Thursday, April 27, 2006

Organized Religion and the "Sheltered Life"

(Note: This is a long post, so prepare yourselves. I really like it, though. I especially like the last few paragraphs, where I talk about social groups and Jesus . . .)

Those of you who know me, know that I am a "good girl." I'm probably one of the straightest-looking 24-year-olds on this planet. I look like I stay away from drugs, love my parents, believe in God, and go to church every Sunday. And I do. My appearance is in no way deceiving.

So all my life, I've had people tell me I'm "sheltered." (I think most, if not all, of those people were acquaintances and friends of friends. So what does that tell you?) I bore it because I thought the sentiment was only one of adolescence. "It's just a bunch of my angst-ridden peers trying to figure out who they are," I thought. Well, I was recently surprised when I heard a couple of people make the same kind of comments about me and people like me. And neither one of them are in high school anymore.

The argument, I suppose, goes like this: Your appearance is a reflection of your experience in life. That is, if you look modest and plain, you've had the good life. You haven't been through bad experiences. And because you haven't been through traumatic experiences, you don't know what the "real" world is like -- you're sheltered. The converse, then, must be true: If you look "bad" and rebellious, you've been through some tough times. You've seen life as it "really" is, and you're now open-minded about everything. So everyone who has had a hard life gets piercings, tattoos, does drugs, wears black, etc, etc?

When I put it that way, it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But that's basically what people mean when they call me sheltered. I'll put aside the "Well, what's real?" argument for now and ask a few questions. What does it really mean to be sheltered, anyway? How can you be the judge about whether someone is or isn't? Do you have to "experience" things in order to be "real?"

I think I've already answered the second question. Well, that is, people think they can be a judge of others by the way they look. And one can make some pretty accurate assumptions based on appearance sometimes. But in my experience, I've found that the majority of people base their assumptions on whether or not someone is involved in an organized religion. (Let me add that if the organized religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the ignorant assumptions increase about tenfold.) Because I am an ardent follower of my faith and corresponding religious organization, acquaintances often think I will be prudish and unaccepting of different ideas. When they find out that I am sometimes very silly and like to learn and discuss lots of new things, they say, "Oh, yeah, you're a mormon. But you're different." As if I'm the exception to all of those "backward idiot fundamentalist Christians?"

The thing about organized religious denominations is that they're made up of groups of people with similar religious beliefs. With those beliefs in certain principles comes condemnation of others. If a group has a collective set of morals, is it not fair and just that they make a set of rules? Can they not disagree with alternative lifestyles? Can they not spend their free time with mostly the friends who have similar interests and beliefs? Of course they can, as does every other group on this planet. That's why we form groups!

But the minute a group does this, the group members are called sheltered. Now that's a tricky word. "Sheltered" denotes "protected." But contemporary usage connotes ignorance and intolerance. So yes, as a girl growing up in a middle-class family, I had all the proper arrangements in life -- food, clothing, and a safe home. But does that make me ignorant and intolerant? I should say not! My parents were formally educated, and they love to learn. They taught me that same principle. My church is a huge advocate for education, especially for the education of women. In fact, I study other religions besides Christianity -- GASP! But I don't follow their doctrines because I don't believe in their gospels 100%.

What I'm saying is that education -- not experience -- is one of the keys to being well-informed and smart. If you believe in Jesus Christ, you believe that he is the only perfect person who has ever lived on this earth. He is the most wise and understanding of anyone, too. How can this be? According to contemporary society, he should be the most ignorant fool of any of us because he didn't drink, smoke, run around with women, or grow up in the slums of Jerusalem. It sounds silly, I know. But my point is that to experience something is not the key to understanding. Listening is. Learning is. Serving is.

So just because I dress in plain clothes, hang out with my straight-laced friends, and grew up in a safe home with loving parents, does not mean I don't know what it's like to feel pain, to be different, or to understand someone else's point of view.

Yeah. So take THAT, all of you people who call me sheltered! :)

Thing I'm thankful for: those of you who actually read to the bottom of this post. It meant a lot to me at the time I wrote it, mostly because someone had just indirectly called me sheltered, and it bothered me -- as it always does. Anyway, thanks for reading. I know that interesting stories with accompanying pictures are more fun to read.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feelz ya. I think people are insecure whether they are str8 or all tatoo'd. The key is, have you been skinny dipping in a glowing, gorgeous green river? Have you seen a bald eagle soar over a deserted canyon filled with redwoods? Have you sat silently until the very energy of the world itself fills you to the pores? This is experience. Drugs can change experience, but they neither enhance nor degrade it. Jesus was annoited with cannabis oil! No joke, today is a much more prudish society, and that's not what God ever intended. It's not about following rules it's about loving and living God's world to the fullest. Every nerve, every cell in your body must surge with energy and sing with aliveness. Anything withing that is dead, stuck or contracted must be released and freed from stagnation. Our birthright is abundant, free flowing energy, not fear, doubt and defensiveness. Remember it's all so much bigger than we ever knew...


3:18 PM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Hmm. Don't know who this "xyq" person is, and I don't know that I agree with everything that he/she said, but "Remember it's all so much bigger than we ever knew..." is a pretty good line.

Anyway, I have a ton to say about this post. These are the posts that I like. But I'm having a hard time picking just one section that I want to address.

Technically, Jesus did drink. I'm sure he didn't abuse it, though, and I know that's the point you're trying to make. My point is that, according to the New Testament and historical records, Jesus may not have done all of the things you listed, but he did hang around the people that did. He did integrate into a group of people that had lower values in order to show them true compassion. But I think maybe he was more immune than most of us are to that kind of thing. Or maybe not.

But to address the whole "sheltered" bit: You know how I feel as a fellow "naive" individual. I think the problem lies in a group or religion or political party's inability to see the positive aspects of ALL individuals outside of their self-imposed group. I think the problem often stems from:
a.) a lack of curiousity about people that are not like themselves
b.) an unwillingness to find the positives about those people, and c.) exclusion of those that are different.
(It's often the excluded that are the ones calling other people names because they are hurt or offended.)

Also, I think that you are sheltered. So am I. We have CHOSEN to not do certain things that, by the world's standards, make us sheltered. I don't care anymore. Because I feel that I can learn more about my fellow man if I'm sober and have a brain in my skull that isn't fried.

Crap. I wrote a book. Sorry.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's as equally painful to watch someone hurt themselves as it is to actually be going through the hurt. For example, is it harder for the child who has a drug problem, or the parent who has a child addicted to heroin? No one can say which has it easier or more difficult in life. Just because you look straight-laced, naive, or happy, doesn't mean you haven't experienced pain. Maybe you just choose not to focus on the sorrow, and in some way, people see that and are a little jealous.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Wow, Sara this is hugely important to discuss among people our age.

I think I have been on both sides of this. I have been called sheltered because I, like you, carry it to the outside that I choose to "be good," straight-laced. On the other hand, I must say that I have called some people, especially fellow Mormons, that because I grew up so differently from how they did. I realize that in many instances I was mistaken. You must admit that in general Latter-Day Saint kids grow up protected from interacting too much with addiction, violence, etc. I did not. I have seen some pretty scary stuff. I HATE violent movies because I have been through some genuinely violent, scary moments and don't have any desire to relive the feelings.

My calling people sheltered resulted from a very deep-seated fear not to be understood and be judged on the reverse for having seen things I never chose to be exposed to. I was afraid for the longest time to ever let anyone know how differently I grew up. I still don't write it on the walls all around me. But I have learned that many people who have not seen things like that personally still try to understand (and how can anyone ever know how something felt to someone else even if they were in the same place??), and will still love someone just the same. But the fear is there. I felt like the kid with dirty feet walking onto people's clean carpet. Not like it was their fault, but that I somehow was dirtying their clean lives that they had worked so hard to maintain, that I didn't want to spoil.

Hm, this sounds different that I wanted it to sound. I'm a happy person and well past the past. Thanks to my faith, I can now be sheltered, too ;o), namely as Lauren said, by choice devoid of all these problems. That counts for lots of fellow converts and lots of non-LDS people who choose to live clean lives. It's a good thing to be sheltered. Really! (Wrote a book, too. I'm sorry!)

7:57 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

To start, I would like to thank you all for making comments.

Now I'm about to start disagreeing with some of you. And I'd like to do that in a numbered list format.

1) For all intents and purposes, the word "sheltered" does not mean in society today what it once did. When people call me sheltered, they are most definitely meaning it in a negative way. It's connotations, I would say, are "ignorant" and "willfull misunderstanding." So I'll say it again: it's NOT a good thing to be called sheltered. It is never good to be ignorant when you can be otherwise.
2) If you call someone sheltered because you fear being misunderstood and judged by the other person, you are also being just as judging and misunderstanding as you expect them to be. How do you know someone will misunderstand you if you don't give them a chance? You don't. I'm not trying to undermine anyone's experiences or create a scale of a "hard life." But the point I'm making is just that: you can't make a scale of who has had a worse life. How are your problems and past so bad that others will not understand? Do you think you have had it worse than anyone else? That because they look like they've had a good life, they can't have experienced all of the hurt and negativity that you have? If you committed sin, do you think it was so bad that even Christ can't atone for it? How are you the exception to the compassionate rule?

9:51 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Oh -- one more thing. I thought someone would say that Jesus DID drink, and I'd like to point out, here, that it's debatable.

There are a few Hebrew words that mean "wine," one of which is purely fresh juice, unfermented. The same is true in Greek. There are more words than one for wine . . .

10:07 PM  
Blogger brian said...

As far as what's sheltered, what's not, I know what you're referring to, and yeah, it's just as dismissive to call someone sheltered as to shun them for any other difference or behavior.

I think there's real value in what Lauren and Yvonne mention about how we choose what experiences (and what people) will be part of our lives, and that I don't have to choose your set of experiences to lead a full life. If I don't want to see violent movies that other people like, that's really okay. If my friend decides he doesn't drink, ain't nobody's business if he don't. We're all functioning adults here, if we decide something's not for us, everybody else can step off. I'm not talking about being willfully ignorant, but the things we decide to pass on experiencing.

Coming to #2, since we're dealing with people interacting with other people, it may not be that anybody really believes that their sufferings or their misdeeds are more terrible than anyone else's (though some may believe it). I think it's more often a question of feeling like other people won't understand you, or that other people will judge you harshly (or already have). It's a proud stance, but a human one. Shame is pride turned on it's head... I'm not the best, but I sure am the worst. Looking at the times I've felt most ashamed, I can relate to feeling like other people won't understand and fearing that people will decide I'm no good. As our demons press down on us, reminding us how awful we are, we sometimes don't remember that we haven't experienced anything "but such as is common to man." We have a hard time overcoming feelings of shame sometimes, and treat people cruelly in the process.

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago with a group of men that many might call "sheltered" (priesthood leaders, mostly middle class or higher, most members of the LDS church their whole lives). We discussed addiction and how to help people break free of it. Many to most of us present will probably never know what it feels like firsthand to be addicted to something. Does that disqualify us from helping addicts? Does an addict's need get any smaller because there aren't people around with firsthand experience with addiction?

In the meeting we drew upon the help of a psychologist trained in treating addiction, and help from addicts that have kept clean for years to understand the patterns, the triggers, and how to break the cycle that holds addicts fast. We learned how to assemble support for those that realize that they can't break their addiction on their own, and how to help people learn to manage their addictions and not participate in them anymore.

People may look at these men and think them sheltered in the full self-rightous ignoramus glory of the word. If that's sheltered, gimme shelter. These people didn't have firsthand experience. They didn't look down upon those who had that experience either, but learned what those who have such experience were able to teach them.

Some of the folks we're quick to call sheltered are free of ignorance and willfull misunderstanding like that. (Some of those we might look down on as worldly are like that too.) Now are all of us willing to withhold our judgments long enough to find out?

And I'll throw in a sorry this is so long, but I'm not sure I completely mean it. I think in long form about this kind of thing. Better... thanks for readin' this all. Contact me for some sort of prize or something.

Oh... and Jesus was accused of being worldly in his day: "behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners" (Matt 11:19, Luke 7:34). Granted, he was called self-rightous too, so your mileage may vary.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Yeah, some of my friends in high school felt like I wouldn't understand or be accepting of the things they chose to do. And people now often feel like I won't understand them because they have grown up differently than me. As a result, several of these friends and acquaintances quit talking to me because they thought I would judge them. A natural -- albeit proud -- stance, Brian? Natural or not, it's no excuse to ignore someone. None at all.

But this comment is going somewhere I didn't want it to go. I'd like to say that I really enjoyed Lexi's comment. And not just because she's my sister.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Um, now I feel misunderstood, actually. I did not say anywhere that I felt things were harder for me than anyone else and I don't feel that way. I said they were different. Different things are hard for different people. And, yes, I still believe that it's hard to really understand where somebody else comes from. Very simple example: as much as I have a hard time relating to what it's like to be one of five or six children, a child from such a family can probably not imagine what it's like to be one of two siblings. It's so different!! Anyway, I don't think I can adequately say what I really feel on the subject. I just know that if calling people sheltered hurts them, it's wrong. But if telling somebody that they shouldn't feel this or that about their own past hurts them, that is wrong, too. Feelings are legitimate no matter what they are.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I'm not denying the fact that there are definite negative connotations to the word "sheltered." Not debating that one bit. What I'm saying is, considering the sources that label me as such, I just don't care anymore. They are obviously the less open-minded of the two of us. It's a judgment I am willing to bear and, in doing so, I learn more about the people that judge me.

Fight it if you want to, but there will always be labels, close-minded judgments, ignorance, and injustices. This is one of the lesser ills of society, I feel.

Go ahead and care if you want to. But it's going to be a recurrent theme in your life.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Did that sound harsh? I didn't mean it that way.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

I agree with Lauren, people make mistakes in judging people and we all do it every day. We probably just should not care. And, no joke, I have had the experience of overhearing someone I had thought sheltered speculate with her girlfriend about whether I was still a virgin because I didn't grow up Mormon. Who doesn't stereotype? Anyway, it's no good and we need to get over it. I'm just saying that there are two sides of it. Always.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Me, again.

I want to clarify that when I said "This is one of the lesser ills of society," I was referring to being called sheltered, not ignorance or judging, etc.

Just so we're clear. So there's not any confusion.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Oh dear. Sorry, me again. How about we keep taking turns, Lauren ;o) Just one other thing: I think in the past when I have thought people sheltered there was just as much of a fear of not understanding them as a fear of being misunderstood in there. I just realized that, but it's true. As much as I suspected that I had no idea what had been hard in their lives--whatever deaths, illnesses, etc. had scarred them lay outside of my realm of experiences as mine lay outside of theirs. I think we are all wrong if we assume that we can ever fully understand what somebody has been through, and I know I've said that. We're on the wrong side of people's head for that. And reading about it is really not the same as experiencing it. Never

10:03 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

I would like to make a comment about my first comment. That is, I wasn't saying that Yvonne or Lauren or whoever else has commented on here said that they've had it worse than anyone else. But I was asking the question. I was asking it to lead into a bigger discussion about moral arrogance. That's a different discussion for a different time and probably one that I will never discuss with anyone besides my sister and an old professor of mine.

In writing the comment, I thought I might offend someone because I knew I didn't know how to explain what I meant. I still believe what I said, but I just don't know how to express it here. And I really wish I could just delete the comment because this whole comment thing turned into something much too serious and negative, I think. I said what I wanted to say in my post. I didn't want to say any more or any less.

So, I'm sorry about the first comment.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Yep. I agree. Problem with any opinion of someone else is you don't ever really know them as they know themselves.

Well-said, Yvonne.

Now it's your turn to post a comment, again.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

And yet you exclude everybody but your sister and an old professor from talking to you about "moral arrogance," huh? Ironic.

Sounds like you have a fear of seeming anything less than fun and quirky. Why are you so afraid of the comments turning serious? I mean, it's just healthy banter, right?

(See, I have a problem with typing these things because there's no voice inflection or facial expressions to let you know that I'm not mad when I'm saying these things. I'm afraid they'll be taken the wrong way.)

10:18 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

No, no, I can't end here. I'm going to try again.

There are bound to be misunderstandings, as there definitely are here -- especially since this is a written discussion. Sometimes I say that "I know so-and-so isn't going to understand this, but . . ." So you guys are right. I do it, too. But normally, it doesn't stop me from trying to get my point across.

Sometimes I don't understand other people -- well, a lot of times I don't understand people. And a lot of times people don't understand me. But I guess the point I was trying to make is that there's a difference between miscommunication/misunderstanding and willful misunderstanding. There's the kind of understanding that you know other people won't have because they can't have experienced life the exact same way. Sometimes people misunderstand because they just can't keep up mentally -- as in me + calculus.

That's okay because we're not all on the same spiritual/emotional/mental/physical level.

But my point is this: if someone doesn't understand something, it doesn't necessarily mean it's because they're sheltered -- sheltered as in intolerant and unaccepting. It's one thing to say, "Oh, you might not understand what I mean, but I'll try to explain myself anyway." It's quite another to say, "Oh, you might not understand what I mean because you're ignorant and sheltered and exclusionary and close-minded."

As for the not talking to anyone about moral arrogance to my sister and an old professor? I talked to them about it before, and the things I learned and could explain then -- at that moment in time -- I cannot explain now. Because I just can't wrap my brain around it. I know what I knew then -- the way you "just know" that something is, but I also know that I can never express it again. It came and went, but I remember it was there.

My first comment on here was leading into a discussion of that -- not because I think any of you sound morally arrogant, but because I thought it fit the discussion that was already happening. And see? I tried -- and failed, I think -- to explain what I meant. The problem lies with me, and so yes, I'm probably never going to try it again. Maybe.

Oh to be in heaven and have one perfect language! Then I could just send you what I think and feel via pinging.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

There's also the kind of understanding that you think other people might not have because you yourself cannot express what you mean.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Sara, this last comment was probably the most important of all. That's probably the core of this: Since I have no way of expressing why everything that came before knowing our church and its doctrine still shapes and will always shape me in ways that are probably impossible to understand for anyone but Heavenly Father and me, how could I try to convey? I can't anymore than you can fully express what has truly made you who you are.
Love you, Sara. I don't think any of us have taken deep personal offense. Misunderstandings are important, too. Thanks for giving an avenue for this, though. I sometimes think about this and never talk to anyone about it.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Oh, Yvonne -- you have given me relief from a worry that I have had for the last few hours!

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lauren, she also excluded her own mother -- Don't feel left out. It's not a matter of her being arrogant, but feeling especially comfortable and speaking openly to particular people about particular subjects. Sara is the least arrogant person I know. You know that.

I think it's funny that people don't talk about joy in the same way they do pain. I mean, who goes on about their especially wonderful high school experience. Or says, "hey, you don't know joy the way I know joy." For some reason we all automatically understand when someone says they experience joy. When it comes to pain, though, we treat it as if everyone is different, lines are blurred, someone has had it more difficult, etc. I like that for some reason those lines are solid and in bold when it comes to the good things. When someone says, "that person helped someone today," we know what it feels like to serve. I don't think it is any different when someone says, "that person cried today," because we all know what it feels like to hurt (no matter what the circumstance is).

It's really about having compassion and like you said, Sara, "But my point is that to experience something is not the key to understanding. Listening is. Learning is. Serving is." I liked this post. Has anyone ever commented on a blog, "I hate this post"? That would be funny, too.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Lexi, I love your comment. See? This is what I'm talking about when I say that you're a creative thinker. I REALLY, REALLY liked the part about how we blur the lines when it comes to the negative things in life.

You're funny.

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What I'm saying is that education -- not experience -- is one of the keys to being well-informed and smart."

I disagree with you on that. To side with you though, I think negative conotations of ignorance or "shelteredness" should only be derived after the fact. An extreme example is that I'm ignorant to what it's like to kill a man, but that's not a bad thing. The same could be said about being sheltered from the commonly accepted "negative" use of drugs. If you're sheltered from truth or intellectually productive experiences, then I think you've got a problem.

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I would like to throw in my two cents.

I have to agree with both Sara and Lauren on the meaning of the term "sheltered." I agree with Sara that most times it is a derogatory statement referring to ignorance in it's modern usage. I also know that an empathetic person understands the proper usage to mean protected from something which leads to inexperience and a lack of knowledge. Not ignorance. Ignorance is from the root word ignore which means it was an intentional act to overlook something by the person. Being sheltered is usually an act performed on someone.

Anyway, moving on. Experience can be the greatest educator of all. It depends on the person and the situation. What a person learns and takes away from an event determines the value of experience. Let's not forget that Sara's use of the word education is in fact an experience like any other.

As for traumatic experiences there is no amount of second hand knowledge that can ever give a person the complete understanding and viewpoint of someone who experienced a particular event. These events usually become measures of one's will and a test upon their soul. No two people will suffer the exact same trials and even if they did they probably wouldn't view them the same. Saying any different would be an act of ignorance.


8:34 PM  

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