Unworthy – a Story Series

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.

Unworthy – a Story Series:

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Sunrise

This morning there was a beautiful sunrise and I saw myself in it, my own insecurities and anxieties reflected back in a way that helped me understand myself. I thought about society and public opinion, about history and fame, about why none of us really understand each other.

Nature is like poetry in that way–vague and ready to be interpreted for our own use–but I don’t like to stretch symbolism farther than needed. What follows is simply an attempt to describe what I saw while watching the sun rise and the scattered thoughts that followed.

Sunrise1

Silhouetted trees, black with no leaves, set against a stark orange background of a large cloud, waves across its surface. The sun is at just the right angle that, much like the sand of a beach when the sun is low, the cloud’s low points cast shadows across the rest.

Sunrise2

It’s the small things that are so impressive, the things we usually don’t notice and that don’t last long enough to give us a second chance. Here you see loose fog at the bottom of the cloud, closest to me in the picture, that will soon be burned upwards or will become invisible once the sun is too high to reflect through it to my eyes.

Sunrise3

Each phase of this sunrise lasts only a few minutes. The waves on the bottom of the cloud are gone, the sun having risen behind and becoming only an orange glow, and the cloud now blocks most of the light from reaching my eyes.

Sunrise4

Wispy clouds high in the atmosphere now have their moment.  Invisible or unnoticed before, they are now bright, intricate, and delicate, set against a blue sky and above a dark red. These clouds now pull my eyes upward, halt my breath, stretch my mouth into a smile, move my hand to the camera, my finger to the zoom, and cause me to take eight photographs to try to capture their simple but intricate appeal. This is the signature of 7:30 AM.

The rest has been beautiful and unique, but this is my favorite. I can’t explain exactly why.

Sunrise5

Sunrise6

Sunrise7

As the sun rises more, the orange glow begins to disappear, the sun now almost completely darkened behind what has become a very large cloud. Above, the light’s reflection is too much for the intricacies of 7:30 – it too becomes indistinct, the light blending too much for detail.

Sunrise8

New clouds form above the large cloud, bright on the bottom and dark on the top, dotting the sky in a diagonal line.

Sunrise9

Sunrise10

The sun is now finally visible above the large, low-hanging cloud of the early morning.

Sunlight

These clouds were beautiful, but wouldn’t have been anything special without the low-angled sunlight passing through them. In fact, many of them were in the sky before I woke up. Had I looked out my window at four in the morning it isn’t likely I would have felt impelled to get my camera and go outside to capture the view; any clouds would have been dark, gray, or unseen. During the short time of sunrise and sunset the colors are so unique and fleeting that we have to either look at them or admit that we’re out of touch with nature.

Even these clouds were the only ones I noticed among hundreds of others within my view, and even then I only focused on the most brilliant among them for a few short moments before the sun, followed quickly by my eyes, shifted its gaze elsewhere.

Scattered thoughts

I am a lot of different things at once, and so are you. Since I don’t know you, and you don’t know me well enough to speak for me, I’ll speak of myself and hope you can understand. That’s the difficult thing – to be understood. Everything I am influences the way you hear me.

I’m an atheist ex-Mormon. To some, that fact brings an unexpected twinge of curiosity: “There must be a great story here.” Hours of friendly conversation follow. To others it brings genuine emotional pain, a feeling of loss, a felling that a friend is now an enemy, an ally now a critic: “Oh how and why did he do that? He was so faithful and strong.” To others–perhaps to the more insecure or controlling–it brings anger, and results in biting remarks most often unheard by me.

Religion, along with politics, is a topic where most people expect misunderstanding and conflict.

I’m also philanthropist. You are too, most likely – it’s not an exclusive term reserved for the rich or the hipster, it’s just about doing good for other people. I write my honest thoughts about poverty and nonprofits in a way I hope is helpful and interesting. Most find this inspiring: “That’s awesome, I want to do something like that too.” Other people are, as surprising as this has been to me, sincerely offended. I ignored them until I realized they really believed the words they said about me, and then I lamented our inability to be heard correctly and recognized how oversensitive and callous our society is at the same time – ready to react defensively but excited to criticize when we can: “This racist, pampered, pretentious fool actually thinks he’s making a difference. This slum-tourist, this sheltered naive prick, this self-absorbed idiot.” Still others are defensive and distrustful. Within their vague responses I hear what they mean to say: “Would you please just not ask as many questions or discuss our programs so openly? You might mess something up.”

I’ve felt misunderstood at many times in my life, but usually I’ve been able to explain it away. These reactions to writing about philanthropy were startling.

I’m a lot of other things too, some of them controversial, some boring, all of them important to the way I’m heard. I’m a banker for a large bank at a time when large banks are hated; I’m an American; I’m white, tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed; I’m a man; I’m bilingual; I’m liberal; I live with my fiance; I’m talkative when with friends and content to people-watch when with strangers. Each of these things–and thousands of others like them–are seen in a different way by every person who sees them.

Understanding

Sunrise11Consider this cloud. I love how each smaller, individual cloud is pressed together into one large body. It reminds me of a hand-drawn map of an archipelago or the rippled sand on the shore of a mountain lake.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the scenes shown above.  That has nothing to do with the clouds themselves, it has only to do with the sun and I, standing at a particular angle to each other that other clouds are more brilliant and these are more gray.  To someone else though, farther to the north than me, these clustered clouds are in just the right spot to be colored beautifully by the sun.  What is gray to me is beautiful to someone else.

And that’s the truth I want to give here, the only words that really matter to this whole article: understanding is impossible. When I write something, the way it is received by others has far more to to with society and with the prior position of the listener than it does with the words I say.

Consider the scriptures. I used to read the scriptures and get a great spiritual feeling. Now I don’t read them at all, but when I do I notice all the destructive things in them, like the stories that glorify murder in the name of god or the verses that make all other lifestyles seem terribly unhappy, for example. How different my experience is now than it was before. The book hasn’t changed, I haven’t even really “changed,” but my perspective has. Now I get my spiritual feeling elsewhere.

We each interpret the world through our own experiences. What would a life-long atheist understand about the feelings of a Mormon boy reading the scriptures? He might become familiar with the doctrines and the scriptures themselves, but he wouldn’t understand what it was like, not fully. The imaginative and empathetic person can feel a little of what someone else feels, but that has its own limitations. If I had never felt good while reading scriptures, how differently would I view my Mormon friends? How much less would I understand them?

Likewise, how can Mormons understand me and my experience?

Consider politics. A conservative friend hears a speech about protecting the second amendment from “Barrack Hussein Obama” and it rouses within him a righteous anger against those who are attempting to “weaken America.” That feeling is real. I hear the speech and make fun of it right away, titling the speaker as moron, idiot, zealot, dogmatic, and ridiculous. The words we heard were the same, the simplistic meme was the same, but the response it received from me and my friend are completely different.

We’re prepared by society and by our former training to accept some things and reject others instantly. I could list a hundred other examples, but I don’t think we need to bore ourselves with repetitive detail.

If it sounds like I’m playing the victim, I am. I’m realizing now how impossible it is for us to all understand each other for how we really are. We are perpetually prone to misjudge. We’re each victims of our own training.

Being offended

Realizing that full understanding is impossible (with almost everyone) doesn’t relieve us of responsibility to explain ourselves well. Words are powerful – the smallest of them can change the tone of a sentence and affect the way we react to it. Ignoring accountability for the words we choose is silly.

I’ve heard the LDS phrase “It’s your choice to be offended” enough times to cringe when I hear it now, and this seems like a good place to rant about it for a second.

No, it isn’t my choice to be offended. Linguistically it doesn’t even make sense. It’s no more my choice to be offended by someone than it is for me to be slapped – it is an action done to me by someone else. It is my choice how I react to that offense, or whether I’d like to remain upset, just like it’s my choice whether to slap someone back after they slap me, but let’s keep the language clear.

I’m sure the person who authored this unfortunate LDS phrase didn’t realize it was going to be used as a license for members to say whatever they wanted without consequence.  They may have meant the phrase to be used to say a state of mind like “being upset” or “being angry,” in which case it is true that I choose the emotion of being offended.  But if you say something racist or homophobic you can’t toss your hands in the air, repeat this LDS phrase, and avoid apology. Nor can I, after watching people misunderstand me, simply throw my hands in the air and blame it all on how impossible it is to be understood.

So it is that there are two truths, existent at the same time: it is impossible to understand others perfectly and it is my responsibility to make myself as easy to understand as possible.

The best writing

The best writing is true, and that doesn’t necessarily mean people will like it. After all the frivolous words fade from human memory–the vain, the dogmatic, the pretentious–these true words last because people continue to be influenced by them across generations. I wonder which words about our day will survive the passing of time and how many of them I would have agreed with.

If I want to write something true, I have to strike a delicate balance between disinterest and interest in how society responds to my words. On one extreme I would constantly be thinking about how people might react and my writing would become fickle and easily forgotten. On the other extreme I could become pompously disconnected from reality, too sure about my own conclusions.

I think I’ll leave the flatness for politicians that need votes and just be myself. Maybe then I’ll say something true enough that others will appreciate it and it will last. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll be a cloud that will shine resplendently when society becomes aware of my words (and when I’ve written my best). Or maybe I’ll be there in the sky, saying true things but going unnoticed, a midnight cloud with no one to see or a mid-day cloud with few to care, while brighter clouds give porch-sitting watchers their morning thoughts.

All I can do is live my life honestly and explain myself clearly, as disinterested in the sun and the porch-sitting watcher as that 7:30 wisp was in me.

*******

Oh, and here are some more awesome Texas clouds 🙂

2012 in review

2012 has been a year of blogging – I’ve started five blogs this year (OK, so . . . maybe six or seven), but have only consistently contributed to two: The Accidental Atheist and The Weekend Philanthropist.

I’ve found a lot of joy in learning to express myself more clearly and look forward to another year of writing in 2013.

As a cap to the year, here are the 2012 articles from this blog I’m the most happy about, along with an annual report from WordPress down below.  Enjoy!

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1) A Mormon Boy’s Mission to Save His Father.  In this article I show six snapshots of my life, how I developed the need to save my father from being gay, and what it was like.  Beyond starting (or continuing, really) an important conversation within my extended family, a lot of other readers liked this article’s approach and honesty – it wasn’t an argument, I was just saying what happened.  A version of this was published in Wells Fargo’s Pride Team Member Network along with my face and the subtext, “I am Wells Fargo, and I am also an LGBT ally”, a blogger or two included it in articles they wrote, and I made a lot of new friends.  Because of this and another post about homosexuality, I’ll also be involved in a new Mormon podcast that focuses on gays within the Church – I’m very excited for it!

2) The Day I Left the Church and 2 months before my mission ended.  More than any other posts I wrote, readers enjoyed seeing journal entries from when I was struggling with doubt.  Journals were written for myself and to myself alone, distanced from any need to convince other people – I was bluntly honest in a few of my entries and included them without edit for readers to view.  People have related with and connected with my experience, and I’ve had great phone conversations and meetings as a result.  I also think it helped readers see my sincerity of purpose.

3) Rea’s Story (Mom).  Probably the part of the blog I’m the most happy about, however, is something I didn’t write at all – the Story Series.  Wanting to have the same impact I saw from John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories Podcast, I opened up my blog to family members and friends so they could tell their stories: what it was like for them when they left, or when they returned to the Church, or why they’ve stayed.  I wanted to keep it balanced, showing each of these three perspectives, and the result was great.  The most-read story, and one which readers have really connected with, was written by my mom.

4)  Mormonism and Polygamy – A Call to Honesty.  Of all the posts I’ve written, this one took the most research and thought.  I wanted to express something that was central to my leaving the Church – I felt lied to by my own authorities (well, I was lied to).  I bought three new books and researched for over a month before posting this article.  It started an interesting debate, as you’ll see from the 82 comments (not counting the few I had to delete).  The conclusion to this article, the paragraph with bold text in it, is something I’m still proud of – it expresses well my sincere and extreme frustration and contains a challenge to Mormons to be more honest.

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written on this blog, as I’ve been focusing on philanthropy – please check out the 2012 review for The Weekend Philanthropist as well and see what you think!  I look forward to writing more in 2013 and hope you’ll continue to be a part of it.  🙂

If you’re curious, you’re welcome to read the Annual Report from WordPress that shows some of the stats from The Accidental Atheist.

Two of the Most Important Videos Any Mormon/Ex-Mormon Could Watch

Over the last couple of days I have re-stumbled across two of the most important videos I’ve ever seen.  I strongly encourage anyone attempting to understand those who have left to dedicate 25 minutes to watch the first video and decide if you’d like to watch the second.

Video #1

Late 2011, John Dehlin and his associates fielded a survey in the effort to understand the main reasons people leave the LDS church and the perceived consequences of living as an ex-mormon within a Mormon community.  It targeted only those who had once believed the LDS church was “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” but no longer did.  To find participants the survey link was posted on several ex-mormon blogs and participants were self-selected; these results, therefore, don’t claim to be perfectly representative of the ex-mormon community, but the authors of the survey feel they do express the concerns they’ve heard echoed throughout the “bloggernacle” online.  There were 3,086 participants.

I think, if you watch or read nothing else I put on this blog, this is what I’d have you watch.  This presentation of survey results, given at a conference at UVU in Orem, Utah, is sensitive, straightforward, and calls every listener to be more understanding, real, and loving.  I think every member and ex-member should spend the time to watch it.

Video #2

In this extremely important video, John Dehlin discusses the issues that cause Mormons to question.  At the time the video was produced John was an active and believing member of the LDS church.  He still is, but now classifies himself as an “open Mormon,” citing the 13th Article of Faith to explain his position, “. . . we believe all things . . . we hope all things . . . we have endured many things . . . and we hope to be able to endure all things.  If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

Take a moment to watch the first 5 minutes and get a feel for what it’s like.  The topics he brings up are difficult to hear  but essential for transparency and understanding.  I believe he’s sincere when he says that is his purpose.  This is a great opportunity to hear the controversial issues discussed candidly through the mouth of a believing Mormon.

Colten’s Story (Cousin)

Just a few more minutes.  You can do it, hold it in for a few more minutes.  Just long enough to park in the drive way, walk through the side door to the garage, into the house, past the kitchen, down the stairs and you got a straight shot to your room.  You can’t let them see the emotions waiting to burst forth, exposing your heartache to an outsider. Please don’t let them see me.  Please.

He was missing her again.

He wanted nothing more as he drove home from work then to be back in their 3rd floor apartment, cuddled up close under a blanket.  Their two four-legged fur ball ‘kids’ purring in their laps, enjoying the warmth and comfort their parents offered up lovingly.  Movie night.

Barely making it through the house and down the stairs before letting a small whimper choke out, he was thankful one of the longest 20 second journeys of his life towards his room had drawn close to its end.  As he reached the bottom of the stairs he couldn’t hold up much longer;  his vision started filling with a watery haze.  At last minute he pushed through towards the mini fridge with the Bud Light and the bottle of Yagermeister he’d purchased a couple of weeks back.

What’re you doing?  You’ve never had a desire to drink in this state, let alone by yourself.

Bottle in hand, he reverted back to his original path and ultimately reached his room, hurrying the door shut behind him.  Crashing to his knees and landing face first on his bed – it all came out.  He only vaguely realizes he’s bawling harder than he’s bawled before as he remembers something she recently told him.

Visions of the statement rush through him, like a searing hot knife through his chest.  Causing him physical pain, he imagines her lying in that familiar, warm, comfortable bed sleeping soundly.  She’s so gorgeous when she sleeps, with no worries to mask her natural beauty.  Peaceful and serene, she mumbles something barely audible as she gently reaches her right leg towards mine for comfort in the night; a soft gesture to express love, and remind herself that she’s not alone – except this time he’s not there.  She finds an empty void, and is jolted awake.  As she realizes where she is, who’s not with her, she feels her heart drop – that’s when the sobbing returns, with no end in feasible sight.

Why can’t she just understand why?  Can’t she believe that my love for her is deeper than any before her?  Does she honestly think that I’m doing this to myself, to us, so that I can live frivolously?

His senses remind him of the bottle in his hand.

I might as well.  If I’m going to be blamed for it, I may as well reap what little temporary benefit it has to offer.  Why not?  It’ll numb this pain. . . at least for tonight.

Laying there on his bed with red puffy eyes, a fresh stream of tears silently gushes down his temples and into his hair as he stares at the ceiling, his thoughts continue their torture.

Maybe I should just keep pretending.  If I keep pretending, we can be together.  And then maybe I’ll find some truth to the whole “fake it ‘til you make it” motto. I can do that, right?  Attend a church that gives me a gut-wrenching feeling every time I’m there, perform cultish ordinances in a temple I don’t believe is necessary to my eternal family, and sing praises to a man who I’m supposing to believe restored the one true church on this earth?  Shouldn’t be too hard.

His mind flashes back to that same 3rd floor apartment.  He’s doing homework on his new macbook at the kitchen table, while he can hear and smell his favorite dish cooking just behind him.  She always knew how to make him happy with her cooking, though she’d never acknowledge her own skill.  She didn’t always know how amazing she was.  He gets up from his homework, looks at her from behind as she works casually over the stove.  Suddenly, his hands slip from the sides of her hips, to pass one another as he gently curls her into him from behind.  He leans his face toward her shoulder as he gently leans in to kiss her softly on the neck just before whispering “I love you” sweetly into her ear.  His favorite thing was feeling her ears go up as part of her reactive smile. . . she leans the side of her head against his forehead and they both enjoy the brief, tender moment of bliss.

What’s the point, he thinks to himself, lying there with dried tears down the side of his face, drinking’s not going to do anything for the pain.  It never was.  I never thought it would.  But seriously, why wouldn’t I do the very thing that’s apparently taking all the credit for my leaving not only the church, but the woman I loved more than anything?  Why would I put myself through this hell? I’ve been lying to myself – and others – for too long.  I know I did the right thing by giving both of us a second chance at the life we each deserve. . . I just wish it wasn’t so fucking difficult.

As he sits up in his bed, he looks over at the unopened bottle.  Slowly, he stands up and submits himself to braving the journey to the mini-fridge just outside his room, to return the supposed culprit to its home.

(read Colten’s blog here)

(read more stories here)

Emily (Sister)

Growing up I thought I had the truth. I thought that out of all of the religions on the planet, the only true church was the Mormon one. I believed in it because that is what I was taught to believe, and I had many experiences that seemed to seal my “faith”.

For 23 solid years, I was completely devout. I attended church weekly (with few exceptions), read from the Book of Mormon daily, and prayed earnestly.  I was even labeled the family tattle-tale – Sneaking peeks at my older sister’s diary and revealing all her adolescent secrets to my mother – Among other things.  I was considered by most to be self-righteous and judgmental, but I didn’t think I was.  I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do, even though I had a hard time figuring out how.

Over time, I continued on the Mormon path, and after surviving adolescence and some family struggles (including witnessing multiple divorces, finding out my father was gay, taking on a sibling-raising role while my mom was trying to keep her head above water), I did what most 22-year-old unmarried Mormon women do – Sign up at ldssingles.com to find an Eternal Companion.

Okay, so most LDS women don’t do that, but since I felt like an old-maid at that point, and I longed for some normalcy in my life, I took the route of online dating and met a match.  We pursued a long-distance relationship and after 10 long months of dating (in Mormon terms), we were married.  A whole 2 weeks later I was pregnant with my one and only child.

Soon after marriage, I came to the stark realization that it was not what I was expecting and more than I could comprehend.  I started having conflicting feelings about how and why I could doubt something that had been engrained into me since childhood.  After all, I had prayed and fasted, been through the temple, made covenants, and lived my life in as pure a way as I could manage and here I was – feeling alone and unfulfilled.

Those feelings set the course for more feelings to flow, and questions to arise.  All of the doubts I had brushed off before and explained away with “church answers” would not take me shrugging them off again.  They demanded introspection and attention.

When I sought out those answers, through church text, church leadership and even apologist church forums, all I received was veiled criticism or outright bullying.  It always came down to what *I* was doing wrong.  And over time, I realized, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was being human, and I wanted to be treated humanely.  I wanted to be heard, and I didn’t have a willing audience.  It was very lonely and frustrating.

From start to finish, my process of leaving was 4 years.  So *763 words is not going to tell the whole tale, or describe every agonizing detail.  I will say that it was the most painful experience I’ve ever had and there were countless nights where I agonized – tearfully mourning the loss of a lifetime of “knowledge” and trying to navigate a new world where I was the master.

I don’t have it all figured out, but at the very least I feel a sense of a freedom that I never felt before, especially with humanity – to be someone who doesn’t have to look at another person through the glasses of self-proclaimed superior knowledge.  I am free to see someone because of who they are, not what they believe, who they love, or who they worship.  I only wish I could be seen through the same eyes by those who believe.  But to them, I will always be a sinner or apostate who will have to answer to God at some point – denying us the opportunity to truly connect.  And so it is.

 

(read Emily’s blog here)
(read more stories here)