In the world, but not of the world

Today I had two "in the world, but not of the world" experiences.

First I found myself at General Conference (I went with my family). I blended in. I hummed along without thinking. I had to restrain myself from raising my arm during the sustaining votes (it's still such an automatic response!). Beforehand I wondered if I'd be angered, or inspired (in spite of myself). Instead -- I was mostly just bored. It seemed like two hours of mush that boiled down to...largely underwhelming platitudes. Through it all, I noticed the contrast in my feelings: externally comfortable, internally disconnected. It was like visiting a former home now inhabited by strangers.

Then, in the evening, I joined up with some friends at a bar. In contrast to the earlier experience, I did not blend in (most girls at the bar were decked out for a night on the town, while I wore no jewelry or make-up and a rather frumpy outfit). Initially I had a burst of extroverted animation, but as the night progressed I found myself forcing interest in drinking stories I couldn't relate to, increasingly exhausted by my efforts to make small talk. I was conscious of my awkwardness, ashamed by my vulnerability. I felt neither externally nor internally comfortable.

Somehow these two experiences remind me of a rebroadcasted This American Life show I just heard for the first time. The story was about two grown women who learned - in their 40's - that they had been switched at birth. The revelation helped explain why both girls seemed so different from the families in which they were raised; but rather than resolve the dissonance, it exacerbated their feelings of disconnectedness. The knowledge seemed to make both women feel separated - not only from one family, but from two.

Similarly, I feel so disjointed. I am connected to the non-Mormon world by values and pursuits; and I am connected to the Mormon world by language, understanding and long-ingrained habits (e.g. modesty). Yet rather than feel at home with one group or the other - I just feel out-of-place with both. I feel like a refugee and an imposter. And I feel sad.

Responding to Questions

(NOTE: This is the latest post from my main blog, "Storms are Brewin in My Eyes". Like many others in Outer Blogness, I have been gradually moving away from a focus on Mormon-specific themes. For those interested in more posts like this, I invite you to check in at my other blog from time to time since that's where I'm doing most of my posting these days.)

One of my favorite opportunities when I was LDS was that of teaching a Sunday School class especially for teachers - "Teaching: No Greater Call". The course, aimed to help instructors better understand and fulfill their opportunities to "teach", also helped awaken in me a passion for understanding teaching/learning that continues to this day (as a student of the psychology of learning).

I was especially intrigued by one of the lessons I taught in that course - the idea that a teacher should respond to questions asked by asking more questions. A good teacher, I learned, does not provide the answers - but rather supports students in discovering the answers for themselves.

I have found that approach helpful not only in classroom settings, but in my personal life. My first therapist, for example, consistently used this approach. She responded to my questions with answers about 1% of the time; the other 99% of the time she encouraged me to dig deeper and do the work to figure out my own thoughts and feelings. The result was a sense of empowerment. I thrilled at the opportunity to know myself and appreciated the responsibility that came with assuming ownership over my personal morality.

Recently I heard a story about which I've continued to reflect:
A child raised by a Catholic mother and a Protestant father was schooled in the Catholic tradition. One day in 2nd grade, her teacher (a nun) explained to the class that Protestants would not be going to Heaven. The child was understandably distraught, and ran home as quickly as possible at the end of the day. When she told her mother what had happened, she asked her mom if the nun was correct.

"What do you think?" the mother asked.

"I think she was wrong," the child said.

"Why do you think the nun would have said that?" the mother asked.

After thinking a bit, the child responded, "Because she doesn't know Father."

The mother hugged her child and said, "You're a very smart little girl. I'm proud of you."
How might her mother have responded? She could have said something like, "That's just the way things are," or "I don't understand everything, but I trust God will sort things out." But no - instead she took the opportunity first to encourage her child to look inward, and second to support her child in trusting her own intuition. What I find most interesting about the story is that the child grew up and chose to become a Catholic nun (Sister Joan Chittister). It seems to me that this kind of "trust your gut" response helped the girl to gain the confidence necessary to walk her own path within a wider realm of religious practice. From what I understand, Sister Chittister has been a great feminist leader who has done much good in and out of Catholicism, not afraid to trust her gut and push the boundaries.   

While our society tends to function with a top-down approach, I think a top-down approach in teaching can really miss the mark and deprive individuals of rich opportunities for growth and development. I think it is so important to teach children how to search and wrestle for answers rather than simply accept what is handed down from the top. Which is exactly the message of one of my favorite quotes:
"A fundamental change is required from teaching strategies in which authorities bring information and knowledge to students to strategies in which individuals are responsible for obtaining and shaping knowledge for themselves." -A Roadmap for Educational Technology, 2010
It is my hope and belief that as we engage children in searching for rather than knowing answers, they will be more likely to enjoy and take responsibility for their learning.

On the Consumption of Women

I was reading Sunday in Outer Blogness and learned of the recent debate about "The Apple Tree" analogy. I was appalled, and also relieved that none of my Mormon FB friends had passed this along (to my knowledge).

I couldn't help but think of a poem I wrote when I first stopped going to church in early 2009. Originally posted here. At the time, I felt trapped by Mormon gender roles. This poem captures my earliest attempts to question the women-as-commodity mindset.
The Orchard

In the rancid sweet I smell it -
WASTE. And for what!

The evidence is there for all to see:
Shady grasses littered with pits half-naked,
half-clothed in fruit flesh
oozing and bleeding, smashed
like a hundred broken hearts.

I pay homage in my mind to the fruit.
Once it clung determinedly among the branches,
withstood each enticing, tugging tendril of wind,
persisted amidst the nibblings of lustful enemies.

Each fruit was once the jealous guardian of her own future,
willing with all might against premature plucking.

Time passed and the fruit became ripe,
some overly so.
Skins once bright and taut began to wrinkle and spot.
Stems pulled against branches with unnatural heaviness...

The fruit fell.

Some blame the harvesters that never came,
or came too late,
but as I mourn so much goodness wasted!
I begin to hate
the orchard.

Book of Mormon: The Musical

While in New York, Dave and I saw the Book of Mormon musical. We both had a good time and I'm really glad we went. We really liked several of the songs and have had them stuck in our heads ever since. Some of them seem almost Road Show-esque, reminiscent of the self-deprecating humor of Mormonism (eg., "I Believe"). Others are vulgar and outrageous, not necessarily to my taste, but fitting the ironic style of the producers (humor in irreverence).

I would not recommend the show to my Mormon friends and family, and these are the reasons why [spoiler alert]:

1) Obscenity - there's lots of it.
2) Blasphemy - the whole plot is centered around making light of what some consider sacred.
3) Inaccuracy - I couldn't help but notice every inaccurate detail, and I think this might bug a lot of LDS church members (for example, the missionaries in the play were not assigned destinations until after 3 months in the MTC)
4) Non-representative main character - one of the protagonists is also a compulsive liar, and I think some would question the relevance of couching his story in a Mormon context (since I think I can safely say that most missionaries are not compulsive liars).
5) Criticism of Mormon Culture - in my experience, Mormons are quick to make fun of themselves, but irked when the jokes come from outsiders.
6) Criticism of Mormon Theology - I believe this would be disheartening to Mormons, and considered as casting pearls before swine.

Any one of the above reasons would have been enough to put me off only three years ago. Yet, as an ex-Mormon, I found the production to be meaningful and thought-provoking. And these are my reasons why:

1) The protagonist was relevant as a type of Joseph Smith.

2) I believe in the validity and value of multiple perspectives.
We can talk until we're blue in the face about how we want people to see us. But at the end of the day, how others perceive us is out of our hands.

The Book of Mormon musical does not portray Mormons how they see themselves and it definitely does not portray them how they want to be seen. Instead, it is a portrayal by outsiders of how they see Mormons. Regardless of its favorableness, it is a valid perspective (if it weren't, the LDS church wouldn't concern itself with public relations).

And that's also why semantics and accurate details (see #3 above) are not critical to the success of the production - it's an extended Mormon joke, not a documentary.

3) Through humor and caricature, the musical identifies several real issues that exist in Mormonism. These include:
*ethnocentric dogma
*familial/social pressure to conform/achieve
*excessive and/or misplaced guilt
*disconnect between teachings/practices
*cognitive dissonance
*emotional repression
*sexual repression
*environment that claims to promote humility but rewards charm, charisma, and leadership

I do not think any of these issues is unique to Mormonism, but I do think they deserve attention within the Mormon context.

Overall, I think the producers did a fantastic job. They provided a valid perspective, using comedy to provide meaningful insights. The story is not my favorite, but it was an appropriate metaphor. I didn't love the obscenity and vulgarity, but the music/lyrics are fantastic and I will be acquiring the sheet music sometime soon.

The End (of a chapter)

It came in the mail today: I'm out!

"This letter is to notify you that, in accordance with your request, your name has been removed from the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

Feels GREAT.

"So I be written in the Book of Love. I do not care about that Book Above. Erase my name, or write it as you will. So I be written in the Book of Love."
— Omar Khayyám

Follow-up: My Exit

Well, as I should have expected, my exit process is not yet complete. I think I'd heard before that there's some mandatory waiting period (mandatory, that is, if you haven't specifically asked for the process to be expedited. Whoops.). So I didn't get my "diploma" by my 30th birthday. Instead, though, the bishop I met with sent me a letter to acknowledge the process. I thought that was nice.

Too lazy to scan right now, but here's the text:
Dear Sister Simplysarah,
Re: Request for Name Removal

Following your request for your name removal from the records of The CoJCoLDS we met to discuss your decision. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings concerning your membership.

We acknowledge your request for name removal and your request is being acted upon.

Thank you for your years of dedicated teaching and the good that you have done in service to others. Thank you also for the pleasant interview we had. We part as friends and we wish you the best in your future endeavors.

Sincerely,
Bishop
I bolded the last part, because it meant a lot to me that he would acknowledge and thank me for my years of service. I really did give a lot.

In other news, I've decided to try again to post on my old (original) blog - for Mormons & non-Mormons alike. I've just deactivated the comment feature to avoid public debates about my life choices. Feel free to stop by.

"Diverging Wills"

I read this Church News article right before bed last night, and then found myself too upset to sleep. I'm pretty sure it was written by some well-intentioned but idealistic, ignorant kid who is a lifelong Utah Mormon. Not only does the author not have a clue about the hearts of apostates, who leave for MANY reasons, she also describes the pre-Mormon lives of new converts as "empty." Just, wow.

There is a laughable disclaimer at the end, "Please don't use this as an excuse to judge others." That makes about as much sense as saying, "I will show you how to judge," and then following it up with, "But judge not, lest ye also be judged."

Oh wait, that's already been done.

Anyway, if what was written was presented as a personal opinion, I wouldn't be so pissed off. It's the fact that is is presented in an official LDS publication.

Since I couldn't sleep, I emailed this response to churchnews@desnews.com:

I was recently directed to the article "Diverging Wills" in the April 16th edition of the Church News and found the article to be arrogant, simplistic, and very disappointing in its contrast of a "new believer" and a "once-believer." I believe the Church News can be a force for good, and I am concerned because of the effect articles like these have on earnest, humble readers of the Church News who accept these messages as inspired by God. One such reader is my mother.

I am a once believer and an ex-member, striving to maintain good relationships with family and friends, the vast majority of whom are active and devoted members of the LDS Church. In contrast to what was suggested in this article, my leaving the church has helped me to find greater enjoyment in social connections with these very friends and family. Yet, although my journey out of the church has coincided with a recovery of my emotional health, my family is blinded to this reality because they are taught this cannot be so. They reason to themselves that my happiness is temporary, pleasure-based, and that my life course is on a path to self-destruction. The reality is that I have become happier than ever - and NOT because of indulgence in the "pleasures of the flesh," but because I am learning how to deal appropriately with my emotions and I have greater willingness to follow an internal rather than an external moral compass.

For years, as a devoted and believing member of the Church, I was continually troubled because of my unhappiness. Because of teachings and articles like this one, I believed that my unhappiness could only be explained as due to my pride and selfishness. Thankfully, I finally had the courage to question whether there was more to my misery than those two factors. Through counseling, I was finally able to achieve something that my spiritual life and religious practice could not achieve: I began to like myself and feel hope for my future.

I know there are many people who find that the church helps them to be happy. But others of us do not have the same experience - and it is simply not fair or accurate to make a blanket statement that it is because we "stopped recognizing, appreciating and nurturing the fire of the Spirit," and made selfish and poor choices in our weakened state. How naive! How offensive! What a lack of empathy and understanding!

Please have compassion on us and on our families! Please help our loved ones who are members to STOP feeling responsible for our salvation. I have had to tell my mother that the more she tries to "bring me back," the less I want to be around her. I want my husband and children and MYSELF to be loved for who we are, not pitied for who we're not.

Please help our families to consider that the happiness of their no-longer-believing loved ones is not an illusion based in carnal pleasures of the flesh. That idea is offensive; it is hurtful. It is untrue. This teaching makes it hard for them to trust their own sense of things. It makes it almost impossible for them to be happy for us when we are happy. Instead, they want to mourn with us when we are NOT mourning.

Please, please think of the impact of your words before publishing them! Please help build bridges with "once believers" by helping members to accept us for who we are.