How much anxiety, discomfort and uncertainty can you tolerate? I think this is an important question with regard to faith and faith crises. So many of us seek for certainty, truth and a life free from discomfort that we go to great lengths to avoid anything otherwise and at times end up missing opportunities.
As a therapist (who has also been a client) it seems that so often the question that brings people in is, “how can I make these feelings go away?” We spend so much time trying to avert uncomfortable feelings rather than wondering what they can teach us. All too often when a faith crisis presents itself we run as fast as we can instead of leaning into it and trusting in the process.
The first time my faith was challenged as a member of the church was when I had just moved to San Diego after growing up in Utah. I was so excited to stand out as a Mormon and I waited for people to ask me about my beliefs and for that one person who would really want to know more. That is, of course, what we are taught to expect and anticipate right? So when the missionaries in our ward called and asked us to help teach a couple of college students who were interested in the church I thought, “here’s my chance!”
I showed up wearing my best missionary face and hoping to have the right answers. I didn’t realize how egocentric I was and that meeting was really all about me fulfilling a childhood expectation to share the truth. It became clear very quickly that they called the missionaries to challenge and humiliate them with allegations and insults about church history. As the students pulled anti-Mormon literature from their backpacks my heart dropped, I began to sweat and anxiety filled my entire body. They came armed and I was defenseless. I sat and sobbed while trying to share what I thought I knew. The entire experience was miserable so I left and tried to erase what had happened from my mind. I didn’t process it with anyone and didn’t understand my reaction. I was broken-hearted and vowed never to put myself in a vulnerable position like that again.
I did reflect, however, on what I had heard as a youth about venturing outside of correlated material or about even having conversations about the church that were anything less than positive. There was always the story about ‘so and so’ who started reading, lost their testimony and eventually left the church. That story always ended with something like, “they are so miserable now.” I feared my questioning mind and traveling down a path that might lead me to misery. I prohibited myself from questioning anything related to faith, the church or leaders and in the process I stunted my emotional and spiritual growth.
It would be 12 years later that my faith would once again be challenged but this time I wasn’t as fearful as I was before. I was working as a therapist trying to help someone with their own faith crisis. As this person shared horrific information with me about his experiences in the church I was again overcome with anxiety and began to feel my body reacting. For a second I thought about discounting his experiences to avoid feeling what was emerging. Fortunately, from a calm place inside came the realization that I needed to hear what he was saying…not just listen but really let myself be affected by his experiences.
So sparing all the details of my faith crisis, I wrestled with my own issues privately while my client struggled in front of me. It was tough to separate our experiences although it was clear they were different and distinct. I struggled not only as an individual but also as a mother in the throws of parenting three young children. I began to be more conscious of what and how I taught my children. I decided I needed to teach them how to think instead what to think. I want them to rely on their own intuition and curious mind rather than what the big people around them say.
Our kids will have opportunities for faith growth much earlier than we have because the access to information is incredible. Chances are that our children’s friends will know the sticky topics of the church before they do. I truly hope my kids can speak to those tough questions or simply tolerate a conversation like the one I so clumsily avoided so many years ago.
I really loved the recent podcast with James McConkie about how he formed his beliefs and testimony. He seemed to be raised in a culture of religious discussion, differing beliefs and free thought. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during those McConkie family home evenings to really understand how to cultivate an environment that allows kids to explore and question while still be heard and validated.
So what’s important to me is that I made it through my faith crisis with my faith in tact. It’s taken a beating and occasionally still does. I don’t value things I once did and I feel more connected to those who wonder. I’m less concerned with the church checklist and more curious about what really matters. My faith still looks and feels the same but it’s framed differently. Instead of an ironclad boundary, impermeable to the outside world…the boundary around my faith allows for new people, experiences and ideas to enter and influence. I have thrown out the idea that things are EVER black and white. We can’t have absolute certainty in life and for me the task is to remain flexile and adaptive in the midst of chaos. So hopefully when my kids hit the bump in their faith road (I truly hope that they do), they can tolerate the ambiguity long enough to let it teach them and to still feel God in the midst of it.