I’m not sure where the metaphor of the shelf began, but it found a good teacher in Camilla Kimball, wife of the President of the Church at the time, Spencer W. Kimball.
“I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.”
“I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.”
This concept is used as one of many tools to keep doubting people walking in faith until a greater testimony comes. In recent years, the shelf has become a symbol for ex-mormons as they discuss topics they tried to ignore for years.
What I haven’t heard discussed, though, is that other shelf. If the Mormon shelf represents unresolved questions or doubts about the church, the other shelf represents questions you wouldn’t have answers for if you didn’t believe Mormonism was true. The Mormon shelf helps keep you Mormon by ignoring what you don’t yet understand. The non-Mormon shelf helps keep you Mormon by emphasizing what you wouldn’t know without your Faith.
This method, coupled with circular reasoning and an emotional basis for discovering truth, helps keep members from straying too far into the unknown.
On the one hand:
“You don’t have an answer yet about why Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, but you know the Book of Mormon is true. Focus on what you do know and answers will come in time.”
On the other hand:
“But if the Church isn’t true, how do you explain the spiritual experiences you’ve had in the Temple?”
With uncertainty on both shelves and a path for certainty between, we walk the straight and narrow path, holding to the word of god as interpreted by our leaders.
“How do you explain?”
The questions on the non-Mormon shelf are rhetorical: as a Mormon I had no intention of actually looking for the answers. When I asked “How would I explain spiritual experiences without the Church?” I didn’t actually want to entertain alternative explanations of my experience. The narrative I carried was a good one, and this rhetorical question is meant to support that narrative while staying firmly on the non-Mormon shelf, to be glanced at only as a way to remind myself of the dark uncertainty I would experience if I ever fully doubted the Faith.
This is the experience of many Mormons. Some stay, some leave. For those who leave, something happens, some new weight is added to their Mormon shelf, and it finally outweighs the other side — the person leaves, but they don’t turn to their non-mormon shelf immediately. That takes time. Their mind is full of dogmatic ideas, and one by one those ideas need to be challenged — their worldview is breaking apart, and needs to break fully before being able to be reformed. Then, when they look back at this shelf, it’s not to glance, but to read.
I’ve been thinking about what it was like immediately after my tipping point, considering the unresolved questions and fears I had and comparing them with how I understand the world now.
I asked a group of fellow ex-members what questions were on their non-Mormon shelf at the moment they left the LDS Church, and here were their responses.
“How do you explain the past spiritual experiences you’ve had? How do you explain the existence of the Book of Mormon? How are you going to tell right vs wrong? What Church would you join? If you leave, you’ll be like everyone else and you won’t understand anything about why you’re here and what you’re supposed to do! If you leave, you won’t have divine guidance through the prophet, and you may become prey to terrible ideas.”
There was a distinct moment when I realized I couldn’t be Mormon. I had vacillated for two years, feeling an intense swing of emotions and faith, but I had always found a way to trust in the Church again, or at least to keep searching on the premise I would find answers to support it. Ultimately, that changed.
“So — today, after I gave Nate the blessing, [my fiancé] and I drove down [to Provo] and went to her ward. Sunday School and Sacrament meeting were both on temples —- and I realized I COULD NOT … it WOULD NOT be possible for me to believe that again. So — I set myself firm in my mind, and when we got in her car after church I told her I couldn’t do it, and explained a little bit of why.”
Afterwards, I went up to the mountain and called a few people. I felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. Intellectual freedom! I could look at politics, religion, sexual orientation, anything, without first looking at it through LDS doctrine to see what I was supposed to think about those topics. I was also afraid. I was afraid of that non-Mormon shelf. I was afraid of being deceived, of losing my moral compass, of the new vastness of possibilities. The non-Mormon shelf loomed overhead, intimidating, but I now had the freedom to open the books.
The Non-Mormon shelf
Well, here we are, 10 years later. I dealt with one thing at a time: Homosexuality was an easy one — the moment I left I no longer had any reason to not accept homosexuality as a perfectly equal orientation. I tackled “What church should I join?” first and “Which LDS standards do I still want to uphold?” Some questions resolved themselves, like “Where will I find a sense of community?”
But I left most of these questions undisturbed, like “How do I explain past spiritual experiences?” Having had years of experience with confirmation bias, I didn’t want to try to push those spiritual experiences into new worldviews — I was afraid I would distort them or try for simplistic answers. I knew what others might say about spiritual experiences — but they hadn’t felt what I had felt. They hadn’t had the experience of feeling for certain a religion was true and then feeling for certain it was not. What was my basis for truth, now? How would I know it?
So I waited. I waited so long I forgot the shelf was there. Well, I’d like to take some of those dusty books off that Non-mormon shelf and see whether they were as scary as I thought they’d be, to see if I’ve found some answers or they’ve remained unresolved.
I won’t be posting the answers to those questions right now, but over the next little while. I’m not sure which questions fully merit an answer.Most of the truth questions, though, revolve around the same overarching questions — “What were those spiritual experiences?” and “How can we know what truth is?” That’s the most important one, to me.
Some ex-Mormons never felt the spirit. I did. I continue to feel “it,” although it’s nothing metaphysical at all. The “spirit” as a way to know the truth is such a central part to the Mormon faith system that it deserves full consideration in its own article.
What about you? If you’ve left any religion, what questions or fears did you have at the time which had worked to prevent you from leaving for awhile? If you’re a member of your original religion, what questions do you think would be unanswerable without your faith?
I have one intention — to honestly explore ideas that affect my past and present. One of the greatest problems we face today is a growing tendency to divide into competing camps of thought where we can mischaracterize and otherwise mishear those who disagree with us. That tendency makes us stupid and it makes us easy to manipulate. Honest and careful dialogue about difficult subjects is the only way forward. That means I don’t care if I offend you, and I don’t care if you offend me. But I do see you as a complex and valuable person with your own background and perspective, and I approach you in that way whether you agree with me, disagree, or both.
Hopefully, it’s both.
If this is your first time here, stay awhile! Take a peak around and feel free to contact me directly. Probably my most personally cathartic article is Unworthy. Toss me a follow or a share on social media.
It’s one of my favorite places to go, that dirt road with the sun angling through the dust trail behind us, my friend and I talking and joking and sitting in silence and feeling the warmth of the afternoon as we hang our arms out the windows and sit tired and content after a day’s work. He tells me about what he wants to be when he’s older and how his marriage is going and what it was like when his first child was born, and I tell him some things of my own, things I don’t tell others because we’re best buds and know each other more than anyone else. Mostly we drive and listen and look around and chat about things that don’t matter.
It’s all a daydream. He’s not here anymore and I never rode in that truck in that way but rode in the backseat as a grandson and he as a grandfather. He was a good one and I was what I was but I go to that place in the country to wonder what it would have been like to know him as a friend and a confidant as I never could have in life. He was my grandpa and I was his grandson and I couldn’t have understood him if I tried and I didn’t try very hard because I was young and didn’t know how much I should treasure the stories of the older and how much they had created my own stories and how much I would wish I had spoken more while he was here.
I go to this place to wish for a different world in which I could know my mother and my father and my grandparents and my cousins and every person I pass not by the roles we fill in each others’ lives but by the raw person within us, no walls to hide our inhibitions, no image we like and display for others to see, no need to teach or lead or correct or protect, but just an open and impossible knowledge of who the other is and what they think and what they worry about and hope for and who they hate and why.
A rebuttal to myself
I don’t want to get old. Most of the time I don’t think about it, but when I do, when the image of my own short life is clear, I smother it as quickly as possible. I don’t want to get to the point of losing more friends than I gain, of sludging through thoughts that used to be quick, of feeling my bones ache more than they already do and of no longer being able to say “This is what I’m going to do” but only “This is what I’ve done.” I fear death and getting old, and I have to do what everyone does when these images become clear: I “seek forgetfulness in the dream of life.” (from Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy)
But I’m not sure I need to.
A few months ago I posted an article entitled “The Death of an Atheist,” in which I portrayed my view of death and therefore the meaning of life, which could be summarized by this: to live fully and to enjoy the moment because no matter what I do I will be forgotten. In a moment of waxing eloquent and somber, I said the difficult truth that “by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three” and then extended it to the bold but mistaken conclusion that “I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.”
Anticipating rebuttal from a positive-thinking reader, I went on:
“Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, ‘Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.’ You’re absolutely right. But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley. Open up an atlas and look at the world. Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now. Marvel at how small you are. Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity, and were forgotten with everyone else.”
The truth in what I said is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, we shouldn’t lose out on life for career or money or fame but should focus on the things that make our lives more full, whatever those things may be. With Whitman, I was lamenting the “loss of the bloom and odor of the earth and of the flowers and atmosphere and of the sea and of the true taste of the women and men you pass or have to do with in youth or middle age” that comes from a life lived for making money and passing it on, and I was rallying myself against the possible future of a “desperate revolt at the close of a life without elevation,” or the “ghastly chatter of a death without serenity or majesty.” (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman)
While those things are freeing and true and important to realize, they don’t stand alone. There is another half to this truth.
But it’s not as somber and it’s much more positive and less depressing, and seems to overcome death with too much ease, and so I wouldn’t see it before: my mind favors the somber over the positive, fearing to be let down by false promises.
I read a certain passage that changed my opinion, that gave such good imagery and argument that my somber mind couldn’t argue against its truth: a passage from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, who doesn’t believe in a “Christian” afterlife, slightly abridged here.
All that a person does or thinks is of consequence. Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in a day or a month or any part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death but the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime. The indirect is always as great and real as the direct. The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body. Not one name of word or deed . . . ever is or ever can be stamped on the programme but it is duly realized and returned, and that returned in further performances . . . and they returned again. …
Little or big, learned or unlearned, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe and through the whole scope of it forever. …
If the savage or felon is wise it is well . . . if the greatest poet or savan is wise it is simply the same . . . if the President or chief justice is wise it is the same . . . if the young mechanic or farmer is wise it is no more or less . . . if the prostitute is wise it is no more nor less. The interest will come round . . . all will come round. All the best actions of war and peace . . . all help given to relatives and strangers and the poor and old and sorrowful and young children and widows and the sick, and to all shunned persons . . . all furtherance of fugitives and of the escape of slaves . . . all the self-denial that stood steady and aloof on wrecks and saw others take the seats of the boats . . . all offering of substance or life for the good old cause, or for a friend’s sake or opinion’s sake . . . all pains of enthusiast scoffed at by their neighbors . . . all the vast sweet love and precious suffering of mothers . . . all the grandeur and good of the few ancient nations whose fragments of annals we inherit . . . and all the good of the hundreds of far mightier and more ancient nations unkown to us by name or date or location . . . all that is manfully begun, whether it succeeded or no . . . all that has at any time been well suggested out of the divine heart of man or by the divinity of his mouth or by the shaping of his great hands . . . and all that is well thought or done this day on any part of the surface of the globe . . . or that is henceforth to be well thought or done by you whoever you are, or by any one–these singly and wholly inured (hardened/fixed) at their time and inure now and will inure always to the identities from which they sprung or shall spring. . . . Did you guess any of them lived only its moment? The world does not so exist . . . no parts palpable or impalpable so exist . . . no result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot.
The Indirect Life
I can’t go back and ride with my grandpa in that imaginary truck in our imaginary 20’s. I won’t know him as he was internally, nor will I know you, or my mom, or even all the hidden thoughts of my wife. As social as we are, we stand on the islands of our own experience, seeing the world through our own eyes, and those eyes alone, and it is for that reason that the world moves forward after we are gone and may indeed quickly forget our names.
But our actions–every single action, thought, or word–has an affect. It lives on through others. This isn’t meant to engender guilt in ourselves for the wrong things we do, but to fill us with the purpose of knowing our life goes on long after we live, an “indirect life” through those we’ve influenced in any of thousands of possible ways. By choosing the good, kind, empathetic, loving, encouraging, and understanding thoughts, we leave behind a legacy of goodness that will never fade. Truly.
We see the history of the world in all its complexity and it gives the present a feeling of predestination – that things couldn’t really have turned out differently than they had. We predict the future based on the past and see the same things: mammoth political forces shaping a future in which we have little power or influence.
But our lives are better understood through the experience of the author of any great book. Read any of these and the thought that will continually press itself into your mind will be, “How in the hell did someone think all of this up?” The plot is beautiful, or tragic, or whatever it is, and we can’t see any other way it could have turned out differently. It has been printed, the words fixed to the page and sent out over the world. It is in the past. But in the moment of creation, it was fluid. Characters came into the story based on people the author had just met that week – some person who said or did something that stood out in the author’s mind. Any little thing that happened in the author’s life would have surely influenced the story.
What would our world be like without some of our great leaders and thinkers? What if Plato had never paused to think? What if Dickens had never written? What if Shakespeare didn’t think he could do anything remarkable? What if Hitler had been ignored by the masses or if Churchill didn’t inspire Great Britain with his words?
The world would be different–immeasurably so–and we have no idea exactly how different.
The present is fluid. It is for us to play with, to create with, to mold into what we will. The words written tomorrow are being thought of today, and will be fixed and rigid soon enough. But for now, it’s for us to decide what happens.
If you stop, today, and say “hi” to a child, and smile, and say they’re pretty, you’ve given them something. You may not be the perfect person you want to be, or have the career you want, or have attained fame and recognition, but in that moment you’ve altered the course of their future. That feeling of pride given to them on that day you stopped and smiled may give them the ability to ignore the other things they hear and believe in their worth and beauty. They’ll pass that on to those they meet, and your little act of kindness will multiply. It will live on and continue to ripple through the future forever.
My Grandpa C is no longer around to drive in trucks with and to listen to and to ask questions and to tell my stories. But his goodness, his industry, and every one of his words, deeds, and thoughts are still alive. I’ve forgotten their source and utter them as if they’re my own, just as my grandpa did as well, but they continue to shape how I live.
That is what Whitman calls your “indirect life.”
So go, my friends: create as many good ripples as you can, start as many indirect lives as you can, and live forever.
I am a 3 year exmormon (intellectually) and a 1 year exmormon (activity).
I was all-in in the Church. I was willing and working to go as far as I could spiritually in this life. I read my scriptures every day for 4 years straight while I was a teenager before my mission. I woke up every single day on my mission at 6:30 except for 2 times when my alarm didn’t go off. I believed in following the letter of the law, and then going beyond the letter in following the spirit of the law.
I was crushed by guilt during the decade surrounding my mission. As a teenager, I found myself unable to avoid masturbating. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my hand down my pants. My dad, and then bishop, told me, “If you have to duct tape your hands to the bedposts, do it! I’ve excommunicated people for these types of sins. If you don’t stop, you’re going to have to tell your mother.” I seriously considered cutting off my penis after reading Jesus say “if thy eye offend thee, cut it out, that it doesn’t pollute the whole body”. Luckily I didn’t, but at the time I thought that God had told me what I was supposed to do to be rid of the sin, but I was too weak and had too little faith to follow through. This made me feel more guilt.
On my mission, I strove to make my eye single to the glory of God. Every day, every minute, every thought I would check to see if what I was doing or thinking was helping to lead others to come closer to Christ. If I were ever in a situation where I couldn’t help others come unto Christ (3 other missionaries watching Resident Evil with a guy and I can’t leave because then I’d be leaving my comp), I would make sure that I was feeling guilt over breaking the rule. If I was forced to break a rule, maybe God would have mercy on me if I didn’t enjoy it.
I knew that God was perfect and that he would not abandon me if I held up my side of the bargain. When no one cared about my message, when no one felt anything special when I shared it, and when I didn’t feel any power when I shared it, I felt abandoned and could only conclude that I was not doing something good enough. I felt deep guilt at my incompetence, weakness, and unworthiness. I wanted to kill myself but I knew that that would only make me more unworthy in the afterlife, so I hated myself instead.
Guilt is probably the best word to summarize my adolescent and adult experience in the LDS Church.
Where I am now–I don’t believe in any anthropomorphic god. I stopped believing in God before I stopped believing in Mormonism (yes, that was a bit of cognitive dissonance to deal with), and it basically boiled down to 1) acknowledging that there was no way to source my spiritual experiences outside of my own head and 2) the world making more sense without an anthropomorphic god.
I’m generally pretty happy, but can face depression and anxiety. My cognitive dissonance is very much improved, but now I’m working out a new ethical structure for my life. While “don’t be a dick” and the golden rule is a great start, I’m still faced with some moral uncertainty. I used hypothetical reasoning (yes I just made that term up) to get my mind out of Mormonism, and I feel like it is probably a good tool to break through other delusions I have.
When I use it, I come to some really hard conclusions. I think I probably shouldn’t use oil, shouldn’t eat meat, shouldn’t use more than a small percentage of my income on myself.
I have a hard time coming to peace with the world. Often I think of this world as extremely hellish. This existential rant is the dark side of my thoughts.
The bright side of my thoughts is built on hope through humanity. Yes, the world is still disgusting and horrible in many ways, but it’s better for humanity in general. We’re working to give women rights, minority races rights, and gay people rights. War and disease are diminishing. It’s a slow improvement, but I hope we’ll get to a beautiful future.
When I was in my early teens I decided it was time for me to gain my own testimony. I buckled down and started reading my scriptures daily, praying fervently, and making an effort to be more kind, reverent, patient, meek, etc. When I got to the end of the BoM, and knelt down to fulfill my part in Moroni’s Promise, the response I got was…. nothing. Not a single thing. I still couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say, “I know the church is true.” I had a hard time even saying I believed in God, because I just didn’t know.
Over the next decade or so I fell into a cycle. I would make an effort to finally gain the testimony I so desperately wanted, lunging fully into all-out Molly Mormon mode (starting each cycle with an act designed to get me focused on the gospel, as benign as covering an entire bedroom wall with scriptures and quotes from prophets/apostles I liked, or as insane as transferring across the country to attend a church school). After months of reading my scriptures for hours a day and praying long into the night, I would come away with that big pile of nothing. I would then become severely depressed, because I knew I was doing all the things I was supposed to do, and God still wasn’t answering my prayers. I thought that must mean that I wasn’t being what I was supposed to be, that I was so inherently flawed that the Holy Ghost had abandoned me long ago. Between the ages of 14-20 I attempted suicide three times because I felt so absolutely worthless that I thought if I could just die and go to the Telestial Kingdom then at least the self-loathing and guilt would go away.
Here’s the thing – during this decade of vicious self-hatred and guilt I never once broke the Word of Wisdom. I never even got so far as a french kiss with a boy. I always dressed modestly. I didn’t swear. I paid my tithing. I went years at a time without missing a single day reading my scriptures. I was president of all of my YW groups, president of my seminary class, and on the Institute council. I went to church every week, and to all my activities. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong, even by Mormon standards.
But every time I told someone – a family member, a friend, a church leader – that I was feeling depressed, they told me it was because I wasn’t close enough to God. They told me that if I just put a little more effort in to Choosing The Right then I would feel the comfort of the Savior. Their first question when I said how I felt was always, “Well, are you reading your scriptures? Are you saying your prayers?” It was reinforced again and again that the fault was my own. However hard I thought I was working, I should be working harder. “Jesus is knocking on a door without a handle,” they’d remind me. “It’s up to you to let him in.”
Finally one Sunday afternoon, in my mid-20s, I was sitting on my bed looking over all the notes I had taken in Sacrament meeting and Sunday School that day (as I did every week), writing into my journal yet another idea about how I could finally gain a testimony this time. A thought popped into my head. I don’t know how it got there, exactly. It was just a simple idea – four tiny words – that changed my life forever.
“I’m a good person.”
I had never, EVER thought that about myself before. I was suddenly flooded with warmth. My breath caught in my throat. I let myself think it again. “I’m a good person.” The next thought in my head was likewise unexpected. “I bet if there’s a Heaven, I would get to go. If God is who the Mormon church says he is, I want nothing to do with him.”
I immediately grabbed my Bible. I decided right then and there that I was going to shift the direction of my spiritual studies. I was going to learn all about God – who he was, what he wanted from me, how I could know him – and I wanted to start at the beginning. I opened up Genesis, Chapter 1, and started reading.
I made it 27 verses before shutting the book and saying aloud, “This is all bullshit. I don’t believe in any of it.”
Two minutes. After more than 10 years of torturing myself trying to be better, better, better, all the time, it took less than two minutes for me to abandon religion completely. That tiny spark of self worth – “I’m a good person” – was hot enough and intense enough and bright enough to burn down my entire belief structure, and the thing that rose from the ashes like a phoenix was a new way to look at life. “I’m a good person. That’s what my religion is. To be good. To be nice. To basically not be a dick to people – and especially not to be a dick to myself. To love myself, warts and all, and know that my desire to be kind to others is worth more than any empty promise a God could give me.
The day after I posted the “Unworthy” article was one of the happiest of my life. I spent all of Friday morning reading people’s comments and replying to them – everyone was saying they understood, or they had gone through the same thing, or “I didn’t know others went through this.”
As I drove into the Walmart parking lot and a driver almost cut me off, I nodded to them and thought, “We all do it.” While shopping, I whistled the entire time and genuinely enjoyed thinking about the lives of the people I passed–the little girl who let out a five-second scream as loudly as she could and the father who desperately tried to stop it–and when I drove home I got a hit of euphoria as I hit the gas peddle to get on the freeway. I was enjoying every moment.
I had been worried about posting the article, worried about how others would respond, worried because of some of my past experiences with writing online, thinking that my inner thoughts would be ridiculed or criticized. Instead, I was welcomed into the hidden world of the Unworthy and told I belonged, I was asked if others belonged there too, and I felt accepted with all the parts of me I had been afraid of expressing.
Expressing those inner thoughts was therapeutic for myself and for others.
That’s why it wouldn’t be enough for me to just post my own story and move on. Others sent me their stories in response to mine, and they were potent.
Today, I bring two stories – one from Judy and one from Tony. If you’d like to submit your own for consideration (whether you’re active LDS or not), please send me an email.
The response to yesterday’s article was . . . unexpected. I wrote the first part to this article about a month and a half ago, slowly working on the wording and the way I presented my story, with a consistent struggle to stay real and not try to be strong. I kept thinking of different ways people would be able to poke at me through my words to show how my decisions were based on a weakness or misunderstanding or something else, and I had to fight consistently to not include preemptive defenses to things people might say. I wanted to stay honest, and just express myself, and that was difficult. I’m so glad I did!
Doing so seems to have resonated with a lot of people, which makes me so sincerely happy. In spite of my fears, I have not, as of yet, received one negative comment (though I’m fully expecting it, still. I guess I’m a little jaded).
I’d like to talk about this topic a little more – shame and vulnerability. One commenter on Reddit asked if I had read any Brené Brown, who has done years of research into shame and vulnerability, and apparently has some amazing things to say about it.
Wow, I’m so glad he or she did so. Here’s a 20-minute TEDx video that you need to watch.
Early next week, I’ll be posting other people’s stories about feeling shame, guilt, and unworthiness within the LDS Church. I’m hoping for stories from both ex-Mormons and Mormons – what it was like, what led up to it, and how things got better (if they did. Maybe they didn’t, which is fine as well). I’ll also be posting something I wrote a few weeks ago, which I didn’t think I’d share for quite a long time . . . as part of an effort to become more vulnerable and genuine.
If you’d like to do share your experience, click here to send me an email. If I post your story, I can do so anonymously or with your name, whichever you’d prefer.
I had done it again, and somehow she knew. Call it mother’s intuition, inspiration, or just luck, but here she was, knocking on my door, four hours in to one of the most depressing moments of my life.
“Jefferson? Are you there?”
There was no way of hiding it, no way of concealing the tears, not in my voice if I spoke or on my face if I let her in, and I didn’t have the willpower to lie convincingly anyway. There was only one thing I could do so I answered and she came in and sat next to me and told me she had felt she should come talk to me.
From the second floor to the basement, where she rarely came, she had come out of concern for me, not knowing why.
I didn’t want to talk to her about it – looking at pictures of naked women and getting off to them isn’t exactly on the list of “comfortable mother-son conversations” for any teenage kid. All I knew is that I felt as dark and low as I ever had before and she was here because she felt like she should be. Maybe God had sent her to help me through this.
I told her and she hugged me and said words I’m sure were wise but which I don’t remember and I knew she loved me and cared for me and didn’t judge me.
I said I had been trying to stop for so long and I knew it was wrong but I kept doing it anyway and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stop. And then I said the series of words that ripped through her, words that would define the next decade of my life, words which, I didn’t know at the time, had defined much of hers as well.
“I just didn’t want to feel so bad about myself anymore.”
For all the darkest things of this world, guilt is there to add fuel to the fire of our own self-destruction.
In the LDS Church especially.
The Greatest Guilt-Inducing Doctrines in The World
I’d like for us to do an experiment together, you and I, one entirely accomplished in our imaginations. I’d like you to imagine a boy (preferably a nephew, son, or grandson – someone you love) – he will be our test subject. Together, we’re going to place him in a controlled environment where we can manipulate the thoughts, ideals, and dogmas of all the people around him – a Truman Show setting, but for social science instead of entertainment. Look around the earth for potential dogmas to give to the child–there are so many to choose from.
As the boy grows up, tell him he’s extremely special and important: of all the creatures on earth he’s part of the only species with a soul–he’s a human, a child of God–but that his uniqueness and specialness goes far beyond that common human trait; that of all the people who have ever been born, lived, and loved, he was held back to be born at this particular period of time, exactly when he was, so that he could have the truth and take it to others, and so he could help prepare the way for God to come to earth again.
Tell him he is part of a “chosen generation,” chosen because of how valiant and faithful he was eons ago, before God had even created the world. This idea will appeal to any child, given our natural desire to hear good things about ourselves, but we’ll want to confirm it with countless speeches, sacred texts, and emotion-filled statements by those he trusts. Have the adults, those who are in the usual place of respect in any society, tell the boy that he and his peers are better than they were as kids, that this is evidence that God is coming soon and that they’re so proud and excited to see the things he does. When those ideas give him that familiar warm feeling of righteous pride, tell him God is speaking to him, confirming the truth of what he heard.
Let’s not stop there. It’s important that this child really believes what we’ve told him about who he is – the rest of his life hinges on it. Have an elder in his society give him a special blessing, and tell the boy that the words the man says come directly from God. Use this moment of trust and openness to tell our boy that he will be a leader, that he will represent God in everything he does, that he will bring many people to baptism and that those people will be grateful forever for what he did, that he will personally participate in the second coming of Jesus Christ and that he must prepare for that event by walking uprightly before the Lord every day of his life . . . .
Evey day of his life.
Teach this boy he can be forgiven when he messes up. Tell him he can become perfect, but not in this life. Also tell him his spiritual power depends on his good choices. Tell him that if he’s slothful in his duties, he will be held accountable for those he might have saved, had he done his duty.
Tell him that miracles are possible, that he can move mountains, baptize many, heal the sick, and whatever else God wills, and that the main thing that holds him back is a lack of faith, righteousness, and from not following the promptings of the spirit.
Give this child people he loves who he especially needs to save – his father, sister, and a few friends will do nicely. Watch how this affects how hard he pushes himself.
Do this and you will have created me.
This is about me
You, dear reader, are already having one of many possible reactions to this article. Some of you are looking for weaknesses, for ways to point out where I’m wrong, and you’ve no doubt already found some. Since you’re also the only people who can do anything about the reasons I felt unworthy, I need to ask you to stop viewing me as an enemy. I come to this article with one intention – to portray what became the largest trial of my young-adult life – an unquenchable feeling of unworthiness in spite of my best efforts. Your experience of LDS doctrine may be different. This was mine.
It would have been a strange scene for others to walk in on – me in a dark basement, alone, pedaling on a stationary bike while watching a movie and crying. I was at the end of Schindler’s List and what I had just seen filled me with fear.
The Alliance had beaten the Nazis and were going to soon arrive in the area where Schindler’s factory was located. Throughout the war, Schindler had, through flattery and bribes to some of the worst people history has known, purchased a Jewish work-force of over 1100 people, saving them from concentration camps and putting them to work creating pots, pans, and faulty ammunition. Now his workers were hours away from being fully liberated, but Schindler himself had to flee or face the risk of being charged as a war criminal.
He’s outside the factory, preparing to get into his car, and his workers have gathered around. One of them, a close friend, brings him a gold ring some of the workers had made for him. On it was inscribed a message from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
This message, at this moment, overwhelms Oskar Schindler. He leans towards his friend and whispers the words that are burning his conscience, “I could have got more out . . . I could have got more.” He begins sputtering about the things he could have done differently–he could have made more money or wasted less of it–and his friend tries to console him without effect. He looks around him at the things he still has–his car, his suit, his Nazi pin–and tallies up what he could have done if he would have sold them. “This car. Why did I keep this car? Ten people right there! Ten people.” He looks at the pin on his lapel and says, “Two people, two people right here.”
Pedaling in my basement, his intense guilt fueled my imagination. What will it be like, I thought, after this life, when all the people I could have helped see me and know I could have helped them – that for one uncomfortable moment I could have given them the greatest truth this world had, but that I balked, and they had suffered?
A Cycle of Guilt
I often wonder how our stories affect us. Our best movies and books usually place extraordinary adventure on ordinary people, showing how the weak overcome the strong, and how the good always win in the end. I wonder if that fuels some of the dissatisfaction we have with our own lives – whether we’d be more content if all our heroes were more normal.
And if regular stories, which we know are fictional, affect us, how much more do stories we believe are true affect how we deal with life? If a boy is reading a story about a righteous man who really believed in God, sacrificed everything for him, and was able to perform miracles, what will the boy think when he is unable to do the same?
A cycle of guilt begins, one which I experienced hundreds of times in the two short years of my mission:
I believed all things were possible, through faith. God had prepared people to accept His gospel, and he promised that amazing miracles could happen if we exercised faith – we were the only ones stopping miracles from happening!
I prayed and set goals based on faith, rather than past accomplishments. I was great at setting goals and planning–a gift from my mother–but these plans relied on a loving God to make up the difference between what I could do and the goals I set. When my companion and I set goals at the beginning of a six-week transfer, we believed that the goals we set were inspired by God. “Eight baptisms, even when we don’t have anyone remotely close right now? Hey, it’s possible.” We didn’t stop there – we’d set smart action plans, things we could do to be in the right place at the right time, to come in contact with a lot of people, to be prepared to be led to the right people, and to more fully “consecrate” ourselves to the work.
I’d work my ass off. At the peak of my mission we bought black running shoes so we could “turbo tract” for an hour every day (something my brother had done – running from door to door instead of walking); one day a week we would leave the apartment in the morning and not come back until night, packing a lunch and walking or biking everywhere so we could meet a lot of people; we’d invite a member to every single appointment; we’d do “inspired tracting;” we’d study specific topics; we’d role-play to practice our teaching skills; we’d wake up on time and do our exercise and eat better and not come in until 9:00 even if it meant tracting in the dark and we wouldn’t think about home and we wouldn’t allow contention and we would make p-day a little short because that was the only time that one person could meet but maybe they were prepared.
Eight baptisms wouldn’t come. Hell, one baptism wouldn’t come.
Then I’d do what every good planner does – analyze the results, learn from my mistakes, and set new goals.
The problem with this cycle is that one key competent was missing – God. The success of all of these plans was based on the existence and intervention of a loving and all-powerful God, the God who had sent me to earth at this specific time for this specific reason, the God who had guided Ammon, who had guided the Nephite missionaries and converted entire cities of Lamanites, the God who could do anything and wanted to save as many people as possible, the one I read about three times a day in the scriptures.
He clearly wasn’t the problem here. He could do it. And that meant the finger could point in only one direction – toward me and my companion.
And there was always something we did in a six-week transfer that we could blame for our failure to accomplish our goals. I never swore, I never masturbated, I never looked at pictures of naked women, I never allowed myself to become really homesick, I never woke up late or came home early or snuck out at night or swam in a pool or anything like that.
Like Schindler, I stood looking at the fruits of my efforts, thinking of the car I could have sold but that I didn’t.
So I’d get up earlier, pray more fervently, knock on more doors, turbo-tract more often, try to burn away feelings of laziness by working harder, harder, harder.
And I never felt like it was enough. I was never enough.
“The Best . . . “
And that’s why I didn’t know what to think when he said it. I hoped it was true, to be sure, but I didn’t see how. Sitting in the chapel at the transfer meeting, looking around at all the other missionaries who were moving to different areas in Illinois, I sized myself up, but I just didn’t see it.
Yeah, I thought, clearly I work harder than him. Him, yeah. That Elder is just really awkward, not that that’s any fault of his own, and I’m glad God has given me the talents I have – it’s Him, not me.
And the next thoughts were never uttered, not even to myself, but were felt nearly every time I was in a meeting with other missionaries. That Elder is a lot better than me.
“You are unworthy.” “You are not good enough.” “You’re not working hard enough.” “You aren’t taking every opportunity you can.” “You don’t have enough urgency.”
“You fall short.”
Those were the fears that punctuated my mission.
They were the obvious conclusions to the results I had been achieving, results that caused my mission president to say the words I didn’t believe on a phone call before transfers, words which didn’t comfort me, but gave me guilt for the temporary pride they gave me, words which made me kick myself for wondering whether he was about to make me an Assistant and then wonder about my motivation and then ask God to not let it happen because I obviously wasn’t ready for it. Words which didn’t stop me from feeling what I always felt, eventually.
Why I Left the Church
If you were to ask me why I left my religion, I would probably say it was the doctrine, and that would be true. I can point out all the logical inconsistencies that slowly frustrated my mind, the moments of feeling betrayed and lied to, and the ways the Church asked me to perpetuate their own half-truths or misrepresentations. But how much do I really understand about the decisions I make each day? I’ve seen so many people do things and then later think of the reason they did it, and I’ve done so myself, so I don’t fully trust the objectivity of our reflections about ourselves – they seem highly prone to change based on our current world view, self-image, and so on.
Of the six or seven people who have listened to all the doctrinal reasons I left the Church, some were affected, and others didn’t seem bothered at all – subjects which tore at my conscience for months were met with flippant shrugs of shoulders as if they weren’t important. I left for doctrinal reasons, but I really have no idea why those doctrines troubled me and don’t trouble others. There was obviously something that prepared me to interact with those doctrines in a different way than I had before – some life experience that made me open.
I think I left the Church to survive. I think the unworthiness I felt in the Church was too much to handle, and my brain, in an effort of self-preservation, started looking for something that worked.
To put it simply – I left the Church because the Church didn’t work for me. In fact, the Church was destroying me.
I mean that quite sincerely.
Slowly, the words of the mid-westerners around me on my mission started to seem more and more right. I started seeing the beauty of their raw acceptance of grace without any caveats. Doctrines I had heard mocked since childhood, without understanding what they meant, now started to become clear as I grappled with defeat and guilt. I saw that when others said, “I am saved and nothing can change that!” they didn’t want an excuse to sin – they were fully admitting that they were always going to fall short of perfection and that there was nothing they could do to change that.
And so I started reading Mormon authors who seemed on the brink of becoming Evangelicals themselves–Robert Millet, Stephen Robinson, and others–and I loved it, for awhile. But eventually, all the unfortunate doctrines of the Church became a burden to keep reinterpreting. I couldn’t go through the temple anymore and believe all the things done inside had to be done for every single person before they could enter the highest degree of heaven–all these rites and ordinances and things we had to do in order to have the full saving grace of God in our lives, and then hundreds of things afterwards to live righteously. The LDS Church just didn’t work within my new worldview of grace.
I became an Evangelical for many other reasons as well, but this was among the most important, and perhaps the fuel for all the others: I connected with their portrayal of Christ as my savior in ways I hadn’t with Mormonism. Theirs was a Savior without caveat, without a footnote of “Do all you can do,” without the “You will be held accountable for those you might have saved,” without the “You’re the only thing holding back miracles from your life.” Their’s was one that accepted that life is difficult and at times unbearable, that we will never be able to be everything we want to be, and that God not only knows it, but that he expects it, and that he loves us and accepts us anyway and gives us good things in spite of our failings.
Of course, I’m now an atheist. I now find my grace and hope in literature, in other human beings, in the knowledge that I’m one of billions who experience many of the same things in this crazy and complex thing we call life, from the first humans to those who will live thousands of years from now, and I feel united by this, and accepted by the common humanity I share.
I still feel guilt and shame. I still feel like I’m not enough, sometimes. Two weeks ago I wrote in my journal about how I’m afraid I’m not going to become what I want to become in life. Sometimes life sucks. That’s just the way it is. Now I feel more human, more connected with others, and more humble when I feel that way. And even though it’s hard, I love it.
Schindler’s List closing scene on Youtube:
It’s risky to say “The real reason I left was ___,” because many LDS people often say that about those of us who leave instead of listening to us tell our own stories. If you’re thinking that, here’s a good article.
If you’d like an excellent, balanced (and somewhat liberal-Mormon) explanation of the grace/works debate between Mormons and Evangelicals, I strongly suggest How Wide the Divide. There are about 45 excellent pages dedicated to it.