Guest Post: When Being a Mormon Girl isn’t Easy Anymore, and How I Stay Anyway, Part II
by Aly H
This post, which explains how Aly H maintains her Mormon identity and practice, is a continuation of Aly H’s post yesterday.
Lesson 1: Taking ownership of my personal journey
First, one lesson I’ve had to learn is that I am ultimately the steward of my spiritual journey. Elder Christofferson put it this way: that “God will not… control us as if we were His puppets… nor will His prophets accept the role of ‘puppet master’ in God’s place… [rather,] God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them… It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama” (Christofferson, 2014). Not only have I had to get comfortable with the idea of “wearing my own backpack” but with the responsibility of deciding what to carry in it (and what to leave out). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland recently acknowledged the need for this kind of discernment when he counseled members to acknowledge when a topic in General Conference is personally irrelevant or unhelpful, and when that is the case, to “listen by the spirit… for another which addresses a topic where you may be lacking” (Holland, 2011). For me, a tough but crucial lesson has been that in order to take ownership of my journey, I need to honor my inner authority and be deliberate about what I will and will not incorporate into my personal canon.
For the record, what I’m advocating for here isn’t a lazy or morally lax approach to the gospel or the church, but one borne of self-awareness, spiritual and emotional maturity, and an overall desire to side with that which is empowering and compassionate over that which is not. It’s simply a more consciously executed and personally meaningful version of something all of us do all the time by necessity, since everything we see and hear is inevitably sifted through our own mortal interpretations. And as frightening as it sometimes is to abandon paradigms that used to give me a pervasive sense of security, it is also liberating and soul-expanding. And nowhere has owning my spiritual journey positively impacted my self-concept and experience with the Church quite like doing so has with temple Eve.
Whether or not one believes that there once existed a literal first man and woman who ate some fruit and were kicked out of a garden, I think we can all agree that origin stories are important, for they generally contain fundamental beliefs and assumptions that shape much of how believers think and act and find meaning in their lives. That Mormonism considers the story of Adam and Eve to be especially significant and prescriptive is made clear in the temple, where we are asked not to just learn from but imagine ourselves in Eve’s interactions with God and man and the choice she makes. As women in the temple, Mother Eve is not just a distant relative who started the ball rolling on mortality, but us.
All of this, I think, points to why the way that we interpret Eve in the temple—and how bound to that interpretation we feel we must be—can be dramatically affirming or devastating or anywhere in between. Whether we see Eve as thoughtful and brave or gullible and unempowered, the natural take-away for many women is that our Church and our God views us or wants us to be that way, too.
For me, then, the version of mother Eve’s story that I now choose to see and internalize comes both through and despite what I see and hear in the temple. Contrary to what I once saw and internalized, the Eve I now see in this foundational story invites me to be brave: to trust that my soul was made good and to act, true to the divinity within me. Even when doing so feels hard and lonely and complicated and uncertain. This story now points me to a God who is familiar to me: a God who, with equal esteem and expectation, asks Eve to hearken to a good, striving Adam and Adam to hearken to a good, striving Eve—no asterisks or fine print. A God who urges us towards something far more capacious and Celestial than we’re collectively able or willing to embrace just yet.
When I choose to claim my authority in regards to this and every other aspect of my moral and religious life, then I can more clearly see that to feel soul-sick at a portrayal of Eve I perceive as inferior to Adam might indicate flaws in my interpretation, but not in my moral compass. And that to worry or concede that I am in fact second class in God’s eyes because of my current interpretation, right or wrong, of a temple ceremony (or a talk or the current organization of the church) is to betray what I know inside me to be true—to even sin against light I’ve received.
This perspective is a view that I have often felt Mormonism encourage and strengthen. But when it doesn’t feel that way—and often, it doesn’t—I can unapologetically disagree.
Lesson 2: Sitting with hard things
Sometimes, I wish I could go back to those days when being a Mormon girl was clean-cut and comfortable: when Joseph Smith was almost flawlessly honest and humble and good; when false, damaging notions about race and sexuality had never entered into our doctrine, beliefs or practices; and when I had yet to see anything hard or troubling or off about the rhetoric and opportunities and expectations often attached to gender in the Church.
The spiritual upheaval I experienced with my temple endowment not only rocked my more consciously held paradigms but my mental shelves: those hidden, inward places we use to stow away the stuff that’s most uncomfortable and dissonant and scary; the pieces we decide, right or wrong, we cannot face just yet. And for me, the mess left by it all was everywhere—so many dearly-held hopes and beliefs uprooted and thrown into disarray throughout my mind and heart. The damage was such that shutting my eyes as I quickly put up a few new forget-it-ever-happened shelves wasn’t feasible. And rather than take a shoddy and inexpensive clean-up route—a reckless, evasive attempt to force it all into some uniform and simplistic paradigm, one way or the other—what I eventually found myself doing was just sitting there, willing myself to work through the anger and hurt and shame that so easily result from a swift kick out of a sanitized worldview.
In other words, I had to be patient with the pain. The stuff of this chaos was too precious and consequential not to be.
And that is another lesson I’ve had to learn in order to joyfully stay. As Elder Bruce C. Hafen once advised, “[We need] to be more realistic about life’s experiences, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that leave one a bit uncomfortable. That very discomfort can be a motivation toward real growth…” (Hafen, 1979). In order to properly honor my commitment to principles I hold dear—to faith and reason, to grace for the individual as well as the collective, to open hearts and to “of one heart and mind”—I will, at times, have to see and work patiently in hard things. I believe that the fruits are worth the trouble.
Perhaps the best example I can give from my own life to support this would be to walk you through some of what I currently sit with in regards to a piece of Mormon theology I find particularly beautiful and complicated (and relevant to this essay): our beliefs about Heavenly Mother.
On this tour, I might first take you through the part of my psyche that houses the pieces many of us Mormons have internalized: e.g, the Proclamation’s familiar mention of “heavenly parents”; Eliza R. Snow’s well-known assertion in hymn #292 that “reason… tells me I’ve a mother there”; and of course, the common justification that our Divine Mother, for whatever reason, requires the protection of our silence.
Next, I might take you to a section that’s expanding and relatively new, and includes not only a range of thoughts about Heavenly Mother from LDS Prophets and writers (I like this list), but ways that Christianity and other religions/cultures have depicted and connected to a feminine Divine (my introduction to this kind of broader exploration was probably The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd).
When we’d reviewed that, I’d probably lead you over to a far messier section: my questions. Here’s a sampling of what you might hear in this space:
- WhenI say that I yearn for my Heavenly Mother, what exactly is it that I am missing? If a gender binary exists in the hereafter, then are we talking spiritual chromosomes here, or a deliberate conforming to celestial, pre-determined gender roles? Do I feel a need for a divine being in a dress who stays at home to bake and breastfeed, to sing primary songs to premortal spirit babies while the Man of the house goes out and deals with the Earth and stuff? Or am I missing something more than that?
- How might a doctrine of a Heavenly Father and Mother sit differently with me if I wasn’t a Proclamation poster child—straight and cis and married and someone who finds great meaning in motherhood?
- Is this yearning within me but a natural extension of an actual association my spirit once had—of nurture and promise from a strong, gentle and distinctly feminine Divine, in whose image I was made? Have I in fact a watchful, loving Mother “there”?
- Or is this “need” I feel for “Mother” simply a reflection of my own acceptance of too-rigid gender distinctions? Of the pain I sometimes feel from the lack of female visibility and voice I sometimes see in my Church? Is it a reflection of the close, crucial, but often distinct roles my parents played in my life? Or do I simply lack faith in the idea that Christ’s Atonement was infinite and total, and all that entails for me as a woman?
When we decide that we’ve spent a sufficient amount of time there, I’d finally have to take you to another section: the remains of my experiences; the stuff that’s in my heart.
Because over here is me: a frizzy, nervous, middle school version on a Sunday in May, telling myself it will be okay and then timidly asking Father if He wouldn’t mind, perhaps, having someone relay the message that I’d thought of Her that day; and… “Happy Mother’s Day, from Aly. In Wyoming. Amen.” How I wait afterward, anxious and hopeful, but feel nothing in return: no disapproval, no reassurance. Perhaps He is busy; perhaps She is further than I’d thought.
And then over here is an older me: straightened hair and holey jeans and hanging on in a crowded Russian subway with that familiar ache in my chest; and then, my voice is breaking and my longing for Mother stumbling out in sobs and spoken words for the first time. How desperate I feel as I try to explain that I’ve been forgotten; that I wish to God He hadn’t made me so forgetful.
And over here is me just a few years later: in a little apartment, lying awake with swelling doubts and dread and inadequacy, and overwhelmed by the reality represented by the two tiny, unseen feet jabbing me repeatedly in the ribs. Then the little feet pause; the storms within me quiet, and in their place, something vibrant and kind and sustaining fills me. All at once I’m sanctified and softened, reminded of ancient powers and promises—that it’s life-giving ordinances I’ve been given to perform.
It’s going to be OK, She tells me, gathering me in. And then they start–those sharp, low, long-awaited pains;
I’m at the edge of a new beginning and I am not alone here.
Lesson #3: Trying for intellectual meekness
After that first temple experience, I sat not only with past experiences and shaken faith but with what came afterward: discoveries of historical and scientific fact that contradicted so much of what I’d been urged to believe and take comfort in; and on the other hand, sacred moments where I felt that I was worthy and not alone—despite the doubts and darkness and contrary evidence, and despite all the ways I felt like I’d somehow utterly failed. Through this process, my mind couldn’t unsee or tune-out the hard, troubling things; but when it came down to it, neither could I in honesty write-off the goodness and beauty I’d experienced in and through my Mormon faith.
From there, for me, the most honest path has thus far been a nuanced one—what could perhaps be described as a more moderate or middle-road approach to my religion. Again, what I’m describing and (in my better moments) striving for is not fence-sitting or laziness or “tossed to and fro by every wind”; it isn’t cowardly indecisiveness or an excuse to justify sin. Rather, it’s an attempt at a dedicated, teachable, anchored-in-truth, open heart/open mind kind of life. And it’s when I find myself in this general vicinity that I can more clearly understand that truth isn’t exclusive to Mormons or college graduates or those who’ve read the most recently updated CES Letter in its entirety. Most importantly, it’s when I begin to accept my own fallibility; that there are and always will be truths I have yet to see.
My experience has been that to walk in this middle road has its inherent perils; that feeling alone or other can make it especially easy to give over to fear or self-pity, to feed and take comfort in anger or self-righteousness, or to detach myself from people I might have supported and been supported by. But experience has also taught me that good things can take root in this place of nuance and ambiguity. That the opposition I find here can provide greater motivation to confront my own biases and assumptions and privilege and sin, to work harder to benefit and be benefitted by those around me, and to recognize when my trust is placed more in practices and people than in God.
In the end, I’ve found that walking and struggling in this middle-road can lead me to decide to be quite ugly, but that it can also encourage me to be better. And which it is winning out in the moment seems most dependent upon one thing: my humility (or lack thereof). This has probably been the hardest yet most critical lesson I’ve to learn: that to joyfully and productively stay requires, far more than it ever did before, that I work at intellectual meekness.
I like this “intellectual meekness” phrase, and I like how Elder Neal A. Maxwell described it: first, that meekness isn’t passivity but “spiritual and intellectual activism”; and second, that while maintaining such is “a persistent as well as particular challenge,” without it, this willingness to “restructure our understanding of things” when better information presents itself, we risk cutting ourselves off from truth, “things that we ‘never had supposed,’” and from the eye-opening, soul-arighting fruits of being “shaken and expanded by new data” (Maxwell, 1986).
To this, I’d add two things: 1) that sometimes, what I need to be shaken and expanded by is not new to me but truths I once had, but for whatever reason forgot or discarded; and 2) that a lack of intellectual humility not only prevents us from obtaining greater wisdom for ourselves, but weakens our ability to make an impact for good.
And that, perhaps, is the greater tragedy. We can attempt to effect positive change in the Church by “raising hell”; and by that, I mean that it’s true that expressing difference in tactless, inflammatory and self-righteous ways can grab attention, offer some validation to those who feel similarly, and feel satisfying in the moment (I know this from personal experience). My take, though, is that eventually, we must acknowledge that such approaches are fundamentally at odds with taking Christ’s yoke upon us—ineffective if the goal is softened hearts and a community unified in higher purposes. Rather, I believe that speaking/living our truths and agitating for change within Mormonism can be done thoughtfully, boldly and compassionately. This is hard; it’s edifying but messy work, and one that I’ll admit my fervent yet unassertive disposition sometimes leaves me feeling ill-equipped to undertake. But in my moments of despair (and there are plenty of those), I’m often buoyed up by the truth that there are many Mormon women and men who are also working to do just this; people like Carol Lynn Pearson, who recently wrote: “Seeing preventable pain, mine and others, makes me angry… But I know that anger is good only as a fueling station, never as a destination. I have used anger before to move me to good places, and I will do it again” (Pearson, 2016). In my moments of clarity, I realize again that I’m not alone here.
When I die, there will inevitably be many, many things I was wrong about in my lifetime—many truths I had yet to see and examine and internalize. But to have died without at least having sought to reach out and do good from a place of genuine love—bold in patience and kindness and hope, not provocation or arrogance or resentment—will have been to have lived a life that missed the point.
It’s worth noting here that the bulk of this essay (almost everything preceding this conclusion) was written before November 5, 2015—the day that many of us experienced disbelief, shock, righteous anger and profound sadness over the Church’s new policies regarding gay Mormons and their children. Much has been written about the policy and its impact. But I’ll add that for me, its implications inflicted serious damage on the one thing that had, for whatever reason, survived my temple-induced faith crisis mostly unscathed: the feeling that despite the messiness of our history and despite the failings of our present, we were, as a people and as a church, moving slowly but surely towards more Zion-like ideals.
In the spiritual upheaval of a few years prior, that optimism was sometimes my last lifeline. And while I feel that there is still much to rejoice about in terms of the direction we’re headed in various areas in the Church (like this initiative!), perhaps the ultimate measuring stick ought to be how we treat the defenseless and the discriminated against even when our theology has yet to create for them the kind of space that I believe God has already (and always) made in their heart for every one of us. So while I’m still here, ultimately grounded in why’s and how’s that are meaningful and motivating to me, this switch in a trajectory that once felt sure and good is tough.
I share this not because I feel that the context I’m writing from now has impacted the validity or relevance of my essay (or because I want to end on a gloomy note), but because I want to conclude with what has often this last year in particular, in my moments of troubled pause, been a most compelling “why”: I stay in part because I heart-and-soul love these Mormon people of mine, and still feel that this is where I ought to be, to nurture and strengthen in this place that has so often nurtured and strengthened me.
This is a place and a people I want to fight for. And as long as the possibility exists that I can, in my weakness and differences of opinion and perspective, be a source of strength to someone else who’s struggling and work helpfully to make this community I love a safer, stronger, more loving and inclusive place, then I’m determined to try.
It’s been instructive to think back on what I experienced as a girl growing up in Mormonism—from the beauty and power that opened doors and blessed my life to the self-serving assumptions I made from the hard realities I hadn’t yet seen.
In all of this, one especially intriguing piece to ponder has been the exhortation I often heard to “always have the temple in my sights.” The temple was not at all what I hoped or imagined; but what it gave me did, I believe, lead me to better understand God, Heaven and myself. Perhaps the degree of the pain and perplexity and chaos I experienced as a result of that first-ever temple session was unnecessary, some might say, if only I’d done this or hadn’t done that or prepared better in some way. But at the very least, I feel that Grace has allowed all of it to work together for my good. And, in this place where I no longer know everything, allowed me to more fully experience the beauty and potential of faith.
As I acknowledged at the beginning of my essay, not everyone chooses to stay Mormon, and it is of course just as senseless to assume that those who leave do so because their hearts or better judgment have failed them as it is to assume the same of those who stay. And of course, there are billions of people who have never been and never will be Mormon. What “fighting the good fight” entails, then, will inevitably look different for everyone. But the benefits of taking greater ownership of our own spiritual/moral journeys, of being willing to sit with ambiguity and hard truths, and of working at intellectual meekness are, I believe, universally valuable. At the very least, this is the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person that I feel that Mormonism—in all the ways it is painful and wrong and vibrant and good and ignorant and striving—asks me to try to become.
 I think Elder Bruce R. McConkie affirmed this view in a description he gave of premortal Mother Eve as “among the noble and great in preexistence, [ranking] in spiritual stature, in faith and devotion, in conformity to eternal law with [Adam]…”. McConkie then naturally extends the equality he describes here to all of us; specifically, “that a host of mighty men and equally glorious women composed that group of the noble and great ones, to whom the Lord Jesus said: ‘We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell’” (McConkie, 1979).
 People both in and out of the Church have argued that the November ’15 policy was always the direction the Church was headed. Maybe, I don’t know. Regardless, my family was totally taken off guard.
 “To fight the good fight is one of the bravest and noblest of life’s experiences. Not the bloodshed and the battle of man with man, but the grappling with mental and spiritual adversaries that determines the inner caliber of the contestant. It is the quality of the struggle put forth by a man that proclaims to the world what manner of man he is far more than may be by the termination of the battle.
It matters not nearly so much to a man that he succeeds in winning some long-sought prize as it does that he has worked for it honestly and unfalteringly with all the force and energy there is in him. It is in the effort that the soul grows and asserts itself to the fullest extent of its possibilities, and he that has worked will, persevering in the face of all opposition and apparent failure, fairly and squarely endeavoring to perform his part to the utmost extent of his capabilities, may well look back upon his labor regardless of any seeming defeat in its result and say, “I have fought a good fight.”
As you throw the weight of your influence on the side of the good, the true and the beautiful, your life will achieve an endless splendor. It will continue in the lives of others, higher, finer, nobler than you can even contemplate.” –Hugh B. Brown
Aly grew up in Wyoming, went to school in Utah, got married in Montana and now lives in Washington with her husband and two daughters