28 April 2008

A Friend's Struggle Fitting In

I had a friend in college who was just starting to come back to church. She had been baptized as a teenager and remained active for a while, but as time wore on, and social ties came and went, she distanced herself from the church and stopped going.

While she claimed, to most people, that she had joined for primarily social reasons, she confessed to me, in private discussion, that she had, indeed, felt what she had been taught was true and really wanted to embrace it, but she just felt like she didn't fit it and since her original circle of friends back home had drifted apart, she hadn't felt happy being among other members of the church. She felt like people looked down on her for not being "girly" enough, not being demure or soft. She thought people couldn't handle her rough-around-the-edges demeanor. She hung out with a somewhat rough-talking crowd, and there simply weren't people like that at church she felt like she connected with. And she was largely correct. The "polite", soft-spoken girls at church didn't know how to react to or relate to this tough broad who had shown up at church with a defensive attitude. So with the exception of a few, they returned defense with defense.

One of her most obviously non-compatible behaviors was drinking alcohol. Regularly. Sometimes heavily. Partying. Going to the bars. These are activities most active LDS girls aren't going to understand or relate to. Heck, I don't. And they are activities which would keep her from full fellowship. But almost her entire social circle was centered around social drinking. She said she wanted to come back to church. She wanted to be active in church again, and part of that was cutting out the alcohol consumption. To reduce or avoid drinking, she had to avoid certain friends. She had to clear her fridge. She had to explain her abstinence to her friends without sounding ridiculous or preachy, which was not easy.

When you cut out part of your life, it is bound to leave a void, a hole, which must be somehow filled. I tried to help her come up with ideas, but we were talking about an entire lifestyle change, and she didn't see how it was possible. I didn't have time to fill in all of the social time left by not being at parties and the bar(going and not drinking was not an option--the temptation was too great to resist if it was right in front of her). We tried to connect her with other people, but there was always the problem of her not being able to relate deeply enough to any of the girls in the wards, and vice versa. And the Relief Society seemed to reach out only when she would stop coming to church. As long as she was attending, she felt like an invisible presence, barely noticed, but when she didn't come, and she'd THEN get cookies and a note, it was hard for her to see them as anything other than a half-hearted attempt to fulfill their duty to keep the sisters active.

She would go for times without alcohol. She went for quite a while a couple of times, going to church, avoiding alcohol, and when she was doing it, she told me and another friend how good she felt, and we could see it in her face, in her eyes. She seemed to be feeling more confident, more peaceful, more hopeful. It seemed she was beginning to believe this could be done, and she could be an active and faithful member of the church.

But the "crashes" came, and they were devastating. She would change to despair and bitterness in the space of a couple of days after drinking or realizing how great the changes she was making really were. It was unnerving and uncomfortable and lonely. She had given up a lot of time with many friends, and there seemed to be nobody to fill in. Without the support of an entire ward, I felt somewhat helpless and unable to offer her the encouragement I wanted that she would develop great social circles and eventually find the strength to be with her regular friends again without being overly tempted to fall back into behaviors because she would always have a support system to help her. I couldn't do it. I wasn't sure it would happen. So all I could offer was my assurance that although it's a hard and lonely road, it would be worth it in the end to have more control over herself and her choices, and even when it doesn't make sense right now and we can't see how it will possibly work out, sometimes it takes several steps in the dark before we can look back, realize how far we've come, and realize that though it's not always clear ahead, we are on a path towards ultimate peace and joy, and we wouldn't want to go back, even if it would, in some ways, be comfortable to go back. But even as I tried to reassure her of that, I could see in her eyes that it may not help. I was beginning to understand that sometimes, those promises simply don't seem sure enough.

It seemed to me that in her eyes, from her experience, making an effort to live by the doctrines and practices of the church today brought misery, loneliness, a huge void, and uncertainty. It alienated her from some family and many friends. And all it offered, in return, were promises that one day, she'd somehow be happy and have "glory" which she wasn't sure she wanted if it meant feeling lonely and "not like herself".

I saw a few things, from my perspective, that I had wished I could have somehow put into her mind:

  • I've been through times when I felt completely alone as a result of being obedient and faithful the best I knew how. It took time, and it took long periods of uncertainty whether it would ever get better. It took more than a few weeks. There were times I saw few rewards for my behaviors. But it was my abiding belief and the peace within me that I knew my motivations were good that kept me going.
  • I wanted to assure her that doing the right thing sucks sometimes but was worth it.
  • I wanted to convince her that sometimes there is a lot of pain and opening of wounds before healing can begin, but refusing to allow or endure the intense initial pain would prevent the longterm healing and leave her with a never-ending ache.
  • I wanted to assure her that not all wards are the same, and everyone else in the church is just as flawed as she or I, so we all put up with each other's flaws and love what and where we can, and even if every member of the church holds a certain false prejudice or treats me badly, it's not ultimately about them anyway, it's between me and the big guy.
  • I wished she could see the commandments as perhaps not always perfect in application but given by authority and are therefore not optional, but also worth following if only to prove that we are willing to put anything on the altar for the Lord, within the existing gospel framework, even if it doesn't always make sense, in the moment, why we have to.

As far as I could tell at the time, it was not living gospel principles that brought misery upon her but the perspective with which she did it and the lack of abiding, enduring conviction of why she was doing it and the lack of certainty as to whether she truly believed the promise that no matter what, it was worth doing. Maybe it was an offering she was not willing to make because she wasn't convinced the blessings would pan out as promised. Perhaps it was more than "she traded eternal happiness for short-term comfort." Or maybe she just didn't quite give it the full effort and needed to exercise more patience and faith in the unseen. What I finally decided was, "I just don't know. Maybe she's made a good effort, and she can come back to this again later and try again, and maybe that's OK. Everyone has their own timelines, and there are lessons learned all along the way. Maybe there are other things for her to focus on which will set her on a track to be ready to try again later. It's not mine to decide." I talked to her about focusing on testimony and sorting out her beliefs, and letting some of the behavioral things come later, in due order. But she was already quite discouraged, worn out.

While her experiences, backgrounds, personality and "temptations" are different from mine--and no, I don't think it's fair to directly compare alcoholism or heavy drinking with homosexual attraction--I think there are parallels in the feelings of isolation, misunderstanding, and other related feelings. Having been with her through her experience adds to and brings balance to my perspective on my own situation. I am not in the same unflinchingly faithful state I was back then. I do question a lot of things. I doubt some things. Sometimes I'd like to have the confidence I used to have that if this is Christ's church restored, then anything is worth laying on the altar of sacrifice, and I can and should be willing to give up even cherished feelings and emotions, and I should trust that the resulting peace will be well worth it. It's hard to know.

Maybe someday. But either way, I'm confident I'll be OK and can live life well. I wonder how she's doing.

1 comment:

A Girl You Know said...

Interesting... I went through something like this, only not.

The emotions were there - though it wasn't about some *sin* I was struggling with - it was what my true beliefs.

When I realized my belief system was NOT the same as the church, it was difficult. It was a loooong process in leaving. Leaving meant alienation (as if I ever really fit in at church!) from a strong community and severely hurting my family.

In the end, it was faith in myself and my beliefs that made me take the step I did... marrying the person I KNEW/KNOW was/is right for me, and eventually leaving the church.

I now live in what feels like an isolated area. I can't walk anywhere. The only way I know how to make friends in my area is through church. I've gone to several activities, and being that "inactive" girl has made some folks reach out to me in a way. In many ways, it would be easy - even comfortable - to go back. However, I know it is not what I believe in, and there are many beliefs (for example, their stance on homosexuality) that I outright disagree with. I know in the end the truest happiness and peace for me are sticking to my principles.

Besides, I never *really* fit in at church anyway. It was the rare person I met that I really felt close to and got along with. And ALL of those people, to my knowledge, have either left the church or stayed with severe questions, never really at peace with it... or remained "on the fringes" if you will.