Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” My exit from the LDS church five years ago was far from graceful, and with hindsight I understand it better now than when I lived it. Here are some lessons I learned backwards for those who are living their transition forwards.
Be patient with your LDS loved ones. Transitions take time. You, and most likely your LDS loved ones, are adjusting to a big change. If you’re like most, your disillusionment with the LDS church probably happened gradually over several years, not in the blink of an eye. It’s wise not to expect your LDS loved ones to adjust to your new mindset any quicker than you developed it.
Don’t expect them to understand you. Yes, open-mindedness is increasingly being recognized as a virtue, so you might think it’s reasonable to expect that from LDS family and friends. But that probably isn’t realistic because LDS leaders actively discourage members from questioning their faith. This is not a peculiarly LDS phenomenon. For you returned missionaries, ask yourselves how many devoutly religious non-LDS people you met on your mission who were genuinely willing to consider that their religious paradigm was wrong? I bet you can count them on one hand (or less). Of all people, those of us who were once devout Mormons should understand why our devout LDS friends and family can’t and won’t understand us. But fortunately, people don’t have to share the same paradigm to get along. So if you can be kind to each other without understanding each other, consider that a victory.
Don’t take the script personally. Starting with Joseph Smith and ever since, LDS leaders have indoctrinated their members with a host of negative stereotypes and stigmas about those who leave their church. By now those stereotypes and stigmas have been reduced to a predictable script to explain away anyone’s “apostasy”: “[Fill in the blank with apostate’s name] is just lazy, easily offended, prideful, deceived, and/or sinful.” One of the most unpleasant aspects of leaving the LDS church is having someone read that script with your name written in the blank. Although your instinctive reflex will be to take such remarks personally, if you stop and think about it, there’s absolutely nothing personal about it. Zero. Nada. That generic, one-size-fits-all-apostates script has been the same no matter who, when, where, how, or why someone left the church. It will require real patience, but if you can endure the predictable script reading without taking it personally and responding angrily, you’ll be glad you did. In hindsight, nobody is happy about responding angrily no matter how justified that anger felt in the moment.
Communicate in person or by phone, not by email. Everyone knows it’s much easier to abandon civility when communicating in writing rather than in person or by phone. Our relationships with our loved ones should be handled with care, and our communications should come from the heart. We can do that better communicating by voice, rather than by text or email. Email arguments and text wars are where relationships go to die.
Set healthy, respectful boundaries. In close Mormon families, boundaries may be a foreign concept. In a family culture where everybody is used to being in everybody’s business, harmful interference can occur even when motives are pure, and nothing accelerates the breakup of a marriage more than meddling family members who take sides. So if issues develop between you and your spouse during your faith transition, respectfully ask family members to afford you the same courtesy they would want and expect in the same situation: to leave marital issues to the married couple to resolve.
Accept that sometimes life just really sucks. It sounds funny, but it’s true. Everybody gets hardships thrown their way in life, and no transition occurs without growing pains. The sooner you can accept that fact, the less time and energy you’ll waste agonizing about it. During this transition process you’re going to experience things that aren’t right, aren’t fair, and that you don’t deserve. It won’t make you feel any better to hear this, but that’s life. If you were born in a developed country in a safe community with good schools and doctors, life has already been unfair to you in the most generous ways. So buckle down and accept the bumpy road ahead, because only fairy tale characters live “happily ever after”.
Don’t forget they’re called “growing pains” for a reason. Like most people, I always imagined heaven as a place without pain. So I was shocked when I heard a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, say that that a world without suffering would not be heaven to him. He explained that our suffering is the root of our compassion. It is our suffering that enables us to empathize with those who suffer. Hanh said developing compassion has been one of the most beautiful and meaningful aspects of his life, and that he would rather live in a world with pain and compassion than in a world without them. One of the silver linings you may not yet see is that every ounce of pain you experience during your transition will become an ounce of compassion in your heart. Suffering will make you a gentler, kinder, warmer, less-judgmental, more loving, and more compassionate person. And in reward, you’ll get to be that better person for the rest of your life.
Remember that time heals. As grateful as you’ll be for your growing pains in hindsight, you’ll also be glad when they’re over. In my experience, and in the experience of many others I’ve observed, the passage of time alone brings growth and healing. As you gradually achieve growth, your growing pains fade away. Although you may experience intense difficulties for a year or two, know that the difficulties won’t last forever.
Consider taking a break from trauma-filled online fora. Having a listening ear can help you through your transition, but there are better ways than others to get that. During my transition, I was able to lean on a couple friends who had left the LDS church, and talking to them was very helpful. However, I also participated in online fora where thousands of people continuously vented about their traumatic experiences leaving the LDS church. I eventually decided to take a break from those fora, and in hindsight I wish I’d done it sooner because it accelerated the healing process. Immersing yourself in everyone else’s emotional trauma can rip the scabs off your emotional wounds and delay healing. So consider taking a break from it.
Move forward with gratitude and without resentment. There’s an old Buddhist parable about a monk who took a canoe across a river. When he got to the other side of the river, he left the canoe at the water’s edge and continued his journey over land. The lesson is that something useful in one stage of our life’s journey might be an unnecessary burden in a later stage. There are a couple ways to apply that parable to a faith transition. Those of us who chose not to “stay on the Old Ship Zion” left it at the water’s edge because it seemed an unnecessary burden for our next stage in life, but we can still be grateful for the role it played in our lives when it seemed useful. For those with fresh wounds, it‘s probably too soon to feel that gratitude. In that case, it might be useful to think of the canoe as the disillusionment, sadness, and/or anger that has accompanied your faith transition. It happened. It was a part of your journey. But you don’t need or want to carry all that negative emotion with you for the rest of your life. So if you can, make a conscious decision to leave it at the water’s edge. Leaving it behind mentally and emotionally will be a gradual process, but it helps to start by making a conscious decision to do it.
Find your passion and dive into it. When you’re experiencing disillusionment, loss, and pain, it’s difficult not to feel like life is crumbling around you. And when so much of what you’re dealing with seems outside your control, you can feel helpless. To combat that sense of your life situation, you have to summon every last ounce of willpower to invest yourself in something productive, creative, or rejuvenating. Start a new exercise routine, join a meditation group, do weekly volunteer service, take dance or yoga classes, build or paint something, start a book club, find a new hobby, or dust off an old one and fall in love with it again. The best way to brighten your life is to live it more. So if you feel like you’re in survival mode, hibernating in self-imposed social isolation, force yourself to get out there and live more. It’s your life, and nobody can stop you from making it better and brighter than ever.
What about your faith transition have you understood backwards? Share your insights by commenting below.