“Self-knowledge is like lost innocence; however unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought, or unknown. But by unsettling our settled assumptions, the familiar turns strange and we begin to reflect on our circumstance. This is the tension that animates critical reflection and political improvement, and maybe even the moral life as well.”
— Michael Sendal
The experience of being homosexual or transgender and Mormon is fraught with myriad paradoxes and deep tension. At the heart of that tension are two, seemingly conflicting realities: the LDS church teaches that, “homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God” and “gender is an essential characteristic of eternal identity and purpose” (which is not likely to change any time soon) and a significant percentage of the population are homosexual or transgender and want to live healthy, fully functioning lives that include loving intimate relationships (the vast majority of which are not likely to change their sexual orientation or gender identity). The distress experienced as a result of that conflict can lead many to want to resolve the tension as quickly and painlessly as possible and “get on with their lives.” Feeling overwhelmed by the myriad issues and questions, some individuals choose to break the tension quickly with little thought for their motivations or beliefs. Still others, feeling paralyzed by fear of ambiguity and the responsibility of making such heady life choices, hold the tension interminably. Such patterns of behavior can lead to corrosive bitterness on the one hand and self-righteous aloofness on the other – both choices being forms of avoidance of the work of holding the tension; both leading to even more profound distress, leaving many feeling divided, unfulfilled, and insecure.
“My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass:”
− Deuteronomy 32:2
The circle of empathy practice helps us refrain from making rash decisions about how to live our lives in an effort to prematurely resolve the tension. It does so by providing a process and community that support us in holding the tension and living with the questions long enough until we feel sufficiently open and grounded to manage the tension by making healthy choices from an integral way of being that acknowledges both our sexual/gender and spiritual identities. It gives us a community in which to return, over and over again, to the most salient questions, in the belief that we will continuously stumble upon more profound and helpful answers. The circle of empathy acknowledges that, for many of us, to develop this capacity, to hold the tension in creative ways, takes practice. The circle also acknowledges that for many, the tension may not be resolved through reconciliation of their faith and sexuality/gender identity but rather through complex integration of many aspects of themselves, their feelings and their beliefs.
“Action without reflection can easily become barren and even bitter…”
− Jim Wallis
The circle of empathy practice is built on the premise that creative tension, when approached properly, can be good for us in how it gives us a sense of meaning, hope, or vigor. Thus, the circle of empathy practice offers a life-giving purpose in how it challenges us to allow the tension between our spiritual aspirations and sexual/gender identities to break our hearts open, permitting deeper and more profound realities to settle in, transforming us into more open, capacious, knowing, and magnanimous individuals that are able to transcend apparent opposites and make healthy decisions about how to live our lives. By allowing our hearts to be broken open, we avoid shattering them into irretrievable pieces that leaves us feeling lost and fragmented, where darker emotions of fear and despair can seep in.
“Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.”
~ 2 Nephi 2:16
Is love a choice? Is faith a choice? Answers to those two question can be argued many different ways. Yet underneath them all, there is the question of what drives each individual to feel love or faith? Research is increasingly indicating that people experience something akin to a spiritual orientation which, much like sexual orientation and gender identity, develops within each of us in unique ways and may be a result of both genetic makeup and life experience. This spiritual orientation or in other words, how spiritually drawn or averse an individual is to various aspects of spirituality and religious codes or tenets of faith, can drive each individual toward or away from certain faith traditions as well as various ways of relating to the religious practice. For example, some may feel safer living as a “letter of the law” person while others’ spiritual orientation may lead them to be more a “spirit of the law” kind of practicant. There is likely far more fluidity and flexibility in how people can respond to their spiritual orientation than they can to their sexual orientation or gender identity but there are some interesting corollaries. It can be helpful, at times, to consider it in these terms because it reminds us that spirituality and religiosity are not only about choice, right-wrong, good-bad, faithful-unfaithful, dialectics. It is rather a reflection of the whole person, their body and spirit; agency in the context of God given circumstances (i.e. orientations).
“True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arrested personal development, and perhaps inseparable from it, our everyday lives have drifted vast distances from our species’ original intimacy with the natural world and from our own uniquely individual natures, our souls.”
– Bill Plotkin
The circle of empathy helps us practice trusting our soul, inner-voice, light of Christ, or personal revelation and thereby generate a sense of agency. Many of us need this practice as we may have habituated ourselves into condemning our inner-voice, because for so long, it was telling us things about ourselves that seemed so contrary to the gospel. We need practice and community support to help us learn, anew, how to honor and follow our inner-voice toward knowing how and when to resolve the tension. The community we experience in the circle practice gently entices or draws our inner-voice to come out, helping us put words to our thoughts. The hope is that the practice will help us avoid the need to prove ourselves or to be anything other than our authentic selves. Rather than helping us escape or avoid our life story and replace it with a more culturally supported narrative, the practice helps us become more grounded in who we are, trusting in how our personal narrative will unfold.
“The highest form of love is to be the protector of another person’s solitude.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
An important part of the circle of empathy practice is to be willing to “be alone together” – listening to and honoring our own still small inner-voice while in the community of others. We find our own ways, together, toward our own truth, neither in our solitary head-space nor in the collective consensus, but in the check and balance of honest, open conversation. Hence we help one another resist the draw of “group think” and “safety in numbers” or manipulating or contriving the meaning of concepts. To do this, we acknowledge the need to be vulnerable enough to speak from our center, placing our responses to the fundamental questions in the center of the group and allowing others to respond however they feel inclined (within the guidelines). We also need to be vulnerable enough to live with the ambiguity that may arise within ourselves as we address these questions, acknowledging that we may not have all the answers or even feel comfortable with the answers we think we have.
“For the good man [woman] to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on the strait and narrow path compared to which his [her] previous rectitude was flowery license.”
~ John Middleton Murry
The circle of empathy acknowledges that everyone has their own process toward resolving the tension. For some people the tension is resolved in one conversation or one prayer. For others, it unfolds over the course of years. In the circle practice, we can balance between patiently letting our process unfold with proactively seeking answers. The circle is a focused, self-motivated process while at the same time, not a “forced march” toward a predetermined outcome (e.g.: “With 12 Easy Steps you too can change…”). The circle also balances being an open-ended process with not being an aimlessly meandering process.
“I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.”
~ Baruch Spinoza
The most core concept of circles of empathy is, of course, the act of empathizing with fellow participants. As participants attempt to understand one another’s thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences, not only do they better understand others, but they better understand themselves. By proactively attempting to empathize with others, intentionally engaging them and attending to their unique perspectives and feelings about any given question, participants grow in their emotional intelligence and aptitude for spiritual perception. This work of empathy does not mean that all participants will necessarily agree on any given question nor that they will even necessarily appreciate the ideas or convictions of others. In fact, it is possible that empathizing with others and understanding their responses to the fundamental questions may lead some to agree with them less. But the work of empathy, as an aid in resolving the tension of the religious/sexual/gender conflict, seems a more constructive, instructive, and sustainable method that can lead to greater personal clarity, equanimity, and resilience.
“In our public life, and in our personal lives, philosophy is inescapable even if it sometimes seems impossible.”
– Michael Sandel
The conversational and deliberative aspect of the circle practice can be a powerful tool for gaining greater self-awareness and personal clarity. It is rooted in the Socratic method of moral reasoning whereby participants engage not only fellow circle participants, but the fundamental questions and the principles behind them, as well. This method can bring the participants into a state of reflective equilibrium or in other words, “a state of balance or coherence among a set of beliefs arrived at by a process of deliberative mutual adjustment among general principles and particular judgments.” This process helps participants move back and forth between considering (or reconsidering) their answers to the fundamental questions (life choices, lived experiences, personal histories, etc) and the general principles that form the rationale for their answers (doctrines, empirical data, philosophies, etc). By engaging in this process, participants may find that they do not maintain their initial instinctual answers, and instead, find themselves revising their answers, in light of better understanding of the principles influencing their answers. Or sometimes participants may decide to revise their understanding of the principles, because further consideration of those principles reveals how they do not ring-true or healthfully coincide with their lived experiences. Sometimes they’re persuaded to revise their answers. Other times they’re challenged to shore up and strengthen their answers. Eventually, this check-and-balance process can bring together all of the participant’s feelings, beliefs, and experiences into one coherent view.
The circle of empathy exists for the benefit of the participants, hence, the practice is only maintained as long as it is beneficial to the participants and is not sustained for its own sake.
if you move carefully
through the forest
like the ones
in the old stories
who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,
to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
but frightening requests
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
to stop what you
while you do it,
that can make
that have patiently
waited for you,
that have no right
to go away.
– David Whyte
“As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions…For the god
wants to know himself in you.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke