I Even Remain Alone: LDS Men sans Families

I wrote this in over three years ago in response to a call for personal essays on LDS single experiences; alas, it was declined primarily for a lack of anecdotes. It’s not something I would necessarily write today and is longer than a normal blog post. Nevertheless, it’s still a perspective that I rarely see, so I wanted to make it available somewhere.

Please don’t take issue with my use of “Mormon.” I wrote this before Pres. Nelson was even Church president and the word “Mormon” is essential to the content of the essay. If it grates against you, please take a moment to ponder what the word “Mormon” meant to me.

 

My whole life I’ve wanted to marry someone whom I could love and who would reciprocate. For me, this stems from my identity as a Mormon man: marriage is what Mormon men do. My patriarchal blessing, like so many others’, promises me a temple marriage to a “companion” Heavenly Father has “chosen for [me].” But often I fear—for reasons irrelevant to this essay—I may always be single. And I’ve found that the lack of a permanent companion is, of course, a painful part of singlehood, but it isn’t the solitary painful aspect of being single. Indeed, something else oft outweighs it in my heart. 

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “Imaginary Countries,” a woman admits to an aspiring Catholic priest that “the idea of celibacy terrifies” her. A life without companionship or intercourse is not her nightmare, though: “Sterility, you see, sterility is what I fear, I dread. It is my enemy. I know we have other enemies, but I hate it most, because it makes life less than death.” [1] She shares with Joseph Smith the “lust for kin”—the intense drive to belong to a wider family—and disdain for death that Mormon theology inextricably interweaves. [2] As someone for whom “Mormon” is his most important identity demographic, I find these two threads woven inextricably into the fabric of my soul. Accordingly, I took comfort in my patriarchal blessing, which in addition to a companion, promised me children and grandchildren. If I never marry, though, singlehood’s inherent sterility would void that promise for me.

My journals, 2001-present.

Nevertheless, for years I’ve followed advice from that same patriarchal blessing to aid my predicted progeny: I have, for example, “[kept] journal of  [my] life and [written] in that book the honest feelings of [my] heart, be they bad or be they good”—explicitly for my descendants’ benefit.  The greatest challenge of my journaling has been baring my soul to unknown descendants. I feared posthumous embarrassment as family historians perused the chronicles of my weaknesses. Only over time did I grow resigned to—though not entirely comfortable with—the fact that my shames and vulnerabilities would be literally an open book. I trusted in my descendants’ empathy and charity.

(These future generations have also justified my collecting the many books I’ve loved—boxes and shelves heavy with them. In contrast to my initial unease about keeping a diary, I am all too eager to introduce to young minds the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth, early Mormonism and medieval cathedrals. I see it as a duty to share what I’ve found to be praiseworthy.)

I’ve founded this habit—journal-keeping—in my hope for children and other descendants with whom I could share the follies and beauties of my life. Justified or not, I’ve come to think that if I take in experiences and knowledge and do nothing to transmute them for others’ benefit, I’m wasting gifts of God. The advice to “live your life for yourself”—that is, not for others—I tend to see either as a strategy to temporarily mitigate the despair of loneliness or as an individualistic distraction. Having children, of course, is the primary traditional Mormon way to accomplish the goal of selfless living. If the way we pass on our experiences to others is through the moral education of children, what purpose is there to living without them? If I never marry and never have children, though, for whom do I assemble my library? For whom do I write my journal?

Our society apotheosizes marriage. We demote or denigrate other horizontal, especially non-familial, relationships, like siblinghood or friendship, as not only different but lesser. For instance, you can get time off work to care for a spouse or a child with health issues; no such luck with friends. We are almost entirely silent on vertical relationships outside of parental-filial ones, as with uncles and aunts or lifelong mentors. Mormonism, despite its willingness to defy broader culture when it comes to discourse on family, falls heavily into this same mode of thought: sometimes it seems as if couples are to leave their fathers and mothers and become “one flesh” as if each of them is an Adam and an Eve, without other necessary human relationships. Friendships can feel like juvenilia to grow out of or unserious leisure activities to lay aside. Even our scriptures single out the widow and fatherless as needing particular care; the childless woman is present immediately prior to miraculous childbirth. (See, for instance, Sarah, Hannah, or Elizabeth.) No one, to my knowledge, identifies childlessness as a male problem worthy of compassion. Instead, the centrality of having “seed” for so many male figures—think of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention Job—implies tacit censure or ridicule for the childless.

The LDS nuclear family, moreover, has little space for stray protons. As far as I’ve seen, the only way Mormons remember fruitless twigs on family trees is when zealous temple-minded genealogists trace lines forward to sweep up anyone whom previous researchers have overlooked. As a lifelong member with all the ordinances short of sealing, I can’t even look forward to that form of remembrance. I suspect that only a blood relative might care to find the seer stone needed to decipher pages of my cursive and learn about such topics as the ups and downs of my daily mission activities in Argentina, my failed relationships, and the years-long examinations of weird bits of my soul that I mostly keep to myself.

Perhaps worse than fading into oblivion, I fear shirking my responsibility to my ancestors and heritage. I want to provide grandchildren for my parents. I want to pass on family names. I want to tell my children about their grandparents and their great-grandparents, back through the rich farm valleys of Idaho and the red-rock ranches of Southern Utah to Mountain Meadows, Winter Quarters, Nauvoo, and England. I don’t want to consign hundreds of years of faithful, courageous living (and not) leading up to my birth to oblivion. I know the beauty of family and yearn to bequeath my inherited knowledge and experience to others. It’s a way of paying back my debts and paying forward my riches; it would give my life purpose.

Please don’t misinterpret: I don’t begrudge the Church’s emphasis on families. After all, despite what utilitarians would assert, pains are not wholly evil: they most often point us toward things of value. Loneliness, for one, points us toward family and society. But the absolute exclusivity of the focus on family can easily turn corrosive. When people at church, implicitly or explicitly, cast singles as a menace to society, too many singles—myself included—hear, “I have no need of thee.”

As you might expect, feeling isolated and getting the message that you’re unneeded isn’t exactly affirming. The “allies” of sterile singlehood, according to the woman from Le Guin’s story, are legion and menacing: “hunger, sickness, deformation, and perversion, and ambition, and the wish to be secure.” Like Le Guin, Eve Tushnet, a lesbian convert to Catholicism —therefore likewise celibate and childless— expresses some of my feelings in words I cannot match. She understands that, contrary to what even Mormon commentators would lead us to believe, by no means are singles’ temptations limited to the sexual. Singlehood without a vocation, for Tushnet in her book Gay and Catholic, is “the breeding ground for many sins of despair, resentment, addiction, lust… and selfishness.” [3] Barrenness becomes more depressing when, as a single person, you must also live alone in the wilderness. 

Tushnet doesn’t simply leave it there, though. In Mormon parlance, she tries to build Zion by finding a place for singles. I share her words here because they have helped me process my potential childlessness, and I feel that to read them and not share would be a dereliction of my duty to help whoever I can.  For one, Tushnet encourages us Christians to plumb the depths of our faith’s history to find models for inclusion of singles, social adaptations our modern world has discarded or lost. First, she invites Christians to consider how “the church [can] serve as family for those … who aren’t forming kinship bonds through marriage.” For instance, the Church could accept, even praise, singles who care for aging parents or who serve as live-in or frequently visiting “uncles” or “aunts” who share their friends’ or siblings’ parenting responsibilities. By contributing to the growth of the rising generation, singles can be fruitful “in ways which don’t require procreation.” [4]

She also suggests that the Church can rediscover the spiritual value of friendship: “friends are icons to each other, windows through which they can both view Christ, and their love for each other draws them up into love of Christ.” One recent experience illustrating how this can happen comes to mind. I attended the wedding of a brilliant non-LDS friend from college and found myself thinking that I would love to watch her and her husband raise their own amazing (and hopefully many) children. Unlike most weddings I’ve attended, this one felt less like a last hurrah before sending the couple out on their own into the lone and dreary world than drawing friends and family into the circle of the newly formed family. My heart swelled when I perceived that they, out of their philia, provided me a place, if a small one. For my part, I firmly believe that friendship is part of “that … sociality which exists among us here” and “will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2).

Changing these LDS norms is far above my pay grade,  requiring work and a will from those farther up the hierarchy. So while I await those developments, I try to serve my family members, contributing my time and talents to their personal projects; I try to edify my friends by organizing book club discussions and sharing writings I find inspiring or informative; and I try to make myself available to help. But my parents, statistically speaking, will likely pass on before me, and my friends and their children have their own families’ histories to learn and cherish. They can help me construct meaning, but they won’t provide me the descendants for whom I’m supposedly writing my journal.  Will my journals end up forgotten in an attic corner, sold in some estate sale, or buried in the hillside of some landfill?

Curiously, my patriarchal blessing hints at an answer: it tells me that if I study the lives of the prophets I will obtain a portion of their strength. I used to interpret that as reading biographies of modern Church authorities but have come to realize that it also applies to becoming familiar with scriptural figures and their lives, even if I have to interpolate. 

The first phrase to awaken my empathy with a scriptural figure, incidentally, was Moroni’s “I even remain alone” (Mormon 8:3). Part of its resonance came from my temperamental preference for the tragic: it’s followed by “to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people.” But as I’ve pondered, I’ve realized that the Book of Mormon offers me a model for sacred writing for singles without children. After all, talk of posterity permeates the book; right behind it, in the negative space, lurks the theme of male barrenness.

For example, in a shocking inverse of the Abrahamic covenant, Nephi receives an assurance from God that his progeny would “destroyed, and dwindle in unbelief.” At some point, Mormon also realized his line would terminate. And Moroni, pursued or in hiding for years, likely never had a family. His singlehood was absolute.

Yet despite their prior knowledge of their progeny’s fate, all three of these men still still wrote their lives and hearts. For Moroni, the preservation, completion, and concealment of sacred records is all we know of his life’s purpose: “I even remain alone to write.” It may not have wholly leveled the troughs of his years of solitude, but it may have proven a lifesaver amid waves of despair. This assigned task, in fact, led him to what I consider by far the most transcendent passage of the Book of Mormon: Ether 12, a real-time dialogue with God about the importance of Moroni’s writing that speaks some comfort to my soul.

In this chapter, Moroni anxiously ruminates on the future reception of his words. He, the childless, the last of his people, knew for whom he was writing: not to his own children, but to his fathers’ brethren and to peoples he knew not. This audience was surely no surprise. From Nephi to Mormon, Nephite scribes had addressed future peoples they have seen only in vision. They prayed that God would carry their words safely through the ages, with faith that those words would benefit indeterminate future generations by “persuad[ing] them to do good… and speak[ing] of Jesus, and persuad[ing] them to believe in him, and to endure to the end” (2 Nephi 33:4).

Moroni, the last, had no other company besides these silent future generations. He required the most faith to endure in his task. I can only imagine that the fitful nature of Moroni’s record-keeping, with three separate farewells, was in part due to the all-too-familiar self-doubts he pours out in prayer: “Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness” (Ether 12:23). (Sound a bit familiar?) But he wrote nonetheless, and his persistence brought him the revelation that the Lord’s “grace is sufficient for the meek, and [your readers] shall take no advantage of your weakness. … if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

He knew not how strong they would be. 

Mormon could not have know that millions of Latter-day Saints would come to be known by his name over a millennium after he died. Moroni’s words—that very phrase, “I even remain alone…”—did for me what his promise did not:  testified to me, for the first time, that a scriptural author had truly lived. And Moroni could not have foreseen that he himself, shining in glory, would bring forth the record he finished—that he would, in the words of Isaiah which he praised as great, “see of the travail of his soul, and … be satisfied.”  By their fruits—both doings and adoptive heirs—he is now known.

And we should not forget He of Whom Isaiah originally spoke, Whose name billions in the world now bear, the Word written on fleshy tables, the unmarried, childless Only Begotten:

“…when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed…”

“Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.”

These words are a salve to my often anxious, sometimes despairing soul. No, they don’t reconcile the promises in my patriarchal blessing with their lack of fulfillment. No, they don’t wholly assuage the absence of the emotional intimacy we American Mormons reserve for marriage. But maybe I can keep writing, if just for you, unknown reader. May you have the charity to make something of my words.

 

Further Reading

 

Notably, Tushnet published an article in the Deseret News reiterating some of these points on 9/21/16. See Tushnet, Eve. “My View: Catholic, Lesbian, Celibate and the Journey to Self-Acceptance.” DeseretNews.com, September 21, 2016. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865662969/My-view-Catholic-lesbian-celibate-and-the-journey-to-self-acceptance.html?pg=all.

 

Notes

1. Le Guin, Ursula K. Orsinian Tales. Bantam Books, 1977.

2. “Joseph did not marry women to form a warm, human companionship, but to create a network of related wives, children, and kinsman that would endure into the eternities. . . Like Abraham of old, Joseph yearned for familial plentitude. He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin.” Bushman, Richard Lyman. Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 440.

3. Tushnet, Eve. Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2014. All Tushnet quotes above, save the one indicated by the footnote below, are from this book.

4. “Religious and Gay: A Catholic-Mormon Dialogue (Part 1 of 3).” Peculiar People. Accessed October 2, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/2015/07/religious-and-gay-a-catholic-mormon-dialogue-part-1-of-3/.

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