Monday, November 26, 2007

Repression

Repression has been on my mind lately. It started when John Gustav-Wrathall wrote a memorable essay on promiscuity that got me thinking about my own experiences as a young adult. Then I saw a video of
Clark Pingree's presentation
at the 2007 Seattle Sunstone Symposium that reminded me of things I had experienced when coming out. And so for the last few weeks I've been musing about the nature of repression and its effects.

I'm not all that fond of the term "repression" because of its origin in (scientifically discredited) Freudian psychoanalysis, but I don't really have a better word to offer. When I use the word, I mean the cognitive suppression of desires that are perceived to be shameful or socially unacceptable. Sometimes these are sexual desires, sometimes they are aspects of personality like assertiveness or artistic expression.

In my experience repression always exacts a price. Clark Pingree put his finger this when he said "It's a dangerous game to defy one's own creation."

Clark mentioned some of the improvements in his life that occurred after he was able to step away from a life of sexual repression. To paraphrase, he said that he:

  • No longer fights grueling internal battles

  • Feels as if heavy burdens have been lifted

  • Has gone from hopeless to hopeful

  • Has a more positive attitude and better quality of life

  • Has a more resolute spirit

  • Experiences more abundant friendships with greater depth and understanding

  • Has more energy for work and focusing on his life's goals

  • Treats people with more kindness

  • Has more honest, stronger family relationships

  • Laughs a lot more

  • Lives the gospel more realistically

  • Has a clearer understanding of what it means to be a Christian, including a new love of the two great commandments, of loving God and loving one's neighbor, no exceptions.


  • He concludes, "Best of all, my soul no longer aches."

    Bingo.

    I recall what a mess I was in a mixed-orientation marriage, before I came out. It's actually painful for me to recall this (bless me, Blogger, for I have sinned). In this period I was profoundly unhappy. Normally, I'm fairly outgoing, social and talkative, but in my mixed-orientation marriage I became very withdrawn. I almost quit talking. I recall having violent nightmares and waking up angry. My desire to look at pornography became utterly compelling, although I rarely had the opportunity to see it in those pre-Internet days. I would start shaking if I saw a handsome man. I felt despondent and trapped. Hopeless is a good way to describe it. Looking back on it, I wonder how I functioned at all. And I'm sorry about the effect of my repression had on the people around me.

    Like Clark Pingree, I found that I treated people with a lot more kindness after I came out. My relationships with my family improved dramatically as everyone started talking about real issues (and not just mine) instead of keeping to safe topics of conversation. I became a better parent; certainly a better listener. The list goes on and on. I can't think of single area of my life that didn't improve after I quit suppressing my orientation. Even my work life got better.

    Even my wife's life improved when I came out. After a few years she was able to remarry. The second time around heterosexuality was high on her list of desired qualities in a mate.

    After I came out I did, like John, have a period of relative promiscuity. I think sexual promiscuity often comes in the wake of a lifetime of repression.[*] It's like a starving man gorging after a famine. It's not a good dietary strategy, but who's counting calories when you are starving? In my case I was able to get it out of my system and settle down to a reasonable, committed relationship.

    You might counter that the satisfaction I have seen in my life is really the work of the Devil, that I am deceived by evil wrapped in a veneer of short-term happiness and pleasure. I would respectfully disagree while reaffirming your right to hold this or any other view. When I look at my life as a whole, over several decades of living openly as a gay man, I don't see the fruits of evil. Instead, I see the benefits that Clark mentioned in his Sunstone talk. I see two kids successfully raised; I see friends and family and a mature, loving relationship with a man I adore; I see professional success. I see sanity, peace, realistic self-knowledge and engagement in life. Where are the wages of sin? I guess you could argue that they are coming in the next life, but that contradicts the principle of judging behavior by its visible consequences in this life.

    Note: There are many possible paths to follow, and your experience may well be different from mine. In particular, I am not saying that your choice of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage is wrong for you even though those two options were disastrous for me and the woman I married.

    ----------
    [*]The sad examples of Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, and others come to mind.

    2 comments:

    J G-W said...

    Wow. Nicely put. I've experienced so many of those positive outcomes as well in entering into a positive, healthy, committed relationship. The repression I put myself through was so unhealthy in so many ways. It was like flooring the gas pedal of a car while keeping the brakes fully engaged. Lots of smoke, noise, and the stink of burnt rubber. And I didn't get anywhere.

    Following the positive "fruits of the Spirit" is what has guided me in this path. The litmus test for me has always been: Did it make me a more joyful, more grounded, more loving person? Did it empower me to be of greater service to those around me and to be more creative?

    I think I am seeing some of those positive fruits in the lives of fellow Moho bloggers who are pursuing celibacy and who are married... I always want to affirm that and support that, wherever and however we find it.

    Holly said...

    I watched Clark's presentation and the other two parts of the panel on the Sunstone blog yesterday. I thought Clark's comments were really important and thoughtful, though I wasn't so happy with the panel overall: yet again, another Mormon panel ostensibly on homosexuality but really only about male sexuality, a conversation in which women are discussed only as that which it would be hell to be married to. I don't have trouble understanding why a gay man might feel that way; I do have trouble understanding why a panel discussing a publication called "God Loveth All Children" can't acknowledge that half of god's children are female.

    Anyway.

    For me the biggest thing that made my soul stop aching was to admit that the church was not "true," that the LDS plan of salvation was terribly misnamed, and that I didn't have to worry about pleasing a god as malicious, authoritarian, judgmental and punitive as the mormon father in heaven. It made me much happier and kinder to stop worrying about what that nasty nasty man thought of me.