13 May 2007

From Desperation To a Brighter Peace

Next in my series of old journal entries (see Darker Times and Strange Peace and My First Essay on SGA for closely related entries). I'll preface it by saying a lot has happened since this was written. Perspectives have adjusted. The experience has grown dim. I admit to not feeling the faith like I did just then. But again, this was part of my 'journey', so I want to share it.

April 2005

Great fireside tonight. The speaker spoke about his experiences at war in Afghanistan. The stories were amazing, and he seemed to have had an overall positive experience there.

I also had a powerful experience in Ward Prayer. But it began after the fireside. The fireside gave a fresh perspective, and I thought what good this fireside was doing for perceptions of many people towards Afghanis, towards Muslims, and towards our soldiers. I thought, "If we only held more firesides like this on specific topics in addition to the usual `first discussion' firesides or `talk-about-as-many-topics-as-we-can-in-one-fireside' firesides, then the gospel might really come more alive in people's hearts and minds." I thought what good a fireside about SGA might do here.

I told a good friend at the fireside that the speaker had almost made me want to join the military, and he replied, "I don't mean to belittle you, but I don't think you'd make it. I don't think you could do it." He bore a condescending grin, and I wanted to hit him. Now, I'm sure he had no clue what his comment triggered, but I was thoroughly irritated. I know myself, and though I deplore violence and dislike many tactics the army uses to train troops, I also understand their purpose, and if something is worth it to me, and if it's right, I can put reservations aside and do what must be done, perhaps with the Lord's help if needed. I hate being told what I can't do, especially when it's something I respect.

But more than that was severe aggravation that I am seen as `weak' or `unmanly', as has been hinted in other conversations recently. I've been struggling a lot lately with issues related to SGA and sorting it all out, and that slap in the face (which may not be how it was meant at all) was the last straw. I was visibly irritated, and I was struggling with church culture, society's molds, and people's inability to see beyond the basic exterior appearance and realize the potential of people within. I wondered what life was going to be like to live the gospel as the church teaches it if I was never attracted to a girl. Many of my friends had expressed their distaste for anything related to homosexuality in the past couple of weeks. I felt completely alienated, frustrated, and detached. I had felt like I was on a spiritual upswing, but now I was in a tailspin into a very dark place.

At Ward prayer, a friend asked what was wrong, and I said I didn't want to talk about it, so she offered simply to scratch my back. It was soothing, and I was feeling calmed down, at least. SGA desires intensified then and there; I longed for tender intimacy with another guy. Fingers through hair, gentle back scratching, warm embrace. All that damned SGA temptation I'm never allowed to entertain. I knew I couldn't talk to my friends about it. They're too set on the male mold. I was irritated that the very people I wished I could be frank with were the ones regularly making the comments that made me feel more `homo' than ever. After all, normal guys don't wear scarves. Those who do must need a label, like `metro.' How ridiculous can tradition be?

And the only people I do talk to are mostly anonymous people online whom I have appreciated very much but don't know personally. I was sitting with my face in my hands, weeping quietly and desperately trying to bring myself together and get a proper perspective on it all. I said a prayer. I sincerely apologized for my wasted time in inappropriate thoughts and activities. Even in this darkness, I realized I felt a flicker of faith that felt like a dim knowledge which seemed to spark, and I prayed simply and possibly more sincerely than ever before, "Help. I need help." And I meant "need" more deeply and completely than I previously knew possible. As soon as I had done so, I was taken aback, as intense comfort and peace flowed through me like a blast of warm wind from head to toe. I wasn't expecting such a powerful response, and I nearly felt I'd lose my breath. It's been a long time since I've felt anything like that. For the first time in a long time, I felt I was connecting, communing. Then the closing hymn for ward prayer began, my face still in my hands. It was hymn 117, Come Unto Jesus:

Come unto Jesus, ye heavy laden,
Care-worn and fainting, by sin oppressed.
He'll safely guide you unto that haven
Where all who trust him may rest.

Come unto Jesus; He'll ever heed you,
Though in the darkness you've gone astray.
His love will find you and gently lead you
From darkest night into day.

Come unto Jesus; He'll surely hear you,
If you in meekness plead for his love.
Oh, know you not that angels are near you
From brightest mansions above?

Come unto Jesus from every nation,
From every land and isle of the sea.
Unto the high and lowly in station,
Ever he calls, "Come to me."

I just listened to the voices singing the hymn. Half of them probably gave little thought to the meaning of the words. But as I listened, I couldn't contain the tears. I felt surrounded by angelic voices, strength and support. The words suddenly took on far more meaning than they ever had before. I realized something: I have spent a lot of time seeking help, strength, ideas, and support from various people, but I had knowingly excluded the one truest friend and confidant, for fear he may not actually be there. Might be just a philosophical notion more than a being. I had found myself truly alone, but now I finally felt a way back. It was much like my mission when, for different reasons, I realized that even if I have no `friends' and no person who thinks like me in this world, there is one who knows it all and still loves and cares for me and will listen whenever I need it. There is one friendship I had not been cultivating, and it's the one that had mattered to me more than all the world.

A lot came rushing, flooding, back to me. I was reawakened to the idea that that relationship is where all the best of me comes from. That's how I found the love for the people in my mission so strong while nobody seemed to love me back. That's how I cared about and detected the subtle needs and emptiness in people's eyes even when they didn't know who I was. That's when I never gave a thought to what I was going to get out of a relationship. That's when I felt most tender yet stronger than ever, confident against the world yet always seeking new lessons to learn. I remembered many subtleties of the gospel which had long been buried underneath my turmoil. I saw light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. I was buoyed up. Testimony was rekindled. The reality of the gospel and frailty of the world and its philosophies became clear again. The tears which had been tears of pain and anguish became tears of sorrow for what I had forgotten and for time lost, and then turned into tears of deep humility and gratitude that the Lord had answered me so powerfully as I had been hoping would happen someday soon.

I had prayed for help many times before, in different ways and at different times. But something was different about this time. I felt more longing, more need, and more intense hope for faith. I also believe it's no coincidence that it happened on a day when I had done a lot I didn't feel excited about doing but knew was prescribed for gospel living: reading scriptures, going to church on time (or close to it), listening attentively in class (to lessons which seemed designed for me), trying to more productively keep the Sabbath, doing more in my calling than I had been doing, attending a fireside, and still going to ward prayer and trying to make the best of it despite my bitter feelings and obvious depression. Would I have received such a powerful answer had I not been trying so hard to do what I knew, in my mind, I should, even if I didn't feel a great desire to do it? Would I have received the answer had I not been in deepest need? Would I have received it had a loving friend not softened my heart with a gentle touch?

Well, my back-scratching friend walked me to my car, offered some encouraging words, said "We're probably struggling with the same things" (to which I thought—oh, I bet we're not, sister), mentioned the stress heaped on us students at the end of the year, and simply said I could call her whenever I wanted, and gave me a hug and said she loved me. I really needed that kindness. She's a great girl. And she reminded me of the importance of simple, tender kindness. Even if she was `only saying those words to comfort me,' the very fact that she took the time to do it meant that she did care and love.

I drove away feeling cleansed and at peace, and that's when I really broke down. All of the pent-up emotions, the doubts, the insecurities, the pain, the loneliness, the sympathy for other people who struggle with this worse than I do, the sympathy for my friends who are wondering what's wrong but who I won't be able to fully explain it to…it all came gushing out my eyes. It wasn't a pretty picture. But it felt different. It felt like I was letting it all out, letting it go. I laughed at myself between the almost uncontrollable sobs. I felt stronger than I have in a long time. I laughed at the wretched display I was making but knew it needed to come out. I had been re-broken. I was coming down to a greater depth of humility. I realized how callused my heart had become in my effort to 'deal' with everything. And now, that theoretical friend I had longed to find, with whom I could share everything, was reminding me he's always been there. And he reminded me of who I really was and what heights I could again attain with him at my side.

My first impulse was to share all of this with the guys on the online groups. I was going to log right in when I got home. But when I pulled in the driveway, I remembered the impact the words of the hymn had on me, and I realized who I should talk to first if I was to make it real.

When I came home and thought about C.S. Lewis' writings (I finished Mere Christianity a couple of weeks ago) about being our best only when we ask Christ to gift to us a part of his spirit, I said, "I get it. I get it. I remember." I felt sorrow at the time I've wasted in doubt, false strength, and pride, but I looked forward to rebuilding that true strength and, meanwhile, finally resuming a more outward focus towards those in need around me.

And I must say, this feeling of peace and comfort far surpassed that night when I felt I was truly alone and had accepted the possibility that there is no God. That was a dark peace, like the peace that comes from having no energy to despair longer, or the peace surely felt when imminent doom is approaching, and you realize it will do no good to scream, or to run, or to fight, so all that is left is to resign yourself peacefully. It was a peace, but it was a strange peace. Now that I have the contrasting experiences so close together, I think that is the peace I felt that night and the next morning. The peace I felt Sunday is an active peace. It flowed through me and brought clarity and life to my thoughts. I felt more alive than I have in a long, long time. It began with gut-wrenching pain of soul but ended in reassuring, strengthening, invigorating love. I fell into the darkest pit and was lifted out into a warm brightness like the sun. Whew—enough with the corny imagery. It just seems the only way I can convey it with any justice. Is everything neat and tidy now? No, it's not. But it is clearer, and I feel more in control than I have in a long time. And my resolution is renewed.


Newton said...

If I may be so bold as to ask, where do you find yourself now in your faith? A previous post showed a journal entry where you found yourself in a sort of resigned agnosticism. This last quoted journal entry shows a sense of determined faith, even euphoria. Do you find yourself somewhere in between now? How do you justify/rationalize either experience in relation to where you currently stand in regards to your faith? Certainly complex questions, but I find myself on a similiar path now. I feel your insight would be very beneficial.

-L- said...

I've started reading Mere Christianity a million times, but I can't get myself through it. I end up reading Lewis' shorter stuff like The Great Divorce and Screwtape Letters instead. :-)

Original Mohomie said...

L, it's well worth the read. But Screwtape Letters is, indeed, actually fun to read.

Newton, I am, probably, somewhere in between, like you said. I can see a few scenarios to explain those experiences. Here are two examples:

1) The night I experienced the feeling of total disconnection from God was a realization of the reality of life and the plain existence of humanity. In a way, life took on a new vigor, a new freedom. There were no rules, no commandments, but there was still ethical and kind behavior. There was still honesty. I suddenly found in myself a motivation and commitment to live decently and selflessly completely independent of religion or even deity. I found my very own compass of right and wrong, admittedly formed among my environmental influences, the church included. But it gave me a more amply forgiving perspective on humanity even while rejecting the notion that anyone is "right". Anyway, the scenario is that that night was a realization of hard truth and a courage to embrace integrity even in the face of defying my entire social structure. Then the other experience could be seen as such a desperate desire to find help, to find salvation, that all the spiritual learning and experiences I had attained throughout my life came rushing back to me as a psychological memory to "save" me from having to confront the reality of my situation and choose between my lifelong beliefs and the desire for love and affection and intimacy which I wanted in a way inconsistent with those beliefs. I was saved from choosing the social isolation of pursuing homosexuality, saved from painful reality, saved by utter loneliness by the psychology of religion. The "euphoria" was the comfort of coming home, reuniting with friends and family and a god that may not exist but who brings explanation to otherwise difficult issues.

2) The night of the resigned agnosticism was a moment of doubt. The peace was a feeling of relief at not having to wrestle with the difficulty of living up to moral standards and doctrine. It was a relief at giving up on the struggle. And it was, in a sense, a counterfeit peace. A passive peace. The night of desperation followed by euphoria was the truly penitent and needful soul returning to the one most powerful, truest source of help, a renovation of communication with God and a reconfirmation of the truth of the gospel with the strength from the Spirit to live it despite the challenges ahead. The first experience was a taste of life without God and the dismal resignation of it, while the second was a reawakening of the soul.

I think there's truth in both scenarios but decline to comment on exactly how. That's personal and still evolving. But overall, I say I hold to my beliefs with a degree of questioning and willingness to acknowledge the holes there may be in them. I do not have enough spiritual evidence to disregard my doubts, and I don't have enough intellectual evidence to disregard all of my spiritual experiences. I realize that my own constructs and understanding are extremely interwoven with the pure doctrines of what we call the gospel, so I leave room to extricate the needless threads and see what's left.

How's that for a vague response? *wink*

Bravone said...

Interesting and touching post. I have had so many similar experiences and feelings.