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Change From the Outside

I sometimes feel guilty about leaving Mormonism. Not because I think that God will punish me for being weak or choosing to “sin” by drinking coffee and wearing sleeveless tops in the summer, but because I greatly admire those who are still working within Mormonism to try to change it and to make safer space for LGBT youth, some of whom don’t even know yet that they are LGBT, but are hearing terribly negative messages that may lead to severely negative mental health outcomes. I tried to be there for them. I tried to be visible and vocal, both in my local ward and in my writing online. But it was too much for me. It was having a severe negative impact on my mental/emotional health to the point of me struggling with suicidal thoughts regularly, and I had to step away.

I sometimes judge myself as not as strong as others who are able to stay. This is perhaps one of the most Mormon things still about me, this idea that somehow I should be perfect and that I am never allowed to be “selfish” and think about what I need. As a Mormon mother, I spent a lot of time believing that there was no leeway for making mistakes because those would impact my kids forever. I thought that I had to be a perfect mother for them — not necessarily that I had to make myself into their servant, but that I had to always do the right thing for them. The model of sacrifice and service was a powerful one and it’s something that I’m right now re-considering as I turn over many of the old Mormon habits in my life, trying to decide if it’s time to jettison them or not.

Was I too weak? Should I have tried harder to stay? What if I’d been the one to be in the right place at the right time to change everything? What if something I had written were passed along to just one kid who needed to read it, but who would only read it if I were still attending regularly, still “in,” and not a threatening “ex-Mormon”?

I know, I know. It sounds ruthless and cruel, doesn’t it? I’m never allowed to make a choice that is good for me if I could be working to do something for other people. I suppose this is a problem lots of activists deal with, trying to balance the will to live with the need to keep doing more and more for other people. And yes, I also recognize that it’s a super egoistical model, the idea that somehow I’m the only one. I’m trying to get rid of that egoism, or at least to see it more clearly as the unhealthy model of living that it is. But I’m not there yet.

What helped me most was a conversation with a new ex-Muslim friend of mine (the best part of being an ex-Mormon is meeting all the wonderful people who I’d never have considered talking to because of my own sense of boundaries and threats to the necessary loyalty to my own community) who told me that she also went through these kinds of questions about if she should stay. She told me that she knew that as a highly educated woman, she would be excellent at being a liberal Muslim and speaking up for that part of the community. But she chose not to do it, and has reminded herself that it is not only the people inside who pressure for change — people outside do it, too. Both sides are necessary for change to happen.

It reminded me of all the Mormons who have been excommunicated over the years, and who continued to work for their causes from the outside of Mormonism. Yes, some of them were successfully marginalized by the church so that they weren’t able to speak to the community within. But many worked in other ways to pressure the church to change its public image. This is a model that I think I’m going to try to aim for, though I will also admit that there are days when I try to also give myself permission not to work for change in the Mormon church at all, but simply to sit with my stash of chocolate and read a great mystery novel and forget about anything outside of my own brain case. I give myself permission to laugh at jokes about Mormonism I would once have considered crass. I give myself permission not to be nice to my former friends who don’t understand what has happened to me. I give myself permission to be a bad, selfish person and and to let go of the need to change the world. Because really, what makes me think that I know where the world should go anyway?

If that sounds like me giving up, it is, partly. Giving up can be healthy, I think. It is also an undoing of the narrative of Mormonism that I’ve been saved specially for this time, one of the “elites” of the church, the special ones who have a mission to save the world. I don’t know what saving the world would look like. I’m spending time now undoing heroic ideas in myself and even the idea of right and wrong. I’m becoming more curious about other people’s points of view and giving up the idea that I have the truth of any kind, that I’m supposed to be an evangelist. I’ll share some chocolate with you, I guess. But not too much!

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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