17 November 2010

They can't leave it alone!

Non-edited-down rambling warning

"Strange, how often defectors leave the Church, but they cannot leave it alone!"

- Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience (1979)

This, and many variations of it, are ingrained in LDS traditional thought. I used to repeat it. I marveled that people would not just quietly go about their business as they left the church but seemed to be filled with anger towards the church, resentment for its teachings, bitterness towards the membership, or at the very least an insistence on constantly shoving down everyone's throats their reasons for believing it wasn't true. Surely, I thought, this was a testament to their loss of the Spirit and the emptiness of life without the gospel once you've known the truth.


In my early-to-mid twenties, a very popular Institute teacher where I lived left the church in a bit of a fury. There were conflicts and butted heads with local leadership, huge friction with Church Education System leadership, and personal questions and doubts which became too much for him to ignore. He wrote a lengthy essay about his departure from the church. I identified to an extent, maybe more than I was willing to admit to anyone, including myself, but I shrugged and insisted to myself that his choice needn't be mine, and surely there may be answers waiting in the next life to some of the things we don't know and aren't meant to understand fully in our infantile spiritual state here on Earth. Even so, I cringed to hear people I loved and respected and who I knew enjoyed his instruction sum up his whole experience with the trite-feeling phrase, "Well, it's sad that he wasn't able to separate the people from the gospel." Yet I nodded in condescending pity for his descent into offense-induced deception. He became an outspoken anti-Mormon crusader. When I ran into him at the gym years later, I thought, "He seems upbeat but feels so worldly, and his eyes seem dimmer."

But I extrapolated something from his essay: one probable reason he couldn't seem to just leave it alone was because even though he still considered himself Christian, he believed he had wasted many, many years of his life believing, teaching, conforming to, and dedicating so much of his energy to a belief system (the LDS Church and many of its specific doctrines) which he now believed was an elaborate myth. I remember thinking, "Well gosh, even if he accepts responsibility for having believed it, that feeling could be enough to make even the best of us fight some serious resentment." I remember resolving that if I were ever to leave the church, which I hoped I would never decide was necessary and would work to guard myself against, I would accept responsibility for my own departure and "leave it alone". Then I'd quickly remind myself not to even think along those lines because to do so was to entertain a possibility of something too spiritually costly to even consider in passing, and I'd focus on the positive things I could do and think to stay or become better aligned with God.

Now, I understand much of why it can be so hard.


I do try to leave it alone, and I mostly succeed, exploring on my own and not bombarding my faithful friends or blog readers with my findings on one side of an argument or another. For a long time, I avoided having "the discussion" with friends because I didn't want to get into it. How am I supposed to summarize years of questions, doubts, and paradigm shifts in one conversation? How am I supposed to convey epiphanies, realizations, and perspectives I've experienced to someone who hasn't gone through the same? How am I supposed to explain cognitive dissonance, apparent logical fallacies or paradoxes, or historical conundrums without sounding like I'm 'justifying myself,' 'trying to tear down other people's faith,' 'looking for holes,' or 'overthinking' rather than 'focusing on the good' and 'letting the Spirit guide'? I wasn't trying to hide my agnosticism, but I didn't want to go around challenging the faith of others or seeking validation.


But my hand has been forced several times when I would otherwise have remained silent on the issue. "Why haven't you been to church lately?" "Why the 'spiritual walkabout'?" "You know you know it's true, right?" "Aren't you just afraid to change?" "Aren't you just justifying what you want by choosing to doubt?" "Why did you break your temple covenant by not wearing your garments?" "You're choosing to lose Celestial glory, you know that, right?" "Can't you see that the church is not the people?" "Don't you think there will be some answers withheld until the next life?" "Why aren't your past spiritual experiences enough for you?" "How can you deny that you knew it was true? I heard you say it yourself on many occasions."

Those are all valid questions, especially if one assumes LDS doctrine is true. But to really, fully respond to them requires a conversation that may not end well and has been emotionally taxing on me when I've been in the throes of strong insecurities about how well my relationships will weather this life-altering change in beliefs. But when pressed, I've tried to be honest and forthright. For the most part, it's ended well, but in most cases, it's still very draining and trying to take the inevitable corrective blows with patience, dignity, and strength.


And it gets hard, at times, to "turn the other cheek" or to refrain from attacking a belief system which is so aggressively pushing itself into political issues which directly affect my relationships, or which so fully permeates local culture, or which intrudes into my own personal life through the beliefs and traditions of those all around me who I'd rather not alienate but who I wish understood and respected the fact that I am not interested in returning to the flock I very deliberately walked away from.

For example, I'm reminded outside the store that a random person who is swearing at the car ahead while blasting music and smoking with an infant in a car seat is somehow not only allowed but encouraged to marry and start a family and learn and grow along the way despite their apparently glaring imperfections, even if they're only married for life. But the church which I believed so firmly in and to whose message I dedicated so much of my energy for so many years is actively fighting to keep me from destroying society by marrying someone of the same sex like the person I fell for this summer and having children. In that moment, it's hard to shrug that off and whistle a merry tune and "leave it alone", even if the culture and political policy can be separated from the doctrine. But I try to shake it off, and I try to remind myself that it's not productive to find faults in others and make assumptions about their parenting or the welfare of their children based on incidental observations or appearance-based judgements. I also remind myself that almost nobody is actually saying the child abusing straight couple are better parents than a male partner and I would be, or that the white supremacist parents hold society together better than my partner and I would, that it's not so personal to them as it sometimes feels to me. I remind myself that there are active, faithful members of the church who support rights of same-sex marriage and adoption, even if they're a minority. And it helps focus my energy or temper my defensiveness.

For another example, when a friend is feeling like a defeated shell of a human being over a bad habit or his struggle to comply with a church standard, I want to slap him upside the head and tell him he's a great guy and that even if he behaves in ways which would be best removed from his life, there is absolutely no sense in thinking so poorly of himself when so much of his personality, life, and decisions are good and right. I can concede that if LDS doctrine is true, then he may lose some access to the Spirit or priesthood power when behaving in certain ways. But even if that's true, I can't buy that his effectiveness as a leader, father, husband, or whatever else he may be or become is completely negated or made 'unworthy' because of it, especially when contrasted with Plastic McPlasticson serving as the world's most self-righteous tyrant of a stake president who drains the life out of the gospel with his damned checklists. Dude, you're trying, and it's going to be a process. Yes, only those who aim for farther-reaching goals know what it's like to feel like a 'failure' for being 'normal'--it's totally understandable--but while there's no excellence in never striving to be better, there's also no energizing motivation or pure love in this kind of self-punishment. It's hard, when seeing someone you care about reduced to one habit or proclivity, not to resent the belief system behind the culture which promoted such unnecessary shame and self-loathing. But I remind myself that it's his personal issue as much as the church's, and that pure doctrine doesn't necessarily promote that perspective.

One more example: when someone who's been a significant presence in my family whose opinion I've cared about responds to my statement that I grew more in Utah than I did in Washington by reducing it to a simple, "But you went inactive there," it's hard to accept that, in her eyes, my four years of experiences, lessons learned, endeavors undertaken, personal growth, dreams realized, love felt, and relationships developed pale in comparison to whether or not I attend the LDS church. It's hard to reconcile that with, "We still love you no matter what your relationship with the church" because it feels like adding a caveat, "But we're still going to remind you at least once or twice a week that you need to come back, that we aren't going to let this go, and nothing in your life really matters next to that." It's difficult to simply reply, as patiently as I could muster, "We'll probably have to agree to disagree on whether that was a good direction." I remind myself that just because she didn't ask in that moment about the ways I believe I grew, it doesn't mean she doesn't care or that she only cares about my church life. Maybe I could do more to welcome them into the rest of my life. Maybe this is as much about me and my approach to my relationships as it is about her or her interpretations of doctrine, or about LDS teachings that church attendance is the one true indicator of a person's goodness. Relationships have necessarily changed, and we all have to adjust to that on a daily basis. It's an ever-present reminder of how things used to be, in contrast with how they are, but it's a two-way street.


So I'm normally able to consciously, deliberately quell emotional reactions or insecurities when reminded of the church's persistent, insistent presence or incidental unwelcome intrusion into my life. I recognize my own responsibility for bringing the church into my own life in some ways. I read news related to the church sometimes. I've cracked the LDS scriptures at times for various reasons. I've used the church's web site to research talks. I've voluntarily listened to a few conference sessions. I went to part of a Sunstone Symposium. I almost exclusively hang out with church members, active or less-so, believing or less-so, and fully understand the church will be part of conversations or prayers offered over food or before a road trip. I can leave the church, but unless I also entirely dismiss my past and leave my friends and family, the church won't leave me alone. And it's totally understandable because even when I am trying to just let the church be and not remind friends that I've left it, some casual comment I make might remind them, so in that sense, I'm not the only one being reminded when I didn't bring it up.


The church and I are going to butt heads, and I just have to deal with that. But understand that for someone who's going through some major life changes, some of which are very stressful, it's not always easy to absorb the perceived blows without striking back at times. You may puzzle at why your loved one is being so defensive or hurt about their relationships with family and friends in the church, but remember that you are dealing with one person while that person is dealing with the majority of people in their life. Imagine if 75% of your friends and family decided, in the same year, that the church was false, and you believed in an elaborate hoax, and they made sure to remind you subtly of that in case you might come around and see it their way. You'd probably be a bit sensitive and tempted to strike back, too.


I'm not going to pretend I haven't fought bitterness and wished religion would just dissolve entirely and stop polluting minds and relationships with its divisive constructs of classification and strait and narrow gateways used as loving clubs over the heads of the lost and fallen. But I remember what it was like to believe certain things, and how I truly, genuinely thought I didn't think less of others for disbelieving them, and I sincerely believed I meant well in "reminding" others of what I knew they knew. So I take a deep breath, I remember the good which comes of communities based on positive values and principles of healthy living, and I try to let go of what I don't agree with or forgive whatever wrongs I might perceive. And I feel better. Turns out forgiveness is good for the soul even if God has nothing to do with it.

So onward I go, trying to forge my own path, trying to nod to the friendly protesters lining my path and pointing insistently to theirs, acknowledging their concern while maintaining focus on what I believe are the most universal principles and are my own personal values.

I'm grateful for relationships with people who know I know what they believe and don't give in to the temptation to constantly remind me of it. I greatly appreciate those who seem to have firm "testimonies" of the restoration of the gospel, and the principles and ordinances thereof, but who also have listened to still, small voices which have told them not to worry, that it will be OK. I appreciate the belief of a few that they can't see all things any more than I can, and that though they firmly believe they are on 'the right path', and they may quietly believe I must rejoin it eventually, at least they seem to acknowledge that my journey may be customized, and I may be learning things I need to learn, and somehow, those of us who seek truth will all find the happiness we desire even if we do it in different orders, on different timelines, or even on different paths in ways none of us fully grasps with our feeble minds.

To the others, who can't seem to accept it, I don't need you to. Just understand that I may not submissively acknowledge your superior spirituality indefinitely. You can keep reminding me that you disapprove, or keep pressing, and we may have it out at some point. But hey, conflict can lead to growth, so even that can be positive in the end.

If I don't leave the church alone, it's probably because it won't leave me alone. But y'know, maybe completely leaving each other alone isn't required, as long as mutual respect for individual free agency and a right to disagree and voice disagreement is maintained. Besides, if the church did completely leave me alone, I might, in some way, actually feel less loved by the lack of people wishing I were walking with them, or trying to share their happiness, or being concerned for my welfare. How's that for sick and twisted? :-)

...But hold off on sicking the missionaries and home teachers on me just because I said that. More nagging doesn't equal more love and concern, mmK? MmK.


mandi said...

I really, REALLY like this. It is easily the most well- thought out, even handed and rational discussion of its sort. But what else would I expect from you?

The Impossible K said...

While I try to understand that many people mean well with their nagging, the passive-aggressive insistence that they are in the right really grates on my nerves too... and yes, even when I happen to be part of that same "fold". It's still judging, assuming you know better and it's justifiable to declare your superior knowledge to the world.
It's good to hear your perspective on this topic, since I've wondered about these things myself. I wouldn't dare say I understand exactly how you feel, but I think growing up in a family that's mostly dissented against the church, with a father that verbally attacked my innocent request to get baptized, I have a bit more sympathy for those who feel alienated in their beliefs (or lack). I can have a strong testimony without feeling like I have to push it on others. That's totally the wrong way to go about it, but then, what is the right way? Is it ok to still pray before meals when a non-believer is present? Would this be misconstrued as "pushing" beliefs onto another?

JonJon said...

Good non-edited-down rambling post. I am still active and I would even say I still believe, but certainly differently than I did before and in pretty unorthodox ways. It's always tricky to know just how much of my unorthodoxly Mormon views people want to hear, especially people who are more orthodoxly Mormon. I let a little bit out here and there and I'm surprised at how threatened people are by them. Well, and sometimes not surprised at all.

Lee said...

:-) Nicely put.

Original Mohomie said...

Mandi, glad you liked it. I'm interested in other such posts/articles if anyone wants to reference some in the comments.

ImpK, I appreciate your thoughts, and I have _not_ felt pressured by you, for example. As for praying over meals, as long as you don't knowingly ask those who don't believe in God to pray to him/her/it, I don't see a problem. If you're in your own home, guests comply with your rules and practices, period. They don't have to pretend to join it, and you don't have a right to get offended if they silently abstain while you pray, but yeah, it's your house, your rules, your beliefs, and their sensitivities don't get to dictate those. If you choose to refrain, fine, but there should be NO expectation that you SHOULD, y'know?

I never expected atheist or non-religious families to pray over their meals when I visited them just because a theist was among them. And if you come to my house, and there's no prayer, you shouldn't demand we have one, but a private, silent one is fine. Although, if all of my guests are silently praying over their food as I start eating, THAT's hard not to see as a bit of a statement, and I'd almost rather just have a prayer for my guests' sake than have them ALL praying as I start talking to myself. :-) I'm not even sure it'd be a problem to privately ask, BEFORE everyone's seated at the table, if it would be OK if you offered one. But for someone who's still sensitive, best to leave it alone, and maybe pray in your head, eyes open, while the food is being served, if your beliefs allow for that kind of prayer, rather than insisting on doing it in a more demonstrative way, y'know? Anyway, interesting question.

JonJon, ha, well it's not edited-down, but it may be edited. :-) I just didn't know how to shorten it and decided I didn't care to. As for your experience, thanks for sharing, and finally coming out to me as a believer. ;-)

Lee, thanks.

Scott N said...

I really appreciate this post. I'm struggling with my own [extended] family's (lack of) acceptance of my leaving the church, and to be honest, more often than not I'm tempted to just "divorce" them all and save myself the pain of their disapproval and disappointment. Sarah and the kids can maintain their relationship with the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and I'll just stay away.

But as much as I think that would be the easier way to deal with things, I can't bring myself to do it because my parents and siblings are important to me, and I want to be a part of their lives and have them a part of mine.

So I do my best to put up with their disapproval.

As far as my own experience goes, I'd be perfectly content to "leave it alone" if it would leave me alone (a point you touched on as well). The church doesn't "leave me alone" in a couple of ways:

Obviously, as long as my family and friends are faithful, believing members I'm going to be involved with the church to some extent or another if I want to maintain relationships with them. I've tried very hard to respect their beliefs. Even in my own immediate family, I've rarely if ever tried to "convince" Sarah of anything that would detract from her faith, and I support the kids as they attend church and youth activities (even while I worry that what they are learning will translate to "Dad is a bad person"). Unfortunately, the very act of being me (the new, non-believing me) is occasionally an affront to their beliefs (with my extended family, for the most part--Sarah has been incredibly accepting and tolerant).

And then, of course, the church won't "leave me alone" because it actively fights to prevent me from being treated as equal in whatever future relationship I might find myself in, and encourages its members to see me as "less than". I won't accept that without some resistance.

As for other posts, I found this one (from almost a year ago) very thought-provoking--it examines (and rebuts) some of the assumed "reasons people leave the church".

CJW said...

My homie, thinking about this the other day I came to the conclusion that I will never be able to shake the church. It's my tribe. The church has had such an influence on my world view and I believe it's too embedded now in my persona that I will never be able to leave it completely. I've been branded as a Mormon and I will always be so. How could you completely leave it when you keep discovering how much it has an influence on who you are?

Original Mohomie said...

Scott, thanks for sharing. I'll check out that article. Looks interesting.

And you may not believe in what you used to the way you used to, but that doesn't necessarily make you any more lacking in "belief" than a Jew is a "non-believer" of Islam or a Christian fundamentalist is a "non-believer" of metaphysics or of the theory of evolution or a capitalist is a non-believer of socialism. I find it hard to remember that when I'm looking at myself through my own former lens. I forget that I still recognize wonder and mystery and poetry in my own human experience with the universe and see answers all around me. I've found it really beneficial to re-focus on what I do believe.

CJW, I get where you're coming from, except that I've always been a bit of a loner and kind of bewildered by so many people's apparent lust to be initiated into or become a member of some organization, brotherhood, or elite club or society, and church membership wasn't about that to me. So I've found it easier to walk away, until I realized how much it impacted, individually and collectively, the interpersonal relationships I care so much about. Possible future blog post about that. :-)

But yeah, shaking it is hard, and yeah, the church has been a huge and formative part of my life and who I am, as well. Except...I don't think of it as the institution of the church or even its doctrinal story being the primary influence in my life, but the positive, universal principles underlying it which I could probably have learned any of a number of ways but happened to learn within my context as a member of the church. As such, I don't find it hard to hold on to something I still believe is valuable even while shedding the context or regarding the vessel as a tool but not an absolute truth. And to be honest, I don't think I can feel OK about going to church without really believing it.

In other words, I'm grateful for the experiences I had within my church involvement which taught me so much and provided me with friendships and truths, and I hope to pass many of those on to my children, if I ever have any, or to other people and to maintain them in my own life but in other ways, without the packaging I received them in.

It's late. I should probably stop trying to explain myself. :-)

Anonymous said...

When you really think about it, isn't the LDS concept of missionary work just the "They can't leave it alone" concept in reverse?

What LDS people have done here is merely co-opt human nature and tried to rebrand it as something uniquely theirs. You see the same thing done with "Families Are Forever" and other doctrine for example. I've never met another Christian believer who doesn't believe they'll be with their family in the afterlife. In truth, the LDS Church just repackages it and actually makes it more difficult but they claim it as all their own.

Anyway, evolution gave us the instinct to warn our tribemates when we've recognized something as harmful, dangerous, or unhealthy. It's how we've survived as a species. It's completely human nature to shout, "Hey! There's something better over here!"

That's why Mormons do missionary work. That's why post-Mormons "can't leave it alone" And that's why "WikiLeaks" exists...whether you agree with it or not.

The LDS seem so proud that they've recognized a pattern of "not leaving it alone" when one of their own stray from the fold, but I'd suggest that there are 50,000+ missionaries in the field that pretty clearly show that they can't either.

jimf said...

> Those are all valid questions. . . But to really, fully respond
> to them requires a conversation that may not end well. . .

Many more than one conversation. And lots of bibliographic
references. ;->

But even having that first conversation requires an openness --
just a willingness to entertain an alternative viewpoint --
that's not likely to occur (and which, indeed, any church
worth its salt will indoctrinate its members in such a
way as to ensure that it **doesn't** occur).

Found on a blog:

"One of the most useful intellectual skills to cultivate is
the ability to enter into sympathetic engagement with any idea
or argument you are considering. The only way to really
understand what another person is saying is to listen closely,
and the only way to listen closely is first to find, or at
least pretend to find, some common ground between the other
person and yourself. You need not maintain this sympathetic
engagement, this provisional or illusionary agreement,
for very long -- just long enough to absorb and grasp the
points at issue.

On the other hand, an inability or an unwillingness to drop
your guard and make room, even temporarily, for an idea that
you may find distasteful is the main impediment to really
understanding what other people are saying and, therefore,
to being able to effectively refute what they say."

-- Michael Prescott, "The Importance of Being Earnest"