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.