I wanted to die.
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but in my state of mind I wasn’t really thinking clearly anyway.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
I was on Facebook the other day, and one of my old high school friends linked to a blog post that used a parable about levees to illustrate why people lose faith. I haven’t been especially close to this friend since graduation, but I’ve gathered from various status updates that she’s left the Church (in one form or another) and is currently working through a mixed-faith marriage with her husband.
I feel for her. That has to be incredibly tough. I imagine that a mixed-faith marriage is difficult for any couple, particularly when one spouse is a leavetaker from Mormonism.
I empathize with that difficulty, even though I admit that I can’t fully understand or appreciate it. I hope that her family can find peace and happiness, just as I would hope for any family going through complex struggles.
I can’t know for sure what started her on the journey she’s on – like I said, we aren’t close. Still, as I read the parable of the levee that she identified with, and as I consider the original author’s broader arguments, I can’t help but think that I’ve had similar experiences.
My experiences, though, have taken me in a much different direction. In fact, I would argue that they’ve taken me in a much more positive direction. I’d like to tell you how.
Levees and Denial
I mentioned the parable of the levee, which seeks to illustrate why people lose faith. A levee is an embankment used to help control water levels and prevent flooding (sandbags, for example, create a levee to deal with emergency flooding).
Levees can fail in a number of ways, though most frequently they fail because a part of the levee breaks away (a levee breach).
Other times, the water level exceeds the height of the levee (overtopping).
Overtopping, while not as dangerous as a breach, can cause erosion of the levee. This erosion inherently increases the chances of a complete levee breach.
The author suggests that when faced with “aspects of the gospel [that] don’t quite sit right or don’t fit into the church’s prescribed sphere of faith-promoting answers, it is a common practice in Mormonism to distance one’s self from such issues if they can’t be resolved.”
(I’m always impressed, by the way, with what must be rigorous and scientific data collection methods among those who assert that one thing or another is or isn’t common when it comes to intensely personal struggles like these…)
The author condescendingly suggests that Church members, rather than deal with these issues head on, “commonly” choose instead to ignore them and blindly press forward:
“Any time a person starts to have troubling doubts, comes across information that isn’t faith-affirming, or has an experience that doesn’t match up with the promises of the gospel–most people just pour that doubt into the reservoir and lay another sandbag against the levee to protect themselves from that doubt.”
These sandbags, the author explains, refer to activities like reading the scriptures, praying, having family home evening, and paying tithes and offerings. Their implication is that these activities allow Church members to, in a blatantly ostrich-like manner, ignore their concerns and become artificially tied to an oppressively corporate Church.
The conclusion the author ultimately arrives at is a conclusion that I agree with. For Church members living in denial like this, the levee will eventually fail. One day a pail into the levee will be one pail too many, and the structure will burst.
Levees and Frozen (Yes, that Frozen)
As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of the movie Frozen. Well, really, I couldn’t help think of the fantastic HISHE follow up to Frozen, which picks up as the king troll guy is helping to heal Anna and explain how Elsa can stay safe.
Troll Guy: “…fear will be your enemy.”
Father: “So… you’re saying we should lock her up alone in a castle until she’s safe to be around.”
Troll Guy: “What?! That’s not what I said. That’s a terrible idea. No.”
Father: “So… you’re saying we should teach her to be scared of herself.”
Troll Guy: “Are you even listening? I just said fear is her enemy.”
Mother: “So… you’re saying to teach her to bundle all her feelings up till she gets this freedom complex, and wait and see if she gets over this whole powers thing?”
Troll Guy: “Oh, wow, you guys are bad parents. No, I’m not saying to do any of those things.”
Father: “So… you’re say-“
Troll Guy: “Stop saying ‘So… ‘! Every time you say that you say the wrong thing.”
Mother: “Conceal, don’t feel?”
Troll Guy: “Oh my gosh, the answer is love! Okay? Wow… Love thaws, pure love heals.”
The leap that Elsa’s parents make from what the Troll Guy says to what they hear is, frankly, nuts (and they end up doing all of these things in the movie, which is precisely what HISHE is poking fun at). We forgive them because, hey, it’s Disney, but no one would ever suggest you pull a Frozen in real life to protect your mutant child (that’s what Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is for!).
(Side note, Frozen is terribly overrated. Where’s the love for Tangled?)
And yet, that’s exactly what the author of the levee parable has done with Mormonism. As she tries to teach others know how to reconcile new, negative information with their personal testimonies, she makes these leaps from what Church leaders say to what she hears that don’t make sense. I feel like it would play out something like this:
Elder Neil L. Andersen: “…the negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior.”
Levee Person: “So… you’re saying that when faced with troubling doubts, I should just flood myself with other activities so that I have literally no time to think about them.”
Elder Andersen: “What?! That’s not what I said. That’s a terrible idea. No.”
Levee Person: “So… you’re saying to block out any negative information I hear?”
Elder Andersen: “Are you even listening? I just negative information is going to increase.”
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf: “Don’t worry, Neil, I got this.”
Elder Andersen: “Thanks, Dieter.”
Levee Person: “So… you’re saying to just stifle my questions, live in denial, and pretend like everything is just fine.”
Elder Uchtdorf: “Not at all! It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Elder Andersen: “That was nice, Dieter.”
Elder Uchtdorf: “Thanks, Neil.”
Elder Uchtdorf: “Dairy Queen?”
Elder Andersen: “Dairy Queen.”
When written out like that, the leap that the author makes look a little, well, nuts. I don’t doubt that some people do this – live in denial or become hyper-religious to compensate – but it’s unfortunate, it’s unhealthy, and it’s also what Elder Uchtdorf would call “living below your privileges“. As sons and daughters of God, each of us is entitled to our own answers and divine reassurances. As Elder Uchtdorf teaches, out of the sandy soil of uncertainty can still blossom a vibrant faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this “levee philosophy” is neither a good idea nor is it advocated by anyone in a position to do any advocating.
So where does that leave us?
Oh, that’s right! Wanting to die.
Fighting Off Disease
It was 2007, and I was crumpled over the toilet in my Honolulu apartment. It was sometime between 2am and 4am, and I was hurling for what must have been the 17th or 18th time that night (I guess “dry heaving” might be a more accurate description of what I was doing at that point). I wasn’t cursing God, but if I remember right, I was pretty upset with Him at the moment.
(Because that makes all kinds of sense.)
It was my first (and only, thankfully) instance of food poisoning. My life has otherwise been free of the kind of trauma you experience as your body defends itself by violently expelling all foreign matter, benign or not.
I still get sick, though, from time to time. For example, just a few months ago, a routine dentist visit found a small gum infection, and my dentist prescribed some antibiotics specifically designed to target those kinds of ailments. Those antibiotics, like most prescriptions, had some unpleasant side effects, and after a few days I found part of myself wanting to just keep the gum infection and flush the rest of my pills down the toilet I was spending so much time with.
(I’m trying to be delicate here.)
But even avoiding sickness has been painful at times! For example, two little girls joined our family just three weeks ago. To prepare for their arrival, my wife and I got flu and Tdap vaccinations. The shot itself wasn’t all that bad, but the sore arm afterwards was quite unpleasant.
Why devote so much space to these three stories? I do that because each of these stories represent what I think is a better alternative to living in denial as suggested by the levee philosophy, a philosophy that ultimately ends in a levee breach.
We all have some level of spiritual health. Just like we need to exercise and eat right in order to maintain our physical health, we keep spiritually healthy by doing the basics – reading the scriptures, praying, renewing our covenants, and repenting.
Occasionally, though, and despite how well we keep up with the basics, we get sick. We doubt.
Only once or twice have I been spiritually “food poisoned”. With perhaps the purest of intentions, well-meaning friends have exposed me to the most virulent, acrimonious material about the Church and it’s leaders. I remember how this material tried to manipulate me (from the title screen where the word “Mormon” started oozing to the utter misrepresentations of what past leaders have said or done), and I remember how it made me feel.
It’s only taken a time or two to realize that I’m not interested in that kind of experience. As I expand my horizons or learn more about my faith, I’ll look elsewhere. If I’m not careful about what I put into my spiritual body, a case of spiritual food poisoning may turn much more serious.
Getting Sick and Taking Antibiotics
Wanting to avoid food poisoning doesn’t mean I cordon myself off from the world, and living in the world means getting exposed to different things. Sometimes I learn things about the Church or Church leaders that make me uncomfortable. Perhaps what I learn doesn’t line up with what I believe. In the words of this parable, I get “sick”. I experience doubt.
But I don’t live in denial. I don’t add more water behind the levee. I take antibiotics.
Even then, there are side effects. The study and learning I’ll engage in after being exposed can be eye-opening and difficult. Perhaps, like Enos, I wrestle before God. Perhaps, like Alma, I have my soul harrowed up. It’s not at all easy, but what helps me make my way through it successfully is the partner I take in my struggles, and the doctor I go to for prescriptions.
For some diseases, it makes sense to get a vaccination. Before I hear something from a detractor – with oozing font and all – I’ll read essays or books from more reputable scholars.
In a post the other day I mentioned reading Massacre at Mountain Meadows. It was an intensely fascinating historical account of early pioneer Utah, and I learned a great deal about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a terrible, horrific event in the history of the LDS Church. In a sense, I’ve been vaccinated against false accusations about that terrible event, and many of the common anti-Mormon claims about Mountain Meadows and Brigham Young roll off me like water on nylon.
Therein lies the strength of getting “vaccinated”. As I study things outside of the correlated material provided by the Church, yet still scholarly and academically sound, I learn things before detractors get a chance to shock me into feeling (legitimately or otherwise) betrayed. Like medication taken after the fact, it can still come with some measure of discomfort, but preventative measures are preferable to fighting a full-fledged infection.
Faith crises are hard. Unfortunately, they are not unique to a small sliver of the human family.
Not everyone comes out of their crisis like I have. Many come out like my friend did, choosing to distance themselves to some degree from the Church. With current technology it is easier than ever for them to find each other, and to criticize the “patronizing” responses (like mine) of those who made it through their crisis with their faith intact (like I did).
I don’t mean to be patronizing. I only mean to share my experiences. I’ve learned the very same things that trouble others right out of the Church, sometimes from the very same sources, but I still believe. It’s not because my levee still enables my denial. It’s because I’ve confronted those issues with faith in God, confident in the witnesses that I’ve received.
I can accept that leavetaking is a choice that many make – and they absolutely have the right to make that choice – but I don’t endorse it as legitimate. I’m not going to validate that it was a good choice, or the right choice, only that it was their choice. To a believer like me, leaving the Church means leaving behind tremendous blessings, and for better or for worse I find that profoundly sad.
As a member of the Church who still believes in the Restoration of the gospel, I think that there’s a better way. I’m familiar with it because I’ve come through it. It doesn’t mean I don’t get sick. It doesn’t mean I don’t get uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean I don’t doubt. It does change to whom I turn when I start to feel concerned. It’s not to denial, nor to dubious Mormon Stories. It’s to the Savior, as I doubt my doubts before I doubt my faith.