A Taoist Reading of “The Family—A Proclamation to the World”: Romance
now let us begin our lives as a family— in love forever
A Quick Review
This essay follows A Taoist Reading of “The Family—A Proclamation to the World”: Extremes and Their Resolution. In that exploratory effort, I used the Taoist hermeneutic of yin and yang to highlight the dialectical structure of the Proclamation. On the one hand, the document asserts mutually exclusive categories of femaleness and maleness—“mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children;” “fathers are to preside . . . and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection.” On the other, the Proclamation resolves these differences, as women and men “help one another as equal partners.” I argued that the Taoist attitude toward opposites helps us consider how beginning with extremes (ji 極) can make their perfected resolution in “no extremes” (wuji 無極) possible. From the inclusion of everything, the perfection of nothingness (where all distinctions are harmonized) emerges.
A similar dialectical view of opposite extremes is expressed in our doctrine of “opposition in all things.” This teaching helps us understand how female-male interactions are driven by both antipathy and affinity. The move from temptation to expulsion narrates the process of resolving our differences in achieving what Jesus called being “perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Human perfection would have the sun and rain fall on those who deserve it. But our Heavenly Parents, who have perfected their gendered differences, would give blessings to all, without discrimination. This state of unbounded generosity not only defines a good marriage and family, it also shapes human existence. Again, only by beginning with two mutually exclusive stereotypes do we achieve the nothingness that is the perfection of everything.
Eden and the World are themselves opposing stereotypes—one ideal, the other not. Like the first woman and the first man, these two places were set against each other. Eve and Adam were expelled into the lone and dreary world precisely because the Garden was not a perfectly good place to be in isolation. Had Eve and Adam stayed in Paradise, neither stereotypical woman nor stereotypical man could have come to understand God’s divine nature. Accordingly, neither would they have come to understand their own human nature.
In the Garden, Eve and Adam reacted to each other in antipathy—in shame, as expressed by the aprons they wore to cover their nakedness. Once expelled into the lone and dreary world, however, they were given the opportunity to find and exercise their affinity for each other. They built an altar and prayed to God, who sent true messengers to minister to them, to teach them how to resolve their differences and to love each other. By way of God’s mediation, this world of misery was miraculously transformed into a realm of joy. “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:25)
In this second essay, I would like to explore the role that romance plays in this resolution of extremes. Is romantic attraction for the Other a necessary condition for the being and joy mentioned in 2 Nephi?
Romance is a love of stereotypes. It is not an appreciation of everything about the Other. It is also not a universal phenomenon, sociologically speaking. Not all cultures at all times have encouraged it. In the case of premodern Japan, amorous love led some people to their life partners. But for people of higher social standing, there was a more rational, dare I say a more “opposition-in-all-things” view of intimacy.
In the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1563-1725), ninjō, 人情 or human feeling, is set against giri, 義理 duty or responsibility. Romantic passion for the wrong person could make you forget your family duties; and this could ruin your life. The dramatic point of Chikamatsu’s Love Suicides at Amijima (Shinjū Ten no Amijima, 1721) was “double suicide” (心中 shinjū), where star-crossed lovers commit suicide because the strictures of society cannot tolerate their love for each other. The play was, needless to say, a critique of social inflexibility while being an expose of romantic folly.
With the Meiji Restoration (1868) came an influx of Western culture that helped normalize romance. Gradually, “arranged marriage” yielded to “love marriage.” Today conditions in Japan are much like those in America. People fall in love. They expect sexual attraction to lead them to a partner in marriage.
We Latter-day Saints affirm romantic love. We celebrate it. We depend on sexual attraction to bridge the gap between us and the Other. For this reason, the music of Johnny Mathis, balladeer of romantic love, still speaks to us. Romance might be an extreme form of love; but it is a delirium that has become socially acceptable.
Here is Mathis’ famous “Wonderful! Wonderful!” (released in 1956). It enthusiastically affirms romantic love.
The world is full of wondrous things it’s true But they wouldn't have much meaning without you Some quiet evenings I sit by your side And we’re lost in a world of our own I feel the glow of your unspoken love I’m aware of the treasure that I own And I say to myself, it’s wonderful, wonderful Oh, so wonderful my love!
The love described here is a glowing “treasure that I own.” But what exactly is being owned here? Is it the singer’s love, or is it his beloved? In other words, what is the “my love” in “Oh, so wonderful my love!” Romantic lovers seem to conflate “my feelings” with “my beloved” even as this attraction is partial and extreme (rather than impartial and moderate).
What can we say about the role that romance plays in our eternal progression? If lovers are allowed to be “lost in a world of [their] own,” where exactly is this world where romance happens? Clearly, it isn’t the Garden of Eden. Scrambling to cover their nakedness before God, Eve and Adam were lost. But they were lost in shame, not in wonder. The “world of [our] own” about which Matthis sings therefore has to be the less-than-paradisiacal lone and dreary world to which Eve and Adam were expelled. This less idyllic place is where love, “a paradise within thee, happier far” occurs. Romance happens not in Paradise, but in what John Milton (1608–74) described as Paradise Lost.
Back in Eden, antipathy seems to have had the upper hand. After all, didn’t Adam blame Eve for his nakedness before God? In response to this ill feeling, two things had to happen. In order for Eve and Adam to discover their affinity for each other, angels were sent to guard the Tree of Life, to make sure that they did not remain forever in this antagonistic (ashamed of their nakedness) state of mind. For the same purpose, they were cast out of the Garden, forced to leave God’s presence in order to find themselves lost, not in shame but in their desire for each other.
In a lone and dreary world, Eve and Adam were able to respond to their alienation in a way that allowed them to forgive and to love each other. They built an altar of stones and prayed. Their call for help was first met by a visit from Lucifer. This time, however, they see the tempter for who he really is—a false friend, a rebellious brother, an enabler of their antipathy. Fortunately for the expelled couple, true messengers next came to their aid. Lucifer was dismissed, and the antipathy that had formed between woman and man found a way to turn into affinity.
We don’t know the exact details of the message that got delivered to Eve and Adam, unless, of course, it was the endowment itself. If so, the message they received was the same as the one being delivered to us by our contemporary true messengers. “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”
For this commandment to be fulfilled, the shame of nakedness has to be overcome. This is why, as a part of the temple ceremony, we put on an apron of green leaves, take it off, and put it back on again. This dialectical process resolves the antipathy and affinity that exists between women and men. Notably, the robes of the holy priesthood that both women and men together wear are added to the apron to signify the greater purpose (and bounds) of human sexuality. Once fully clothed in green and white, we are able to learn about chastity and consecration. So prepared, we pray together around the altar, then pass through the veil that is Jesus Christ. Through Him and by Him, female and male extremes have become fully mediated, making possible a state of eternal happiness and glory. We find each other in the celestial room, where our extremes have been resolved.
Once again, categories of woman and man exist stereotypically as a starting point. They are conceptually uncomfortable yet necessary since only the union of two mutually exclusive categories makes the resolved non-category of everything possible. We are to become perfect, not as the world conceives of “the perfect woman” or “the perfect man,” but as the infinitely more complicated and nuanced family that Jesus makes possible through his atonement.
As clearly expressed in our temple ceremony, the successful resolution of female and male extremes depends as much on what gets put on (in antipathy) as on what gets taken off (in affinity). Should we resist the challenge to resolve all the many complicated feelings that putting on, taking off, and putting back on the aprons that cover our nakedness represent, then our love for each other might eventually die. Even the strong forces of romantic love will not lead us to eternal life if they don’t yield to the more inclusive kind of love that Jesus taught.
If the limitations of romance are not recognized, we will end up with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” As Boyd K. Packer suggested, when not “glorified and augmented,” the attraction fades. Without faith in a vision of perfected women and men, our being pulled toward each other does not necessarily lead to resolution and eternal happiness.
Here is Johnny Mathis once again.
Too much, too little, too late to lie again with you. Too much, too little, too late to try again with you. We're in the middle of ending something that we knew. It’s over. It’s over!
If Mathis’s early hit was about the excitement of romantic love, his late-career comeback tune, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” is about the painful end of romance. The truth is, when not guided by our promises to be “perfect even as [our] Heavenly Father is perfect,” romantic frenzy can (and often does) end in disappointment and alienation.
To be sure, romance can be helpful in the process of learning how to be happy. Eros plays a central role in the eventual resolution of stereotypes. Our libidinal passions make us adventurous and brave. They do us a favor by making us aggressive enough to realize the need to be gentle. They help us shoulder the responsibilities of caring for a spouse and children. If things go well, the green apron gets taken off and put back on, later to be taken off, then put on, then taken off, and so on as we learn, grow together, and become one. Happy is the couple whose green aprons become worn well and well-worn. But for this to happen, opposition in all things must exist, and it must also be mediated in ways that move us toward resolution rather than to conflict and alienation.
Pushing ahead against the centrifugal force of swirling yin and yang, we faithfully enter into covenants in order to resolve the many challenges that women and men both pose to each other and for each other. Without a mutual commitment to “work things out,” disappointing discoveries (including a loss of ardor) come to threaten our relationships. If we don’t learn how to resolve the trials and disappointments that naturally come along, we eventually find that it becomes too late to either “lie” or “try” again with you.
It’s over. We move on. We find the next lover. And, if no lessons have been learned, we fail again. A world of such disappointments becomes lonely and dreary indeed. On the other hand, if we learn how to make the necessary adjustments, then life can become wonderful. To wit, it is possible to be happily married to someone who is very different from us, at least in the beginning.
Is the picture of romance that we present to our children both honest enough and encouraging enough to help them find this happiness? Perhaps our thoughts about love are too sanguine and overly romanticized to be perfectly helpful. To some, the promised “happily ever after” might seem too good an outcome for the struggle that yin and yang require. It is easy to be cynical. Thus, the surprising point of “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” The way to happiness is to be slapped twice and to live without judgment.
Our journey to the perfection of wuji takes time. It takes real effort. Beginning with stereotypes—women do things this way, and men do things that way—lovers are compelled to consider all things, to leave nothing out, including difficult instincts, puzzling habits, and, yes, many inadequacies. In order for our rawness to become perfected—not as people are perfect, but as God is perfect—romantic love (a kiss for those who deserve it) must gradually yield to godly love (a kiss for those who do not deserve it). In this way, the inclusiveness of the atonement is not unlike the Taoist notion of resolution (wuji) or the Buddhist idea of nothingness (mu). All three traditions begin with stereotypes in order to resolve them. Studying them in this comparative way can help us discover the lost truths that are to be restored in these latter (postmodern) days.
by the barn door– gloves curl upon the ground and clutch the sunlight
By forming into new families, couples give themselves to the intense interactions that can lead to two of life’s greatest blessings: companionship and posterity. As wonderful as both are, the ways that female-ness and male-ness need to be handled in order to make eternal families possible makes us realize a sobering truth about this cleaving of women and men. Who can make us unhappier than those we love (or try to love), especially when the things that draw us into engagement are so often the romanticized qualities of the Other? If this love of stereotypes is to be resolved, surely the softness of yin and the hardness of yang will have to be negotiated again and again, grace by grace, not only as opposites that attract (in affinity), but also as opposites from which we push away (in antipathy).
What is a possible Latter-day metaphor for this ancient process of yin and yang interaction? Perhaps we might compare married couples to pioneers with handcarts.
For some must push
And some must pull
As we go marching up the hill
So merrily on the way we go
Until we reach the valley-o.
—Our Children’s Songs, 220
As young lovers begin their journey toward eternal life, we can only hope the wheels of newly found love are not made of uncured wood, and that an early snowstorm is not on the way. The trek is long and requires much singing and dancing. The hills are steep, the valleys deep.
This is not to say that the trail of opposition-in-all-things is meant to be a road of endless conflict. Rather, it is a Way (a dao, 道), an invitation to understand the inherently conflicted nature of sexuality, gender, love, and family life. Becoming one with our partners is a dynamic, dialectical process that can conceivably get us to “happily ever after.” But this happens if and only if we understand the ways that happiness is unhappiness, and unhappiness is happiness. We are going to make mistakes. Therefore, only repentance and forgiveness are going to keep us going. As President Hinckley suggested, the goal is to get the handcart to the promised land–filled with a few clothes, a modest measure of flour, a baby or two, and, okay, maybe a cell phone. For this to happen, there has to be both pushing and pulling.
this is the right place— here is the hill that is also the promised valley life eternal– the floor of the minivan covered with cheerios
What a journey we’re on! How blessed we are to have true messengers to guide us during this expulsion from Paradise! When shaped by covenants, a dialectic of opposition in all things enables disagreement without argument, difference without tension. When guided by covenants, we learn how to mediate for those in need and to reconcile ourselves with a challenging world. From the unhappiness of the Fall, we recoup the joy of the Atonement. In the lone and dreary world, we find true love. This is a discovery worth the bumps along the way.
This capacity to make necessary adjustments for the sake of “Us” is a talent that today’s world seems to painfully lack, whether in its family life, its economic activity, or its political maneuvering. We proudly over-appreciate extreme identities that cannot be resolved. We withdraw into sameness, leading to a situation where we are all push and no pull, or all pull and no push.
The blue hills of fluttering aspen look down on the red valleys of irrigated fields, as women and men glance over their shoulders and curse the ones they want, the ones they aren’t, the ones they want to be.
But there is a way to be Us. Jesus’ atonement is about getting to Us. It is the Dao, the Truth, and the Life. It is the call to obedience, to sacrifice, to learning and living the gospel, to chastity, and to consecration. It is the purpose of sexual attraction, the harvest of tenderness. Expelled from Eden, we begin this process of learning how to embrace difference. We adjust to the Other. If antipathy reveals a need to change, affinity gives us the energy to act with hope, faith, and promise.
We Latter-day Saints acknowledge both antipathy and affinity. For this reason, we still celebrate a couple’s decision to get married. Relatives gather. Guests are invited. Food is shared. The hopeful act is commemorated, consecrated, and shaped by our covenants with God.
We Latter-day Saints still celebrate family life. Weddings make us happy. And yet, none of the sealers in our temples seem to be telling young couples that their new life together is going to be a breeze. Within the mirrored chambers of eternal promises, our spiritual sensei articulate the need to remember opposition in all things. If understood correctly, the opposing forces of yin and yang will push and pull us toward that dot of eternal promise in the very middle of the swirl, toward the extreme-less state of wuji. But we must have our minds set on resolving our differences and learning how to truly love each other if this is to happen. We repent. We forgive. We press forward toward eternal life, where all things are present.
a pan and a spoon— will someone take that towel and wipe the counter?
Praise to those fearful ones who take the fearless plunge! For you, a chain of haiku to celebrate your happiness together.
why does this feel like we’re in on a secret? surrounded by cousins the doors are closed— my favorite uncle ate Korean last night is that really me? the rest of my life bouncing between two mirrors? sun and rain for all— we kneel on opposite sides dressed in the same robes our garments spotless— I squeeze your hand at the holy altar and say “yes” you slip a gold band onto my waiting finger— our free will and choice now let us begin our lives as a family— in love forever
Charles Shirō Inouye is Professor of Japanese Literature and Visual Culture at Tufts University and the author of The End of the World, Plan B; zion earth zen sky; and Hymns of Silence.