What’s Wrong With the Modesty Message?

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When you’re raised in Mormon culture, you hear a lot of messages about modesty. Modest is hottest!! Just say no to porn shoulders!! This subject has been ruminating on my mind quite a bit and more especially lately because it was brought up in the marriage group I participate in. There are some issues that break on faith lines, but I don’t think this is one of them. I think women tend to be more bothered by this regardless of their level of orthodoxy, but that is most likely merely because they are more aware of it. My own opinions about how modesty is promoted in religious contexts have evolved a lot since I was a teen myself and as my own daughters have grown toward the autonomy of adulthood. So, what IS wrong with the modesty message?

  1. Shouldn’t it be their body, their choice? Although this hasn’t been something that’s been a part of my parenting for the duration, it has evolved over time to become a message that even my youngest children are very familiar with now. Simply put, I don’t own my children. I teach them my values and dialogue with them about pros and cons of potential choices. But, at the end of the day, it IS their body, and it IS their choice. (Seriously, if people ask their name and they don’t want to share it, I don’t. If you try to coerce them to hug you, Mama Bear comes right out.) The modesty message reinforces the idea that body choices don’t belong to the individual, and that’s a problem for me. My kids don’t need to think about who might be looking at and assessing them whether it be me, my husband or their church leaders, friends or neighbors. You can’t be comfortable in your own skin if you’re not sure who’s in charge of it.
  2. It puts all the pressure on girls. I have sat through countless young women’s lessons about dress, decorum and standards. (And, based on what I’ve observed, the boys don’t focus on this. Statistics show that teen girls receive six times as many modesty messages as teen boys.) I’ve seen people sit in front of a classroom and hold up specific people as examples of either what to wear or what not to wear. (Seriously, ewwww.) Modesty is promoted as the idea that we are worth more than an objectified standard (which we are.) However, objectification cuts both ways. When girls hear over and over that they are better without their shoulders showing, that is pretty objectifying. I know girls that have stopped participating in church activity because they’re so tired/bored/annoyed by the one-dimensional nature of this message. In addition, the modesty message suggests that girls need to worry about what boys think, and that if they aren’t careful, they could be responsible for someone else’s poor decision. This is pretty gross to both men and women, frankly. Men are better than that and, if they’re not, the absence of a tank top is certainly not going to inspire them to be decent because it’s a much bigger problem than anyone’s clothing choices.
  3. There is no cultural context. Simply put, modesty means different things to different people in different environments. It is the cultural norm in some countries, for example, for women to be topless to promote bonding and easier access to breastfeeding for their babies. In sharp contrast, Victorian cultures found ankles to be titillating which seems downright ridiculous in our modern era. The only difference is context. I think it is pretty shortsighted to preach modesty as if this context isn’t fluid. It is. (Did you know that the 1964 BYU Homecoming queen wore a sleeveless dress? Yep. It was pretty common in that cultural context and not considered taboo at all.) Our children, both boys and girls, would be much better served to learn self-respect, responsibility and accountability than to focus on a checklist of dress standards.
  4. It interferes with the development of healthy sexuality. This is an issue that I don’t think most young women really understand because, sadly, it only begins to rear its ugly head when they are adults. The standard modesty message does not promote healthy sexuality. It promotes the idea that “good girls” stick to a narrative that is prescribed, and they are broken and used if they don’t. Except, once a girl is married, then the narrative changes. The problem is that girls can’t flip that switch overnight, and many, many religious women find themselves mired in shame, heartache and misunderstanding with their partner because they literally do not know how to be comfortable as sexual beings. This is so, so sad to me. (How I escaped this attitude myself with my background is a miracle to me.) And, again, young men don’t get this same message. The modesty message gives a wink and a nod to the idea that boys will be boys, leaving the majority of the long-term burden of this consequence to women.

I need to make it perfectly clear that this is not a treatise on what anyone should or shouldn’t wear. In fact, it is just the opposite. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who follows a strong internal compass. I just happen to think that every person should feel free to choose these priorities themselves. I don’t always approve of everything that my kids wear out my door. I hope that my children will choose to invest intimacy in a long-term, committed partnership that includes marriage because I think there’s pretty practical benefits to doing so. We talk about these things, and I give my kids my opinion. But, I am pretty dang defensive about anyone who tries to leverage cultural messages in a way that is unhealthy to them. I haven’t always recognized the modesty message as harmful, and I internalized an awful lot of it myself as a teen and young adult woman.¬† But, when you know better, you do better, and I hope to give my kids better than what I got in this department. For the rest of my readers, maybe it will, at the very least, provide a different perspective that will give you something to think about. Could we do better? Is there a healthier way? I think so.

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My Ride-or-Die, Zombie-Apocalypse Team

backlit-dawn-dusk-862848.jpgIt’s halfway through November, and I’m seeing all my friends post on Facebook with their daily gratitudes. Frankly, I’m bad at this kind of thing. Not because I’m ungrateful but because it would require 30 days of unaccountable consistency. The fact that I have published this blog like clockwork, twice a week, with nothing behind it but a wing and a prayer is a bit of a miracle. I am a get-it-done type of person if I’ve made a promise or someone is counting on me. If it’s just me, meh, I’d probably rather be doing anything else or will suddenly be missing my motivation. I get that this is a rather stupid mental game I play, but it mostly works for me. Shrug.

Still, today was a grateful day, so I would be remiss not to throw my hat in the ring in at least a minor way. This year, to put it mildly, has been transformative for me. As it comes to an end, we’re getting back to a place of stability, though this looks so very different than it did before January 2018. I’m grateful for the quiet and peace again. But, I’m most grateful for what I’ve learned. I posted this on my Facebook page in April when we were pretty much in the thick of things with our church and our decision to take a stand against abuse.

“When you go through something difficult, you inevitably learn about yourself. But, you also learn an awful lot about other people – what their values are, what their priorities are, what their agendas are. I have experienced a juxtaposition of warriors and weakness, servanthood and self-service, integrity and ignorance. Eye opening doesn’t even begin to describe it, but if you pressed me on who I would want on my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse, you better believe I know.”

Today, I got a surprise visit from two of my very most favorite people in the whole world. I’ve been good friends with my one girlfriend for at least five years. We’ve lived in the same community since she moved here, and she is one of the most fun, selfless, upbeat and accepting people I know. My other friend is a newer connection, though we’ve been acquaintances for years. These two women make up the core of my truest tribe: women who have walked through fire with me this year. They are the ones (along with my mom – a very new addition to this list. Love you, Mom!) who have seen me fall apart, cry and wonder if I had it in me to fight the battle I was taking on. They are the ones that assured that I did – that I was brave and strong and capable. They’ve embraced my mess and loved me straight through it. They’ve shared their stories and listened to mine, found resources for me, and showed up on my doorstep at a moment’s notice. I have shared with them my deepest fears about the struggles in my marriage, and they have heard the rawest truth about my current relationship with faith. I would imagine that looking in from the outside, it might seem that I have changed a lot, but these women just see me.

I’m a bit of a homebody, and the fact that my one girlfriend is pushing like gangbusters to finish her house means we haven’t done a girl’s night for a long time (it just wouldn’t be the same without her.) Adjusting to how things have changed is challenging. I feel isolated sometimes. While the truth is that everyone is probably busy living their own lives and they don’t really care, I wonder what people think of me. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost a lot in the way of easy belonging and the ability to just blend in and be a part of the, uh, collective? (Ha.) The truth is that the superficial has merely quietly faded away, leaving me with just the relationships that mean the very most to me.

I’m convinced that I have the very best friends in the whole wide world, and I mean more than these two. The silver lining of this year for me has been connection. I have met so many amazing people and had the opportunity to offer support and be supported by a deep, meaningful tribe. The beauty of this is almost overwhelming when I stop and think about it like I did today. So, I might not be able to sustain a full 30 days, but I would be remiss not to give a shout out to one of the things in my life that I am the very most grateful for – my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse. I hope you know who you are, and I love you all so incredibly much!

Marriage is Like a Mirror

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I get a lot of feedback when I blog about anything that has to do with my husband. He doesn’t read my blog, but I think he’s come to terms with this as we both hope that this venture will become viable at some point and that takes readers that are interested in what I have to say. (11 cents earned so far! Woot, woot!) While I, myself, am sometimes uncomfortable with the level of exposure that blogging brings, one of the joys of this gig is getting to write about things that mean so much to me.

I’m a student of people. I love psychology and understanding why people do what they do. I’ve always been intrigued by relationships and deeply committed to personal growth and providing a healthy home for my children, something that I often lacked as a child. This focus has driven a lot of my life, and I’m grateful for the perspective it’s given me.

While it’s cliche to the extreme, relationships are hard – I think anyone who has been in one more than five minutes understands that. But, why? Why are they so hard? An easy way that I’ve found to explain the dynamic is that marriage is like a mirror. After what I hope is some serious vetting on our part, we “fall in love with our soul mate,” and get married, handing them over the keys to who we really are. In this package, often overlooked and ignored, is the mirror that shows us who lives under our shell, naked, exposed and raw. We tend to hide from that person ourselves, so trusting someone else to care for them is a deeply intimate risk. But, I’ve found more growth and personal understanding in this process than in anything else in my life.

When we put things out into the world, those closest to us naturally reflect that back. Sometimes, we like what we see, but often, we very much do not. I think the thing that sinks most potentially great marriages is blaming the person holding the mirror, as if the messenger is responsible for what you see reflected there. There are definitely instances where our natural defensiveness finds us shoving the corresponding mirror into our spouse’s face and yelling, “Oh yea? You think I’m so bad?!” This is a sacred task, and when it goes wrong, it can be incredibly, devastatingly ugly because the ammunition available is so powerful. Still, no greater intimacy is created in a relationship than the one you find when you lean into this with a worthy partner, understand it and stop running from it.

I do not like to give people power over my inner life, and I like it even less so lately. People who meet me for the first time find me intimidating (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told that, it would be way more than 11 cents. Ha!) I am a naturally boundaried and self-protected person, and few people can really shake me. Except my husband. The gift of marriage is that while I would never actively choose this, it happens constantly. Every new evolution of our relationship peels back a layer and leaves us both vulnerable. When things shift and change, and you see fear and panic in your partner, what they’re really saying is, “Can you still handle this job? Can I still trust you with this? Am I still safe with you? Is it even acceptable to be this naked?” When the answer is, “This is okay. We’re still okay. You’re okay,” there is room for the some of the most pure gratitude and connection that life offers.

Going through significant changes in a marriage is scary and quite difficult. I participate in an online space where the whole point is navigate this in ways that are healthy for families and relationships. This is a unique forum where the point isn’t who is right or wrong but how we can overcome the challenges and grow. One of the most beautiful things to watch play out in this group is the real life, in-the-trenches work of working it out. While changes will almost inevitably expose weaknesses in a relationship, there is a definitive silver lining as well. When it’s impossible to live in pretense, you either get out or you get better. If I could impart one thing that I’ve learned here, it would be this – I know this is scary. Take a deep breath, and look in the mirror. What you find will be priceless. Don’t run away. It will be worth it.

The Recipe Analogy

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I’m a person who has always appreciated steps and methods. I learn incredibly quickly if I can dig into something, play around with it, see what happens and adjust. I have almost an insatiable drive to learn when I can see clearly what is expected from me and what the results of my efforts are. I’ll play around with this process indefinitely, dare I admit – obsessively, when I’m seeing results, but I have a short string of patience when something is awry. This analogy, I think, is a good explanation of how this moves in my life.

When I was young, I was raised in a family that had very specific tastes. I was fed every day from a rotating menu that didn’t vary much, and I didn’t really mind. The consistency was nice and even though it wasn’t all my favorite, I knew what to expect. As I got older, I was given the opportunity to choose a recipe of my own. My parents made sure I knew that there were other recipes but that our family recipe was the truly right one for us, and I would be making them proud to select it as my own. I trusted my family, and I did.

Soon, I had a kitchen of my own. I was excited to take out my gilded recipe card and prepare it for my own family. I carefully read, painstakingly measured and put everything in the oven to cook. When I pulled my dish out after the allotted time, my heart sunk – something was wrong. It looked soupy, mushy, not properly cooked. I tasted it; it wasn’t delicious. What had I done wrong?? Still, this initial failure didn’t set me back too much. I was inexperienced. I would try again.

And, I did. I believed in my recipe – it was a family heirloom, spanning generations in my family. So, I spent months, years, decades trying to determine why I couldn’t recreate it properly. I became frustrated with my self, frustrated with my family for not wanting to eat what I made and frustrated with cooking in general. Maybe I just wasn’t a good cook. Had the gene skipped me?

Then, I stepped back. Maybe? Maybe the recipe was off? Maybe it hadn’t been transcribed very well? Maybe the ingredients I was provided were rancid. Maybe the kitchen assistants I’d been assured were the best money could buy were actually spiking my sauce with something gross. Maybe it just wasn’t to my taste. Maybe I had been given a wonderful marinara sauce when the truth was that I actually really, really prefer Mexican cuisine. Maybe it wasn’t me at all. Could I look at other recipes? Was it okay to even ask these questions? I felt like I had to because if I didn’t serve something, we were all going to starve. Either way, that recipe was getting tucked firmly on the back of a shelf because I wasn’t going to keep wasting ingredients when I didn’t even know how to fix it. Anyone who I couldn’t solidly identify as a kitchen helper was getting fired, at least temporarily until I sussed out what or who the issue was.

It’s not that spaghetti is bad. It’s that there comes a point when it’s okay to choose to not engage in processes that clearly don’t work for you. I don’t mind when people eat spaghetti. I celebrate people who have an aromatic marinara sauce and have mastered it. I don’t need to order the same thing from a menu to love, respect and sit down to dine with my Italian-loving friends. Choosing to put away a recipe that has failed me doesn’t mean that it can’t work for you. It doesn’t mean I gave up or didn’t try hard enough. (I would venture that recipe failure makes you even more precise in following instructions to the letter.) And, the fact that spaghetti is your favorite food in all the world doesn’t mean that it will be mine. The truth is, I’m a Mexican gal, through and through. When I have the space and the freedom and the ability to play in the kitchen without the pressure to be an Italian goddess, I make very, very good food. I’ve chosen to direct my energy in the kitchen to recipes that I’m able to work with more successfully. I AM a good cook, but I’m making different dishes than what I thought I would when I was a child.

Personally, I think variety is the spice of life in and out of the kitchen to bring the analogy full circle. It’s beautiful to embrace your personal food history, but it’s also really, really nice sometimes to visit other people and try new things. And, when you’ve tried for so long to make something fit, it can be downright refreshing.

The Double-Edged Sword of Dogma

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For the first five years that we lived here, we were in the middle of a small, cliquish town about 15 minutes from our current house. I vividly remember the missionaries showing up at our door one day and knocking. From across the house, I hollered at my kids, “Do not answer the door, or you’ll be grounded!!” It wasn’t until after they’d given up and left that I realized that, being the middle of the summer, all the windows on our 1919 house were open for ventilation. They probably thought I was a complete and utter nutcase. (I plead the fifth. Ha!)

We don’t get many Mormon missionaries here. I think the local wards have an APB out on our subdivision as a “no-fly zone.” However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked the other day. I opened the door to a father, an old man and a little boy. The father reminded me of one of our neighbors – a tall, teddy bear of a man that is incredibly kind and soft-hearted. He introduced me to his young son, flashed his pamphlet and asked me a leading question about how don’t we all want to be happy. I told him I was in the middle of something (I was), but I would take his pamphlet and look at it (I didn’t, really.) Before he left, however, I looked him right in the eye and told him very sincerely to have a good day.

What else do you say when you can’t say what you would really like to? I can’t bombard strangers at my door with invasive questions like, “Why can’t that little boy have a birthday party? Why does Jesus care?” “Why would I trade one dogmatic culture for another that is probably even worse?” “What would happen if that old man didn’t approve of something you said or did?” “What if you had questions? Would your spouse stand by you?”

See, the red pill is a fearful thing, and you can’t force feed it to anybody. You wouldn’t want to – you didn’t want to. In most instances, changing perspectives happen on accident. Still, that last question encompasses a gigantic elephant-in-the-room in Mormon culture. Who am I outside the paradigm, and will my spouse, especially, still love me there? I consider myself incredibly lucky in this area. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve wrestled and fought and wrenched our hearts to sort this out, but we’re still here – together. It is never certain, even now.

I have a dear friend who I’ve known for several years. We met well before our lives were turned upside down, but became close because we found ourselves walking side-by-side on very similar paths. As my own marriage has weathered the storm in a way where things are looking up, hers has not. I have such a range of emotions about this. I’ve watched her do the absolute best that she knows how in brutal and unforgiving circumstances. My husband has been inoculated with perspective and nuance, and it’s saved us quite literally. He had already cut the figurative apron strings in many ways before we found ourselves swept up on this ride that has become our life. Her husband is still tightly tethered by a cord that is suffocating what used to be a very loving and fulfilling marriage. She has held on much, much longer than I think I could have in the same situation, and I admire her more than I can say no matter how her story plays out. This was weighing heavily on my mind the last time I went to church. I sat in that congregation and mentally looked around the room and thought, “They own these men and, by extension, they own these marriages.” I wanted to cry.

This is the double-edged sword of dogmatic religion. I know without a doubt that the structure, expectations and rules work incredibly well for many, many people I know. I have friends and family that are baffled by the shifts in our life. I envy them in many ways. I know that things look very black and white from that perspective because I lived there for a very long time. However, the truth is that it cuts incredibly deep when you find yourself unexpectedly picked up and plopped down behind the curtain. Real people are here. Real families. Real marriages. And, they are really hurting from the complete and utter lack of context that allows for them to remain safe and flourish in their families in such an unforgiving cultural narrative of conformity. What used to feel safe and comforting and sure to me now leans sinister and controlling and threatening. If you’re not with us, you’re against us feels much less friendly when you find yourself outside the circle.

I’m genuinely not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. If you’re happy where you are, I am so, so glad. Stay there! Do what works well for you and your family. However, please realize that not everything is a good fit for every person in the same way, and have charity when you see outliers. (I really am still very much the same person I was before my life became a public spectacle.) Above all, if you do ever find yourself in the situation that my own husband has, please, for the love of all that is holy, please look at the bigger picture. Love each other. Turn toward each other. Let the peripheral people, pressures and parts of your life go for a bit until you find yourself grounded again. Do not make permanent decisions that will affect you and your children out of fear or tradition or dogma. Ultimately, you and your loved ones will pay the price, and it makes no sense to leave that in the hands of people, priorities and organizations that can wash their hands of it and walk away. Put the sword down before you find yourself using it against the people that love you the most. Give yourself and your family that gift.

I Wouldn’t Trade This For a First Kiss

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I had a dream a few weeks ago that took my breath away and has made me thoughtful. It was one of those convoluted dreams where random things are jumping all over the place, for the most part. However, right before I woke up, I dreamed that some guy kissed me. (Don’t worry, it was a faceless, nobody man – nobody that I know or that actually exists.) I woke up with this lingering feeling of, I don’t know, being seen?

My husband and I dated for two years before we got married, and it was a passionate and intense courtship – even volatile at times. We’re still very much in love. He’s my best friend and a man of impeccable integrity. But, a romantic he is not. We’ve been married for going on 23 years. Things change over time, and it’s very natural and expected. Still, I have twinges occasionally where I long for what the past was. It’s an illogical feeling in a lot of ways because what was amazing about it came with a lot of uncertainty – things that I am so glad to see gone in our daily life. But, humans are sometimes ridiculous, aren’t we? We fail to see that the good comes with some bad, and the sometimes boring is infused with a softness, a quietness, a peace and a comfort that no amount of excitement can replace.

We went on a date this weekend. We haven’t been out for a bit. We don’t have a set schedule because, well, we’re having a rough year financially (ha!), and we tend to both hate that sort of structure anyway. He’ll just randomly text me with, “Where am I taking you tonight?” We didn’t do anything fancy, but I put on makeup and cute clothes and spent an evening away from our kids with the man I love. This morning, my husband got up and got in the bath. (He’s a bath guy; I’m all about showers, so we have both a big, soaker tub and a walk-in shower in our master bath.) Our water heater is on the fritz, and he hasn’t gotten around to replacing the element that’s out, so it runs at about half heat and is particularly bad first thing in the morning. After about 10 minutes, he called my name, and I walked in the bathroom.

As I opened the door, my husband looked very sheepish, and he was kind of laughing at himself. Raising my eyebrows, I asked him what was up. After a bit of hemming and hawing and berating himself for not fixing the water heater yet, he tentatively said that he thought he should just ask me to boil him some hot water so that he could get warm. He had no real expectations that I would get up and do this. I could have laughed as well at the thought and walked back to what I was doing. But, I didn’t. I graciously boiled him water and brought it in and dumped it in the tub. I didn’t have to. He knew it, and I knew it. With laughing eyes as he reveled in the luxury of the hot water, I commented that this little favor was better than buying him a gift, and he wholeheartedly agreed as he sunk into the water.

In the moments where I feel that twinge of longing for a relationship that is young and new and exciting and actively romantic, I could miss these moments. I could make the mistake of thinking that I have a lack because life ebbs and flows. We’re not young anymore. We have kids that are growing up and riding the edge of moving on with their lives. Our history runs incredibly deep. He has hurt me like no one else I’ve known and loved me to depths that I could never have imagined were possible when I was a young and naive 18-year-old bride. It is true that we don’t always see each other. He can walk in the room, and my brain doesn’t always register that my stomach should flutter. I know it’s the same for him. The reality is that my brain, my heart, just sees him as a part of me after almost a quarter-century of knowing him. There are times where I look deep in his eyes, and it all comes flooding back, but most moments are a quiet knowing that he’s my person, and I can’t imagine it being any other way.

Right now, he is putting on a tie and getting ready to go to church, and I am writing my blog and not getting ready at all. He knows this, and we don’t really talk about it. It’s not like it’s festering under the surface; it just is. This could be a major issue for us. But, see, I can smile and boil this man water for no other reason that I don’t want him to be cold. So, he can give me space and time and love in our unusual circumstances. Kisses that take your breath away are a moment, and they can be surrounded by a million things that aren’t healthy or beautiful or useful. I suppose this might sound sad to couples who are in younger relationships. It is not. (We still kiss.) It is quietly, peacefully and comfortingly beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade it for a hundred breathtaking first kisses. I’ve lived enough to know how very lucky I am.

 

Why Can’t You Just Forgive??

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For the first six months of this year, I ate, slept and breathed the drama that we were engaged in with my church and in my family. I don’t recall a single conversation I had with my husband at the time that didn’t involve the situation, and I thought about it all the time. Was I being fair? Were my motives pure? Was I certain that my memory was reliable? Was it even worth the turmoil it had caused to confront this trauma from my past? (I actually haven’t thought a lot about this lately until I stumbled across this blog post yesterday.)

When you are dealing with a church community, you end up in this strange dichotomy where you are surrounded by people that truly believe in a moral system that they adhere to – they genuinely care about getting it right. However, everything is wrapped in a dogma that doesn’t always have individuals’ best interests at heart, and collective priorities are often given precedence over those of people, families and even more firm moral codes. It’s bizarre, disorienting and eye-opening all at once.

Nothing more clearly illustrates this conundrum than the narrative around forgiveness. As someone who still has a Christian worldview, I think the teachings of Jesus Christ were not only admirable but downright radical when read in their cultural context. Jesus did things like care about children, give women an unprecedented voice in community and promote the interests of the less fortunate. So, please don’t misunderstand me for a complete and utter lost soul.¬† However, the church (Mormon, Christian, Catholic…this seems pretty universal in extremely organized dogmatic structures.) has really missed the boat on this idea.

I would have mucho money if I was paid for every time I was (gently, usually, and often not directly) lectured about forgiveness. Can’t you just forgive? We should all forgive! What about forgiveness? I think what becomes clear when you’re on the receiving end of a situation that asks for serious forgiveness is that forgiveness as a process is my business. It’s personal. It’s a journey that belongs to me and to every other person who has experienced trauma at the hands of another person who should have known better. It is wholly inappropriate for anyone outside this situation to offer unsolicited advice or to lecture. The hard truth is that you don’t know anything about it. For most people, this is a philosophical discussion, but ignorance is a luxury that not everyone has. Regardless of what the circumstances are, it behooves every person to move on and live productive and healthy lives. Frankly, I think I do a pretty good job at that.

Still, I’ve had to come to terms with forgiveness and what it does and doesn’t mean. I’ve heard sermons my whole life about forgiving. What I’ve come to see is that this dialogue¬† often has much more to do with the comfort of the speaker than with my own well-being. Though the words aren’t said, what I really hear is, “Forgiveness is important! You should forgive. It’s for your own good – can’t you see?? (Besides, this is making me VERY uncomfortable!)” See, forgiveness often becomes a way for other people to feel washed clean of a situation without actually having to do anything real or productive or helpful at all. When someone tells me to forgive, I’m pretty astute about discerning if it’s about my mental/spiritual health or if it’s about them. Rarely is it about me. (As an easy rule, if you have to remind someone that something is for their own good, it’s probably not.)

When we were in the middle of our fight, we found this article on dealing with sexual abuse in the church, and it became one of our best tools for advocacy and education. We sent it to dozens of people to help illustrate where we were coming from and what we felt would be appropriate. (If you’ve read my prior blogs, you’ll remember that we eventually succeeded in having my perpetrator removed from his church position.) Clearly, there is a need for this type of education because most people don’t understand this: how I feel about what happened to me on a personal level and what I feel should be done about it are two very separate issues. My emotions (hurt, unfairness, anger/revenge…) do not play into my decision making process. There is often a clear, right thing to do, and it should be done with neither guile nor bias if integrity is at all important.

I haven’t been to church since August. I would imagine people have all kinds of opinions about what this means and what’s going on in my life. (If you ask, I’ll just tell you. The Cliff’s Notes version is that I’m doing well.) Usually, high-demand religions create a dialogue around leaving or disconnecting. You’re offended. You’ve sinned or want to commit sins. You couldn’t hack it. YOU’RE the problem, somehow. It’s my fault. I can’t forgive. This doesn’t even come close to adequately describing why I’ve made this decision.

I posted this on my Facebook feed on August 12, just a few weeks before my last sacrament meeting:

I’ve forgiven a lot of people for a lot of pretty horrible things, and I continue to do so. It’s a process. However, it’s frankly none on anyone else’s business what the status of that process is. People can make a conscious choice to disengage with toxic environments and people. The idea that stepping back equates to a lack of forgiveness is complete and utter hogwash. It’s nothing more than an attempt to deflect the consequences of others’ deplorable actions onto the innocent, while gaslighting them into feeling that it’s somehow their fault. Just my thoughts for the Sabbath.

This is usually what I hear about forgiveness. It’s usually people protecting people who have done bad things that say these things. I get that it’s wicked hard to look ugly in the face when it lives on someone you love or, even worse, yourself. But, to speak of forgiveness as some sort of spiritual Jedi wave that disappears the facts is deeply insulting to people who have walked through the shadow of this valley. If you can’t offer genuine support, please leave me alone to get on with my life in whatever way is most healthy for me. But, please stop talking about things you don’t understand. If you can’t meet hurting people with compassion and support, your religion is hollow, and you need to sit down. (Most people truly are well-intentioned, but it’s a band-aid at best. To be clear, the person that prompted this Facebook post recognized that I was reacting to their statements and went out of their way to apologize. I greatly respect that.)

My husband is a big fan of several Christian apologists, including Professor John Lennox. I’ve been deeply impressed with his approach to Christianity and have listened to several of his very thought-provoking lectures. My husband sent me this one a month or so ago, and outside of Dr. Laura who takes a somewhat more secular approach, this is the best breakdown of forgiveness that I have ever heard. On the most simple level, forgiveness is multi-faceted. There is the part that you take care of for your own personal well-being; this consists of letting go, moving your focus to other things, finding wholeness in other parts of your life. The other half of forgiveness requires recognition, remorse and restitution from the other party – the repentance must be sincere for it to be efficacious. Professor Lennox does a much better job of outlining this. (If you start at about 48 minutes, the segment is less than ten minutes long and well worth the listen.)

As for me, I’m not making decisions out of anger, malice or bitterness. I am, however, finally giving myself permission to make decisions that are the most healthy for my situation, regardless of how unconventional that looks. I’m very much at peace with where I’m at.