Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why I Stay

Generally I want to use my blog to lighten up and laugh and hopefully give others the same experience.  However I’ve had a quite a few friends and acquaintances in recent years who have made the decision to leave the (Mormon) church.  They’ve given their or, even more frequently, other people’s accounts with which they agree of what is wrong with the church and thus why they left, or stay not because they believe but so that they can create change.  Many of these accounts are ones that resonate with me and describe processes with which I am familiar.  I remember what it was like to go through these experiences feeling very alone.  I’ve gone back and forth on sharing this because parts of it are extremely painful and intensely personal and I worry that people will read it just to critique and criticize.  Tearing yourself open for people to casually look inside is no small thing.  And frankly I don't know that I want just anybody knowing these things about me.  But I also worry that if the people who have to fight for their testimony keep quiet that those starting the process of doubt will continue to be alone.  I had no one to turn to.  Maybe I experienced this so that others wouldn’t have to be in that same situation.  Just to make it clear this is not meant to serve as a prototype of how all doubter stories do or should work.  This is just what happened to me. 
                It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that I started having doubts about the church, but it wasn’t because I had grown up in a bubble which people or events burst as I often hear other people describe.  As a kid I was bullied so severely that the school administrators called my parents and told them that our family would have to move because they were afraid of what would happen to me if I stayed in the area.  Since this was in Utah the same kids who were so vicious in school were also in my church classes and Young Women organization.  There was literally no escape.  Recent studies have shown that the long term effects of bullying on children are actually worse than those of being abused by an adult; the effects in my case were certainly severe and extreme.  I fell into a deep depression and self-loathing that lasted for decades.  Had it not been for an experience I’ll discuss later I would certainly not have had the strength to keep fighting, and nearly chose not to as it was.  Over the years, starting in my late adolescence, my depression became too severe even for the hope of death to relieve.  I believed that I was so bad, so disgusting, so stupid, so wretched that there was literally no hope of happiness or rest or peace for me in this life or the next.  I thought I was destined to hell, not because of anything that I had done, but because of who, of what, I was.  I castigated myself for every mistake and sin.  I loved my friends but was scared of them, too.  I was terrified of rejection and so more and more held them at a distance.  I failed in school because the bullies and even some of my teachers had told me I was stupid, so what was the point of trying?  I say this only to show that, again, my faith in the church wasn’t the result of having a comfortable life which made faith easy.  It was rather because of that event I referred to earlier.  I won’t go into details, but I will say that during my 6th grade year when the bullying had climaxed I had a pivotal spiritual experience which would affect my whole life.  From it I knew with absolutely certainty that God was real, that Jesus was real and was his son, and that they loved me, were aware of me, and felt the pain I was going through even more deeply than I did, though that didn’t seem possible.  This is what kept me from finally giving in.  This is what kept me going when I was in abject despair for those many years, which even now is hard to write about.  In addition to this during my teens my mother was mayor of our city.  I was able to witness first hand at a young age the misogyny of many church members, and unethical practices frequently used by some people who had callings of trust within the church.  But I knew what I had experienced was true, and I believed it had happened because of my faithfulness in the church, and so I continued to believe the church was true.
                Fast forward about 15 years.  I finished school, got married and started my own family.  Faith was an essential part of who I was as a person.  I could not forget and sought to be true to my experience and how God had helped me.  Depression continued with me but it began in my early 20’s to ebb and flow more, rather than the constant crushing weight it had been.  Periods of normalcy began to be more interspersed with the still debilitating and frequent periods of depression, the normalcy gradually became more regular.  With the help of my husband I also began to be less insecure about my intelligence (or what I perceived as my lack thereof) and started learning more and finding great fulfillment in it.  I began to feel that it was possible that I might have worth, though there were still many sleepless nights of unspeakable agony.  In my late 20’s, however, a storm hit.  A devastating family tragedy occurred.  During this time I experienced pain that I didn’t know was even possible, even with my background.  I prayed and prayed, I begged God that this trial would pass.  After all, Abraham had not actually had to give Isaac.  I heard story after story of people telling of miracles that had happened as a result of faith and prayer.  Surely God would answer the righteous prayer of my family and give us a miracle.  He didn’t.  The trial came and ravaged and laid waste.  Not the trial of a moment, but a trial of years.  I would sit in church and hear people talk of their great faith that brought a miracle in their life.  I would hear people talk about how they had learned about forgiveness because of having to forgive what seemed to me some slight offense that was more the result of thoughtlessness than malice.  I heard about how if you just read your scriptures and prayed and went to church everything would be ok and I WANTED TO SCREAM.  How could stories of forgiveness of petty offenses help when I needed to know how to forgive monsters?  How could stories of the greatness of faith working miracles help when there was nothing I could do but to carry this weight or be crushed under it?  How could such stories inspire when my voice was raw with pleading and my fingers ached from clutching and my mind was numb from hurting?   
                At this same time I also began to become aware of problematic issues in the church.  Feeling oppressed I began to be see oppression elsewhere.  As a woman I had always been content with the female/male roles in the church but now I began to feel resentment over it.  Every time I heard a man talk about how much more righteous women are than men my chest constricted.  If these men really believed that wouldn’t our inspiration be given priority in our stewardships?  Wouldn’t we have an equal voice?  Wouldn’t the teachings and examples of women be given weight and credence not only for the women but the men as well?  If we were so righteous why would our leadership roles always be given with the caveat “under the direction of the priesthood”, which always seemed to amount to “under the direction of men”.  Were we so untrustworthy that we had to seek permission for everything we did?  That we had to be kept in line by a male who would serve as our beneficent presider, always having the power to override anything we thought or said without any room for discussion or appeal?  What happened to that innately angelic female righteousness we’d been hearing so much about?  The Temple, which had once been a refuge, now only seemed to be a reminder of the submissive role that women were expected to play to men.  Unfortunately I didn’t know anyone who had dealt with these issues who could help me and so I turned to a place a friend told me about, a place where people could openly discuss anything regarding the church free from judgement.  It was a Facebook group.  At first I was dubious but when I tried it I found it was an enormous relief.  One could discuss anything and everything and not have what seemed the heavy hand of self-righteous, ignorant judgement hanging overhead.  It was like finally being able to breathe after being under water too long.  Here were people who understood.  Who sympathized.  And if they told me more things that challenged the church and its teachings it was because they wanted me to know the truth.  I had no reason to doubt their motives or sources.  It was the church that had kept secrets.  It was the church that encouraged thoughtlessness and misogyny.  I progressively saw myself and my “friends” (people with whom my relationship was nothing more than a picture and words on a screen) pitted against the “TBM’s” (a phrase used to refer to “traditional believing Mormons”).  The TBM’s were always referred to dismissively.  They were clearly ignorant or brainwashed or stupid or malicious (depending) because if they weren’t they obviously wouldn’t, couldn’t be TBM’s.  We knew this because that was the case with us.  Though it could be conceded that many of their motives might be pure they were still acting on erroneous assumptions that were the result of tradition, not rational thought. 
                It felt so good to belong to this group.  It felt good to be taken seriously and have my concerns taken seriously.  It felt good to be asked to share, and not be told “I don’t want to hear it” or “You should pray”, or “You don’t have faith”, as if continuing on in the church when it was difficult didn’t take faith.  In addition to the doubts, in addition to the trials, I was also on my 4th year of suffering from postpartum depression and two babies who screamed incessantly and rarely slept.  My husband was stressed beyond belief by his dissertation.  I had a narcissistic (though I didn’t know it at the time) neighbor who was emotionally bleeding me dry.  And through it all the only answer that I seemed to get from God was that I had not yet given quite enough.  My faith was shattered, my nerves were raw, my heart was broken, and the heavens were silent.     
                After about two years of this things came to a head.  It was the first time that I seriously began to question my place in the church.  Many of the Facebook group members were leaving and they seemed happy.  Free.  Accepted and admired.  I realized I had 3 options before me: 1. I could leave the church, 2. I could stay in the church and continue to be miserable, 3. I could choose to believe.  And it would have to be a choice because after months of praying there was still no spiritual confirmation.  But I didn’t want to leave the church, and not just because of tradition.  When I looked about me there was no other organization which offered what Mormonism offers.  Other religions preached of a God who eternally punished people, even babies, for not believing in something they’d never been taught.  How could I trade the God of Section 76 for such a God?  Nor could I give up on the hope of a God constituted of both a father and a mother.  Nor could I forget the times that I had been moved by the spirit to do things that had made a difference in people’s lives, been taught things by the spirit that I knew, even then, came from God.  Most people I knew were taking the “spirituality without religion” approach, picking the doctrines they liked and leaving the rest.  But I began to see on the internet how progressively those who defended a traditional view of the church were dismissed, patronized, even attacked for what they said.  It seemed to me that many of the people who left the church were doing the same things as what they were accusing the church of doing.  I even saw one post where a man was rather brutally criticized for saying that he though the church buildings were beautiful.  I saw attacks, dismissals, and, perhaps worst of all, patronization under the appearance of a guiding patience.  Obviously this was not always the case.  But it wasn’t always the case that the church acted like this, either.  In fact, what I realized was that many of the real flaws and criticisms people had with the church were the exact same problems found among those outside it, whether in a religion or not.  They were human error and I began to see that some of those things would simply be universal and would be found no matter where I turned.  I saw people picking and choosing who they did and did not have to listen to, just like they accused TBMs of doing.  If I walked away from religious organization I could certainly surround myself (at least virtually) with people who agree with me, but at what cost?  What would happen to me if I surrounded myself only with people who agreed with me, at least on the things that mattered to me?  In church I may not always be understood, and relationships could be extremely challenging, but wasn’t that what the higher law was about?  Loving enemies, forgiving people who hurt you, seeing God in people you don’t like or get along with or understand and who reciprocate those feelings?  Being forced to be confronted with the fact that the universe does not exist to make you feel important?  Organized religion, particularly Mormonism with its lay clergy and geographically created wards, forces us to break out of ourselves.  Would it be possible to categorically push away all challenging, disagreeable people and not become an egotist?  In my case I didn’t think so.  Plus the fact that, while many members of my ward may not have agreed with me on many issues, they loved me.  They took care of me.  When Johnny was born they brought meals every other day for 3 weeks!  I never asked for that.  It was just done.  They had never shown me anything but love and friendship and acceptance.  Was I really any wiser than them?  Could I honestly believe that they deserved my contempt?  And, most of all, they were physically present.  They weren’t words on a screen which could turn on and off according to how fulfilled the writer felt by our relationship at the moment.  We worked together, worshiped together, fed and shared with one another spiritually and physically.  They were kind to me.  Many of them loved me and even if they didn’t I owed them something.  They were my family, not because I had chosen them or they me, but because sometimes family is simply the people you can serve.       
                One day while I was on the internet people began to critique the testimonies from they had heard.  The greatest criticism was how many people got up to say that they “knew” God and the church, etc. were true when obviously (so said the critics) they didn’t because they couldn’t possibly.  This was a serious jolt to me.  There was much I didn't know, but I did know that God and Jesus were real.  I knew.  What would have been said of my testimony?  Would people have sat back in their pew and smiled expressively, quietly posting on Facebook how I served as further evidence of the thoughtlessness, the brainwashing amongst church members?  Not knowing my history and experiences would they yet honestly feel themselves in a position to judge whether or not I knew what I was talking about?  They would because they did, and so, I realized to my horror, did I.  How long had the lack of evidence been presented as evidence?  Was it reasonable, was it even rational, to suppose that because one person doesn’t know something no one can?  I began to realize that, far from using the critical thinking I had begun to so pride myself on, I had been largely impractical and irresponsible in my reasoning.  It had never occurred to me to check the sources that were being cited or the people citing them.  Were they reliable?  What were their biases?  I had no idea.  That is not to say that there weren’t real, valid points being made, some of which were very disquieting and needed to be considered and used to adjust previous erroneous assumptions.  But what reliable historian or critical thinker categorically accepts one viewpoint and is categorically suspicious of the other?  If I wrote a paper on the destruction of Carthage and only presented the Roman viewpoint as valid, discounting the Carthaginian one on the grounds that their loss made them biased, I would be laughed to scorn.  But wasn’t I doing just that?  Holding one group under suspicion while giving the other my absolute faith?  To read what Joseph Smith’s detractors said but to ignore what Joseph Smith himself said is hardly good research.  Critical thinking does not only require questioning what you think you know, it requires that sources must be held to the same exacting standards and they must be studied with balanced fairness.  What kind of critical thinking determines the validity of an argument based solely on whether or not the hearer has ever experienced it?  Lack of evidence is not evidence and such thinking prevents invention and discovery, including spiritual discovery. 
                I realized that if I was going to know whether or not the Gospel was true I was going to know for myself.  Not because someone told me something.  Not because of my feelings at the moment.  I was going to objectively know.  But I also realized that the only way to do that was in staying in the church.  The Mormon Church, with all its flaws and issues, still offered far more and far better things than anything or anyone else I had heard and it seemed to me that if it’s claims were true that other than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would be the most magnificent, the most wondrous, the most marvelous phenomenon in the history of the world.  And I realized that not knowing whether it was true was not sufficient reason for me to give it up.  I couldn’t give up unless I knew it wasn’t true and I didn’t know that.  I wondered, I worried, I suspected, but I didn’t know or even yet believe it wasn’t true.  I didn’t stop studying the issues but I tried to be responsible in my research, holding all sources to the same standards, and giving fairness to both.  I realized that the Joseph Smith that I had read about online and the Joseph Smith who wrote the Doctrine and Covenants could not have been the same man.  Clearly Joseph Smith was a man plagued by weaknesses and sins and humanity; that I have found.  But I also found something else.  When I tested the fruit of his teachings- reading the scriptures and testing what they said, going to the Temple along with doing an in depth historical study of its ancient and modern history, I found something.  Something that spoke to me in the deepest recesses of my being.  Something which I couldn’t yet hear or understand but which was unequivocally there.  Not peace, not yet.  Something deeper than peace. 
                Something in my mind and spirit began to stir.  I was starting with, if not a bare, at least a razed foundation, trying to keep my mind open to what I would find and how it could change me.  But I also chose to believe.  I had to know and I couldn’t know the church was true without having faith in it any more than I could get on an airplane without having faith it wouldn’t crash-there might be discomfort and concern and fear, but the belief it will work has to at least be enough to override the fear it might not or you can’t, or worse won’t, try.  Without faith there is no trying, without trying there is no discovery, and without discovery there is no knowledge.

                This experience and the people I have met along the way, in and out of the church, in person and online, have given me great gifts.  The knowledge that I know nothing but that I don’t have to stay that way.  The knowledge that Mormonism is a much bigger spectrum than I had thought.  The knowledge that I need other people’s experiences to gain understanding and compassion and humility and growth.  The knowledge that while everyone has something to give people are worth knowing and loving and listening to for their own sake and not just what they can offer you.  The knowledge that to doubt and question is to grow and learn.  I learned that by not putting my greatest resources into the people physically around me and trying my best to turn those into working, meaningful relationships I was becoming proud, cynical and arrogant, and needed to gain the humility that can only come from relationships that you can’t turn off.  I needed to invest time in people who I couldn’t pick and choose.  I needed to really listen to my neighbors, not just hear so I could critique and report.  As I’ve done so I’ve realized that there is no such thing as a TBM.  That people are surprising and profound in ways that can’t be touched on the surface or even just beneath the surface.  You have to go down deep in ways that take time and effort and risk.  In ways that can’t be known on a computer screen.  This experiment has been going on for over 5 years now.  I still struggle.  I am still seeking.  But I have come to know this: I know that what is promised in the prophets and the scriptures and Temple regarding receiving revelation from God is true.  I know that by following the gospel teachings I have been able to commune with God.  I have had my heart and mind open to things I would never have dreamed possible.  That knowledge and those experiences that I have had have come directly from following the teachings of the Mormon Church.  I have found peace and meaning and beauty in the frustration that comes from belonging to a church made up of fallible, sinful, excruciatingly erring people of which I am one and I have seen in glimpses how God sees his children and it has taken my breath away and left me in shocked wonder.  I have seen how God suffers from the choices of his children and yet how he loves them.  Jesus was given so we could hear the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness and love.  The church is given so we can live it.  These things I know and am determined to know more because I know I can know more.  I can’t know God and truth and gospel second hand, thank God, because such can only be known first hand.   And I can tell you this, it can be known first hand.  God can be known, not as an indescribable, unattainable, unfathomable entity; but as a father, as a mother, as a creator, as a friend.  This is the gift of God.  This is the gift of the church.  And this is why I stay.                         

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Enjoy Every Moment!" And Other Terrible Advice

I was at Target the other day enjoying the unequaled felicity that is a woman alone at Target when I saw a young mother wrestling with several young children, some of whom were crying and one of whom had decided to run away to live in the bedding section.  I wasn't aware that the desire to live in Target took hold until after puberty and found myself impressed with said child's maturity and sagacity.  I could have told the child that, speaking from personal experience, no matter how hard you cried the Target employees, being selfish and close-minded, would not let you live in the bedding or any other section.  Chaos was ensuing but the mother was keeping her cool fairly well.  Being in my own temporary childless state I was able to indulge in the humor of the situation all while smiling sagely to myself.  In nothing are people capable of seeing greater humor or feeling a greater sense of sympathetic superiority than in seeing someone else suffering through humiliation from which we regularly suffer but from which we are currently taking a break.  So I stopped and told the mother that she was doing a good job.  I know how much it means when someone gives you encouragement during a trying time.  I remember once a man stopped me in church and proceeded to go to some length telling me what a wonderful mother I was.  I was deeply touched.  Tears came to my eyes.  Being told in church that you're a good mother is particularly gratifying as trying to get children through church without resorting to shockingly unchristian behavior is a feat so noteworthy and rare as to be deserving of universal regard. I desperately needed to feel approbation and it filled my soul with gratitude and strength.  Then he proceeded to tell me not to worry because there was a wonderful man out there for me and to just hold on.  In fact, the whole time he was effusively complimenting my mothering skills he thought I was my sister.  But I did realize how nice it would have been to have been given encouragement from someone who was actually referring to me.
So I stopped and told the mother that she was doing a great job.  She looked surprised and relieved and fairly incredulous and then said something about looking forward to the day when she could shop alone.  Suddenly she looked ashamed.  She laughed a little and said, "I guess I shouldn't say that."  In that moment I knew exactly what she was thinking.  From the moment that people find out that you are pregnant until approximately, as far as I can tell, the rest of eternity, people are always telling you to "enjoy every moment".  Generally it's at times of least possible enjoyment.  When you're waddling and in pain and haven't slept in 3 months, when you're baby's screaming, when you're sobbing because you know for absolute certain that your child is going to be the youngest offender ever on the FBI's Most Wanted list and there's nothing you can do to stop it.  But I understand where these people are coming from.  They are generally people looking back on the lives which have gone by much faster than what they had ever thought possible, wishing they had allowed themselves to enjoy it more rather than waiting for it to rush by.  Looking back on energy wasted hoping for a time when life would place happiness on their lap, all wrapped with a sparkly gold bow and bursting in confetti and congratulations only to realize too late that life couldn't care less whether or not you are happy, much less go out of the way to provide it for you.  I totally understand that.  I am amazed at how fast our children are growing and am more and more coming to the realization that the time is going to pass regardless of what speed you want it to and so you might as well chill out and relax and have some fun with it as opposed to being a demonic rage monster or a whiner or somebody who just sits around and waits for things to happen.
For example, one of the things I'd most like to hit younger Mary over the head for was thinking that "real" life was on hold while we were going through grad school because it turned out when Matt was done and we started "real life" it was exactly the same as the life I had considered on "hold".  I could have had a lot more happiness if I hadn't spent so much time saying, "When we're making more money, then...", "When Matt has a better schedule, then..."    And I can see a little better now that it's the same way with child rearing.  The older the kids get the more I realize that nothing is going to come along and make it easier.  I've spent so much time saying, "When the kids are older, then...", "When the kids are all in school, then..."  I've dreamed of the freedom of gloriously child free hours; hours spent in eating lunch while indulging in a book simply lousy with coherent thought, of going to the store without having to take out insurance beforehand in the hope that our children could be filed under an "Act of God" to cover the ensuing destruction.  And I'm not gonna lie, it is marvelous.   But it's still life.  There's still just not quite enough time to get everything done.  Life still keeps going at it's same pace.
But allowing yourself to enjoy life is not the same as enjoying every moment.  Screaming children, depression, financial difficulties, communication breakdowns, hospital stays, fighting, tantrums, all these things are part of family life and, frankly, suck.  It is not possible to enjoy them because they are not enjoyable.  They hurt.  (And enjoying pain, I'll remind you, is actually a mental illness.  If you find yourself liking these experiences you may want to consult a professional).  Telling a young mother to "enjoy every moment" while her child is throwing a tantrum at the register is tantamount to telling someone who just broke their toe while running to make sure they "enjoy" it because if they don't it shows they're not grateful they have working legs.
The pressure to enjoy everything your child does is not only absurd, it also takes away from the enjoyment of the actually enjoyable moments.  When a child sits in my lap and hugs me, or tells me they love me, or feels happy about an accomplishment, these moments bring real pleasure partly because they coexist with moments that don't.  I am able to feel joy when my daughter cleans her room on her own without being asked because I remember the times when getting her to do anything she didn't feel like doing was equivalent to trying to negotiate with a rabid dog that is both blind and deaf and intent on personal and domestic destruction and you're frankly scared of it.  Simply because those times were miserable the times when she decides on her own to be responsible and human and thoughtful are delightful.  I am able to feel happy when my son makes me laugh because there are times when he does things that make me sad.
So to all those well meaning people out there, and all the parents stretching themselves thin trying desperately to enjoy that which is impossibly unenjoyable, I would say this: allowing yourself to experience negative emotions doesn't take away from the good.  It doesn't take away from gratitude.  It doesn't take away from joy or your ability to be a good parent.  Nor will it cause years of regret in a time distant from now when it is too late to go back and change things.  On the contrary, such allowance will deepen and enrich the entire, insane experience of life.  Laughter is all the sweeter from following tears because, in the end, attempting to enjoy everything amounts to enjoyment of nothing.