Sunday, February 19, 2012
You've Been Charged With Hypocrisy: How Do You Plead?
That's a fair charge. And you know what? I plead guilty. I do often feel like a hypocrite and I experience a great deal of stress and cognitive dissonance every time I interact with the church in any kind of official capacity or whenever I interact with TBMs (which is fairly regularly).
So, you might be asking things like how can I sleep with myself at night? Well, the reason is that right now I prioritize other things over my personal integrity and the consistency of my public appearance. Right now, I'm placing a higher priority on my relationship with my family, friends, and neighbors than my personal integrity. Personal integrity is of course important to me, but right now it's being placed on the back burner next to weightier matters such as my relationships with other people.
Let me state up front that we intend to ask for releases from our callings and gradually slide into inactivity between the months of April to July. It's all part of the plan, so don't get too worried.
Allow me to explain our past and current reasons for continuing to attend church as they've evolved over time:
1. We wanted to give our family members time to get acclimated to the idea that we would eventually leave the church. The whole time we were struggling with our faith crisis, we kept it strictly between ourselves. We didn't tell our bishop or our family members because we wanted to work through the whole thing on our own. If we ended up continuing to believe the church was true, then no harm would have been done. If we ended up losing our faith, then we wouldn't hurt anyone else in the process. (Going through a faith crisis is incredibly painful and I don't feel that I have the right to foist that upon anyone else. If someone is already in a faith crisis, I'll be happy to help them work through it---and I have no personal commitment to whatever the outcome of their faith crisis is. Everyone has to decide whether their life is better inside or outside of the church for themselves---and I'm not going to judge them either way.)
After we had concluded that we had officially lost our faith in Mormonism and were going to leave the church, we didn't want to scare our family by just suddenly leaving the church. Our faith crisis had happened over the course of a year and had involved long, intense moments of deep introspection. But to an outsider, it would appear as though we had made a very sudden and rash decision. We knew that would confuse and hurt our family members. And since they are very important to us, we wanted to gradually get them used to the idea that we might leave the church. We hoped this would subtly communicate that we had not made this decision in haste and that we had given the church a fair chance (notwithstanding the 30+ years of giving the church a fair chance prior to our faith crisis). Now that more than a year has passed since we first clued our parents into the situation, the time is ripening for our departure.
2. We wanted to build a social network outside of the church. One time when I was in the middle of my faith crisis, I took a look at the statistics of my social network using Facebook. At the time, 82% of my social network was LDS. And of the 50 or so individuals who comprised the other 18%, only 1 or 2 of those were very intimate, close relationships. (I plan to do a longer blog entry discussing the unique social network of Mormonism, so stay tuned!) This was a bit of a problem for me because that meant that if I were to suddenly leave the church, I would be jumping into a new world with almost no social support. I'm an introvert so I suppose it wouldn't have been that bad; nevertheless, it didn't seem very healthy to me. We wanted to make sure we had some good friends outside of the church before we left it completely. Nowadays, I'm happy to report that we have established some very good relationships with ex-Mormons and never-Mormons that are richer and more meaningful than our relationships with people inside the church. Again, the atmosphere for our departure is getting better.
3. We want our departure from our ward to be a quiet one. I must admit, I do see the appeal of this particular approach to leaving the church:
But setting aside the sheer coolness factor behind leaving the church in a noisy (and speedy) way, the "live out loud" approach advocated by John Larsen (and others) is just too costly for me.
We like our house and we don't want to move. Nearly all of our neighbors are members of the church and we don't want to burn any bridges with any of them. If we are seen as being full-blown apostates to our neighbors, we will begin to be treated differently by them because we'll be viewed as a threat. We won't be able to maintain our relationships of respect and trust with them. Our kids might not be allowed to form friendships with the other kids in our neighborhood. And worst of all: we'll lose all of our baby-sitters.
We think it's better to be viewed by our neighbors and ward members as inactive. If they want to conjecture that we stopped attending church because we were lazy or something, I'll be fine with that. I'll know in my heart that it isn't the truth and that's enough for me. I'm happy to sacrifice my control over my public reputation in order to maintain peace and good will with my neighbors. (Besides, I think it's silly to imagine that I ever had full control over the way I am perceived by others to begin with.)
4. I prefer to keep my religious beliefs private so that I don't hurt the people I love and so that I can keep myself from being hurt. I've come to find profound meaning in Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall." The poem is about a pair of farmers who go about repairing the wall that marks the boundary between their property. The narrator of the poem says, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." On one level, he thinks it is silly to build and maintain the walls that separate their farms---especially in places where the wall is unnecessary, such as in their orchards. I agree with the narrator's perspective. I think honesty (the removal of walls) is preferable. I wish we could all just be real with each other, that we could all live without facades. Then we could realize that we are all pretty normal human beings and that we're not so different from one another. We could work through our issues together and reach a mutually agreeable understanding about our differences.
Last weekend, I was talking with a non-traditional Mormon who had just discovered earlier that week that her younger brother hadn't believed in the church for nearly 4 years, but had kept it to himself the whole time. That's the cost of building walls: you can't help each other in moments of pain and dissonance because you're too busy hiding from one another.
But, at the same time, I see the wisdom behind the narrator's neighbor too. The narrator's neighbor simply states: "Good fences make good neighbors." He has a good point. I've been burned quite a bit by being honest with my parents about my faith crisis. We've had some intense exchanges that have resulted in tears and have caused week-long spells of deep depression for me. I've realized that I can't be fully honest with TBMs because it hurts both them and me in really painful, almost unbearable ways. I would love it if only they could understand me, but I think there is some futility in trying to force that understanding prematurely. I think that some day, when we're ready and our relationship is in the right place, I'll be able to be honest. I'll continue to hope and have patience for that day---and if it never comes, I'm resigned to that possibility. But for now, I'm building a few walls to keep both my family, friends and myself safe from pain. I've set some boundaries about what I will and will not share about my personal life. And that's because I want to minimize the collateral damage associated with my departure.
Right now I just focus on expressing myself in forums like this blog or on Mormon Expression or private Facebook groups. And that's good enough for me. I don't think it's unreasonable to keep some aspects of your life private from some of the people around you. That's how all healthy human relationships usually work: you wait to reveal intensely personal things about yourself until you have developed a certain level of intimacy and trust in your relationships. You can still maintain a healthy, casual relationship with people without telling your neighbors, or your co-workers, or your former college roommates everything about your personal religious beliefs.
5. It's hard to reset your life to zero all at once. It should be noted that up until 2 years ago, I had fully bought into Mormonism for most of my life. I sincerely believed in it. I kept all of its rules. I was heavily active in the church because I loved it. It was a very big part of my life.
When something is an integral part of your life, you can't just press the "erase" button and expect it all to go away without a hitch. It has taken quite a while to de-program Mormonism out of our lives. For example, we kept praying over our food long after we stopped believing in prayer because it was a life-long habit. Eventually, the only way we could get ourselves out of that habit was to replace it with a new habit: the Japanese ritual of saying "Itadakimasu" before eating. And that was something as silly as what to do before eating---let alone bigger issues like drinking and what not.
We started by dipping our toes in the waters of ex-Mormonism, and now we're taking gradually wading into the deep end as opposed to jumping head-first into the water all at once. We're getting experienced enough now to where we can probably get rid of the flotation device and start swimming on our own now.
6. I don't want to burn any bridges permanently. One thing that's important to keep in mind about my faith crisis is that it has resulted in being pretty comfortable with uncertainty. I've realized in a very profound way that it's possible for me to be wrong---dead wrong---about really important things. It's a very humbling experience. But I've come to feel okay with it because I've realized that I'm making the best decisions and reaching the most reasonable conclusions with all of the imperfect information that I currently have available to me. I believe it's important that I never keep myself from feeling too certain my current position is right because I've learned that my sense of certainty is almost always misplaced. I want to make sure that I'm always questioning myself and that I never stop searching for truth and more information. I'm comfortable with remaining flexible, with a willingness to update my perspectives in the future as more evidence becomes available. As the famous economist John Maynard Keynes once said when he was accused of hypocrisy: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
Maybe things will change in the future as more information becomes available to me or as my life circumstances change. Maybe I'll move on to a Fowler Stage 5 and become one of those Mormon Stories/Mormon Matters people. Or maybe I won't. Either way, I want to be humble enough to give myself room to change my mind in the future. So, I don't want to burn my bridges with the church in the process.
At the end of the day, I've reached a place where I love myself and I love everyone else---no matter where they're at in their own personal faith journey or where they stand on the spectrum of Mormonism. I believe that everyone is making the right choices for themselves based on their own personal circumstances. I respect their right to decide the path for themselves in their own way and on their own timetable. I just hope that other people will extend me the same courtesy.