Personhood

Being with family over the holidays always makes me feel happy and a little sad. It is fun to get together and laugh and reminisce, but it breaks my heart to hear the people I love say things like, “S/He is a nice person but it is too bad they are not _________ (married, thin, pregnant, working, a SAHM, worthy, etc.)”, or “S/He is such a great person for _________ (a homosexual, a non-member, an African-American, a liberal, a feminist, a democrat, an immigrant, etc.)”, worse still is the occasional phrase “__________ (any tragedy) wouldn’t have happened if s/he were living the gospel”, and finally, “There was probably something else going on (with a wink wink nod nod in reference to someone leaving the church because of doubt or disbelief).”

These lines makes me want to scream. I’ve read the New Testament. I study the words of Christ. Repeatedly Christ tells us not to judge, to love our neighbor, our enemy, even our selves, etc. Sadly, I feel more judgment and conditional love surrounded by LDS members and Mormon culture than anywhere else in my life. What is it about our doctrine or culture that prevents us from seeing other people as full people unless they meet very specific sometimes arbitrary requirements?

Every culture has taken-for-granted assumptions about personhood. Personhood is based on the value that people hold in a society as judged by one another. These are not usually ideas that people discuss openly or even recognize. They are implicit and covert. They are ubiquitous and pervade most conversations, talks, and lessons. For example, I could explicate almost any church talk and show how people do not have full personhood in our culture unless they are married or have children, etc. Full LDS personhood is even more difficult to achieve because the boundaries are so specific. Even active temple-worthy married child-rearing members of the church have to fulfill specific gender roles in order to gain full personhood, i.e. stay-at-home Dads and working moms are often in liminal states of personhood. Interestingly, liminal states are often seen as dangerous for the rest of the culture. Maybe that is the problem with LDS personhood, people who are bearded, unmarried, childless, or gay, young women who have sexual desires, young men who don’t want to serve a mission, and those who don’t follow the specified path are seen as dangerous.

To be clear, most people assigning liminal statuses or communicating a lack of personhood are completely unaware of what they are doing. Most are just repeating what they’ve heard or what they assume to be true. However well-intentioned, these notions can be damaging, hurtful, harmful, and antithetical to the teachings of Christ and LDS doctrine.

Even though every week we preach of Christ, we sing of everyone being a “Child of God”, and we talk of equality, I don’t feel like that is how we treat each other. I feel like people who aren’t LDS or are “different” in any way are treated as though they are less of a person. Why do I feel that way? Is it just me?

Every culture has standards by which they add to or take way personhood based on their cultural preconditions. I guess I am just saddened that it is such a pervasive part of our culture. Ultimately, it is impossible to see someone as an equal while denying them full personhood.

Have you ever been considered dangerous? Do you feel like you have full personhood? Why or why not? Have you ever taken away someone’s personhood?

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23 Responses

  1. I’m not sure that LDS culture is more judgmental than other cultures–but that’s the only culture I’m “in.”

    I suspect members of any group are more comfortable with people who (at least seemingly) agree with themselves. Since we can’t know for sure what is in a person’s heart, we tend to judge by outward appearances–primarily conformity of behavior.

    Of course, Jesus didn’t do this, but we all have a long way to go to meet his standard. I’m glad you’ve raised these questions–that’s a start to resolving them.

  2. Helen says:

    I think the reason that LDS maybe feel more judgmental than other groups is because they are so many easily identifiable outward things that the church judges against, that most in society don’t comply with. Marriage, lots of children, SAHM, alcohol, tea, coffee.. the list could go on. These uniquely Mormon things are often what are judged more than kindness, or charity, maybe because these are the areas they feel superior.

    • TopHat says:

      I agree with this. But I would also add that there is a lot of pressure because how severe the end goal is. If everyone’s not doing X, Y, and Z, then the whole family won’t be in heaven together- and that’s just HELL! (or at least preached that way). I was at a funeral recently and the person speaking on the person’s life said, “And there have been 17 temple marriages in his children and grandchildren…” Meanwhile, I looked over at one of the “civily” married grandchildren and hurt for her. In the views of Mormondom, her marriage isn’t a blessing, it’s a blemish on the family’s beautiful track record.

      I’m dealing with in-laws who are pretty sure feminism is going to lead me down the wrong path and my children and husband are going to be lost forever because of me. Basically, in their eyes, I’m leading the family to hell. Fun times. Makes for great family harmony at the holidays, I’ll tell you that.

      But yes, get rid of all the outward markers of perfection. And get rid of the idea of doom. There’s this thing called the Atonement, right?

      • Whoa-man says:

        Thank you. I agree. It is sad and I think you are right about the outward markers. I’m so sorry about your in-laws and your friend.

  3. shley says:

    Looking down on people because they’re not A,B,C,D or E definitely happens. I know people look down on me because I don’t have children yet, especially people from church. Even though I practically raised my youngest two brothers, people take anything I saw about children as a non-statement because I don’t actually have my own, even though in new-mother instances I probably know more than the mother about taking care of a baby. I’m not in the “in” crowd because so far I’m childless.

    I really hate the example statements along the lines mentioned in the post. A person isn’t any less of a person because they are old, overweight, a different religion, gay, have no kids, have more than four or five kids, is a member of democrat/libertarian/independent party, believes differently, believes in UFOs, is a different race, has been divorced and etc..

    A friend of mine recently posted an article on Facebook about an anorexic model dying in France and how it was so sad, but she also made the point that if an overweight person dies “they brought it upon themselves,” and nobody really cares about the beautiful life that person lived. People get written off for so many different things and it’s sad. Heavenly father and Jesus don’t love anybody any less because of the things many people are so picky about.

    • spunky says:

      I agree with this very much, but in my area, if you are “conservative”- then you become the dirty one that isn’t invited or respected either. So association and judgement of left or right wing political parties happens both ways.

      I think Mormons like to put people in boxes: mothers, future mothers, singles, good with children, always gets a sunday school sub, gospel doctrine wizard, etc. When you belong in a different box, or state somthing outside the box, you become an unknown enemy because you represent instability and thought that is independant of the typical Mormon pop ideology.

      The boxes in many ways, seem to me to be the way the church unit functions. For example, I was the 16-18 y.o. sunday school teacher for a time in a former ward. The 14-16 teacher only showed maybe once or twice a month. I was never asked or thanks for taking the class younger class– they just showed showed up- and evereyon from bishop, to sunday school president to parents assumed I would take the extra class. If I was gone on a Sunday, I arranged for a sub, and always warned the sub that the class likely would be both classes. I was the “responsible” teacher and the other teacher was “doing his best”, and I was the one who was labed as judgmental when I suggested that the Sunday school president take the class, or even say thank you to me for constantly taking the class. I finally just missed a sunday and didn’t get a sub. The following Sunday, I was called into the Bishop’s office for being irresponsible. When I stated that I thought the policy was to not bother to try to get a sub because I had never been asked to take the no-show class. He knew I was being sarcastic… but the bishop at least listened to me, and decided that what I did wasn’t behaving as reprehensibly as what I was first labled.

      But I think that is an additional problem- we are taught so much to forgive and be forgiving, that when we don’t VT or don’t get a sub or dont’ show for class, or don’t do an assignment we accepted– we force others to be automatically forgiving because if THEY aren’t, it is THIER problem because they aren’t “forgiving enough”. That is what bothers me most- people seem to be at more liberty to insult, ignore, blow-off and disregard fellow church members because they place the onus of forgiveness on those whom they have offended, but rarely seem to care that they were the offenders.

  4. Matthew Chapman says:

    For the New Year, I have given up having opinions about other people.

    People are what they are, and do what they do.

    If they need a hand, I try to lend it.

  5. val says:

    Joseph Smith was once asked “Will all be damned but Mormon?” he replied, “Yes, and a great portion of them unless they repent and work righteousness”

    I think that the very best of the Gospel is wonderful. I feel that I am living the Gospel and that this is the source of my own personal happiness.

    My Mom is one of those nasty, mean judgmental people. She is a lifelong member of the church, even served a mission, but she does not study the scriptures. She is uncomfortable with intellectual gospel discussions, (is this because she doesn’t understand it well, or because she is forced to change some of her ideas) She is unhappy, probably suffers from anxiety, and I believe that she is mean to other people to make herself feel better. In her case, the ‘gospel’ is another weapon that she uses to be mean to people.

    Older people lead our church and they tend to have conservative values, which overlap with some principles of the gospel. I believe that the Gospel is true, and that problems arise when we mix in our own prejudices and conservative culture.

    The solution is education, and gently calling out people on their misunderstandings.

  6. s-lpz says:

    Amen, Matthew Chapman. My focus for 2011 is to release myself from the bondage of my own judgements. I mostly do this now, but have recently identified a whole new layer of judgement and criticism of others that I realize is making me (and probably others) miserable. (Nothing like being around family at the holidays to get us more in touch with that part of ourselves.)

  7. s-lpz says:

    Excellent post, Whoa-man. Your comments and questions are thought provoking. I’v also enjoyed all the comments.

    “Have you ever been considered dangerous?” I love that question! The answer for me is, yes–most of my life. Generally speaking, I’ve always spoken my mind and questioned the status quo at church, in the workplace, in grad school, with my in-laws. It has resulted in me being labeled “dangerous” by some. I’ve been uncomfortable with that label at times, but mostly I consider it a compliment.

    One of my most dangerous acts happened in the mid 90s when I was an active Mormon. I had the audacity to leave a temple marriage after 14 years and 3 children and be happier and better off. For some reason, that was very threatening to some of the ward members, both men and women, but for different reasons. I attributed the men’s reaction to concern that if I had contact with their wives I might “talk them into it” or that somehow divorce is a contagious disease that they would catch from me. (Trust me, anyone who has gone through something as harrowing as divorce knows the pain involved and is not going to be advocating it and recruiting others.) I think that the women who were uncomfortable with me felt that way because they weren’t happy or fulfilled in their marriages (whether they knew it or not) and that my actions were causing them to examine their own lives/marriages, which was something they were trying to avoid. It may have brought up thoughts, feelings, and issues they just didn’t want to deal with. I was also labeled as “hating men” and being “against marriage” simply for getting divorced. The fact was that I did value marriage and left so that I could find a new partner to create a wonderful, loving marriage, which I have done.

    And to speak to your questions about personhood, yes I feel like I have full personhood. Finally. It has been a lifelong battle to overcome an abusive childhood and all of the self-judgements and struggles with accepting myself that came from that. I think that accepting ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and the messiness of living in between our ideal selves and our real selves is something most of us are working on. And let me say that accepting and embracing our strengths is a very real challenge for many of us. Perhaps even harder than tolerating our weaknesses. It opens up a whole new can of worms that can be quite uncomfortable. I guess you could say it is “dangerous.”

    And, yes, I have taken away others’ personhood, more times than I’d like to admit. I have been deeply hurt by the harsh judgement of others, especially when I was active, yet I realize that I have also harshly judged. I know I do it for all kinds of reasons–habit mostly, but also out of fear of differences, fear that I’m not enough, fear that I will be abandoned somehow. As I said in an earlier post, my new focus is freedom from judgement–of myself and others.

  8. CatherineWO says:

    When my disabilities reached the point about three or four years ago that I could no longer hold a church calling or attend all church meetings, I came to a better understanding of “non-personhood.” Some people blamed me for my own problems–it was all in my head (since I didn’t look disabled); if I just had more faith it would all go away; if I would just “tough it out” I could do things and ignore the pain. Once I dropped out of active participation, it was easy for people to ignore me, which they did. All this left me angry, hurt and resentful. Now I was the judgemental one.
    s-lpz said: “My focus for 2011 is to release myself from the bondage of my own judgements.” This is where I am too, or where I want to go. I have let go of most of the anger, but I find myself still very judgemental of others, which really is a bondage that produces much unhappiness.

  9. Heather says:

    I’m with corktree. I can’t speak for other faith communities–only the Mormon one because that’s the one I’m a part of.

    The Mormon community is also the only aspect/realm of my life in which I am made to feel like less than a full person because of my gender. That is probably the saddest/most unfortunate conclusion I have come to as an adult woman–that the place where I should feel the most valued is the place where I am the most marginalized.

    The older I get, the less judgmental I have become. I recall times when I did what your post describes–judged someone for turning down a calling or showing up late to church consistently, etc. Cringe. The world is just too complicated a place for stuff like this.

    • Ziff says:

      That was my thought also, Heather. There’s definitely a level of personhood that’s simply not available to Mormon women. Sadly, no amount of role-following can make up for the lack of a penis.

      • Whoa-man says:

        I agree. It seems like no matter what we do we do not have full personhood and what do you do with that?

  10. Hydrangea says:

    A few weeks back I saw a group of Amish young adults downtown D.C.. The women walked in a line behind the men, they avoided eye contact, they were covered from head to toe, they were silent.
    As I passed them I wanted to rip off their bonnets! I wanted to have have them change into pants and take them directly to the nearest community college and sign them up for university classes. In my opinion, they needed “liberating.”
    My husband rolled his eyes and told me that I should let them be. I shouldn’t be bothered by their choice of lifestyle , even if I feel my way was more enlightened.

  11. prairiegirl says:

    I have many thoughts on this subject.

    First–as a single woman–who has a PhD–what I’ve seen is that especially in “UT” or the “Mormon Zones” (as I judgingly call them) I am constantly reminded about what I am NOT. In most places where I live outside of UT–I am constantly reminded of what I AM (although–in the new place I’m living now–it’s far more “Who are you?”–and just being ignored–and yes–some of it is because, in my opinion, that I am looked at “differently”–but a few of the leaders).

    BUT–along those same lines–I do not (and I’m addament about this) believe in anything BUT conditional love. Love HAS to be this way. Love is just not free. If it was–I’d be married with 12 children right now. So–whenever people try to tell me that we should love without conditions I roll my eyes and tell them I don’t believe in that kind of love. If I get married, and my husband cheats on me–I have enough respect for myself to have a “condition” placed there–and would leave. This is NOT wrong–nor inappropriate.

    I also get REALLY tired of church members spouting off that we are not to judge (as in ever). We’re not to judge unrighteously. That is the problem with those who pass judgements such as those discussed in this blog entry. But, I feel no guilt about judging the person who committed major sin against my family as having committed a major crime. Brian David Mitchell should be judged and put in jail. There is NOTHING wrong with that–and anyone who spouts off to me that I should just accept everyone else’s actions, no questions asked, is plain WRONG!

    So–where does this leave us? Well–it leaves us with the perpetual call to learn of others. We are to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, right? Well, we can’t do that without trying to understand others. The only real way we can do this is by seeking help through Christ. And often–but shutting our mouths and observing and listening. I mean–I for one get tired of the assumptions made in this church about single women–but more so (as someone who is guilty about making assumptions about others–just as we all are at times) am more tires of people just not really taking the time to get to know me, getting to know who I am, what I believe, think, and perhaps even need.

    • CatherineWO says:

      Well said, prairiegirl. I especially like your last paragraph. We all want to be understood, but we can’t understand other people without getting to know them. As a disabled older woman, my main wish is like yours, that people would get to know me and see that I am more than my disability. Underneath it all is a real person.

    • Whoa-man says:

      Fantastic points. I agree. Thanks!

  12. Ana says:

    I will never forget a gathering at my home somewhere around 2000 with several friends from our married student ward at the U of U. Someone wondered aloud what made us all stick together. I looked at each of us and realized that the people in this little group had experienced and survived and grown in situations that others we knew were afraid of. One person had divorced an abusive husband. One family had lost a daughter an hour after her birth. My husband and I had experienced years of infertility and adopted a child of another race. Sometimes I joke about this as the weird club. Sometimes and for some things I am proud to be part of it. In other ways I struggle with not being what I grew up perceiving as “normal.” Maybe 2011 will be my year to let my freak flag fly a little more.

  13. Amy says:

    Interesting thoughts and comment thread. I do believe in loving everyone as God’s children. However loving the people does not mean accepting the things they do that are wrong. But, obviously, a person is more than the sins they commit. We all sin and most of us try to do better. But, please don’t mistake my refusal to accept something wrong as my disliking or judging someone. I feel there are many good people who do one thing or another that I feel is wrong and I still love them. I can still love someone who smokes, but not allow them to smoke in my home. The same with many other things; however if I don’t allow the actions I don’t approve of in my home, then I am accused of being hateful.
    I think Satan has been very conniving in trying to get us to accept sins in the name of being loving and tolerant. You can hate the sin and love the sinner as Christ does.

  14. T.H. Shrum says:

    I’m curious as to why you feel it’s wrong for others to judge persons who are different than they are or live a different life, when you are quite judgmental and critical of those who live a different life than your own? For example you are quite condemnatory of anyone who exhibits any hint of a “tradtional” life as in a working father and a stay at home mother. Why is it acceptable for you to condemn those who lead lives you disagree with, but not acceptable for others to do so? Is tolerance for those unlike ourselves, something you preach but don’t practice?

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