I spent a lot of time with my parents recently. Every time I was talking with them, I wondered if it would be the moment that I would tell them I no longer believe the things they taught me growing up. How do you tell something like that to the people responsible for all the good you have in your life? How would they react?
My father has never been very vocal. I may have heard him one time affirm his faith in a public setting. I’ve sometimes wondered if he fully believes everything. Some things, like tithing, he’s always seemed fully committed to. Other things, like attending church regularly, seem like they’ve been hit or miss over the years. I figure if either of my parents would be willing to entertain my disbelief, it would be my father.
My mother wasn’t a particularly strong member of the church when I was growing up. She always claimed to believe, but she didn’t seem to have a personal conviction. She often expressed doubts about whether God really loved her, and together with my father would skip church some Sundays. Never too many in a row, but it didn’t seem to me that church was a priority for them. About the time I left for my mission, though, something happened to her faith, and since that time she has been ultra-religious. She attends church regularly, totes her scriptures around practically everywhere she goes, it seems, and is constantly introducing religious discussions at family events and in private conversations. I don’t know how many times she’s attended BYU’s Education Week, but after each time, we tend to try to avoid her because we know we’re going to get an earful.
On a personal level, it seems my father may feel a bit estranged spiritually, while my mother seems fully immersed. My father has been through a lot of personal trials, and may be asking himself why God hasn’t been there for him more. My mother has witnessed those same trials, and knows that she only needs to get closer to God to receive the help she desires. So how would I begin a conversation about my evolving beliefs?
Talk to my father? It seems we’ve had half a dozen heart-to-heart conversations in my life, if I can even claim that many. I don’t really feel that he’s approachable as a general rule. In this case, however, he may be a better option than my mother, who would no doubt freak out if she learned I no longer believe. Of her six children, I have probably been the most faithful, the one who strayed the least, the one who she would never suspect would leave the church. She has often told me how my strength in the church as a teenager inspired her to be a better person. How could I tell her I’m leaving it?
So each day passed without me mentioning a word of my beliefs.
Several times my mother and I got into conversations about faith. Each time, I responded in a rather bland way, like “Well, doesn’t the church teach … ?” Only occasionally did I say something that could possibly be construed as coming from a non-believer, but each time in such a way that it could be seen as being the Devil’s Advocate rather than that I shared the opinion.
And so the days passed. And I went back to my life.
Then last Sunday, my sister said to me, “So, you wanna talk about it?”
This was not the sister that I had already told, so I said, “Oh, did you talk with your sister? Did she already tell you?”
“Well, then, do I wanna talk about what?”
“You can’t get off that easily. If she gets to know, then I get to know, too.”
So I told her. She was understanding and cautiously curious. She has spent just about every day this past week researching the things I told her about online. It seems like every day she sends me another text or email: “Did you know that … ?” and I say, “Yes, and even that’s not quite the full story. What do you think about … ?”
On Monday my parents left. Around noon my wife texted me: “Your mother asked why you weren’t going to church.”
I had stayed home from church to help them get packed up and ready for their journey. I didn’t think she’d ask about a one day absence. “Uh oh. Did you tell her?”
Okay. Well, that’s actually a pretty good way for her to find out. It turns out she had overheard one of my sister’s daughters telling my sister-in-law that I wasn’t going to church anymore. She didn’t believe it, and so asked my wife, who was helping them get out the door while I was at work. My wife explained the situation to her, and told her that she shouldn’t worry about it, that it didn’t bother my wife, and that I should be free to do my own thing. My wife is pretty amazing that way, don’t you think?
So my mother called me later that afternoon. We talked for about an hour, and overall, I thought it went pretty well. She was sad. She told me I was wrong. But she didn’t try to argue with me. She just said she’d pray that I’d get struck dumb like the son of Alma, and see an angel. Then she told me she loved me, that she’d always love me, and hung up.
I was really impressed. I didn’t think it would be so easy. And it wasn’t.
She emailed me a bunch of questions later that night. What purpose can you possibly have now? How can you say the earth just sprang into being? How will you not be a misanthropic alcoholic adulterer now? I emailed a response the next day.
She called me the next day. We argued for about two hours. She is convinced that I allowed lies from the internet to poison my mind against the church. She doesn’t believe any of the things I bring up about the church. And she says, even if it were true, she would still believe the church is true. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to just throw up my hands, say, you know, we’ll never see eye to eye on this, so why bother, and hang up. But you don’t hang up on your mother. You peacefully listen and reasonably present what you believe.
In the end, she again affirmed that she loves me, that she would continue to love me no matter what, and that she’d pray that Jesus or Joseph or my dead grandfather would appear to me and set me straight. I told her that if they did, I’d for sure talk with them and revise my beliefs according to any new information they could give me.
She told me that she’s sorrowful for my lost soul. I didn’t say it, but I am, too. I’m sorry that I’ve been blinded for so many years by the lies that led me to believe the church is true. I’m sorry that it will probably yet take years and years more before I am truly out of its influence, if indeed I ever really can be. I’m sorry that I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. I’m sorry that I handed my identity over to this church that can’t deliver on its promises, so that now I don’t even know what I want in life. I’m sorry I was so wrapped up in working for the things that the church said were important and avoiding the things the church said were bad that I don’t even know what I like and what I don’t like.
I’m sorry. About so many things. And sorry, too, that I shouldn’t be sorry. Sorry that my life is so great that my biggest sadness is that I believed a lie for so many years. Other lives are worse. I could have been born with a physical or mental handicap. I could have been born in poverty or disease or desolation. But my life is great. Part of that, too, is because of the church, not in spite of it. And I’m sorry that I feel so enraged at what has, on the whole, been a positive force in my life. How do I approach life now? How do I look at my past? What do I look for in my future? What do I want? Who can I be? Am I trapped? Or is there a way out of Mormonism? And if I can get out, is the world only worse?
I really am lost right now.