This now-infamous question (slightly paraphrased) posed by President Boyd K. Packer at October Conference will, I think, reverberate in the minds of many church members for years to come – and not just with respect to sexual orientation. I can’t help thinking that Elder Packer may for many members have inadvertently, in a moment of startling but unintended candor, let the genie of existential doubt out of the bottle of complacent certainty, and that it may be impossible for some people to ever get that genie to return to its comfortable but confined space.
I believe I may be one of those people, for I have had some rather bitter experience of late with this question.
Scene One: Our Son
Our oldest son came home unexpectedly almost half-way through his mission, suffering from depression and anxiety. I was caught unawares and desperately attempted to understand, over the course of the ensuing weeks, what had happened and what was happening to him. I felt, however, like I was continually trying to play catch up in this game of understanding, and I always seemed to be behind the curve.
Because I was playing catch-up (and because I was still too attuned to my ingrained Mormon expectations), I didn’t see the next major curve ball: before I knew what was happening, I was taking my suicidal son to the emergency room. I will never forget following the ambulance ahead of us on that snowy night as he was transported to a different hospital where he would be admitted to a psychiatric ward. I will never forget going to visit him during the week he was a patient there, thankful that it was only one week. And I will never forget asking myself over and over: Why is this happening? Why would Heavenly Father do this to my son and to us?
But there were more challenges ahead. Our son seemed to be improving after being in the hospital; his medication had been changed, and he was thankfully no longer suicidal. He tried to put together some plans for how he could move forward with his life. But he met with disappointment after disappointment.
Finally, a few weeks after coming home from the hospital, he broke down in a fit of anger and despair before melting into paroxysms of sobs. He had been praying for help with his life and had felt good about a job interview; but it had turned into another dead end. He snapped. I eventually got him to unlock the door of his room and let me in to talk to him. Another scene I will never forget: books thrown off shelves, furniture tossed this way and that, his room a wreck. He turned to me with an anguished look on his face, eyes red, tears streaming down his cheeks, and shouted, “Why is God doing this to me? I trusted Him! I did what I thought He wanted me to do! And I keep running into brick walls! I’m never going to trust Him again!”
Scene Two: Me and My Wife
My wife and I basically got married because we both felt that this was what Heavenly Father wanted us to do. I realize how incredibly naïve that sounds, to put it charitably. We both had “strong testimonies” and felt that we had received a witness that we were meant to be together, despite the fact that we were very different from each other, had different interests, came from differing family backgrounds, and basically couldn’t let two days pass without getting into an argument.
Because we felt we were supposed to get married, we trusted God to bless us with happiness as we worked away at this “arranged marriage.” But more arguments and adjustments followed the wedding. I started graduate school and our first child was soon on his way. We continued to experience problems, and I think it could be said that we were both unhappy, but we felt that we were doing what we were “supposed” to do.
As the years passed, we continued to proceed on “the path” (i.e., actively following the Church’s prescribed plan of happiness for families) – me working away at my career and in church callings, she bearing additional children and taking care of things at home. The main thing we had in common by this point was raising our children and staying on “the path” and working on other goals for our family.
This was the situation for much of our marriage: blindly working away, but (both of us) feeling an underlying sense of unhappiness, disconnection with self, and a growing suspicion that we had badly miscalculated God’s plans for our lives. These gnawing feelings, however, were kept at bay over the past number of years due to the sense of purpose engendered by the adoption of a couple of children – which (you guessed it) we did because we felt it was something God wanted us to do.
But once these adoptions were completed, the underlying problems in our marriage rose to the surface, and we were confronted with some inconvenient truths – i.e., the same ones that had been there all along but which we had ignored or pushed away.
Now, we are faced with financial obligations incurred to complete the adoptions; the expected financial blessings did not materialize. Furthermore, the badly worn covering of faith that we had been stretching for years over the deep fissures and cracks in our relationship finally ripped open, revealing the truth of what lay underneath.
Like my son, I now pose the question: Why? Why did we do these things which our minds and our hearts told us were mistakes? We trusted God with our lives and honestly tried to do what we thought He wanted us to do. Why would He do this to us?
Scene Three: Our Daughter
A couple of days ago, I described a heartfelt conversation with my daughter (who is a freshman at college) after discovering that she had asked my wife over Thanksgiving break if I am gay (which my wife had confirmed).
During the course of my discussions with my daughter that day, we also talked about the Church. It turns out she is doing a lot of soul-searching. She has always had what I would term a “strong testimony,” but she also has a strong, independent mind and spirit that has never felt comfortable with the “softball answers” that are common in your average Sunday School class.
At one point in our conversation, she said, “I don’t understand why Heavenly Father would do this to us. We have always tried to do exactly what He has asked of us – yet look at the situation our family is in! You always hear that if you keep the commandments and do what God asks you to do, He’ll bless you. But He hasn’t done that for us. And I don’t understand that.”
What could I say? She was echoing my own thoughts. She knew that the “pat Sunday School answers” (as she put it), would not cut it. She remarked that people typically would say one or more of the following in response to her question: God won’t try you beyond your capacity to endure; or, you receive no witness until after the trial of your faith; or, faith precedes the miracle. But all of these simplistic answers are just so much verbiage thrown at a life that is complex, perplexing and – sometimes – deeply disappointing by people who often never want to honestly discuss the stark realities that lay just beneath the (rigidly) placid surface of Mormon life.
My daughter went on to ask, “What has happened to our family?” She knew that we had always tried our best to “live the Gospel,” to do what we were “supposed” to do. We had applied the “formula,” yet the formula hadn’t worked – at least not the way in which it was advertised. And she didn’t understand that.
So What’s the Point?
So what is the point of these ramblings? What do I see as the common threads that are woven through the experiences of my son, my daughter and my wife and me (both individually and as a couple), i.e., the lessons I think I have learned?
First, though implicitly encouraged to do so by the Church, don’t surrender authenticity. I don’t believe God requires us to do that. In fact, I believe He wants us to do just the opposite! When we surrender who we truly are in order to fit the parameters of another person or an organization or a belief system, from that moment, we begin living a lie. And the longer we live the lie, the deeper will be the damage, disappointment, resentment and unhappiness that result from living the lie.
Second, recognize and reject the steady diet of conformity and blind faith to which we modern-day Mormons have, in general, been exposed. Implicit in much of what the modern Church teaches and does (dating at least to the advent of correlation) is that sameness and uniformity and conformity are all “desirables” that should be embraced. Deviance from the path is discouraged; differences are often suspect (despite lip service to the contrary); lack of conformity to established standards results in judgment and ostracism; and free-thinking and faith outside the parameters established by the Church are viewed as tantamount to apostasy. Again, most of this is implicit, woven through the fabric of life as a modern-day Mormon. It becomes part of our belief system, almost without recognizing it.
Third, recognize and reject another one of the most engrained premises of modern Mormonism, i.e., “a relentless habit of ascribing everything in life, no matter how small or detailed, to divine intent, design or intervention.” (See Rob Donaldson’s post here, which I discuss in my post here.) Rejection of this premise not only correlates with one of Mormonism’s central tenets, i.e., free agency, but it also places squarely on one’s own shoulders the responsibility of living one’s life, of learning and growing, of seeking and pondering, of choosing and rejecting (a position which one would think would be axiomatic in the LDS universe, considering that a core belief of Mormonism is that we are here on this earth in order to progress toward Godhood).
In pondering the question that is posed in the title of this post, I have realized that, at various points in my life, I have sacrificed authenticity because I was told and believed that I could obtain a “higher” blessing only by doing so. Secondly, I have bought into concepts of conformity, uniformity and blind faith that have channeled my thinking into certain narrow streams of thought that ultimately proved to be invalid. And thirdly, perhaps most damaging of all, I bought into the premise that many aspects of my life were subject to “divine intent, design or intervention,” and in so doing, I effectively surrendered responsibility for living an authentic, deliberate life.
So, in the final analysis, I have realized that I have asked the wrong question. Instead of asking, “Why would Heavenly Father do that?”, I should instead ask, “Why did I do this to myself?” I pretty much already know the answer(s) to that question. The next question I should ask would be, “Are you now ready to take responsibility for your own life, to try to live it authentically, and to allow yourself to think, feel and believe outside the box you have lived in for the past 20+ years?” The answer to this question is a definitive, resounding “YES!”