10 June 2011

Why I've chosen to test, not abandon, friendships

When I realized I no longer believed in the tenets and doctrines of the LDS Church as I used to (the stories and explanations, not the values, which I still mostly share), or that I wasn't sure I believed in them at all anymore, many crises presented themselves, not least of which was a complete shift in my social interactions and change in my relationships among those closest to me.

I was going from, "I have so much respect for the fact that even if it's not always comfortable, you continue in the church and take each day on faith. I don't know if I'd get through what you're going through with such faith, and it's so inspiring that you do," to, "I'm so sad and disappointed that you've given up. You're forfeiting celestial glory and eternal life by overthinking your way out of the church. It's just hard to see you throwing it all away instead of hanging in there." I also went from sharing this part of my life which had been most important to me to not relating on this new level with most people I was close to and not knowing who to talk with about it. I wondered if I was necessarily going to eventually be pretty sure most people in my life believed a fantasy. How would our relationships adapt to this new dissonance?

Since late high school, my social life and friendship circles were developed within the church and its many programs and organizations. I worked at various places, and I volunteered with other organizations, but I had so many friends within the church that I never felt much need to seek friendships elsewhere, and I didn't. Over 90% of my Facebook friends are or have been LDS. My closest friends were active in the church, and not just the active-by-default kind or the "you can't take it all too seriously" kind but the deliberately active and consciously engaged kind. As much as I wanted to make sure I wouldn't leave the church as the result of social issues or interpersonal conflict ("the people are imperfect, not the doctrine," I always said), I realized that I was at a turning point where if I were to stay in the church, the reasons would be primarily social. I had a very difficult decision to make, but I had put off the doubts and tried to quell them for many years, and the reality of that hit hard.

I resigned any leadership in church-affirming or church-affiliated organizations as soon as I realized this. I was not about to cling to the feeling that I was useful and contributing while quietly disagreeing with mission and values statements and wondering if I even believed in God anything like the way I always had, or at all. I was not going to try to change any organization into what I thought it should be when my beliefs were increasingly in conflict with those the organizations had espoused all along. And I didn't want to cause some scandal by being an apostate in leadership and thereby unduly discredit those organizations in any way. I'd rather leave some distance between the time I stopped serving and the time I really walked away, if that's where I was headed. I believed I needed to diminish for a time while wrestling with these questions and determining my way forward without unnecessary political and social expectations and external pressures. I'd moved along with those quite long enough to satisfy myself that they were not going to keep me afloat, that I had internal conflicts to resolve now with or without those attachments. In my case, I believe integrity demanded I step down and step back.

Similarly, a temptation was to isolate completely from those who still subscribed to church doctrine. I no longer belonged among them or shared what we'd always shared, and my presence would be regarded as a "negative influence" by some. Additionally, I knew what my 8-years-ago self would tell my today-self, and I didn't care to hear it from everyone else trying to talk some spiritual sense into me. I also didn't want to unnecessarily affect anyone else. What if, a year or four from now, I decided I was wrong and went back to the church? What if, during that time, I had "led many astray" by my example and doubts and might later regret it? No, better to keep it mostly internal except when pressed. After all, I felt like the kind of clarity and epiphanies I was having were sparked by others who sincerely shared with me what they'd been going through. I had been a missionary and tried to help people gain a conviction of LDS doctrine. Did I regret that? Maybe in a way, but it's what I honestly believed, so it's hard to really regret something I did in full sincerity. "OK, then," I thought, "as long as I'm being honest and sincere about it, I'll share when asked." But I didn't want to have the conversation constantly, so I was careful how I talked about it to avoid eliciting probing questions unnecessarily.

It really was a "spiritual walkabout" of sorts, and I found most people respected that and didn't try to interfere. Some did, probably out of a desire to save me from withering as a coal removed from the fire, but it fell flat. Their language and demeanor reflected a lack of real understanding of what I was going through. Those who seemed to "get it", even if they'd become faithful again, understood that I knew the arguments against what I was doing and had made them effectively, myself, and this was my journey alone to navigate. Typically, their preaching amounted to, "Don't shut out the Spirit. Stay open." I could handle that.

It was challenging, at first, to maintain contact with my LDS friends. When you're going through a transition in life or trying to make changes you believe are positive and necessary, and the people you've surrounded yourself with are not on board, they can hold you back from that process, especially if they've never been through it quite the way you have. The easy answer is to push them all away, freeing yourself up to pursue your new direction without the baggage and weight of opposition and emotional pleas to "come back to the fold" and be saved. But I saw a problem in that notion.

If I was truly making the right choice, then I should not be threatened by opposing views. And if I alienated all of them, I'd be left quite alone and therefore either artificially lonely and sad (which would be a product of the social isolation but would conveniently be explained by some as 'spiritual decay') or needing social interaction so badly that I might fill the void with shallower, shinier friendships with people who may or may not actually care about my personal welfare. At my age, starting all friendships from scratch seems a really unpleasant endeavor and one I'd rather not undertake. Besides, if I was going in a good direction, and my relationships were built on more than certain common beliefs but were actually personal, intimate connections, they should be able to weather these changes. If I was going in a bad direction, I wouldn't have alienated everyone who would be there to help me get back up and dust myself off. And maybe there's value in letting them see more of the journey rather than fleeing and making it easy for those left behind to assume the wicked cannot abide the company of the righteous, or my conscience couldn't withstand the reminders. Maybe there's value in acknowledging that if this is right, they might benefit from seeing that I'm still me and still happy, and if it's wrong, I might benefit from knowing they'll be able to call my B.S. if I try to put on a happy mask. Besides, I cared about my friends, still, and believed they cared about me. So though I did withdraw from a few social circles where the group bonding was stronger than my individual relationships within the group, I chose to test my closer friendships rather than abandon them, even if I did distance myself in some ways for at least a time. I'm happy to say my close friendships have persisted.

That's not to say it's been easy. Hay-ul no, not nearly. Even though it was painful for me to see people hurt over my decisions and beliefs, and they were clearly struggling to adjust to a new way of viewing me, I was happy to find that most of the people I considered true friends walked with me when possible, and still allowed me to walk with them, and we've made the adjustments together, sometimes smoothly, sometimes roughly. Many are still adjusting. A few not-as-close friendships haven't weathered the change. I harbor relatively few hard feelings for those: I knew what those friendships were all along, and they weren't the kind of relationship to weather this, so I couldn't expect anything different.

The pleasant surprise has been that some have quietly come to me confessing that they've been through similar, and we've rekindled old bonds. Some have come to me confessing that they've never told anyone this, but they've not believed for years but carry on playing the role because that's what they contracted to do when they married, and they don't want to upset their children's lives unnecessarily by risking divorce or rocking the boat. Some friends of other belief systems have come back, and I've been able to see more completely beyond the "non-LDS" barricade I didn't realize I had put up. Many, more than I expected, have admitted to being somewhat or very "agnostic" in their faith, admitting they don't "know" it's true but hope it is, or that they firmly believe in the core of the gospel and very much see an evolving doctrine around that core, and many of these have "come out agnostic".

It's been stressful, which is another topic I intend to post about. But it's been good. And I feel more stable and "at peace" than maybe ever, despite obvious stresses in my life. That may be because I've stubbornly eliminated a doctrinal framework that conflicts with my natural man, and it may be because the world and universe make more sense to me now than ever or that I'm not trying to cling to false beliefs, and new or conflicting ideas don't cause the tension in me that they used to. Come what may, I hope to find and embrace truth. I'm no fount of bubbly happiness, but I feel as happy as ever. Perhaps it's not an "eternal joy" of the kind I used to experience and have, over the years, forgotten as a distant memory. Or perhaps it's a more sustainable joy from within and not based on what may be myth. Maybe I've learned a kind of happiness that I needed to, and one day I'll bring the LDS "gospel" back into the picture, and the combination will be greater joy than I've ever known. Or maybe I'll find a wonderful man and adopt children and have more joy than I thought possible. Who knows? Not me, and not you. But we can probably still be friends.