Monday, April 18, 2011

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 he’s 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 didn’t 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 Pearson’s play, Facing East (about a faithful Mormon couple dealing with the suicide of their gay son), 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. (For those reading this who are not Mormon, Carol Lynn Pearson is a well-known poet and author in the Mormon world and the closest thing there is to a “patron saint” of the Mormon gay community.)

The word “orient” was apparently first used in the English language by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375 in his Knight’s 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 didn’t always have to mean that they faced toward the east.  Eventually, the term “disoriented” came to mean a loss of direction and confusion.

Sexual Orientation

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 doesn’t say this.  Right?

I find it interesting that the whole concept of “orientation” originally referred to one’s position vis-à-vis only one of the four points of the compass:  east.  If one wasn’t facing east, one wasn’t 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, it’s like saying that a church wasn’t a real church if it wasn’t 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 someone’s 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 one’s sexual orientation, have had upon one’s perception of one’s “divine acceptance” (for lack of a better term):

“[People who’ve 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 could ponder Alison’s statement and perhaps learn something.

Human Disorientation

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 one’s bearings to face one’s “true East” – i.e., accepting one’s true identity and re-orienting one’s life toward “what is true” (to use Alison’s words) – and of the general human condition.  This malaise was described in a profoundly meaningful talk I heard a few weeks ago:

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?”  “What’s 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 wasn’t), I am finding my true orientation.

But most of all, out of theoplasticorporatism, I am finding 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)

~ Terence
Roman Playwright


  1. Another scholarly post - I enjoyed it!

    I couldn’t help but think of David Whyte’s book “The Heart Aroused”. An excerpt seems apropos to your topic. The context is from his development of a Dante (Commedia) quote. (Forgive the length – but it’s worth it.)

    “When all the things we want beyond our reach move slowly within our reach, it is easy to feel good about life. But if our sense of well-being becomes dependent on the constant delivery of goods to our door, we experience a sense of loss when the supply suddenly dries up, or we no longer perceive it has the same value. At this point we are thrown back on ourselves and must live on what we find there. In a way we are finally forced to rely on the one thing already within the compass of our grasp—our soul’s natural entanglement in the world. This entanglement is often perceived for the first time through a sense of loss. It is as if we first stumble into our belonging by realizing how desperately out of place we feel. This sense of loss has a natural way of drawing us inside ourself. We might at first label the body’s simple need to focus inward depression. But as we practice going inward, we come to realize that much of it is not depression in the least; it is a cry for something else, often the physical body’s simple need for rest, for contemplation, and for a kind of forgotten courage, one difficult to hear, demanding . . . . another life.”

    “Seven centuries ago, Dante Alighieri began his magisterial epic on existence, the Commedia, with these words:

    In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost."

    In the wild and emphatic vowel sounds of medieval Italian, Dante’s first line carries the impact of a speeding jetliner, after long flight, jolting to earth on a foreign runway. Nel mezzo . . . del cammin . . . de [27] nostra vita . . . mi retrovai . . . per un oscure selva. “In the middle . . . of the road . . . of my life . . . I awoke . . . in a dark wood.”’

    ““When you do wake, you are rousing a different part of you, a barely experienced life that lies at your core. Having forgotten this central soul experience, you do not recognize where you are. To the part of you that loved your sleep, it feels as if it is waking in the dark. It appears to be lost.””

    Here’s to finding our “true” way - our orientation.


  2. Trey, it's worth the effort of writing a post such as this in order to receive comments such as yours. Thank you.