On Finding Fault and Taking Blame

I really try to write when I’m having a good day, and there is a reason for that. Growth is messy, and it is rarely pretty down in the trenches. It can look fatal. (It can feel fatal.) Writing about my struggles with religion and mixed-faith marriage wouldn’t be very inspiring or hope-promoting if I got stuck in the mess of it. It would be a lot of finger pointing and blame. It is true that my change in perspective has thrown a huge wrench in our life, and it was my need to understand the dynamics we were living with that led to that change. It is also true that my husband’s perspective can be very black and white, and that doesn’t always lead to happy and productive conversations. I’ve spoken to a lot of people this month that have asked how we are and gotten a honest answer – it’s day-to-day, sometimes. It’s hard. These things are all very true. But, they’re a myopic view of what is really a much broader dynamic.

Human nature leads us to want to understand what we’re seeing. (Thank God for that!) When we recognize struggle, we pick it apart, look at the parties and try to assign blame where it fits the most comfortably within our own experience. I’ve been there. But, the one thing I’ve learned from life if I’ve learned anything is that it is C.O.M.P.L.I.C.A.T.E.D. Trying to fit things into a neat, little box is rarely genuine to any person or perspective. Speaking from my own pain and perspective only, though this is my platform, would be woefully unfair. I struggle with this when it comes to my own kids. My adult children find it easier to relate to where I’m at, and I think it leads them to unfairly judge their believing father. They see the struggle and just want him to be different or think differently or change to fix things. They think I’m the one holding this marriage together.

I’m not. It’s not me. There are certainly qualities that I bring to this table that are helping this work. My husband will tell you that I’m a precise communicator, and it is incredibly hard to debate me. (If you don’t come prepared, you’ll find yourself in trouble.) This is true. I have an unwavering commitment to my family, and I make it a point to understand what is happening behind the scenes with history, people and dynamics. (I also take damn good care of him which helps us to ride the waves when it gets choppy.) Still, NONE of this would matter if it wasn’t for his own integrity, strengths and commitment. At the end of the day, his flexibility, genuine desire for growth and ability to see nuance and step back from the emotions of the hard stuff in order to gain objectivity carries us. We are challenging to one another (I honestly think it’s why we picked each other,) but that is where the growth is. Truly. I would not be who I am without him, and he would be a very different person had he married someone else.

I posted this on my Facebook page today, and ruminating on the depth of what is said here is what prompted this train of thought. The tagline to this blog is “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” I think the more life I live, the more I recognize that the mess IS beautiful. It IS where you find the silver lining, the joy, the excruciating love that pushes and pulls at you and makes the entire journey worthwhile. Without mess and struggle, we would be stagnant and, frankly, probably bored.

“It’s not about what’s ‘right and wrong’, it’s about understanding. And once you understand somebody and how they are feeling and what their view is, you can move on with more ease because you have that understanding. Those are the steps toward building love.

It’s so freaking difficult, and so freaking excruciating, and sometimes you think it’s not love, but it is.

Is it worth it? At the end of the day, to have someone who can love you for ALL that you are. And say, __________ has loved me through the worst of myself, and I have done the same. When somebody can love in that way, lay down the expectations and rules, it makes your faith in the world come together in a way which is like ‘I Am, This Is, and All Is Well.’

It’s like climbing a mountain–do the work and see the beauty. It’s worth it.”

-Red Table Talk

I think what I would most like to communicate today is that there isn’t really any fault or blame here. The way that I relate to the world contributes to what we have to navigate, and the way he relates to the world does as well. But, I’m not “making us struggle” and neither is he. It just is. It’s just life. It’s a complicated situation, but we are undoubtedly living it. Sometimes you think it’s not love, but it is. The mindfulness I approach this with helps us win the day, and his ability to see a bigger picture and love me like most women will never experience carries us through. We’re winning together, and I absolutely would not be if it wasn’t for him.


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The Struggle is Good, and It’s Ours

It’s hard for me to address subjects that are so broad and meaningful and close to my heart. I rarely can express it adequately. People freak out when I open my figurative mouth in this forum and come to my husband in a flat panic thinking our world is falling apart. While I wish they wouldn’t due to the sheer unaffordable distraction of it, the thing is that they aren’t wrong.

It is. Our world is in pieces. It’s hard. Brutal. Filled with fear and an unknowing uneasiness. I know it looks like a flat disaster from the outside. And, there is no context for where we walk. It is, at the most base level, completely uncharted territory. I don’t like the raw and the ugly and the unpredictable. And, it has unpacked and moved in. I like certainty and peace and security ever so much, and I’ve had so little of it in my life.

However, that’s not the fight we’re in. And, we are in it. We’re here for the growth and for the challenge and for the struggle. Mostly, we’re here for each other, and the dance is both brutal and beautiful. My biggest fears are other people telling my husband who I am and whether I’m worth it or not, and my biggest gifts are the assurance that he is in this wilderness with me, 100% committed to the new and bold and hard. For me. For our children. Because he values me as a unique person, gives me room to move in the world how I need to and deeply appreciates what I bring into his life after 25 years together.

We had a conversation the other night. While my husband doesn’t read my blog, he says with some frequency that I should write about certain things we talk about, and this was one of them. In exploring the idea of having healthy relationships with institutions, we lamented the fact that there seems to be so little useful support for people trying to navigate hard and unconventional things. Wouldn’t it be transformative if dogma could be set aside, and we could all live by the Hippocratic oath of first, do no harm? It would still be hard here, but it would be hard in a way that didn’t leave me looking over my shoulder for other people’s priorities to unpack in my bedroom. Let people succeed. Cheer them on. Get out of their way, and let them get to work.

We have significant disagreements at this point about life and philosophy, but our greatest strength, I think, is our willingness to be present and engaged in them together. In hard ways. In meaningful ways. In ways that lead to the lowest lows swinging wildly into the highest highs of my life. If I could have looked into the future and seen how this would all play out, I would have ran, no doubt. I would not choose it with my eyes open. But, I like to believe that there was a time and a place and a knowing that led me here, and that it is what we both need. We are exactly where we should be.

As first-world humans, our relationship with struggle has become soft and privileged, and like most people, I seek to dodge, avoid and deflect. We both miss the quietness we had when everything lived in a dark corner of our closet, but we both draw from an ever-deepening well of love and commitment that allows us to pick up the sword and keep fighting the good fight, back-to-back, every day, to protect our home and family. The words of Jordan Peterson resonate with both my husband and I, and we’ve come to see the struggle as a necessary component to a meaningful life. We regularly find these on YouTube and share them with each other, and this was today’s gem.

Our success is never a sure thing – it would be counterproductive to think otherwise. It is volatile and painful many days. However, your success isn’t any more sure than ours, though it looks so much quieter over so many other fences. But, we’re alive here, engaged, wrestling, sometimes “drawing blood,” doing the work and loving with every fiber that we can muster. I’ll take that as a pretty good sign for us. I hope you can, too.

I’ve Had Four Marriages

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Last Saturday was our 23rd anniversary. While it may seem that this fact and the title of this post are incongruous, they aren’t really. If you are lucky, like I have been, these marriages will all be with the same person. This is a concept I first heard attributed to the marriage therapist, Esther Perel. While I’m not sure I’m all in with her entire philosophy, this idea does ring true to me. It is inevitable that people will change, and carrying a marriage through these changes in one (relative) piece is a trick that many people fail to achieve and for good reason. Even when you do, I think it’s a feat, an effort, a gift of ebbing and flowing that is never entirely finished.

My first marriage was immature – full of wild ups and downs but infused with hope and naivety. My third marriage was incredibly painful – it felt out of control, and I was uncertain whether we would walk out together. I often felt lost in the valleys of it without perspective or support that could reach me. I remember sitting in our home that was almost completed, with my red master bedroom wall reflecting off the white cabinets that were waiting to be installed and wondering with all sincerity if I would ever sleep a night in this room or if it would all fly apart before we got to that point. We were mired in hurt and trauma that was eating us alive. I deeply missed my second marriage, with its years of peace, predictability and easiness.

To be honest, I still do, even though I know the victory that my current and fourth marriage is and has been. It isn’t as easy, but it is grown up. I am a woman in this relationship – an adult that makes adult decisions in a way that makes a concerted effort to respect those around me. However, it’s also new – we’re newlyweds in this place, and there are things that are still up in the air, not negotiated, unknown. It is disconcerting when I remember how easy it was 10, 15 years ago. But, while I remember that and feel nostalgic, I couldn’t go back there, not even if I tried. I’m not that woman anymore. That woman was naive, compartmentalized and not entirely honest with herself let alone her husband. It was soft there and so safe, but I couldn’t stay and grow. Had I known what I was walking into to get from there to here, I would have put my head in the sand and answered, “No, thank you!”

I can’t say because, blessedly, that is not how life works, and you don’t get a heads up or a preview of what is coming. While this fourth marriage isn’t what either of us expected and certainly not what we signed up for, I like to think that it is what we need. Things are not as peaceful here as that “happy, easy marriage,” but my soul is quiet, confident, *at peace* for the first time in all our years together. I know who lives in this place, most especially myself, but even my husband is a more transparent and understandable entity. He naturally prefers predictability and tradition and sameness, but that is not what lives in the house we dwell in together, and he stretches and grows and loves more because of this fact. I know I challenge him – I always have – but it comes in more profound ways at this point in our lives, in a way that requires the deep love cultivated over time to make palatable. Our immature beginning couldn’t have supported this.

I remember a moment when my youngest was a baby, and it was very hard. I saw an older couple walking down the road holding hands, and I wanted that, so very badly. Today I am able to find perspective in that moment because I realize that you see what you look at and, often, that’s what you lack. The truth was that I have had stability and security in all four phases of my marriage that I’m sure many people saw and longed for. I value those things but I don’t really notice them to be remarkable because, well, for me, they aren’t.

Perspective and insight are incredible gifts, but they are never, never free. We have been through a lot. But, we are still here, together, in the same space, after 23 years and four distinct stages of our marriage. I feel humbled to have lived with and learned from this man and our marriage. And, that, in itself, is worth celebrating. Here’s to many, many more!

Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism

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I spent a good deal of my adult life being motivated by fear. I have always been a thoughtful person, someone who questioned and looked for context and nuance and meaning. However, I was raised in a social structure that had very prescribed ways to do, think and be. This was a conundrum for me for many, many years, and it created a dichotomy that I found very difficult to reconcile. In fact, I never have.

Polygamy has been a real spectre in my life. It’s not something I discuss an awful lot because it’s a real part of the real lives of people I really know and deeply care about, and, in reality, it is a very complex issue. However, I have strong opinions about it, and, while I do try to be fair in my assessment, I wouldn’t call them particularly positive. I still look at the influence that this belief has in my everyday life as the “other woman” in my marriage, even though there is really no one else. It is the thing that to this day makes me feel never quite worthy, never quite good enough. I guess that the easiest and kindest way to communicate this is that I fought very hard for several decades to find a way to fit into this box that was so necessary to my religious tradition. One of the scariest steps I ever took was to let myself admit that it wasn’t healthy for me, and I had to just say no to living that lifestyle. I vividly remember that day and the fear that accompanied it.

“What if I’m wrong?”
“What if I really will lose everything?”
“What if I have completely missed the boat here, and I will be alone forever?”

And, that’s the day that fear stopped holding the rudder of my life. Because once I faced those questions and contrasted them with the price I would pay for continuing to ignore my own heart in favor of messages whose sources I wasn’t confident in – because, hey, what if? – it became abundantly clear that I must take the risk. I would rather live in a way that felt true to my spirit and be potentially alone than to follow someone else’s agenda out of fear. I ugly cried for an entire day and half the next, afraid that my husband would leave me, but I have had peace in that decision from that day forward. (I wish that I could say that I haven’t succumbed to the fear again, but I have. The difficulty this causes in my marriage can overwhelm me on bad days.)

I’ve heard people talk about the Mormon traditions surrounding the afterlife as “sad heaven” because the fear message of separation from friends and loved ones if you go off-script is so prevalent. (In fact, it was strongly reiterated from the pulpit of LDS General Conference just this last weekend.) Mormonism is built upon the principles of agency and personal responsibility as well as a strong emphasis on knowing the truth for yourself. Yet, if you don’t follow the herd in lock step or your revelations aren’t the right ones, we’re told that you will be not only damaging yourself but damning your family unit. I find these messages difficult to reconcile. I think, in fact, that they are quite contradictory and it’s not really possible for religious people to have it both ways. Is God’s priority our heart even if he has to wander the wilderness to find it? Or, is God’s priority following the rules even if our heart isn’t really in it?

I talked last week about how we teach each other how to be better and how grace and connection are the currency of persuasion. I am really not sure why this approach often seems to not translate in religious structures because human nature doesn’t change based upon our environments – it’s quite universal and consistent. I get that motivating with fear works, at least for some people and for a time – it did for me. But, it was temporary. It was an empty faith that owned me more than me embracing it. It wasn’t authentic let alone powerful.

I don’t know what it takes to bring people back to religion because I’m not there. I would imagine that it is unique to each individual and that, for some, a different path will always be more healthy for them. I can say that it isn’t fear and judgment and shame. Those things brought me to my faith crisis, and when I put them down by the roadside, it was a blessed and blissful relief. When I recognize them around me, I shy away in concern that they will overwhelm my life again. What I can say is that, if I ever do change my perspective and decide to participate in religion again, it will not be motivated by fear. You cannot be bludgeoned back into the fold, but I think you can be loved back into the fold.

I am under no illusion about the certainty of my position – I know I could be wrong. However, I believe in a God that knows my heart and knows that my life choices continue to be made in integrity. I am doing the best I can with the knowledge, information and resources that I have. I believe that God wants my heart above all else and that the wilderness is likely the only place we can meet. I no longer fear that.

By That Same Spirit

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I don’t read near as much as I did when I was actively navigating my faith crisis, but I do occasionally pick up books that catch my eye when I see them mentioned. Recently, I read Truth Seeking by Hans Mattsson. I think one of the reasons these types of stories still appeal is that faith crises follow a very similar track, and anyone who has experienced one can relate to the journey of fellow travelers.

If you aren’t familiar with Hans Mattsson, he was the high-ranking area authority that was at the center of the Swedish rescue. The church sent their historians right from the top to meet with a core group of Swedish members who were deeply troubled by historical issues in the church. Instead of the questions being resolved, this meeting led to the defection of dozens of very faithful families. Frankly, it was a bit of a disaster for church headquarters though that isn’t really the point of this commentary. What really struck me when reading this book was a very brief few paragraphs that are close to the end. Mattsson’s connections meant that he was good friends with general authorities in the church. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to reconcile the historical issues and would leave, one of these people sent him a last-ditch letter in an attempt to persuade him to stay. This is a brief excerpt of what really stood out to me:

You are too good of a man to come to the other side unrepentant. You will quickly remember…that you allowed something to happen to your spirit, and you changed. You will also recognize that you can no longer do anything to change that because the same spirit that you had here in this life will be with you on the other side, and you will feel miserable when you realize that you have been bound to Satan.

I have no idea if other religious traditions use this paradigm, but the idea that you will possess the same spirit you leave this world with is something that I have always been familiar with. It is often used in this context, where it comes across as a bit of a warning which, from a black and white way of thinking, makes sense.

I genuinely appreciate people who care about me enough to be concerned about the changes in my life. The truth, however, is that I haven’t changed that much at all through this process. My conclusions are different than they were before. My relationships with people and things have shifted. But, my character is exactly what led me here, and I find a lot of confidence in that fact. The ability to look at an issue objectively is a positive in my life. The desire to know where the facts lead at all costs isn’t a scary thing for me. I am extremely comfortable anymore with uncertainty and don’t stress near as much as I used to about it.

I could be wrong in my conclusions. I am not infallible or incapable of misreading the facts. However, my ultimate desire to genuinely sort things out, should that be the case, will right me quite quickly when I reach my judgement day, I have no doubt. Because, if missing information changes the overall picture of how I see religion, it will be my nature to reassess that and move on in the direction of greater clarity. I trust that process a lot at this point and don’t fear it. I trust God and my ability to discern much more than I trust men and the messes they make in the midst of dogma.

I have a few favorite quotes that guide how I interact with issues like these. I’ve liked them for a long time, though it’s probably only been a few years that I’ve felt brave enough to live by them.

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” – J. Rueben Clark
I have never felt more honest and at peace with my relationship with God. The concept addressed here, that you don’t just magically morph into a different person when you die, rings true to me. Still, rather than being a warning, it has become quite a comfort. I am doing the best I can with the information I have and will continue to live my life by that standard. Rather than a dance with the devil, integrity leads one to truth, even if the journey is more windy than one would expect. Because of that, my spirit is strong, and my conscience is clear.

I Finished Watching The Keepers

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I finished watching The Keepers this week. I started it last summer when we were still really wading through our rough patch trying to navigate all the changes in our life. I had a bit of a meltdown at my husband after episode three which subsequently triggered a much-needed hard conversation. It was good, and we got through it pretty well, I think, but I had to stop watching the show. It was just too much at that time. Six months later, I was able to finish it without getting stuck in the rough emotions it brings up. (For those that are completely in the dark, The Keepers is a documentary about the murder of a nun that ended up being wrapped up in some pretty severe abuse in the Baltimore Catholic church.)

I had a thought when I first started watching this, and it’s something that I’m not sure that a lot of people understand. I don’t even know if I can communicate in a way that will be clear enough to shift perspectives, but I’ll try. This story follows several women who tried to prosecute their abuser who happened to be a priest. One of the women, Jean, begins telling her story by outlining her family history and how she had these amazing, devout parents who were truly good and god-fearing people. She then goes on to chronicle her absolutely unbelievably horrific abuses within that Catholic faith. These were experiences where the power invested in the church had been used as the most evil and vicious weapon against this then child. I vividly remember watching this last year and having this crystal clear realization that Jean’s church was not her mother’s church and that she could never have the pure and positive experience with Catholicism that her mother experienced – it had become a poisoned well for her.

I talk to a LOT of people. People share their abuse stories with me. People share their struggles with faith with me. I think that many people do not understand what it is to navigate these experiences, and there are narratives built up around them that, while they serve to shield the teller, are really hurtful and untrue. Jean’s story is quite extreme – it goes way beyond anything I have to deal with in my daily life. Still, it illustrates so clearly that not every environment is good for every person. Jean struggles and works her entire life to connect with divinity in a way that feels safe and supportive, but it absolutely, unequivocally cannot be in the Catholic church. There are too many devils there for it to be God’s house for her – ever.

Life is NOT one-size-fits-all. More than anything else, I think most people want to share their stories with others. They want to be heard. They want to have the freedom to choose paths that are healthy and productive and whole for them. They want to do this and still have family and friends see the bigger picture with compassion and understanding and love.

I think so many people look at other people’s lives from the outside in and think, “Gosh, I feel so sad for them because they are giving up something that is so important/fulfilling/helpful to me, and I want them to have that, too.” I understand that sentiment and where it comes from. But, please understand that you are interpreting their choices through your lenses. Another approach I hear a lot is the idea that, yes, these things are hard/wrong, but XYZ Belief System is the only way and so you just have to suck it up and push through and keep dancing with the devils until God sorts it out. The simple fact is that being healthy when your background includes significant trauma is incredibly difficult in the most supportive environments, and each person’s individualized experience requires unique and creative solutions that often include thinking outside the box. Going against your entire culture to achieve that isn’t the easy way – it’s actually quite traumatizing itself, and you have to be pretty over paying a high price to maintain that status quo to be brave enough to do it anyway.

I do not inherently have an issue with religion. I don’t think Catholicism is bad any more than I think Mormonism is bad. They are very positive parts of many people’s lives. Still, that is not the case for everyone. You don’t have to wear someone else’s shoes to acknowledge that as understandable and valid. You don’t have to get comfy on their bench to concede that is seems truly healthy for them. You don’t have to give up your belief to love someone who has had to let that go. You don’t even have to be sad that they choose different priorities than you do. I believe God is big enough for all that. Are we?

Belief and the Color Blue

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Untangling the webs that weave together through your life is an interesting process. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? But, one of the most interesting questions that I have chewed on over the last few years is this one – “Is belief a choice?” There are dozens of talks and articles in Mormon vernacular that suggest that choosing to believe is synonymous with looking for the good in things. Doubters are painted as Negative Nellies. I have come to believe, however, that belief isn’t a choice at all.

Let me explain using an analogy (because we all know that I love them.) If you were to look at the photo that I chose today, what color would you say it is? Blue? What if I were to tell you that, historically, there is no word for blue in any ancient language? I’m not suggesting that blue did not exist. I think one would be hard pressed to prove that the sky has changed as history has progressed – it’s most likely exactly the same as it’s always been. Still, for hundreds of thousands of years, people did not distinguish blue. This is incredibly bizarre, I know. I have no idea what color people called the sky or ocean or blueberries. But, it wasn’t blue.

Imagine living in a world where blue wasn’t recognized. (For the sake of our analogy, let’s make the assertion that all other colors were known.) I suspect that some blues would get lumped in with green or purple while others might even lean grey or black. This would be the norm – the paradigm held by everyone in society. If you were to pick yourself and plop yourself down in 800-something in a community that didn’t know blue, could you cease to see it yourself? If you were persecuted for being someone who saw blue, could you make yourself fit into a paradigm that no longer saw it for the sake of conformity? (If you could, I don’t think it would be good for your mental health to be that disconnected from your actual reality.)

In my experience, belief is like the color blue. Either you do or you don’t. Either you interpret available information based upon what you know and see it one way, or you pull from other information that makes you distinguish it differently. Belief is based upon your background, the way you think, the way you see and interpret evidence and your life experience. If you don’t see blue, you don’t. If you see it, no amount of mental gymnastics can make it disappear.

I believe lots of things about lots of different subjects. Many of my beliefs have changed over time as I have learned new things or understood things differently. Some of my beliefs have not shifted much at all as my life has progressed. While I can certainly choose to not explore any new information on any particular subject and be more likely to keep my beliefs from altering, I can’t actually choose how I believe about something. My brain either sees it one way or sees it the other based upon what information I have available to me.

I’d like to take credit for this light-bulb moment like it was my own little glimmer of genius, but it turns out that this is a long-discussed question, and I’m not even particularly original in my conclusion that you can’t choose what you believe. When I did a quick search of “Is Belief a Choice” for this blog, there was a variety of perspectives that ranged from religious discussions to psychological approaches all of which are quite interesting and worth consideration.

I understand that the way we feel about belief is, well, a belief. I understand that it can be incredibly frustrating to have a loved one or friend believe differently than you about something fundamental (boy, do I ever!) In my experience, people don’t upset the apple cart on purpose, especially when they’re riding in it. If you find yourself in a situation where you just want to blow a fuse in frustration because you can’t get through to someone, I invite you to take a deep breath, look up at the sky and squint your eyes until it becomes green. Just kidding – do it until you remember that we’re all unique and understand the world differently based upon our own unique experiences, and then rejoin the conversation with fresh eyes (maybe even blue ones?)