Posts Tagged ‘Moral standards’
I wrote an essay several years ago on my old blog that still gets a lot of hits even though I retired that blog and transferred everything over here. I’m glad I kept the old blog up because occasionally I get a comment there that inspires me to write something profound. Well, I think it’s at least inspired and uplifting. I felt impressed to share it here. It starts with the comment from Samantha:
I recently started meeting with my Bishop to repent for other sins that I had committed. I was almost ready to get my Temple Recommend when Satan came at me with full-force. I began to engage in watching pornography and masturbation.
My Bishop is a wonderful man, but I am far too scared to tell him of the addiction that I am faced with. It is not a daily habit, but it is still a problem. I have prayed, and I have come to realize I cannot overcome this on my own.
I feel so awful and depressed after engaging in these behaviors. I want to be clean; I want to go to the temple.
Is there anything else that I can do that would be sufficient for the repentance process? I don’t want to tell my bishop, at all. I do want to overcome this addiction immediately though. Or at least be able to refrain from such atrocities.
And my response:
Much love your way. Thanks for reading and adding your comment. I commend you for your desire to increase your self-mastery. That’s a big deal. Some people are not bothered by viewing porn or masturbating. “It’s normal,” they say. In fact, we’re looked upon as being weird because we want to adhere to a higher moral standard commanded by the Lord and his servants.
I recommend visiting the sites I linked to at the end of the original essay. There is a lot of good advice to be found in those pages. Most of the comments I have added here over the years are intended to give hope and encouragement. I want to continue that in responding to your plea for help. I think I wrote this previously but I’ll share it again. This trial can bring you to the Lord.
I feel impressed to share something that may or may not be applicable to you. Perhaps it will be helpful to future readers. It has to do with responsibility and accountability. Going to the temple is a big deal. The temple is a place of revelation. When I go there I always come away knowing more about myself, what I really want out of life and what I want to do with my free time.
I’ll bet like most people who have written me about this problem, you’re fine as long as you keep yourself busy. If you’ve got a regular schedule of work or school or both, you do well in that structure. The difficulty usually comes when there are no pressing demands on your time and nobody waiting for you to do something for them – a teacher, a co-worker or a family member.
That’s usually when your thoughts turn to yourself and what you want. Those are the defining moments of life. Satan knows that, which is why temptation seems to strike hardest when you are pondering something like going to the temple. We grow and advance in our lives when we go to the temple. We come closer to fulfilling our purpose in life as we attend the temple regularly.
The best advice I can offer is to partake of the sacrament and ponder the promises found in the sacramental prayers. The key phrases are “always remember him” and “have his spirit to be with them.” I know you’ve probably heard this in every public prayer and perhaps you offer it your own private prayers – to have his spirit. But do we focus as much on “always remember him?”
There’s something special and wonderful in the Sacrament that even after more than fifty years I still don’t fully understand. No, it’s not magic. We don’t believe in that. But it is powerful and it is real. I feel hopeful after partaking of the sacrament with real intent. I want it to work in my life and because I want that, believe that it can, it does. My power is strengthened by the Sacrament.
At the end of every Sabbath day I feel empowered, partly through offering service but mostly because I have partaken of the sacrament and have pondered how I can better remember the Savior during the week. I think ahead to the moments when I know I will have down time and think what I can do to show the Lord that I do remember him and want his spirit to be with me.
For me, there is something of a miracle that takes place in those quiet moments. Because I have asked, the Lord reveals to me what I will be doing during those quiet moments during the week. I can see myself working on some writing project or some other activity that will be helpful to me and to others. No, it’s not guaranteed that I will do exactly that, but it’s clear that it can be so.
My desire to do good things and be good is strengthened. I am in a partnership with the Lord to make something special out of my life. It is in the quiet moments that my life really develops. But it doesn’t work unless I make the effort to remember the Lord. Every time I do, he gives me special sacred feelings that encourage me and help me feel like I can do all I’m asked to do.
I hope this helps. There is no easy answer. It’s not like you can turn off a switch. Sorry. You’ve got hormones and that’s a good thing. Without them you’ve have no drive or ambition in life. Well, I’m speaking from a man’s point of view. For a woman I suppose that without hormones you would have no desire to nurture and strengthen relationships. I thank God for the sex drive.
Please don’t be so hard on yourself. I have a theory about why we feel depressed or hopeless when participating in pornography or masturbation. I’ve shared it elsewhere. It has to do with the influence of unclean spirits – those who have no hope or light of Christ in their lives. It’s just a natural result of allowing them to use you, even for just a moment. You feel what they feel.
Of course if you don’t believe in the existence of evil or unclean spirits you’re going to think this is crazy. That’s OK. As I wrote at the beginning of my essay, I’m not writing this to those who are unbelievers. My experience in life has settled the question for me. They are real and I know of their existence through experiences too sacred to share. But let’s not dwell on that aspect.
Focus on the Savior. Focus on building hope. Believe that you can eventually master yourself. Be happy that you even want to. God bless you in your efforts. Nobody can do this for you. In the temple we learn all ordinances are personal, performed one at a time for each individual. No answer fits everyone, but I have found this plan has met with success time after time in others.
Good luck and God bless. You can do it.
I’ve been doing some critical thinking about a couple of recent statements made by J. Michael Bailey. He is the Northwestern psychology professor who has been the subject of so much media attention due to the live sex demonstration in his human sexuality classroom last month. You can Google the story if you want the details.
What intrigued me was the challenging nature of the defensive statements he offered when the story became public knowledge. He said that he didn’t expect everyone to agree with his decision to allow the demonstration to take place and that “thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning.”
I happen to be enrolled in a critical thinking class right now so this idea caught my attention. While I don’t agree with his decision, I do agree with his statement. So I expected someone to take him up on his challenge, because he offered it as such. Maybe it is too soon but I have yet to see a serious response to his justification.
An Argument to Illuminate Reasoning
A couple of days after the story broke, professor Bailey continued his defense by saying that he would give an F to those who objected to his teaching method. He wrote that the responses conveyed disapproval but did not “illuminate reasoning.” Apparently he has yet to receive an explanation as to why his demo was a problem.
I hope someone with more knowledge of this subject will respond to his proposal for a thoughtful discussion and offer a few reasons why his demonstration was not the best choice. I’m looking for arguments that will illuminate reasoning and do more than to just express disapproval. I could use it when I argue this in my class.
The Man who would be Queen
A little more background information on professor Baily might be helpful. He wrote and published a controversial book in 2003, The Man who would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. He admitted that he had sex with his research subjects and said he thought there was nothing wrong with this.
Coincidently, about that same year he found himself divorced and no longer the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University. According to published reports from students, he is not a great lecturer, but makes up for it by presenting extremely controversial aspects of human sexuality in his classroom.
Teaching Should Benefit Society
I love to teach so maybe this is an area in which we can agree. Professor Bailey is an educator; therefore I’ll assume that it is his intent to help his students learn. As a professor of psychology, I would hope that it is his desire to prevent psychological damage in his students. After all, isn’t that the objective of studying the subject?
We study human behavior to understand it and to be able to deal more effectively with activities that are disturbing, distressing or problematic for the individual or society. For most practitioners, a goal of applied psychology is to benefit society. A university professor is in a particularly influential position upon civilization.
Pornography in the Classroom
Professor Bailey said he uses pornography in his classroom. “I don’t see anything wrong with showing pornography in the classroom provided it has some purpose in the class. Some can be a little explicit,” he said. “I teach the truth – as I understand it…[which] sometimes conflicts with people’s assumptions. That is controversial.”
Bill Yarber, a researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of the widely used textbook Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America, said he’s never heard of a naked woman being brought to orgasm in front of a class of students. Watching a video is one thing but seeing a live demo is pushing things.
A commentary from a Catholic blogger about this episode illustrates a typical reaction, “Professor J. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class has nothing to do with psychosexual development, morality, biology — nothing worthy of study; just an excuse for presenting risqué and deviant sexual behaviors as normative.”
Sexual Relations Should be Private
It is my contention that demonstrating the use of a motorized phallus to a group of students is not a legitimate form of sexual education, especially in the classroom. In fact, I will go so far as to say that viewing of pornographic material is equally inappropriate and unnecessary to meet the requirements of human sex education.
I believe that sexual relations should be expressed privately in marriage, between a husband and wife. I therefore believe that all public displays of sexual activity are inappropriate. I believe that pornography is harmful and destructive to the souls of those who create it and those who consume it. It is not needed for sexual education.
Professor Bailey’s demonstration was controversial because as far as I can tell, it was the first time live sex has been used in a classroom setting. But the real issue is how diametrically opposed this is to the values of virtue, modesty and respect for human sexual relations. It is degrading and cheapens it to something undesirable.
Achieving a Fulfilling Love
I think the comment of a student studying to be a therapist who then reported on her human sexuality class says it best for me. She stated that she had become a sexual zombie; that sex meant nothing to her because she had tried it all. She found no joy in sexuality. And yet she wants to become a therapist to fix others like her.
Pornography is any material describing or depicting the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings. Pornography degrades the heart, mind and spirit. It robs us of self-respect and the sense of beauties of life. It tears us down and does not lift us up. It does not help us achieve fulfilling human love.
I will be leading a classroom discussion of this current event in my critical thinking class in a few weeks. When I shared my subject with the professor he was pleased and said that I might be surprised to learn how many in the class feel the same way I do. That would be a pleasant discovery that I hope is not limited to my college.
Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts. Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution. I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers. Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception. In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law. As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar. Of course that was in 1969. Today it is considered an American classic.
I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior. I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex. Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict. Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo. Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that. If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture. It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion. In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing. But then, that’s what makes it so very American.
Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt. He was an expert at guilt. In fact, he was a slave to it. He lived with it day in and day out. And where did he get it? He tells us that it came from his parents. After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39) Did they do it on purpose? Are they to blame? Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer. “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion. He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.
At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents. He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt. It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture. In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage. In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84) But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man. It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal. Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years. In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country. According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly. Do you see my point? If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner. It is a characteristically American problem.
Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith. In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion. It is also his cultural heritage. He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith. As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents. Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.
That was the wrong answer. Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it. Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament. Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude. To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise. “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285) In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.
Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life. He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read. Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt. I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends. If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical. Guilt is a universal part of the human condition. It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs. In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did. He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book. If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.
To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued. If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up? If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years? Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man. He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure. If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt. In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage. It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family. It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal. Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.
“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me. How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114) That’s pretty shallow. People do get old. Bodies change. Yet they stay married. Why? Because they are comfortable and happy together. It’s not all about sex. Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together. It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another. “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father? I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)
No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts. People get married because they love each other. They get married for love. And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you. But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)
No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love. You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring. Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient. Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith. One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime. I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage. He does not want to be married. He does not want to be faithful to one woman. He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element. Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.
He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful. He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road. He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him. He does not want to get married and probably never will. He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex. Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage. You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom. You idiot! You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck! Grow up!
Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life. Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome. Get a clue from your religion. Talk to your rabbis again. Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt. You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know. And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way. But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?
Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969
Walt Whitman left a legacy as an American poet that cannot be ignored. Yet, nearly 120 years after his death, polarization of opinion about his work and his influence is still strong. It seems that you either love him or you hate him, and in most cases that view depends upon your moral convictions. There is no doubt that his work was controversial in his day, evidenced by the labels of “obscene” and “pornographic” given by some reviewers. For those who have seriously studied his work, the general consensus of opinion is that Walt Whitman was a great American poet and in fact, is considered the first great poet of America. However, to many in this great nation, instead of singing the body electric, Whitman’s poetry demeans and degrades the human spirit. And while his works may have shocked the sensitivities of some readers in his day, it is tame by today’s standards, giving us an early preview of America as the land of porn.
A Short Biography
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in New York and died in 1892 in New Jersey at age 72. He was the second of eight surviving children in a poor family struggling to barely subsist, both physically and emotionally. Biographers have surmised that his father was probably an alcoholic. There was some mental instability in his family among his brothers and sisters. Although his formal education ended at age 11, Whitman was a very successful autodidact, a self-educated man. He worked for a time in the newspaper industry as a journalist, editor and printer. He tried his hand at teaching for a few years but did not enjoy it and quit abruptly, with some speculating that it was due to an unwanted romantic advance toward one of his young male students.
Leaves of Grass
Returning to journalism at age thirty, he began what became his life’s work: Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry written in a distinctly American style using free verse and a cadence based on the Bible. He self-published his book in 1855 and published multiple editions in his lifetime. The book was and is powerful, abandoning traditional verse for free verse poetry. It was also deemed by some to be controversial as they found his repeated sexual imagery content to be offensive. When he presented copies to his family, his own brother said it not worth reading. Although he did not list himself as the author, he did include a now-famous portrait of himself facing the title page, with an open-neck shirt, jaunty hat and one hand on hip. In the body of the text he identified himself as, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist…” He was, in all respects, a natural man.
O Captain, My Captain
Whitman’s sexual orientation is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual. He never married but had several long-term intimate relationships with other men in his lifetime. Whitman achieved international recognition and worked tirelessly to promote his book. He obviously lived during the Civil War and that was a big influence in his life. He travelled to Washington looking for his brother who he had heard had been killed, but was only wounded. He spent time on the battlefields and in hospitals caring for the sick and the wounded. He came to greatly admire Lincoln and was deeply affected by his assassination. His most famous poem, O Captain, My Captain was about Lincoln and he gave many lectures on the president’s life. He suffered serious health problems in his later years, surviving three paralyzing strokes.
America’s National Poet
Walt Whitman answered Emerson’s call for poets to expound the new world of the United States. There is no doubt that he did this powerfully, uniquely and in a highly acclaimed manner. He was considered America’s national poet, at first more by Europeans than by his fellow Americans, at least in his own day. Using free verse, Whitman created a new style of writing that was uniquely American. He used natural voice and diction to imitate the natural flow of thought and feeling. He had a grand vision of speaking for America and explaining what it was all about. He saw and described scenes that leave you feeling like you were also there with him. He was innocent enough to believe that there really was such a job as a national poet.
An Epic to Celebrate America
Whitman was on the forefront of the American literary scene and was well prepared to promote it. His language was uniquely American, not British or European; powerfully American. His language had fewer rules; it was looser, courser, rougher and more promiscuous. He felt he was actively involved in the struggle for democracy with Leaves of Grass. He also said that he hoped his book would heal the nation and even prevent Civil War. He wanted to inspire and stir people with his work. He viewed his book as a true epic. What would an epic be like? It would celebrate America, the American self, the “I.” In fact, he sings of America throughout the book.
The Great Equalizer
Before Leaves of Grass he wrote editorials but he saw that they were mostly ineffective so he created a more profound work through his free-verse writings. He addressed the soul and the psyche of the nation, to create a real sense of community. He threw his book out there with a lot of hope for a nation that would soon divide apart. Whitman wanted his book to be written by the nation and for the nation using his voice. In his preface he says that the poet is the great equalizer and the one who is in balance. He obviously had a great ego and assumed a lot, but believed in his age and his country. He felt that he had a national mission to fulfill because he could see and tell of a world of experience in a way that nobody else could or did. He wanted to preserve the Union, to hold things together and yet maintain our unique identity. The many contradictions and differences of our nation did not bother him. He wanted us to accept them and him and was truly puzzled by those who could not or would not accept either.
Legacy of Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman’s personal literary journey of national significance. His desire was to sing of the new country with a new voice and he felt the time was ripe. There is no doubt that Whitman’s vision and ego helped him produce his masterwork. His profound vision created a tremendous contribution to American literary history. Numerous poets have tried to place themselves in his wake or have reacted violently to him. There is no getting around him. He was a celebrity in his day and is celebrated today. He had disciples that surrounded him in his later years and still has a large following today. But why is he so important? It is because he stirred up such controversy and got people talking. More importantly, he broke the boundaries of poetic form and elevated common people through his portrayals of American life.
A Religious Skeptic
Leaves of Grass had a major impact on the literary world; His work cannot be ignored. His poetry has been set to music and inspired musicians, both classical and popular. Europeans said that you couldn’t really understand America without Walt Whitman. Some modern poets have said that Whitman is not just America’s poet, but he is America. Whitman considered himself to be a messiah-like figure in poetry; so did his admirers. His vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the beat movement as well as by anti-war poets. He took what Emerson and Thoreau started with the transcendentalist movement, thoroughly Americanized it and then set it free to enjoy a new life through his free-verse poetry. His style speaks to many people who think as he did and do not live within the constraints of limitations imposed by moral boundaries of religious America. Though he was born to a Quaker family, it would be more proper to classify Whitman as a man of spirituality and not a man of religion. He as deeply influenced by Deism and denied that any one faith was more important than another. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, who was also a religious skeptic, he embraced all religions equally. And though he accepted all churches, he believed in none. It is safe to say that Whitman’s religion was like his verse: free and easy.
A Mass of Stupid Filth
But it is his forays into eroticism that elicited such strong responses from his critics. They said that his poetry was “a mass of stupid filth” and that Whitman was like a pig “rooting among the rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.” For example, in section 11 of Song of Myself, Whitman warned us that he was going to celebrate himself, get bawdy and lusty and otherwise embrace the passion, pulse and power of life. The 29th bather is a powerful example of how he makes that happen. In section 3 of Song of Myself he had already exposed us to the urge of sex, and now he sprays us with a beach orgy. Section 11 is famously known as the 29th bather, a fantasy that starts from a female narrative and ends with a homoerotic shocker. It caused one reviewer to exclaim that he was guilty of violating “the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization.” Another accused him in Latin of homosexual behavior.
While some biographers are certain in their declarations that there was never any evidence of homosexual activity, what is certain is that he used the imagery of raw sexuality liberally throughout Leaves of Grass. “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world…always sex” are found along with scenes of “hugging and loving bedfellows. He takes on an all-knowing and condescending spirit that tells us to forget about “creeds and schools,” religion and education, and just listen to what wisdom he is about to belch forth. With arrogance he states that “what I assume, you shall assume,” as if to say that our views could only possibly be his views. He is going to introduce us to the common laborers of America, the average people who are cheerfully and skillfully working to build the great American dream.
I Celebrate Myself
Throughout his work we will witness numerous vignettes of life in the America of Walt Whitman’s day, not life in halls of congress or places of business, but in homes and gathering places. And through it all, we are to be subjected to the lusty, bawdy, fleshy side of life that Whitman, or his muse, wants us to see, hear and experience. With Walt, we will hear the delicious singing, the “party of young fellows, robust and friendly, singing with mouths open their strong melodious songs.” He is positively giddy. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself… undisguised and naked…mad to be in contact with” the sensual nature of this physical and worldly existence. We will soon be reading biography, sermon and poetic meditation of this muse all lustily embracing the fleshy body as it expresses itself through the life of Whitman.
The 29th Bather
In Leaves of Grass, Walt writes of getting “undisguised and naked,” and sensually urges his readers to “Undrape! You are not guilty to me,” but “stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical.” But these words and phrases are nothing compared to the scene that unfolds in the 29th bather. The young lady lets her imagination take her to the beach to join the crowd of young men, describing the beards of the young men glistening with wet that ran from their long hair, little streams that passed all over their bodies. “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies; it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.” And then the action turns decidedly homoerotic as actions are performed on the young men by whom – the unseen 29th bather or by each other? If Whitman intended to shock the sensibilities of his readers, he wildly succeeded. But then, this is nothing compared to sex-soaked erotic content of a more modern classic such as Portnoy’s Complaint, which dwells on the lusty subject of masturbation.
The Good Gray Poet
How this erotic and sexually dissident poet was adopted as America’s national bard and anointed “the Good Gray Poet” is hard to understand. He never did reach the common people but was celebrated by the intellectuals of the day, especially from other countries. Did Whitman presage the view of America as the land of porn? If not, then he certainly did contribute a fair share for his day. The real work in analyzing and appreciating Whitman’s poetry is in looking past the celebration of the natural man and seeing in it the celebration of America, the great land of opportunity and the dream that all can succeed and that anything can be created and promoted. All it takes is the kind of confidence and belief in oneself that Walt Whitman had in abundance. In that respect, Walt Whitman was truly an American genius of a rock-star caliber for his day. If Whitman could successfully promote and sell out every edition of his book each time it went to press, in spite of the moral constraints of his day, just think what we should be able to do today!
Of course I’m not suggesting that we rush out to write a bunch of pornographic prose as he did, but I am saying that, like Whitman, we should celebrate this great nation for the freedoms of expression that we enjoy and that can really be found in no other nation of this world today. And, like Whitman, if we embrace the spirit of controversy and promotion of something unique, as was his free-verse style, then we should be able to reach out to millions of people through the modern leaves of grass – the Internet. Isn’t that what many of today’s bloggers are hoping to accomplish? They are the Walt Whitman’s of our day, bypassing the established norms of book publishing for the new media of the Internet. And they succeed because of their controversial content and endless self-promotion. If only what they promoted was uplifting to the human spirit. Controversial content is what drives the readers to the blogs and websites where they want to express their own opinions in the comments. Walt Whitman knew what would sell and he knew how to sell it. Just think of what he could have done if he lived in the Internet age!
The warning signs outside the theater were ominous: “Adult content not suitable for children.” Looking around as we entered, I had to remember that the college-age students there were not children. That’s hard to do when you have offspring older than most present, including the actors performing the show. Carol and I were there by assignment to see the musical “Rent,” the Tony and Pulitzer award winning rock-opera drama about life in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980’s. It takes place in the neighborhood known as Alphabet City, an area primarily inhabited by bohemian young people wanting to break into theater, TV or music. Sadly, the area also had high levels of illegal drug activity, violent crime and HIV/AIDS.
Undoubtedly the themes of homosexuality, AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness prompted the warnings about the adult content. The characters include a gay male couple in which both partners have AIDS, an on-again/off-again lesbian couple, and a straight couple in which both partners have AIDS and both have a history of intravenous drug use. It’s not exactly “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and was written intentionally to shake things up, but also to address the concepts of love, loss and community. Those are the themes that I would like to address in this essay. If we can overcome bigotry and be compassionate towards people living with AIDS for a few moments then we can be uplifted by some beautiful elements of Rent.
I’ll admit I was a little put-off when I read some of the articles and reviews of the play in advance of witnessing the production. I wanted to know more about the story before I saw it. I like to think I’m not homophobic but from what I had read in some reviews, the lifestyle went beyond mere portrayal; it was celebrated, endorsed and flaunted in your face. I didn’t want to see that. I’m old-fashioned in that I believe that some things should be left private, and sexual activity is one of them. However, the production that we saw must have been a tamed-down version because there was only occasional gay kissing and touching, nothing too disturbing. I was more bothered by the decibels of the musicians, which sometimes drowned out the singers.
The songs in Rent are the first of the beautiful and uplifting elements that I noticed. The entire play is a musical. It seemed like there were very few lines spoken that were not actually sung. Even the hilarious little phone messages peppered throughout the play were delightfully sung to us, adding much entertainment to the dramatic production. Who hasn’t heard “Seasons of Love,” especially since it has been playing in some TV commercial lately? Although not particularly uplifting to me, La Vie Boheme was immensely entertaining. Other enjoyable songs included Your Eyes, Goodbye Love, Light My Candle, Tango Maureen, Out Tonight, One Song Glory, I Should Tell You, Take Me Or Leave Me, No Day But Today, and Living in America.
I can’t think of one thing with more universal appeal than the idea of love. Who doesn’t want to be loved? I have met people who have said no when I asked them if they wanted to be happy in life but I have never met someone who said no when asked if they wanted to be loved or at least accepted for who they are. Of the three major themes I saw in the play, the idea of being loved came across the strongest. Although they had a lot of emotional handicaps and baggage, these were people dealing with building relationships. I can’t identify with being a drag queen but when Angel was dying, I found myself shedding a tear for Collins’ loss.
Living with Loss
These people lived with loss every day. That’s why one of the recurring songs was entitled, “No Day but Today.” How they dealt with that loss teaches a lot about the idea of community. They came together in their grief. They comforted one another. They took care of one another the best they could. Mimi was not judged for her drug addiction but was encouraged to live without it and find something better to take its place. Since so many of their friends were dying, they adopted the motto to live for the day and to reach for their dreams one day at a time. How hard it must be to make plans for the future when you are living with a disease like AIDS.
It was love and loss that built their community. They only had each other. Rejected by so many outside their world, they had to give each other strength, and they did. Although the ending was a little hokey with Angel becoming the angel who told Mimi to go back when she was dying, the love that developed between Roger and Mimi was delightful to witness. How can you not love a happy, feel-good ending where the main characters find happiness in each other? Except there’s one big problem – they still have AIDS and will die someday. But then, so will we all. See, it really does have universal appeal. The play mirrors life that someday will end.
After seeing the play, Carol read the script and I read dozens of reviews. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of opinions expressed. It seems that most reviewers either loved it or hated it. One said she had never walked out of a play before in her life but walked out on Rent. She must have had a family member in our audience because a couple in front of us walked out at the first encounter of affection expressed between Angel and Collins. Were they homophobic? In all probability, yes they were. I mean, the music was loud and the show could be confusing if you weren’t paying close attention, but it was obvious that they didn’t like what they were seeing.
Reviews from Viewers
Here’s a quote from one of those reader reviews I found in the NY Times about the time the show was closing after a twelve-year run: “If you want homosexuality and drug addiction rubbed in your face, then this is the play for you. I basically hated it, if you haven’t figured that out yet.” In contrast, “Rent is a fabulous roller-coaster ride of emotion. The characters are extremely real, and so are the troubles they face. The songs are beautiful and the energy and electricity of it is so wonderful that you are a complete moron if you don’t like it. The only reason anyone wouldn’t like this show is if they are homophobic, intolerant, and weak.”
But my favorite had to be, “So let’s see… a group of drug addicted promiscuous squatters are the heroes and the one person who breaks from the group and becomes successful and buys the building (which they live in illegally) is the bad-guy because he wants rent… hhhmmmm… and let’s see, we have loud screeching that we’re supposed to call singing but it’s “cool dude” ’cause the lead is just so hot looking and has the teeny bopper girls squealing in delight. This is a show for the MTV-Put-Upon Generation… pure junk.” Opinions of performances are one thing but this reviewer was obviously passing judgment and commenting on the lifestyle choices.
Part of the impact of the show is the death of the composer and writer, Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by Marfan syndrome, on the night before the play opened off Broadway. In spite of his death, the show went on. Glowing reviews began to appear. The six-week run sold out immediately. In the months to come, Rent moved to Broadway, won four Tony awards, including the prize for best musical, and Jonathan Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, posthumously. The show went on to become one of the longest running productions on Broadway and is now enjoying a second life in local theater.
Rent has had and is still having a social impact. While the play is now a little dated with the use of pay phones, answering machines and clunky old cell phones the size of a brick, it is still attracting younger crowds wherever it plays. Of course, that was probably inevitable in our case, given that our venue was a local community college. Wherever it opens, it is reviewed by the local theater critics. The comments posted on those online reviews demonstrate that some of the same prejudices and bigotry are still alive and well in America today. Rent is a wonderful example of American creativity that reaches to the very heart of our lives through love and loss. I hope our community has changed and become more tolerant in the years since it first opened.
I haven’t included a lot of quotes from the musical, because frankly, they aren’t very deep. For example, here’s one from the song, Light my Candle: “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.” And from Angel, the transvestite, “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.” From the song Will I, about dying from AIDS: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” I suppose my favorite has to be “There will always be women in rubber flirting with me…” That last quote is from Maureen, one of the two lesbians. Some of the stuff is really quite funny, if you can just get past the idea that these are people looking for love in unorthodox relationships.
And that is the point of the play and the impact it has had on America. How do we view the lives of those who are not in orthodox relationships? Do we view them as sinners, in need of repentance and salvation, who will suffer in hell because of their poor lifestyle choices? I am confident that there are millions of people who will voice that very opinion without hesitation. Or do we love and accept them, making an effort to help them find happiness and success in life? That is one of the toughest choices in life, especially for those who have family members living in a lifestyle that is contrary to the moral principles that they value. Rent helps us see past the pain and sorrow of rejection and loss of those who live with AIDS and still manage to have hope.
It’s that final scene of hope that I find most uplifting and inspiring about the play. They found hope because they loved and supported each other through their loss and sorrow. I think Jonathan Larson would be pleased to think that his play has helped us to become more loving and supportive of each other, especially those who deal with AIDS on a daily basis. And in the end, the millions he earned posthumously from the play helps others pursue their writing careers.
Note: Carol saw the play with me and shared an excellent review on her blog.
As we go through life, we embrace high ideals as standards that we value. I am confident that most of us do not perfectly live up to those high value standards. That can cause difficulty in our lives and can be a major form of stress. How do we deal with the discrepancy of a life lived at a level below what we would like it to be?
More aptly asked, how do we live up to those high value standards that we have accepted as being desirable and believe to be achievable? Is it even possible? The Savior taught, “Be ye therefore perfect.” Modern prophets have defined specific standards of behavior that help us reach for that perfection in our day and age.
For example, the Mormon Church has one of the highest standards of sexual purity both before and after marriage, than any other organization of which I know. The standard is total abstinence before marriage and complete fidelity after marriage. Failure to adhere to these standards is a cause for disciplinary action in our church.
Mortality means being less than perfect
Instead of focusing on the formal disciplinary aspect of failing to live up to the standards of sexual purity, I’d like to address the spiritual aspect of what it does to our souls when we find ourselves weak in this area. In particular, I would like to discuss what happens to our feelings of self-worth when we yield to temptation.
Obviously I cannot address this perfectly and include a woman’s point of view because I am a man, so I’ll stick with what I know. I especially want to deal with the idea of being virtuous in our thoughts in order to be worthy of the Lord’s approbation in connection with our efforts to exercise the priesthood as found in section 121.
I am an experienced sinner. I also like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable about repentance. Like just about every other human being, I awoke one day as a teenager to discover that I had entered puberty. No surprise there, but what was very surprising to me was the discovery of the power of hormones in my life.
Virtue and purity bring personal power
Although I don’t recall my parents discussing the idea of virtue with me when I was young, I do recall many lessons in Sunday school, Seminary and especially Aaronic priesthood classes that made it clear what the Lord’s standards are. I can say that I clearly understood that virtue and priesthood power go hand in hand.
I think it is wonderful that the Young Women’s organization in the church has added virtue to the list of Young Women values. I don’t know how it got left out of the original list when it was formulated. It was probably just an oversight. If there is anything that is needed in our youth today, it is an understanding of virtue.
So I can say that before I entered puberty and began to experience the powerful pull of raging hormones for myself that I understood clearly, at least intellectually, that I needed to control myself, to resist certain behavior and to focus on creating virtue in my life. That was a relatively easy thing until my body started to change.
Dealing with temptation
One day in school I was surprised to discover that when one of my friends brought pictures out of his wallet that he had cut from a men’s magazine, I found myself interested in seeing them. Whenever this had happened before I had always turned away in disgust. It surprised me when that disgust turned to very strong curiosity.
Now girls probably won’t understand this, or maybe they do better than I realize, but men are visually stimulated and aroused. It’s just the way we are made. So I found myself viewing these pictures along with the rest of my friends, yet all the while knowing that what I was doing was wrong and that I should turn away.
Over the years, I have come to realize that it is a rare man who is not interested in viewing the naked female form, or that can turn away when presented with such a sight. It takes discipline to resist what is only natural to the natural man (Mosiah 3:19). I knew that it was wrong but I couldn’t tell you exactly why at the time.
The effect of sin on our soul
No amount of lecture from a parent or teacher can prepare you for the feelings of guilt that are experienced the first time you do something that you believed you would never do. Perhaps I am just overly sensitive to guilt, but I experienced it big time that day. I felt miserable. I felt terrible. I could barely function in school.
And yet, what bothered me most was the fact that the images I had viewed kept coming back into my mind at the most inappropriate times, like when I was talking to a girl, or the next day in Seminary class while trying to study the scriptures. This was a new phenomenon, one that I was not familiar with, and it bothered me.
I also noticed that I was strangely argumentative and ornery with my family, and especially with my mother, as if I had a chip on my shoulder. Mother and dad looked at each other knowingly, but I didn’t get it. I did not understand why I was so miserable and did not connect it with viewing pornography the previous day.
Learning about repentance
Of course, I also had an intellectual understanding of the principle of repentance. I knew that when one sinned, one could repent, or turn away from that behavior, and the Lord would take away the feelings of guilt associated with that sin. Although I had sinned before, I had never felt the need to repent up to this time in my life.
Perhaps it was the nature of the sin. We are taught in the church that sexual sin is one of the most serious, although it takes personal experience to really understand why. What I intellectually understood about sin now became a reality as I felt the guilt, shame, embarrassment and sorrow over having put those images in my mind.
Everyone has different levels of tolerance for sin before they notice how it affects them. I have come to discover that my tolerance is very low. I wanted the pain of that sin gone from my life. I was especially contrite and humble as I partook of the sacrament the next Sunday. I swore in my mind that I would never do that again.
Summary and conclusion
And you know what? I felt an immediate relief after partaking of the Sacrament. I felt happy, light and relatively care-free again, at least as care-free as a young man just entering puberty can feel. I had a long ways to go before I learned to master myself, and in fact, I still deal with the pull of the flesh every day as we all do.
The response of many in the world to what I have described here will be to shake their heads in amazement. The viewing of porn is not looked upon as a problem and especially not as a sin. They do not value the standard of sexual purity and it does not mean to them what it means to us: virtue is the source of personal power.
The world does not have the high standards that we do. We have taken upon us ideals that are difficult to achieve, and in some cases almost impossible. It is the Lord that has set these standards and it is the Lord that makes it possible for us to repent each time we fail to live up to them. Forgiveness truly is a miracle.
Related content: Healing from pornography addiction
I love the story that President Packer related in General Conference in Oct of 1974 about a man who was contemplating joining the LDS church until he learned of the requirement of tithing. The local presiding authority of the church in that area met with the man and told him about a few other requirements of time and money that the missionaries had neglected to mention.
As he departed he said, “If you are turned away by a little thing like tithing, it is obvious you’re not ready for this Church. Perhaps you have made the right decision and you should not join. Have you ever wondered why people will do all of these things willingly? I have never received a bill for tithing. No one has ever called to collect it. But we pay it and count it a great privilege.”
He said that the church represented the pearl of great price, which the Lord said the merchant man was willing to sell all he had that he might obtain it. He invited the man to pray about his decision. A few days later the man asked to schedule the baptism of his family. They had been fervently praying. He and his family were attracted by the high standards, not repelled by them.
A way of life
Being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not an easy thing. It is so much more than a Sunday Church. It is a way of life. For those who join as adults, it can be a major change of lifestyle to become a new convert. It can be a sacrifice to give up some habits and attitudes that are not consistent with the gospel teachings. Much is required of us.
Sunday meetings consist of three meetings over three hours. If you are asked to serve in a leadership position there are additional meetings beyond that. If you are asked to be the Bishop of the local congregation there are individual counseling meetings that consume many, many hours beyond that. No local leaders are paid for their time given to serve in the church.
Besides the time and money we contribute, we spend hours commuting to and participating in temple worship. We prepare and teach lessons for the youth during the week. We abstain from coffee, tea, alcohol and harmful drugs. We are asked not to shop or participate in recreational activities on Sundays. We are encouraged to do all we can to share the gospel with others.
The moral standards
Perhaps the greatest area in which we differ from the world is in moral conduct. We teach the ideals of a pure and chaste life. That means no sexual relations before marriage and complete fidelity to one’s spouse after marriage. It sounds simple but the spirit of sexual purity involves so much more. We strive to ensure that our thoughts, words and deeds are clean and pure.
Some have suggested that this high moral standard is not realistic or even repressive and only results in unnecessary frustration or a double standard. I disagree. We teach the ideal. We strive for the ideal. We do all within our power to achieve the ideal. The closer we come to meeting that standard, the more we feel blessed with peace of mind and a clear conscience.
We believe that we can be perfect in some, if not many areas. There are those who are perfect in paying tithing. Some are perfect in keeping the Sabbath Day holy. Some are perfect in making their monthly assigned home teaching visits to other members. Many are perfect in keeping the law of chastity. For them it never has been a problem. For some it is an ongoing struggle.
The law of chastity
God has commanded that the sacred power and privilege of sexual relations be exercised only between a man and woman who are legally married. God delights in chastity and hates sexual sin. Obedience to this law brings peace, self-respect, and strength from self-control. As you obey the law of chastity, you will enjoy more fully the influence of the Holy Ghost in your life.
Satan tempts us to rationalize that sexual intimacy before marriage is acceptable when two people are in love. That is not true. Those who break this law are subject to a lasting sense of shame and guilt that burdens their lives. However, through sincere repentance and application of the Atonement, they can find forgiveness which brings a peace of conscience and Joy.
No matter how strong temptations seem, the Lord will help us withstand them if we choose to follow Him. For some, it may mean a lifetime of effort to control passion. Even within marriage, passion should be expressed in a loving, kind and tender manner. Some are tempted to break marital vows because of a loveless or sexless marriage. The Lord will help us keep covenants.
The standards help us grow
The Lord gives us commandments because he wants us to grow. He knows our potential. He also knows how frustrating it can be when we find it difficult to be perfect in keeping those commandments. There is no way we can be perfect in this life. We grow as we try harder each day and each week to keep the commandments and live up to the standards the Lord has set.
Much has been written about the perceived high level of depression in Utah. Many attributed that to the impossibly high standards and cultural pressure to be the perfect model Mormon. How I wish people understood better the power of the Savior to heal us and to help us deal with this growth process. The Lord expects great things of us but we must trust Him to help us.
I am grateful for the commandments. I didn’t feel this way when I was younger. I only saw them as a restriction. Now I see them as safe boundaries. I do not feel restricted or repressed as I strive to live up to the ideals that the Lord has set for me. Perhaps it comes with age, but I also do not feel overwhelmed by these high standards. The Lord has helped me accept them.
Summary and conclusion
Yes, the LDS Church has high standards and expectations of our members. Some suggest that they are not realistic or possible. They continually demand of the leaders that the standards be lowered in conformance with the way things are in the world. Most who complain are those who have left the church because they felt they could not measure up. We are sad that they leave.
For some reason, Boyd K Packer has often been singled out as being the source of the problem of having unrealistic and unrelenting demands. I have never felt that President Packer’s words were any less kind or tolerant than any other apostle. I love him as a defender of the faith and for being clear about where the Lord has set the boundaries. He is truly an Apostle of the Lord.
It sometimes perplexes me to read the writings of those who criticize the church or the leaders of the church. What do they hope to accomplish? Perhaps they expect the prophet to say, “Oh, I’m glad you made us aware of that issue. We will change that requirement right away.” It is obvious that those who think this way have no clue that this is not the church of man or men.