October 29, 2009

Ex-Mormons are often accused of “playing the victim” and wallowing in “victimology,” and it’s always struck me as weird that many church members simply cannot imagine that anyone might have been hurt or damaged by their association with Mormonism. People do get hurt, and often the hurt goes quite deep. Acknowledging that pain is not an indictment of Mormonism but simply acceptance of other people’s experience.

I’ve written before about how Mormonism compounded my innate issues of self-worth, guilt, and shame (I don’t think I need to explain in detail how Mormonism contributed to my feeling that I didn’t measure up and never would). In the LDS church there is a major focus on “worthiness,” meaning that one must meet a certain level of obedience before being eligible for certain ordinances, blessings, and church assignments. We could not have the influence and companionship of the Holy Spirit, we were told, unless we were worthy. Although I regularly and honestly passed my worthiness interviews, I always had nagging guilt and wondered if I really was worthy. I would beat myself up for little things, sure that I was deficient in some way. In talking with current and former members, I realize that I engaged in far less sinful behavior than most, but I was sure that God was disappointed in me for not measuring up.

Although I don’t think I’ve expressed this before, I have often felt like the damage done to my soul was permanent, that Mormonism had helped break me in ways that could never be repaired. So, yes, those feelings contributed to deep resentment toward the church; it’s natural to have bad feelings toward people and institutions that have hurt you. Many church members, particularly those I met on message boards, told me those feelings were irrational and obvious signs of a bitter apostate. One person told me that I should treat leaving the church like divorcing an abusive spouse: rather than dwelling on the ways the ex-spouse (the church, by analogy) had hurt me, I should just move on and forget about it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, particularly when the ex-spouse makes constant efforts to get you back and your friends and family constantly tell you how wonderful the abusive spouse is and how you really should give him or her another chance. And of course, we get the constant refrain that the breakup of the relationship is our fault, not the abuser’s: we were too proud, wanted to sin, were spiritually lazy, and so on.

In one sense they are right: there’s a difference between acknowledging pain and wallowing in it. And I am sure I did my share of wallowing. But a strange thing has happened since I finally got past most of the raw emotion. Without really trying, I have reached a point at which I don’t feel like I’m permanently broken anymore. I used to feel like the guilt, the inadequacy, the shame were all just part of me that I would forever have to fight.

I really don’t know what’s changed, but I feel like I can finally put that baggage down and walk on without such a heavy load. I’m not naive enough to believe that these old and well-ingrained attitudes will just vanish, but somehow I feel hopeful, as if I am somebody worthy of self-approval. It’s one thing to have a bishop or stake president pronounce you worthy, but it’s an entirely different thing to really feel worthy. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before in my life.

The Church of George Costanza of Latter-day Saints

October 28, 2009

I found this old post of mine and thought I’d share. I still think it’s kind of funny.

I don’t watch a lot of TV these days (no time for it anymore), but occasionally I will watch a rerun of “Seinfeld,” which I still enjoy, even though I’ve seen every episode as far as I can tell.

The show is sometimes hit and miss, but generally the hits far outnumber the misses. But the one consistent piece of brilliance is the character of George Costanza, which Larry David says that he based on himself.

George is a squat, balding man who says (accurately),”I lie every second of the day. My whole life is a sham.” Rather than face the sad reality of a life of mediocrity, George simply makes up a successful life for himself. When asked what he does for a living, he says he’s a marine biologist or an architect: “You know I always wanted to pretend I was an architect.” Even his aspirations and dreams involve lying.

His entire life is compartmentalized, as well. The persona he adopts in relationships (Relationship George) is entirely different from the person he is with his friends (Independent George), and he lives in fear that the two will eventually collide: “A George divided against itself cannot stand; if Relationship George is allowed to infiltrate George’s sanctuary, he will kill Independent George!”

George spends a lot of time trying to keep reality from invading the dreamland of lies. He swims out into the ocean to save a suffocating whale rather than admit he’s not a marine biologist; he claims to have designed the “new addition to the Guggenheim”; and he tells NBC that he had produced an off-Broadway play (called La Cocina) about a cook named Pepe.

So much of George’s life is fictitious that even he has trouble determining what is real: “Remember, Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it,” he says. We wonder if there is a real George hiding somewhere behind the facade.

For me, this is how Mormonism operates. If you think about it, it all started with a simple lie: an angel appeared to Joseph Smith and told him about some plates, though technically, it begins earlier with Joseph’s discovery of a “peepstone” while digging a well (and no, it doesn’t begin on a beautiful spring day in 1820—that was added later). And everything thereafter has been an extension of that one lie to the point that it’s sometimes hard to separate reality from the prevarication. But it’s OK, because “it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

FARMS is probably the church’s most visible Costanza-like agent of denial. They spend their time making sure that the real church does not collide with the fantasy church. Some people have harshly criticized FARMS for dishonesty, but I think it goes deeper than that; these people really believe it. At least they have constructed such an alternative reality based on the lies that it would be catastrophic if they let the superstructure fall.

In one “Seinfeld” episode, George tells his fiancee’s parents that he is going to his nonexistent house in the Hamptons for the weekend (“I figured since I was lying about my income for a couple of years, I could afford a fake house in the Hamptons”). Calling his bluff, the in-laws offer to go with him. George drives almost all the way across Long Island, hoping against hope that they will give up and turn around before he’s confronted with reality. I think the FARMS folks find themselves in the same position: they hope no one will call their bluff but will just accept their pat answers and move on. But each day they move closer to a confrontation with reality. I once tried to get Daniel Peterson to respond to Robert Ritner’s demolition of the Book of Abraham; nothing doing. I was told to do my homework, and then when I read Peterson’s list of articles, I was told that Ritner’s tone was unacceptable for a peer-reviewed journal.

Sorry, but at this point, I’d trust Art Vandelay more than I would FARMS.

Chosen Among the Jewish Gentiles

October 27, 2009

I belong to one of the ten tribes of Israel. No, seriously. I have the documentation to prove it. All Mormons are taught that they are of the House of Israel and therefore can lay claim to the blessings given to one of the tribes, so much so that until perhaps the middle of the last century, Mormons referred to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” And a lot of Mormons have told me that there are amazing similarities between our frontier American restorationist Christian beliefs and those of honest-to-goodness Jews. Being a seventh-generation Mormon, I grew up knowing that I was one of the chosen people, even if no one else knew it. At seventeen, I visited my local Patriarch, who laid his hands on my head and “declared my lineage”: It turns out I am of the tribe of Ephraim.

But what about the original chosen people, the Jews? Well, we knew that before Jesus’ Second Coming, the entire House of Israel would be gathered into one fold, the Jews to Jerusalem and the other tribes to the “New” Jerusalem, which of course is to be built in suburban Kansas City (no, I am not making this up). Our job, if we chose to accept it, was to help gather the rest of the lost tribes by turning them into Mormons.

At the age of six, I got my chance: we moved into a heavily Jewish neighborhood on the northwest side of Los Angeles. I would guess that between 40 and 50 percent of our neighborhood was Jewish. Every year the important Jewish holidays (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah) were holidays from school simply because so many children would be absent anyway that it made no sense to hold classes. So it was that I found myself an Israelite in a sea of Jewish Gentiles.

At six years old, no one is consciously trying to win converts to Mormonism, at least I wasn’t. But for those six years it had been drummed into me that I was an example of the believers: people were watching me to see if I would stand up for what I believed. So I was the best little Mormon I could be in the hopes that I would measure up. I was literally “trying to be like Jesus … in all that I say and do.”

But our new neighbors greeted us with more bemused curiosity than anything else. In a neighborhood full of small families and expensive German cars, we were the weird people with a million kids (actually, just six) and the enormous van. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, we didn’t vacation in Vail or Hawaii, we didn’t go to summer camp, and we actually did our own yardwork and housework.

So, we didn’t fit in exactly.

“You left one of the m’s out,” said Terry, the neighborhood bully, one day.

“What do you mean?” I asked completely innocently.

“It’s not ‘Mormons,” he sneered. “It’s ‘Morons.'”

“Yeah,” chimed in the obnoxious kid down the street with the puka-shell necklace. “I heard they can’t even eat peanut butter or drink root beer.”

Explaining was useless. They had latched onto the one thing that made us outsiders: our peculiar Utah religion. There was nothing we could do about it.

My brother Danny responded to our new pariah status by constantly getting in fights, no matter how much bigger the other kid was. I on the other hand just tried to maintain a low profile, keeping to myself for the most part, which wasn’t exactly capturing the missionary spirit of my ancestors. Saving the Jews would have to wait, as surviving elementary school was far more important.

So for the most part I made my peace with my Jewish neighbors. One of my best friends was Howard , a computer-obsessed kid who didn’t care a bit about religion, neither his nor mine, and I was happy to leave it that way. But our respective religions nevertheless pulled us apart in different ways. Howard and my other Jewish friends went to Hebrew school in preparation for their bar mitzvahs while we went to Primary meetings at church on Tuesdays and spent pretty much all day Sundays in church. Because of this, we developed two circles of friends: those we saw at school, and those we saw at church or temple. Those circles almost never overlapped.

Life went on just fine until middle school, which of course is one of those brutal times of life when adolescents tend to distinguish themselves by being as cruel as possible to the smaller and weaker (I was both, unfortunately). Once again, religion became a way to divide and conquer. Not being Jewish, we weren’t part of the majority, and not being Catholic or Protestant, we didn’t quite fit in with the Christians. One cheerful Evangelical (aptly named Calvin) told me one day that, sad to say, I was going to hell. Of course, I quietly thought the same thing about him. About the only kids lower in the social order were the Iranians, but then this was 1979 and a lot of kids were afraid of them. Not surprisingly, I started hanging out with some of the Iranians.

But I was still very much an outcast. The aforementioned obnoxious kid had by that point given up the puka shells but had become in a way my personal nemesis. After school and in the summers we played baseball in the street, rode our bikes along the trails through the hills, and generally had a great time together. But at school he treated me with absolute contempt. I wasn’t popular, and he was, and that was that. But I forgave him time and again until the day he stuck his gum in my hair on the bus, apparently to show how cool he was. We rarely spoke again after that.

I went to several bar mitzvahs, though notably not the one for the guy with the puka shells. The year before I had at age 12 been ordained to the priesthood of God by my father in a quiet and private ceremony during which my mother had sobbed silently. A bar mitzvah was quite a different affair: very public and full of symbolism, and of course very joyous, loudly and boisterously so. Secretly I was jealous. I wanted someone to celebrate me, but then Mormonism isn’t really about that. It’s all about solemnity and simplicity, which is why Mormon chapels are so severely unadorned and almost corporate looking. Although we were of the same family, there was a wide gulf between us Mormons and our Jewish cousins. Yet we had faith that someday we would bridge the gap and welcome them home into the Household of God.

That day seemed to come one memorable night when I was 14 or so. As usual, my friend Craig and I showed up at our church for our Wednesday evening youth activity only to find a large Israeli flag standing in front of a painting of Lehi’s dream. The foyer, usually filled with young parents trying in vain to quiet unhappy children, was brimming with people, each man and boy wearing a yarmulke and a flowing tallit. Could this be it? Had the Jews finally seen the light and joined with us? Could Jesus’s coming really be that close?

No, it was Rosh Hashanah, and the local temple had rented our church for the evening, as it was large enough to accommodate those who naturally attended temple only on the high holidays. Jesus would have to wait.

My Israelite status was confirmed one day in my eighth-grade science class. Our teacher, Mr. Joseph, who was himself Jewish, bet one of the other teachers that he could correctly point out every Jew and every Gentile in our class. He started in the back and as he pointed to each student, called out, “Goy, Jew, Jew, goy, goy … ” until he got to me.

“Hmmm,” he pondered, his hand on his chin. “This one could go either way.”

Of course! I thought. My Ephraimite blood was throwing him off.

“Jew,” he said, hopefully.

I wanted to explain who I was, but another kid chimed in with, “No, he’s a Mormon,” as if I had leprosy.

I don’t remember any of my Jewish friends visiting our church, but then after the flurry of bar mitzvahs, I didn’t have any reason to visit their temple. Until I met Esther. My junior year in high school I had begun to emerge from my self-imposed exile of low-profile anonymity. I joined the debate team, and it was there that I met her. She sat next to me, and I thought she was one of the most beautiful people I had ever met, both inside and out. She always smiled and seemed to radiate kindness, and I was so glad I got to sit next to her and become her friend.

Then one night the president of the debate club called me and said, “I’m calling to let you know when Esther’s funeral will be.”

I was speechless.

“She killed herself this morning,” was all she said.

A few days later we filed into the temple, respectfully taking one of the proffered yarmulkes, and sat in stunned silence as the rabbi talked of Esther’s pain. He read the note she had left wherein she said that she was tired of pretending to be happy. I hurt so much for her, and for once I felt totally connected to someone else.

That was the last time I was in a Jewish house of worship until well into adulthood. By then religious differences seemed to fade in importance, though my odd religion occasionally came up, whether it was my firiend Mike explaining that his dad played golf with a foul-mouthed, beer-drinking Mormon bishop or Rubin joking that I probably couldn’t wait to go on a mission to save the heathens in Africa.

Then I left for Utah to go to school at Brigham Young University, as my mother had taught us a good Mormon should do. There were no Jews there, no Catholics, no Protestants, and certainly no Iranians. I didn’t really think about Judaism again until the day I received a letter from home when I was a missionary in La Paz, Bolivia. My sister, who had walked away from Mormonism as soon as she left for college, was getting married … to a Jewish guy. Not only that, but she was converting to Judaism. Here I was thousands of miles away from home trying to bring as many people into Mormonism as possible, and my own flesh and blood was abandoning our faith. She was even rejecting Jesus.

I was appalled. But I got over it. I quickly realized that my sister was happier than I had seen her in a long time, and that was good enough for me. We attended my nephew’s bar mitzvah earlier this year, and it was just as joyous as as I had remembered. As I thought about it, it seemed like the divide had been bridged, and we were one in the House of Israel, though not in the same way I had once imagined.

Overwhelmed by Indifference

October 21, 2009

For whatever reason, Elvis Costello seems to reflect my mood these days. I’m not sure what that means, but some of his lyrics again captured my mood:

Some of my friends sit around every evening
and they worry about the times ahead,
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
and the promise of an early bed.

I have been thinking a great deal about  how some people really believe we are in the end times, in a battle for human souls, and that at some point Armageddon will come and the end of the world. One of my readers posted in response to my essay on Dallin Oaks’s recent speech:

The warning is, put on your seat belts, we’ve got some major turbulence ahead, the same kind of moral/spiritual turbulence you can read about ad nauseum in the Book of Mormon. For the real issue here is not gays but the basic question of whether we’re a secular or a god-fearing society. The balance is fast shifting toward secular, which will bring us the same civil war, outside invaders, secret combinations, and natural disasters that the Nephites faced when they turned from God in this promised land. Only with today’s technologies, this time it won’t take 1,000 years to fully play out…

Similarly, someone I know from the MAD board routinely speaks of critics and unbelievers in terms of ravening wolves who are trying to destroy God’s true church. He says that some of us are unwitting tools of Satan, but we’ll drink of the wrath of God soon enough.

Obviously, this kind of melodramatic warrior imagery isn’t unique to Mormonism. Even the most benign Methodists sing “Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war!” But on the other end of the spectrum are the violent jihadists who sing “You have the atomic bomb, but we have suicide bombers.”

Belonging to a religious group makes one feel part of something bigger and grander than a single life. It feels wonderful to be an instrument in the hands of God toward some larger cosmic purpose. Naturally, those outside the group are to be considered the Other, either to be pitied for not having “the truth” or disdained for “kicking against the pricks” and criticizing the movement. Mormons, for example, often speak of how they feel sorry for people outside the faith, who would be so much happier if they had the gospel in their lives. At the same time, they express bewilderment and often contempt for those who consciously decide to reject Mormonism. Such people, they say, are spiritually dead or hard-hearted. 

A similar, though far more extreme, dynamic is on display in David Rohde’s excellent account of his seven months of captivity at the hands of the Taliban.

My captors saw me — and seemingly all Westerners — as morally corrupt and fixated on pursuing the pleasures of this world. Americans invaded Afghanistan to enrich themselves, they argued, not to help Afghans. …

Pressing me to convert, one commander ordered me to read a passage of the Koran each day and discuss it with him at night. He dismissed my arguments that a forced conversion was not legitimate. He and the guards politely said they felt sorry for me. If I failed to convert, they said, I would suffer excruciating pain in the fires of hell.

At one point, a visiting fighter demanded to know why I would not obey. He said that if it were up to him, he would take me outside and offer me a final chance to convert. If I refused, he would shoot me.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I am not equating Mormons with the Taliban (though it is interesting that some ex-Mormons have been compared to Afghan terrorists, such as Tal Bachman, whom many apologists refer to as “Tali-Bachman”).

Rather, it’s the commonality of attitudes that I find interesting, and as I said, this attitude permeates pretty much every religious group: we alone have truth and are happy and fulfilling God’s plan.

Thus it’s natural for some people to see things in the stark terms of a war for the souls of humanity. They need to see every criticism of their beliefs as Satanic attacks on the truth. It’s much easier to dismiss a hateful attack than a legitimate criticism, but if you start from the premise that there are no legitimate criticisms, then you can dismiss every non-positive observation about your religion as anti-whatever you are.

Such an attitude would explain why some people are so offended by what they term “smooth-talking critics” who really just feign “niceness” as a tactic for spreading their hateful and evil message.

But in the end, the battle is being fought only in the mind of the believer. Many of us Mormons were taught from an early age that everyone outside the LDS church was watching us closely to see if we lived up to our faith. But it was shocking to me after I left to learn that no one was paying attention; no one cared what we did. Sure, they might think we were a little odd, but that’s about it.

And the church at large, although many of its members believe it is under constant attack from the media and others, rarely appears in the public consciousness. Mormonism surfaces as an issue only when the church or its members put themselves there, such as when Mitt Romney ran for president and the LDS church went all out to pass Proposition 8 in California.

No one cares about this alleged battle. I for one am overwhelmed by indifference. I don’t care enough about the LDS church or any other religion to attack it. I don’t care if I’m pitied or reviled for opting out of Mormonism. It just doesn’t matter much in the eternal scheme of things.

Of course, that’s just part of Satan’s plan, I suppose. He just has to convince us that nothing important is at stake, and he’s won the battle.  At least he has with me.

Accountability and Persecution

October 15, 2009

The other day I heard something from a church leader (I think I walked in on a conference talk my wife was watching on BYU-TV), and the speaker was saying something about accountability and how important personal and priesthood accountability is in the church.

I thought about that for quite a while. Many may be familiar with Boyd Packer’s famous talk about the three threats to the modern church: gays, feminists, and “so-called intellectuals.” In that talk, he spoke of the need to “face the same direction.” As a Church Education administrator, he was challenged by Harold B. Lee to always face downward, meaning that he was to represent the leadership’s position to the CES staff, and not the other way around. He said that applied to the church as a whole, suggesting that to turn and champion the interests of the lay membership to the leadership was tantamount to challenging their authority. Clearly, the three aforementioned groups had turned the wrong way. “There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.”

What this suggests to me is that the church leadership, confident in its belief that it represents the will of God, believes that no church member has the right to turn the wrong way and suggest any changes or point out any problems. Such people are labeled “ark steadiers,” after the man who was killed trying to prevent the ark of the covenant from touching the ground; he was killed not because of his good intentions but because he did not have the right or authority to touch the ark. Likewise, the logic goes, lay members do not have the right or authority to correct or even imply correcting the leadership. Apostle Dallin Oaks has said, “It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”

We’ve seen examples of ark steadiers disciplined and ejected from the church. One such person is Lavina Fielding Anderson, a former Ensign (that’s the church’s official magazine) writer who founded the Mormon Alliance, a group dedicated to preventing “ecclesiastical abuse.” The reason such a group is needed at all is that, because everyone is supposed to be facing the same way, there is no mechanism of redress in the church. There is no official channel to make church leaders aware of members’ needs and problems, and apparently the church prefers it that way. Not long ago, the First Presidency issued a statement to its members asking that questions and problems be addressed to the local leadership and not to the General Authorities. Hence, the leadership becomes insulated from the membership at large, and the local leaders, most of whom have no formal leadership or counseling training, are left to deal with the problems of their ward and branch members. It’s not surprising that there is great potential for ecclesiastical abuse.

Of course, Ms. Anderson was ultimately excommunicated for publicizing leadership problems (many of which are quite serious) because her actions were seen as a public and deliberate challenge to the leadership. She was facing the wrong way.

The message from the Brethren could not be clearer: accept the counsel and instruction of leaders without question, and certainly never publicly question. We have all seen this attitude in the church, from the almost fetishistic devotion to following lesson manuals “with exactness” to the unquestioning acceptance of arbitrary rules, such as the “Kimballization” of BYU in the 1950s to the current belief that the number of earrings one wears is a direct indication of one’s faith in the prophet.

Yet the leadership is accountable only to God, assuming of course that God really is directing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. History is full of men and women who claimed to speak for God, and their complete lack of accountability has led to predictable results. It’s no surprise that most powerful religious leaders end up indulging in sexual excesses; after all, if the prophet did it, it must be right.

I’d been mulling over these thoughts over the weekend, and then yesterday a friend called me to express his outrage over Dallin Oaks’s remarks comparing the backlash against Mormons after Proposition 8 to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t really need to comment on the disconnect between a Mormon claiming persecution on the level of a group that not only suffered much more as a people but whose very movement was openly disdained by LDS leaders. It’s almost too ludicrous to be outrageous.

But then it was said by an apostle, so it can’t be ludicrous. If he said it was so, it was so. My friend bet me that if Oaks’s comments become widely publicized, the church will issue an apology or at least a public retraction. I’ll take that bet. My guess is that they won’t, for two reasons. First is this notion of the leaders speaking for God; to admit that Oaks’s analogy, which he termed “a good one,” was offensive and ludicrous opens the door for questioning of the leadership. Second, Oaks’s remarks reflect the extent that a persecution narrative informs the lives of church members.

From its earliest days in upstate New York, the LDS church has been opposed and attacked, often violently, by its non-Mormon neighbors. From tarring and feathering to Haun’s Mill to the Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and Johnston’s army, the common thread is persecution, and to this day, this persecution is part of what defines people as Mormons. So, for Oaks and many other Mormons, the backlash from Proposition 8 was merely a continuation of that very persecution and is a natural outcome of the church’s standing for truth and right.

But the reaction Oaks cited really doesn’t compare to persecutions, and certainly not the kind of discrimination inflicted upon African Americans for centuries. Back when Proposition 8 was defeated, I told a Mormon friend that the vandalism and the protests would be short-lived, as they were a product of genuine hurt and anger. And my prediction has been right, I have to say. Yes, the church suffered a huge PR setback, but as far as I’ve seen, there has been no sustained persecution. But that really doesn’t matter. Oaks has publicly and officially done what the lay members had done long before in incorporating Proposition 8 into the persecution narrative of the church.

And who is to say he’s wrong? After all, no one wants to face the wrong way.

Red-Letter Day

October 7, 2009

Yesterday was just an all-around good day for me. As I mentioned, I finally got to a good place regarding my participation on certain message boards, and that feels very liberating. But I also reached my goal weight after 5 months of diet and exercise. I’ve worked really hard to lose the weight and get into shape, and I really feel good. I’ve lost a total of 38 lbs., which given my height and bone structure (I’m 5’8″ and rather small of frame) is a huge amount of weight. I never want to get that fat again. I’m at the same weight I was in the Missionary Training Center when I was 19 years old. Anyway, it feels good, and I suppose I needed to share that.

Also, my wife scored 100 on her Biomedicine exam, which is wonderful. I’ve watched her take her studies so seriously, and it’s great to see it’s paying off. I would have said that her grades are amazing, but then I knew what she was capable of, and she is proving me right. I could not be more proud of her.

And my son, who is a sophomore, placed tenth in the pre-region cross-country meet yesterday. And that really is amazing. A sophomore is not supposed to do that well running against juniors and seniors. But more than that, my son is just a great kid. He works hard, he does what we ask of him, and he is just generally a pleasant person to be around. I am very proud of him, too.

Maybe it’s the adderall, but I feel good these days and genuinely hopeful for the future. Of course, having said that, I’m sure something is bound to go wrong. But I feel like I can handle it.

Now It Can Be Told

October 6, 2009

To all of you who thought I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing: you were right. A long time ago, I convinced a friend to do sort of a “good critic, bad apologist” routine on the MAD board. Our plan was fiendishly simple: I would play the part of the “nice, friendly, reasonable” critic, while my friend would act as the ill-mannered, judgmental Mormon. The idea was to contrast the goodness and decency of the critics against the nastiness of the apologists. A diabolical plan, indeed, but it frankly worked to perfection, although a few people saw through it. I got bored with it and gave up, though my friend continues to post and is, I understand, looking for another “partner in crime.”

Of course this is all made up. There never was such a friend or plan, but I suspect some people would sooner believe that than believe that I am anything but pond scum, but I digress.

My previous post almost sounds like I have nothing good to say about the MAD board and the people who post there. I don’t want to leave that impression at all. I have met some really wonderful people there,  Mormons, ex-Mormons, and non-Mormons. Even some people with whom I vehemently disagreed treated me with kindness and at least some degree of respect. I hope I was able to reciprocate at least in small part.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got to a very dark place in my life at one point, and it was members of the MAD board who reached out to me and urged me to get help. Even Juliann Reynolds, the board’s founder, who I am sure has very little good to say about me (and much of that with good reason) treated me with care and kindness at that dark time.

It was a very strange journey from believing defender of Mormonism to sometimes-angry ex-Mormon, and I didn’t exactly make that transition gracefully. I am truly sorry for those whom I have hurt, and I forgive those who have hurt me. I have no ill feelings toward anyone there, and I wish them happiness and success in their lives.

Putting Away the Football

October 6, 2009

In an otherwise not-particularly-memorable film, Napoleon Dynamite’s uncle Rico spends his time reliving the same moment of high school football almost-glory. Armed with a video camera on a tripod, he replays over and over the game-winning pass (and ticket to future glory) that he would have made had the coach put him into the final game of his senior year. But the sad reality is that he’s a thirtysomething man living in a van whose only joy is in reliving something that never was.

They say that insanity is to do the same thing over and over again but expect different results each time. That describes perfectly my experience on the Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board, commonly known as the MAD board (I’ll leave it to you to decide how appropriate that acronym is).

I think I started posting there about 2002, when I was living in Texas and was still a fervent believer. I’m not exactly sure what drew me to the board, but I ultimately gave it up as a big waste of time, which of course it was.  For some reason, however, I returned to the board in September of 2005 or thereabouts, this time a wretched (and disappointed) unbeliever.

For the most part, I’ve tried to behave decently there, with notable exceptions. But I think I’ve finally figured out why I went back. It wasn’t to convince the Mormons that they are wrong or deceived or whatever; I think I just wanted someone to understand me.

I wanted to know that someone, even a believing member of the church, would understand why I found certain issues in Mormonism very troubling and faith-decreasing. Maybe someone else in the church thought that Joseph’s practice of polygamy (and his keeping it secret from friends, family, his wife, and the public) was as troubling as I did. I wanted someone to acknowledge that there are serious issues regarding the authenticity of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon. I didn’t care if they agreed with me or not, but I wanted someone just to acknowledge that a decent, faithful person might with good reason find some things troubling.

But my desire was sadly mistaken. Mostly the response to my deep-felt issues was condemnation and contempt. One notable poster said my take on LDS history was “full of crap,” while others labeled me “deceitful,” “play-acting,” “faux-innocent,” and a wolf in sheep’s clothing bent on leading people to destruction.

As far as acknowledging that I might have a reason for being troubled, I’m simply told I’ve lost the spirit, I am too proud, I am following Satan. None of the issues I struggled with has any validity, at least not to most of the people I’ve talked to over there.

And yet I kept going back. You would think I’d need to have a thick skin to deal with the attacks, but I don’t really. I take things too personally, and I have been hurt repeatedly.

But I’m not feeling hurt anymore. Nor do I feel angry. But I am clear that, whatever I was looking for, I am not going to find it there. My wife says that MAD is a poisonous environment. I’d like to be kinder than that, but then I think for me it is a toxic place, not so much because it’s full of bad people (it isn’t) but because it does nothing for me (and for anyone else I interact with) than cause more division, with higher and thicker walls between us. Surely I’m not the only one who doesn’t want that.

It’s time to put the football away. Part of me will always want to be understood, but the rest of me realizes that it will never happen. So, as we used to sing on my mission:

Para siempre Dios esté con vos.


October 5, 2009

On this blog I’ve chronicled my bouts with depression and in particular my downward spiral that led to a suicide attempt and a three-day stay in a psychiatric hospital. When I got help–therapy and the right medication–I felt like I had gotten some of my life back. I didn’t walk around feeling sad and heavy all the time.

But I was still tired, still struggling to function. So I drank a lot of caffeinated drinks. For a while Dr. Pepper was having a sweepstakes where a code from the bottle cap might win you a car or some money. I would just throw the caps into a drawer in my office desk. There must be at least 50 bottle caps in there.

In short, I have felt tired most of the time for a very long time. Yes, the seroquel was helping me sleep at night, but I was still tired. And scatterbrained, and easily distracted.

Turns out there was a reason for that. For about five years, my cousin, who is a nurse practioner specializing in psychiatry, has been pestering me to get treatment for ADD. She has it, and so do quite a few people in our extended family (I suspect my father has it, too). She said I have all the classic signs.

A few weeks ago she visited us and spent most of a Sunday at our house. The entire visit, she kept coming back to that subject. So I agreed to go see a psychiatrist to be evaluated. Long story short, she was right. I started on medication last week, and I feel so much better.

The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t tired (of course, that’s because I’m taking what is essentially an amphetamine), but I didn’t even want the caffeine. I’ve gone from probably two liters of diet coke a day to none, with no withdrawal. I’m convinced that it wasn’t so much addiction but exhaustion that was driving me to drink so much coke.

I also noticed that my thought processes were clearer, maybe a little more linear. But I’ve also learned that I have to concentrate and focus on getting things done; but then the good news is that I actually can focus and concentrate.

Meetings, both at work and at church, have long been ordeals for me. I would sit and squirm, just waiting for the meeting to be over with, and when at work they would open up for questions at the end, I would silently pray that no one have any questions. Last week I sat through a quarterly meeting without zoning out, without squirming and fidgeting. And I even watched a few conference talks without falling asleep.

I feel like I’m alive again for the first time in so long. It’s not like a euphoria but just sort of a relief to know that I don’t have to feel like I did, that I can function like a reasonably normal person.

It’s interesting that some people who know me from various LDS-related web boards have used words such as “deceptive,” “faux-innocent,” and “two-faced” to describe me. I was thinking about that this morning, that my thoughts jump around so much that I’ve tended to write whatever it was I was thinking at the moment, and those thoughts differed wildly. But if nothing else, I have never tried to deceive anyone or hide my feelings; on the contrary, I’m far too open with my feelings, which I think has led people to say those things about me. But it doesn’t matter what others think. I know who I am.

I caught a little of general conference yesterday. I watched Jeffrey Holland’s talk while I was helping my daughter make bread in the kitchen. Elder Holland’s talk made me want to believe more than I have in a very long time. I wouldn’t say I’ve crawled over the Book of Mormon, as it was years before I left the church that I’d made my peace with its not being an actual historical record, but then that’s beside the point. I really did ache for that faith I once had, and I felt keenly the loss of it.

After the talk was over, I went into my bedroom, where my wife had been watching conference. She was weeping, and I put my arms around her and held her and told her how sorry I am for putting her through what I have. She said that she was crying because she hadn’t felt the spirit that strongly in a long time. But she did acknowledge how much it has hurt to see me take the path I have taken.

She said last night that I seem to have gotten my life back, like I’m alive again in a way I haven’t been in a long time. She’s right. I feel like I am finally in a place where I can start putting the pieces of my life back together.

Tramp the Dirt Down: Burying Mormonism

October 1, 2009

I wrote yesterday about the loss of community that a person experiences when he or she leaves the LDS church. But the loss is much greater than that. Mormonism isn’t just a religion or a community; it is reality. By that I mean that when one is immersed in Mormonism, it explains everything about how the universe operates, so one sees the universe always through a Mormon interpretation. That may seem like an overstatement, and maybe it is for some people, but it wasn’t for me.

I once heard literary theorist Terry Eagleton complain that Margaret Thatcher’s government was trying to make certain thoughts “unthinkable.” I asked him after the lecture if that wasn’t the goal of most ideological systems, including his own Marxism. He said that I was probably right, but that it depended on what you were trying to render unthinkable. For me, and I suspect many others, the unthinkable thought was that Mormonism might not be true, after all. Mormonism was reality for me. If it wasn’t true, then nothing was real, at least not in the way I had structured my life.

When people recognize that they don’t believe anymore, the superstructure of reality around which they have based their lives collapses. They don’t know what is real, and they don’t know who they are. This is, needless to say, an incredibly humbling experience to admit that they don’t know what they thought they knew. But they’re not doing this alone; they’re still in the same world, with the same people, but they have no anchors.

It’s at this stage that a lot of people feel hurt and angry, both because they feel they’ve swallowed a big lie, but also because it’s next to impossible to explain how they’re feeling and why to their Mormon family and friends, who simply don’t understand the hurt or the anger. I’m reminded of a CD that I have had for many years. In one song, “Tramp the Dirt Down,” Elvis Costello sings about his visceral hatred for Margaret Thatcher “I’d like to live long enough to savour, that when they finally put you in the ground I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

That song always mystified me because I couldn’t imagine being that angry towards another person, particularly one whom I didn’t know. But then I happened to hear it during those awful days of hurt and anger after my loss of faith, and some things resonated with me. One particular verse struck me:

Just like a schoolboy, whose head’s like a tin can
filled up with dreams then poured down the drain

That’s how many feel when they lose the church and the gospel. The dreams and goals and hopes of a life (mortal and eternal) within Mormonism are gone, poured down the drain. A friend told her husband that she was angry at him for “finding out the truth,” as it had changed everything in their lives: their dreams, their goals, their family, their marriage. It’s a devastating loss, no matter how loath some are to acknowledge that loss.

Reactions to one’s apostasy are pretty predictable. As some have said here, most Mormons believe there is no valid reason for leaving the church, and by extension, there’s no valid reason for feeling hurt or loss or anger. And oddly enough, few people actually try to help the wayward soul regain his or her spiritual footing. When I went through this experience, the only person who really reached out to help me resolve my issues was Dan Peterson, and I appreciate that; unfortunately, by the time he offered I was too far into the anger stage. Maybe now that I’m out of that stage it would be a good time to talk.

But it’s natural that people who are hurting and angry and looking for support and, yes, validation, gravitate toward other people in the same situation who are often angry and hurt, too. And it’s natural to feel that anger after a loss; it’s part of the grieving process. But, like all stages of the grieving process, it must pass for people to heal. It does no one any good to wallow in anger. As I said yesterday, it’s never healthy to define yourself by what you are not. It’s important to be a person, not just an “ex-Mormon.” But it’s also not fair to hold up the angry and hurting as exemplifying the sum total of people’s experience after leaving the church. Most people move on, eventually, and even on the most virulent cesspools of hatred, most people post for a month or two, get over the anger, and move on with their lives.

So, no, this is not an attempt to justify anger. Anger is not a positive energy, contrary to John Lydon. It is what it is, and it is understandable. And if we understand why people are hurt and angry, we might actually be able to help them. As a commenter mentioned, there is a lot of compassion and kindness around, and it’s not totally absent from any community.

In the end, you have to move on and walk away. I would imagine that Elvis Costello isn’t still seething with hatred for Margaret Thatcher 23 years later, and I doubt very much that he’ll visit her grave when she dies, much less tramp the dirt down. It takes some time, but you eventually walk away. You don’t forget what you’ve experienced, but you don’t stew in it. It would be nice to say as Elvis did,

Well I hope you live long now, I pray the Lord your soul to keep
I think I’ll be going before we fold our arms and start to weep

Let someone else tramp the dirt down.