This week, a woman took her own life. I don’t know her, but she travels in some of the same circles I do, and it’s given me pause. While I didn’t ever talk to her, this event is incredibly heartbreaking to me. I can’t tell you all the details of her story because I don’t know them. I won’t even say her name or give any more information because this story isn’t mine to tell and there are real people affected by this. What I can say is that this woman had experienced a faith transition and was in an unexpected and unplanned for mixed-faith marriage. This cuts me to the core and hits so close to home because, you see, I am also in a mixed-faith marriage. My husband is still a believer (though quite nuanced) in the truth claims of Mormonism while I am not.
This is the first time I have really come out and said this in any open forum. I’ve hinted. I’ve danced around it. I’ve even been quite bold in some of the statements I’ve made. But, I’ve never been completely transparent about this. I don’t owe this information to anyone, really. Faith and how a person relates to it is quite private and personal. While I’m nervous to publish this, I find myself compelled to do so. For no other reason than the fact that I have come to believe that silence can be deadly. I know this woman’s battle. I know what she fought, can imagine how she felt and understand what would cause such a deep and cutting tragedy. Because I’ve been there.
There is a incredible shame in religious community associated with “losing one’s faith.” It is seen as an act that only happens to the lazy, the unmotivated, the weak. You haven’t tried hard enough. You didn’t study enough. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is a narrative that hurts people, and it is deeply unfair. Until you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you really do not understand. (And, if you ever do, I’ll be the first one to step on that path with you because it’s incredibly lonely to walk alone.)
I’m in a good place right now. We spent many months redefining our marriage, but I know this woman’s pain. My daughter had surgery in July and was given a too-generous dose of hydrocodone. I made her flush it as soon as her pain was manageable, partly because I was concerned about its addictive nature, and partly because I was having way too many days of despair to trust myself with it in my home. This is hard to say out loud. However, it is the reality of a faith transition. When the emotional bottom drops out of your life and your most trusted loved-one feels it as a personal affront, it is devastating. When you would do anything to just go back to the paradigm you had for so long, but you are unable to force yourself to see things in the way that you’re supposed to, and the person you trust the most to hear your innermost thoughts reacts to them with anger and defensiveness and hurt, the fear and loss and heartache are unimaginable.
I am one of the lucky ones. My husband has processed this in a pretty healthy way. We’re differentiating. We’re focusing on the health and well-being of our marriage and family. We’re doing our level best to work as a team and support each other. Many, many families are not this lucky. There is no current narrative in Mormonism that allows for people to step away from the faith with respect, dignity or honesty. (This recent devotional given by Elder and Sister Renlund is a perfect example of how this is still preached in such a harmful way.)
So, why am I talking about this now? I don’t need anyone to respond to this post with sad faces and worry that I’m lost forever. (If you think that and don’t want to have an honest and open conversation with me, please keep the random response to yourself.) I don’t want anyone to glance at my husband and feel sorry that he has to be stuck with me. (Even now, I think he’s happy to be married to me most days.) I don’t intend to start proselyting anyone with my thoughts or beliefs outside this blog (which any of you can choose not to read.) If we meet in person, I’ll talk about the same benign things I always have – my kids, schooling, what’s going on in your life, what we may have in common. However, what I do want is that this woman and others like her will not die in vain. I hope that what I have to say will strike a chord and that it might, in some small measure, change the way that you interact with the people like me in your life. If you hold callings and leadership positions, I hope that you will choose to support the families in your congregation wherever they may fall and not make them the punching bags of a dogma that is long due for reform. I hope that feeling crushed to death by abandonment, public punishment and shame becomes the exception in our communities rather than the rule. I believe that it’s what Jesus would want.
Finally, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I did not lose my faith because I couldn’t hack what we went through this last year. I experienced my faith transition due to extensive and intense study of church history via primary source records about two years ago – a good year before the details of our story became public. The two events weren’t really related in any significant way. I likely would have attended as a silent non-believer indefinitely had there not been extenuating circumstances, and none of you would have been the wiser. (I would put money on the fact that there’s people in your congregation right now that are doing so.) I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m not out to drag anyone down. (I would actually prefer not to share the specific details of what I’ve studied because I have no desire to complicate other people’s lives.)
In life, one of the most consistent expectations we can have is that it will change. We can not always control how things change, as much as we try. There is a deep unfairness in putting people in a box where there is an intolerance for natural change. As the foundational building block of society, I believe that there should be no institution that should get a higher priority than the family and that its destruction ultimately undermines the strength of everything, including our churches. While it may not always be possible to be helpful in every situation, I think we can all make a commitment to be the change we wish to see in the world. To borrow a medical term, every one of us, in any faith, any community we may travel in, can first, do no harm. We do not have to continue to make this experience so painful that people choose to end their lives rather than walk through it. People are going to walk through it. Put down the stones and take their hands.