I would indeed be ungrateful today if I didn’t acknowledge the blessings in my life. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but it’s nonetheless true; I have been reminded again and again in this past, difficult week that I have a lot of good friends. People have reached out to me, checked up on me, reminded me that they loved me. I’ve been asked over and over, are you okay?
And the answer, somewhat surprisingly, is yes. I’m okay. I really am.
And quite honestly, I’m somewhat baffled by it. I’m not saying that I’m not upset or sad or angry, that I’m not deeply troubled by what’s happening. This feels in a very real way like an attack, on me and on people I care about, and worst of all, on children who shouldn’t be in the line of fire in the first place. It’s appalling. I find myself in profound disagreement with what the church is doing.
But I’m not having a breakdown. I know people who’ve been crying for days, who are struggling to function, who feel like the ground has been taken out from under them, who have been shaken to their core. That makes complete sense to me. I think that in addition to making our voices heard, we need to do all we can to be there for people who are really hurting. I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t be feeling that way. I’m just trying to make sense of where I am right now.
And I don’t know how to write this post, because no matter how I frame it, I worry that it’s going to sound like I’m saying I’m more virtuous than those who are struggling more. But I don’t see it that way at all; I’m not sure there’s virtue in feeling less shattered or heartbroken. It might just mean I’m not invested enough; I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s actually an issue of who’s the more virtuous; I think we all react in our own ways for complicated and legitimate reasons.
But I’ve been asked by more than one person, how do you do it? How do you stay? How are you not going completely crazy? I have no clear answers. But I do see some protective factors in my life:
—I don’t have a lot of past church trauma. This might sound odd, coming from a gay, feminist, single Mormon. I’m not saying the church hasn’t been ridiculously hard for me at times; it has. But I think some people have real trauma from their church experiences, especially on the local level, from feeling completely alone and misunderstood and rejected, from being treated horribly and told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t valued or even wanted. I’ve had a taste of that from once in a while having found myself in wards where I felt like I was labeled as a problem, and not seen as a person. It’s incredibly painful. But on the whole, it hasn’t been my experience.
—Related to that, I’ve had a lot of really good experiences with church on the local level, especially in the past decade. I’ve been in wards where I’ve felt accepted and valued, where I’ve had friends, where I haven’t felt afraid to say what I really think. Even as a teenager, I had a good peer group as I moved through Young Women’s, one that was baffled by me and my unorthodoxies, but was fondly accepting of me nonetheless. I know people with horrible scars from their experiences as a youth in the church, who didn’t have anyone who connected with them, who didn’t fit in with their peers. That’s a brutal thing to go through.
—I feel like I have a good support system now. I just moved and I’m in a new ward, so I’m still finding my place there. But I have an awesome online support system of progressive Mormons, I have the bloggernacle, I have friends and family members. It’s enough that I’ve internalized a feeling of belonging in the church—a feeling that I think some people never get.
—I’ve had some pretty stellar priesthood leaders who’ve really been there for me and have left me with no doubt that I’m wanted and valued. As myself, as I actually am. I think that’s also created a certain psychic buffer when I encounter more discouraging messages.
—I have a contrarian personality. This isn’t always a good thing. But there’s a stubborn part of me that says, oh really, you think you can get rid of me that easily. I won’t go. So there. I’m not claiming that’s a noble reason for staying, but I have to admit it’s there.
—I don’t think the church is evil or anything like that, but I don’t have great expectations for it, either. (I’m hesitant to mention this one because so often it gets used as a hammer against people who get hurt, like what’s wrong with them that they expected too much. That’s nuts, because the church itself tells you to have high expectations of it. I’m not sure why I don’t, and I’m not sure it’s even a particularly good thing. I’m lacking in a certain idealism when it comes to religion, I think, and in a way that makes me sad. But there it is.)
—I’m in a lot of therapy. My therapist is not LDS, and doesn’t push me to stay or to leave, but works with me on being healthy mentally and spiritually in whatever decisions I make. I have a place to talk things through and work them out and get support. That’s made a huge difference in my life, in matters relating to the church as well as other things.
—I’ve spent most of my life disagreeing with the church on various issues. That’s required me to construct a way of thinking about my relationship to it that allows for dissent, and that framework is something I can draw on when difficult things come up. I’m used to a lot of dissonance.
—I think the church is simply wrong about certain issues related to gender and sexuality. I’m more or less at peace about that, and I think that makes it easier to reject damaging messages. I find that I’m in more turmoil around things when they connect to my own anxieties and insecurities—of which there are plenty!—than when I feel relatively grounded about them. (If there’s any group of people who I would suspect might be better off out of the church, it’s those who are still working out that grounding and are absorbing damaging messages while they do.)
—I have a testimony. Some people might not believe that because I’m not always that traditional in my beliefs, but I do. I have a basic belief in what I see as core doctrines of the church. I have a relationship with God that’s tied up with the church. I don’t think by any means I would lose that relationship if I left; it’s not contingent on my being LDS. But the church is the framework in which that relationship has played out throughout my life, and that ties me to it. I don’t know why I have such a conviction of the divine, and others really struggle to feel anything spiritual; I can only imagine how difficult it would be to stay without that.
Again, this isn’t meant to pass judgment on anyone, or to advocate for one position over another. I can imagine someone having all of these factors and still deciding to leave, because there are good reasons for doing so. I can also imagine someone staying even though they feel more vulnerable, because there are good reasons for that, too. But I think it’s worth talking about these things, because I’d like to know what helps people weather spiritual storms.
And if there’s one thing I see again and again in my life, it’s that local people really matter. For people who are feeling marginalized and struggling, the way they get treated at church every Sunday can be a dealbreaker. I say that as a message of hope, for those of us who are wondering if we can make a difference when the institutional church seems so far away and sometimes so unwilling to listen. People might still decide to leave, and it might be the right call for them, but they can leave knowing that they’ll be missed and that they matter.
I don’t want to be overconfident; the day may come when I fall apart. From Prop 8 to Kate Kelly to this recent policy change, the last decade has been a challenging one for progressive Mormons, and I suspect we’re not at the end of that ride yet. I don’t know why I’ve had the fortunate circumstances I’ve had thus far. I have great respect for those I know who’ve opted to leave. But I hope above all that when there are spiritual storms, we can feel that we’re not alone in them.