Friday, July 26, 2013

Polygamy: My Internal Evolution

I have never written my feelings on polygamy on this blog. Probably, in part, because it is such a hot-button topic with so many emotions in so many people. And certainly, in part, because polygamy is largely irrelevant to me. I have so many immediate points of doctrinal practice that occupy my mind, a large part of me is happy to relegate polygamy to the realm of "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." I'll cross that bridge if and when I come to it.

But, perhaps shining a little illumination on my thoughts will help others of you who find this a louder dissonance figure out a way to navigate through your struggles.

When I was a fiery teenager, I first truly grappled with the concept of polygamy when it was discussed in seminary. As an avid reader, I had already read Jacob's words on the subject, as well as D&C 132, the Official Declaration 1, and other mentions in the Bible. But it wasn't until seminary that I really felt the need to understand this doctrine. In retrospect, it may have been my struggle with this that prepared me for future hardship in my life.

No one can truly explain what it is like to struggle before the Lord, and it was some time ago that I struggled this way with this particular doctrine. But I remember long hours of pondering, time spent in informal and formal prayer, mulling over the various reasons given for polygamy (most of which didn't hold much water for me, by themselves) and testing out my feelings in different scenarios.

I read several contemporary writings on the subject (though I can't quote which ones, now. I've never been good with references.) It was clear to me that Joseph loved and cherished his wife Emma, that they had a bond I could only imagine. I saw a man who struggled with this doctrine, who fought it and eventually submitted, not a raunchy opportunist like so many painted him to be. I sorted through the evidence of who he married, and whether or not those marriages were consummated (a point on which, I came to feel, was none of my business either way.) I read accounts of women who struggled also with polygamy, both in Joseph's time and later, and of women who enjoyed its benefits. I sifted through the temporal reasons: building up seed, protecting widows, taking care of women, multiple sex partners, opportunistic leaders, and swiftly came to realize that those reasons and accounts were as varied as the sun: there were almost as many opinions about polygamy as there were people who wrote about it. I realized there was no way to figure out, based on others' accounts alone, what exactly happened, and why.

So, in the end, I took all I had learned before the Lord and prayed for some direction in my feelings. Based on scripture, I knew that the Lord God asked many things of his followers that were hard for them, often even antithetical to his previous commands. I knew that struggling to know and follow the will of God was integral to any path of discipleship. Polygamy followed this pattern, and in that sense was nothing new. It did not trouble me that the Lord might ask some of His followers to do that which they did not wish to do.

At the time, unattached to anyone and without ever having loved someone with that "true love" everyone describes, it came down to this question: if it were that there was some righteous woman out there who could not marry, would I be willing to share my husband with her so that she could enjoy the fullness of God's power? Then, the answer was an unequivocal "yes." I imagined that it would be difficult, but I also imagined it would be worth it. My concern for her exaltation was more powerful to me than my concern over keeping my husband to myself, or my theoretical bond to him unique. Not that I would I WANT some other woman to marry my husband! Far from it. But if it meant the difference between her ability to enjoy all the gifts of God or not, it's not even a question.

Then I got married. Through the difficulties of my marriage, part of me longed desperately for someone to talk to who understood what was going on. As I had my first child and found myself forced to go back to work, I wished desperately for another woman who wanted to go to work, so I could stay home and raise the children rather than leaving them to daycare. I'm not a naturally child-oriented person, but having my own child changed everything. I spent most of my rides to work crying, and most of my time driving back in nervous anticipation of finally bringing my child back to me. It would have been wonderful to have more help. My attachment to my husband didn't change those yearnings for support. In fact, it would have been nice to have a little help on that front, too. But it is clear to me now that he was never my partner in the real sense of the word. That may have colored my view, making it easier to imagine sharing him. Sharing would have meant someone who could help carry the burden of marriage more than parting with anything that was beneficial to me. Mind you, I didn't pine after someone else in the marriage, but when polygamy did cross my mind, that was my attitude towards it.

Deeper understanding came after my divorce. I knew, even then, that my chances of marrying again were infinitesimal. I had neither the resources, the desire, nor the appearance to compete with hundreds of desperate women for another husband. My heart, at first, was utterly shredded, and later scarred and toughened. Having gone through my divorce and learning for myself what it was like to be asked by God to do the unthinkable, I came to recognize kindred spirits in both Emma and in Joseph. I knew for myself, now, how difficult discipleship could be. I felt my experiences resonate through the accounts of their struggles with the doctrine of polygamy.

And because of that, I also had tasted of the rewards. I could see that the struggle, itself, was a reward: a refining fire. And, facing eternal singlehood, my perspective abruptly took on new depth. No longer was I just a potential beneficent first wife, graciously consenting to share my husband with a poor woman who would be lost without me. Now I would be the one consigned to an eternity of stagnation and lack of progress without the charity of another. My conviction that I could never watch another woman's suffering when I had the power to help her added to it a hopeful skepticism that any woman would share that with me, that I could be the recipient of such charity. Not that I would I WANT some other woman's husband! Far from it. I have historically lost interest in any man in whom another women expresses even casual interest. I doubt that I could develop any feelings but respect for him and admiration for her in such a scenario. But if it meant the difference between me being able to enjoy all the gifts of God or not, I could only imagine the depth of my gratitude and admiration of her.

With this new perspective, it no longer became a question of the bonds of marriage, of finding a soulmate and True Love™, or even of exaltation, it became a question of exalt-ability. It mattered less whether or not the Lord commanded me to live the law of polygamy from either side, but a question of whether or not I could develop true, pure, non-possessive charity. Was I afraid that my as-yet theoretical husband would stop loving me as much if he had a more beautiful, compelling wife? Was I jealous of other potential relationships he might have? Or could I overcome that urge to secure him to myself and find a way to live with an open heart, full of love towards all, and ready to submit to whatever God asks of me?

My approach to religion is almost entirely internal. I do not concern myself much with whether or not other people are fulfilling the will of the Lord. I have always been focused on my ability or lack thereof to hear the Spirit and follow the counsels of God. If Joseph made mistakes or not in the implementation of polygamy, that is his issue. I have no need to judge that. Which is good, since it is impossible now to gather all the relevant facts. That is entirely between Joseph and the Lord, Brigham and the Lord, ex-Mormons, feminists, intellectuals, historians, average members, non-members, and the Lord. What matters to me about polygamy is me and the Lord, now.

Each and every one of us can choose whom we will serve, but I will serve God. Even if He asks of me everything I have. I have faced that abyss once in my life, and if I must face it again someday, so be it. Whether it will be polygamy or some other challenge, I will do what I have done up to this point: learn to let go and trust Him who is mighty to save.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil (and good) thereof.

3 comments :

  1. I keep wanting to give some response other than "good job" to these posts lately, as they've been very deep and beautiful and meaty, but I really haven't known what to say. I have scattered thoughts on this one, but at the least I wanted to give some appreciation to your posts, and was panicking a little when I logged into find it was only available to invitees for a short time. Your insights are truly appreciated.

    For me, being divorced (from a non-temple marriage) and remarried (temple this time), and having the fear that my wife might die sooner rather than later (which is completely irrational, but we both have), perspectives on this part of our doctrine, (which is doctrine, exceptional though it may be), have continued to change. Course, as a couple, we're strange enough that polygamy came up in part of a very long conversation on our first date. No idea how it came up, but it did. Anyway -

    I don't think a polygynous (or polyandrous) marriage would always be without love, any more than arranged marriages would always be without love, even True Love (TM). After all, if it's going to be forever, everyone should be in a place where no single person is a "charity case", like some seperate appendage to a great marriage. It would be two great marriages, the two of the same gender not being married, but loving each other more than siblings, that their spouse would never come between them, just as one spouse would not come between the other husband and wife. It's all in together, or not at all. Otherwise, to me, it wouldn't be heaven.

    As for your "infinitesimal" chances, I don't think they're that small, even if they seem impossibly far away.

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  2. I completely agree, Frank. (And thank you for the compliments.) My doubts that I could ever feel anything other than gratitude and friendship, and my comment on infinitesimal chances, are more a reflection of my specific personal weaknesses and personality flaws than commentary on the concept as a whole.

    I love your description, I agree with that as well. To me, any arrangement where I belonged, where I was appreciated, would be heaven.

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  3. This was a really good post, I too have a firm testimony of the gospel and have had a similar quest to reconcile my feelings with this principle. I had a very similar experience/answer, I have dear friends whom I love and who have not (as of yet) been able to marry. I felt strongly that because I wished so much that they could be as happy as I, that I could (though with great difficulty) find it in my heart to make that sacrifice, if it were required of me (though as you pointed out, I know it's not even close to their wishes, but it helped me to understand the principle).

    Incidentally, after a long summer of being cooped up inside with 6 little kids, I can also totally see your point about some of the benefits of having a second woman in the home, my days are so much nicer when I have a sister or friend over just to visit with and work alongside me :) . Anyhow, thanks for your insights, I really appreciated them :) .

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