Total Game Control

Guest Post by Emily Holsinger Butler

the playahs

A Catholic friend of mine once offered the idea that world religions exist for one single purpose: to control women. “A bit reductive, no?” was my response. But this guy was wicked smart—never flippant, never glib. And his assertion has stayed with me like a compass point. I refer to it whenever “things happen” in our Mormon universe. Who is trying to control whom, I ask.

I’ve been controlled, sure. In fact, I’ve often given courtesy control to people out of sheer politeness—like all those times on my mission when I submitted to a young district leader’s efforts to foist a personal priesthood interview on me. That was how the game was played. If there was a priesthood leader present, a sister would hop out of the driver’s seat and let him commandeer the wheel. “Take ‘er for a spin, Elder! Don’t scratch the paint!”* Results varied. It was usually fine, and sometimes funny.

Controlling women—have I been complicit? Heck yeah. I’ve collaborated. I’m not proud of myself. Holy cow, I’ve been Vichy France with a temple recommend.** Like that Saturday in 1994, at some church basketball tournament. As a very lovely break from law school exertions, I played on our ward’s women’s basketball team, coached to great effect by our Stake President. It was super fun. We made it to some sort of regional event, and drove down to a building in southern Virginia on the appointed day. Men were playing in a separate but equal tournament on the full-sized court. We were playing on a smaller one, and I wasn’t about to look that gift horse in the mouth, believe you me. As the female players gathered together, we were addressed by a priesthood leader who may or may not have also been the referee (I don’t recall). He outlined a few basics of the tourney, and then, in all seriousness, admonished us to dress modestly on court.

Incredulous, I looked at my teammates. We were for the most part women of a certain age, some of a more certain age than others. Our power forward was a professional nurse of repute. Our best shooter, the only one who could almost dunk, was the Stake President’s wife (and mother of many). Then there was me—I was a terrible player, but was equipped with two sports bras (worn simultaneously) and shorts that covered my thighs very adequately. I honestly don’t remember the other women’s names, but do remember their tolerant, almost vacant expressions as the brother went on about the necessity of sleeves and such. Nobody batted an eye. We regarded him with distant benevolence. We permitted him to tell us how to dress.

And so it was that we were unprepared for the vision that was unleashed upon us a few moments after the good brother concluded his remarks. It was then that the men’s teams emerged from their changing area. Unlike us, they had actual uniforms with actual numbers. On the other hand, it was clear that said uniforms had been handed down through generations of Mormon men, languishing in a Stake Center closet between basketball tournaments that began sometime in 1972. Sleeves they had none. Manufactured from some sort of skin-tight polyester fabric, the shorts stopped mere centimeters south of the groin area, which (how to put this) was exceptionally pronounced, if not practically articulated—so clingy they might have been codpieces for all intents and purposes. The men’s teams were composed primarily of middle-aged priesthood holders who (like us) were in it for a good time, and who (like us) could stand to lose a good twenty or thirty or forty pounds. It would have been a tender mercy for me to offer my second sports bra to any number of those players. Yeah. Their costumes left very little to the imagination.

Again I looked at my teammates. Bless them, their faces were frozen in alarm, not at what they were seeing, but at what was about to happen. We removed ourselves at once to a secluded area behind the bleachers, and fell to the floor where we rolled around unleashing howls of laughter. Personally, I laughed so hard I pulled a muscle in my abdomen, which didn’t help my game at all. We laughed until the tears ran. Someone almost choked. It wasn’t pretty.

What did I learn that day? Can’t say, really. But it does occur to me that we have a ways to go in our church before we can say that we love each other more than we love controlling each other.

Play on, sisters.

*It was, in fact, literally the case that sisters did not drive cars in my mission. That privilege was reserved for the missionaries who worked in the mission office. Who, incidentally, were all elders.

**I’m paraphrasing the wonderful Caitlin Moran, here. Email me if you want the original quote, which is pretty salty.

Emily Holsinger Butler is a hausfrau living in Utah with delusions of grandeur & survival, a writer of books, a hoper of all things and a believer in several of them.

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To Sylvia

My Dearest Daughter,

Twelve days before your birth I wondered if I would be sacrificing you on the altar of my desire to be Mormon. I knew that remaining Mormon would mean that you would be confronted with the pain of being a woman in this church, even if you do not feel it as acutely as I do. Over the almost six years since I wrote that post I have documented the little “paper cuts” that you have experienced. Each one has broken my heart but you have met them with strength, determination and thoughtfulness. You are an amazing little girl.

Yesterday, however, you received a much deeper wound. Yesterday your history changed. Yesterday Kate Kelly was excommunicated from our church for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church.” A lot has been written about this event but I want you to know your piece of the story.

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From the Backlist: Comforting Those that Stand in Need of Comfort

Michaelangelo's 4th PietaA couple of weeks ago, I was having a down day between my relationship with the Church and Mormon feminism. I vague-booked out to my “Rogue Mormon” Facebook list and quickly after, my bishop and fellow ward members who are on that list messaged me back, letting me know I am always welcome and they want me in the ward, in the Church.

When the New York Times article about Kate Kelly and John Dehlin came out yesterday, my tech-savvy bishop messaged me again to make sure I was ok. This morning I got an email from a fellow ward member telling me, “Don’t leave!” and that she believes there is room for everyone in the Church. I wasn’t going to leave and I’m surprisingly handling this newer news better than I was handling things a couple of weeks ago. I think the responses I got a couple of weeks ago were helpful in grounding me. When the NYT article came out, I knew already that my ward wanted to keep me and I didn’t need to worry about whether or not I’d be welcome on Sunday.

I’m so grateful for a ward that really does believe in taking care of everyone and making sure we are all doing well, no matter where our talents and interests fall. I am honored to go to church every Sunday with people who take their promise to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” seriously.

Yesterday we mourned with you, so today, from our backlist, we will share comfort with you all.

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Exposed

I am an introvert. I get my energy from being by myself and being undisturbed. Being at large parties or being around people I don’t know, emotionally and physically overwhelms me, makes me anxious, and exhausts me. Don’t get me wrong. I love being around a large group of my good, close (“good” and “close” being the qualifiers, here) friends that I already know and being in small personal gatherings to meet new friends and people. I love having great conversations and [attempting] to be funny and getting to know people on a small, intimate basis. However, it’s still physically draining for me to do. I need to go back home and recuperate so I can prepare myself for another day of interacting with people.

This party won't last all day for me.... So many people!

This party won’t last all day for me…. So many people!

I am also extremely shy around others that I don’t know. This often hinders me. When I intern, volunteer, or work somewhere, it’s hard for me to make friends with colleagues and coworkers. It’s difficult for me to open up when I’m thrust into a group of people I’m suddenly forced to interact with frequently. It stresses me out, even. Sadly enough, even here on the blog my introversion prohibits me from reaching out and forming new relationships. I’m afraid to speak out or chime in. I worry I’ll say the wrong thing. I’ll worry I have to keep up with conversations I’m not qualified to have. I’m afraid to open up and make myself vulnerable. It’s best if I stay in my quiet little corner until I’m able to warm up and open up. Introverts take time, but I am trying to change and speed up the process.

Feelings of exposure and vulnerability are a gift for some people, but a great struggle for me. A frequent complaint of my friends is the fact that I will actively and truly listen to them about their life and their problems and solve all of their life’s worries, but I rarely talk to them about my life and my problems.

“I feel like I’m talking too much,” a friend will say. “What’s going on with you?”

“Oh, nothing. My life’s not as interesting as yours!” And I’ll sneakily bring the conversation back to the life and goings-on of my friend.

I tend to be more of a listener and observer. It’s safe that way. I’m privy to information without giving up information myself. I get to listen and help with problems and practice my skills of empathy. I get to learn about others and hear about their lives. I love being close to my friends and other people in that way. But I’m now realizing that this is a two-way street. I already feel I’m an excellent listener. Now I need to work on being more vulnerable. More exposed.

It’s hard. I naturally keep things to myself. When people speak ask my opinion of feminism, or Mormonism, or certain politics, I’ll give my opinion–– strongly. But only on a superficial level. I never bring in my personal experiences or connections with the topics at hand. When people ask about my family life or what I’m thinking about, I’ll give generic answers. No one wants to hear what I think, right? But people always want others to listen to what they think, that’s for sure.

But even in my prayers to Heavenly Father, I’m extremely generic. I go through the motions, but I can’t even be open to the one person I’m supposed to open with. Even communicating with God is a struggle for me, which is probably why I rarely say prayers.

Balance is possible, I know. And I also know that my friends truly do want to know what’s going in my life. People trying to be my friend and get to know me also want to hear about my thoughts and myself. My successes and failures, my wins and losses. It’s how we bond with one another. It’s how we help each other and “bear one another’s burdens” and become more Christlike.

So I’m slowly coming out of my introverted woodwork. I’ll always be shy and introverted, there’s no doubt about that. It’ll always be difficult for me to talk about myself and open up. But I need to open up and let others into my life. I need to be exposed. There’s no human connection more powerful than intimacy and vulnerability. And I want to be connected. I want to expand. I don’t want to be safe anymore.

Wish me luck.

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Empathy

group hug II

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I was thinking about what I wanted my first post as a perma to be about, I decided to talk about what I know. I’m a developmental psychologist and spend a lot of time thinking about how my academic work interfaces with my ‘faith work.’

Lately I’ve been doing some work on moral development. There are three main theoretical approaches people take when talking about the development of morality: evolutionary, socialization, and cognitive. Most of my work falls in the cognitive camp, but I’ve been thinking a lot about evolutionary psych approaches lately. These theorists tend to focus mainly on moral emotions (things like shame, guilt, remorse, compassion, sympathy, and empathy). Empathy is probably the most studied and least understood of any of these. There is some disagreement about how to even define it, but as far as I’ve been able to untangle it, empathy is an emotional response where an individual experiences or mirrors the (usually negative) emotion that another individual is experiencing. Empathy can develop in to either sympathy, which is feeling for someone, or personal distress, which reflects an inability to separate your emotional distress from the other person who is actually in distress. Either way, empathy is the starting point.

It’s sort of amazing; the ability to have empathy is present in extremely young children. Contagious crying (where a baby starts crying when they hear another baby crying) has been observed in infants as young as 6 hours old, as well as in every sacrament meeting ever. Even more amazing is that infants show more distress at the cries of others than in response to recordings of their own cries.

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Relief Society: Fight or Flight

A few weeks ago I sat in RS and realized it would be one of those lessons. You know, the kind that makes your skin crawl. A young mom who recently moved into our ward was asked to teach Elder Christoffereson’s talk “The Moral Force of Women.” It was clear she had no idea that this talk might be a landmine and I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said, “I may start to cough uncontrollably and leave. I don’t think I can sit through this.” I’m fairly outspoken and generally not afraid to rock the boat. But here’s how disagreement usually plays out in RS: Sister A says x, Sister B says not x, and a wave of horror passes through the room because women, God bless us, do not like conflict—especially when a lace tablecloth is present. Then Sister C says, “I think we are all trying to say the same thing…” and cobbles together an idea that satisfies neither A nor B and shuts down any real discussion. Pleasantness restored, honest dialogue? Not so much.

So I scooted to the edge of my seat and prepared to find sanctuary in the foyer. But I noticed who my back row buddies were and I stopped. In addition to my friend next to me, who has kids and works, there was my dear friend D who had fled from a Singles Ward because she often felt infantilized and undervalued there. Two thoughts entered by head: First, we belong in the trenches together; and second, I’m a coward and I suck. I decided to stay and be part of the resistance. D smiled at me and I smiled back and I started to sing in my head, “Will you join in our crusade who will be strong and stand with me” because I’m dorky like that and sometimes imaginary theme music comforts me.

The teacher put three quotes from Christofferson on the board and asked us to divide into groups to discuss and come up with insights to share with the group. I can’t tell you how much I hate that talk. I won’t post the quotes because I’d start rocking in a corner.  I vividly remember running errands that first Saturday in October and listening to conference via my iPhone. When his talk started I had just grabbed a Diet Coke and felt so paralyzed by his words that I could not drive but had to sit down and write my objections on the receipt, the only paper I had on me. Straw feminists! Fallacious arguments!  Gender reduction at its worst! It takes a lot to get me that riled up.

After five minutes the teacher asked for responses. I was afraid our back row band of feminists would be the only naysayers. I was wrong. A convert on the front row with a new baby told us she was returning to work that week and felt judged by the talk. And D raised her hand next, which she rarely does. She stood up and said, “I’m single and may never have kids. I don’t know if I even want kids. Does this make me less of a woman? I read talks like this and feel that is a poor yardstick of my eternal value.” D got teary and so did I. The sister next to her, an empty nester with 6 kids who loved the talk, took her hand. The low point for me was the teacher’s well meaning response to D, that the Lord would give her a husband and kids in the next life so we should all just be happy because in the end it’ll work out. I felt like the whole room collectively shook their heads at this drivel.

A woman on the front row also got emotional sharing how much she loved the talk. “I’m a stay at home mom with 7 kids and every time I leave my house I feel judged and invalidated for my choices. Christofferson’s words make me feel like what I do matters.” A few others chimed in that the talk was a balm to them as well.

I decided to weigh in on the list of feminine qualities written on the board: nurturing, intuitive, faith, empathy, virtuous, humble, etc. These are wonderful traits, but women hardly have the monopoly on them and to say so diminishes the women who’ve worked to develop them and sends a message to men that they belong to the ladies. Whenever I want to make a point that will be hard to shutdown I turn to my friend Jesus. Because every word in the “feminine” column can be applied to Him. Gender stereotypes break down with the man who said, “Oh how I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.” Honestly, on my hardest mommy days it is the Savior who is my example of patience and nurturing.  And no one can argue with Jesus.

By the time class ended, most of the women had had their say. Some loved the talk. Some hated it. Many had never stopped to think how it made them feel. But it was a little miracle to me that such a divisive talk could have spurred so much honesty and compassion within my RS. There was lots of disagreement, but no contention. And I feel closer to the sisters in that room. The truth is we are not all saying the same thing, and we should never confuse consensus with connection.

When a lesson gets messy at church, do you:

A: find a baby to pinch and take out to the lobby

B. sit silently and play Angry Birds

C. stay and speak out when needed

D. other

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