In honor of National Coming Out Day, I will be giving my best personal defense of queerness and living as queer either in or outside of the closet. For greater context, please also see I Am Transgender and I Am Transgender (Part 2) in addition to Dear Christians.
I think my mother is a beautiful person and a strong woman in every sense. I fully accept who she is and am proud she is my mother. I think we can ultimately agree on that. However, I also know it is likely she’s struggled to make sense of me. She’s struggled to know what it means to be me, and perhaps what it means to be a woman (or even what it means to be her), in light of her LDS faith. I want to help her make sense of it in a way that honors and respects who she is. In order to do that, I am about to traverse territory she may find uncomfortable, but I think it will ultimately help her achieve peace, which I know she deserves–a peace that was taken from her; a peace that she seeks to reclaim; a peace that I seek to reclaim.
From these six maxims, there is one more thing that follows: the absurd. What is the absurd? The notion of the absurd is what has given me a sense of existential anxiety (or angst)–an intense feeling of apprehension, anxiety, or inner turmoil in response to the absurd. What is the absurd? The absurd is the notion wherein humans find themselves in a position of having to find meaning in a meaningless world. As humans, we cannot but help seek meaning in a world that has none, and in order to do so, we act as if there is inherent meaning whether we admit this or not.
A part of being authentic is admitting this. Only when we realize there is no inherent meaning in the world can we take responsibility for our choice to create it. Some respond to this with dread and refuse to accept this responsibility. They assert that the world has inherent meaning and the only responsibility we have is to find it, or rely on others to tell us what it is. But that is not an authentic choice. It is an abdication of our responsibility.
This is not incompatible with theism. Many theists admit to this and take responsibility by acknowledging that God isn’t there to give people meaning, but is instead there to guide them in their own creation of meaning. That is ultimately the basis of my interpretation of Mormonism, or what you might call “the gospel” (which I will get to later). It’s the one way I can make it make the most sense to me. Thus it contains truth as far as I can make it do that. (Please note you do this as well which I will also get to later.)
You can find these existentialist themes in all kinds of art and literature. One of the reasons I loved The Little Mermaid so much was the theme that Ariel can choose what it means to be her and what her life will be. Peter Pan also symbolized this radical freedom in the form of flight. When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by flight. It was very early on when I decided that if I were able to choose a superpower, it would be the power of flight. I can’t imagine any greater sense of exhilaration one could get. It’s a similar kind of exhilaration I feel when I become aware of my existential angst and the absurd. Yes, it’s tempting to hide from it. It’s scary and it does seem bleak, but like a seemingly scary roller coaster ride, it doesn’t have to be.
The ability to fly was also one of the things that made me so fascinated by Superman. Not only could he fly, but he also had super strength, super speed, and several other abilities. However, the one superhero I have been fascinated with the most since I was a little girl, and the one I am most fascinated by now, is Batman.
The story of Batman, at least to me, is the most compelling and explicit articulation of existentialism, and the story arc that best illustrates existential struggle in light of the absurd is the one between Batman and the Joker. In order to understand either one of them, you need to understand what motivates them.
As a young Bruce Wayne, Batman was confronted with the absurd and the existential angst that followed from the death of his parents. During this confrontation, what he refers to as staring at ‘the abyss’, he ultimately chooses to embody conventional forms of morality and justice in a Gotham that is coming apart at the seams. In other words, Batman makes the choice to live authentically by deciding what he values and what it means for him to embody those values as Batman.
The Joker is said to be the opposite side of the same coin. But even more disturbing than that, Joker sees himself and Batman as essentially the same in every respect but one. To the Joker, Batman is the ultimate exemplar of the absurd. What’s worse is Batman knows this. What motivates the Joker is showing Batman how ‘phony’ he really is. He believes there is no right or wrong and there is no justice. We are all just a part of the big joke that is life. Joker’s goal is to make Batman laugh at that joke by getting him to abandon his chosen purpose and embrace this belief. Hence the violence and chaos that follows the Joker wherever he goes.
Many choose to write off the Joker as insane, but according to Batman canon, Joker doesn’t qualify as technically insane, despite being housed repeatedly at Arkham Asylum. (They just don’t really know what else to do with him.) He is ‘pathologically sane’, and that’s the scariest thing about him as it forces us to ask the question ‘could we become like him’? To believe otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand him.
The relationship between Batman and the Joker can be captured in the following dialogue taken from “Fools Rush In” by Ian Harrington (this is abridged and other changes are mine; you can use the link to see the full version):
Joker: “So, what’d you think?”
Batman: “I think tonight was a complete failure. I came here for a reason, Joker. I wanted to know why people see us as so similar when we are completely different in every conceivable way. I wanted to see why you and Twoface say we are two sides of the same coin, but all I’ve gotten from you is stories and jokes. So I think that I hope for too much from you…and that I have failed myself.”
Joker: “You actually came here and expected me to explain it? Like it was nothing? Like a common fact you wanted me to state? Honestly?”
Joker: “Fine. I suppose I owe you that much. First, we must accept something before we move on.”
Batman: “And that is?”
Joker: “That God is Santa Claus. And by that, I mean all forms of ‘God’ whether that be Jesus, Shiva, or any other of those magic men. They do not exist and are all lies used to control people. Agreed?”
Joker: “Good! Now then the second thing we need to accept is that no matter what you do, none of it matters and we are all completely insignificant!”
Batman: “People’s lives are significant!”
Joker: “No they’re not! Take a moment and think about Earth. Think about all the people and animals and things on it. Then think about all the materials below its surface. Think about it all balled up into one giant mass. This ball is larger than any of us can comprehend, even if we put a number on it. Which is what? Six Sextillion metric tons? Now let us take that inconceivable mass and add to it. Let’s add Mercury, Venus, and Mars, too. And we can’t forget the asteroid belt! Now let’s add the gas giants: Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune. And let’s add all of the minor planets: Pluto, Eris, and all the rest! Let’s take this and remove it from the solar system completely, so all we are left with is the sun. Do you know what percent of mass our solar system has lost? 0.15%, an insignificant amount of matter. And so the solar system carries on, and what happens to the Milky Way if we remove the Sun, too? Nothing. How much is the universe affected if we remove the Milky Way Galaxy? Not at all! So in the large scope of things, you will and must admit that because there is no God, that because there is no eternity and Heaven, what we do is utterly insignificant and we don’t matter.”
Joker: “Is this not true?”
Joker: “And you will admit that because there is no room for obscurity, no time for something to be definitive, that something is or it is not. It’s either black or white. There is no grey, only the illusion thereof. And if something is grey, it is truly black. If something appears to be but actually cannot, then it ceases to be.”
Batman: “You don’t mean…”
Joker: “Yes! This applies to everything! Hahahaha!!! Because innocence can be destroyed, there is no innocence. Because random injustice can occur, there is no justice. Because something that’s good can be bad, can be evil, there is no good. Once you accept all of this, then you realize that life is not completely meaningless. Are you ready?”
Joker: “Good! Ya see, that’s not all. Life can’t just be meaningless. Like all things, it finds a purpose. It finds something in order to keep it going. So it turns to the only sensible thing: humor. Life goes on joke after joke, life after life. None of them matter, they’re all just jokes. People go their entire lives pursuing some ultimate goal, chasing some end trying to get some means when in the grand scope of things they have no effect. At all! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Get it? But wait, that’s not all! Nope! Insignificance isn’t always good enough. Death isn’t always the punch line. Sometimes people go through horrible things and are forced to continue on in this hopeless world anyway. So murder, beatings, rape, genocide, war, poverty, persecution, cannibalism, mass suicide, child abuse, deformity, addiction, insanity–and let’s not forget being a member of society!–are all just little bits to spice up this horrible joke played by nobody on everybody!”
Joker: “And you are the greatest of these jokes. You know and admit all of this, yet you refuse to give up on it all! You continually insist on trying to make a difference, on trying to change all of this, even though you full well know you can’t! And it is because of this sense of morality that I exist! I am here for no other reason than I accept all of this and want to make you admit that no matter what you mean nothing! That your actions are wasted! That it’s all a joke that you refuse to get! So I kill people, and you save them. I blow up buildings while you save hostages. And we fight on rooftops because we both know the same thing, but are on different sides on how to deal with it! That’s us, Batsy. That’s why we’re two sides of the same coin.”
Batman: “I am an intelligent being, and I can admit that you are right. But killing people, slaughtering them just to continue the joke that is our lives is not the only solution. It’s not even a solution. Just because our actions don’t matter in the long run, just because we are insignificant does not mean that we cannot try to make the world a better place. Even if it’s only an illusion, we can try to preserve innocence, we can strive to do justly, and we can hope one day to have done some good. Good night, Joker.”
Joker: “I’ll just have to disagree, Batsy! But let’s do it again sometime! Hahahahaha!!! Thanks for the game. It was fun.”
Batman: “I think I have one more for you, Joker.”
Batman: “What would you do if I quit? What would you do if you tried to put on one of your shows and I didn’t come by to stop it, and I never did again?”
Joker: “…THAT’S…NOT…FUNNY! That’s not funny, Batman! YOU HEAR ME?! THAT’S NOT FUNNY!”
Both Batman and Joker are confronted by the absurd, or the fact that life has no inherent meaning, but seem to deal with it in different ways. The Joker uses violence to deliver the punchline to Batman. However, Batman realizes that in light of the absurd, he can still make a choice. He can still choose to create meaning for himself–to live an authentic life and uphold morality and justice anyway– by being Batman.
In reality, it is the Joker who is the biggest joke of all. He chooses to evade responsibility for his actions by pretending to believe that Batman’s existence compels him to commit atrocities as a real solution to the absurd. In other words, the Joker is inauthentic. If Batman were to cease to be Batman, Joker would no longer have anyone to laugh at his joke. He needs Batman, not the other way around. Batman forces Joker to realize that Batman could choose to just walk away, and that gives Joker angst.