It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song
You can’t believe it
You were always singing along
It was so easy and the words so sweet
– Regina Spektor
Interviewing Donna in last week’s podcast brought back a lot of feelings and memories for me, the fellow American ex-Mormon. Like her, I grew up on pioneer stories and primary songs. My parents were (and are) paragons of devotion to their faith. I went to Brigham Young University, and spent a year and a half on a full-time Mormon mission in Chile. Six months after returning home, I was married in a Mormon temple, and a year later when my daughter was born I found myself experiencing what in the Mormon church is the highest and holiest calling for a woman: motherhood.
I loved my faith and my church. I participated in all the expected ways, including spending hours in meetings of various sorts on weekends and evenings, visiting other members, making meals for the sick, and performing every kind of volunteer service from accompanying the congregation on the organ each week to cleaning the church bathrooms.
I was devoted to God and to my church.
I cherished the assurance that I would live with my loved ones after I died, and loved my Mormon family and community. So when cracks began to appear in Paradise, and I started to have uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about what I had been taught about the church’s history, doctrine, and practices. I pushed them away. I redoubled my efforts to pray, to be good, to do everything I believed God expected of me. I agonised and prayed over my doubts. I discussed them with my church leaders. I tried to make the increasingly warped pieces fit together through sheer force of will.
As I questioned more and more, attending church became increasingly difficult. I felt torn between the faith I loved and my dawning realisation that the uncomplicated things I had always learned did not stand up to any kind of real scrutiny.
When I was a teenager, we were taught a set of specific values
meant to guide our lives.
I took them seriously, as I took everything I learned at church seriously. One of those values, the one that most caught my adolescent mind, was integrity. I can still repeat by heart the explanation of integrity that I learned twenty-five years ago: “I will have the moral courage to make my actions consistent with my knowledge of right and wrong.”
Many years later, and now with children of my own, the more I thought about what was right and wrong, the more I realised that neither the doctrines nor the history nor the practices of the church I had loved since childhood were consistent with my internal moral compass. I tried to stay, I tried to rationalise, I tried to live my faith in a way that accorded with my conscience. I even tried to help change some of the things that felt wrong, participating in a group advocating for more inclusion of women in leadership roles and writing thoughtful pieces on a well-known faithful Mormon group blog. None of it was enough. Trying to stay Mormon was consuming my life and making me miserable.
I left, finally,
when the pain of leaving was less than the pain of staying.
I braved the bitter disappointment of my family, the loss of a social community that had sustained me all my life, and the sure knowledge of a beautiful life after death. It was one of the hardest, most terrifying things I have ever done. I hoped, desperately, that I could be at least almost as happy outside the Mormon church as I had been inside. I had always been taught that it was impossible to achieve true joy or happiness without being Mormon. Imagine my surprise when I immediately became happier. It was like a great, dark weight had been suddenly lifted from my life. I no longer had to drag behind me and continually rationalise the hurtful teachings and actions of an institutional church with which I had been morally unaligned for what I now realised was a long time.
I was fortunate that my husband had followed a similar journey to mine, and we were able to leave together. In the four years since we left, we have been happier than ever. Life is good. Wonderful, in fact. I worried about my children initially. Even though a big part of why I left the Mormon church was because it wasn’t an environment I wanted for them, I had always been taught that raising children with good moral values was what the Mormon church did well.
But I’ve discovered that in many ways
it is easier to raise my children outside the church.
I don’t need to rationalise anything to them, or tell them to put it on a shelf and not worry about it, the way I was taught when I was a child and asked about Mormon polygamy or women’s roles. Instead, I can teach them the values I truly believe and strive to live, without rationalisation or hypocrisy. I don’t need to assert that all the important questions of life are already answered. I don’t need to pretend, as my parents did, that I have never questioned or struggled. Most of all, I don’t need to dictate them down the one narrow life path I was taught. It was a relief to let go of a large part of the parental anxiety I realised I’d always felt, and allow my children to blossom as who they are without a pre-determined script for them to follow.
For a long time after I “stepped back” from the Mormon church, I didn’t feel the need to formally resign. I have many dear friends and family members who remain active Mormons. My Mormon childhood, youth and young adulthood will always be a part of who I am. I cherish many wonderful memories of my time as a member. As I write this, I am listening to one of my favourite recordings from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Eventually, we took the drastic step of insisting
our names be officially removed from the Mormon church.
We didn’t want our nominal membership to serve as implicit endorsement of certain institutional church practices and positions. It wasn’t a decision we made lightly, since we knew it was the equivalent of permanently exiling ourselves from our religious homeland.
But as we clicked the final button to make it official, I felt a familiar, quiet peace in my soul; it’s a feeling I was taught as a Mormon to recognise as confirmation that a decision was right and true. Like I said, there are pieces of my Mormon past that will always belong to me. But if I could go back and tell my young Mormon self one thing, it would be that her life would turn out better than she could ever imagine.
Sometimes it’s still hard. Especially around holidays that were once imbued with spiritual meaning and significance. Traditions need to be changed, or the substance of them slips away, leaving only husks of holiness. Like Donna, my journey away from my faith is inextricably wrapped up in the journey I’ve taken across an ocean, not only to a new country but also to an altered cultural identity. I’m busily engaged in making here home, since I know that neither my childhood country nor my childhood faith fit me right anymore. I’ve lived longer in Amsterdam now than anywhere else since I turned 21 in faraway Syria on the trip that first made me realise I belonged more to the wider world than to the place where I grew up.
I suppose it’s natural to wish sometimes that you could go back.
Take the blue pill instead of the red one. Stay home, instead of ever leaving. Find a way to choose faith over doubt. In my memory, religion is gathering with my close-knit tribe of family and friends, creating and hearing beautiful music, and renewing my devotion to a comfortable, secure, vibrant faith. It can’t be that for me right now, and if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that it will never again be what it was. How could it, when I’ve changed so much? When the shape of all the old, familiar things looks so different from where I stand now?
My American Mormon childhood is something that can only exist for me now in a memory of who I used to be. Like an old lover or an ended friendship, nothing will ever quite fill the hole. I suppose the hole doesn’t really need filling now, because the whole of who I am is bigger than it once seemed. Still, the hole is there, and sometimes I can feel it.
As Regina Spector would say,