healing

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We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. -Parker J. Palmer

In the last post I talked about Religious Trauma Syndrome and my struggle with it. This post is about how I’m getting better. This is what has worked for me.

  1. I listen to my body. Our bodies contain a lot of wisdom. It was my body that first let me know that my religion was no longer working for me. It felt like I had developed an allergy to going to church. I started getting terrible headaches every Sunday and when I came home I would collapse on my bed in exhaustion and sleep for hours. I was told that the reason I felt this way was because I was sinning, and that’s why I didn’t feel right at church. At the time I was so conditioned by guilt, I actually wondered if this might be true! It wasn’t. My body was trying to alert me to the fact that I wasn’t living in alignment with my true self.
  2. I listen to my life. This is the title of a very helpful book I just read by Parker J. Palmer. Having PTSD symptoms is no fun, but discovering who I really am is turning out to be fascinating and exciting. As Palmer says, “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live–but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” There are certain qualities and values that have been part of who I am since the day I was born. I am passionate, sensual, and sensitive. And every day I crave creative expression, beauty, laughter, and meaningful connection with people. What I also needed all these years, a value that was being stepped on, was to listen to and trust my own inner wisdom.
  3. I embrace my dark side. I’m getting cozy with my flaws and weaknesses. No more perfection for me. Perfect is so boring! The other day I was having some professional pictures done and the photographer told me he might try to sell some of them as stock photos. He said that no one wants to see the conventional-looking models anymore, but rather people with odd faces like mine. And I took that as a compliment! I prefer to look at funny-faced people, too. And did you notice that I just bragged there? I did, and I’m fine with it. I like people who occasionally brag. I like people who say strange things. And I really like people who eat with gusto.
  4. I laugh. “He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at,” said Epictetus. So true! And so healing. Taking myself too seriously bores me almost as much as perfection does.
  5. I dance. The first year after I divorced and left the church I danced almost every day in my kitchen. I needed it. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without dance. Dancing helps me be fully in the moment and connected to my body. I didn’t know this at the time, but dance is a highly-recommended activity for people experiencing PTSD because it helps unstick your body from its immobilization stress response. Long walks in nature help too, as do yoga and other physical activities.
  6. I connect with people socially. I have learned a lot through trial and error with this one. Many of the people I have tried friendships with in the past couple years are no longer in my life. They were bridge people who came into my life to teach me something and then it was time for them to go. I am just now finally learning how to let those people go for my own benefit, and to limit my most intimate circle to only the tried and tested friends I can count on.
  7. I keep trying new things. It’s like going shopping and bringing a big armful of clothing into the changing room. Maybe out of ten items I’ll like one or two, or perhaps none. But how was I to know unless I tried? I try on new books, people, career paths, values, sports, activities. Some of those require quite a bit more of an investment of time, money, or emotions than the 10 seconds it takes me to pull on some jeans in the changing room. So yeah, it can suck when something doesn’t end up being a fit. But that doesn’t mean I stop trying because if I did, what would I have? It’s trial and error with everything. Life is a classroom. Or a laboratory. Or a dance party in my kitchen! Oooooh yeah!

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religious trauma syndrome

Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn't mean you can't wear some kick-ass mascara.
Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn’t mean you can’t wear some kick-ass mascara.

I’m writing this post at the request of some friends and because I think talking about my experience may possibly help other people facing similar challenges.

In Leaving Mormonism, a post I wrote about eight months ago, I talk about how it was to begin distancing myself from my religion and what I felt at that time. In Stoicism for Passionate People, a guest post I wrote for Stoicism Today, I mention some other major life challenges I went through at the same time I was experiencing a crisis of faith. Within a couple years’ time, my father died young and unexpectedly, I divorced the man I had married at 19, I had a crisis of faith and became inactive in the Mormon church, and I experienced a business failure and large financial loss.

Any one of those events would have been very difficult, and facing them all together was devastating. I cried a lot, I couldn’t sleep, I frequently felt nauseous or exhausted, I had recurring nightmares, and I woke every morning at 4 am to a racing heart and paralyzing fear. I had difficulty focusing. For example, I had always been a voracious reader, and during this time I stopped reading because I couldn’t focus enough to remember anything I read. I had always been a prolific journaler/blogger and I stopped that, too. Now I recognize that what I had was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This lasted for a solid year at least, and then intermittently for a second year. As I explain in Stoicism for Passionate People, discovering ancient philosophy and Stoicism in particular helped me a great deal. It put me on the track toward healing.

After I got home in August from a wonderful vacation in Maine, I had some problems with friends and my reaction to the situation was extreme. For several weeks I felt like I had returned to the dark times of two years ago. All of the PTSD symptoms returned. Crying, insomnia, panic attacks, and even a fight or flight response. I fought with my friends for days and I decided I wanted to move away. I felt attacked.

Now that a little time has passed and I’ve calmed down and gained some perspective, I see that this particular situation triggered the same feelings that I had when I was leaving the church. I felt that my intimacy was betrayed and that my integrity was violated. I felt unfairly judged.

Of all the bad things that happened to me in those two years, the most difficult to deal with has been the trauma of leaving the Mormon church and how that has affected me mentally, physically, and emotionally . I have been reading more about it this past week. It even has a name: Religious Trauma Syndrome. It is with hesitance that I link to Journey Free: Resources for recovery from harmful religion, because I do not share all of this group’s views including their negative attitude toward religion. I do not make the claim that religion is universally damaging to all adherents. I only say that leaving religion has provoked in me an existential crisis and psychological trauma. I only speak from my own personal experience and if people can identify with it, great. If not, great. But maybe those who don’t will understand better those of us who do leave organized religion and develop the symptoms of this syndrome.

I imagine it might be difficult to understand what it’s like to have RTS unless you have it, especially if you haven’t been a faithful believer in a religion that informs totally and completely your self concept, your core beliefs, and every hour of every day of your life, what you eat, do, wear, say. This religion is the lens through which you see your past, present, and future. Actually, it IS your past, present, and future. It’s you. It’s your entire worldview. Now. Imagine what happens when that bubble bursts. Imagine how that is. You are no longer you. You have no core beliefs. You have no past, present, or future, at least not the one you had a month ago, or yesterday, or whenever it was when you were still a believer. That is gone. You find yourself in mourning because your former life is dead. Except you are poorly equipped to mourn, say nothing about moving on with a new life because you are nothing. You have no idea how to relate to yourself and other people and you don’t know who you are in the world or what your place is. You are faced with the task of completely reconstructing your reality from scratch.

As far as experiencing RTS goes, it doesn’t matter what brand of religion it is, what matters is how much that religion controls you though fear. In my religious activity I was not wholly motivated by fear of sinning and going to Hell, and maybe not even principally. I was also motivated by love. I loved my community and I loved helping other people. I loved spirituality and personal growth. I loved God. However, if when you begin to have doubts and you communicate those doubts to a believer friend, and the friend’s response is to tell you to be careful of your choices because some day you will be held accountable not only for your sins but the sins of your wayward children if they stray from the fold for having followed your bad example… Well. Obviously fear is being used to control you and there is little room for any real exploration within the bounds of that religion.

Fear and love are very powerful emotions. Though I have been able to distance myself from the Mormon church mentally, I feel secure in my conviction that it’s not where I belong right now, and I enjoy building my new reality, I am still emotionally attached to some of those ingrained beliefs. There are situations that automatically trigger those feelings of panic, fear, and insecurity that I had when I first stopped going to church. This past week has been about accepting that this is the case and that I have RTS.

I have felt immensely moved and inspired by the people who are going public about their addictions in an effort to remove the stigma of addiction and raise awareness and funds for treatment. Their example motivates me to write this post. I think there needs to be more awareness about RTS. I don’t think a lot of people know what it is, and yet it is very common. I don’t know very much about it myself and I’m curious to investigate. In upcoming posts I’ll be talking more about RTS and the different things I’ve discovered this past year that help me heal.

life as a tramp

 

She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theatre and never comes late
She never bothers with people she’d hate
That’s why the lady is a tramp

Lately people don’t like me. Not everyone of course, just some people. A significant number. They unfriend me on Facebook, horror of horrors. They avoid me, not returning my messages. Or they just give me the stink eye. It used to be that this kind of rejection would upset me. A lot! I wanted everyone to like me. I needed everyone to like me. And because I needed that, I was… nice. I couldn’t help being opinionated, strong-willed, and expressive, but when I saw that being this way was making some people not like me, I would immediately tone it down. I made myself smaller around small people. I retreated. I waffled. I stepped lightly.

Throughout life our values change. I no longer value people liking me. When I left the Mormon church I lost quite a few friends just for that. It was an eye opener. And then when I started simultaneously trying to make new friends and come more fully into who I am, I discovered that not everyone was going to like the unapologetic version of me. I was surprised by how many women didn’t like me, for example, as I became more connected to my sexuality and stronger in that. I suppose it makes biological sense, but are we that primitive, ladies?

Quite recently I’ve decided that not only do I not care if everyone likes me, but it’s probably a good sign if some people don’t. Once I really started to believe that deep down, I changed a lot. I stopped being nice and I started being real. I started being someone I like and admire. I had no idea what an impact that shift would have on my social life. It’s been dramatic. People either feel much more comfortable around me, or much less. There is not a lot of in-between.

And I feel more at home in my own skin than I ever have. I’m in my body, and I’m taking up space. I’m not sorry to be taking up space. This is my space. The other day in a practice coaching session, a man told me that I am earth, sex, heat, and power. I said, Yes! That’s me. You nailed it, buddy.

I don’t see myself giving up this way of being so that everyone will like me again. My friends are deeply important to me and I love them immoderately. However, first I’m my own closest friend. And that friend never tells me to be nice anymore. She tells me to be a tramp.

El Higiénico

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Not long after I divorced I created a profile on an online dating site. Newly single for the first time in my adult life, I was excited to meet guys and go on dates and at the time it seemed like as good a way as any. Actually, for a shy girl it seemed superior to meeting someone at a bar or club where at the time all I could do was blush and look at my shoes when guys approached. This way I could hide behind my online profile, which I carefully created to be classy yet playful, and check out potential dates from the comfort of my laptop and pjs.

I was initially delighted with all the messages I received and it was all so fun. My mobile phone was on fire as I struggled to answer all the messages from my potential suitors. I felt like the popular girl! I was open to meeting in person anyone who seemed reasonably attractive, interesting, and polite in their messages, sometimes if only out of curiosity. However, I quickly realized the following:

This is no place for the grammatically pedantic. I decided I was only interested in dating men whose native Spanish was at least as good as my non-native Spanish. In the online dating community, that decision winnowed down my options to a depressing few.

When you are going to meet someone for the first time, you must have an exit strategy. I learned that meeting someone for drinks on my way to another event was usually best. Jules Evans calls it the Two Beer Rule in his very funny and spot-on post about online dating. The Two Beer Rule (or sometimes, one Coke) is a must, because:

Some people are able to make themselves attractive, interesting, and polite in their online profile and in messages, but then in person they are none of those things. (See El Higienco below for the prime example.) I once met a guy for sodas while I was shopping in the city center. From the moment we sat down he would not stop trying to touch my hands, legs, and face, as well as gaze soulfully into my eyes. I suddenly remembered that I had promised a friend to do something or other and I made a hasty departure as soon as we paid for the Cokes. When I gave him the two kisses in the Spanish goodbye, he grabbed my tush with both hands and squeezed hard. When I told a friend this story she said, “He knew that was going to be his only opportunity to squeeze that ass and he took it.” I only had to endure a few minutes of the octopus’ company, but imagine if I had met this guy for dinner or even worse, to see a movie?

I eventually stopped meeting guys online because it never worked for me. I didn’t like almost any of them. I liked several as friends but not in that way that makes your knees go weak and your innards turn to water. But then, I’m unlikely to react to any guy I first meet that way. I’m a cold one, I suppose. Nearly all of the online guys came on too strong right away and that’s always a turn off for me. I need a more subtle game. I have liked guys who tease and let me tease. Guys who give me space. Guys who are perfectly fine with me flirting gently, then outrageously, then cooly pretending I didn’t do any of that. I like to play. I hope not in a manipulative way. I don’t like to play with people’s feelings. More than a game, it’s my let’s-see-if-you-can-catch-me mating dance. Online dating does not lend itself to my elaborate, subtle, drawn-out dances. As Jules says, online dating is too efficient and brutally direct, too mechanical to be seductive.

And now, as promised, I bring you… El Higiénico.

He was one of the many guys I was communicating with on this dating website but he lived in a city about two and a half hours from where I live. He was very handsome in his pictures, American, a writer, and funny. A few weeks after we started communicating online I went to visit a friend in the city where El Higiénico lived, and we made plans to meet. I was staying at a hotel far from where he lived and unbeknownst to me at the time, he picked a meeting place close to where he lived. He told me to take the bus. That may have been only the second time in my life I had been on a city bus. I ended up having to change buses to get there and it was confusing. It was a hot late summer afternoon in southern Spain and I arrived at our meeting a bit sweaty and annoyed. However, I think I probably looked sweet, fresh-faced, and demure in my conservative skirt and blouse. I was a kind-hearted, innocent Mormon girl, excited to meet a new guy. And he knew all of this from our messages.

He was handsome in a boyish way. He was 33 but could have passed for 25. He was very fit. He asked me if I wanted to go anywhere particular and I told him I wanted shade and a drink of water. For some reason he ignored this and led me on a walk in the hot sun. I kept looking around for a vending machine or kiosk that sold water, but none were in sight. I asked him about his writing career and he told me that the last article he had written was an exposé on the dubious labeling of fish in markets and grocery stores in Spain. And then he told me all the things he hated about living in Spain, including the rude and ignorant people, food, sports, music, news programs, and weather. Topping his list of things to hate in Spain were Spanish women. He told me that he is a person who cares very much about hygiene and potential germs, and he found Spanish women to be unhygienic. He went into disturbing detail on this point. To change the subject I asked him about teaching English, which I knew he did in addition to writing. He told me that teaching English is the one cool thing about living in Spain because he was able to work only two hours per day and earn enough money to put him “in the Spanish middle class.” I don’t remember now what that sum was. However, he repeated this several times. I asked him more about his writing. I think by this time I was weak with dehydration and had to sit down. There was no shade where he had taken me, so we sat in the sun. He then asked me about my writing and the following conversation took place.

Me: Well, I haven’t written much the past year or so. My dad died about a year and a half ago and since then I…

Higiénico: [whispers] Cancer?

Me: Um, what?

Higiénico: Was it cancer that killed him?

Me: No. He died during open-heart surgery. And it changed me somehow, I guess I got depressed. I had no interest in writing anymore and I…

Higiénico: Look, Lindsay. Stop a second. I need to be clear with you here. I’ve reached the age of 33 and I think at this age I don’t have to beat around the bush. What I really want to do is fuck. Sure, I want to go out to the movies, go for dinner or whatever, and then fuck. It’s that simple. Does that seem like something that would interest you?

Me: Frankly, if that were what I wanted to do, I don’t believe I’d have to leave Málaga. I think I would likely have a fine selection right there to choose from.

At his point El Higiénico lifted up his shirt, grabbed my wrist, and placed my hand on his abdomen.

Higiénico: There. Feel that? What do you say to that? That’s nice, huh? You like that, huh? Those are rock hard abs.

Me: Very nice, yes.

Higiénico: And the thing is, Lindsay, you wouldn’t have to come to me. I [paused for effect and in a sweeping motion with his hands, indicated that his entire body was involved here] would come to you. I could come down for the weekend, we’d take the kids to the beach, eat some sardines at a chiringuito, and then go to your place and fuck.

Me: I see. Hmm.

Higiénico: I think you’d like it.

Me: I’m not seeing that happening.

When I have told this story, most people have asked why I didn’t slap him or cut him off right then and there, or tell him I had a headache (which I did actually) and go back to my hotel. But when I told my sister Maria, she said, “See, if it were me, at that point I’d have to stick around and see what else the bastard had to say.” It is in these ways Maria and I can tell we share DNA, because of course I stuck around. And the bastard had more to say.

We decided to go for ice cream. He told me about his ex wife, a Spanish woman and former model he was married to for ten years. He told me again about how much he loathes Spanish women. And again about teaching English two hours per day and that being enough to put him in the Spanish middle class. And then:

Higiénico: How many messages do you get on that dating site?

Me: The first couple days I got about a hundred messages. Now maybe 10-20 per day.

Higiénico. Wow. Well, but that’s only because you are over 35 and divorced. Everyone figures you are desperate for sex. I get probably five messages per week, which is a lot for a guy because women almost never write first. Have you ever had a homosexual experience?

Me: No.

Higiénico: You’re lying.

Me: Nope.

Higiénico: I know you’re lying because everyone has had a homosexual experience at least once. On a Friday or Saturday night in a club, at about 4 am everyone who hasn’t paired off already turns gay. The men start checking out men and the women start checking out other women because they are all so desperate to get laid. It’s just human nature, not a big deal. Anyway, I often get messages from guys at around 4 am on a Friday night saying, ‘Dude, I’m not gay but I just need to get laid. You up for it?’

Me: Uh-huh.

El Higiénico had asked me earlier what my plans were that evening. I told him I was going to a friend’s orchestra concert and then we were going out after for drinks.

Higiénico: Lindsay, I’ll tell you what I think you should do tonight. After the concert, go to your hotel. Give me a call and I will go there and then go up to your room. Do you have a jacuzzi?

Me: No.

Higiénico: Damn. Well, we will start by giving each other massages. And then, we will have respectful, hygienic sex. And it will be glorious.

Me: I don’t think so. I’m not feeling it.

Higiénico: Lindsay, [at this point his tone becomes very condescending, as if he were talking with a frustrating child] if you would only try it, you would see that you like it. It’s as easy as that. Try it, and you will like it. You think I’m hot, right? So how could you not like respectful, hygienic sex with me?

Me: I don’t feel inspired.

Higiénico: [nearly yelling] That’s because you are so repressed! You are completely sexually repressed! I can tell by how fast you walk. Only people who are sexually repressed walk as fast as you do.

Me: Ok. Could be.

I shrugged, smiled, and hailed a taxi. As I got into the taxi, El Higiénico told me he’d be waiting for my phone call. But alas, it was not to be. That was the last I heard of him, or him of me.

Every single person I have told this story to has asked me what he meant by “hygienic” sex. A body condom? No oral? What? Everyone is disappointed that I didn’t find out what he meant by that. I’m ok with leaving it to the imagination.

guest post at Stoicism Today

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Stoicism Today has published a piece I wrote on passionate Stoicism. I repost it here. And welcome, Stoicism Today readers!

Stoicism for Passionate People’ by Lindsay Varnum

I cry when I’m ecstatically happy. I cry when a friend or family member or sometimes even a stranger cries. I cry when I’m angry or when something’s not fair. I cry at orchestra concerts. I occasionally cry at museums if I’m seeing for the first time a work of art that touches me deeply. I admit to having more than once cried in the middle of sex just because I was having such a good time.

It seems I was always like this. My father’s nickname for me was Little Feist. My constant crying as an infant and violent temper tantrums as a young child were scary and overwhelming for my mother, who just wanted to make it all stop. Luckily for her, my more tranquil and easy-going siblings soon came along, providing her with amiable distraction from her first child’s baffling intensity. If my strong feelings were difficult for my mother to deal with, they were much more so for me. Even as a young child I was able to perceive that I was more sensitive than most people. Unfortunately I only saw the negative aspects of this and how it made me a challenge for my family, teachers, and peers. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to see the positive side of being passionate. As a child I didn’t want to be seen as the difficult, oversensitive one and these strong feelings scared me and made me feel out of control. I spent all of my childhood and young adulthood at best trying to hide my emotions and at worst suppressing them entirely.

In my thirties within a short period of time came a series of life changes that made it impossible for me to continue dealing with my feelings in the same way I always had. My father died young and unexpectedly, I experienced a crisis of faith, divorced, left my religious community, and suffered a large financial loss. I wanted to handle all of this with strength and dignity. I kept getting up in the morning and going through the motions of daily life. I could still laugh and give hugs and dance, so I thought I was doing ok. But then I would find myself in public places like the grocery store with tears streaming down my face for no apparent reason. I was not doing ok.

I discovered Stoicism and started practicing it because I wanted to silence the compulsive negative thoughts that were making me feel increasingly worse about myself. That was the emergency situation that had to be handled immediately. Once that was under control and I was feeling less anxious and depressed, I realized that in Stoicism I had found a methodical way to work on character development and living my values again. As a member of a strict religious faith I had been used to studying the scriptures every day and tracking my personal spiritual growth. Studying Stoicism, self-monitoring, and practicing meditation came easily to me after a lifetime of religious practice and helped somewhat fill the void left when I stopped practicing my religion.

I started learning about Stoicism less than six months ago and by no means do I have an extensive grasp of it. However, I can share my experience with Stoic practice and how it has helped me so far. One of the many positive effects Stoicism has had on my life is that it has helped me become an even more passionate person.

I know, that sounds like crazy talk. But before you dismiss this assertion, let me explain the three ways I believe that Stoicism can help the passionate person flourish. In this context I define the “passionate person” as one who is highly sensitive and experiences intense feelings.

1. Practicing Stoicism frees us of fear of our emotions.

Somehow in my childhood I internalized the belief that my emotions were bad and could be inconvenient to the people I cared about or lead to sinful behavior. Because I feared my emotions, I practiced stoicism with a small “s” by hiding or suppressing them. I needed to discard this belief, then replace it with the belief that my emotions are a positive part of who I am as long as they don’t keep me from living my values. Before discovering Stoicism I felt constant guilt and fear about how my emotions could affect others. All of that melted away once I really believed that I am responsible only for what I control, and that does not include other people’s feelings.

Also, I know that through the Stoic practice of creating distance between my feelings and myself I can moderate extreme emotions that could potentially send me out of control. I can nip unwanted anger in the bud and pull myself out of a paralyzing sadness. I can bring down into reality the unrealistic, over-exuberant flashes of “genius” that come to me in moments of outrageous happiness. It’s one thing to wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Ok, from now on, my feelings do not control me, I control them. Ta-da!” and an entirely different thing to actually have a system in place that makes it possible for you to do that. Stoic practice has provided that system for me. Experiencing intense emotions and expressing them with considerably less fear and guilt is new to me, and for now at least, it feels healthy and liberating.

2. Stoicism makes us more spontaneous.

Spontaneous people are easier to trust and more fun to be around than those who are on the more inhibited or calculating side. However, being spontaneous doesn’t come naturally to people who are extremely sensitive because we are constantly trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt. We tend to be oversensitive to criticism and the opinions of others. When I learned about Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the first damaging belief I tackled was this idea I had that other people’s opinions of me were of vital importance. That belief had to go because it was causing me serious harm. There were many people, including most of my friends and family, who were critical of me when I divorced and left my religious community. With effort, I have been able to stop caring so much what others think. I know this is true because now I so seldom wonder what someone’s opinion of me is. As Coco Chanel put it, “I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t think of you at all.” Once you don’t especially care what people think of you, you have removed a large impediment to being spontaneous.

When I stopped practicing religion I began to doubt some of my values and I didn’t always know where I stood. This made me constantly second guess throughout the day everything I thought, said, and did. Now I have a set time every morning to study and ponder the principles I want to live by, as well as inspire myself to live wisely throughout the day. I reserve judgment on how well I’ve done until nighttime when I review the day’s events. This setting aside of specific times for contemplation has effectively eliminated exhausting and pointless rumination from my life. Now I can just spontaneously live! And being more spontaneous makes me live more fully and in the moment, more passionately.

3. Practicing Stoicism helps us to become more humble and teachable.

Identifying too closely with our emotions and taking them too seriously shrinks our world and makes us more likely to be self-absorbed. It can be extra hard for passionate people to not get caught up in our emotions at the expense of other more important things, like cultivating virtue. When our feelings are stronger than other people’s, we can easily develop the mistaken idea that our feelings are more important than other people’s.

Stoicism trains us to become detached observers of our emotions, and the space that is thereby created between our feelings and who we really are is magical. All kinds of marvelous things can happen there. The Stoics want us to use that space to insert reason first and foremost so that we make wiser choices, but we can also bring in a sense of humor toward ourselves, one of the most attractive of qualities. It is that space that allows us to attain the perspective in which we recognize our place in the cosmos. It is in that space that we can become wise, humble, and open to change if we choose to do so.

Maybe at some point in life I will tire of being oversensitive, impulsive, mercurial, intense, and otherwise passionate. For now I would like to see how life plays out when I am the most sincere and transparent version possible of myself. I like to think that I can maintain these qualities I’ve had since childhood and at the same time cultivate virtue; that the one does not preclude the other. I like to believe that passion and eudemonia are not mutually exclusive. I feel like it is too early in my experiment to draw any definite conclusions, but so far, so good.

leaving Mormonism, part 2

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the comments on the first Leaving Mormonism post, plus all the private messages I’ve received. I guess I have more to say.

First, I only speak from my own experience and my own way of relating to the Mormon faith. I try to avoid generalization because I know so many people whose lives are more joyful and more meaningful because of their activity in the church. I know many who do not embrace standard Mormon culture, who question, who have doubts, and yet remain faithful members. Maybe as I embrace uncertainty by leaving the church, others embrace uncertainty by staying active. I love my friend Michelle’s comment, and I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing part of it here:

What really struck me is the thought that each person’s soul journey is so individual. What is good for one person might not be what another person needs. What works for me when I was 30 might not work for me now that I’m in my 40’s. It’s that gut feeling and instinct that you describe on what you need as a specific and unique individual in a given time and place. […] What I really dislike in Mormonism is the “one true path” ideology that permeates so much of its theology. You have a problem? Well, then, the solution is to do X, Y, and Z. It worked for me, and why wouldn’t it work for you? (and if it doesn’t it’s because you’re lazy and selfish, or because you don’t have enough faith.)

I honor and respect other people’s soul journeys. It makes me happy to see people enthusiastic about whatever they’ve found that brings meaning to their lives. I wish others felt the same when considering my choices. It seems to me that this “one true path” belief is not only unreasonable, but also divides families. One reason I went into a deep depression after leaving the church was because I knew how much pain it caused my family and friends who were active members. I knew that I was the cause of the kind of pain to my loved ones that Tevye feels in the above sequence from Fiddler on the Roof when his daughter leaves her Jewish faith to marry a Christian. If you have never been a member of the Mormon church or a similar orthodox faith, you may think I’m exaggerating. I assure you I am not, and my leaving the church was initially devastating to my children. Not only did I break up the family, I also stopped being part of everything I had taught them was good and true.

And as if that were not enough to make me feel like a terrible person, as I previously mentioned, a trusted friend told me that I should seriously consider how I might lead my children astray by leaving the church because then they might sin, and I would be the one who would have to answer for those sins. Actually, my ex husband also said more or less the same to me on several occasions. My friend Ang had something to say about it in a comment: “This is the kind of belief, that if looked at from the outside, appears to be a threat and a manipulation to induce guilt and fear.” Yes, and I feel like there was way too much of that going on in the church for me. I do not say that everyone experiences the church that way, but I sometimes did. I left the church with enormous loads of guilt and fear weighing me down.

And why should someone’s personal and individual soul journey cause such grief, pain, fear, and guilt to herself and those she loves the most? What is right about that?

Why not just focus on building Zion? That is what I miss about the church. Very much. I miss feeling part of something grand and beautiful on that scale. The Mormon concept of community should be the envy of every faith community. The actual practice, influenced by antiquated cultural values and attitudes. leaves something to be desired. But the idea, oh, the idea! I can see why Joseph Smith got so jazzed about it. Mormons seek to be a people pure of heart, unified in love, a beacon of righteousness, a people free from strife and contention and “having no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). They seek to build in their communities a peaceful refuge from the wickedness of the world. How amazing is that? All the meetings Mormons attend, even the church doctrine classes, are supposed to be motivating them to be more virtuous. Teaching church doctrine is thought to be the most effective way of instilling virtue. But how about a specific focus on teaching those virtues that will actually build Zion, that will increase love, while eliminating strife, contention, and poverty? I may not be faithful in the sense of swallowing all of the Mormon church doctrine, but I would love to be part of something like that.

I suffered a lot and was the cause of suffering to my loved ones when I left the church. I knew it would be painful, but I made that choice in order to be true to what I believed, something I was taught to do at a very young age. (Thank you, Mormon heritage!) I know it hurt my children to go through the divorce and me leaving the church. The very least I can give them now is a happy mother.

bridge people

girl3
Yesterday morning I had chocolate and churros with my dear friend Marilo. Marilo is yet another of my beautiful friends, not only for her rare physical beauty, but for her even rarer combination of qualities. She is a profound thinker, but loves to laugh at herself. She has a highly sensitive artist’s mind that also contains whopping good sense. She goes on these marvelous flights of fancy and yet always maintains her feet planted squarely on the ground. Whenever I spend time with her, I come away wanting to write down everything she said, but also how she said it. I would not be at all surprised to see Marilo turn up some day in an artist’s biography as his muse.

Marilo thinks she and I are a lot alike, which is of course very flattering to me. I like to secretly (or not-so-secretly now) give myself airs that I’m just like Marilo. Although I know she is actually referring to something specific we have in common. We are both highly sensitive and easily hurt, and yet we can’t seem to help laying ourselves bare to people, open and vulnerable to whoever wants to come by and pinch us. When we get together, a lot of our talk is about how to deal with the inevitable pain this causes. Of course I’ve talked with her about Stoicism and how it’s helped me.

Like me, Marilo divorced after being married many years, about three or four years before I did. She has helped me tremendously in navigating single life. Yesterday she told me that she thinks I’m doing very well, and now is the best she has ever seen me. I went through the rest of the day with a big smile on my face. I probably looked simple minded.

Yesterday we talked about several things we’ve learned in the past couple years. One is about who to spend time with, and who not to. Marilo said that sometimes she has had a friend that maybe she has a good time with, but then when she gets home after spending time with that person, she starts to feel bad inside. Maybe she starts to feel small or insignificant, maybe negative or frustrated. The same thing has happened to me and it can be hard to identify exactly what the problem is. Now that I have more experience, I can usually figure it out. Sometimes it has been a problem within me, for example, that I’m letting my insecurities get the better of me. However, sometimes it’s the other person who is maybe too fearful or negative and I’m absorbing it. In any case, if their demons don’t play well with my demons, it’s best to find someone else to spend time with.

Another wise thing Marilo said yesterday was an off-hand reference she made to a former friend. She said, “You know, she was one of those people who pass through your life after you divorce and you’re looking for new friends. They teach you something and then they leave. It’s good that they appear in your life, and it’s just as good that they disappear.” I thought this was a wonderful way to view such people who sometimes leave an oily residue behind. People who’s principle purpose was to teach you how NOT to be. Later, she even came up with a cool name for them: bridge people. I love it! Isn’t it great? It only encourages you to keep meeting people, keep trying, without attaching too much importance to what doesn’t work out.

Marilo later posted this quote by Marta Zubiría to my Facebook: Hay personas que pasan por delante, pero no por dentro. There are people who pass by in front, but don’t get inside. It sounds better in Spanish.

There are people who don’t get inside us and people who shouldn’t get inside us.

A Mormon belief that I continue to hold dear is the idea that our bodies are temples. I do believe in that connection between spirit and body, that what is good for one is good for the other. For example, I know that what I eat effects me emotionally. I know that emotional distress can make me physically ill. I also know that there is no way to be physically intimate with someone without absorbing some of their energy. People will tell you that it’s just sex, it doesn’t really matter, it only effects you emotionally if you let it, that society imposes erroneous ideas about sex and if we all just went around humping naturally like animals do, the world would be a better place. Those are the excuses people make when they are either, 1) trying to convince you to have sex or, 2) attempting to justify their lack of criteria and self control.

Condoms can protect you against some STDs, but as far as I know, there is no spiritual condom. If you are being intimate with someone who has significant emotional problems, you are going to catch that just like you would syphilis.

leaving Mormonism

Secret-GardenI was born and raised a member of the Mormon church. I went to Brigham Young University, a Mormon university, and got married at 19 in a Mormon temple. I was a very active participant in the church, as was my husband, and we both served in leadership positions. I did not do a full-time mission for the church, but twice our family was called away from our affluent suburb to serve as missionaries in other wards, about two years both times. Once in an inner-city Laotian branch, and once in a Spanish-speaking branch about an hour from where we lived.

I was happy in my Mormon bubble. I had few close friends outside the church once I was married. I had four children before I turned 28 and though I didn’t work outside the home, throughout my 20s and early 30s, my only quiet moments during the day were the few minutes at the end of my yoga class in savasana. Besides all of the work involved in raising four children and my sometimes heavy load of church work, I always had other projects going on. I blogged passionately for seven years about my Mormon beliefs and lifestyle. I found my faith intellectually stimulating and inspiring. What I loved the most was the concept of Zion: a community of believers all over the world, united in our discipleship, our love of virtue, and our desire to consecrate all of our talents in building the kingdom of God.

Though I am naturally inquisitive, skeptical, and contrary, I’m also very pragmatic, and I was happy enough with my beliefs that I found ways to question within the confines of my religion. I never entertained serious doubts about the church until after my father died four years ago. And even then, I wouldn’t say that I suddenly began doubting the foundational beliefs of the church, but rather my own motivations. I became decreasingly interested in participating. My husband had become the bishop of our ward, requiring a huge time commitment from both of us. After my father died I started slacking off. When I say that I was “slacking off” that makes it sound like I was being lazy. It wasn’t that. You don’t participate actively in the church for all those years and then just suddenly become lazy about it. It has never been easy to explain to people what it was or how it happened or why. It was something visceral.

I have always had strong gut reactions, sometimes to people I first meet, to situations, to ideas. Over the years I’ve learned to strongly consider what my gut tells me when making decisions. It would be unreasonable not to because my gut is seldom wrong. The best way I can describe how I began to feel about the church after my father died was a negative gut reaction.

At first I was confused, and upset by this feeling. I felt guilty because I assumed there must be something I was doing wrong if I felt this way. I tried to explain how I felt to my bishop, who was also my husband. He told me that if I wanted to take a break from church, that was fine. He said I didn’t have to attend all the meetings. I tried to nourish myself more spiritually to see if that would help. I read the scriptures more, prayed more, fasted more, etc. It didn’t help. I started getting headaches every Sunday at church. It got to the point that I dreaded going, and when I finally got home every Sunday after a morning of meetings, it was all I could do to get some lunch for my family before collapsing on my bed in complete exhaustion. Afternoon siesta is a tradition here in Spain, but my Sunday after-church siestas got longer and longer.

As my marital problems became worse, they started to eclipse my faith problem, though obviously there was some crossover there. About two years after my father died, I divorced my bishop. It was a very difficult time and going to church only made me feel worse. I decided I needed a break, so I stopped going.

By this time I had started identifying Mormon beliefs and practices that didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t like how emotional and sentimental the meetings often were. I didn’t like how people kept saying they “knew” that the church was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that families could be together forever. Not only did people say that, but I felt pressure to say such things myself. Not that I would be kicked out of the church for getting up one day in testimony meeting and saying, “I don’t know if all this is true or not, but I hope so! It sounds nice.” However, it wouldn’t be ideal. No, ideal in the Mormon church is to say that you “know.” And the way that you know is that the Spirit confirms it to you. It’s not enough for me to feel a warm, happy feeling inside when I seek answers to these questions to know that all of this is true. I have additional concerns and doubts about Mormonism but I don’t feel the need to list them at this time. I am not against the church. I am happy for people who find fulfillment in it. It’s just not for me, not at this time.

I listened to this podcast a couple days ago and identified with everything Carrie Sheffield said about leaving the church and finding Stoicism. She says that living as a Mormon is very much about seeking status, not so much in this life, but in the next. If you believe what you are supposed to believe and do what you’re supposed to do, you can have your own world in the next life. That is, if you are a man. If you are a woman, you can be a plural wife to a guy with that kind of status. When my father’s death provoked a major reevaluation of my priorities, I started to find any kind of status seeking very off-putting.

Sheffield says that leaving the church is about becoming comfortable with uncertainty. Like her, I am realizing that not only do I not know if all of this doctrine is true, I do not care about not knowing. I am more than ok with not knowing how life began and who is behind it all. I don’t know for sure if there is life after death, and that’s fine, too. I don’t feel the need to find those answers at this time.

What I do care about is pursuing the only happiness that matters to me, that which comes of living a virtuous life. I want to continue living a life filled with appreciation for beauty in all its forms. I want to be less selfish and self-absorbed and more humble and loving. I would like to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of people close to me, and maybe even some who are not close to me.

A few months after I divorced and stopped attending church I talked with a Mormon friend I have always respected a great deal. When I told him about how I was feeling about the church, he replied that for the sake of my children I should remain a faithful member because if they fell into sin because of my poor example, at judgement day I would be held accountable not only for my sins, but for theirs, too. So it is with my children in mind that I say I believe one of the greatest tragedies, if not sins, is to let fear dictate your choices. I’m sure my children would not want their mother to go to church out of fear. If there is a loving Heavenly Father as the church teaches, I don’t think He would want that for me, either.

I say to my children: Don’t sin. But not because I fear being held accountable for your sins at some future point in time, or even because I fear you being held accountable for them. Don’t sin because it makes you feel empty and depressed. Sin makes you look in the mirror and not recognize yourself.

It feels great to finally be in a place from which I can talk about my evolving beliefs so openly and confidently. Like this new French guy I’ve been taking to bed for the past couple weeks, I can confidently say that I know nothing. I hope that anyone who might be offended or upset by these words will remember that. This is no proclamation.

why philosophy?

Averroes in a detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens”

I’ve had quite a few compliments on the new blog title. I love the name Philosofina! I’m glad I’m not the only one. But several people have asked why this title and why, for that matter, am I so in to philosophy?

I believe that living life well is an art that must be studied and practiced like any art. I don’t want to be carried along with the popular current, nor do I wish to follow my natural tendency and go against the popular current just for the sake of being contrary. I don’t want to be manipulated by the popular media, nor do I want to live my life as some sort of statement against the popular media. I want to do and be what is beautiful and good, though I’m not always sure which of those two should come first.

I was raised in the Mormon church and I was a strict adherent to the Mormon lifestyle and faith until about three years ago, when I stopped practicing. When you are an active Mormon, your life is living your faith. Everything I did, I did it Mormon style. Many of my waking hours were taken up in either personal scripture study, meditation, and prayer, or somehow serving in the Church. I saw life through a Mormon lens. Obviously, when I stopped practicing, it left a void. My beliefs, values, and lifestyle choices were all thrown into chaos. I had to try new experiences and ways of living, ways of thinking and relating to the world. I looked at other faith traditions, wisdom literature, and practices. I’ve slowly begun to develop my own philosophy of life.

However, I don’t think that developing your own philosophy of life is incompatible with being Mormon or a believer in any other strict, orthodox faith tradition.In fact, the practices that Stoics and Epicureans developed over many centuries to live their values work just as well for Mormons striving to live the strict dictates of their faith.

Right now I’m reading this excellent biography of Montaigne, for whom living à propos was “the great and glorious masterpiece” of a life well-lived. Montaigne, with his exceptional classical education, looked to the ancients for help on how to live appropriately: how to respond when life throws you a curve ball, for example. Stoic philosopher Epicetus defines life’s challenges as questions to which we must know how to answer immediately. I love how author Sarah Bakewell describes the Stoic and Epicurean approaches to living appropriately: “Like tennis players practicing volleys and smashes for hours, they used rehearsal to carve grooves of habit, down which their minds would run as naturally as water down a river bed. It is a form of self-hypnotism.” Exactly. Forming new habits of thought patterns is how I was able to stop both being self critical and caring too much what others thought of me. Performing these mental exercises trained me to respond differently to challenges than I had in the past. That is what Marcus Aurelius was doing in his Meditations, a book he never meant to be published. He was just sorting himself out and giving himself pep talks, encouragement to live à propos, a life of courage, dignity, and moral rectitude.

As I think more about religion vs. philosophy, I suppose I see religion as being more divisive and also more personal than philosophy. We all have our different versions of God and ideas about what happens to us after we die. Unfortunately many of us like to fight and kill others over these ideas, and killing people we don’t agree with doesn’t tend to bring us together in love as far as I can see. But Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists can all love Aristotle. We can all drink at the watering hole of humanism. After all, how did western European Christians even regain access to Greek philosophy after the Dark Ages? Through the efforts of Averroes, a Muslim philosopher from twelfth-century Spain. So it was nice of Raphael to include him in his fresco. 

And as far as religion being more personal than philosophy, I mean that what you think you know about God doesn’t effect me, but how you live your life does. Not only do I care about cultivating virtue in myself, but I would like for others to do the same. It is immaterial to me what prophets you embrace, or where you think you or I will be going after this life, but I want you to be happy and virtuous, damn it! And that is largely for the selfish reason that I want to live in a happy, peaceful society.