Art and Part

June 19, 2007 | 25 comments
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“What e’er thou art, act well thy part.” David O. McKay’s famous line motivated him during his mission and during his presidency. It’s not a bad philosophy, either. If I’m a Mormon, I should be a good one. However, for many of us, the question isn’t acting well a part. It’s discovering what we are to begin with.

Under the classic McKay formulation, I might say, I’m a Mormon, and so I should act well the part — I should go to church on Sunday, and magnify my calling, and avoid coffee, and so on. That’s acting well the part of a Mormon. Seems simple enough.

But what if what I “art” isn’t just, “a Mormon,” but is instead, “a Liberal Mormon.” In that case, perhaps I should wear blue shirts, dicth Sunday School sometimes, and read books by Mike Quinn. On the other hand, if what I art is “an Orthodox Mormon,” then maybe I should avoid birth control, read McConkie, and forward Clinton-bashing e-mails to my friends. Or would that make me a Conservative Mormon? Is that the same thing? How do I know what the categories are, anyway? And how do I decide which box I’m really supposed to put myself into? If category determines action, then the initial category decision becomes all-important. What if I misplace myself? The whole approach is reminiscent of a running gag in Galaxy Quest, when one character isn’t sure whether he’s supposed to be the cannon fodder, or the comic relief — his fate depends on which pre-determined category he’s supposed to fill.

At least for me, a different approach makes more sense: My actions define who I am. True, it can be helpful to know what some pre-set categories are, and what would make for good membership in some category. But ultimately, it is through my actions — how I do my part — that I discover or decide who I am. Thus, “what e’er thou art” isn’t a fixed, independent variable that determines the rest. Instead, it’s as changing and dependent as any other. To borrow from that overplayed Green Day song, I am still becoming who I am.

And I find out more about who I am by the parts that I choose to play, and by how well I ultimately play them, and how I feel after playing them.

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25 Responses to Art and Part

  1. Dave on June 19, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    I like the blue shirt idea. It would make it much easier to find interesting people to talk to in church.

  2. bbell on June 19, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    Oh my gosh.

    I am an orthodox Mormon that wears lots of colored shirts (colors from blue to lavender to green) sometimes on sunday, ditched SS last week and discussed grilling and cajun cooking with the EQP in the hall, and has read several of Q’s books….

    I really do think its hard to put accurate labels that define active TR holders.

    Give me a liberal Mormon with a TR and a Conservative mormon with a TR and you will find far more in common then not.

  3. manaen on June 19, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    seems like there already is enough blue shirting in the ‘nacle

  4. CS Eric on June 19, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    As I looked out on the congregation from the organ bench last Sunday, I noticed that I was the only adult make wearing other than a white shirt. But at least both the financial clerk and HP Group leader were also sporting facial hair….

  5. greenfrog on June 19, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    At least for me, a different approach makes more sense: My actions define who I am. True, it can be helpful to know what some pre-set categories are, and what would make for good membership in some category. But ultimately, it is through my actions — how I do my part — that I discover or decide who I am. Thus, “what e’er thou art” isn’t a fixed, independent variable that determines the rest. Instead, it’s as changing and dependent as any other. To borrow from that overplayed Green Day song, I am still becoming who I am.

    I see more wisdom in the phrase. As I understand it, it is directing me, whatever the role I take on, to fulfill that role as completely as possible. Making a half-way effort at something is frequently worse than making no effort at all.

    First (from the perspective of those being “served” by my less-than-full effort), there’s the “no vacancy” problem: others who might be willing to take on the particular role more whole-heartedly may see me in the role, view the role as “filled,” and decide to invest their time or efforts elsewhere, actually leaving those I’m “serving” worse off than if I’d simply refused entirely.

    Second (from the perspective of the one doing the “serving”), in my experience, there are things to be gained by wholehearted commitment that are not available in fractional amounts resulting from lesser efforts. I think this is especially the case with regard to spiritual matters, but I believe the same is true in more secular realms, as well. Half-hearted “devotion” isn’t really devotion. I think Joseph Campbell said something along those lines once. (Of course, I’ve lost the reference.)

    Third (also from the perspective of doing the “serving”), sometimes the actual fruits of a particular role are not very clearly evident without wholehearted effort. In my life, I’ve found it useful to behave as wholeheartedly as I can manage, even in roles about which I’m intellectually ambivalent, just to find out what the full fruits of the role may be. This has led me to change courses on occasion, but I’d rather do that than stay on the wrong course travelling at a slow speed and never discover where it leads.

  6. Proud Daughter of Eve on June 19, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    I think being a good Mormon ought to concern you more than being a good Liberal, Orthodox or Spandex (or whatever) Mormon. “Liberal” (like “Orthodox”) is just an adjective; it merely modifies “Mormon.”

    But I think you really hit the nail on the head with the “what part art I?” question. For me it’s easy enough to do in the context of being Mormon. I pay my tithing, I fast, I work on my calling. But what am I in the larger context of the world? Should I be running for President? Should I be writing children’s books? How do I balance standing for something and making sure my non-member friends and family know I love them and don’t value them any less because of our disagreements?

    You’re right Kaimi; it is an ongoing process. I’m sure I’ll find it much more interesting when it’s done! Right now it’s just a smidge confusing.

  7. soul rebel on June 19, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    Allow me to point out that there is a gigantic difference between being a Mormon and being a Latter-Day Saint. Being Mormon doesn’t necessarily hold someone to the highest of standards. But to become a Saint, a holy person, a true disciple of the Master is achieved by only the most dedicated, or shall I say consecrated, souls.

  8. TMD on June 19, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    I think you’re oddly fixating on ‘act’ in a performative sense. So much of the constructivist crowd do, as well, assuming that people are trying hard to follow a script. I think this is not how people are. I’m fairly certain that this is not what Pres McKay thought–he, I’m sure, was not interested in scripts at all, but rather in being his best in the place and time he was, acting in a way that he and others could describe as giving his all in an honorable way.

    Most crucially, I believe that purely performative approaches are wrong because of what Kierkegaard called despair–the wanting to be rid of oneself that is in part produced by the failure of the actual self to live up to one’s aspirations for oneself.

    It seems to me that we cannot define someone only by their acts, or by the script that seems to go along with the slot that people put others or themselves in, but by the combination of acts and aspirations that each has within them.

  9. John Williams on June 19, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    “I am an orthodox Mormon that wears lots of colored shirts (colors from blue to lavender to green) sometimes on sunday”

    Fashion tip: if you’re going to wear a tie, it’s best to wear a white shirt. I’ve seen a lot of ugly colored shirts matched with ties. The worst is dark maroon. That’s just plain offensive. If you insist on going with a colored shirt, stick with light blue. Think what the president of the United States would wear.

    Also, go with button-down collars (it’s more East Coast sophisticated / Ivy League– it comes from when polo players buttoned down their collars to keep them from flapping while they played polo), and avoid ties with the color yellow.

  10. Meg on June 19, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    If we’re talking about fashion, then colored/patterned shirt with appropriately matched tie > white shirt with any tie > colored shirt with poorly matched tie. On that note, I’d consider my parents pretty conservative Mormons, but my dad frequently wears colored shirts to church (green, blue, lavender, pink…). I don’t think he thinks anything of it. I certainly don’t.

    As for the actual point of this post, I think it’s mostly correct. I agree that I don’t define my actions; my actions are what define me. I don’t say I am something and then start trying to make my actions consistent with that label, rather, when my actions are consistent with a label, I am it. I’ve seen the type of “Does a define your b, or does b define your a?” statement elsewhere, as in “I define my profile, my profile doesn’t define me” or “my religion does not define my beliefs, my beliefs define my religion” (an interesting question), and so on.

  11. John Williams on June 20, 2007 at 12:01 am

    “then colored/patterned shirt with appropriately matched tie > white shirt with any tie > colored shirt with poorly matched tie”

    Wrong. What do men wear when they’re trying to get elected president? White wins every time.

    “my dad frequently wears colored shirts to church (green, blue, lavender, pink…)”

    A forgivable sin. Not everyone has good taste.

  12. Meg on June 20, 2007 at 1:37 am

    “Wrong. What do men wear when they’re trying to get elected president? White wins every time.”

    There is a joke in there about presidents and trusting America’s taste, but I think this shirt discussion is probably enough of a threadjack, so I won’t go there.

    I maintain that I am correct. Colored shirts simply look better (and nicer) MOST of the time. They stand out, and barring any hideously mismatched ties or poor color choices (or just plain ugly shirts), generally in a good, that-person-is-well-dressed kind of way.

  13. lamonte on June 20, 2007 at 7:22 am

    I’m sure some will disagree, but I think being a Mormon can, and should, be independent from being a liberal, conservative or any other political adjective. I think it is possible to be any one of those and still be a Mormon, or, as you suggest, to act well my part as a Mormon. There are specific issues that don’t seem to have much wiggle room – Word of Wisdom, Temple worthiness and all that implies, regular attendance at church (with perhaps the occasional ditch for legitimate reasons – “my inlaws are in town and want to tour the Capitol Mall!”). I think colored shirts are fine but we try to teach the Aaronic Priesthood to wear white shirts – to set them apart from the average middle schooler. Although there is no doctrinal requirement, our bishopric – when I was a counselor and when I was a bishop – wore white shirts to church. Because of that I feel a little rebellious now when I wear something other than a white shirt to church – but I still do it occasionally.

    I think “acting well our part” requires us to love our neighbors, whether they be ward members or just neighbors, and that’s about all there is too it. Being a Mormon is a matter of following the teachings of Jesus Christ and loving your neighbor – with all that implies – is the basis of it. I can still do that no matter who I vote for.

  14. Peter LLC on June 20, 2007 at 8:00 am

    “Also, go with button-down collars (it’s more East Coast sophisticated / Ivy League– it comes from when polo players buttoned down their collars to keep them from flapping while they played polo)”

    Let me guess, you’d also recommend tasseled loafers (it’s more law practice/court room sophisticated–it comes from when lawyers needed something to wipe the manure from their shoes after playing polo)

  15. Norbert on June 20, 2007 at 10:21 am

    “What e’er thou art, act well thy part.”

    I’ve always been amused by DOM’s middle class Mormon reading of this, when the original intention of the text was probably to reinforce class identity — remind people of their place and encourage good behaviour within those constraints.

  16. Russell Arben Fox on June 20, 2007 at 10:40 am

    The original intention of the text was probably to reinforce class identity — remind people of their place and encourage good behaviour within those constraints.

    I wouldn’t doubt that the phrase had a much more explicit and hierarchically-bound meaning, Norbert, in the context in which it was first given. But I don’t think that robs the principle of recognizing the constraints of one’s place (in a community, a family, etc.) and seeking the good within such of all its force. Frankly, I think Kaimi makes the issue of knowing what one “art” far more existentially weighted than it should or needs be. President McKay’s slogan is central my own understanding of and tribute to my parents on their 40th anniversary (from two years ago, found here), and I stand by that reading.

  17. plover on June 20, 2007 at 11:47 am

    I find the interaction between the \”parts\” I choose and the actions that follow intriguing. As I was reading your tribute to your mother and father it reminded me of how the work/part we do shapes our thinking and perspective.
    When I was going to school and working my husband and I shared home duties in pretty equitable ways. I was amazed at how the home work was reshaping his thinking. In conversations he would say something like: \”I\’ve been thinking about the children and I think they would like a wading pool for Christmas.\” In the past, Christmas gifts had been my domain.

    Then, once when my daughter was tired of my being gone so much (and probably tired of my being tired), she said that she wanted her mama. My husband said: \”Well, I\’m the boy-mama.\” There is truth to it. He was no longer thinking as someone who left in the morning and came home at night. He was thinking as someone who spent lots of time with the children. He acted/did his part well, put his heart and soul into it; and because of that he saw things in different ways. He became.

    While I don\’t think labels are very effective, examining the part people choose to follow and act on can sometimes allow me to open up my understanding of their choices. The choices that President Bush has made regarding Iraq are not surprising considering his work was in oil. It would be very difficult for him to think other than an oil man.

  18. bbell on June 20, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Yeah Meg,

    Your Dad does look good on Sunday in his colored shirts and matching suits. I have actually noticed. His dark blue shirt and grayish suit is my favorite

  19. reformed banker on June 20, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Re: #12 \”Colored shirts simply look better (and nicer) MOST of the time. They stand out, and barring any hideously mismatched ties or poor color choices (or just plain ugly shirts), generally in a good, that-person-is-well-dressed kind of way.

    Forgive my lack of HTML skills, but the first part of the second sentence is exactly why the practice of wearing colored shirts is wrong. We don\’t go to church to \”stand out.\” We go to church to partake of the sacrament and worship the Lord. Anything that detracts from this purpose is incorrect (ie., musical performances of EFY\’s greatest hits). Many a GA has stated that the uniform of the priesthood is a white shirt and tie. JUST CONFORM, FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE!

  20. Meg on June 20, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    FYI, I wasn’t intending any kind of commentary on church appropriate attire. I was negating what John Williams said about white shirts being more fashionable. They aren’t.

  21. Seth R. on June 20, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    White shirts are nice when you’re trying to project an image of power. But that only really works when you’re using a good conservative suit with it. Stark contrast suggests power and white will generally produce that. There’s nothing wrong with white. Even the guys at GQ are big fans and most of their wardrobe essentials lists include one or two white shirts. But that doesn’t mean that Mormons are doing it right.

    John, if you want to convey an image of sophistication, button-down is generally a bad idea. It works for more conservative business communities – in the midwest for instance. But in more metropolitan settings it tends to look a bit dowdy.

    Avoid black unless you got the ammunition to back it up.

    The choice of color shirt depends on your complexion. If you’ve got a darker skin tone, you should forgo the brighter pastels and select richer and darker colors. However, if you have a whiter complexion – i.e. you don’t “tan” – you “pink” – then pastels are a good choice.

    A solid color tie tends to send a serious image (unless it’s an unfortunate skinny-tie you bought in the 1980s), but might be a bit much for the friendlier atmosphere of Sunday worship. Understated patterns can break things up a bit and make you more approachable.

  22. John Williams on June 20, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    “Many a GA has stated that the uniform of the priesthood is a white shirt and tie. JUST CONFORM, FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE!”

    Don’t be afraid to go against the grain, but don’t be afraid to conform if the conformists are right.

    “FYI, I wasn’t intending any kind of commentary on church appropriate attire.”

    Meg, I think you have already revealed your true “colors” with regards to church appropriate attire.

    “But in more metropolitan settings [button-down] tends to look a bit dowdy.”

    Seth R., I don’t know what sorts of dance clubs you frequent when you hit the big cities, but it’s a good rule of thumb that if the dudes there are wearing lavender shirts with collars that are not buttoned-down, you probably want to get out of there fast.

  23. jjohnsen on June 22, 2007 at 9:08 am

    It’s pretty easy to look sophisticated and stylish using shirts of different colors. Pick up an issue of GQ, whenever they have a suit section white shirts are usually a very small part of it. The key is to find colors that match your complexion and not try to use a tie that is just ‘too much’. My mustard shirt, dark grey suit and simple tie beats the white shirt/bright paisley tie I see everywhere in my ward every time.

  24. Seth R. on June 22, 2007 at 9:23 am

    John,

    So the gays know how to dress.

    If gays also paid their taxes, would you oppose that too?

  25. bbell on June 22, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    John comon baby.

    Quit making fun of my Mens Warehouse custom made lavender shirt and matching tie. The collar is not button down my friend. The manager of the store picked the color and the matching tie.

    Just for you I am going to teach either GD or EQ in it soon.

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