I often interact with friends and others who have left the Church. In many respects our thoughts on the Church are frequently quite similar. Yet, I stay and don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. That could change. But I feel like I’ve moved through the rockiest part of my personal faith journey (at least as far as feeling like I have a place in the Church goes). So, here I am. But why? Why does it work for me? (I suppose I could ask why it doesn’t or didn’t work for my friends, but that would involve loads of assumptions, so I’ll stick with analyzing and judging myself, for the moment. And I think it may be more fruitful to look at what about me and how I feel makes it worthwhile to stick around.)
And not only does it work, but it feels easier for me than for loads of others, who feel immense angst about finding their place, constantly. I don’t want to diminish the reality of that pain, I want to understand why I don’t really experience it, so that when I talk with my friends that do I can provide something more concrete that works for me.
After some thinking, I think these are the main reasons (though if you have other insights from conversations we’ve had, scientific observations you’ve made that I am unaware of, reading my writing, intently examining my facebook page, etc. please share):
- Time. Obviously, some of the peace that I feel with where I’m at has come with time. I’ve been at this faith remodel thing pretty intensely for 4+ years (and in some respects a decade), so I’ve got a lot of practice. There were times the first year and a half, two years after my mission and back at BYU were rough. Church was frustrating and kinda empty. I didn’t really get anything out of it. Church has never really been a social place for me (largely because I don’t really like social places), so the social, I’ve-got-friends motivation never held much water for me and likewise, I don’t really need to feel like I have friends at Church, but I do like feeling appreciated or valued in some respect. And developing that feeling of belonging, that I belong here as much as anyone else took some time.
- Individualistic spirit. As long as I can remember I’ve done what I wanted to do regardless of whether anyone else thought it was cool or popular or whatever. All throughout high school and my freshman year at BYU I wore mismatched Converse All Stars. I had long, shaggy hair. I’ve had a mustache, or beard, for almost 3 years now (which many people hate with a passion, which given my contrarian streak, only makes me more determined to keep it). Anyway. I don’t really care what other people think. Generally. There are exceptions, obviously, as illustrated by other reasons I feel I’m able to stay and wanting to feel like I belong at Church, though honestly, I lot of that feeling has been developed for me by building a relationship with God where I feel like He/She/They approve of where I’m at, so it doesn’t really matter what other people think.
- Family. Practically my mom’s entire side of the family is active. But that’s not really why I stay. My family, though quite orthodox and conservative, are also smart, well-read people. And my parents taught me growing up that people in charge at Church make mistakes and that some people believe things that they feel are in direct conflict with the Gospel. We had frequent dinner discussions to re-teach and correct what my parents viewed as false doctrine that we’d been taught in seminary or Sunday School. So, the disconnect between culture and doctrine was apparent and it was ok to challenge Church leaders (though typically not apostles and definitely not the prophet, at least not during his tenure as President of the Church). And my brother who I lived with last year and am quite close to is sympathetic to many of the frustrations that Church-going can bring. So that helps.
- Friends. I have quite the supportive group of friends all over the faith and activity spectrum that I’ve gathered, found, created, stumbled upon during my time at BYU. Having people to talk to and share experiences with matters and is incredibly validating. Others seem to struggle to find these people, but I seem to attract them like bees to honey or something, so that’s cool. Again, I don’t really know why or how that works, but they’re great, so all you friends that I chat about Mormon-y stuff with (which is probably close to everyone that is a friend, since that and movies are my two main topics of conversation)—thanks. You’re great. Glad to know you.
- Questions. I began to complicate my beliefs through questions and questions still remain a central part of my learning experience (spiritually and otherwise). I’ve come to value them and the ambiguity and uncertainty they bring over certainty and that valuing (which many see as antithetical to Mormonism) I feel is deeply Mormon—it’s linked with the idea of eternal progression, of constantly growing in our understanding and knowledge. So, I’ve largely let go of certainty and embraced that I don’t know much, if anything because knowledge is more or less beyond our reach. If I can’t know then the chance that I’m wrong isn’t as terrifying and just as I cannot know that I’m right, I can’t know that I’m wrong. The negatives could outweigh the positives and that would be reason to leave, potentially, but embracing uncertainty has made me more forgiving of others opinions and given me (most days) epistemic humility, which I think is quite healthy. This has also helped me be pretty comfortable with disagreement (that and being a liberal at BYU and at my family reunions…) and expressing that disagreement in what I think is usually a non-confrontational way that can be productive for me and them and others that are around.
- Provo. Somewhat surprisingly, Provo has been a godsend. Yes, it can be suffocating and terrible and driving the past couple of days as everyone is rushing back has been absolutely miserable. But. There are so many Mormons that the spread of morming is crazy. I doubt I would have found the same sort of supportive, fringe-y, thoughtful, invested people if I wasn’t living in Provo. There’s also loads of people engaged with Mormonism on a professional or semi-professional level that give lectures and do stuff in Provo (and the surrounding area) that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. So, yay for that. And all the people that do cool stuff here—Sunstone, the Maxwell Institute, Pioneer Book, Writ & Vision, etc.
- Humor. Undoubtedly my sense of humor and snarky engagement with Mormonism helps me. Live-tweeting GenConf infused my watching experience with new (and spiritual!) life that I never knew could be had. Humor helps keep me entertained, but also humble. I know that stuff is ridiculous and weird and peculiar, as it were. But I love that. If there’s people next to me that’ll appreciate it I share snarky comments with them. Sometimes I tweet them instead, if I don’t want to ruin the different spiritual experiences of those near me.
Perhaps my life and personality has been and continues to be a perfect storm for being a fringe-y, yet invested and active Mormon. I don’t know. Maybe it just isn’t that way for others. Perhaps what’s worked for me, could work for you. Also, you should definitely bring fruit snacks. And goldfish. Because then, even if it’s terrible at least you have some food with you. That’s how I strive to be childlike anyway…