When I was Mormon, I believed that my faith protected me against all sorts of fears. One of the primary fears was loss of my children to death, but I was also afraid of more pedestrian things: losing my house, getting fired from my job, friends deciding they hated me. And then there were the existential fears like nuclear war and the end of all life on earth, or just not being “good enough” in school or in life,. Finally, there was the fear that God would punish me for some small infraction I had dismissed as unimportant. There were a lot of fears. I think I believed for a long time that if I just tried harder, held more tightly to my beliefs, made longer and longer lists of rules, that I would be “safe.” Yeah. That didn’t work.
In fact, it turns out that most of my worst fears have come true in one way or another, regardless of my faithfulness to Mormonism. My youngest daughter died at birth. Almost all of my children have left Mormonism, though one of my dearest Mormon friends points it out as instructive that they didn’t leave our family. I lost my job. I lost my house at one point. I was so far in debt that the CCC told me my only choice was to declare bankruptcy (I didn’t, though I’m not sure that was a smart choice, in the end). I’ve lost plenty of friendships, discovered I’m not “good enough” in a thousand different ways.
Now, the narrative many faithful Mormons would want to tell is that I was being “tested” when bad things happened to me before I left the church. And that bad things happened afterward so that God could convince me to go back. Covid-19 is somtimes framed by the faithful as an example of the kind of “test” God offers His children to coax them back to the fold. Yes, terrify us and then we’ll do what you say. That’s what good parents do. Uh-huh.
But what has happened to me since I left Mormonism is that I’ve slowly let go of all the fears that used to bind me so closely to the faith. Now, that didn’t happen all at once. For years, I thought it would never happen, and that my existential fears for my post-Mormon future would be never-ending and possibly life-ending. But I’ve come to a good place since then, a place where I don’t do much in my life anymore because of fear while I see so clearly how almost everything I did before was in an attempt to avoid feeling fear if I made choices that weren’t accepted within Mormonism (as simple as drinking coffee, wearing a tank top, or as complicated as not seeing myself as primarily a mother or rejecting the role of a dutiful daughter).
Of course, when I was Mormon, I would have insisted that I didn’t do anything out of fear. I did things out of love. I loved God and wanted to return to His presence. I loved the church. I loved the temple. I loved my family. Those were the things that I thought I was focusing on. I loved my family so I stayed home with my kids and did everything for them. I loved the church, so I did what leaders told me to do. I loved other people, so I gave tithes and offerings.
Except that all those things I loved were things that I was subtly threatened each week would be taken from me. If I didn’t follow the commandments perfectly one hundred percent of the time, bad things could happen. I wouldn’t have protection against disease, death, and sin. Indeed, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy because bad things will always happen, and it’s easy for religion to point the finger back to the person. You’re never perfect, so it can always be your fault, not the fault of the religion. Or God.
The carrot and the stick seem in retrospect to always be part of Mormonism. It has taken me a while to see that the game was set up this way from the start. I was taught from childhood to be afraid of things I likely wouldn’t have been afraid of without Mormonism. But I was told that it was all about love — and believed it until my faith crisis struck and I began to fall apart because Iwas stepping outside the system and neither the carrot nor the stick worked there anymore.
These days, I’m not afraid of what happens after this life. I will be dead then and there will be no more reason to fear. I don’t worry about God’s disapproval causing me to be struck down in some scriptural story of divine retribution. I used to see the whole world this way, as proof of “wickedness never was happiness” and that the righteous were always justified. But that’s not the way that life is. Rather, rain falls on the just and the unjust. This is both terrible and comforting, because I am both just and unjust. Rain falls on me, and Covid-19 may fall on me, just like it falls on my Mormon and ex-Mormon and never-Mormon neighbors. Life isn’t fundamentally different based on fears and rules. It just feels different for a while. Until you see things more clearly.