The Good That Was In Me

caterpillar butterflyI have heard many people who leave the church describe those first days of doubt as “the dark night of the soul.”   So it was with me.  Those were dark days when my reality began to crumble around me.  At the time, I had just become pregnant with my fourth child.  I was sick.  It was winter–the longest of my life.  I remember lying in bed for hours at a time sobbing as though someone had died.  To tell the truth, I felt that I was the one dying and I was grieving my own death.

I loved everything about the church and it was everything to me.  Every milestone of my life was intertwined with the church–from the day I was blessed as a baby, to my baptism, to my graduation to Young Women’s, to my college years at BYU, to serving a mission, to marrying in the temple, to giving birth to each of my children and my husband blessing them.  My eight-year-old son had just been baptized and the “circle of life” was continuing with him.  I had often said in the past that if I ever left the church I would lose 95% of my identity.  I couldn’t imagine a life without the church, and I felt that by walking away, I was losing all the good things that had given form, beauty, and meaning to my life.  I felt that I could not take them with me.

My greatest fear was raising my children without the gospel.  What would I teach them?  What music would we listen to now?  What would we do on Sunday?  Where would we find opportunities to serve others?  Where could we find a place to nurture our spirituality–to find peace and consolation? How could we be good without the church?

In a way, I had the feeling that the church was the source of that goodness in my life, and that it held some copyright or ownership on that goodness.

You hear this sentiment expressed in testimony meeting all the time.  “I’m so thankful for the gospel in my life.  I can’t imagine what I would be without it.”  Or better yet, “I’m sure I would be __________ without the church” (You fill in the blank with any number of vices–alcoholism, a life of crime, etc.)

At first I didn’t even try to imagine what I would do or be.  I just felt empty and lost.  My husband and I talked late into the night many nights trying to get a grasp on what we could be without the church.  Slowly, as the initial grief and shock began to wear off, I began to lift up my head and look around me–at my nonmember friends and neighbors who I loved and respected for their good lives.  I started calling them to pick their brains about what they did on Sunday, how they raised their kids, what they believed about the purpose of life.  Slowly I began to realize that there might be a way for me not only to create new goodness in my life, but to take the goodness I already had with me.

Finally I listened to one of the Mormon Expression podcasts (which I highly recommend to help you make sense of things as you contemplate exiting the faith) that helped me work through those feelings of loss.

How the Church Takes Things From You and Sells Them Back

In this episode, John Larsen, the founder of Mormon Expression, shows how all those good things really weren’t the church’s to begin with.  Everything that is good in the church can actually be traced back either to truths that are common to all great religions and philosophies, or simply to the goodness of the members themselves.

Many of us who begin to walk the lonely path away from the church wonder whether or not it’s possible to live a good life and to be happy without it.  Somehow we are made to believe in the false dichotomy that we must either keep the goodness and spiritual power we felt there by staying, or else we must lose it if we walk away. The truth is that so much of the beauty of the church is because the people are beautiful.  So much of the inspiration is because the people are inspiring.  The church didn’t create that beautiful music that I loved.  The people did.  And I am good and spiritual and powerful whether in or out of the church.

With that realization, I have begun to reclaim what is mine.  I  choose to pray–not exactly in the way I had always been taught to pray, but I have made my prayers my own creations.  I decided that I wanted my new baby to have a blessing–not in church, not by the supposed authority of the priesthood, but in our home, by my husband and me together, claiming power to bless by virtue of our love for our child.

We can create our own rites of passage.  We can spend a day each week to rest and turn our minds to the things of greatest significance and sacredness in our lives.  We can listen to beautiful music–even the hymns if you love them.  After all, most of them are Christian hymns common to other Christian religions.  We can find opportunities to serve.  We can discover our own personal missions and live those missions out for the rest of our lives–not just for two years.

I have realized that the spiritual death that I feared so much really didn’t exist.  Rather it was more like the death that the caterpillar experiences on its way to becoming a butterfly.  Yes, I felt a deep emptiness in my life as I walked away.  But I’ve found that the emptiness doesn’t last long.  The vacuum is quickly filled with beauty and goodness that is more authentic, and more personal than what the church fed me.  I’ve learned that I am the source of that goodness and it was in me all along.

 

I Doubt It

By B. Very Chill

For the second time in my entire life, I didn’t watch General Conference.  Of course, there’s always that well-meaning person who contacts me to let me know that they were watching Conference and heard a great talk that made them think of me.  Last April it was Elder Holland’s address to the doubters in the kingdom entitled, “Lord, I Believe.”  This time, a friend of mine thought of me when she heard President Uchtdorf’s talk (does it even have a title yet?) inviting those who have left the fold to come back. 

Let me just say, first of all, that it was nice that he acknowledged that the reasons why so many people like me are leaving the church are not just the old stereotypes of being lazy or wanting to sin. It was wonderful that he encouraged members to treat us with respect and honor our right to worship according to the dictates of our consciences. But it was hard listening to his entreaties to come back, because no one knows more than we, the “lost sheep,” know how dearly we wished we could. No one who hasn’t gone through the loss of their testimony knows how wrenching and painful it is to make the decision to walk away. Giving up our social network, risking the abandonment of family members and friends, losing our entire foundational understanding of who we are and why we are here is very difficult.

But the fact is, we can’t just come back, no matter how much we want to. The church is not a social club or a support group or even a family.

The church is an ultimatum.

Either you believe that Joseph really saw God and Jesus Christ or you don’t. Either the Book of Mormon is a record written by ancient Americans who descended from Hebrews, or it is a piece of historical fiction. Either this is the only true church on the earth, with authority given by God to act in his name, or it is just one of many belief systems that lead people (for the most part) to do good things and live good lives. There is no room in this church for people who believe the latter. It doesn’t work. So out of our desire to be true to ourselves and live with integrity, we are forced to walk away. It is a huge test not only of our integrity, but of the relationships that we have built over our lifetimes. It is sad to discover that very few relationships, even in our own families, were really strong enough to withstand this. For that reason, I’m very glad that Elder Uchtdorf encouraged respect and understanding.

However, it seems to me that most of the members of the church did not make that respect their major takeaway. Instead, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with memes of his catchy phrase, “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.”

Believe me. I tried that over and over again. My brain did that automatically. I really did not want to entertain for a moment that this church could possibly not be what it professed to be. It took a personal crisis to make me even willing to look at information that could possibly damage my testimony. And if you talk to other recent Ex-Mormons, you will find almost across the board the same story. We doubted our doubts over and over again in a desperate and instinctual effort to maintain homeostasis.

But then, there was something else within us that believed that if the church is true, it could withstand scrutiny. And if, God forbid, it isn’t true, that we ought to be willing to accept that new, albeit painful truth. What I found is that doubt or reason is not a human weakness, as I was always taught. Rather, doubt is one of the great assets of the human mind. Here are a few catchy quotes that refute Elder Uchtdorf’s catchy quote outright.

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.” ― Bertrand Russell

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt. — Ambrose Bierce

In examining the facts that have disillusioned so many, I found that they weren’t just minor mistakes or errors of judgement as President Uchtdorf implied. My faith could have easily withstood learning about Joseph’s polygamy or the Kirtland banking scandal or even Brigham Young’s racism.  Those could have been honest mistakes or errors of imperfect men. But what I learned were facts that touch every major doctrine and claim of truth. They were not just examples of imperfect men who made mistakes. They were evidences that would stand up in any courtroom that what we believe happened in that grove of trees did not happen. That Joseph really couldn’t translate anything. That the Book of Mormon is a nice story, but fundamentally fiction and mostly plagiarized from contemporary sources.

As much as I hated it, as much as it made me sick to my stomach, I had to admit that all my wonderful feelings and confirmations of the Spirit had an alternate explanation. My emotions were confirming to me what I believed was true. And that is why my Catholic friends “know” that Mother Mary helps them find things. And why my Baptist friends “know” that Jesus has entered their heart and that they are saved. I have no doubt that Muslims rely on those same feelings to confirm to them that Mohammed did indeed see an angel of light and that the Koran is the word of God. I have continued to feel those feelings, even since I have left the church.

So at the end of the day, I felt like Elder Uchtdorf’s catchy phrase sounded really nice, but that it was fundamentally flawed and that I wouldn’t apply it anywhere else in my life or to anyone else. I mean, didn’t I spend a year and a half as a missionary in the Netherlands trying to convince other people to doubt THEIR faith and consider that ours might be true? Why was I not willing to be skeptical of my own faith? What a double standard!

Ya know, I’m sad that so many people watched Elder Uchtdorf’s talk and grieved over me. I hate to be the cause of pain to anyone and I wish that everyone could look at me and feel okay. Because I feel okay. I guess I can’t own their pain. It’s pain that is caused by a belief system that I can’t change for them.

But if I could talk to them right now, I would say, “I’m sorry that you bear that burden. I know you love me, and you hope I will return someday.  It is what all believers hope for those that leave. But I’ve discovered a new and wonderful world of doubt.  And I doubt I could ever go back to a world where I thought I knew so much.”

Robert Weston, a Unitarian Universalist minister said, “Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.  A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief. Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false. Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief. The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing; For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands. But those who fear not doubt, and know its use; are founded on rock. They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure. Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.”

Doubt isn’t so bad.  In fact, I’ve found that allowing myself to doubt has changed me for the better.  It has opened me up to new people, new ideas, and new ways of living my life.  I’m less likely to judge others and to cling to damaging dogmas.  In fact, my new mantra nowadays is, “I could be wrong.”  Is it possible that someday I will discover new information that will change my mind on this?  Certainly! I could be wrong.  But I doubt it.