Find a husband. Leave the Church. Try it... because you'll never know until you try." (I'm not the new kid on the block. I've spoken with thousands of people - gay, straight, Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and unbelieving. I've heard enough stories to see at least some patterns. Getting a boyfriend or rejecting God, while it may seem to cause temporary absolution, is not going to fix my loneliness or any other problem.) I follow the counsels that align with God, hoping, as they do, that these newest attempts will work. They do not.

Few people have made it far enough to truly see my sea of loneliness. A therapist who broke down in tears. A girl I had never met who then had nightmares for months. Another who, days later, tried to commit suicide, facing newfound depression triggered in that moment. Ironically, strangers can make the journey. Some seem to go mad when they arrive. But those closest to me rarely finish.

I think it is because loneliness is such a common human emotion, and one that is seemingly easily understood. Cultures around the world teach that friendship and love cures loneliness. Listening cures it. Understanding cures it. Caring cures it. We've learned that, alone, people can weather loneliness and find healthy ways to cope... but we also believe that a truly loving friend has the ability to make it all better. That's what loneliness is, isn't it? Needing someone who cares and understands? And so those who have no felt need to be my friend can make the journey to the sea of loneliness and feel its breadth... but those who are tied to me find themselves unwilling to go further, because seeing it and feeling it, in their eyes, makes them less worthwhile.

People who love have a hard time handling loneliness in those they love. I know I do. Even though my experience is my own, I believe that if I listen, understand, and care enough, I can help someone else not feel lonely. And it works. We read and talk to those in comas so they feel loved, and it gives them the strength to stay alive. We listen to friends and strangers pour out their hearts and they find the will to go on another day. It is only when we've done our best, and so have they, that the pain becomes too intense to understand.

I think, though, that I am different. Is it possible that I've just gotten it wrong and the loneliness I feel is my fault or the fault of those around me? Maybe. But it's far more likely that I am wired for loneliness - that, like those who live in chronic pain or are born blind or tall or short, loneliness is just part of who I am. My loneliness doesn't go away. It stays. It makes it really hard to be my friend, since we ascribe loneliness to a lack of meaningful friendship. But I choose to believe that it's not the fault of the people around me, or my own, but a gift from God to make me into the person I am.

Loneliness is the foundation of my reality. The habits and structures and relationships of my life are built on a foundation of intense loneliness... and out of the desire to help others who feel, at least somewhat, the same way. I stand at the door of my chapel and greet people because I am lonely. I invite people to activities and do my home teaching and blog at (Gay) Mormon Guy and run my shop and make friends and do almost everything valuable in my life because I am lonely. Not because I believe that it will go away, but because that loneliness fills me with a need to help others. It reminds me that there are people in the world that feel acute, intense, enormous pain... and that I can do something to help.

If I weren't lonely, I wouldn't care about others. Honestly and truthfully, I don't think I would. From my perspective, every other human emotion is endurable and people can deal with it on their own. I've felt pain, hunger and fear, loss, frustration, anger, sadness, depression... and all of them are emotions that have solutions that people have to implement by themselves. I can share information, but I can't fix it. But loneliness... my experience notwithstanding, loneliness you don't solve by being alone. There is nothing worse than loneliness. And to fix it, loneliness needs someone else. And the only someone else I have is me.

This is my reality. I am friendly, outgoing, and surrounded by people who love me. I am honest in my relationships and committed to my friends. I have a best friend who will do anything for me, a supportive family, and mentors I can turn to. My life has meaning, and I feel infinite love from God.

And I am lonely.

And that's ok.

It's ok to walk with me to my sea of loneliness and then to sit with me and see me in pain and not be able to do anything about it. To tell me and show me that you care even when you know it doesn't change the sea inside. To do everything you can to make a difference even if it doesn't seem to. Perhaps that will help us both to realize that friendship and human interaction are about something deeper than just quenching loneliness and filling unmet emotional needs - that you and I are here to do far more than to love and feel loved.

Wednesday, March 16

North Star and the 2016 North Star Conference - "Upon the Rock of Christ"

It's been a while since I did anything with North Star.

North Star is a multi-faceted organization. As a base, the organization provides resources for members of the LDS Church and community to help them understand and navigate issues surrounding sexuality. Under that umbrella, North Star organizes inspirational firesides, encourages positive blog posts, holds annual conferences, and publishes information on same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria, and a bunch of other issues. North Star is somewhat unique (and, from my perspective, this is an absolute necessity) in its role of explicitly and exclusively affirming the LDS faith. (There are dozens of organizations that encourage exploration of sexuality within Mormonism and, whether to avoid hurt feelings or send subliminal messages, do not officially support LDS doctrine. This inevitably leads to the propagation of anti-Mormon messages.)

I was actually on the Executive Committee of North Star for a little while. I didn't accomplish much while in office. I left after only a few months because I was stressed with issues in life, because I didn't like meetings, and because I had strong feelings about direction that didn't seem to match with what was going to happen.

So I took a break.

Some back story is probably required here.

For many people helped by North Star, the defining characteristic of North Star is the camaraderie gained through association. North Star hosts a number of private email and Facebook groups, and, to many people, "North Star" is a Facebook group or discussion group itself, or a group of people who show up to a fireside or event. To join groups, individuals pledge to follow a strict code of conduct, and the groups and posts have assigned moderators, but like any other discussion board where moderation happens after the fact, a lot gets through, and moderation is hard to enforce or determine where to draw the line (hence why (G)MG is not moderated after the fact. Every comment that goes up gets approved before it does, and there are plenty that don't just because). And, since the Facebook group uses people's real identity, things can happen that are less than ideal. For many people, events and communications sponsored by North Star are inspiring and uplifting, but for a few, an anti-Mormon post on their Facebook feed or the person who breaks the code of conduct and acts inappropriately in a personal message or in person can lead to much more negative experiences.

The issue is that North Star serves a huge, diverse population with incredibly diverse needs. While those who are first coming to terms with their sexuality may crave and need security, anonymity, and positive reinforcement in a completely safe environment, those who have progressed and developed their own testimonies and personal strength find value in openness, friendship, and the ability to be themselves around others. Ideally, perhaps North Star would offer different resources to different people along the way, but most people learn of the organization through the resources that would be offered last - the in-person or open groups.

From my spot here at (G)MG I've seen a lot of people in pain. I've met countless people who have made bad decisions and are trying to clean up the mess... and ultimately that's where my heart lies. There are plenty of people who have come to terms with their sexuality, perhaps found a spouse (if they're lucky enough / blessed to have that in this life), and risen from their addictions into healthy living... but there are plenty who have not. I'm an idealist. And I wanted North Star to be an ideal resource for them. Or, perhaps more accurately, for what I assumed their needs to be based on my own personal experience.

You see, when I looked for help while struggling through addiction, I couldn't find anything. The world seemed totally blank and dismal, and the lack of information on the topic made me honestly think that I was the only guy in the Church who was attracted to other men. All the blogs I found were of people who had left, or were obviously in the process of leaving the faith. I had nothing.

I just wanted someone to answer my questions. Someone to talk to. I didn't need to know their name, or go bowling with them, or do anything else. I had a social life of my own, with my own ward and people who cared about me for me. I just needed someone who could help me understand part of me that no one else could, in a way that made me feel understood.

The difficulty is that what I wanted (and what I as an Executive Committee member wanted North Star to exclusively become) - a personal source of honest, safe, and reliable information from someone who could help me understand - would be incredibly resource-intensive to create and maintain.

And the fact that I also wanted to eliminate any potential source of danger until people had proven they were completely safe (which would have meant shutting down the Facebook groups, turning the email groups into completely pre-moderated groups or boards, and only inviting limited members to in-person events)...

Yeah.

Part of me feels that I'm like the dad in Finding Nemo. I've seen and felt so much pain in the past that I have trouble letting people go into situations where they could get hurt.

But another part of me still feels the pain watching people in the past, and still sees the danger. If I'm in a deeply compromised emotional state, feeling alone, and stuck in addiction (the exact state when I began searching for help), and my first introduction to the gay Mormon community is an event where I meet someone really attractive who shares my feelings, wants to be my friend, and is also deeply unhealthy, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to realize how easily and likely it is that we would make really bad decisions. Yes, I could go find someone like that on my own, but that's far less likely for an aspiring saint than befriending someone with good intentions and having things go out of control.

Along with the stress of life and work, that's why I took a break. I stopped mentioning North Star to people who turned to me for help, buried myself in my own little world of (G)MG, and pulled myself away.

But I'm going to the annual conference this year. It's being held at the Provo Marriott - a block from my shop - and I feel like I should give North Star another chance. Every organization has problems - groups are made of imperfect people - but at its core, North Star was founded to help people... and it does. As I said at the beginning, it's one of the few that officially supports the Church, and the volunteer forces behind the group are small. By withdrawing, I only give more space to the people on the other side. It would be like shutting down (G)MG because of haters or hate mail.

And that's the other part. North Star can't be everything to everyone, and it can't meet the needs of all the people who come for help. But, then again, it doesn't need to, because today there are other places where those needs are better met. Places that were far less common just a couple years ago. Inspired bishops trained on the topic who can give personal counsel. Specific doctrine and General Conference talks given by Church leaders. And here at (G)MG, I've created an imperfect, deeply flawed, but hopefully completely safe version of what I wanted when I was looking for help.

I think that's the reality here. There are places to go to find answers, places for spiritual guidance, places of safety, and places for friendship. Each one comes with caveats and warnings. I'm great for blogging and clarity in thought, but I'm a terrible friend (ask my best friend for confirmation - he may deny it, but it's totally true). A North Star event or group may be incredibly unsafe or negative in some circumstances and for some people, but in/for others it can open the door to lasting positive friendships. The key is knowing, communicating, and working with those limitations to achieve the final goal - living the gospel and finding personal happiness and peace.

The North Star Conference is this weekend. It's called "Upon the Rock of Christ," and the Conference is focused on helping people gain personal resources to come unto Christ, develop better relationships, and overcome their own personal roadblocks. The conference schedule and registration is available at www.conference.northstarlds.org - registration is also available at the door.

I'm not sure what my role will be going forward in this community of being gay and Mormon. As I said before, I hate meetings, and I'm an awful friend. Therapy doesn't seem to work for me because I have trouble connecting with therapists. I have a huge aversion to danger, except that I'm sometimes oblivious to dangerous situations. I don't connect with people well, and I honestly feel like people don't want me around (that's a holdover from bipolar if nothing is... or it's a sign of some unsettled deeply rooted emotional problem that I should process here on (G)MG). I've always been a loner, and I'll probably continue to be a loner until God somehow fixes me (or helps me work through it). But, as peripheral as I may be, as difficult as it may be for me to participate, I'm still here. (G)MG still gets views, sometimes my posts go viral... and every so often, someone tells me that I've helped them in their life. The first are spurious, but the last reminds me that I, too, have something valuable to share. I'm part of something bigger - one of many who is trying to help people come unto Christ and find salvation in Him - and God gave me specific talents, blessings, trials, and circumstances so that I could do my part.

Sunday, March 6

Will You?

I know that God is real. He is the ruler of the Universe. Truly Good. Honest. True. Understanding. Loving. Just. Merciful. Perfect.

He is my Father - the Father of my soul. He loves me... and He knows my thoughts, hopes, dreams, desires, wants, and needs better than I know myself. 

God wants me to be truly happy... and so He created a Plan for me. Mortality - and within that mortal life, experiences chosen to help me to grow, to push and stretch me, to enable me to find true happiness and eternal life.

Mortal life would be the most difficult experience I had ever faced. While it would offer me the best possible opportunities to return to God, it also held the possibility that I would choose to turn away. The circumstances of life would be so hard that I would ultimately have only two choices: either humbly submit completely to God, or turn away from Him and choose my own path.

I know that God is in control. The things in my brain - whether my attraction to men, the depression I faced, or anything else - weren't just flukes of nature, forced on me by birth. They were carefully selected for me - to try and test and bless and comfort and transform my soul. The things that happen to me outside my control are also not happenstance. God is all-powerful, and that means that He is in control - completely in control - of everything that happens and everything that is. Sometimes He causes things to happen; other times He allows them to happen. Either way He is in control... and His ultimate grace is that *everyone* will have all they need to return to Him. And so all those circumstances, and all the experiences of life beyond my control, are part of His Plan. Whether they seem torment or bliss in the moment, whether I call them blessings or trials, everything in life is His Gift to me, with every single point perfectly designed to lead me back to Him. Life is not unfair... but it is far beyond equality or even fairness. In reality, the deck of life is stacked in my favor, with each and every circumstance chosen by a loving God specifically for me.

God knew that I would falter. That the experiences and trials and temptations of life, in order to have the strength to change my soul, would also leave me bruised, battered, broken, hopeless, and alone. Alone, I would fail, and, marred from my own decisions, I could no longer stand in His presence.

And so He chose one of His Sons - Jesus Christ - to do something I don't truly comprehend. Christ would come to Earth as the literal, physical Son of God, live a truly flawless mortal life, and then suffer and die for the imperfections of my mortal existence. His death and Resurrection would then allow Him, as my personal Savior, to show a path for me - His younger brother - to return Home.

God knows that path to happiness, but I've forgotten. So He tells me what I need to do. He speaks to prophets, gives me scriptures, and, in answer to my prayers, He touches the depths of my soul with knowledge of what I should do.

It's not easy. It was designed to be the hardest possible experience of eternity because only that would do to change my soul. Most of the time I don't understand. An important part of mortality is determining what choices I will make, without knowing all the answers. Will I have the faith to follow God in difficult paths, even if I don't understand? Will I have the humility to let God guide my life even when I'm afraid, alone, hurt, or struggling to survive?

Temptations and trials are real. They offer real, tangible, and sometimes immediate benefits. Sleeping in, rather than reading the scriptures, is far easier. Keeping the law of chastity - and understanding the personal aspects where it applies to me - when the world and my hormones are pushing me to do otherwise is a hard thing.

But temptations wouldn't be temptations if they didn't offer something valuable... and true temptations have to offer something beyond just value. True temptations, to have the strength to change the core of my being, have to require me to place *everything* on the altar of sacrifice. To consecrate everything to God... and prove to myself and to Him that I am willing to follow Him and choose the right, no matter how hard or difficult it may seem.

And so it is. My desire to understand and lift others is contrasted by autism. My desire for unwavering optimism contrasted by bipolar disorder. And my desires to have a family of my own, to be a father, to feel loved, and to fit in contrasted by same-sex attraction and everything else.

But those contrasts truly do change me. Bipolar depression fractured my dreams, but then taught me new ones... and pushed me outside myself to lift others in need. Autism and its desolate loneliness brought me to know God and feel His love when nothing else could bridge the chasm. Same-sex attraction taught me, above all, humility - learning to have faith in God's promises, His timing, His ways, and His commandments even when the things I want (love, a family, children of my own) may seem impossible given the current circumstances.

I know that God is real. That He is in control. At the end of the day, I can either choose to follow Him, trust Him, and believe Him... or to follow, trust, and believe myself instead.

I've made mistakes, and had to follow the road of repentance. I'm sure that my life will be full of failure and frustration as well as triumph and joy. But in the end life is a choice.

I choose to follow Him. I choose to believe Him. I choose to trust Him... even though I don't know what tomorrow will bring. 

Will I get married in this life? Will I have kids of my own to teach and love? Will I ever be able to understand people or honestly feel accepted or understood?

I don't know. 

But I choose to let God worry about the future and how it will all unfold. To let Him guide me. To let Him chart the path. I know that I'll make tons of mistakes, just like I have before. But I choose to follow Him no matter where He leads me, no matter how hard or even impossible following Him, or returning to the Plan, may seem.

And I invite you to do the same.

Will you?

Friday, March 4

Happiness vs Purpose

Someone asked me today if I was happy with my life. It was an honest question, which can be rare in a world built on insubstantial small talk.

I answered honestly. I am happy. I love my life, my Church, my family and friends, my work... and I'm definitely happy.

But the question made me think.

Happiness.

It's such a strange thing.

And so intertwined with other, sometimes seemingly exclusive principles:

Fun. Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Achievement. Growth. Bliss. Pleasure.

Tonight after the Friday night rush, pulled a dozen different directions and feeling inadequate the entire time, was I happy? Not really. I was tired and wanting to figure out how to make busy Friday nights less stressful. Tonight was better than last week, but it's still definitely not there yet. So happiness can be fleeting.

But was I fulfilled? I just spent the last few hours helping other people feel happy. Enabling them to find a piece of something unique, experience something new, and open their minds. Mixed with the stress was an overlay of people who honestly had a great time and will probably tell their friends and remember those hours for months to come. And I designed that. My best friend and I, along with thousands of customers along the way, made that process happen. That's something special.

So this afternoon I felt happy, and tonight I feel fulfilled.

And that seems pretty normal for my life.

Being autistic has made the emotional aspect of life simple and complex. Complex because emotions are often extremely intense for me. Someone made fun of my voice tonight, and even thought it was light-hearted, trivial, and maybe even expected given the circumstance, I honestly felt like I had been hit by an emotional truck. I wanted to never talk again. Simple because when I feel those emotions, I can usually separate them from logic and then choose which path I really want to follow. I smiled, kept talking, and everyone took the joke the way it had been intended. Another memory - when I had the heart-wrenching realization that I might not be a dad in this life - which has been my biggest dream and hope and desired blessing for as long as I can remember - it threatened to rip me apart emotionally. I remember breaking into tears that wouldn't stop. For other people I've met, that same realization made them question their testimonies. I didn't. I don't remember where I was, but it was inconvenient at the time that I couldn't handle it emotionally.... so I put my emotions on the side, promised myself I'd figure it out, prayed for strength, went on with life, and then later processed my feelings in a blog post or journal entry.

I like to think that I value all of the seemingly exclusive goals - happiness, meaning, joy, fun, achievement, and growth - and that I'n unwilling to let myself fall for a path that subverts one for more of the other. I'm not willing to stay someplace that I'm not happy. But, then again, I'm not willing to go search for happiness somewhere where I'd lose part of the meaning in my life.

So when corporate recruiters talked to me and my classmates in the MBA program about uber-boring-sounding jobs with amazing pay... I wasn't excited. If someone said that I could "work my way" into a better position, that wasn't interesting. I made the decision that I would love my life forever... and if it stopped making me happy or giving me purpose, then I'd do whatever it takes to make it happen - always focusing on keeping both sides.

That's one reason why leaving the Church isn't an option. Yes, I could slowly let myself fall away from the gospel, and my testimony would ebb away perhaps slow enough to be imperceptible. Find people outside the gospel, and slowly let myself be pulled or pushed or drawn in that direction until I was far away. It happens. There could be a reason, an excuse, or something else at the beginning. But the deep reality is that, no matter how much I could fall away, I've had personal spiritual experiences intense enough that time and distance could never make them go away entirely. I would always know, deep down inside, that I had betrayed something I truly and deeply believed, something that I cared about, something that brought me incredible meaning even though it came at the price of dedicating my life. I could try to convince myself that living the gospel and finding joy was impossible, or that it was ok, or that it was better this way, or anything else, and maybe I could even do it. I convince myself of things all the time. But the God who heard my prayers when I needed Him, who sent me love in the form of people and feelings and rain, the God who loves me enough to let me live a life of complexity would assuredly prick my conscience one day down the road, and give me the chance to choose Him again. Would I be humble enough to follow?

I think that, in the long run, meaning and purpose should win out over temporary happiness... but that meaning and purpose should *bring* happiness as well. The people I've always admired most in my life are those who, even when dealt difficult lives and dismal futures, pursue meaning with dedication. King David, who, somehow, made a series of poor decisions and killed another man for his wife... but then spent a good portion of the remainder of his life praising God and trying to repent (at least, that's my idealistic view of it). Men whose wives leave them when they share their same-sex attraction or addiction to pornography, but the men make it back to the temple and the Church again. Others who have lived with gay partners or spouses and, hearing the missionaries or remembering their past, make the decision to change their lives and give up part of who they once were.

Gospel living - what should be the ultimate in meaning - should simultaneously bring happiness. Happiness isn't for the next life only. It's for now. Living in the gospel brings joy in people's lives, and if the gospel isn't doing it for me, then I can be totally sure that I am doing something wrong. (The gospel is never to blame - it is perfectly designed for every single human being in existence to help them find maximum happiness and purpose. So leaving the Church, while it may temporarily decrease external stress, wouldn't be a good decision if I'm looking to maximize my experience here on Earth.) Usually when I'm unhappy or unfulfilled, my perspective is to blame. I don't understand a principle, or I lack faith, or I don't trust that God knows what He is doing. In the past, sometimes it was addiction. Or severe depression. Or whatever.

But yeah. I guess my takeaway is that, while happiness can be transient, meaning is really, really important. So the way to live my life is to first find the things that bring the greatest meaning (the gospel foremost, helping people find joy, teaching, stuff like that), then, second, figure out how to find the greatest happiness within those meaningful bounds.

Which means that meaning (as a thing, or as a type of happiness) is more important to me than just happiness itself... since finding happiness within meaningful (and often difficult) circumstances can take some creativity and time.

I hope I can remember that the next time I'm super stressed, or facing a difficult decision, or bemoaning the fact that if life had gone according to my plan, I'd have kids of my own by now. Yes, living life the way God intended is always more difficult. But the growth, perspective, meaning, and fulfillment are always amazing... and, in the moments when I'm able to actually live and understand the gospel in its fullness, living life according to God brings happiness, joy, and bliss far greater than any alternative.

Sunday, February 14

Life Without Love - a (Gay) Mormon Perspective

My younger sister got engaged yesterday. 

I got pictures of the proposal, the ring, and a bunch of smiling faces by text message while at work last night.

She's 6 years younger than I am.

That's totally unfair.

Don't  get me wrong. I hope that this brings her happiness, and I am glad that she is making decisions that will guide her future. But every time that I watch someone else find love (my siblings included), the beauty of the moment gets eclipsed by the juxtaposition of my own life.

I've done all the "right" things. I dated twice or more each week for over six years. I took every marriage prep and dating class available through the community, school, and church functions. I never turned someone down who asked me out in person. I went to therapy to work out my own personal issues and develop better relationship skills. I followed a rigorous personal health regime. I attended social functions, focused on being friendly and outgoing, served others, chose a valuable course of study, worked faithfully in community and church, met new people, worked and kept going even when nothing seemed to work. I asked out anyone anytime I felt like I should, even when dating seemed inconvenient. I even signed up for an eHarmony account and tried online and long-distance dating.

And the sum of all my efforts is pretty pitiful. Thousands of dollars and hours later, I'm no closer to finding love than I was when I began. I still get to listen to people who were engaged after less than a year of dating tell me what I'm doing wrong, and that if I just work harder, or work smarter, or have more faith, or repent, or read my scriptures, or go to another speed dating event, I'm somehow guaranteed to find love. Just do everything in my power, and then God will make it happen. Or I'll make it happen, by sheer force of will. 

And by simple inference, I hear that, since doing all those things hasn't worked for me, I've been doing something wrong. 

Or that there is something wrong with me.

The culture of love could have so easily ruined me.

Love - romantic, sexual love - is pushed from every side of life. Books, movies, advertisements, radio talk shows, department stores, greeting cards, Internet memes, chain letters, tax laws, religious writings, court cases... everyone and everywhere tells me the same thing: I deserve to find love, to be in love, to be loved, no matter what the cost or effort involved. Love is the goal. All I need is love. Find love and happiness will follow. Follow love wherever it takes me. Fight for love. Work for love. Do anything and everything I can to find it, then everything and anything I must to keep it. To many people, romantic love trumps all. There's nothing more important in life.

But that belief is broken.

Valentine's Day is a lie. Romantic love isn't the end-all course of human existence. It's likely an important facet of many or most people's lives, but for some, it's not in the cards of mortality at all - no matter how hard or smart or faithfully the search for it is done.

But the true tragedy isn't that.

When I've grown up in a world that tells me what to think, that tells me what to feel, and that tells me what I deserve, and then I realize that I don't fit the mold they used, I have only a few options.

I can believe them, and try harder. I did that for a long time. I believed that I was doing something wrong, and that if I could fix it, love would follow. Hence why I took classes, followed all the instructions, and even went so far as to seek and find cures for incurable mental diseases.

Work and wait long enough, though, and even the sturdiest rock will crack. And at that point in time, I realized that the people preaching to me - the media, the world, and even my well-meaning acquaintances and church goers - hadn't been telling me the truth.

At that moment I had only one option: find the truth for myself.

But after the world has lied to me, it's hard to trust anyone anymore. When someone tells me that I can, by force of will or effort, find love that isn't going to be found that way, I'm not going to turn to them for guidance in my faith. And anything else they've ever told me could become suspect. If they were wrong about love - and about how to find it - then maybe they were wrong about other things. Love is preached by worldly standards as the most important thing in life. If they got that wrong, what else is wrong?

I've seen thousands of people hit that realization. Being attracted to the same sex can cause it to happen, as can major mental illness, or other circumstances. Realizing that no matter how hard they try, it won't happen the way they wanted. Some people look inward, come closer to God, and choose to trust Him and His timing. They turn away from the entitlement taught by media, peers, and social norms, and humbly believe that God's Plan has other things in store for them. 

But far more keep believing that they deserve to find love, and turn against the people who told them how to find it. Family ties break, faith suffers. One simple doctrine, taught wrong and embedded into culture, crushes a temple of faith, and the destruction can last a lifetime.

I'm one of the lucky few.

By the time I reached that realization, I had already gone through fire. Depression and loneliness had pushed me to God, and I knew from experience that most people just didn't understand how wrong they were. Most people had good intentions, and pieces of what they believed were true... they just didn't know the whole truth because they had never been forced to find it.

I'm not embittered. Most of the time, I laugh inside when I hear people preach that love is easily attained - that just by working hard or smart or trying with all my might I could achieve one of the few things I've ever really wanted. I smirk when someone asks me why I'm not married, and my answers are often just as superficial as the comments I'd get if I bared my soul.

But along with the laughter is a realization that this culture - the culture of entitlement and focus and self-centered "if you work/serve/pray/whatever you'll get what you want or deserve" - is killing far more souls than it is amusing.

If you can hear me, I have a request for you.

Stop telling people that working harder or smarter will make all their righteous dreams come true. 

Stop telling people that love is the greatest thing on earth.

Stop telling people that they just need more faith, or more effort, or more motivation, to accomplish the goals the world, or you, have set for them.

Stop.

Instead, tell the truth.

Tell the hard, difficult truth that, for many people, it won't matter how hard or smart they work - they may never be able to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of the things they want in this life.

Tell the truth that life is different for each of us, and that life is often unfair when we lack the perspective to understand. 

Tell the truth that, from God's perspective, life is just a moment - and that He designed an excruciatingly painful experience for some of us - one that may make us envy everyone we meet - to give us the best possible chance to become the people He sees in us.

And tell the truth that that's is ok.

I believe that romantic love is probably almost everything that people make it out to be. That it can make people into better people, fill a deep human need, and build the fabric of society. I believe that it's a valuable quest, a viable goal, and a good reason to work hard.

But I don't believe that romantic love is the end of all human existence.

For some of us, choosing who to marry may be the most important decision in our lives. But not for all of us. 

Some of us will find meaning and happiness in love and eternal family. Others of us will never find that love in mortality, or the love we do find will be skewed by the issues we face. But we can find that same happiness even without it.

For some of us, the goals and plans and expectations that society has set for us will match our lives exactly. And for others, we'll have to turn to God personally to find that path.

The title of this post is actually a terrible misnomer. Even people like me - and I have all sorts of issues revolving around love - can experience the peace and happiness that comes from the true love of God. Without Him, I would have turned away long ago from people who claimed to understand my life and give me advice. With Him, I've learned the truth. When nothing and no one else can get through depression, frustration, sadness, chaos, and the ever-present pressures of everyday life, God can still speak to my heart, if I'm willing to let Him in.

Sunday, February 7

Introspection

I need to think.

In my past life, depression came often enough that I didn't have to schedule time to think about my priorities. It just happened anytime that life went downhill. Depression would take over, and force me to rethink everything important to me, focus on only the truly important things, and toss everything else aside. When it gave me back control, I was a new person.

Now, my life is just... busy. Busy enough that I could just keep going without having to stop and look at it all. Busy enough that I could go days, weeks, even months without needing to stop. I work at my shop (whether helping customers or coming up with crazy new ideas), spend time at Church, and spend time with people.

But I need to figure out my life.

The Soap Factory makes money, but is it what I want to do forever? There's plenty of money to pay employees, cover costs, and pay rent even with a recent downturn in tourist traffic, and our local cadre of customers keeps growing. People tell their friends, and the word spreads. I love watching people make their own creations, try new things, experience something totally unique and different. I still enjoy making soap because the process ensures that every soap will be different... and I do it almost every day.

But my mind and heart have been tugging at me recently, wanting room to push and experiment and try new things. It's the same issue I faced in all of my jobs - a need to constantly move, change, create something different, learn something new. A need to engage my mind in something epic, and when I've understood, to find something else.

The issue is that I'm not sure how to best use the resources I have to do that, and what would actually be a wise business decision on top of doing what I want. The Soap Factory needs help in marketing first and foremost, yet I have almost no passion there. And the model is stable and successful - why would we change it up?

Because I need it.

So it's going to happen.

I've been fighting myself for the last month over this. Part of me doesn't want change... but I'm not sure why, and I don't know where it came from. The other part of me wants to try everything under the sun, and see what works. To buy a 3D printer that we could use to print structures and make our own molds. To hold weekly classes on cold-process soap-making where people could come in and make cold-process soap, then come pick them up the next day. To hold classes on essential oils and the history of soap-making, and to do field trips into classrooms to teach the importance of  personal hygiene (and to share the dark side of antibacterial soap).

Maybe the part that doesn't want change is afraid.

But afraid of what?

Afraid of failure? Maybe. But I face so much potential failure each day. Failure is part of life.

Afraid of success? Maybe... but I don't even know what that would mean.

Afraid of...

Probably afraid of letting people down. Afraid of inviting people to a class where no one else comes, or to a seminar where the information is bland and boring. Afraid of going into a school and being unable to communicate well, and wasting peoples' time and money.

That's it.

That's what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid of letting people down.

And that's also why this is such a different feeling for me. In the past, my decisions in work and career growth didn't really involve people... or they were in areas where I felt confident in my personal abilities (as faulty as placing that confidence may have been).

And, identified, it should be easier to get over the fear.

I need to recap.

I love my business and my job. The Soap Factory is making a difference, albeit small, in the community, and it's successful.

At the same time, I need constant change, growth, and intense learning experiences in my life, and especially at work.

But due to my own personal circumstances, I face fears that cripple my ability to make decisions, take risks, and act in my own best interest, likely lessening my own personal creativity and the impact I could have on others.

I think that I would benefit from a structure in my life that encouraged (or required) innovation, learning, and growth.

What if I set aside an innovation budget for myself that needed to be used each week or each month? It wouldn't be a ton, but it would require me to spend a certain amount of time and money each week/month trying something new.

And what if I just told myself to buy anything I wanted? Usually the things I want to buy are useful gadgets, or tools, or something that could make creativity better come to life and improve my life and the lives of others. The times I've let myself make purchases, most of the time it's a huge success. But even when it's not, it's still worthwhile.

But I have trouble spending money, especially on things for myself. The last time I went grocery shopping (Tuesday), I spent less than 7 dollars. And the last gadget I bought was only because it was cheaper to buy a woodburning kit and create my own hanging sign than it would have been to buy it from someone else.

*sigh*

This is a somewhat laughable problem. There are people in the world with major illnesses, a contagious virus that is destroying people's lives, war, famine, hunger, poverty, drugs, crime, violence, loneliness, immorality, slavery, and so much more... and yet I'm focused on whether or not I should let myself buy things for my business.

Which brings me to the other part of my self-talk:

Am I doing what I should?

Am I really making a difference in the world? Am I using the gifts that God has given me and helping people change their lives?

A big part of me says I'm not.

I don't do much to really help people in the Church with same-sex attraction. (G)MG may be a valuable asset in some people's lives, but I don't do much other than just write my thoughts. That's a valuable thing, and God gave me the ability to write so that I would... and it makes an important difference. But...

I also am not doing much with music. I wanted to start up Grace again, but I haven't done anything about it except tell my younger sisters and ask for their help in a vague, roundabout way. Someone asked me recently what performing I had done in the recent past, and there hasn't been much of anything for years.

I had a major health miracle (being cured of bipolar) from following a crazy diet, and yet I haven't gone on talk shows or spoken with anyone passionate who could shout the story far and wide. I haven't written a passionate book about it, or even written down everything that happened except for a few blog posts. Yet, if it worked for me, there's the potential that it could dramatically change the lives of thousands of other people for the better.

And a dozen other 'talents' have made their way under the bushel as well. But where do you use them as a young single adult? I used to be an awesome swimmer. Maybe I could train for the Olympics, but I probably wouldn't make it anymore.

Ok.

I have a goal. Or two goals. Or, perhaps better for me, two rules I want to follow.

I may not be able to drop everything and change the world today. Regardless of the decisions I make, I'm not going to be able to save everyone, and perhaps I'll even be a failure in the things I do... but it's worth trying from where I am, currently, and giving myself rules and guidelines to follow to progress.

Rule 1: Anytime I get the desire to try something new - and if the desire is deep enough that I keep thinking about it for days or spend hours fascinated by the pieces - I have to do it. Or buy it. Or try whatever it is... within a month, if plausible.

Rule 2: Anytime I get the desire to influence others, build others, do something specifically nice for my best friend that I'm not sure if he'll appreciate, or do something to serve people, again, I have to do it... and again, within a month.

There's no budget or allocation associated with these rules, which means that if my mind doesn't wander or pull me, I don't have to spend money. But that probably won't happen. Much more likely - if/when it does pull me, then I do have to make the plunge - and I can't use the excuse "that's out of my budget" to push the creative dreams aside.

This is scary. A month isn't a very long time, and I have a major backlog of creative pursuits that have been burning holes in my brain: ideas and wishes to make an impact. But it's also exciting.

Good luck, David. I think this will work.

Sunday, January 24

A New Autistic Understanding of Empathy

Dear Self:

Today I had a thought.

I know that nothing happens in isolation. The circumstances of my life, whether big or small, personal or public, can deeply affect people on the other side of the world. Good things and bad things that happen to me can be incredible blessings to others, and each of us can learn from the experiences of others.

But it's more than that. I had a glimpse today into the reality that, perhaps, life circumstances are more connected to others (and more influenced by them) than I really understand.

My example: 

I often make people feel uncomfortable, sometimes just by existing.

(It's not on purpose; I wish I could do something to make it never happen again. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable, ever.)

Support?

Being attracted to guys makes some people uncomfortable. (Am I attracted to you? Maybe. It's unlikely. Even if I were, it wouldn't go anywhere. The law of chastity is pretty clear on that one.)

Being just autistic enough to be strange, but not enough to be obvious, makes some people uncomfortable. (Am I really that brash/proud/unthinking to not be able to pick up on what that person actually meant, or to break that social norm? Maybe. I'm just normal enough that people can attribute *all* of my social flaws to personality defects.)

Appearing highly confident (more like emotions just don't communicate as easily) can make some people uncomfortable.

Sounding "smart" (or having an obsession with selecting the right word for each sentence because of each word's inherent differences and nuances) can make some people uncomfortable.

Most of the things in my life can make people feel uncomfortable. And  many... and maybe even most... people have told me, and tell me, all the time, that they feel that way. That being in my presence (and it's magnified many times by those who spend a lot of time with me) makes them different... in a usually somewhat unpleasant way.

Side note.

When I realized that many people felt uncomfortable around me the first time... I immediately cut social ties with every person who was close to me but not family. The realization that I, just by existing, made people uncomfortable, was something I couldn't handle. Helping people feel loved and accepted and worthwhile is one of my biggest personal goals in life, and realizing that I was doing the exact opposite made me want to give up. I realized later that it was worth being around people even if it hurt me and them. Usually.

So I have a bunch of facets that can make me uncomfortable to be around. My best friend tells me that he feels inferior to me no matter how many times I try to build him up. My younger sister tells me that she doesn't feel creative when compared to me, even after creating really cool things. A girl once even went so far as to say that I was scarier as a judge (of her internationally acclaimed music performance) than the judges she was preparing for.

And what if God intended that?

What if God made me the way I am so that I could be a stumbling block? A stray thorn?

I realize that my trials can help people when they see or realize a greater perspective, but what if they're also designed to burden the people around me? To push them beyond their limits, try their patience, and bruise their self-esteem? What if my trials, the ones that burn me out and make me want to cry myself to sleep, were also sent to my family, associates, ward members, and everyone else in contact with me to try them as well?

Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but until today it had never occurred to me.

When my sister got cancer, it wasn't my trial. It affected me, but not really all that much. When my brother had cancer, it was harder, but only because I was trying to help take care of him, our business, and graduate school all at the same time. I ran out of time and energy every single day, and that was my trial. The actual trial of leukemia never even got close.

I've talked with other people who had the same experience, and it had a massive impact on their lives. For some of them, it shook their faith. For others, it pushed them closer to God.

For me...

Maybe it's from the autism. Maybe one reason I struggle to empathize with people with experiences I haven't had is that they don't affect me the way they do everyone else. 

And perhaps that's also why it never occurred to me that my trials could be a burden to others.

Are there people who look at me and wonder the same questions I do? Are there people who can somehow feel the emotional pain hidden under the busy, successful outer layer?

I think there are.

And that adds a whole new facet to life. One that I hadn't thought about.

...

...

If I had had this insight/revelation six years ago, I think I would have made the decision to never reach out to people again.

Because my focus was on not hurting people. I knew that *some* people experience discomfort at the beginning of the relationship, but anyone who stayed got past that, right? And my problems were my own problems.

But they're not. My problems are your problems and his problems and her problems, and somehow just by existing the emotional pain I feel affects you.

That's why people have such a hard time with gay rights issues. And why news stories can affect political voting. And why so many people are deeply affected by things they know nothing about.

...

So what's my conclusion today?

I've realized that sharing who I am openly can make people hurt inside, as well my intended goal - to help them heal.

Do I, out of supposed care for the people around me, hide my problems so that others can't vicariously experience what I do? Do I coat myself with a thin, hard veneer such that people can't catch what's inside?

Thankfully, in the last few years I've learned something important about how God works... and something important about happiness.

Happiness isn't about having an easy life or having things the way I want. Happiness isn't about knowing all the answers or understanding why or how things will happen. Happiness isn't about knowing the future or being in control. It's about trusting God, and following Him.

Learning to be happy takes time. It takes work. And, in many cases, it takes a lot of difficult experiences. Sometimes those experiences are inside us. And sometimes they're not.

I don't know how I feel about my newfound understanding. It highlights a bunch of red flags I didn't even know I had. 

But I think I'm ok. This helps me in my goal to not be afraid. When I understand the things I face, I can measure them, rather than cower in fear of the unknown.

Now I understand why I've had therapists cry during counseling sessions. I never got it before.

So my life, as hard as it is for me, might be hard for others, too. The seeming unfairness I've had to struggle with could be a struggle for someone watching me. And my own painful pathway could inflict emotional wounds on others when we've never even met.

I don't understand it... because that's not how my life works. But I got a glimpse today that, maybe, that's how it works for others.

If that's how it works, I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that anyone has felt my pain. And I hope that anyone watching me can find the light that I have... and feel the love of God as I have as well.