Jacob Z. Hess
“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 obvious question that came up, “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?”
“Oh 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: “No, 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 message or import (as would have jumped off the page for them within their previous faithful narrative), they denied any higher or deeper meaning in the pain from within their new way of interpreting 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 those stepping away from our own faith community. While acknowledging the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I attempt here to shine a light on the rough contours of two competing narratives that exist to make sense of the exquisite pain often 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’s and Wednesday’s) – 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, consequently, that certain voices online have advanced this narrative 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 perhaps a way similar to how a divorce or death of a loved one hurts.
And no doubt, some of the pain people experience 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 that people are turning away from than mere human relationships. There are covenants with God the Father that are 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 with eternal implications. For those of us who believe that these covenants have real, binding force in this life and the next, it doesn’t surprise us 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 that’s 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, right? 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.
I can only speak from what I observe. And clearly, you know your 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, an angst – and an underlying ache…right under the surface of that smile.
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.
Could that be why this hurts so much? And why tank tops, coffee and all the Netflix in the world won’t ever 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 your deepest happiness is (still) found in returning home – no matter what reconciliation we have to work through as brothers and sisters once more.
 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).