Friday, March 25, 2005

Civil Breakdown

Living in New York City is a wonderful experience. It can also be highly stressful.

I've noticed from time to time a dearth of civility in our society, and that can be particularly pronounced in a densely populated place like the Big Apple. I try to live my life as a New Yorker in a way consistent with my beliefs as a Latter-day Saint. Treating others with decency, kindness, respect and forgiveness is the right thing to do, even when people are in your face most waking hours. It's also the practical thing to do. Politeness and civility usually beget politeness and civility.

Which is why I feel like such a huge hypocrite.

Keri and I went to the circus today at Madison Square Garden with the girls and some friends. Because we planned to go to New Jersey right after the circus, we decided to drive into Manhattan and park about halfway between the Garden and the Lincoln Tunnel for a quick getaway.

(I should pause here to write that one of the best ways to ensure survival in the big city is to avoid situations that create stress. Driving in to the city on a holiday and parking at a random lot on the west side was not our best move.)

We parked in the first safe and reasonable looking lot we could find and went to the circus. We returned a few hours later to find a rather large crowd of people waiting for their cars. The lot staff was clearly overwhelmed with the volume of cars and customers, and they were not doing a good job of communicating. To those of us standing around waiting, they seemed utterly incompetent.

After some 35 minutes, frustration was growing. Finally to the front of the makeshift line we were standing on, I handed my ticket off to the attendant and pointed my car out to him. He had to move a large truck to get to it, and then all hell broke loose.

When we parked, the lot attendant was short on change, so he told us he would have to owe us $10 when we left. I told this to the attendant who was retrieving our car, and asked for the previous attendant by name -- Ronnie. While the guy who was getting our car was yelling in no apparent direction for Ronnie, another attendant began to move the truck that had just been moved to free my car back into its position in front of my car.

I stepped in front of it and said,"No! Get my car out!"

But they didn't. They kept trying to move the truck back and I refused to let them. In a profane and loud manner. Repeatedly. We had been waiting for more than half an hour while these guys bounced around their lot like chickens without their heads and I was not going to budge until my car was moved out of its place.

In the meantime, Ronnie shows up, no doubt drawn by my histrionics, and starts yelling at me for not asking for him in the first place. I did ask for him, I barked back. He then stepped over to Keri while I was still doing my human roadblock routine and delivered the same harangue to her. Already furious, I very nearly had a stroke when I saw him confront my wife. I was (literally) spitting mad. They finally moved our car out, I put my family in, and we left.

As I got behind the wheel, I saw the looks on my daughters' faces. They were mortified. My wife was in tears. And my anger very quickly transformed into shame. If there is any gospel principle I have made a conscious and concerted effort to abide by over the past few years, it is that of returning anger with kindness and injustice with forgiveness. I try to do this not because I am a particularly good person, but because I know that the temper that came boiling out today lurks beneath the surface. I know that I am a natural man, and I rely on remembering the teachings of the Savior in moments like this precisely so I can avoid doing what I did.

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine in which he suggested that very few of us who call ourselves Christian actually accept fully and without qualification the teachings of Christ. Sadly, I did my best to prove him right today. I apologized profusely to my wife and daughters for my display, begged their forgiveness, and told them there was no excuse for the way I behaved, even if we hadn't been treated well to begin with. I was grateful that none of my ward members saw my display. And if I knew how to go about it without stirring up more trouble, I'd return to that parking lot to offer an apology to those attendants for my belligerence. As I write this, I'm saddened that what the girls might remember today is not the wonderful time we had at the circus, but their idiot father frothing at the mouth for no good reason in that parking lot in Manhattan.

Few things make me feel worse than being slapped in the face with my own hypocrisy. I offer this post today as penance.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Convert Soul

I am a convert to Mormonism. I joined the Church at the age of 16 while living in Salt Lake City. I'm that ward basketball baptism you sometimes hear about.

I've been thinking about the fact that I'm a convert lately. I'm so thoroughly Mormon now, 17 years later, that I sometimes forget that this is not the life I was born into. I'm a returned missionary, a father and husband, a bishop. But I'm also the son of an agnostic, Catholic-raised father and a feminist, Unitarian-Universalist mother, both of whom opposed my decision to become a Latter-day Saint.

I was asked about my decision to join the Church recently, and I took the time to recount the story in brief. I may tell some of that story here in a future post, but for now I want to consider the convert's journey in a more abstract way.

On and off, I've been reading a book called The Global Soul. It's subtitled Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home and is about the emotional impact of globalization, particularly on those who are from more than one place. The author, a travel writer named Pico Iyer, is a Brit of Indian descent, raised in California and educated in the UK, who currently lives much of the year in Japan. He has spent a phenomenal amount of his life in airports and on airplanes, and finds that even when he's home, he's not really home. Not in Britain, not in the United States, not in India, and not in Japan.

This book resonated with me on many levels. I spent my childhood shuttling back and forth between my divorced parents, my mother in Utah, my father in Wisconsin. I travel with enough regularity to feel more at home in an airport than I'd like to admit. But more than anything as I read this book I found myself thinking about my place as a convert in the Mormon Church and how my continued commitment to the Church has impacted my life outside of it.

Growing up a "non-member" in Utah was not always easy. I was acutely aware of my otherness. I wanted to fit in, of course, but found that I couldn't really find a place where I felt at ease and comfortable. I wasn't LDS. My parents were divorced. I went to Wisconsin by myself every holiday starting at the age of 7 to see my dad. I didn't know anyone else like me.

I found a home in the Church. I felt accepted when I began to participate in Church activities. I felt loved by my new community when I joined the Church. I became a model Mormon in many respects, serving a mission and then marrying in the temple. But I was still... different. "I'm the only member in my family," I said in explanation often.

Pico Iyer describes his existence as a global soul like this:
A person like me can't really call himself an exile (who traditionally looked back to a home now lost), or an expatriate (who's generally posted abroad for a living); I'm not really a nomad (whose patterns are guided by the seasons and tradition)... the Global Soul is best characterized by the fact of falling between all categories. The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is the place where I look highly alien, and the country where people believe like me is the most foreign space of all.
I've now been a Latter-day Saint longer than I haven't, but even with a Mormon wife and family and a distinctly Mormon life, I retain a different perspective and a different relationship with the Church than those who were born into it. I see culture where others see doctrine. I retain bits of my mother's feminism and my father's skepticism. I lack a heritage in the Church any deeper than my own 17 years in it.

But I can't go home either. My Mormon identity has created distance with my family. Even as my parents opposed my decision to become a Mormon, they supported my right to make it, and they continue to be supportive of the path I have chosen. But we now live in different worlds philosophically, and the theology in which I have chosen to make my spiritual home puts my parents and family in an uncertain -- even undesirable -- place. Simple things like a cup of coffee can separate us.

The irony of this is that even though I'm a convert, I find myself sometimes struggling to connect with other converts. Here, too, Pico Iyer's experiences as a global soul resonate with me. He writes of often encountering Indians in different parts of the world and being unable to connect with them, despite a shared heritage. But he is often equally incompatible with Brits and Americans, the people he spent the most time with as he was growing up. I share the convert's experience with many, but that shared experience doesn't trump differences in culture, life experience, and family life.

The church is growing at a quick pace. There are more and more people like me, presumably, who will become deeply committed Mormons, who will view their interactions with God through the lens of Mormonism, but who will feel different in the larger culture of the Church, even many years after they have made their spiritual home in it. A few years ago, the late Eugene England wrote about the challenges the Church will face as it grows from an isolated and provincial church centered in the American West into a world religion. They are struggles of culture and priorities -- and they are struggles that we must face not just in wards and branches on the other side of the world, but, for many of us, within ourselves as well.