|The author and her sister on Pioneer Day in Provo, Utah|
Learning How to Feel Human Again after a Faith Transition
Note: This is the text of a sermon I gave at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, July 23, 2017. I tend to ad lib quite a bit, so the audio at https://boiseuu.org/audio/ may differ from this written version. Also, talking about my faith transition still terrifies me. If you're going through one yourself, hang in there. If you know someone who is currently questioning their faith, be gentle.
My youngest child turned twelve a few weeks ago. As I watched her excitement at becoming a Beehive and entering the LDS church’s Young Women’s program, I reflected back on my own transition to womanhood within the church. When I was a Beehive, the church had a program called Personal Progress. With no disrespect to the Boy Scouts, this program was essentially like earning an Eagle Scout award, only much, much harder, and with none of the recognition the boys got for their achievements. Plus ca change.
As a new Beehive, I was encouraged to write a list of my major life goals. Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, I had accomplished all of them. Married in the temple to a tax attorney who managed the money of those 1% folks? Check. Earned an advanced degree in Classics that proved I was smart but not really necessary to the workforce? Check. And like all good Mormon mothers, I was using my degree at home, where I taught my four children about Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars while canning apricots and singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”
Most importantly, in 2007 I was called as a Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward. Now for those of you who don’t know what a Gospel Doctrine teacher is, or why I would aspire as a 12-year-old girl to become one, let me explain. The Gospel Doctrine teacher is the highest church calling to which a Mormon woman can aspire. Relief Society President? Pshaw! Who wants to be in charge of a bunch of women? The Gospel Doctrine teacher was responsible for teaching scripture every Sunday to the women AND the men in the ward.
And if there’s one thing I loved as a child, it was Mormon scripture.
I was that kid who wrote my English and history papers on Joseph Smith and the Restored Gospel. I wasn’t just Mormon—I was in love with Mormonism. Church doctrine was the framework through which I interpreted everything about life, but most especially, it was how I decided whether or not I was a good person.
To its credit, the Mormon church makes this determination fairly easy in some senses. There are simple checklists—no coffee or tea, no alcohol, no sex before marriage—that were pretty easy for me to follow. The rubric that defined my sense of self-worth was simple too: “Wickedness never was happiness,” as the Book of Mormon prophet Alma says. Translation: if you aren’t happy, you’re a sinner.
Then there was another one of my favorite life-defining scriptures, from the New Testament Book of Matthew: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.”
In my 2014 book, The Price of Silence, about raising a child who has mental illness, I wrote about this scripture: “Mormon women bear the brunt of this perfectionism, often being expected to give up work outside the home, devote themselves to lay church service, raise perfect, polite, academically gifted children; grow a garden; preserve what they grow in their garden for their two-year food storage; and of course, stay thin, fit, and smiling in their ‘modest is hottest’ outfits, standing beside their equally perfect, priesthood-holding husbands.”
In 2007, I was THAT Mormon woman, the one who always sent the best Christmas cards (who needed to know how many hours I spent in Photoshop to achieve those perfect pictures?). I was the woman my 12-year-old-self had wanted me to become. But though I was living the dream, I was not happy.
Four months after I was called as Gospel Doctrine teacher, I had what can only be described as a revelation. I was teaching one spring Sunday about the risen Savior from the Book of Mark when I read this scripture for probably the thousandth time: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:16).
And I thought, for the first time in my life, “Why? Why do I have to be saved?”
Of course, this thought is not unique. Christian apologists from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis have explored the question of salvation. Lewis wrote, “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.”
Why isn’t it enough just for people to be nice? Because Eve ate an apple? Because Adam blamed Eve when God asked him about it? Because God said so? What if—bear with me here, I was new at this!—the initial premise, the unmoved mover—was false?
Some people, seeking knowledge of God’s love, describe praying, sometimes for years, to know the truth. The Book of Mormon gives its readers this exact challenge.
Some people, like my husband Ed, never bother to ask God about anything. And some people ask, and pray, and they know that it is true. Meanwhile, as I know from personal experience, some people do exactly what the Book of Mormon tells them to—ask, pray, want the truth—and know that it is not true.
If I were still Mormon, right now, I would bear my testimony to you. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know the church is not true, that I know its teachings are harmful to people I love, that church doctrine is wrong about gay marriage, God’s love, women’s roles in life, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Also, I still think many Mormons are very nice people. In the name of whichever god or gods you choose or do not choose to believe in, Amen.”
I realized that I don’t need to be saved. That you don’t need to be saved either. That the whole premise of needing to be saved is, to put it mildly, problematic.
That April Sunday in 2007, I taught my final lesson as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I could not teach things that I knew were false. But still I limped along in Mormonism, thinking perhaps there might be a moral compromise, some way to keep both my community and my integrity.
There wasn’t. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we cannot have our cake and eat it too (Also, the cake is a lie). A year later, a song from Badly Drawn Boy, “Long Way Round,” gave me the courage to move forward, beyond the moral constraints of my faith: “Sit and wait for the day when your life might change, and that day never comes. All the changes must come from you.”
But when I abandoned the framework of Mormonism, I lost my entire cultural language for describing meaning and purpose in life.
(I lost my first marriage too, and that is another story.)
When I left the religion of my youth, I didn’t know how to feel good anymore. For my entire life, my conception of what it meant to be happy was defined by a set of arbitrary rules perpetuated in the culture into which I once thought I was born because of divine destiny but I now realized was total chance.
The poet Mary Oliver, among others, became my new scripture. According to the Gospel of Mary Oliver, “You don’t have to be good.”
I don’t! Or at least, I don’t have to be good the way Mormons or anyone else for that matter defines good.
The sense of freedom in those early days was exhilarating but terrifying. No longer could I check my critical thinking skills at the church door. Suddenly, the responsibility to define morality was all on me. By rejecting the Mormon God’s plan for happiness, I was now responsible for creating my own plan.
And through stops and starts, and more failures than successes on that ten-year pilgrimage away from doctrine and toward meaning, I’ve finally started to learn the lesson I need most.
Happiness is not about the plan. It was never about the plan. Happiness is finding joy in the journey.
One of the hardest things I’ve learned on this journey is how to be honest in identifying my emotions. I don’t think this is a problem unique to the LDS church, by the way. I think the inability to identify our emotions honestly, to embrace and accept the negative emotions as well as the positive ones, is a malady that has infected our entire culture. We see it in our Instagram and Facebook feeds. We see it in the toxic Gospel of Prosperity that threatens to destroy our democracy—in the idea that wealthy people deserve to get all they can while the poor deserve nothing, not even our compassion.
Some of you may know that I have a part-time largely unpaid “job” as a mental health advocate that I took on after my 2012 essay, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” went viral. My second son has struggled with mental illness for his entire young life, and he has taught me so much about what it means to be happy.
One specific skill my son taught me was how important it is for all of us to recognize and define our emotions in the moment we are experiencing them. Psychologists call this activity “affect identification.” It starts with the premise that our feelings—good, bad, or ugly—are value-neutral, meaning there’s no one “right” way to feel. There are simply feelings. And you are free to feel them.
It shouldn’t surprise you that most of us are not very good at this. If our religion or our culture teaches us that “good” people are happy, then we are damn well going to smile through the pain, right? According to our culture, big girls—and real men--don’t cry. Unfortunately, the consequences of our collective denial about what we feel are very real in terms of our mental and physical health.
So today, I want to teach you how to identify your feelings (for some of you, this will likely be a refresher course). I want you to close your eyes and imagine this scene. You’re having a conversation with a Donald Trump supporter. Your heart starts to pound. You feel your face flush. You have a sudden urge to leave the room.
Hit the time-out button. Stop. Name your emotion. What are you feeling? Is it anger? Anxiety? Fear? Frustration? Disgust? Shame?
If you can, write the name down on a real or imaginary notepad. Stare at the word for a minute. Slowly breathe in, and breathe out. Breathe again. And again. After three breaths, you should feel calmer. Your heart should be slowing down. You may still feel the emotion, but now, you’re in charge.
Open your eyes. That was not too hard, was it?
And yes, in case you are wondering, there’s an app for that! Mood tracking apps can help you to identify your emotions in real time.
Instead of telling ourselves how we should feel, it’s time to start acknowledging our real feelings. It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or ashamed. Sure, it doesn’t feel too good, but as someone who has experienced clinical depression, I can tell you how grateful I am just to feel anything! Depression for me is a big world of grey, a numbness, a fog that flattens and distorts everything I encounter. I have learned to feel enormous gratitude for sadness because when I have lost something, I know that at one time, it mattered to me. At one time, it brought me joy. I am grateful for anger because it reminds me that life is unfair, that justice matters and that some things are worth fighting for.
And shame, the worst of all emotions? Well, I’m grateful for shame too. Many of the hardest truths I have learned about myself have started when I felt ashamed and let myself really feel that way.
My youngest daughter is not here with us today. She is attending her LDS ward, where she is learning, as I did at her age, that “there’s a right way to live and be happy.” I struggle daily, as my own mother must struggle in her relationship with me, mourning my daughter’s choice to stay true to her faith when I believe Mormonism’s teachings are not only wrong but actually harmful. If my daughter were here, I would tell her the same thing my still-Mormon mother would say to me: “I love you. I’m here for you, wherever your journey takes you.” And I would tell her what my father, a Mormon bishop and the best human being I have ever known, told me shortly before he died: “It doesn’t matter what I think. I just want you to be happy.”
This journey—yours and mine—is not perfect. But it’s ours.