I don’t like to complain—no, scratch that. I do like to complain, but I’m self-aware enough to realize that I shouldn’t be enjoying it. So believe me when I say that I’m sorry to be enjoying what I’m about to tell you, and I can only hope that once it’s off my chest, I will have it out of my system and the temptation won’t be as strong in the future. That’s how repentance works, right? Oh, wait.
A while back my daughter came to me, Friend magazine in hand, and said something she had read had made her afraid she’d done something “terribly wrong.” (This is the way my daughter talks. She’s a bit of a drama queen.) According to her Friend magazine, a little boy’s mom had gotten him some temporary tattoos because she seemed to recall that he liked them, but this boy knew very well that President Hinckley had said not to get tattoos, and he informed Mom that he intended to follow the Prophet by shunning all tattoos, including the temporary ones. And Mom was so impressed with his valiant spirit that she wrote a letter to the
Friend about it, which is how we came to know the story.
So personally, I’m against tattoos—though I know some lovely people who have them and some perfectly awful people who don’t have any—but this story in the Friend made me knit my brow and do a Marge Simpson growl. “Hrrrrrmmmmm.” Needless to say, all of my children enjoy the occasional temporary tattoo. Since I love cleaning up after the Friend, I assured my daughter that regardless of what this little boy and his mom think, there is a distinct difference between real tattoos and temporary “tattoos.” To wit, one washes off with soap and water, and the other doesn’t. Last time I checked, that mattered—and anyone who thinks it doesn’t might consider consulting a dermatologist.
Now, I know that one could argue that temporary tattoos fall under the category of “avoiding the very appearance of evil,” and I certainly don’t think anyone needs to re-educate this little boy and convince him of his doctrinal folly. (“Go on…just one temporary tattoo…everyone’s doing it…[Hiss]”) Similarly, it’s no skin off my nose if you and your family ban the intentional application of ink to flesh as a means of separating yourselves from the world and growing closer to God. Knock yourselves out. Just don’t put it in my kid’s Friend magazine, which is supposed to be teaching her how to be like Jesus and not how she can enlarge her phylacteries. [Hiss]
I share this anecdote to show unto you all my weakness. We religious people do have our religious hobbies, and mine is mocking other people for their religious hobbies. On my personal blog I had a conversation with a reader-friend who was curious about the ins and outs of the dos and don’ts of Mormon life, and I was explaining to her the difference between normative Mormonism and what I call ascetic Mormonism. Normative Mormonism says you can’t drink coffee or tea. Ascetic Mormonism says you can’t drink Pepsi or Mountain Dew, either. If it’s righteous to avoid R-rated movies, it must be even more righteous to avoid PG-13 movies, too.
So there’s the letter of the law, and there’s the spirit of the law. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t think they were living the spirit of the law. People who seem hung up on the letters just think that’s the best way to live the spirit of the law; if nothing else, they’re being obedient—super-obedient—and obedience never goes against the Spirit. Unless you’re a Nazi, of course. [Hiss]
But it’s not nice to sneer. You know, there are Mormons who use artificial vanilla to avoid the ethical dilemma posed by the fact that real vanilla extract is an alcoholic solution—and I might think those folks are cuckoo (not to mention making inferior-tasting cookies), but it’s really none of my business. The fact is, we all have our little “things”—small, simple taboos we extrapolated from something we heard or read a church leader say once, or just something we concocted out of our own musings on a subject, when we had nothing better to do (or rather, had nothing better we wanted to do).
After all, there aren’t many gospel principles one can live perfectly. Ever try being perfectly honest, or perfectly long-suffering, or perfectly charitable? These are subjective values. Messy human details often get in the way. You know, people are sometimes jerks. Sometimes two (or more) goods conflict with one another. Sometimes what’s right depends on the situation. There’s turning the other cheek, and then there’s bending over and saying, yes sir may I have another, and that latter one isn’t technically scriptural, right? (Right?) It can be exhausting, constantly navigating the moral course. We know that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect—because we’re mortal and it’s impossible—but we do believe He expects us to try, and even trying can be hard work sometimes.
When President Hinckley gave his infamous no-tattoos-or-body-piercings talk, what he was really telling the youth was that one’s individuality and identity is best expressed by living one’s values, not by one’s outward appearance. I won’t argue that he wasn’t really against getting tattoos and piercings in weird places; clearly, he was counseling against those things, but in our zeal to follow his counsel—or in our umbrage at the ethical micromanaging–the “why” was kind of left by the wayside. As individuals we want to somehow mark ourselves as distinct from the crowd; it’s part of the process of finding out who we are. President Hinckley’s point, I believe, was that we should distinguish ourselves with our behavior; it’s what we do that counts, and a tattoo or piercing is a very weak symbol indeed.
But it’s still a symbol, and the absence of it is a symbol, too.
I think it’s understandable when we glom onto something we sense can be lived “perfectly” without putting too much strain on ourselves. When we draw very specific boundaries and heavy black lines between permissible and impermissible, that might be putting hedges around the law; there’s the argument that it puts us in a protective circle, ensuring that we don’t rationalize ourselves into increasingly more wicked behavior. Constant vigilance! There’s another way of looking at it, though. I live by a number of standards I don’t think are particularly meaningful in and of themselves. They’re only meaningful in that they serve as tokens of my good intentions—including my intention of not rationalizing myself into increasingly wicked behavior. It’s my way of saying, “I may not be perfect, God, but I’m trying—do you see how I’m trying?” I only say that to God, though. It’s not really the rest of the world’s business.
So if putting up a hedge around a particular law is meaningful to you, I understand completely. I can also understand wanting to share the blessings you’ve received as a result. Just, seriously, keep it out of the Friend and out of the realm of normative Mormonism. I’m already focused on eschewing the espresso truffles and not watching The Matrix, and it’s not meet that a woman should run faster than she has strength.