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I used to be perfect

I said this in a conversation with a group of ex-Mormons and someone called me on it. Really? I was perfect? And now I’m not? How did that happen?

It took me a long moment to breathe and reflect on this. My old mindset would never have said that I was perfect. Within Mormonism, it would have been extremely arrogant to say something like this. Not even the prophet would say it. Even Joseph Smith, as venerated as he is, is just really, really close to Jesus. But still not perfect.

That said, I was trying to be perfect. That was the goal of everything I did. Sure, now and then you hear an apostle talk about how important the Atonement is, but ten times as often, you hear that you’re only going to be saved “after all you can do.” And what you can do is a hell of a lot. So chop-chop, get to work, pay your tithing, do your genealogy, your temple work, your callings, clean the chapel, say your prayers constantly, read the scriptures, do service to all, make donations to good charities, and on and on and on. The list is never-ending, but I think orthodox Mette really believed most of the time that she was pretty close to perfection.

That sense is part of the reason that it was so hard for me to let go of Mormonism. I think it’s one of the reasons that on the other side, there are a lot of ex-Mormons who left because they never felt good enough. And they’re angry at the ones of us who were so self-righteous and never noticed how many people were being harmed by the lists and demands of perfecting ourselves. I acknowledge that this is likely the thing I feel most guilty about, post-Mormonism, that I was so blithely unaware of the people suffering because of my self-congratulations.

Now that I’ve given up the idea of achieving perfection, with or without the Atonement, it’s one of the biggest losses I deal with regularly. I suspect non-Mormons might read this and laugh because being perfect isn’t at all part of their religion. How in the world would anyone think they could achieve perfection? But one of the first parts of Mormonism I learned as a child was that it was so sad that other Christian churches believed in original sin. We didn’t believe that. We didn’t think there was anything keeping us from God. Lucky us, right?

Well, as long as you stay Mormon, I guess you’re inside a nice little bubble of happy delusion. Now that I see more clearly that I’m not and never was anything close to perfection, it’s hard to get used to.

I know that there are ex-Mormons out there who will complain that I’m “the same person” that I was. But it feels very far from true to me. No, I didn’t start using drugs, sleeping with other people, or abusing my children after stepping away from my orthodox Mormonism. Mostly my life probably looks exactly the same from the outside. I’m still a writer. I still do triathlons. I still spend a lot of time eating out with my kids. And a lot of money trying to pay for college. It feels very different on the inside, however. It feels kind of sad. It’s a giving up of a certain kind of privilege, I suppose. But accepting myself as not even close to perfect and not likely to get anywhere closer to perfect is painful. Yeah, me and my pity party.

Anyway, I know I wasn’t perfect, but I tried to be. And wrenching my mind around to seeing that that’s never going to happen and all I’m ever going to manage is to be a little bit less awful is a letdown. This is why, I suppose, I sometimes tell people that I was happier when I was Mormon.

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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