Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Letter to Singles Ward Bishops

Photo attribution here.

I remember one Sunday I was at BYU in Provo. I was standing in some line with a few kids I had just met in my ward, pretending to be excited about the ever enticing "free food!" gimmick we Mormons are awfully fond of.  I was making chit chat with a reasonably attractive, nice young man when one of the counselors of the bishopric walked by and said, "Now remember, enjoy the food, but don't forget to look for your eternal companion!" The kid and I smiled at each other awkwardly, made some joke about how we should get married, made it through the lunch line, then never spoke again.
Elder Boyd K. Packer once taught a lesson to a group of missionaries at a zone conference. (Full account  here.) The true story goes like this: Sister Packer bakes a beautiful cake. Elder Packer asks if anyone would like a piece. An Elder volunteers. He serves the slice of cake to the Elder on a crystal plate in a dignified manner and asks for another volunteer. While the next Elder is anxiously awaiting his slice Elder Packer rips the top off the cake with his bare hand and hurls it at the unsuspecting Elder, memorably proving the point that it's not what we do but how we do it.
There seems to be a great sense of concern over my demographic in the church of 18-30 and unmarried, and rightly so. We are tragically turning away from God at an alarming rate. Somewhere along the line, however, someone decided the way to fix this issue is to get us all married off. My feeling is that this direction comes from high up in the chain. I say this because most of the "get married" talks I've sat through come across to me as inauthentic and contrived, as if they were mandated by someone in authority. Even as a divorcee of 8 months I can say without hesitation, I believe in marriage. I believe it's Godly, I believe it's necessary and I believe it would help our inactivity rates in many instances. The doctrine of marriage and I are cool, but if I get one more piece of cake thrown at me when I didn't even volunteer for the object lesson, I'm going to become a lesbian and marry a woman, just to spite you.
Speaking generally for the body of LDS young single adults today (I've attended 11 singles wards over the course of 10 years, so I feel I can do so with some degree of authority) there are a couple things you should know.

1. Most of us want to get married. It's not because of, but in spite of the pressure put on us.
From what I can gather from the myriad of "get married" comments, talks, looks, jokes and jabs, the idea that my generation would rather play video games or travel or buy something unnecessarily shiny than get married seems to inhabit the consciousness of those in leadership. This is not true. We may enjoy video games or traveling or be pursuing school or career, but this is not why we aren't married. The majority of us want to be married because for most it's a natural part of the human experience to seek companionship. Also, we know it's one of God's greatest tools for cultivating divinity in His people. If we're attending church in this day and age as full grown adults we have our hearts set on Godly things. Give us a little credit. The pressure you're adding is doing nothing for us. Between the age appropriate, God given, biological drive for sex and the nearly palpable social pressure to take the plunge, not one of us will ever benefit from your, "Cowboy up and get 'er done" rhetoric. I don't need a Sunday school lesson to remind me that I'm behind in the race to familyhood, I have Facebook. As for those of us who aren't interested in marriage, no public pep talk is going to change that, and the reasons we have are pretty much never as shallow as you seem to think. 

2. There was a caveat in that infamous Kimball quote.
It was 1976 when President Kimball said, " is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price." (Ensign, March 1977, First Presidency Message.) This got a lot of play wherein it was paraphrased as, "You can be happily married to anyone, so stop being so picky." If you read the article in its entirety, that's actually exactly the opposite of what he was saying. My generation has the internet, so we can read the full quote that talks about being willing to, "pay the price", and we are all too familiar with the price of a poorly chosen mate, which brings me to my next point. 

3. We are traumatized by divorce.
Our parents are divorced, our siblings are divorced, our friends are divorced, and some of us are divorced, so you can't tell us, "Marriage is the most beautiful, celestial, Godly blessing that can be known to man," without reviving in at least 50% of us sharp edged memories that fly in the face of that statement, even if it is true in some cases. Even if we desperately want it to be true for us.

4. You're giving us all a complex.
"Are you dating anyone? Why not? That's really something you should be thinking about," is a direct quote from my singles ward bishop's counselor in a private interview in Provo. I was 19 at the time. There are two possible reactions to this kind of intrusion in our lives. We either walk away thinking, "I hate that guy" or "He's right. What's wrong with me?" Either way the thought is most certainly not, "Oh yeah, I hadn't thought of that!"  In one of my more recent singles wards there was a girl who we called the, "27 and not married girl" because it was like her catchphrase, always worked into conversation somehow, always spoken like it was one, long, burdensome word. I don't know how things are on the male end of this, but I have extensive, first hand experience as to what this kind of overt pressure is doing to the beautiful, faithful, humble, dying of frustration single women of the church. It's making us doubt ourselves, dis ourselves and decrease our lists of marital "must haves" 'till we settle for sub par.  

5. We are isolated, lonely and insecure. 
We need the refuge of church. In America we believe in being fine. Don't believe me? Next time a cashier asks how you are, tell them the truth. Let me know how that works out for you. Church is designed to be a home away form home. Singles wards especially are designed to be families. When the three hours set apart that week for God are riddled with comments like, "Are you dating? Why not? You really should be." or, "Cowboy up and get 'er done!" or, "Make sure you've got your priorities straight, " we start thinking about our hair and stop thinking about our neighbor. It's about as helpful as a glass of water for a man who is drowning. Please, please, please, stop it. 
In keeping with Abraham Lincoln's counsel, "He has a right to criticize who has a heart to help," I have some suggestions to help this problem. Actually, President Kimball has some suggestions for you, straight from that massively misinterpreted talk from the 70s. I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best straight shooter advice I've received regarding marriage in the text as I reviewed it tonight. It's worth the full read, but the one point I'd like to highlight is from his "never failing formula" for a happy marriage, and it's exactly what we need. Are you ready for this?

Teach us to be unselfish, to forget ourselves, and to focus on the good of the family, our ward family. 

What we, the endangered demographic have been taught is to take care of ourselves. We need to be taught to receive kindness graciously and look out for our brother. We've been conditioned to approach church as a soiree. We need to be taught to commune with God intimately for three sacred hours on Sunday and then spend our week days and nights with those who uplift us. We've been taught that we need to be sexy and/or rich if we want to be worth anything. We need to be taught how to find the beauty and value in every person we interact with at church. This does not happen when we are perpetually being counseled, "Don't forget to look for your eternal companion." 

I can personally and emphatically attest that the effect that a righteous bishop who listens can have on his congregation is profound. What if every Sunday instead of, "Get married" we heard our ward father say, "In this ward, we're a family, and in this family we don't leave anyone out." What if, instead of wondering how we look in our jeans and if he will notice, we were taught to pick up the ward list and call every name on it to make sure they'd gotten the invitation. What if we were encouraged to look at each other as sources of support and security instead of someone who will ultimately accept or reject us for the remainder of mortal existence and beyond? 
Help us. Teach us. Show us the way to break free from the vicious voices of the world who relentlessly, infectiously declare, "You are not good enough. You are not strong enough. You are alone." Show us how to love ourselves for who we are. Then, teach us to love something and someone more than we love ourselves, because I want to be someone who loves selflessly, and I want to marry someone who lives in selfless love. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

That's right. A mother-effing ninja. (Thoughts on Mormon spousal abuse.)

Photo attribution here

I've written and re-written this post several times over the course of multiple months. I sent it to a friend, had her edit it, then scrapped it again and started back at square one. I finally have settled on this approach to addressing the incredibly sensitive issue of spousal abuse within the church.

Elder Holland states, "Physical abuse is uniformly and unequivocally condemned in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If it is possible to be more condemning than that, we speak even more vigorously against all forms of sexual abuse. Today, I speak against verbal and emotional abuse of anyone against anyone... these things ought not to be." ( Tongue of AngelsApril 2007) 

This quote serves as a direct, authoritative declaration that God does indeed want us to knock it off when it comes to treating each other badly. One who has not traversed the dimly lit, maze-meets-haunted-mansion halls of an abusive relationship would likely consider this advice sufficient for those faced with serious decisions to make in this arena. If he's a jerk, he should shape up. If she's hitting you, she's out of line. Be nice. The end.  

But domestic abuse is a mother-effing ninja that specializes in making origami soup out of what once served as your framework for interpreting life. Most especially this ninja attacks concepts of what is safe and what is not, what is good and what is bad, what makes you special and what makes you terrible and how much you're worth and why. Like many aspects of the complexity that is the human experience, adding the social construct of belonging to the amazing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints further complicates several issues relating to abuse within the family. Allow me to elaborate.

The Mental Ninja who double majored in Mormon Psyche is capable of taking the very doctrines that grant us security in this world of "shafts in the whirlwind" (Helaman 5:12) and twisting them, distorting them just enough so that they lose their structural integrity. Then he stealthily weaves them into Sunday school lessons and the subconscious minds of many members of our faith. 

When the inevitable collapse comes, he has done what ninjas do best: disappeared without a trace leaving us utterly alone. We then look around for an explanation, only to find the God that we hoped would prevent just such a tragedy doing what He does best: sticking around no matter what. This can be inexpressibly disorienting, not to mention life alteringly disheartening. This is one of many reasons some choose to turn away in the moments we most desperately need to turn toward Christ. 

Walk with me through this list of just three of many doctrines and their related harmful, unsubstantiated extrapolations that can so tragically serve as Mormon Psyche Ninja's double edged sword as he makes origami soup out of the lives of the unsuspecting faithful everywhere. (I think I like this ninja analogy a little too much.) 

God: Marriage is a commandment. It will bring you closer to me.
Ninja: If you break this commandment you will not be able to live with God again. He hates sin and will never be able to look at you the same if you leave your marriage, no matter how bad it gets.  

God: I give unto men my Priesthood. Serve one another. Love one another.
Ninja: (to men) A righteous priesthood holder doesn't leave his wife. Your relationship is the way it is because you're not fully fulfilling your God given duties as a husband.
Ninja: (to women) To be a good wife is to respect your husband's priesthood authority. He has a special connection with God that you cannot understand. To disagree or disobey your husband is to disobey God.

God: Endure to the end.
Ninja: Don't you ever give up, no matter how miserable or unhealthy. If you hold to the rod and be faithful God will make everything right in the end. Your spouse will be the person he or she was when you two fell in love once you cross over into the next life. God will change him or her to reward your good works. You just need more faith. Pray more. Read more scriptures. Fast more. Give greater fast offerings. Magnify your calling more. If you can be perfect in these things it will change the nature of your spouse and your relationship. 

See where I'm going with this? 

The thing about unhealthy relationships is that the way things are in daylight is often not the way things are behind closed doors. When everything you see looks sideways and everything you wanted and worked for is somehow upside down, how do you pull apart all the blurred and badgering voices, the opinions and interpretations and excuses and explanations to discern what is right for you in that moment of time? 

How do you know when you can rightly say, "Enough is enough" in a marriage sealed by God?

Because intimate relationships are infinitely unique and complex, I cannot answer this question for you. What I can say is that I stayed in a marriage that was detrimental to my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing for too long because I was determined not to fail God. I was certain that if I was faithful and kind and good enough that He would make it work for us. We all make choices. Sometimes we or our partners make good choices. Sometimes we make bad ones. Sometimes leaving is the right choice to make. 

In a conference address Elder Oaks, true to his nature,  directly declares, "There are many Church members who have been divorced... We know that many of you are innocent victims--members whose former spouses persistently betrayed sacred covenants or abandoned or refused to perform marriage responsibilities for an extended period. Members who have experienced such abuse have firsthand knowledge of circumstances worse than divorce. When a marriage is dead and beyond hope of resuscitation, it is needful to have a means to end it." (Divorce, April 2007)

I'm fast approaching my eight month mark since my divorce was finalized. Every day it gets a little bit clearer that God didn't want me in that marriage any more than I wanted to be in that dimly lit, maze-meets-haunted-mansion marriage. The thing I know bone deep is that God wants us to be well. Sometimes that requires us to do the hard thing, but that's different than thing that kills our souls. 

If this --should I stay or should I go?--question is the question in your heart today, this is my unsolicited advice for you. Find a quiet moment and just breathe. Let whatever is tangled up inside you float to the surface and work itself out. Whatever the next step in your path with God is, there's a place inside you that already knows the way. Staying, separating, counseling, leaving, implementing new plans, books, establishing new ground rules, changing, whatever the path is you need to take, Jesus Christ knows it. He knows the lonely and misunderstood roads best. Wherever you go from here, know that when you walk with God, you walk tall. Regardless where that road leads He will not reject you. He will always love you. That's a concept that can be foreign and untrustable in a troubled marriage. Trust it anyway. He will guide you to health, to happiness, to peace. He will guide you home. 

To share, or not to share?

Photo attribution here.

So, the other day this thing happened. I started attending Institute here, which I've really been enjoying. The first time I walked through the doors (thank goodness I was early and the class was pretty empty) this senior couple who had served in my singles ward here three years ago was setting up the class and they totally remembered me. They walked up with slightly puzzled looks on their faces and said, "Wait, didn't you get married?"

When I was in phase one I was very, very open about my matrimonial history. One, I'm an almost absurdly open person to begin with and two, the beast that is divorce had overtaken my body, mind and soul to such an extent that it really felt like I didn't have a choice. It was the only thing in my head to talk about. No matter how uncomfortable it got I just kept opening my mouth and out would topple comments like, "Oh yeah, my husband did that too," or "Yeah, well the first time I got married I wore a vintage dress, but I don't know what I'll do for wedding number two," or, "Oh my gosh, I know. Making out is my favorite. I love it, even more than sex!" As you might imagine, this lead to many uncomfortable moments in my small, young singles ward.

During my epic road trip down here which transitioned me from phase one to two in my Get On With Life plan, I pondered extensively the pros and cons of going public with the fact that I was once married. When an LDS person finds out another LDS person has been married and divorced, it changes the way the once married person is viewed; there is no way around this. Eternal marriage is such a deeply integral aspect of our faith that, especially while one is single, everything seems to be viewed through this three part lens of married, single or divorced. Once divorce is admitted everything in the life of that person assumes a new hue.

We divorcees can feel this shift, which is why so very many of us remain silent. The righteously indignatious part of me wants to buck this system, which is another reason I was so loud mouthed about my divorce in my last ward. It's kind of a shock when people first hear it, the "D" word, but my theory was that the more people I could expose to a real live divorced Mormon, especially a devout one, the more stigma would dissipate.

However, in  order to achieve this noble aspiration, one would need to take upon herself every awkward moment she could in order to break the ice, again and again and again. In truth, I'm just not strong enough for that. Also, through my deliberation on the drive I decided such an "in your face" approach is probably not the most effective anyway to change perspectives or break the stereotype of the bitter divorced lady. Better to let a person discover the elements of me as they come and allow my divorce to be just one more layer of my fairly complex life story. In the early moments it was impossible to believe, but the truth is, I'm a lot more than my two year relationship to a man with whom I no longer speak.

Having settled on a "need to know"policy for when to speak about myself,  I have also settled on the decision to anonymize the blog. You may have noticed. Many of you know who I am and mostly I advertise this blog through facebook, but we're at about 5,500 hits now and coming up as #3 in Google search for "divorced mormon blog". I'd love to see us continue to grow. I'd also love it if we could just go with my nom de plum Imogen Frowfrow (there's a funny story here, as you can imagine) as my name. Sometimes it's hard to have strangers know your story.

As for your decisions, because you will have many to make about how much to say about what and when, here's my advice (since you so clearly asked for it). When the moment is right, do not be ashamed to admit your experience. Shame and guilt are tools of the devil if they are not motivating us to change. We cannot change what has happened, and we should not allow ourselves to be shamed because of it. Hold your head high when you speak about your divorce. It (hopefully) has changed you, ultimately for the better and brought you closer to Christ. It's an experience many of us share in silence. Sometimes breaking that silence can be a powerful and right thing to do. Also, you have every right to protect yourself, to establish boundaries, to decide how much of yourself to share and how much to keep. There is nothing wrong with giving yourself a clean slate, and in moments it will be right to stay quiet, omit, or even mislead. Your experience as a married person does not have to define you. There is more to you than this. God will let you know which moment is which.