My last post was about doubt, something with which I am intimately acquainted due to my lifelong battle with OCD (often called the “doubting disease”). Obviously, chronic doubt, like the kind associated with OCD, can have a profound impact on one’s spiritual life — so I wrote the post in an attempt to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned in my quest to cultivate faith anyway. I hope it can be a source of help and strength not just for OCD sufferers, but people who struggle with doubt in any way (which, let’s face it, is all of us).
It occurred to me this morning, though, that spirituality isn’t the only thing impacted by OCD. It has also has a major effect on emotional health. So today, I wanted to share some of the strategies I’ve learned about being emotionally healthy, despite managing a mental illness. I haven’t always been great at these — and, in fact, am still mastering most of them — but they are useful principles that I work on daily.
For RMA, who doubts everything (just like me)
I gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting today that I wanted to share here: Choosing Faith in the Face of Doubt.
I’ve got a really scratchy audio recording, which has a few seconds of children fussing and crying at the very beginning (and, of course, throughout — it wouldn’t be a Mormon Sacrament Meeting otherwise!). 🙂
If you can’t stand the bad audio, I also created a PDF version you can download here: Choosing Faith in the Face of Doubt.
The full text is copied and pasted below…
The other day, I came across my old mission sketchbook — not my journal, but the place where I wrote a bit more creatively: descriptive paragraphs, recipes, and song lyrics, mostly. And I stumbled upon a song I’d forgotten about, called “Hiding Place.”
Now I’m not a great songwriter; I recognize that. I don’t know enough about music, or the piano, or poetry to put together anything truly excellent. Still, it’s a wonderful creative outlet I’ve enjoyed over the years. When I started playing this song again on the piano, some fascinating memories came flooding back. I remember writing it on a P-day in Pernik while I was companions with Sister R., and being a little bit baffled by it. I wasn’t quite sure who I was writing to. The other day, a good 7 years later (holy crap, I’m old!), I finally realized:
I was writing to ME.
This song is about faith, doubt, and finding the courage to tell the truth about yourself. Long before I had any idea what was really going on with me, I knew I’d have to face myself; and this little song, as simple as it is, was permission to do what I needed to do.
I was pretty stunned. So I opened up Garageband on my husband’s Mac and recorded it with the cheap little headset I use to Skype with clients. The sound quality isn’t great — there’s a bit of background noise (at the very end you can even hear a watch alarm go off) — and I just messed around a little with some harmonies, but it’s actually pretty special to me…so I thought I’d share. 🙂
When you live through a major crisis of faith, everything changes.
You feel fearful when you once had peace.
You experience anger, bitterness, and ostracism when you once felt the security that comes from “knowing.”
You feel like running. You feel like staying. You wish you had never asked the question. You thank God you had the courage to dig deeper. You long to share everything you’ve learned. You know you better keep your mouth shut.
Let’s not lie: it’s a difficult and painful process.
Eventually, though, something strange happens. You begin to put the pieces back together.
The picture looks different, but the frame is the same.
You find beauty in symbolism, where before you knew only literalism. You experience empathy, where before you felt only judgment. You learn openness and grace, where before you were closed and hard-hearted.
You forgive easier. You laugh more. You see truth everywhere.
It’s a difficult and painful process, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it.
My family and I are in Salt Lake City right now, visiting relatives. We had a chance to hang out in Temple Square this afternoon. It was absolutely perfect–70 degrees, gentle wind, sun shining, flowers in full bloom. My two-year-old daughter loved the reflecting pool, and squealed with delight when my husband gave her six or seven pennies to toss into the glassy water. I watched her somewhat enviously. To her, the world is as clear as the reflection in that pool: she knows what love is and she knows that she has it–and she doesn’t worry much about the rest.
Something about growing up clouds the vision somehow.
As we made our way around the grounds, we stopped at the visitors centers and took in the exhibits. One stop stood out in my mind as particularly descriptive of my last six months of searching, as though it could all be wrapped up in this single experience. It was a presentation on the promise of eternal families–a message that has historically brought me peace. But today, it was difficult to know how to feel or what to think.
“Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was on my mission, my mission president’s wife told us,
“You can’t convert anybody above your own level of belief.”
I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable when she said that, because I was never quite sure how well I believed. Given the way my mission turned out, I guess she was right.
I have always doubted, from the time I was a child. It’s difficult to describe how it feels to grow up in doubt. When other kids were playing in the mud or dressing up dolls, I spent hours asking God to assure me I was right in His eyes.
And then comes the inevitable extension: when doubt evolves into something more. When familiar words and rituals that once brought strength become a source of confusion, even anger. When peace gives way to pressure. When clarity becomes despair–
And you find yourself straddling two worlds that might look different but are really the same: those who know it’s true, and those who know it’s not.
Is there no fellowship for the uncertain?
I’m reading the Gospel of John right now, and I’m struck by the Master’s tenderness toward the outcasts, the unjust, and the downtrodden. And I’ve always loved the story when the man approaches the Savior with his sick daughter and cries out with tears, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief!”
Christ doesn’t hesitate; He heals the child.
Doubt is a lonely road. But there are moments, even when I’m languishing in utter confusion and near despair, that I feel His presence near me, urging me to look up, reach out, move beyond myself and lift another.
I think one of the most profound implications of grace is the realization that everyone–everyone–is in need of the Savior’s loving kindness. The sinners. The haters. The overconfident. And the doubters, too.
So here’s a secret I only admitted to myself about a year ago.
I never had a testimony of Joseph Smith.
I know it sounds incongruous, because I’ve always believed the Book of Mormon–but Joseph was this looming enigma, too complex to wrap my mind (let alone my heart) around.
After all, there’s the “primary” version, with beautiful, heroic paintings and almost vain repetitions and retellings of his First Theophany.
And then there are the things we don’t talk about, the secrets you hear whispered but are never quite brave enough to ask for more details…masonry, Kirtland- and Nauvoo-era polygamy, gold digging, and more.
In my previous pursuit of “perfection,” I tried to dismiss these stories as false or simply ignore them. After all, my precarious worldview would tumble were I to learn something to discredit him. And then where would I be? All this work, all this suffering for a false salvation?
No, thank you!
So because I never examined it, it never crushed my fragile faith. But because I never acknowledged it, it was always there, this nagging presence in the back of my mind, waiting to burst to the forefront on a moment’s notice–which it had this uncomfortable habit of doing from time to time.
Well, this year I decided it was time to confront it head-on. To find out the truth about this Joseph Smith and let the chips fall where they may.
I read Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, which gave me a gentle introduction to issues like gold-digging and polygamy–but also got me inside the story and helped me relate to Joseph as a human being. He was a brilliant, active man with a deep love for others. Throughout his life, he was never good with money and often made reckless business decisions. He was ambitious and prone to anger easily. But he suffered–oh, how he suffered!–for what he believed in, and he genuinely believed it, and he genuinely loved God and his fellow man–and had a truly uncommon connection with the Divine.
Next, I read Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, a remarkable book that recounts the lives of Joseph’s polygamous wives. I learned about them, and I learned about him. I was saddened by their trials, inspired by their faith, became intimately acquainted with their flaws and strengths. They lived massive, epic lives–the stuff of legends, myth, and scripture. They made huge mistakes and had spiritual experiences larger than I can comprehend. And a new image of Joseph began to emerge: one of a man–a remarkable man, it’s true–but flawed and imperfect…and maybe, just maybe, chosen of God despite all that.
Finally, I read Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Newell and Avery. Somehow, relating to him from the women’s perspective made it easier for me to understand. I saw him as a husband, as a father, as a leader. I saw Emma’s opposition to polygamy, and Joseph’s insistence on it. I saw her devotion to him anyway. I saw him as a human being, and I empathized with him. And I found peace.
Now, I’m not saying I totally “get” Joseph Smith. And I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about him. I’m not even saying I don’t still have questions and concerns.
But as I’ve abandoned my perfectionism, I’ve begun to embrace a much more nuanced worldview. One which can accept a flawed prophet. Life is a messy, messy thing, and we lie, and we lust, and we covet, and we hate, and we sin, and we cling to something greater than we are to pull us out of the muck we’ve created for ourselves–and He does.
So if God could take fallen Adam and give him joy, and if God could take Saul of Tarsus and make him an Apostle, and if God could take Jonah and save a city–and most of all, if God could take me and make me whole–then God can take Joseph and make him great. I can accept that. I can choose to believe that.
And I do.