Several months ago I realized with shock that I had reached the age that my mother was when she sent me off to my university studies. At first I couldn’t believe it, but I double- and triple-checked the math. I always thought my mother was so old! But she was just me!
I can’t believe I’m her now, because I feel like I’m the same person now that was an undergraduate. I seek out free food, I sleep in public places, and I am always having to run to class because I’m late. In a way this makes sense: Ever since I returned from my mission to Taiwan, I’ve basically been studying or working on a university campus. So it’s like never having to leave one’s childhood playground. But now I realize that I am actually not as young and cool as I thought I was. I can’t just assume I understand how university students are feeling. I have to work hard, listen, to find out what they’re saying.
About a year ago I had a chat with a young woman who was deciding where to go to college. She had been accepted by a number of outstanding universities and academic programs around the country. She had a bright future ahead of her, but she wasn’t sure whether that future included ongoing practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She laid out all of her pressing questions.
I took notes. I’m going to share an excerpt from what she said with regard to women’s issues and LGBTQ issues within the Church. Whatever your own position on these sensitive topics, can I ask you to listen gently, with an open mind, accepting that these are her sincere, heartfelt questions? Don’t worry about responding. Just see if you can hear her.
How can I be a member of a church that doesn’t treat women equally compared to men, and that asks LGBTQ people to never date, seek loving companionship, or marry and have children? Didn’t Christ command us to treat others the way we would want to be treated?
I’ve studied history. I understand how structural inequality works, and what it looks like. Currently, the church looks like just another of the many conservative religious institutions that are part of the long human history of patriarchy and discrimination. Sure, I like the idea of “eternal families”. But when the promise of “eternal families” comes with treating men and women differently, and denying LGBTQ people love and the opportunity to start their own families, people like many of my friends and me, are inclined to say: No thanks. The gender and sexuality issues are deal breakers.
She expressed these concerns with eloquence and passion. In addition to concerns about women’s and LGBTQ issues, she also cited well-documented instances of racism and abuse within a Church context. As I listened, I could feel that these questions came from a place of integrity, a belief in the worth of each individual soul, and a desire to follow the Savior’s fearless example. She wasn’t looking for excuses to be a slacker or lead a dissipated life. She wanted to love others as Jesus loved, to stand for truth and righteousness, to bring as many people as possible into the gospel fold. If you or someone you love and respect has ever expressed any of these concerns she raised, can you please raise your hand?
I’ve been thinking about her questions for some time. Many of them have long dwelt in my heart. But I was struck by the way she asked them—as a seventeen year-old, with fire in her eyes, with a clear understanding of the tensions that they generated in her life and worldview and personal relationships. These concerns are pressing to many within the rising generations of Latter-day Saints—if not you yourself, then perhaps your loved one or your friend.
What is also pressing is a desire for action. Today it is common for people to boycott restaurants or corporations because of political views or social policies associated with them, or to hold a “walkout” as a form of protest. In such an environment, it can seem inexcusable to many to remain within an organization that excludes women from the chain of organizational leadership, or compels LGBTQ people to make excruciating choices to remain in full fellowship, or that has a history that includes racist teachings and policies, or that has a track record of cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
So now some of you are looking at me and wondering, “Is she going to excuse this and say, ‘Just focus on the positive, read your scriptures, and pray?’ If she sees the contradictions I see, how can she stay?” OR, others are looking at me and wondering, “Why is she so critical? If she sees contradictions in the Church’s structure or policies or history, why doesn’t she just go somewhere else?”
I want you to notice that both of these positions are closely related. They’re based on the same premise that some things are dealbreakers. Either the Church is supposed to be true and good, and falling short of truth or goodness breaks this deal, OR faithful church members are supposed to believe that the Church is true and good, and pointing out ways in which we fall short breaks this deal. I have many friends and family members who have left the Church because they felt they couldn’t reconcile their moral values with our policies and culture. I have many friends and family members who will never leave the Church because their past experiences have given them a sense of certainty that wherever the Church and its leaders are at any given time is where they want to be (and where others should be).
How we come to our worldviews depends heavily on our own personal experiences and the environments in which we live. My own position—the basic set of assumptions that shape my faith and worldview—is different from the two “dealbreaking” positions I just described. My position is that life is full of messy contradictions and that sometimes embracing them is the most productive way forward. This worldview is based on my experience as a scholar, returned missionary, athlete, mother, and cancer patient. It is based on my family background, and my relationships with people in places like Orange County, California, Taiwan, Auckland, and Gunnison, Utah.
If you don’t mind, in the remainder of the talk I’ll share this position with you, with an understanding that even within the body of committed Latter-day Saints there are diverse experiences, values, and concerns. In today’s audience, there are also a number of people who are not Latter-day Saints, but who are people of strong faith, intellect, and heart. All of us live in a world of bewildering contradictions. Even if our worldviews don’t completely align, I hope that one or two of my perspectives may be useful to you in some way.
I first drafted this talk on an early morning train from Bordeaux to Paris in March, on my way back home from a scholarly conference. As I watched the sun come up over the barren fields and warm the cold earth, three sentences popped into my head that seemed to usefully triangulate my life-philosophy at this point in time. Here they are:
Death is not the worst thing.
Patriarchy is not the worst thing.
Baldness is not the worst thing.
By “baldness,” I don’t mean just having no hair, but I mean imperfections, loss, scars, damage, and other conditions that we acquire as life takes its toll. I don’t just mean things that are easily visible, like wrinkles, but things that come to us in life that make us feel less secure, less confident, less buoyant or hopeful.
Death, patriarchy, baldness—these three are symbols of the suffering, imbalance, and indignity of the fallen world in which, Latter-day Saints believe, we chose to dwell. They are features of human experience in every place and time. Our Heavenly Parents do not rejoice in untimely death, or revel in unfairness, or gleefully inflict damage on their beloved children. But they have prepared for us a world in which the laws of nature take their course, in which imperfect individuals make assumptions and exercise agency, in which accidents happen. The whole point of life is to encounter opposition, to learn to discern good and evil, and to exercise the divine nature within us by following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, from this perspective, what is the worst thing?:
The worst thing is to live life in a way that requires no transformative struggle from ourselves, and that makes no difference for good in the lives of others.
Let’s talk about death. All of us are dying. Some of us will finish dying sooner. Others will finish dying later. I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017, did a round of treatments, went into remission, and last week was told by my doctors that the cancer was likely recurring. Therefore, I will be thrilled if I live to see my credit card expire in March 2023. The reason I’m here on the BYU campus today is because I wrote a book about my life, titled Crossings (with a very long subtitle). I began to write Crossings shortly after my diagnosis, because I was not sure whether I would live long enough to talk to my young children about my faith. At the time they were 11, 9, 7, and 5. This is not exactly the age for complex, nuanced discussions about the meaning of life. The weeks between my diagnosis and my surgery were the darkest period of my life, as I contemplated the possibility that my time for influencing my children and being with my husband was coming to an end
During this time, the thought of death accompanied my every action. As I dropped a batch of library books on robots into the return slot, or watched as my stir-fried green beans and onions with lemon and soy sauce disappeared at the dinner table, I thought about the fleetingness of the many acts that constitute parenthood. In themselves, they are so completely unmonumental. Sure, you create the kid’s body out of a single cell, so that’s something that proves you were there, but so many things—the new diapers, the milk from the breast, the words of stories, the trips to the Museum, simply go in and out, in and out, delivered and erased on the daily tide. And then they are gone, leaving no visible marker that says: Your mother was here. She loved you.
I wondered whether I would live long enough for my youngest child, nicknamed the Shoot and sometimes the Hamburger, to have one or two strong memories of me. Would he know “What Mama would say” or “What Mama would do”?
In addition to worrying about my kids, I also worried about myself. I knew what cancer could do because of my mother’s experience. My mother was a gracious, lively woman whose small stature concealed fierce determination. In 2008, she passed away due to a rare cancer of the bile duct. She had been in terrible pain for several months, pain so terrible that the strongest opiods could only take off the edge, but never take it away. The pain had made her unable to eat and unable to sleep. Her frame became skeletal and her face acquired a permanent pinched, grim expression. I wondered: Will I suffer like that too? Will I have to be brave, like that? Morbid thoughts flickered in and out of my daily conversations. A couple of colleagues asked me if I could advise a doctoral student coming next year. I responded, CC:ing everyone, “No problem, as long as I’m still alive then!” Radio silence. I now realise that was an awkward and unprofessional thing to say. Cancer: There’s a learning curve!
Let’s talk about patriarchy, by which I mean a system of men officially in charge, men at the forefront, men as the primary subjects, symbols, actors, and authorities. Patriarchy has been the dominant modus operandi for most of humanity for thousands of years. It is everywhere—in government, in scholarship, in art, in gourmet cooking, in the great cathedral of Notre Dame. It is in the Buddhist Vimalakirti Sutra, the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Koran, the Hindu Ramayana, the Pauline Epistles, the Book of Mormon. It’s a feature of religious organization at the top levels of the Catholic church, the Anglican church, Tibetan Buddhism, East Asian Buddhism, our Church. It’s an element of my family history on both my mother’s and my father’s side—my beloved family that I love, that bands together with such fierce loyalty, that is, in my eyes, the awesomest family in the world.
We have a famous story in the Inouye family. My grandparents, Charles and Bessie Inouye, were farmers in Gunnison, Utah, and their children spent all their time working on the farm. One day Grandpa and his high-school-aged sons were out digging in a ditch. My father remembers standing up to his knees in thick, oozy mud. Clouds of mosquitos were swarming around, biting every exposed surface. Grandpa’s timing was perfect. He said, “Boys, if you don’t get an education, you can look forward to this for the rest of your lives.” It made a deep impression. All of Grandma and Grandpa’s children went on to college, most of them here at BYU, and on to graduate or professional school. Two decided to go to school indefinitely, that is, become university professors. One, Charles Shirō Inouye, is a professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University in Boston. Another, Dillon Kazuyuki Inouye, was a professor of instructional learning technology here at BYU until he passed away in 2008.
That day in the ditch, Grandpa, himself a graduate of Stanford University, wasn’t saying that if you get an education, you’ll never have to work, or get dirty, or that one should always avoid digging ditches. I think he was saying that education gives people more power to choose which ditches they want to dig. [Here’s an image of Grandpa in his field, looking over his furrows.]
Today, in my work as a professional scholar I dig particular sorts of ditches. In my research on Chinese history and global religious movements, I plow through texts, line by line. I delve into historical sources like newspapers, organizational records, and religious teachings, seeking to uncover the lives of ordinary people in another place and time. I also step back to look for the big picture.
When one looks at the big picture of all human experience, everywhere, one finds that just as most people’s eyes are brown, and most people’s hair is black, most people’s experience within familial and other social structures is shaped by patriarchy.
I know that there are some spaces in the world, such as indigenous cultures that are traditionally matriarchal, or perhaps some corners of the internet, that are “patriarchy-free,” by which I mean that in these spaces, patriarchal assumptions, actions, or organization are entirely absent. However, the spaces where I live my life, such as all the universities I’ve ever taught at, New Zealand society, American society, Chinese society, Christian religious traditions, social media networks, my beloved church, and my beloved family’s history, are not patriarchy-free. Though some spots are better than others, I would not escape patriarchy by quitting my job, moving countries, or leaving the Church.
To clarify, by using the term “patriarchy-free” I am not seeking to trivialize the negative experiences of women and men who have been harmed by patriarchal practices and assumptions—women who have been ignored, abused, or dominated, men whose assumptions that they were inherently more important led them to ignore, abuse, or dominate women, have harmed their families and stunted their spiritual growth.
I am saying that patriarchal systems are rooted throughout the worlds in which want to I live, and since I see no feasible way to opt-out, I have decided instead to dig in—to sharpen my shovel and get to work. The challenge of bringing to pass, in my worlds, the Book of Mormon teaching that “all are alike unto God,” is one of the ditches I have chosen to dig.
Regarding baldness: You’re probably wondering why I don’t have hair. No, it’s not because of the chemo. The major effect of chemo for me was that I felt the overwhelming urge to watch all of the British-history-related shows on Netflix, from all seasons of Downton Abbey to documentaries on Henry the VIII’s residence, including his velvet-covered toilet seat (which sounds so inadvisable). Anyway, until the age of 29 I had long, thick black hair—until, inexplicably, it just fell out. At first it was really hard. I felt like everybody was looking at me. Employees in stores, flight attendants on airplanes, frequently called me “sir”. It was very humbling. I began to realize that I had no right to be prideful or to judge people based on their appearance. I was, after all, the bald woman in the room.
I would definitely love to have hair again, but losing it taught me a lesson. I learned that loss makes us both vulnerable and strong. We lose things that are dear to us, that make us beautiful or happy or whole. Sometimes this loss is readily apparent, but sometimes it isn’t. Losing my hair was the first time in my adult life I really remember feeling dependent on the kindness and graciousness of others. I had always been a competitive person: a Harvard graduate, a marathoner. But now, I felt vulnerable—dependent on others to be kind to me. This vulnerability helped me better understand and accept the vulnerability in others. In this way, as it says near the end of the Book of Mormon in the Book of Ether, 12:27, our weakness becomes a strength.
So I’ve come to a sort of understanding with death, patriarchy, and baldness, which is to say that I’ve come to accept and even appreciate the imperfection of human existence. We in the twenty-first century live in an age of extraordinary contradictions. Sometimes, even when we clearly see the problem and the answer, we still can’t get it together. For example, we clearly see that the planet’s fragile, living systems are groaning under the load of the pollutions we have released into our little lifeboat in space, and that these problems are harmful now and catastrophic in the future, but we are very far away from doing what it takes to clean things up. We see that, through accidents of birth and locality, a very privileged global few have access to health, wealth, power, learning, equity, respect, and elaborate standards of beauty, while the majority of God’s children must struggle just to eat, drink, sleep, and rise for another day.
This is the world on my radar screen. Its systems are deeply flawed and inequitable. It can be a place of crushing despair. And yet it is also a place of beauty, love, and hope. It is a place worth seeing clearly, in all its terrible and lovely contradictions.
Similarly, the more I learn about our Church history and our governing structures, the more clearly I see that the Church as it’s currently constituted has never been the best of all possible worlds. As Elder Uchtdorf has said, the Restoration is ongoing. At the same time, the more I think about the Church today, the more clearly I see that it has something to offer me, and that the Latter-day Saints have something to offer the world.
What I see the Church offering me is the opportunity to learn to follow Christ and participate in the redeeming processes of error, repentance, and growth, by engaging with my sisters and brothers in the gospel. It is the opportunity to think globally and act locally, to think locally and act globally. These networks of human bonds and collective action are as close at hand as my own home and neighbourhood, and as far flung as the entire world. That is cool. We, the Latter-day Saints, are weird and small enough to really try to be sister and brother to each other, in our diverse and often contradictory circumstances around the world.
Now, I know that many of you are about to leave on missions, or recently returned from missions. You might be thinking: “We are weird and small! Yay!” doesn’t sound like a very exciting missionary message. You wouldn’t exactly put that on a bumper sticker. Yet when I study the life of Christ, and the lives of the prophets and prophetesses like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Miriam, Deborah, and Anna, what they all have in common is that they lived at the margins. In the scriptural narrative, the conditions of risk, injustice, or loss that shaped their lives and actions contrasted with the lives of revered and powerful religious councils, kings, wealthy citizens, pharaohs, military men, and people who had not time to truly serve God because their full, comfortable lives kept them busy.
Sometimes, we Latter-day Saints forget about our weirdness and smallness, to our detriment. The more stadiums we fill, the more wealthy and politically influential we become, the more time we spend at the centre and the apex, instead of the margins and the lowly places, of our worlds, the greater the temptation for us to feel that life is a competition, and that we are rising stars. To all of us who may sometimes find ourselves feeling that forgetting our weirdness and smallness, please remember:
The worst thing is to live life in a way that requires no transformative struggle from ourselves, and that makes no difference for good in the lives of others.
If we surround ourselves with only those who agree with us and admire us, creating an insular Latter-day-Saint-land, and forget that we are a tiny .02% minority of God’s children, we risk creating an artificial environment in which contradiction, tension, and discomfort are seen as foreign. This is like digging in a sandbox, where there are just uniform grains of sand. It’s easy and it’s clean, and children like to do it. But it is not fertile soil, and it does not hold water. By contrast, the native ecosystem that our Heavenly Mother and Father created for their children was meant to be muddy, full of diverse elements and microorganisms, and frequently a bit wretched.
This reminds me of something Uncle Charles said to me in college. Uncle Charles (Gunnison farm boy, professor, poet, and Latter-day Saint) told me, “Mormons are like manure. If you heap them all up in a pile together, they just stink. But if you spread them around, they can do a lot of good.”
In the scriptures, Jesus didn’t exactly say his disciples were manure, but he similarly used metaphors that described things that are horrible in concentration, indispensable in dissolution. He said in Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth.” He said in Matthew 13:33: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven [yeast], which a woman took, and [mixed] in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”
As General Relief Society Counselor Sharon Eubank taught in April general conference, Jesus made great efforts to reach out to people outside the circle of social privilege and religious orthodoxy: “lepers, tax collectors, children, Galileans, harlots, women, Pharisees, sinners, Samaritans, widows, Roman soldiers, adulterers, the ritually unclean.” These associations made him vulnerable to criticism from the community of those who considered themselves righteous, proper, and mainstream, and eventually contributed to his death.
Christ’s pattern of deliberate marginality can also be seen in Matthew 18:12: “If a man have a hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” Note that the shepherd doesn’t stand at the edge of the big flock in the pasture or meadow, shouting for the stray to get back into the fold NOW, or else. The shepherd leaves the meadow and goes into the mountains.
Christ’s deliberate marginality, confidence that real people were more important to God than ritual purity, and emphasis on the sufficiency of loving God and loving others, come together to form a pattern. In this pattern, Christ frequently teaches us to take the path of greatest resistance.
These are not the worst things. They are features of where I live, but they do not define me or my work as I dig the ditches of life.
In a similar manner, my faith as a Latter-day Saint is not defined entirely by our mistakes, our imbalance, and our weakness. These surely exist, because we are a living community of people seeking God together. My faith as a Latter-day Saint encompasses both the deep flaws and the deep beauty of such a collective endeavor.
Sometimes in life, whether we be Latter-day Saints or Catholics or Buddhists or Muslims, the earth shakes and splits open and throws us into the bottom of deep, dark trenches that we would never choose to dig. We wonder how we will ever climb out. This is how I currently feel. Just last week, my doctors informed me that recent health symptoms indicated that my cancer was likely recurrent. It is a heavy burden to bear. Sometimes we wish we didn’t have to be so darn strong. Sometimes we wish we didn’t have to be so terribly inspiring.
For those of you who grow weary in the ditches and the trenches, be they sickness, or depression, or discrimination, or abuse, it’s true that life can be so hard. Together, we will share these burdens so that they may be light, in keeping with the sacred covenant we made when we chose to follow Jesus Christ. I know from my own experience that God is mindful of us in our weakness, and that the power of the sacred can break forth into our everyday experience and transform us.
And, to my young fellow Latter-day Saints, who are troubled by the ways in which our church institutions or culture sometimes fall short of our highest ideals, I say: Please consider your tremendous power to lead us where we need to go. You are the future of our Church. You are who we may become. You may find that God will consecrate these struggles for your good, and for ours. As a people, where would we be without fearless questions and a fierce will to press on toward Zion over bogs and rivers and mountains?
There are real hazards to undertaking a messy spiritual journey in the company of so many others, as Latter-day Saints do. But for me it is a rich life, a consequential life, a life worth living.