I definitely don't have it all figured out. In fact, I think I have very little figured out. I am only one third of the way through life, so I still have a long way to go and a whole lot to learn. But lately I have been trying to figure a few things out. Namely my faith, you could call it a Faith Crisis. (That seems to be the term for it.) In the midst of this crisis I have had a tiny "ah ha" moment.
It all began a few years ago when I started to question a few points of doctrine. I struggled to find answers. I talked to quite a few people that I admire and trust in search of some answers. I always came up short . This became frustrating to me, and I tried to just "put it on the shelf" as I have been told. But when I leave something tucked away on a shelf in the pantry, it tends to get moldy. Which is what happened with these questions. Soon, I was filling "the shelf" with so many questions and concerns I was beginning to wonder if the shelf itself would collapse. After searching the resources, including friends, family and the church's website, I still felt at a loss. I soon found that it was easier to find answers, or at least discussion, about many of my concerns online. As a Mormon we have always been counseled to avoid "anti-Mormon" literature. But the problem I was finding is that it is much easier to learn about these topics on line than from attending Gospel Doctrine and searching the Topical Guide. I have been very careful and deliberate in my studies. I have avoided things that are seeking to tear down the church, or break down my beliefs. But I have also been searching for some answers that I am not finding at church.
Without question, this has been one of the most difficult struggles I have gone through. It has not been easy. And when I hear people talk about those leaving the Church "taking the easy way out" I have to cringe. For anyone who has had a deep, personal Testimony of the Church and it's teaching, there is no such thing as an easy way out. And for those of us who have had that kind of Testimony, we are not searching for a way out. We are searching for a way to stay IN. I have been grateful to see articles, and even some talks from General Conference that are trying to change the way members perceive those who are struggling with their faith in the Church. I know I had always heard that members only leave the Church because they want to sin or they have been offended. But in my experience, this just isn't the case. Because of the struggles that I have been through with my personal crisis of faith, and the deep rooted perception of those who leave, this is a tender topic.
But I want to write about something that I just learned that has given me a small amount of peace in this struggle.
I have been listening to a lot of Brene Brown recently. She is a "shame expert". Meaning; she has extensively studied shame and it's affect on people. In her work, she tries to provide answers and ways for others to overcome their struggles with shame. She believes that shame is born out of the feelings of unworthiness. (Which might be translated to "not good enough") When I first heard this, I thought "well, that doesn't apply to me. I'm worthy." But after careful (and very painful) soul searching, I discovered how much shame I actually carry with me. One of the hard parts of overcoming shame, is finding the root of where it came from. This is not to blame the root, or to make yourself unaccountable for it (that would just increase your shame) it is to understand and overcome it. Most of us learn shame as children, from our families, from our surroundings, and from the media, and our culture. I am sure that the patterns of shame that I have learned were not intentionally taught to me. This isn't a place for me to vent, attack, or deflect. It is a time for me to leave that behind.
We use the phrase "worthy" often in the Church. I think the way we define "worthy" is slightly different than the way Brene defines it relating to shame. But I think the effects are similar. In the LDS Church, "Worthy"is a label that we use to define ourselves. Like most labels, it can be very dangerous. "Worthy" ends up being synonymous with "Good" while unworthy becomes synonymous with "Bad".
"He was worthy to pass the Sacrament on Sunday" = Good
"He was not worthy to go on his mission at 19" = Bad
"She was worthy to get married in the Temple" = Good
"She was not worthy to attend her friends sealing" = Bad
It doesn't take long before we have invisible tally marks next to our name in a contest of good vs bad. Of course none of us wants to be labeled, good or bad. And it doesn't take long before those labels get misconstrued and slanted. Most of the time, when it came to the word "worthiness" at church, I felt pretty good. "I paid my tithing, I am worthy" I associated it with entrance to the Temple. If you are worthy, you are good enough to go to the Temple. But other times I can see how this label gets foggy. "I sinned, and am therefore not worthy to hear the Spirit" I can't count how many times I have heard it taught that when you are living in sin, you can not hear/feel the Spirit. This infuriates me, as ALL of us are living in sin. ALL of us. No matter how "good" or "worthy" you label yourself, you are living in sin. I know this because there was only One man who did not live in sin. And when we attach our worthiness to our ability to feel the love of the Savior, we begin to view ourselves and our Savior in a very damaging light. Suddenly, we see ourselves as "not good enough" for our Redeemer. Or only good enough when we repent. We see the Savior as someone who withholds love. Someone who requires us to "earn" his love. Brene Brown calls this "hustling" for worthiness. We begin to "hustle" for worthiness. Do whatever we can to try to earn it. In the case of the Church, that can mean all sorts of things. That can mean feeling shame about not doing our visiting teaching (oops, just lost a little more worthiness...) It often means making sure others are aware of your "worthiness". Mommy bloggers bragging about their FHE's for approval (yay, feeling a little more worthy already!) The result can be exhaustion from trying to "hustle" for the love of our Savior. When in truth, we believe in Charity; the pure love of Christ. This means no strings attached. This means unconditional love for the simple reason that I am His. But that is a very difficult concept to learn when so much of what we do, and who we are in the Church is labeled with "worthy" or "unworthy".
Some of my deepest shame in the Church came when I was 25 years old. I was a returned missionary and single. In the Young Adult ward I was one of the "old" ones. I felt like I had to "compete" with young (and strangely more desirable) girls. Before my mission, a loved one tried to discourage me from going by voicing his concern about my age. He felt that since I was already 23, by the time I would get back I would be getting too old to get married. Ever since I was a young child, I had looked forward to going to the Temple to be married. In Young Women's many of our lessons revolved around this topic. It was even joked about when some friends went off to BYU that they were going to get their "MRS." (instead of a B.A. or M.D. she was just going to become someone's wife) This is what we grew up with. The end result of all of our years of training in YW's would be the prize husband. So back to me, 25, home from my mission with the words "too old to get married" haunting me, and seeing less and less men my age at church. When getting married is the primary goal, and you are not, shame is bound to occur.
I knew that without a husband I was not "worthy" to enter the Celestial Kingdom. Sure, I could attend the Temple... but I needed a husband to return to live with God. This was a very difficult doctrine for me to accept or understand. I knew that the longer I was not married, the harder it would become to get married (the pickings start getting slim, like I mentioned, there were far fewer single men at church than women). I also knew that the longer I was not married, the bigger failure I would become.
Now, you can argue that this isn't what the Church teaches, or the way that other people felt about me. But shame is learned from perception. When the first question out of everyone's mouth at church is "Are you dating anyone?" you begin to believe that your only value is in your marriage potential. It is difficult to not feel shame in the fact that "you can't get married". Who cares about my career, my hobbies, my interests? The goal is marriage. Anything short of that feels like failure. And failure often leads to the feelings of not good enough.
We can laugh about this now, after many years, so I don't mind sharing a painful illustration of this from when I was 20. It was my older brother's wedding. In that same year, my best friend and three of my siblings would all get married. Have you heard the phrase "always the Bridesmaid never the Bride"? Well, I heard that a lot that year. It is hard enough to lose your best friend and your sisters all at once, but to do it alone was even harder. We were at the reception, and my mom was enjoying taking pictures of my siblings and their new spouses, and new fiance. Of course she was making a big deal. It was a big deal. Love was in the air. At some point, during all of this adorable cuddly picture taking someone points out that my mom has not taken a picture of me. You could see the panic hit her eyes as she thinks But Kate doesn't have a fiance or spouse, how can I take her picture? Quickly looking around she spots a topiary tree for decoration and suggests "Kate, you can just stand with that tree." That was it. My siblings had snuggled up, all lovey-dovey in the arms of the one they love, and me, alone, as an after thought, next to a tree. With tears in my eyes, and a voice in my head I heard loud and clear "not enough". With out a spouse, I was simply not enough. Dont' get me wrong, I loved being single at the time. I like to think I was pretty good at it. I went out with lots of fun different guys. And I knew I wasn't ready to settle down. But that couldn't out weigh the embarrassment of posing with a plant. Luckily my siblings recognized immediately how awful that was for me. And to come to my defense they lightened the mood by making jokes. Thank goodness they were able to turn it into a joke and help me to laugh instead of cry. Even with the laughter, it still wasn't quite enough to cancel out the next 5 years of believing that I would not be enough until I was taking a picture with my husband instead of a shrub.
Fast forward to my 25th Birthday. I was tired of feeling rejected in the Young Adult scene at church. Partly because I was "too old", and partly because most of the guys didn't want to date a return missionary. (It speaks volumes about the guys who are too insecure to date a return missionary...) I was frustrated because I felt like I was a pretty cool girl. I felt lovable, and yet confused that I was not being loved. I gave up on Mormon boys and started to date a non member. I loved this. He thought me going on a mission was cool. He liked going out to nice dinners, and buying nice gifts. He wasn't like the boys I heard in Provo who said "I'm not spending money on another guys future wife." (Too cheap to pay for dinner unless he knew he was going to marry the girl) The bottom line, I didn't have to hustle for his attention. The night of my 25th Birthday I cried. He was obviously confused and asked why I would be crying. "I am so old and still single!" He started to laugh, thinking that I was joking, but when he saw that I was sincere he was baffled. "You are only 25! Why on earth would you be married at 25??" I explained how many of my friends and family were already married and with kids at this age. He tenderly put his arm around me and tried his hardest to explain that 25 is young. Very young. And deep down inside I felt him saying "You are enough". After we broke up I was sad, of course, but I had a new belief that I was enough, even at the old age of 25 (wink). I have always been very grateful for his love when I needed it at that time. I am sure I would not have been in the right place (and I mean emotionally) to marry JT if I hadn't learned that lesson first.
Now that I have been happily married to JT for over 10 years, I can scratch that shame off of my list. I no longer feel shame about being three days younger than 26 when we got married. In fact, I enjoy remembering that I had some fun adventures first. But I can see that shame weighing on others as they feel the pain of not being enough because they are not married. As they ask themselves "what's wrong with me?" when we should be asking "what is wrong with this system that we base so much of our individual value on our marital status?"
I am sure there are single adults in the Church who are loving the single life, and not feeling any shame or questioning their worth because of their marital status. I am not trying to blame the Church entirely for the shame I felt. I am a product of my own experiences. This is just one area where I am concerned about the message that may be getting sent. It caused me heart ache, and led me to doubt in my own worthiness and my ability to be "good enough".
WORTHINESS IS FEELING LOVE AND BELONGING
One of the dangers in using "worthy" as a label in the Church is the ways in which we determine and reward it.
Our worthiness is determined by a Bishop. He has a list of questions that determine our individual worthiness to enter the Temple. Once a member has been to the Temple, they begin to wear the Temple garment. For a seasoned member of the Church this is very easy to detect in other members. A few years ago, at Disneyland, I thought it was fun to play "Where's the Mormon?" They were pretty easy to find. It was hot outside and you would see a young, perky, mom, with a stroller and some older kids, probably in matching Mickey shirts, and she would be wearing a really cute, stylish tank top with a cap sleeve shirt underneath and knee length shorts. I was one of them. The modesty that accompanies garments is easy for a fellow Mormon to spot. But so is the perceived lack of modesty that can accompany those members not wearing garments. Just by seeing if a girl is wearing a cap sleeve under her tank top or not is a quick way to measure "worthiness".
Another example, I recently got a nose ring. It is just a tiny piece of jewelry that I have always wanted. I think they are adorable. I have spent years wishing I could get one, but I never did because of a comment from one of our Prophets. He said that women should only have one piercing in the ear and no body piercings. This has become a pretty hot topic. Soon after he said that, you could judge if a girl "followed the Prophet" or not just by counting her earrings. I was convinced that this was doctrine and that it was immodest, and inappropriate to have two piercings in your ears let alone one in your nose. I respect the many stories of how women felt blessed as they followed that counsel. I could never judge anyone else's experience with the Spirit. But as time went on, and I found myself in a position where I viewed some of the teachings differently, this came back to me. I suddenly found myself wondering how relevant this nose piercing actually is to my Savior. I knew that the purpose of the Church is to help us become more Christlike, and I was having a hard time understanding how a second piercing in my ear made me less like Him. Yes, I have heard all of the arguments. That we are defiling our bodies, but that seems flimsy when I think that He would say "one defilement is acceptable, but not two". I have also heard that I don't need to understand it, if the Prophet says it, then I will be blessed for following. I have heard that in order to become Christlike I need to follow all of the counsel of the leaders of the Church. And yet, when I read and I pray, I don't feel that. I don't feel like I am being less Christian by having a sparkly little piercing. I am still charitable, honest, kind, and forgiving. Throughout the New Testament those things seem to be the major attributes of a Christian. None of that changed when I put in this little tiny stud. It could be argued that I am being defiant, or rebellious by disagreeing with the Prophet, and therefore, I am not behaving like a Christian. (Now I am headed towards my questions about what exactly is doctrine? And what is the difference between a Prophet's opinion and counsel and the Word of God? But that is a whole other post. ) To sum it up, this little sparkly in my nose, that is just there for fun, the same way I color my hair blonde and paint my nails pink for fun, can now be a measurement to others of my "worthiness" in the Church. And to many, it is.
One of the pitfalls of having so many physical ways for Mormons to judge other Mormons' worthiness, is that it often leads to the actual judging of fellow members. As if that is anyone else's business. Our so called "worthiness" is between us and the Lord. And yet, on any given Sunday, you can walk into a church and hear one of these mentioned. You can hear the concern as members warn against a second piercing, or condemn the hemlines of a dress. But are these actually the things that make us unworthy? Why do we spend so much time, energy, and breath discussing the things that have the least to do with our actual Christianity. Things that have little interference with our ability to care for the poor and needy and to love our neighbors. Is it because we are obsessed with proving that we are worthy? Are we trying so hard to hustle for the Savior's love and acceptance that we think that one piercing is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and keeps us from being good enough? Or worse, are we trying to hustle for the love and acceptance of our fellow members? I know I was hustling for both.
One of the hardest parts for me about moving to Las Vegas was the timing. Here I am, in the middle of a Faith Crisis, and I move away from my loved ones. Worthiness comes from the feelings of love and belonging, and I left that all behind in Washington. In some ways it has been good to face this trial alone, in a new city, where I don't need to worry about my friends and family being disappointed in me. There is a freedom in moving to a new place to get a fresh start. But for me, I didn't know what I wanted the fresh start to be.
We moved here, not knowing whether or not we wanted to stay active in the Church. But, like I mentioned before, during this Crisis I have not been looking for a way out, I have been desperately trying to see if there is a way for me to stay in. (Trust me, if I was simply looking for a way out, moving out of state would have been it.) So we decided to go to Church. But I tried to stay on the out skirts. Since I was still in a place where I didn't know what my Testimony was, I did not want to be in a position where I needed to have one. I have always loved working with youth in the Church, and it was painful for me to come here and say that I can't teach them. I know I can't teach something I am not sure I believe. That would be hypocritical and damaging to the youth as well as to myself. But it was like cutting out a small piece of my heart.
I searched my heart to discover why I wanted to continue to go to Church. And I found a few reasons. First, because I still have a few "undeniables", you know, the experiences and Testimonies that you just can't deny. A few things from the Gospel that I don't want to live without. Second, I would stay at church because I had no idea where else to go. Would I want to try to find another religion? Would it be too difficult to cross over to a new faith and a new system of belief? Where do you even begin? Third, in many ways, this is home and I am comfortable here in the Church. I know what to expect. I know the teachings. I know the meetings, the hymns, the routines. I knew that the members could possibly be a support to me during this struggle. I knew that at least my kids would have instant friends with common values. In short, it was easy.
But it wasn't easy. I have struggled to make meaningful friendships at church. I don't blame anyone for that. At first I tried to make excuses why I wasn't finding my place here, but I now know that it is all me. I know that I can make friends easily, I always have. But it has been hard for me to know how to engage. I don't want to appear to be a hypocrite. I don't want to sit at the park with the other moms talking about Temple Night next week, when I have no desire to go to the Temple. I don't know what to say at Girls Night when modesty comes up, and I don't share their passionate views. If I smile and nod, am I consenting that I share this belief? I don't want to do that. But I also don't need to stand up and denounce every thing that I have doubts about either. When I am in Gospel Doctrine and the teacher brings up the Word of Wisdom again (because you can't go a Sunday without it coming up) do I raise my hand and share my two cents, even though I know it will upset and offend some of the people in the room? I don't know where to draw the lines. I don't know how to define myself to strangers.
Listening to Brene Brown was like having a terrible weight lifted. It was suddenly very apparent why I am struggling at church and making meaningful friendships. Meaningful relationships are built on vulnerability. They are built by a shared understanding and sympathy for each other. And that understanding comes as you open up your heart to others. Opening up my heart has never been a scary thing for me. Mostly because I consider myself a lovable person. People usually like me. I am a good friend. I am fun to be around. I have a lot to bring to a friendship, and I know it. But here I am, at church meeting people, and I am in a place where I need to be vulnerable. I need to be myself and open up for people to want to be my friend. But I am also in a place where I know that others may be judging my "worthiness". Say what you want, that we shouldn't be judging each other, or that it isn't actually happening... but I have played "Where's the Mormon". I know it is happening. I wasn't judging to be vindictive or to condemn anyone. I was just noticing garment lines and cap sleeves. But without even realizing it, my noticing those things was also my noticing their "standing" or their "worthiness" in the church. And subconsciously I probably made an assessment based on that.
When I was at home in Washington, I had some very good friends who loved me unconditionally. They listened to my doubts, they knew my struggles, but we already had a deep connection so I knew that they loved me. I never had to wonder if I was enough. I never felt like I had to prove myself to them. When my back was out, they cleaned my dirty toilets out of love. They liked me as much with make up as without. I didn't have to hustle for their love, it was never even a question. I knew that I was enough. But here in Las Vegas, I don't have any of that. And without even realizing it, I let shame and fear creep in. Suddenly I worried about the things I hadn't had to worry about. Things like how big or clean my house is, how old my car is, how successful my husband is, how skinny, or not skinny I look. On top of that, I also had to worry about how strong my Testimony is, what kind of calling I have at church, what everyone would think about JT working Sundays, if they were looking to see if I wear cap sleeves, and how they perceived my worthiness. These are all of the kinds of things that would make people like or dislike me. But since I was unsure of all of those things, I pulled back. I stopped believing that I am good enough. I started to believe that maybe my lack of Mormon "worthiness" would cost me friendships. I didn't trust my own convictions enough to be vulnerable, or even know how to be vulnerable with these strangers.
But I realized today, I am enough. I just am. I don't need to be "temple worthy" to be love worthy. I don't need anyone else's approval or acceptance. The only approval I need is from my Savior. And from the deep, tear filled, painful, heartfelt talks that He and I have had over the past few years, I know I have His love and approval. I know He is pleased with me. To some members they would disagree, believing He could only truly be pleased with me if I kept all of the commandments and obeyed all of the brethren. But I don't believe that.
I think I am ready to give up the hustle. It may be painful at first. Some people who don't know the real me may not understand. And even the people who do know me, but don't know the struggles with faith that I have been going through, may not understand. But worthiness is about believing in myself no matter what anyone else thinks, or understands.
I'm not exactly sure what this more authentic self will look like. I still don't know how to stay IN the church. But I know that I will not worry about any other perceptions of me. I will continue to figure things out, but hopefully, without shame and fear.