by Dan Harper
An old fisherman heard all of this and shook his head. “This is what happens to those who don’t get married,” he said. “All they want to do is save the world, by hook or crook. The sperm rises to their heads and attacks their brains. For God’s sake, all of you: get married, let your forces loose on women and have children in order to calm yourselves!”
The Last Temptation of Christ
It’s not easy to be single and think about trying to help save the world when your church teaches that as an unmarried member you cannot save yourself. Stay single, do not pass GO, do not collect exaltation, go directly to the terrestrial kingdom. I would like to raise a family, but sometimes I wonder if saving the world and raising a family are mutually exclusive. Leaders who make great strides toward human emancipation often seem to sacrifice their own families in the process. People with strong, close families often do not seem very concerned with the conditions of other people around the world.
Somehow I would like to make a difference, but it’s difficult when you’re a Mormon. Mormons aren’t famous for being on the front line fighting social injustice. Perhaps if I had been born a couple of centuries ago in a different religion, it would have been easier. I could have dedicated my life to Christ and become a Jesuit priest like Robert De Niro in The Mission. But these are the “nineties.” Saving the world has been handed over to rock stars: Olivia Newton-John is our earth’s environmental ambassador, Bob Geldof is knighted for organizing Live Aid to save the drought-ridden Ethiopians, Madonna is singing to preserve the rain forests, Sting is headlining for Amnesty International, not to mention Band Aid, Farm Aid, and Cindi Lauper’s solo on “We Are the World.” These people are making a difference in the world, but they aren’t exactly role models for familial bliss.
My father tells me that when I have hungry children to feed, I won’t have time to worry about these other problems. He’s probably right. Maybe I am too selfish. My desire to help save the world may just be an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Besides a few “Madonna of the Trail” statues, no one seems to get much public recognition for successfully raising a family against difficult odds. Sometimes I ask myself, “Was the Apostle Paul selfish or a saint?”
As a “latter-day saint,” whom do I serve? The Church’s attitude seems clear: Bruce R. McConkie stated, “The most important single thing that any Latter-day Saint ever does in this world is to marry the right person in the right place by the right authority.” So why the hesitation when exaltation hangs in the balance? It sounds simple enough, but for some reason it never has been easy. At least, it never has been for me.
SOVIETS INVADE AFGHANISTAN, 1979
I hated my school dances: prom, homecoming, winter formal, all of them. But what I hated even more was going to another school’s dance. It was Claremont High School’s Homecoming. I felt ridiculous in my grey Angel Flight suit with cowboy boots. I hated those cowboy boots—tan with squared-off toes. The only reason I wore them was Michelle and I were the same height and she thought I should be taller. She thought I ought to be a lot of things.
I guess it should come as no surprise that I ended up in a tree. It was that kind of evening. I was a wreck; my first romance was disintegrating before my eyes. I don’t blame Michelle. I don’t blame any girl—it’s usually been my fault. Sober, dressed in an Angel Flight suit, clomping around in my cowboy boots at her homecoming dance, I was ripe for disaster.
I knew that I should’ve been nice and the type of boyfriend she wanted, but I didn’t have it in me. I don’t know why. Her demands weren’t exorbitant: be cordial to her friends, hold her hand, put my arm around her, maybe even kiss her in public once in awhile. I told her I would try. I didn’t.
PRESIDENT REAGAN SHOT, 1981
Billy picked up a piece of driftwood and threw it into an oncoming wave. We watched as the wave tossed it and finally deposited it on the shore at our feet.
“You’re really going?” he asked.
I nodded my head.
“But why Italy?” Jim wanted to know. “They’re already Catholic.” Jim’s family was Catholic, although they never went to church anymore.
“You could use some religion in your life and you’re Catholic, ” I responded.
Jim stared at the sand and didn’t reply.
“Two years,” Billy said. “That’s a hell of a long time.”
Wendy, my girlfriend of two months, got up and ran down the beach crying.
“Boy, ” Suzanne said. “You guys sure know how to throw a party.” She stood up and ran after Wendy. Patti and Lori ran after the other girls, leaving us alone.
I thought, “This is where I should be, in California helping my friends, not in some foreign country teaching a bunch of strangers.”
I stood up and said, “Let’s go find the girls.” Together we walked silently down the beach.
GENERAL DOZIER KIDNAPPED BY RED BRIGADE, 1982
I rang the doorbell at the entrance of the palazzo. Someone asked, “Chi e?” through the intercom and simultaneously opened the electronic wrought-iron gate. We could hear her calling repeatedly “Ma chi e?” as we climbed the stairs.
We started knocking on the doors of the top floor and began to work our way down, wondering which tenant would call the padrone di casa and have us thrown out. It was my door. I knocked and a young man, maybe a couple of years older than me, answered. There were some open books scattered on a table; I figured that he must be a student at the Universita di Bologna. He asked us what we wanted. I told him that we were missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that we had a message from Christ for him. He looked at us and asked if my companion and I were Americans. I responded that we were. He glared at me and asked why we weren’t in a third world country helping those in need. I stared silently at the ground. Finally, my companion leaned over and said that people were spiritually needy throughout the entire world. He laughed and said, “Go feed that to a hungry African.”
UCLA STUDENTS RALLY AGAINST APARTHEID, DEMAND IMMEDIATE DIVESTMENT OF U.C. INTERESTS, 1984
My father tried to pay attention to my conversation as he drove the car.
“Now, you’re dropping out of the pre-med program and starting what?” he asked.
“I wasn’t in the pre-med program,” I replied. “UCLA doesn’t have a pre-med program. I’m a biology major, but I’m gonna apply to film school,” I replied.
He looked at me strangely and asked, “Why? I thought you wanted to become a doctor.”
“I think I can have more of an impact if I make films, ” I said and then told him about my friend John, a TV producer. He had gone to school to become a priest but became a social worker instead. When he became disillusioned with social services and their effectiveness, he decided to try writing; he wrote screenplays because he felt that they could reach a larger audience. His socially conscious screenplays couldn’t find any interested producers, but he did get a job writing scripts for Peyton Place. He thought these scripts could help finance one of his films. Soon he was writing and directing Streets of San Francisco, and The Yellow Rose. He had just been offered
the chance to produce Spenser for Hire. Years had passed since he started writing scripts, but he still talked about creating meaningful films.
I knew John because Shauna, my girlfriend at the time, was his daughter’s nanny. John was divorced and his other children lived with their mother in Santa Barbara. Tori needed a nanny because she lived with John in Bel Air, and he was out on location so often. Sometimes we didn’t see him for weeks.
My father changed the station on the radio.
SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER EXPLODES, 1986
Even though she was a recent convert to the Church, Shauna had always been an avid journal writer. She frequently asked me to read passages from her journal. Soon I felt like I knew Shauna more intimately than I had ever known anyone else, even members of my own family.
One evening Shauna confessed that she loved me. I was so happy I couldn’t hold back the tears. But weeks later, I told her we had to stop seeing each other because she wasn’t a Mormon. She had known it was coming. A couple of days later, she went to the visitors’ center at the Los Angeles Temple, and soon the missionaries were giving her the discussions. Everyone at the UCLA ward loved her. My family and lots of ward members caine out to watch me baptize her. Noticeably absent were Shauna’s parents—her mother was vehemently opposed to Shauna’s baptism.
We planned on getting married a year from that date since
that would be the first day Shauna could enter the temple. I had a job working in Yosemite for the summer. I didn’t want to leave Shauna, but she convinced me that I should go and enjoy myself. I came home early because I missed her so much and because I felt like something was wrong.
At first things were strained between us, but when school started everything returned to normal. One night as she was cooking dinner, she asked me to read something she had written in her journal. I read the passage, then flipped back through the entries she had made that summer. I should have known better; I should have left it alone.
She had written that as soon as I left for Yosemite, her mother had begun working on her. She would plan activities for the family on Sundays so Shauna wouldn’t go to church. She started giving her anti-Mormon literature—all to no avail.
From the time I baptized Shauna, her mother hated me as much as she hated the Church. When she realized that she couldn’t affect Shauna’s feelings for the Church, she went to work on her feelings for me. Before Shauna and I met, Shauna had been seeing a cadet at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He just happened to be stationed at Camp Pendleton for the summer and Shauna’s mother invited him up each weekend. At first, Shauna ignored his advances, but little by little, he won back her affection. Soon she began to doubt if she had ever loved me.
I had to stop reading; I couldn’t believe it. For once in my
life I thought that I had been sure I loved someone and she loved me. And that certainty was gone. I felt I had been searching all this time to confirm my fears. Shauna tried to convince me that it wasn’t true. She had doubted our love during the summer, but when I got back she knew that she really loved me. But I could never overcome my fears after that.
IRAN–CONTRA AFFAIR, 1986
Finals at UCLA are intense. Since the university operates on a ten-week quarter system, many classes give only a midterm and a final. Often a final constitutes fifty to seventy percent of the final grade. My biology final was no exception. I was frantically reviewing my textbook when the phone rang. It was the second counselor in the bishopric who wanted to know if I could help give a blessing. I looked down at my textbook; I needed to do well on this final and I still had several chapters to review. I cursed myself silently for not unplugging the phone and said yes.
The person in need turned out to be a teenage boy who seemed to be in tremendous pain. He was strapped down to the bed, but he continually struggled against his restraints. He wasn’t Mormon—his mother had spoken with a woman whose child had recently received a blessing and she asked if someone could bless her son too. The boy’s mother wasn’t there when we arrived, but we went ahead and blessed him anyway. I anointed him, and Brother Baker blessed him. I waited to see if he would calm down after the blessing. He didn’t, and it all seemed very futile to me.
As we were preparing to leave, the sister whose child had been blessed earlier came up to thank us. She looked tired. She was from Las Vegas. Her husband drove to Los Angeles on the weekends, but during the week she was alone with her child. She asked if we could give her baby another blessing. We said we would.
As we walked to the room, the mother told us that her little girl had leukemia; she had recently started chemotherapy. I remembered a girl in my junior high school who had cancer—she lost all of her hair after chemotherapy and had to wear a wig. It had looked funny. I wondered what a little girl would look like with a wig. After the boy, I was prepared for the worst.
The woman’s daughter turned out to be a beautiful little girl, with a full head of blonde hair. She crawled and sometimes stood up in her crib even though she was attached to an IV unit that limited her mobility. She hadn’t learned to talk coherently yet.
Her mother sat her down and this time Brother Baker anointed her and I gave the blessing. I don’t remember what I said, only that afterward the little girl got up and hugged me as if she would never let go and I hoped she wouldn’ t. I couldn’ t help but begin to cry. When she finally let go, strands of her blonde hour covered my red sweater. Embarrassed, her mother tried to brush them off. I assured her that I wished they would always stay there.
PAN AM FLIGHT 103 DESTROYED BY TERRORIST BOMB, 1988
I sat on the couch holding Lauren. I don’t know who was more uncomfortable, her or me. I had never held a baby quite that small before. She was barely two weeks old. Her hair was red, like her mother’s, and her eyes were blue. She was beautiful.
I couldn’t find any similarities to her father, which was probably fine with everyone involved. Spenser had declared himself unfit to be the father and set out to prove to everyone that he was. So far he had done a good job of it. Before the birth, I had offered to be Audrey’s Lamaze partner, but I could tell that she still hoped Spenser would change his mind and help her deliver the baby. He refused. He said he thought it was best if he never saw the baby. But not being a man of his word, he showed up after the delivery was over and then became strangely possessive and declared that no one was going to take his baby away from him. He still didn’t want to marry Audrey; he just wanted to protect his baby. Protect her from what, I wasn’t sure.
Lauren’s mother smiled at me from across the room. I smiled back. I had tried to let Audrey know that I was ready to be Lauren’s father if she wanted me, but she cut me off before I could ever begin any discussion of the matter. She hoped that Spenser would come around. She still loved him madly.
Lauren stretched in my arms.
TIANANMEN SQUARE MASSACRE, 1989
Steve pushed a piece of salad around his plate. It had been a long lunch punctuated by silence. We had been best friends in high school; now we didn’t have much to talk about or couldn’t figure out how to start.
“How do you like teaching?” he asked.
“I like it,” I lied. I was going to get my M.A. in the fall to get away from teaching high school. High school was a three-ring circus.
“When do you take the bar exam?” I asked.
“August,” he replied.
“How do you like Phoenix?” I asked, then wondered if I had asked the wrong question. Steve had wanted to take a position in Salt Lake with a law firm, but his wife refused to even consider living in Salt Lake. She’d walk before she would settle there. Steve took a job in Phoenix, her hometown, but she left anyway, taking the kids with her.
“I like it a lot. I’m looking for a house—it’s such a great investment. Real estate’s skyrocketing.”
Steve paused so I took a sip of water and chewed on the ice.
“I keep hoping she’ll come back. All I want is my family
back,” he said.
I could feel him looking at me but I couldn’t meet his eyes; I stared at my glass instead.
It doesn’t make much sense, but then little in life does. Those bits and pieces that seem to, reveal very little about myself. I feel like I don’t really know my own life. But then again, every Sunday I go to church and worship a man whose life we know so little about. After Jesus Christ was born, the Bible gives one anecdote about his childhood, and then we don’t have any other account of his life until he is thirty years old.
One of the most freqently asked questions regarding this period concerns whether or not Jesus was married. Could Jesus save the world and raise a family at the same time? I’m not sure. It seems that even a god would have trouble dealing with those two tasks simultaneously. I think Jesus’ earthly ministry would have been very different if he had been married. Could Jesus have traveled around the countryside for three years teaching, preaching, healing, and performing miracles if he had had a wife and kids to worry about?
Christ taught that we must lose our lives to find them—a symbolic destruction of the self. Marriage seems to require this destruction of self—giving yourself completely to your partner. In connection with marriage, Jesus called himself the bridegroom and asked, “Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Matthew 9:15). Jesus is the bridegroom for all of humanity. He gave his life for each of us. What would Jesus have left to give his immediate family?
It all seems so strange to me. We all want to be happy and yet so few of us ever seem to be able to achieve happiness for very long. No one can guarantee you happiness—not a girlfriend, a wife, or a child. I sometimes wonder how happy I would be if I could save the world. Other times I wonder if Jesus would have been happier with a wife and a little baby girl, with red hair just like his, resting peacefully in his arms.
There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world, I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair, and disrespect.
Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgement
Dan Harper teaches English at BYU while working on a graduate degree in English with a socio-linguistic thesis.