I went for a walk at lunch today. It's something I do whenever I want, and not as frequently as I ought. But it's a beautiful spring day, and it coaxed me outside for a stroll through a nearby park, where I saw eagles and pelicans, song birds and mallards, and the people who are grateful that it is finally warming up in these Northern climes.
Among the folks I encountered was a trio of young girls, probably 12 years old or therabouts, who stood out from the rest by virtue of the clothes they wore. Unlike their peers, they wore long, homespun dresses, black stockings beneath and practical boots. Their blouses and sweaters went to their wrists, and their hair was long and braided, likely never having seen a barber's sheers. They were happy, and running along the creek, waiting playfully while their mom (or teacher) prepared their picnic lunch. She, like them, was dressed in a long grey flannel skirt with matching jacket, dark tights, and practical shoes. I know nothing of these ladies, but I suspect their choice of clothing today was dictated by rules of some sort, most likely of a religious nature.
I wondered how they felt about the rules by which they live their lives, and it got me to thinking.
Flash back several years. I was speaking with a colleague who was crippled as a very young child by polio. For the last 55 years, she has hobbled around on one good leg and one shriveled leg, supported by a crutch. She never played softball. She never hiked the trail over a mountain pass. She never even rode a bike. But when I asked her about it, she was indifferent. What she explained was that when its all you've ever known, your life moves in directions that are unimpeded by your limitations, and you never stop to consider all the things you can't do. It's her life, and it's fine. It only SEEMS unfortunate to ME in comparison to MINE because my life has moved--unimpeded--according to the same principles. It's all I've ever known. But, like her, I do not suffer over the fact that I have never been an NBA star--I have very real limits in that area, and so my life just never coalesced around basketball kinds of things.
Still, recognizing that the life of my friend at work, and the lives of those three young girls, are governed by limits placed upon them that are NOT placed on me, I wondered how they might feel if those restrictions could be lifted? Would the polio victim, if given the choice, have her leg restored to health, and thereby at least have the CHOICE to hike the mountain pass, or play softball? And would those three little girls, if given the CHOICE, choose homespun long dresses, or something more akin to what the other girls their age are wearing?
For me, I think what I value about my experience through and out of Mormonism is that I appreciate now the freedoms I once didn't have. The rules that no longer apply are still resident in my brain, only now I get to decide whether or not to abide by them. Some I choose to. Others I do not. But the choice is mine.
And for that, I am incredibly grateful.
I know that some rules and restrictions are a benefit to us. We all agree that taking each other's stuff is not in our best interest. Same is true for killing each other. We create rules for traffic, to permit us to navigate safely and (hopefully) efficiently through the system of roads. In principle, most of us in the west are inclined to value the highest degree of personal liberty, and the minimal degree of state intervention in our lives. We tolerate some--it keeps us safe--but we balk when it gets to be too much.
But what of rules for the sake of rules?
I recall when we were in graduate school, a man and his daughter lived just down the hall from us. Clearly not from "around here," we asked him one day where he was from. This was the early 1980s, and he was embarrased to tell us. "Persia," he said reluctantly, and I had to look it up to realize he meant "Iran." He was a single father for one reason: When his wife came to the United States, and realized that here, the law made no effort to dictate her dress, her relationships, her education, her career, or virtually ANY freedom we take for granted...she promptly filed for divorce and began the long process of becoming a naturalized citizen. There was no way that once she realized what it meant to be free would she ever be willing to return to the limits she once knew. Even though it had, up to that point, been ALL she ever knew. Her former husband would one day return to Iran. She--and her daughter--would not.
Once released from arbitrary rules, does anyone ever go back?
I guess that's part of the reason I ache for my Mormon friends. On the one hand, I do honor their right to practice their religion. I believe them when they say they are happy, and that they don't feel the limits to their freedom. In fact, the suggestion doesn't even compute. But I'm sad for the personal sacrifices that they make in the name of their faith that...well...aren't necessary. If the sacrifice really gained you something, then it's no sacrifice at all. But really, what has tithing ever gained anyone? What have garments ever gained anyone? What has the consecration of every Sunday ever gained anyone? Perhaps eternal salvation, but I doubt that, myself.
But I'm here to tell you, once you have come to an appreciation that arbitrary restrictions are optional--those rules quickly find themselves relegated to the mental trash bin.
When I say I'm happier now then I've ever been, I think this is why. I know now, and appreciate more than ever, my freedom to choose the way my life works. It is as if the health has been restored to my shriveled leg, and the doors to The Gap have been opened to me for the first time. My life now flows, unimpeded, in more directions than I have lifetimes to explore. Limits? Sure--I have plenty. But not as many as I once did.