Saturday, November 21, 2015

Meet the Exmos

This post is addressed primarily to my Mormon friends. I want to tell you all about some really cool people that you may not know much about: the Exmormons, a.k.a. the Exmos.
(A photo of our Colorado Exmormon Superfriends family gathering in Denver in September,
pixelated to protect those Superfriends who aren't ready for their secret identity to be exposed.)
Some of you might recoil at the word "exmormon." So if that just gave you the heebie-jeebies, then this may not be the post for you. But then again, in that case I especially hope you'll read this, so please hang with me.

Because if "exmormon" carries for you a very negative connotation, maybe synonymous with "Anti-Mormon" or "Apostate" or "Anti-Christ", then my hope here is to show you there is a difference, as well as simply to give a shout out to my peeps, who don't get enough love and respect. Most of us don't consider ourselves anti-anything. We would prefer pro-equality, pro-truth, and pro-love. We don't care so much about "bringing the church down, and making all men miserable like unto ourselves!" as we do about empowering people, who may be trapped by culture, geography and religious dogma, to live their lives in harmony with truth, and to be their most authentic selves.

I don't want to persuade you to join us or believe that our way of being is the best way of being, so rest easy. But I do want to help you see us--this eclectic, vibrant, growing group to which many of your family and friends now belong, or will in the future--in a kinder light. We didn't leave for the cliches of sin, pride, or taking offense. This is not a group of morally bankrupt people, or people who have betrayed their birthright and sold their soul to the devil. In actuality, it's a totally amazing group. People of the highest intelligence and integrity. People I love hanging out with. People of incredible moral courage.

Seriously, imagine someone you love having to make the heart-wrenching decision to step away from their family and culture, with the threat of their eternal soul hanging in the balance, because they feel compelled to follow a higher truth they've reluctantly discovered. Imagine someone determined to "do what is right, let the consequence follow." Maybe you disagree with their decision, but hopefully you can at least see the courage and humanity in their choice. We celebrate fictional heroes like Truman Burbank and John Dunbar and Jake Sully who leave their culture at great cost to embrace a new way of being.  And real heroes like Jackie RobinsonSusan B Anthony, and even bodhisattvas like Jesus and the Buddha, for their courage and grace in crossing cultural boundaries, for their unwillingness to passively persist in a stagnant status quo. These are all examples of frontier explorers, people with soul power, with strong medicine.  Maybe you can find a way to consider the exmos in your life the way they consider themselves, at least a little bit, at least in our best moments: as humble followers of truth. Maybe even as, ahem, pioneers.

Exmormons don't aspire to perfection. It's safe to say we relish our imperfections. But as a group, we do tend to be principled, creative, witty, compassionate. Also, at times irreverent, damaged, erratic and angry. Regrettably, it sometimes happens that, once the constraints of religion are removed, some exmos flounder in the subsequent chaos and make poor life decisions, getting caught up in the excesses of things that were once taboo. (And can you blame them? They were told their whole life that drinking coffee was a sin grave enough to prevent their eternal salvation, only to find out that it's actually good for them, not to mention totally delicious. So what else have they been missing out on???) I feel nothing but compassion for these wounded friends. There but for the grace of Gaia go I. But this proverbial "going off the deep end" happens much less than most Mormons are led to reflexively believe. Without a doubt, most exmormons I know would say their lives are exponentially better out of the church than in, despite the enormous social and family costs. (Don't believe me? Ask one of them!) We honestly feel that leaving the church was both the hardest and best decision we ever made. We lost so much, but the price was worth the reward of finally feeling comfortable in our own skin in this preciously short life that is the only one we have to live. So it's a mixed bag. Exmos are both fully human and fully divine, just like Jesus, just like Mormons, just like anyone. In short, exmos rock.
More pixelated exmos at our November gathering.
Even among this group, "exmormon" is a controversial word. Some prefer "Post-Mormon," or "New Order Mormon" or "Non-Traditional Mormon" or "Mormon In Transition." Many prefer to lose the Mormon moniker altogether and adopt something new: "Christian" or "Buddhist," or often "Agnostic" or "Secular Humanist" or even the dreaded A-word, "Atheist." I'm personally a fan of ditching labels completely. Forget Mormon or Exmormon, Republican or Democrat, American or Foreigner, Doctor or Lawyer. How about just "Mark, Human Being And Fellow Traveler On The Highway Of Life." (All right, so that's not specific or confidence-inspiring enough if, say, someone comes to me for medical advice about their hemorrhoids. I guess there are pragmatic reasons to use labels.)

For simplicity's sake, I typically use the term "exmormon." Because it's crystal clear. It instantly delineates our status in regards to the institution that, for the vast majority of our lives, enveloped us like our own skin, that taught us to believe from the earliest age that, in matters of self-identification, "I'm a Mormon, true blue, through and through!" came before all else. So "exmormon" is in part a one-word declaration of independence from the church that we feel interposed itself between us and God, that claimed to be our "only pathway to salvation", and that demanded our adherence to its proscribed lifestyle as the unquestionable "manner of happiness." We've found that there are, in fact, other ways.

Like it or not, the cumulative burden of our lifetime of intimate interactions with the Church, in doctrine, organization, and culture--even underwear!--in both positive and negative ways, was and perhaps always will be a pivotal--perhaps the most pivotal--influence in our lives. Removing ourselves from it now, or twenty years ago, doesn't make that ubiquitous influence disappear. I've told my children, when they've asked why I can't just forget about it or move on, that it took me thirty five years to be so entirely wrapped up in it, body and soul, so immersed that I couldn't see heads or tails anymore, couldn't even tell who I was without it, or fathom a life separated from it, that I'm expecting at least another thirty five years to unwrap it all. (That'll put me at seventy, and then I look forward to a final fifteen blissful years in a truly post-Mormon world. Or dementia, which at that point may be indistinguishable.) But at least for my children, they won't have to spend a lifetime untying that knot. The point is that many of us find that the church continues to define us, at least for the time being, in absentia, although we look forward to the day when hopefully it won't.

Here's a pro-tip: one sure way of making any exmo mad is for a believing Mormon to reply to a critique we may offer towards the church with the tired, brain-freezing axiom: "You can leave the church, but you can't leave the church alone, eh, buddy?" Well, that doesn't cut it. Try engaging the issue next time. And consider that, in a way, our continued interest in church affairs is indicative of our prior level of involvement, and a reflection of how deeply we believed. Our roots are intertwined. Imagine ripping off your own siamese twin. That's gonna hurt, and you might want to talk it about for a while, although you might have to stop the bleeding first.

This continued interest in the church is also indicative of our ingrained missionary zeal to share truth once we've found it. (Now where would we get that idea from?) While we (most of us) freely acknowledge that many people will remain happiest within the church, we're aware that there are many, like ourselves, for whom the constraints are too suffocating, even life-threatening. I concede that many of us exmos could benefit from better tools in dialogue (see Jacob's and my Third Space project). Unlike our proselytizing mission experiences and efforts to convert our neighbors, it would be good for us, now that we're exmos, to stop trying to change others' earnestly held religious beliefs. Yet I don't blame any of us for trying. We didn't create the dichotomous thinking, the dire stakes, the us vs. them mentality, that permeates Mormon doctrine and culture. "Each of us has to face the matter--either the church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and the kingdom of God, or it is nothing." (Gordon B Hinckley, LDS Prophet, in a 2003 general conference address.) All right, so I just found out it's not true. So taking you at your word, President Hinckley, where does that leave me? Shouldn't I at least tell the people I care about . . . ?

So in a way, that continued interest and occasional antagonism is a way of honoring the depth of commitment and love we once held for the church, and of our family and friends still in it. Speaking personally, the church gave me a lifetime of good memories. It brought me a happy childhood full of warm family moments, it gave me structure, values, identity and purpose as a young man in a morally chaotic world, a blueprint for clean living and an aversion to (fear of) drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex. It gave me my incredible experiences in Brazil, a second language, many of my very best friends, and even my beautiful wife, and by extension my kids. I'll always be grateful for that foundation. In a real way, I don't regret being raised in the church. I owe a lot to it. And yet I'm still so glad that I found my way out. It's complicated.

(Here's an unpixelated, genuine exmo family, wearing the jerseys of the One True Team.)
When Elizabeth and I left the church five years ago, we did so in total isolation. We had nobody to cling to but each other. It remained that way for well over two years. Then, through some harmonic convergence, I reconnected with my friend Karl, who lives locally and has walked many similar spiritual paths. This connection provided an outlet and sounding board for me to be able to process my experiences. Then I slowly began to engage in some internet forums, and was amazed to find that there were people like me out there. Thousands of them. Good people who saw the world the way I did. That saw their leaving not as a defeat, but as a bold, necessary step into a brave new world to keep their sanity and integrity. Through more harmonic convergence, we finally encountered a family just like ours, the Whitakers, who lived just a few miles away. Our two families kept our heads up, and soon began to meet more and more folks from Colorado. We planned a few get-togethers. College students, retired couples, recently divorced, newlyweds. Men and women, doctors and lawyers, and PhDs by the boatload. And lots of families with kids. Such a diverse group, yet so many similarities in our journeys, chief among them the fact that all of us had made at some point a soul-piercing, life-altering, socially-ostracizing decision, and were now seeking to rebuild a community out of that rubble

Eventually we formed a facebook group, which, after merging with some other existing groups, has grown to 168 members in under ten months, getting bigger every day, and representing well over 300 total people all over the state, because kids. Lots of kids. (Duh, we were all Mormon.) We get together at least once a month, and usually more. We commiserate, we console, we laugh, we share. It's incredibly accepting, supportive, funny, incisive and smart. Honestly, participating in the development of this group has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have no idea where it goes from here, but we've got a good foundation and a lot of positive energy.

So if you're Mormon, now you know that we exist, and at least a little about who we are, and how we view ourselves. And if you live in Colorado and you're exmormon, or in some manner questioning your relationship with the church, and want to join us, give me a shout. I'll hook you up. And no matter where you are, I have great news. There is a now a website called Mormon Spectrum that contains information about similar groups all over the globe. Seriously, no matter where you live, there's probably a group somewhere close. These are in-person groups, like ours here in Colorado. Not only has the internet revolutionized the access to information, but as the global exmormon community has matured, it has now distilled back down out of cyberspace and into your local geography like the dews of heaven, giving you a chance to meet someone--a real live human who will accept you for who you are!--for coffee, or a hike, or a play date. Which doesn't replace that close-knit, all-inclusive community the church once offered, but it's a start, and you can be a part of it.

In summary, I repeat: exmos rock. I'm proud of you, and proud to be counted among you. It's good company to be in. And for believing Mormons who are still reading this, don't be afraid. In the end, labels aside, we're just people like you, trying our best to make sense of this short life while we scratch out a living. So if we can't agree on or even talk about religion, let's find a comfortable place, a Third Space, perhaps, where we can see each other not as enemies, but as people. Just people, trying to do our best and learning to get along. Fellow travelers on the highway of life. Or something like that.
(And lastly, here is a picture of a happy exmo man with his gorgeous exmo wife who has some sort of Age of Adeline thing going on, because he's getting older and she's not.
Sadly, this guy left the church and got cancer.  :(
But then his cancer was miraculously (or at least robotically) cured,
which isn't sad at all, so there's that.)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Third Space

Going to change direction for a little while with this blog. I'm going to start a "cross-blog dialogue" with my friend and sometimes-collaborator Jacob Hess, discussing primarily how Mormons (like Jacob) and former Mormons (like me) can have productive conversations and fulfilling friendships in spite of religious divisions. Jacob and I both have experienced--acutely and painfully--this divide in our own lives, and we've both made big mistakes in trying to bridge it. Fortunately, we think we may have learned a thing or two in the process. Through this project, we're hopeful we might sneak up on a practical framework that others could utilize as they try to navigate these choppy waters in their own lives. We envision a "big tent" where family and friends can put aside religious differences and focus on the people and relationships beneath them, experiencing deep connection, understanding, and unconditional acceptance. We're calling this tent "The Third Space." 

We don't see Third Space like a Venn diagram, where we have "my world view" over here, and "your world view" over there, and their overlap is where we meet to discuss, leaving the outlying parts alone. While that's a framework that has some practical merit, discussing areas of overlapping interests is not exactly what we're describing. 

We envision Third Space more like a family cabin. Not my home. Not your home. It's a separate but complete living space where we each have a stake in joint ownership. We have to pack our own bags, but only with what's most essential. We have to vacate the comforts of our own home, where everything is just the way we like it, and travel some rocky roads. And then we have to sit together on that tattered old couch, look into the face of a person we once thought we knew so well, and figure out if and how we're going to respect, understand, and love each other in this new space. 

Third Space isn't going to work for everybody. In fact, it's probably not possible or even desirable for many people or circumstances. Sometimes, relationships are frayed enough, histories so complex, vulnerabilities so pronounced, that everybody is better off staying at home for a while, or even forever. That's okay. But for those of us who want something more, who want to feel that closeness and acceptance we once felt from our family and friends, we think a weekend in the Third Space cabin might do us a world of good.

Jacob and I have been talking about this stuff for several years now, but our acquaintance precedes that by a decade. We first met at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah many years ago. I was teacher there: a BYU student and former LDS missionary recently returned from Brazil. I taught Portuguese, gospel doctrine, and missionary skills to Jacob's class of new Mormon Elders headed to Brazil. We fell out of contact after that, then reconnected by chance at a conference in North Carolina on alternative mental health care over a decade later. A lot had changed in that timeframe. I was now a practicing family physician; Jacob had attained a PhD in community psychology. Due to the nature of the conference, we found areas of instant rapport. In the years since, we've worked on several projects and papers together in the mental health arena.

But perhaps the biggest thing that had changed was that I was no longer Mormon. When this came up in our first conversation, I was struck that Jacob, unlike virtually every other Mormon I had known up to that point, wanted to dive deeper. This came instinctively to him. He wanted to understand my reasons. He expressed empathy and support, without compromising his own convictions. This was highly unusual--and welcome--stuff.

This had led since to numerous discussions via email and phone on the subject of faith and family across the Mormon/post-Mormon divide, often very intense and occasionally bordering on confrontational. But even when the ride has gotten rough, we've "stayed in the saddle." We seem to have developed a level of trust that allows us to know that the other person is genuine in their motives and intent, and keeps the other's best interest in mind, even when that conflicts directly with what seems like crucial parts of our own worldview. In other words, Jacob can think I'm totally wrong about really important stuff, and yet I'm confident he still respects me. And vice versa.

Due to this friendship and shared experience, as well our individual training and natural interest in exploring boundaries and seeking harmony, we've happened upon some things that might be useful to others. We learned how emotions, logic and language can both connect and divide. We know personally many--dozens, hundreds, way TOO many--people who are currently suffering from fractured relationships across this divide. There is a need for better tools, a better framework, in how to handle it, because it's not going away, and life is short. That we can all agree on.  

So we're going to give Third Space a try. And rather than just tell you about it, we're going to try to demonstrate, by engaging in substantive, earnest, challenging dialogue about this highly polarized subject.

It's an experiment. So, Jacob, let it begin, my friend.

(Here's a link to Jacob's blog. Please read it, too!) 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why Some People Reject Their Belief System

The Power of the Scientific Method

Feelings are great. I love feelings. But I propose that they're unreliable as a means of discerning things that are true. I have a favorite flavor of ice cream. I love it. I feel happy and hungry just thinking about it. But that doesn't mean Cookies & Cream is true.
So what's our best method for telling if something is true? When a truth claim is made, such as "the sun revolves around the earth" or "the human race is only 6,000 years old," we test it. We scrutinize it. We try to disprove it. We revise our ideas when our results don't match our prior hypothesis. And in the end, the things that are left standing we can say with confidence are true, at least within our current reference frame, and within our limits to discern and understand them. And this is always open-ended, ready to be revised if new evidence arises. 
So my friends, don't doubt your doubts. Embrace them. Take them on as a challenge. Put them to the test. Every great advance in human history has been made because someone had the intelligence, courage and integrity to challenge the status quo, to question what everyone else accepted unquestioningly as true. 
Science is not "true." It's a way of thinking about the world. The scientific method is a tool, and the best one we have for discovering what is true.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Search For Meaning Requires Tension and Suffering

"Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon . . . suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man's concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient's existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It (should be) his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises . . . To be sure, man's search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life. In the Nazi concentration camps . . . those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, 'homeostasis,' i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him."
--from "Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor Frankl

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Beauty and Uncertainty

"I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can't figure it out, then I go on to something else, but I don't have to know an answer, I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me." -- Richard Feynman, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out." (Full text of the interview)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

You Are Already That Which You Seek

Today I turn forty one, which was supposed to mark the end of this year-long spiritual quest. It's been a good run, folks. A crazy year. Beginning with stability. Ending in turmoil. One marathon down. One new job on the horizon. One less appendix. Twelve fewer months on the ticking clock. I've learned a ton, had some great experiences, enjoyed precious time with my wife and children, developed some new connections, written some new songs, dreamed some new dreams.

But I've got to be honest with you. In terms of ultimate answers, I've got nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

To anyone with a shred of self-awareness and wisdom, this should come as no surprise, like it was to me. I'm actually okay with it now. More than okay. The lack of answers gives me tremendous relief, a heightened awareness of the preciousness of my own life. One might even call it a sense of enlightenment.

This isn't for lack of trying. In fact, all the striving for meaning seems to have had the opposite effect. Digging a deeper hole and consistently coming up empty, the disappointment always increasing with the depth. I searched, pondered and prayed. I meditated and yoga-ed, attended churches and Buddhist temples. I read like a man on fire, starting with Lao Tzu, ending with Shakespeare. I tried to build structural dams--programs, schedules, goals--to contain and harness the free-flowing river of my life. But they didn't hold.

And now I'm staring at another twelve months, another forty-four years (if I'm lucky), with less hope for answers than I had a year ago. But also one less question.

In a great and wholly predictable irony, I have found that in the quest for meaning and purpose after Mormonism, there is none to be found, not in any ultimate sense. So time to stop asking the question. It's sort of like asking what happened before the Big Bang. To ask the question is to fundamentally misunderstand the material.

This doesn't mean that life is meaningless. Au contraire. I feel that my life is profoundly meaningful, in an entirely subjective way. But in the ultimate sense, it is not. Or if there is ultimate purpose, it is ultimately unknowable, and therefore irrelevant. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

More succinctly put: "The meaning of life is to give life meaning." Maybe the most important part of that lovely turn of phrase is the period at the end. No caveats. No afterlife to make sense of it all. No man in the sky (or on Kolob, as the case may be) to correct your error, speak truth as with the voice of thunder, or judge the quality of your life.

Give your life a meaning, and that shall be the meaning of your life. Thus saith the Lord, whoever you conceive that to be.

This actually gives me more empathy towards Mormonism and other religions. They are systems of values and meaning. They work for a lot of people, bringing them happiness, stability and community. They may be completely incongruent with reality, but what is reality? We all see it through the glass darkly. And if the dark glass you're looking through is religion, and if it's working for you, then great. Don't rock that boat. I remember the old dream of "dying with your testimony intact and your eternal salvation assured." Seemed like a good idea at the time. That sense of certainty is a tough thing to let go of. It's a long hard fall from there.

(The rub is when you discover that your system of values is incongruent with reality AND causes harm to other people. In a truthful and just society, that should prompt a recalibration. But that's a discussion for another day . . .)

I do believe that most everyone is doing the best they can to see accurately through the glass they've been given. But for many, that glass will one day break, the walls will collapse, and you will be forced to confront a new paradigm of reality. You will be cast out of the garden of Eden and must enter the lone and dreary world. Now, with enhanced metaphorical power, you will be separated from what you believed to be God, and must find your way back through mists of darkness towards the Tree of Life. But upon arrival, you may find that tree, even the wilderness you are traversing, is just another pane in another stain glass wall, like all those others broken behind you.

And so it goes. We frustrate ourselves by breaking glass wall after glass wall, never arriving at the center of the maze. I guess that's okay. Gives us something to do. But maybe sometimes--due to a prick of conscience, a life experience, sheer boredom--we become inclined, for a brief moment, to stop the mad striving. In that place of respite, once our breath stops fogging the glass, we see the wall for what it is. And then maybe, instead of breaking it, we pause, stop looking beyond it, and finally see ourselves reflected.

Thus shall I bringeth this to a close. In spite of all I've just written, this quest is not going away, neither the blog. (Sorry.) With all of these epiphanies also comes a measure of self-awareness, and there is simply something hardwired within me that must strive. I am a seeker, and a quintessential American. The rugged western individualist who must bend the world to his will. Always going, never arriving, but still blogging about it, and newly unburdened by the nagging sense that there is still a holy grail somewhere from which I must drink.

I can think of no better way to close this year's spiritual questing than with the words of that spiritual giant, the great Eminem, who once said, "I can't tell you what it really is / I can only tell you what it feels like / And right now it's a steel knife in my wind pipe / I can't breathe but I still fight while I can fight." Or more pertinently, "Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip."

Listen to what Eminem is teaching us: Lose yourself . . . to find yourself. 

Or what so many other sages throughout time have concluded:
  • The road ends where the sky begins.
  • The course of the Lord is one eternal round.
  • Now is forever. Forever is now.
  • The kingdom of God is within you.
  • You are already that which you seek.
And while I'm not labeling myself anything particular, here's a bunch of humanist/atheist folks who share this central insight much more eloquently than me.

And here's a link to my first post a year ago, a preamble, which strangely makes today's post seem more like a reformulation. I am glad to have written what I've written this year. It's my journey. These have been some of the way stations. I'm hopeful someone somewhere got some benefit.
I think all of this--these few paragraphs today, these last twelve months--has been a way of saying something that, in the end, nobody else cares about. Not really.

But I care, so I'll say it. Hey, Mark Elliott Foster and anyone else out there of like mind and spirit in this incomprehensibly vast and beautiful universe, welcome to uncertainty.