The Shelf

448px-PreservedFood1 Friday, 1 July 2000

At dinner today we listened to the radio, and in particular to a story about homosexual marriage.  I have to say, I’m a little confused about what to think.  The LDS church is not in favor of homosexuality, but I feel that that’s only because they [gay people] have extra-marital sex.  But how can it be anything but extra-marital?! Marriage is not allowed in such cases.  Yet I’m fairly sure the church isn’t in favor of gay marriage either.  What a pickle.  Makes me glad I’m straigt!!!! [sic]

I wrote that journal entry when I was sixteen.  I was on vacation with my family and I remember thinking a lot about gay marriage and homosexuality more generally, trying to figure out how the pieces fit together with what I understood of the Gospel.  Reading the entry now, I am struck by several things.  First, I seem hopelessly naive and unclear about the church’s stance in a way I am sure the youth of today could not be.  Having firmly understood that I was not to have sex outside of marriage, I naively assumed that was the main objection that the church had to homosexuality.  Gay marriage would, in that understanding, be the perfect solution.  So why was the church against gay marriage? Or was it? Seemingly I was unsure even of that.

The second thing that strikes me, and saddens me, is the final misspelled sentence.  Having tried in my adolescent way to wrestle with a serious issue I gave up and dismissed it, knowing that it didn’t affect me personally.  I put the problem on the proverbial shelf.

Since that day I have put problems on the shelf again and again.  Indeed, I have been counseled to do so by church leaders and friends.  When I raised thorny issues they advised me to put the problem in a jar, set it on a shelf and come back to it later to see if it still bothered me, or if I had an answer.  Why the principle of food storage should apply to doctrine is beyond me.  I was upset about polygamy and church history, so I put it on the shelf.  It sat next to the gay marriage jar.  Later other jars came to join them.

A few weeks ago I met with my bishop to discuss a calling.  I told him that I was not sure if I should be considered for the position as I was struggling with my testimony and I wasn’t where I thought I should be to have that responsibility.  He seemed a bit alarmed and pressed for details, asking incredulously if I had stopped believing in God or Jesus Christ.  I said no, but that I struggle to know when the prophets and apostles speak for God, and when they advise us from a place of human wisdom that may be in error.

I told him I was deeply distressed by the disconnect between prophets in the past supporting a priesthood ban for men of African descent with racist words, and now those words are disavowed as not being of God.  On one hand it was a huge relief to feel that the teachings I always thought were racist and appalling were officially discredited.  On the other hand, it raised questions for me about other things that might be taught currently that are hard to take and that feel wrong, that down the road may in their turn be disavowed.  Should I act on teachings that make me uncomfortable when later on someone might just say they were mistaken? I mentioned concerns about teachings about homosexuality and about the position of women in the church.  I didn’t say anything about the ordination of women, but he leaped to that conclusion.

He asked me if I could compartmentalize these problems, if I could “put them on the shelf” for another day.  I tearfully told him that sometimes I could.  I could do that with polygamy.  Then I told him that I couldn’t compartmentalize being a woman.  I don’t have that luxury.  I wake up as a woman every day.  Every interaction that I have with the church is by definition about women and the church.  I can’t willfully stop seeing and experiencing the world as a woman simply because it is painful or because it produces cognitive dissonance.

As I thought about our conversation later I remembered that entry I had written long ago and I hunted it down.  I realized then that the shelf is a manifestation of privilege.  I could ignore the pain and difficulty that gay people experience in their interactions with the church because, as I put it, “I’m straigt!!!!”  I could ignore how oppressive and abusive polygamy can be because I don’t belong to a fundamentalist sect and as far as I know there aren’t any polygamists in my area.  It was all in the past, and very ignorable.

I can’t ignore what it is like to be a woman in the church.  I know that the gender inequality troubles our bishop, and he has expressed to me privately his own desire for greater inclusion.  The difference between us, and indeed for all the male leadership of the church is that when these problems seem too distressing he can decide not to think about it anymore.  Perhaps when he comes back the shelf will have worked its magic and the problem will have resolved itself without his consciously doing anything.

I don’t have the answers to any of the concerns I’ve alluded to here.  I do think, however, that we should get rid of our shelves.  It might be personally comforting to ignore the parts of the Gospel or Church culture that are troubling or heartbreaking.  However, we all have neighbors who are intrinsically unable to enjoy the same privilege of pretending that a problem doesn’t exist.  The lesson that I might find mildly disquieting may have lacerated my neighbor’s heart. As Saints, as sisters, and as brothers we have a responsibility to see, to listen and to think.  Let’s save the shelf for Jello packets and peaches.

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14 Responses

  1. MDearest says:

    “The shelf is a manifestation of privilege.”

    This is so simple and profound, yet I never looked at it that way before. There are so many things on my shelf that shouldn’t be there because it affects me personally, but really, none of it should be there.

    Dismantling the shelf — that’s where the metaphor breaks down and becomes murky. I wonder how to go about this deftly, without using undue force. (I’m having visions of dynamiting the shelf, and the entire “pantry.”)

  2. OregonMum says:

    Thank you for writing this!

  3. Stargazer says:

    I will have to chew for a while on the idea of a shelf being a privilege. I find it a place to admire the interesting conflicting things, not to store them for long term. I take it out and look at it, consider how it catches the light. I have many things that are just as confounding (dinosaurs) from science as these other topic. for ME the shelf is a metaphor of faith. Or something like the other side of the moon. I approach it in a Zen way–interest, not trepidation. Or like the blind men describing the elephant.

  4. X2 Dora says:

    Em, thank you for this post. Profound. I wanted to comment earlier, but I’m still rolling the idea of the shelf as a marker of privilege.

    My feelings are that there has to be a tension between what we can deal with in the present, and what is too much. In my weaker moments, I just can’t mentally deal with some of the troubling aspects of Mormon history and contemporary issues. And yet, I *want* to be a stronger person, so that I can take on more, and not neglect our baptismal charge to “mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” Because it takes strength to look convention in the eye, and separate out the earthly from the divine.

  5. Em says:

    I appreciate these comments. I do think it is hard to imagine not having the shelf. I actually wrote this several weeks ago, right after the conversation with my Bishop. Since then I have caught myself being unwilling to even read articles about Ukraine because I’ve been so angry and upset that I think “I just can’t think about this right now! I just can’t!” I think the shelf can do several things. It can be a place to admire and ponder contradictions, particularly on more obscure or abstract gospel topics. Sometimes it is nice to have a brief coping mechanism to get some distance. On the other hand, sometimes we use what should be a small coping mechanism as a justification for indifference without ever really thinking about what we’re doing.

  6. April says:

    I talked to my bishop once about polygamy. His reply was essentially the shelf metaphor. It really did work for me at the time. I could stop worrying about polygamy because it wasn’t affecting me, and focus on more uplifting aspects of the gospel. But after reading this, it worries me that women’s status in the church is something our all-male priesthood can put on the shelf, because it affects them only as abstractly as polygamy affects me. Such an important and concerning point.

  7. Sarah says:

    I wish that no one in the church had the luxury of a proverbial shelf so that we could all examine disturbing issues and face them together. Sometimes it is impossible for me to even have a meaningful conversation with some members of the church because they have never questioned anything.

  8. Katie says:

    Thank you for this post!

    As an active LDS woman, I have built a huge shelf. I’ve place on it my research and opinions about polygamy, polyandry, blacks and the priesthood, marginalization of women in the Church, ecclesiastical abuse, excommunication of those who speak up against one or more of these things (my husband nearly was; its a long story, but true), the book of Abraham, Adam/God theory, temple and Freemasonry redundant language and symbols, and my shelf is about ready to collapse.

    The cognitive dissonance I experience is overwhelming at times. My family is active and does not want to hear any of my concerns. I live in a very conservative area of Utah and would be shunned if I discussed any of these issues with Church leaders or friends.

    I continue on, serving in the Church, attending the temple, going to Church every Sunday, and trusting that somehow God understands my brokenness and loves me unconditionally anyway (even though Elder Nelson said He does not.) I find comfort in prayer and in reading the Bible. I reflect often on the Savior’s live, on His loving kindness, His mercy and compassion. I remember learning when I was growing up that the prophet taught we must become perfect in this life. I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to do that.

    I am so grateful that the prophets no longer tell us that perfection is possible in this life, but I think of all the suffering Saints who are exhausted by multiple callings and Church assignments and wonder if we can’t show a little more kindness for one another, be a little more forgiving, and show mercy for those who struggle to understand why the Church theology isn’t as simple as Sunday School and Seminary manuals pretend that it is.

  9. Ziff says:

    Excellent points, Em. Thanks so much for this post. I know I’ve seen the shelf metaphor discussed a lot, but you’ve made three excellent points that I don’t think I’ve ever come across before: The fact that you can’t put being a woman in the Church on a shelf because it is so much a part of your ongoing experience, the idea that being able to put things on a shelf is a privileged position, and the question of what Church leaders are putting on their shelves.

    Like Stargazer, I’ve got to think about this more. Thanks for giving me so much to think about!

  10. MargaretOH says:

    This is such an interesting post. Thank you for your thoughts, particularly the idea of the shelf being possible through privilege. I’ve always liked the idea of the shelf, or at least the message that we’re not going to get all our answers RIGHT NOW and that it’s worth waiting for more knowledge or a different perspective. I think the shelf metaphor has felt more comfortable to me because of how we use our shelves: I freeze and can huge amounts of fruit every summer and we eat it through the winter. I’m in our pantry multiple times a day and we rely on that food. The shelf isn’t to put stuff up so that we can forget about it; it’s a highly functional space that we are continually revisiting.

    The metaphor only stretches so far, but what I’m saying is that if we’re using “the shelf” to say, “Well, I guess I’m not going to understand that, better not worry about it,” that’s a position that comes from privilege. But if we’re using it to say, “My life is about learning and stretching and growing in new and different ways. That means that I may have an answer next year to something I don’t understand today. I can be patient but I’m going to keep working towards getting that answer,” I think that’s very different. The shelf can be highly useful, but not if we’re using it as an excuse to stop thinking and asking.

    • Em says:

      Thanks for that insight. It is true that sometimes you just can’t reconcile something but an answer comes in time, but I like your point of continuously revisiting and not neglecting. It doesn’t magically change through being ignored, but insight does come with time.

  11. LeAnnKY says:

    I think I am now at the point where the shelf has broken under its own weight. All the things that we have to take on “trust”, “faith” or from those better informed and in authority is no longer working for me. I have read, prayed, pondered, and studied to no avail. The questions remain and the same old dogma no longer offers comfort. I have found that the saddest and most lonely place in the world is sitting in Sacrament Meeting when you can’t understand how to reconcile the conflict of what you are told is truth with what you experience as truth.

  1. April 18, 2014

    […] on a church-wide scale would rattle me pretty bad. A lot of issues I can put on the back shelf, but as Em says, I can’t shelve my experience as a woman. I have to live as a Mormon woman every day of my life, it’s not something I can just not […]

  2. May 12, 2015

    […] don’t think I was familiar with the analogy of “the shelf” until I became disaffected from Mormonism. The idea is that while a member, you might learn […]

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