The Pagan Experience prompt for week 4: Any writing for topics starting with the letters A or B– We are keeping this familiar format on week 4 of each month for those who have joined from the Pagan Blog Project.
A is for Autonomy.
I was born in a family that has been Mormon for generations. Some of my ancestors were involved in the founding of that religion in New York, in the 19th century. Many of my Great Great Grandparents came to the Mountain West from the Eastern U.S. or from Europe to settle Zion (Mormon utopia) after they were converted. Some of them became polygamists. I am descended from first wives, second wives, third wives… One Great Great Great Grandfather legally married one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives to hide their marriage from the government, and then passed her off to one of the future prophets of the church (Heber C. Kimball) after Smith’s death.
Even after the utopia plan didn’t go so well and the cult had to officially renounce polygamy (and practice it in secret for awhile) to gain statehood for Utah (much reduced in size from their original plan for the state of Deseret) the theocracy lived on, and lives on to this day. Even in areas of influence outside of Utah’s borders, like some of Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, etc. you get a culture and even local governments (Mormons vote Mormon) that are dominated by this patriarchal, authoritarian religion.
So I grew up in this culture that covers a huge chunk of the West. Even traveling all over the Western U.S. never quite felt like leaving home. As far as I knew, for a long time, this was how the world worked. Other people in other places that didn’t have The Gospel (Gentiles, we called them) were all kinds of misled by Satan and wicked worldly influences. But we had the Truth™ and our way was the only right way.
It never occurred to me that I should belong to myself, or that people could do religion in a way that suits them, instead of as instructed by the hierarchy. Well, doing religion in a way other than Mormonism was supposedly just wrong and mistaken, anyway. Only our doctrine was correct. Only our ordinances/rituals could get you into heaven. Only our priests/leaders held the keys. Only our prophet talks directly with God. Everyone else was lost in folly.
Mormonism is very communal, which in general is something I like and miss about it (community is important for humans), but in practice as prescribed by a top-down, authoritarian hierarchy, and as practiced by a populace that is used to being ruled that way, lacks healthy boundaries.
Dani Kelly’s article on Patheos, I Belong To Me: Learning Agency and Consent Outside Christianity, reflects my experience and that of those around me in my upbringing:
“…not only did I not belong to myself, I also had lots of people to answer to. Lots of authorities who could offer input into my life whenever they pleased. Lots of people to submit myself to: all the elders at my church, all older Christians, all men. Even peers were encouraged to “exhort” me to better, more Christ-like behavior.”
“All correction from any number of people, no matter their relationship to me, was to be accepted without complaint. All perceived punishment, born with the knowledge that I deserved it. All trauma, experienced with a joyful heart that I got to suffer for the Lord and an understanding that pain wasn’t a big deal compared to the glory awaiting me in heaven.”
“Intentionally or not, the result of growing up in a system that taught such things was that I constantly undermined my own emotions and feelings, seeing them as less than, as an enemy I had to squelch. After all, if my experiences didn’t line up with what the Bible said, it was me and my experiences that were wrong. Always.”
Yep. Always. The church can’t be wrong. Where she said “Bible” I would say “church” because the church leaders are the authority on what the scriptures mean, in Mormonism.
Imagine my surprise and awe when I had the thought one day after leaving Mormonism that I ought to be the one in the driver’s seat of my own life. Shouldn’t I be the one who says where this vehicle is going, and how it will get there?
I’m sorry if you’re thinking, “DUH…?” It was an entirely new concept to me, at the time. Yes, in my adulthood. I had been raised from birth to think that the leaders are men of God and would never lead us astray. They were always right and righteous. If you belonged to the church, you belonged to them, and to God, and had to answer to them if you did anything contrary to church teachings. They had prescribed a certain kind of life for you (especially you women), and that is the only life you should want, and if you didn’t, it’s because you’re selfish or vain or [insert vice here]. Your family would be held responsible in heaven if you strayed from that life-path and it ended up leading you out of the church, so they had to keep you on it, and keep you humble. So you had to answer to your family, too. Especially your parents. Especially your father. (Thank Goddess I had a gentle soul of a father, uninterested in being in authority over others, who shared all responsibilities equally with my mother, whom he loved and respected.)
So on this day that I had this thought about driving my own life-car, I actually imagined dragging a business-suited man or men out of my life-car, away from my wheel, and climbing into my rightful place at the wheel. It felt perfect and right. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?! I imagined closing the door and driving away from the men who had been driving me about in my own life-car, and steering toward the open landscape, into freedom. In this scene, I pulled out the perfectly good maps (the ones that aren’t official church-sanctioned maps) that were inside (intuition and knowledge) and enjoyed the thought of stopping to get more maps from libraries, and I started deciding where I might want to go, and how I would navigate there, and even how I would handle the navigation if the “worldly” maps turned out to be incorrect. Yes, I would be able to handle that and learn from it. What a feeling!! Competence, autonomy, freedom…
There is nothing like autonomy! Being a caged bird is nothing like being a bird in the sky. We belong in the open. We are natural parts of the world and agents in the world. We are not fully ourselves unless we’re free, and in charge of our own lives. Even if we’re driving in a community/family caravan, driving our own life is… should be… a no-brainer. And we have the right to be part of the decision-making for the caravan. We have the right to leave the caravan, too.
As it turns out, the “worldly” world is doing a decent job of map-making, having been at it for tens of thousands of years. It’s the real world, out here. The only reason to forbid looking at other maps is that your map is a lie, and would be discovered as such by comparison. The folly… those who are misled… is the cult I left behind. People are not lost out here, they’re navigating with more and better maps and tools. A world’s worth of them, instead of one organization’s worth that forbids all others. Ideology makes you blind.
I’m glad I kicked them out of my car before they drove me over a cliff. I’m glad they’ll never even glimpse the wheels of my children’s cars.
I found the maps of the ancestors. The spirituality that is natural to humans, when they aren’t hijacked by authoritarian, instruction-over-experience ideas and people… the religion of the Earth, which has been the natural way of things for millenia before monotheisms and patriarchies and stratified societies arose, and which will be the natural way of things after they fall.
The live-and-let-live attitude of Paganism was one of the first things I admired about it. Experiential gnosis… rather than hardened words passed down from people long gone who claimed exclusive experience… allows for people to share their experiences as equals, without some people controlling the access to or interpretation of the remnants of a closed knowledge from a distant past. Paganism is alive and breathing. We can lay in the physical lap of our Mother and experience her. We can respect our siblings and their experiences, even if they aren’t exactly like ours. We have nothing to lose if they aren’t. We never bought into a schema where they have to be the same to be valid. We don’t make temporal claims of objective and universal truth, and have to defend them when science comes sniffing around. We only make claims of personal experience and still-fruitful mythic gardens to harvest for lessons, if one chooses. There are other gardens of knowledge, too, and we aren’t forbidden from them.
I am no longer an adult child in adult day care, told what I am permitted to wear, what I am allowed to eat and drink, how I should think and what I ought not think about at all, who I may pray to, how I should vote, how much of my income is owed to the Lord and his church, and what sins I must confess to the bishop who is to shepherd me. Now I belong to me, and I am mastering navigation skills in a beautiful world (not a scary world like they told me), and I share maps with other travelers if they wish to see mine and offer theirs. I am honored as an equal, even a leader (yes, even I, a woman), and I may worship or not worship, pray or not pray, as I choose, as it should be. THIS is free agency. I am a free agent, and I can go anywhere I choose, and I have seen wonders, helped others, and lived fully. I belong here in this world, and it belongs to me, and to all who are born of it. I am not just visiting on my way to heaven, afraid to touch or be contaminated. I belong, I am home, and I am comfortable and happy.