Jacob Z. Hess
This is the second of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger“ (starting with an initial piece exploring attachment injury in relation to faith struggles).
“Excruciating”…“the worst pain imaginable”…”I couldn’t believe how much it hurt.”
It’s not uncommon to hear language like this from people walking away from activity, life and membership in the Church of Jesus Christ. One dear friend of mine wept as she described the pain of separation, repeating multiple times during our visit how some of the new things in her life (coffee, tank tops) “didn’t take away the pain.”
So, I asked the natural question that came up for me, “so, in a previous stage of life when you were happy and active in the Church, this kind of deeper inner pain and lack of peace would have been taken as a pretty good indicator that something is off – and maybe God isn’t behind the direction you are going, right?”
“Yes, but not anymore,” she and her husband replied – explaining that they no longer believed in the existence of a Holy Spirit that guided people with internal promptings: “We don’t believe that anymore.”
I found this exchange simultaneously fascinating and troubling. Here was a precious family (and dear personal friends) taking momentous steps down a path that felt downright excruciating… And yet, rather than seeing these deeply conflicted feelings as having any deeper import (as would have jumped off the page for them within their previous faithful narrative), they saw no higher meaning or sacred caution in this case, and from this new way of seeing the world.
Stories we tell about pain. I first became interested in how we make sense of (and narrate) pain when I interviewed people saying conflicting things about depression: “Prozac saved my life” insisted one woman, while another mother told me, “Prozac led to my son’s suicide.”
How could two people with similar experiences (medication for serious depression) arrive at such profoundly different conclusions and interpretations? That same core question still fascinates me today about other contested, difficult issues (including, most recently, in relation to sexuality, gender and faith). For instance, what leads one person to adopt one way of thinking about the pain of walking away from the Church of Jesus Christ, and another person to adopt a profoundly different way of thinking about essentially the same thing?
Rather than making up our story “whole cloth” (out of thin air), Julian Rappaport argues that we draw upon other available stories around us in figuring out how to make sense of something we’re facing. In the case of depression, for example, interactions with a doctor often introduce a new way of understanding depression – which can be further galvanized (or undercut) by the details of subsequent treatment response. Thus, if someone starts feeling “more myself” after starting an antidepressant – it can provide visceral evidence that, in fact, depression is “really a chemical imbalance after all.”
Similar galvanizing moments are found in narratives we adopt for other painful experiences – including a divorce, a death, or the dissolution of a previous faith. Exemplified in Arthur Kleinman’s classic “Illness Narratives,” the bottom line is this: wherever anguish exists, human beings need some way of making sense of it.
That includes the pain of dear ones stepping away from our own faith community. While acknowledging the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I attempt here to bring attention to the rough contours of two competing narratives that exist to make sense of the exquisite pain often (but not always) experienced when someone steps away from the Church of Jesus Christ.
1. The pain of social dislocation. One of the most common ways of narrating this pain is to characterize its source as something expected, even predictable – due to the new distance with relationships someone has enjoyed and leaned upon for many years.
More than simply stepping away from a network of relationships, disaffiliation often means walking away from a way of life – how to raise your children, care for your marriage, spend your weekends (and your Monday and Wednesday evenings) – even how to eat, think about sexual intimacy, and entertain yourself. Departing from this community, then, is far more than just missing the next ward party.
It’s understandable, then, that this narrative has been advanced as a way to help people make sense of the pain: this is just how it feels to walk away from a community where you’ve had close ties for so long, with so many.
From this vantage point, the pain of separating oneself from formerly close connections with many you once considered “spiritual brothers and sisters” just hurts – in a way similar to how a divorce or death of a loved one hurts.
And no doubt, some of the pain people experience in stepping away really does have a lot to do with this kind of social dislocation. But should social dislocation hurt this bad?
2. The pain of something deeper. A second way of making sense of this same exquisite pain doesn’t deny the pain of social bonds dissolving – but argues that this is not sufficient to explain the whole of it. From this vantage point, there is something more here that people are turning away from than only human relationships. There are sacred covenants that are also in question.
More than simply walking away from social ties and community connections, those walking away from the Church are also turning away from precious promises connected to everything that matters in the future. For those of us who believe that these covenants have real, binding force in this life and the next, it doesn’t surprise us, then, to hear of the excruciating pain. In that hurt and that anguish, we hear the heartache of someone ripping themselves from the protective, life-giving womb of the Kingdom of God on earth.
And yes, that hurts! It just does…a lot.
That’s what we would expect. And this is the other narrative, the other way of making sense of it all.
Quite a contrast, right? While the differences in these interpretations alone are striking, it’s remarkable how little direct comparison these competing narratives receive. (While yes, each narrative gets plenty of attention within their respective loyal audiences, there really is little by way of comparative analysis).
Although it’s interesting to simply juxtapose them, as I’ve done above – it’s when you play them out over time however that fresh insights start really emerging.
‘It gets better.’ Similar to what teens are often told who are considering “coming out,” this is a message departing members hear too: “Even if it hurts bad to take this step at first, don’t worry – eventually things start to get better, and hurt a lot less.”
And in both cases, this is no doubt objectively true for most people. If it’s terrifying, scary and painful to “come out” initially (with very different narratives to explain why), eventually an individual settles into a new trajectory, things stabilize, and so, yes, it hurts less. And for someone leaving the Church, even if it hurts at a terrifying level initially, things can get better eventually – even a lot better, according to many people’s accounts.
Subsequently, one of the most common things we hear from those walking away is that they’re “happier than they’ve ever been.” (I’ve rarely met anyone stepping away who doesn’t say something like this). Thus, Jana Riess describes a woman named Emily who “can’t deny that she feels profound relief now, because going to church had begun to cause her pain.” She later notes that Emily “says she feels more at peace and closer to God than she did” when actively participating in the Church.
Pretty compelling stuff. How are active members to make sense of something like this?
For one, let’s acknowledge one mistake we often make – namely, to deny happiness that former members find and experience in their lives. The God we worship leads everyone to find as much happiness as they can find – including our brothers and sisters who have left.
But acknowledging such happiness doesn’t mean it’s beyond scrutiny. And to question something (as I’m about to do) is not the same as minimizing or denying it.
Your happiness and mine. There’s definitely a lot to talk about when it comes to happiness (in and out of the church) – including many things rarely touched upon. For instance, when someone has arrived at a reactive, pained relationship with the Church and its leaders, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that stepping away from all this would bring some kind of tangible relief. That’s how it feels to step back from a reactive, painful relationship, right? (Phew!)
Likewise, to cut oneself from previous commitments and obligations feels almost universally “freeing,” maybe by default. And to come to own (maybe for the first time) a pursuit of truth on a much more personal, individualized level, is also an exciting, even romantic prospect – especially if you felt somehow constrained in that pursuit during your previous experiences within the Church itself.
And let’s be honest, when you put yourself in the shoes of Emily and others who have made the decision to step away, isn’t there a bit of exhilaration that comes with saying “hey, I’m going to do whatever I want this Sunday” or, “there’s not as much of a reason to stay away from coffee (or alcohol or porn) anymore, so…why not try it?”
I’m not suggesting that former members all gravitate to these things (they don’t) – but simply to note that these activities do have their kick! (The first drink of alcohol is famously described in AA as kind of a transcendent moment – with many similar stories about marijuana and porn).
But, of course, whatever short-term relief or high might come up initially, an accurate picture of what’s happening must look out long-term.
Narrating the long-term picture. Whether someone initially experiences pain OR relief in stepping away from the Church, a clear view of what’s happening needs to play it forward into the future. Although both active and former members love to claim full vindication in the presumed clarity of these longer-term views, I would argue that the distant view is NOT always so easy to discern and make sense of…especially because of two seemingly contradictory patterns:
1. First, things that bring short-term relief clearly often lead to longer-term difficulties (think drugs, alcohol & the American diet).
2. At the same time, things that involve short-term challenge can also frequently lead to long-term payoffs (think vegetables, exercise & hard work).
In my observations of (and interviews with) people who have stepped away from the faith, I’ve noticed how both trajectories show up in the narratives of many members walking away
When it comes to the first pattern, after the nightmare (or honeymoon) of walking away fades, life can still be really hard – even sometimes harder than before they left. That’s something privately acknowledged on occasion, but much more rarely spoken about publicly.
And with the second pattern, I don’t have a hard time believing my friends when they say they’ve gained new insights and profound truth during their time away from the Church. How could they not?! (My own experience studying Buddhist insights or secular psychology has been mind-expanding as well).
Sometimes these fresh insights or growth, however, are held up as some kind of defining evidence that confirms the validity of their chosen path – aka, “why would I be so happy if this was really such a horrible decision I made?”
Let’s admit, that’s a pretty good question! Shouldn’t they be absolutely miserable (pretty constantly) if they, in actual fact, have walked away from the Church of Jesus Christ set up in the last days?
Not at all(!!)
Guarding agency ferociously. Let’s say that God is, indeed, communicating very clearly in those initial painful moments of people walking away, how dangerous a choice they are making. Would that same God keep up the painful dissonance constantly (incessantly, relentlessly) afterwards?
Not if God intends to continue being God! The God we worship honors agency. If that same unrelenting pain were to continue, no one would walk away from the Church – or be able to! It would hurt so bad that people would be forced to come back.
“Without compulsory means” God extends power to His children in an endless flow (D&C 121:46). That’s why this pain HAS to wear off! If the depth of angst were to continue indefinitely, God would, in essence, not be allowing anyone to leave. And, conversely, since the pain does, in fact wear off – people are genuinely free to make that choice.
How else could someone be free – truly free – to walk away from exaltation and celestial glory? (Think about it: If all that language of eternal destiny is not just a super great fable – but, in actual fact, a land of ultimate promise for His people, how else could there be a legitimate way to opt out?)
There is no other way…except arguably just as we’re experiencing it: veil, mortal confusion + real-space-in-which to choose.
If that’s true, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when these our beloved brothers and sisters saying goodbye still come to experience some real happiness and sweetness in their lives. That’s how a loving God works with His children: guarding their freedom of choice as absolutely precious.
We might still justifiably ask and wonder: how deep does that happiness go? And how long will all this sweetness they point towards last?
Even Jesus himself, according to the Book of Mormon, cautioned that alternatives to His path would give their adherents “joy in their works for a season,” with subsequent warning about what follows that same season.
The witness of a countenance. That’s not just an archaic scriptural warning for me. It’s witness to a reality that I see evidenced in people’s lives and faces all around me.
To you, my former brothers and sisters, I hear you tell me you’re “happier than you’ve ever been before.”
But then I meet you again… And the contrast from the person I once knew is striking.
‘Truth comes through the face of the other,’ taught the Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. And I’m suggesting (gently), that your faces often tell me a different story than your words.
I gave a talk last year in my rural, ward community, followed by a presentation not long after to a group of grappling or former members of the Church. Compared to the lightness in the air with our congregations, I was struck by the heaviness in the air with former members.
Countenances were laden. Faces were somber. And the pain was palpable.
One dear brother who was full of unremitting peace and sweetness every time I saw him, now carries with him a permanent angst – even when he smiles. Another who used to tenderly embrace and love the Saints is so full of chronic hardness towards his former people, he refuses to even be near most of us.
Are these the fruits of truth and light and knowledge?
I can only speak from what I observe. And clearly, you know your own personal experience better than I. Some of you would surely argue the opposite, that our congregations feel heavy to you – while your “post-Mormon barbecue” is an absolute joy.
It’s true that we don’t (and can’t) know what your own quiet moments are like – or what you feel deep in your heart and soul. Is it peace – and the kind of deep, abiding joy that doesn’t go away, even when tragedy strikes? Is it sweetness like you once experienced serving, teaching and growing among your fellow trying-to-be-Saints?
If you insist that the joy in your life today is “better than ever,” why can’t I see that in your faces?
Sometimes, I do. But so many other times, I sense a fragility and an underlying ache – always right below the surface.
The bottom line is this: While compelling voices will continue insisting that any such angst is explainable by social disconnection (and the ongoing trauma of separating yourself from the Church), does separating from one’s social group really hurt this bad…?
Or is there something deeper going on – something more consequential than not eating funeral potatoes and jello as much? If there is truth behind our witness, it is the bread and water of an abundant, eternal life that you are foregoing. That is my testimony – and warning to you, dear ones!
Could that be why this hurts so much? And why other things don’t seem to satisfy that hunger or fill that hole?
Come back! We need you. And even more than the Backstreet Boys, we “want you back for good!”
Not for numbers. But for the joy. And the deep, palpable peace you can again feel in our midst…and soon! That’s why we’re going to continue doing what we can, while we still have time, to help you see again that you’re not only still welcome to come home – but you might just be happier once you do! No matter what reconciliation we have to work through as brothers and sisters once more, let’s do it. Let’s find it.
 Additional trauma is also often attributed to the psychic pain of certain convictions around sin, repentance – and the difficulty of stepping away fully from these kinds of “shame-inducing” beliefs. Although that has invoked increasing discussion, the more central public explanations still largely center around the dissolution of social bonds.
 So, also, does that more individualized pursuit of truth and God invoke an excitement – divorced of any institutional constraints. How much more exhilarating to sit at the feet of meditation gurus in India (or Ted Talks), than seeking inner impressions while sitting in a routine, sometimes pedestrian worship service each Sunday!
 See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, (Duquesne University Press, 1969).
I had a friend tell me 2 weeks ago she is having her name and the names of her minor children (one who has been baptized less than a year) removed from the church. I feel like she is throwing us all away. That pain is the Holy Spirit telling your friends this is wrong.
I accidentally watched the educated wife of a former prominent member of the Church In Utah who has a large YouTube channel where he interviews former members as to why they left the Church. I watched 4 or 5 of these well done but very sad YouTube channel interviews & they would all say oh we are so happy leaving & having this all behind us but you could tell either a little or a lot that they were not ok & they were hurting. I KNOW THE CHURCH IS TRUE. I am grateful my testimony is strong & not weak to the winds of the modern ever changing society we live in. Look to the good strong members of the Church who could be like mentors from far away, They have had the strong challenges but they stand in the midst of the coming storm. The wise man built his house upon the rock…..
I don’t understand it.
I no longer believe in the legitimacy of the US government… I’m not allowed to be left alone and not be subject to any of their restrictions or have to pay them money… Exmos have a great deal compared to me.
Very insightful thoughts on the matter. It makes me think of a scripture in the Book of Mormon where Alma says “wickedness never was happiness “. You can fool yourself all you want, but what Alma says is true you cannot be happy doing the wrong thing. And what can be more wrong than walking away from the truth given to you from on high. Walking away from your covenants and your Father. It blows my mind just to think of the repercussions, because repercussions there will be on the end.
Very insightful thoughts on the matter. It makes me think of a scripture in the Book of Mormon where Alma says “wickedness never was happiness “. You can fool yourself all you want, but what Alma says is true you cannot be happy doing the wrong thing. And what can be more wrong than walking away from the truth given to you from on high. Walking away from your covenants and your Father. It blows my mind just to think of the repercussions, because repercussions there will be in the end.
Hi Jacob, I’m glad you’re continuing this series, and I can totally see how this second part is a continuation of your last essay on attachment injury. I responded to that one and appreciated your kind words and offer to get on a call at some point (happy to do, by the way). I felt I should share my thoughts on this one again. For other commenters, I recommend reading my comment on part 1 to understand where I’m coming from. (at https://www.millennialstar.org/proposing-another-way-to-understand-catalysts-to-faith-disaffection-attachment-injury/#comment-170774)
I like that in both of these you’re focusing on the narratives, the stories we tell to make sense of our lives. You’re definitely correct that those who leave activity tell different stories than those who stay about their experience in the church, the process of leaving, and their lives afterwards.
So, in light of that, I wanted to respond to some of the ideas here, because I feel that you’re uniquely open to appreciating a different perspective. Hopefully, mine will be helpful.
As I stated before, my path out doesn’t fit the attachment injury metaphor. As such, I can definitively say that it did not “hurt so bad to walk away from the Church of Jesus Christ”.
Through the process there has been some pain, cognitive dissonance, fear, and anxiety. But I could never describe it as “excruciating” or the “worst pain imaginable”. Many who leave in their teens or twenties would agree with me. And it’s likely that any pain they felt was predominantly “social dislocation.”
That said, I would argue that for many, the pain, excruciating or not, occurred while they were in the church rather than as they left. I know for me it did. There was fear of the unknown. Anxiety about my marriage. Lots of cognitive dissonance as I tried to find a way to make sense of conflicting things I learned at church and from other sources. Ongoing struggles as I tried to solve problems the “gospel way”. Most of that went away as I left. The cognitive dissonance was gone. I say “I don’t know” more often, but don’t feel bad about it. I’m less afraid of the unknown, because I’ve ventured into it before, with faith. Not faith in a being who was going to help me, but just faith. The courage to move forward without knowing all the answers. And my anxieties around my marriage and other relationships eased off as I saw that most people in the church love me and accept me just fine (I realize I’m relatively lucky in this regard).
Are there regrets? Sure. I probably wouldn’t have gone to a church school, given tithing to the church, or spent two years trying to convert others to beliefs I no longer hold. But I did all those things willingly, and don’t look back on them with any animosity or anger. They’re part of who I am. I am at peace with that, just as much as I am with the decisions I’m making now.
I don’t want to minimize the pain that some do feel. I wouldn’t generally attribute it to only social dislocation or “something deeper”. I think there can be a lot of pain caused by the doctrine of the church, and of course everyone recognizes that church culture and “bad apple” believers can cause quite a bit of pain as well. All of which can be greatly exacerbated by hearing from a young age (and often repeating) that the church is the only true church, that any other course of action will lead to misery. It can hurt to realize you unknowingly deceived others in defense of an organization you thought you understood but didn’t. It can hurt to realize you suffered for years, maybe decades, because there was no way to imagine the church wasn’t true. It can hurt to realize (as Donna Showalter did), that because of her beliefs, her son was raised in an environment that led him to seriously consider suicide.
So, while I didn’t feel that great pain, I definitely take others at their words when they say they did, usually while they tried to stay in the church. At other times, it came after they left, when they were judged by others they once thought of as friends, realized the pain they caused others as believers, or were made to feel crazy for not knowing things that were never discussed in church, seminary, or general conference.
I also take them at their word when they say they are happier now. And I extend the same courtesy to my believing family and friends, who find happiness in the church. It would be pretty condescending of me to claim the believers aren’t happy in their beliefs. And I think it usually comes across that way when believers question the happiness of unbelievers.
And make no mistake, that’s exactly what you are doing by relying on a “witness of a countenance”. I appreciate the nod to believing those who have left when they claim to be happy, or happier. I also appreciate that you recognize some good that comes from working through a serious faith crisis/transition/whatever. But you undermine all that when you proceed to say “their countenance changed”. It is a copout.
I think you could see it if I were to apply your words to believers. If I were to say: “If you insist that you have joy in the gospel, why can’t I see it in your faces? … So many times, I sense a fragility, an angst, and an underlying ache … right under the surface of that smile.” To say such things would be to assume too much. It’s a form of gaslighting. “I know your inner thoughts and feelings better than you do.”
Or maybe it’s just cherry-picking. You may know some people who left and aren’t as happy. I know some who are miserable, and they believe in the church. But I also know they aren’t necessarily representative, and it doesn’t mean they’re miserable because they are in the church.
Honestly, it was at this point that this essay went downhill. Within a few sentences, you’re claiming that people are filling the hole you see in their lives with “tank tops, coffee, and Netflix”. Sure, those simple pleasures can be enjoyed in a more carefree way, but only because people like me do feel peace in their lives.
Thank you Jacob
Thank you Rock
Differences in countenance are certainly real. But the “light” countenance is not exclusive to any particular group while in this mortal period of probation unless it be those who serve their fellow beings freely in whatever capacity they are gifted to have.
Those of us who hold to the faith, hold therefore to the concept that God will not always permit people to take happiness in sin, that sin being a failure to confess His hand in all things, meaning in this instance particularly, His hand in the happiness we all take each day we feel to take an exhilarating breath and smile. One day, I believe He will make all account for their failure to look to and recognize the source, and bow the knee and give thanks. In that the misery will be inescapable. All we can do is raise a kind warning.
Leaving off the negative aspect, I believe the doctrine and the words of the prophets that there truly is greater happiness to be had than I or any of us currently experience by accepting more fully and acting on the promise and hope of Christ.
There are times when the administrative church (symbolized by the building on North Temple) has caused me great pain. I felt I had to step away for a time. But when I did, I only felt worse. For my own well-being, I must chose the lesser of two painful realities – that within the body of Christ versus that without the body of Christ.
As an aside, I’ve seldom experienced the “peace” and “joy” so often spoken of at Conference. Perhaps that is my thorn in my side. I look forward to the day when I will experience these emotions with consistency rather than the sadness, anger, frustration and confusion I so often feel.
Hogarth, I think you have a point. Many an inactive member or ex-member has returned due to the realization, or motivation, that “it hurts less in the church than out of it.”
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”
― C.S. Lewis
Some people are not looking for truth. I think it would be good to recognize that the Church is a place for people who are seeking truth and communion with others so inclined, because adjusting to truth just is a painful learning process and community really helps soften the hardships.
Those who are seeking comfort… might find it at church for a time, as long as the social situation is profitable. But when that fails, I don’t see much good in trying to save them from their decision to “learn the hard way.” It often ends up being like the parent whose tugging at their child only strengthens the child’s determination to go the opposite way.
So your answer to stories of people’s pain and sadness at leaving the church is that God is telling them they are going to the Bad Place?
I don’t think this is a fair assumption to make. First of all we don’t know what is that eternal calculus anyway. Many people that LDS revere and assume are in the Good Place broke the word of wisdom, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and most of the early church leaders. I see no guarantee that just by going to church each week guarantees anyone a slot in the good or bad place. If the celestial kingdom is just Mormons, it will a pretty lonely place. We wouldn’t do all this temple work if that were the case. So if it isn’t just us Mormons then the calculus for entry is a lot more complicated than just showing up at church. Plenty of the people that leave the church lead good and fulfilling lives.
Your assumption that leaving the church breaks covenants is an interesting one. Which covenant? The only one I can think of is one from the temple where we covenant to consecrate our time and efforts to build the kingdom of god. The church is the kingdom of god but surely it is more than just that. People could build that kingdom other ways. And people within the church are breaking this covenant all the time.
Isn’t it more reasonable that people feel that way for the reasons they say: leaving culture, friends, family, worry about unkown, and worry about relationship with God or any other reason.
Brian: Your comments are very curious. Rather than quote the OP you simply come to a conclusion that it was all a judgment that those who leave the church are going to the “Bad Place”. You must have read it with blinders on. Or you were being snarky. Not sure which.
But let me respond to your question of “Which covenant?”
How is it that you are unaware of this covenant?
Mosiah 18:10 “Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?”
This is one of the covenants we speak about renewing each week with the sacrament.
You use words that indicate you include yourself among Mormons, but your speech betrays a lack of understanding of the real doctrine of the church about those who live on this earth without knowing God’s laws. Some of the things you say make me doubt you are actually a member of the church, because the baptismal “covenant” is a basic tenet.
Another basic tenet is that the doctrine of the church embraces many, many people who lived honorable lives but knew not the law.
The OP speaks to those who were taught much of the law and then turned from it. That is a very different thing than never knowing it. Having taught the gospel in many settings, including seminary and gospel principles, for many, many years, I know that it is not even enough for a person to have sat in Sunday School, seminary, sacrament meeting and general conference for actual knowledge of the doctrines to take hold.
In my legal training we apply “facts of a situation” to “the law” to make judgment.
The doctrine of the church, I am bold to declare, says that God will judge a person on the thoughts and intents of the heart coupled with the deeds done in flesh (the facts of the situation) while applying the level of law understood by the individual. This is the magnificent thing about our doctrine, because God knows not only your thoughts but also each persons level of understanding of “the law.” So, the law he applies your facts to is uniquely yours. Not that you can define the law yourself but that God can see your capacity for understanding.
It is why we do temple work for those departed who knew not the law with confidence and joy. And why hold out hope that even those of our loved ones who die “outside” the church may yet be saved in exalted glory.
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed is the perception that “Faith Transition” inevitably means leaving faith behind.
I decided I was too cool for Church decades ago. Unfortunately for my ability to walk away with rejoicing was that I had a theophany. But despite the theophany, I was aware of the weirdness of Church for decades. And then things clicked and I transitioned back into full mental activity.
Inasmuch as we have faith in an afterlife during which the disaffected can be redeemed, we have faith that everyone who now fancies themselves too cool for Church will have a chance to re-think that alienation.
In the meantime, we can love them where they stand. If they are boorish in their triumphalistic anti-Church posture, we can chide them mildly (citing Paul’s thoughts in Romans 14:1 and 16:17-18).
As to the example about Prozac saving life or causing suicide, that view is possible because patients are explicitly warned that suicidal thoughts can arise when taking anti-depressants. Similarly, Cedric Benson loved his motorcycle and looked forward to a fun evening (complete with heart-festooned pic). And yet it was because he was on that motorcycle that he is now deceased. Life is complex.
Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. If not for One of Those Weeks, I would have got to them earlier.
I’m especially impressed with you, Rock…goodness, you are *easy* to listen to (and even get hard feedback from!) I’d venture to say that if more people who have stepped away from the Church acted with your poise and grace, the basis for some of my concerns would wither. So much more common to have people avoid, resist, and outright reject deeper inquiry like this – out of a seeming (yes, my perception) fragility and angst to even take up the questions. You, by contrast, have proactively turned towards the questions that challenge you – and articulated yourself well. To illustrate how interesting I found your comments, I spent most of primary today (where I was accompanying my emotionally-fragile-toddler), content analyzing the different reasons you provided in your essay for people’s pain. Fascinating! (:
I’m reaching out to you separately – and have made a few notes that I’m going to keep for private conversation. For now, a couple of more immediate, public responses:
(1) Clearly, there is a lot more complexity to the sorrow people feel – as you pointed out convincingly in the pre-departure glimpses, and cases where people may simply not feel as much pain leaving. I own the fact that I was focusing in here on instances of acute pain *during* departure; so, perhaps, the essence of our arguments can coexist (and provide nuance and depth the other lacks).
(2) I understand why my closing inquiry could feel condescending – and even contrary (and contradictory) to my previous statements. But one of the great fascinations of my life is learning the extent to which sincere, earnest, good-hearted, thoughtful people can adopt *narratives* that lead them to a dark place they don’t really want to be over time. In order to study these narratives, you have to be able to question them – even to challenge them when you find them suspect.
This is especially true once the goal becomes open, transparent mutual influence and persuasion – rather than merely understanding or affirming. So, I want to press you and Brian to consider whether, in fact – you would *truly* want to spare active members’ feelings if you really thought their lives were bringing them unhappiness? For my part, I honestly find no problem whatsoever with you saying to active members, “If you insist that you have joy in the gospel, why can’t I see it in your faces? … So many times, I sense a fragility, an angst, and an underlying ache … right under the surface of that smile.” If that’s what you see and observe, why wouldn’t you point that out? (especially if you think it could bring them happiness).
Bottom line: Rather than closing down open discourse, I’m convinced we need to be opening the space to *more* contestation of what the truth is…rather than holding back to spare feelings. This exchange is a great example. I’ve made my best case – and you’ve made a compelling response. How refreshing to hear your thoughts, honestly!
(3) To be clear, I’m not denying happiness that exists – only raising questions about its depth. And also wanting to bring scrutiny to the common (not universal) sense of angst, and even openly acknowledged fragility in my friends who have walked away. However touchy that might feel, if the scrutiny helped move them to a better, stronger, more deeply peaceful place, would not the initial discomfort be worth it?
Thanks once again for a very thoughtful and informative piece.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you described the “freeing” feeling when some folks decide to drop out of the Church. I recall when I finally completed my university studies and felt instant relief – no more class assignments constantly looming over my head, no more late night study sessions, and no more paying for this lost freedom (from one perspective) with my time and my money! I had lots of free time as a result, and could actually work and earn rather than just spend. For those that feel like their church activity becomes a distraction from things they’d rather do or not do, the “graduation” must feel liberating.
I sketched a crude picture of a model for this phenomenon in my missionary journal several decades ago, but cannot find the original source. Based on the context of the drawing, it might be from one of the Yorgason brothers. The model was in the shape of two funnels, one on top of the other joined at their large open ends (creating kind of a diamond shape if in two dimensions).
Nevertheless, I’ll attempt to explain it.
Our path in life starts in the bottom funnel just above the spout. As infants we have very few freedoms in that cramped end of the funnel. We cannot do anything on our own and everything must be provided for us. As we grow older (and move up into the more open portion of the bottom funnel), our freedom to independently act grows right up until we hit the age of 8 and are baptized, making our first sacred covenant. From that time forward, we enter into the upside-down top funnel at its widest point. We try to live by our covenants. Boys enter into the Aaronic Priesthood, and both boys and girls can go to the temple and are taught in YM/YW and in seminary, which pushes us higher into the narrowing end of the upper funnel. Some of us start to feel the restrictions and elect to drop out, or revert back to a lower area of the funnel where there is more freedom, or choose not to advance since we see the narrowing space above us. We who continue our way up enter into temple covenants, serve missions, and accept callings and assignments. Many of us experience the ultimate of all ordinances by being sealed in the temple to a beloved partner, each covenant step limiting our freedoms even further as we get crammed into the narrowest portion of the upper funnel.
Many of us stay in this cramped position for years and it can be very uncomfortable and stressful. Eventually, a decision has to be made. Do we continue in this painfully pinched existence (out of habit, out of hope, or to please others, perhaps), do we drop down (become inactive), or do we drop out (leave entirely)? But these are not the only options. The final option, the one promised by the Savior when we take His yoke upon us, is to keep moving up, and once through the upper spout, we have all of the freedom we could ever dream of.
He is the Way through the upper spout. When we give ourselves entirely over to Him, we truly experience unbridled freedom – not that we would then attempt anything and everything, but our desires would be closely aligned with His such that we’d have no desire to make choices that were inconsistent with His will or with the covenants we have contracted with Him.
It is likely that nobody is perfect in their total devotion to the Savior, but we can reach a state where we don’t feel restricted to act in any way that we please, because we desire to please Him.
I relate this to you as one who is far from reaching this utopian state. I also recognize that while I’ve seen it in many people, this paradigm will not apply to everyone.
Well, I gotta say, again, that I’m impressed by your response, Jacob. I appreciate your welcoming my feedback, and was a little surprised you didn’t “punch back” harder. Don’t worry, I would have appreciated that as well. I like the back and forth, and the way it can sharpen my own thoughts and force me to clarify, defend, and adjust my beliefs.
And because of that, I can only repeat to you the compliment you paid me: “if more people [in the church] acted with your poise and grace, the basis for [many of] my concerns would wither.” The funny thing is that I feel the same way, that it’s so much more common for those who believe to “avoid, resist, and outright reject deeper inquiry” into its truth claims.
Note that I’m not inviting anyone here to do that. I suppose I still feel a bit like a fish out of water. Not really sure I should even be sharing, given the orthodox bent of this blog, and that my own story doesn’t really match the one you’re laying out in this series of posts.
But the fact is that I rarely post in ex-mormon forums because I would get a bunch of people agreeing with me, and not necessarily a lot of interesting dialogue. I’ve had good friends in and out of the church that I’ve used as a sounding board in the past, and it’s really the disagreements that are the most interesting to me.
Aside: FWIW, I spent primary today at home, free writing about how to help my teenage son (a believer) step up and show responsibility in his life, so that he can get a driver’s license. In the ensuing discussion I talked about how valuable that will be for him on a mission, because I know he wants to serve.
To your points:
1. I agree that our arguments can coexist. And I heartily agree that the pain/suffering during departure does exist for some, and understanding it’s source is vital to treating that pain, and healing from it. I suppose my main point was the same as my response to your earlier post – that the landscape here is larger than is captured by your narrative. And honestly, given your stated purpose (recruiting Alma the Younger), that’s probably fine. I’m unlikely to be that Alma 🙂
2. I totally agree with your thinking behind this. Narratives can definitely tell a story about our life that leads us to greater suffering and misery. I think of an older couple I know who have one of the worst marriages I’ve personally seen. Given some severe mental health issues on one side and severe dependence on the other, the likelihood of them improving their relationship while married is nil. Yet, because of their narratives around eternal marriage they won’t consider divorce. From my vantage point (admittedly, I could be wrong), they would achieve greater short term happiness by divorcing. More important though, they could both grow and find far greater long term (even eternal) happiness by divorcing. But most likely they will continue as there are, in the depths of misery.
That might seem a little attack-y, but I’m really just trying to show that narratives from the church can lead to the same dark places you, to your credit, want people to avoid.
Next up, I love your response to my hypothetical statement to believing members. I wish more people would welcome others asking them hard questions like that. I will need to consider it deeply with respect to my own life. And even though it was hypothetical, I can’t pretend that I’m not tempted to make that statement, verbatim, to the couple I mentioned above. I know them closely enough to know they truly are unhappy. I also know them closely enough to know that my making such a statement would actually “harden their hearts” to my words, and make it less likely that they would listen and find greater happiness. So, at least for the time being, I remain silent.
On the flip side, when I don’t know someone well enough to have an idea of how they’d respond, I would also doubt my knowledge of their level of happiness, just by judging from their countenance. In other words, I’d assume when they say they are happy that they really are happy. Or, maybe more important, I’d assume when they say that the gospel gives their lives meaning, that it really does. And so I don’t feel much need to change that. Note: I might speak up to ask them to give me the same level of respect, if it isn’t there.
3. That question about the depth of happiness is itself deep. Maybe unfathomable. How can I compare the depth of my happiness to that of someone else? How can I compare the depth of my happiness now to it’s depth 15 years ago, when I went to church each week excited to teach gospel doctrine?
But of course, I have to try. It’s one of the non-family reasons I still read blogs like this one and stay connected with the orthodox Mormon culture and doctrine. I enjoy challenging myself.
I think the happiness we experience is, and should be, a side effect of a life well lived. When we make happiness the goal, the end, it becomes more elusive. But if we live a life of meaning, the happiness takes care of itself. And it’s certainly true that, at least for a time, people who leave struggle to give their lives meaning. They may take some time to find and create meaning in their new life. It’s also true that a deeply meaningful life can be lived outside the church. More importantly, it can be lived “after” the church, by those who have left.
Also, will respond to your separate email, would love to talk in person, if we can make that work.
Soon after I left the LDS church, my father started telling me that when I came over to his house I “bring a cloud of darkness into our home.” That I seemed so unhappy and miserable.
He thought it was because I had left the church. It was actually because I told the person I was dating about things I remembered him and my siblings doing to me, now that I was no longer living with them. The person I was dating cried, and I felt sick as I realized how someone else would see my memories … the daily violations of my safety and person that I saw as normal.
Once I’d seen that, I couldn’t unsee it. And when I had to go over to their house, for one reason or another, my fear showed on my face.
If the exmormons you speak to are consistently guarded around you, they may have good reasons for that. Nothing to do with you personally though, I’m certain.