Post-Mormon Mette: Processing Regrets
One of the real psychological efforts of stepping away from Mormonism is processing the regrets of “what might have been.” I think the number of things to regret is related exponentially to your age when you step away. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have left orthodox Mormonism who have told me they don’t want to talk to their parents about it because they think that being over 70 and realizing you’ve spent your whole life on a system you no longer believe in is simply too painful. I have one friend (ONE!) whose 80 year-old father left when she did in her 50s and he seems happy to be out, but this is a vast anomaly. It is hard to leave when you’ve invested so much of your life and time on this earth to a religion that you believed was the “one true church,” only to discover that its promises were hollow and that its punishments existed only in your mind as long as you were willing to inflict them on yourself.
Some of the things I’ve regretted or talked to others who have regretted include:
1. Lost Years (mission, etc.)
2. Lost Education (especially if you’re a woman)
3. Lost Money (count up all your years of tithing and other offerings and it can’t hurt).
4. Lost Opportunities (all the chances you gave personal hopes up to do church service)
5. Lost Friendships (all the people you could have had friendships with that you didn’t)
6. Lost Marriage (especially if your marriage fails after one or both partners leave Mormonism)
7. Lost Happiness (all those years you spent hating yourself)
8. Lost Pleasures (begin with coffee and tea, then sex, and go from there)
9. Lost Body Image (you covered your body as if it was shameful during the years it looked best)
10. Lost Freedom (so many things you don’t even know you lost)
I remember hearing an old saying about religion that if it makes you live a better life, then it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not because you’ll have no regrets at the end, and the next life won’t matter. But here’s the thing: you don’t live the same life if you believe in a religion than if you don’t. Religion, especially fundamentalist Christian religion, means that you’re constantly giving up pleasures in the here and now for the hope of reward in the afterlife. I might argue that this is the very definition of Christianity (though I admit progressives talk a lot more about the here and now that heaven should be in).
I’m in the midst of processing all of this right now. It’s not that I have had a terrible life. I haven’t. My husband and I own our house outright (an accomplishment we worked at together). Our kids have all been able to go to the universities they wanted to (though some have had a little student debt to deal with). We both made many friends because of the church and did a lot of rewarding church service.
I was also very fulfilled as a mostly stay-at-home mom. I adore my kids. I am glad that I have the relationships I have with them. It’s just that the “and yets” start here.
Couldn’t I have had those relationships with my kids and also had a better career trajectory? I worked hard to get a PhD from Princeton at age 24, but I worked part-time for three years, and then gave it up. I worked on a writing career, but have never really made it work financially. I do things here and there, adjunct teaching novel writing at the local university, editing for friends, doing mentorships, but I don’t have a career and I wince every time one of my now adult children makes a joke about how my husband has a career and I just sit at home and twiddle my thumbs (while writing novels). And this is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to regrets.
I spent so much of my life hating my body and being ashamed of showing it, hiding away from my own sexual desire, and just creating so many strict boundaries around myself that I wish I could undo now. I admit, it’s not fair to blame all of those regrets on Mormonism. Plenty of them are just garden variety American problems with misogyny and patriarchy, but Mormonism was my way of imbibing and justifying them as right and proper. I don’t regret vacations I could have gone on (I’m not much of a vacation person, I admit), or vices I might have acquired (coffee and alcohol are both things I sometimes joke are the only things Mormonism got right). But I do sometimes feel sad about all the people I didn’t let into my life because of Mormonism, either actively or passively, making me feel that I only wanted safe Mormons around me and my kids.
And then there are all the things that I suspect I’m not even going to realize I regret until later, until I try them out, because I don’t even know how much I needed them in my life to make me happier. Sure, some of this is midlife crisis and it hits everyone in their 50s like this, reconsidering every decision you’ve ever made in your life and being sure that you could have made better ones. But it’s also the sense of freedom to be yourself for the first time and realizing that you could have been yourself all along. If only it hadn’t been so evil and wrong to even figure out who you were.