Facing East: Thoughts on (Dis)Orientation
I was talking with a friend the other day who was feeling uneasy about his life. Like me, he has known since he was a boy that he is gay, yet (because he was a faithful Mormon boy) he married and had children, then eventually came to a point where he could no longer continue to live the way he was. He is now divorced and is living openly as a gay man.
Though he does not regret coming out of the closet and embracing his true self, he admits to experiencing periods of disorientation in his life: times when he feels uneasy, uncomfortable and anxious about where hes at.
I could empathize. I have felt many such periods since embracing my gayness last October, and I have mentioned various episodes in previous blog posts. (Just how many times I had done so, I didnt realize until doing a Google search on my blog site.)
And so, I have reflected these past days on the subject of orientation and disorientation. In the course of doing so, I decided to look up the etymology, or history, of the word orientation. I was surprised by what I found and by how relevant I think this history is to a discussion of homosexuality.
An Etymological Lesson
The word orientation comes from the word orient, which in turn derives from the Latin word oriens meaning “east” (literally “rising” from orior “rise”). The use of the word for “rising” to refer to the east (where the sun rises) has analogs from many languages, such as Levant (rising) in French and Vostok in Russian (from voshkhod, meaning sunrise). Also, many ancient temples, including pagan temples and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (as well as most Mormon temples), were built with their main entrances facing the East. To situate them in such a manner was to “orient” them in the proper direction. When something was facing the correct direction, it was said to be in the proper “orientation”.
(Interestingly, and parenthetically, as I was reading this material, my thoughts turned to Carol Lynn Pearsons play, Facing East, which I have not seen, but I understand that the title was a reference to the LDS belief that the dead should be buried oriented toward the east. The reason for doing so is the belief that Jesus Christ will return from the east, and when the dead are resurrected, they should arise facing east in order to meet Christ.)
The word orient was apparently first used in the English language by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375 in his Knights Tale. The term grew in common usage, and by the early 1700s, church architects would say that their sanctuaries were oriented because they faced east. By the mid 1800s, people spoke of other things as well as people that could be oriented, which by this point didnt always have to mean that they faced toward the east. Eventually, the term disoriented came to mean a loss of direction and confusion.
The term orientation has a special significance to homosexuals. It is a term that has come into common usage whereby others, typically not the homosexuals themselves, describe the sexual preferences of gays and lesbians. One would not, for example, typically hear a gay person make a statement such as the following: My sexual orientation is ________. What? How would one complete this sentence? One simply doesnt say this. Right?
I find it interesting that the whole concept of orientation originally referred to ones position vis–vis only one of the four points of the compass: east. If one wasnt facing east, one wasnt properly aligned, and eventually, one was referred to as dis-oriented. Similarly, in the realm of sexuality, heterosexuality is the equivalent of east. It is the standard. Anything else becomes not properly aligned, not properly oriented, or dis-oriented.
The use of the term orientation also compartmentalizes sexual identity by reducing everything that forms part of that identity into a sexual direction. Again, thinking of the history of the term, its like saying that a church wasnt a real church if it wasnt facing east, that the whole identity of that church, congregation and parish was bound up in which way the front door faced. (Or like believing that someones resurrection is going to be somehow defective because they are buried in the proper direction.)
These are some negative aspects of use of the term orientation as applied to sexual identity. But I read something the other day that conveys a positive aspect of the use of this word. James Alison, a gay Catholic priest and theologian (of whom I plan to write more in future posts), commented as follows in the context of a discussion of the effects that scientific advances in the understanding of homosexuality, and the ineffectualness of various therapies that have sought to change ones sexual orientation, have had upon ones perception of ones divine acceptance (for lack of a better term):
[People whove been through various of these therapies can] actually say, ‘Do you know, in good conscience, I’ve now pursued every option that those people told me I ought to pursue. So now I can relax into knowing that it’s not the case.’ And then they discover, of course, as I’ve come to discover as well, that thing which the Catholic faith has taught me is true, which is that we have a certain orientedness to what is true. When something is true, you relax; this is part of the goodness of creation [emphasis added].
I think gay Mormons (and others) could ponder Alisons statement and perhaps learn something.
My friend was definitely not feeling confused or anxious about his sexual orientation, and I have never felt such confusion since leaving the closet. To the contrary, I have felt increasingly clarity not only with respect to my sexual identity, but concerning every aspect of my identity since starting the coming-out process.
Rather, the disorientation he was feeling and that I have felt is, I think, a product both of changing ones bearings to face ones true East i.e., accepting ones true identity and re-orienting ones life toward what is true (to use Alisons words) and of the general human condition. This malaise was described in a profoundly meaningful homily I heard a few weeks ago at a mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine:
One of the most fundamental insights of the Christian view of the world is that to be human is to be on a pilgrimage. At any moment in our lives we are still on the way, still in process, still unfinished To be a pilgrim people helps explain why we are often so often unsatisfied with our achievements and feel ill at ease with where we find ourselves Human beings have pilgrim hearts, pilgrim souls.
But what keeps this disorientation from turning into depression and despair is the faith that was described in the above-referenced talk:
There is a divine design, a divinely inspired order, a meaning to our lives. This leads us to the faith that our lives are not thrown together at random, that we do not exist by accident, that we are not alone or abandoned in a meaningless and ultimately disordered world.
This conviction is particularly important in moments of crisis. For in such moments, we see nothing but chaos and disorder, and we are tempted to give up. We feel caught in a tangle of disarray, a web of meaninglessness. We cry out in our hearts, Why? Whats the point? Why is all this happening?
Yet, according to Christian faith, there is a divine plan at work in all human situations. That does not for a moment mean that God is manipulating every situation of crisis, least of all that God is testing us deliberately by messing up our lives. (Who could have any love for such a God?)
The notion of a divine plan or design means that each crisis can become a moment of opportunity. We are called to search out the value, the possibility for growth, the creative response. Every crisis is an opportunity; every burden a chance to practice virtue; every disorder is a challenge to find order.
One of the most fantastic things that has happened to me since I came out of the closet is, out of disorder, I am finding order. Out of disorientation (i.e., orienting myself to something I wasnt), I am finding my true orientation.
But most of all, out of theoplasticorporatism, I am rediscovering my humanity. I am a human. Homo sum.
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto
(I am a man. I consider nothing human to be foreign to me)
Invictus Pilgrim blogs here.