Thursday, October 26, 2017

Choosing My Path

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a problem with authority.  It’s not that I mind rules, which I think are important, with one caveat…I have to buy in to the rule.  I have to believe in it.  A double yellow line might as well be a brick wall dividing lanes in the road.  I’ll never cross them.  But I’ll smuggle food and beverages of all types into a theater.  See, I respect the traffic rule.  I believe in it.  But I think $9 for popcorn that costs me $.50 to pop and smuggle is insulting.  I respect dress codes until they are enforced by authoritative d-bags, then I’ll push the envelope as hard as I can.  I just freaking hate being told what to do.

I grew up in the Latter Day Saint faith.  I don’t consider myself Mormon anymore.  I’ve debated whether or not to share my faith journey on some public level.  I’ve never really been one to publicly riff on my personal beliefs in any detail..  I don’t generally like social media debates.  They tend to be self-serving and rarely to the point.  But for some reason I feel that giving my faith journey life through writing will somehow complete it.  Or at least be an integral part in my continuing life saga.  And I partly want to repay those whose own stories have strengthened me personally.

I don’t remember being able to comfortably testify of the truthfulness of any religious principle.  I’m confident God, or something god-like, exists.  It’s the only thing that currently makes sense in my mind.  But beyond that I just don’t know.  And I really don’t care.  This doesn’t mean I haven’t testified of the truthfulness of LDS doctrine.  I certainly have.  But it always felt like it was a duty and not a self-guided action.  I chose to serve a mission.  I had life experiences that led me there.  I’m forever grateful for the mission experience.  But even there, surrounded by strangers, I never fully knew that what I was testifying of was actually true.  I’m embarrassed by this.  I’m embarrassed that I didn’t have the guts to accept my own self-awareness as reality.  And I’m embarrassed that I misled people by promising them fact when I didn’t really know.  But I was young.  My brain hadn’t fully formed yet.  And I was doing the best I could.  I was doing what everyone else around me was doing so passionately.  It was play ball or go home.  I chose to play.

I’ve come to understand that the most talented liars believe their own lies.  They believe they aren’t actually lying because they have forced their minds to be OK with untruth.  It’s some fundamental rationalization that I believe truly imaginative or hyper-focused humans can’t control.  It’s basic instinct.  Emotional survival. 

I started to become cognoscente of my own untruth shortly after my move to Austin.  I really liked the church here.  It felt far more real than any Utah ward environment I’d been in, with the exception of that beloved West Jordan ward.  People thought differently out here and were more accepting of fringe ideas and even faith crises.  I found through conversation that there were others like me that were starting to recognize the motions they were going through.  Robotic tradition.  I remember playing piano in primary and thinking “these kids won't think for themselves because we are implanting their thoughts and beliefs here and now.” 

I didn’t know how to confront it.  Where do I start?  This is scary territory.  The LDS faith is not easily abandoned and leaving has “eternal consequences” not just for you but for your family as well.  I wasn’t comfortable accepting terms like “fell away” when it came to my faith journey.  I wasn’t falling from anything.  I was finally moving forward.  My subconscious mind still hadn’t grown the balls to admit serious, basic doctrinal issues and church history that I secretly hated.  It went to the easy things.  Disgusting inexcusable polygamy.  Shameful barring of the blacks from the priesthood.  Aggressive action against gay marriage.  And finally the use of shame and guilt to manipulate young people into towing the moral line as interpreted by the church.  I took my four issues to the bishop in 2011.

That bishop is an amazing man.  We met frequently.  Weekly in his office.  We read from the scriptures.  We prayed.  I read and prayed on my own as well.  He assigned study topics that we later discussed.  And it was this bishop that helped me see that my core issues weren’t polygamy, priesthood racism, gay marriage, or shame.  My core issues were whether or not there was a GOD.  If Jesus was real.  If Joseph Smith was a hero or a cad.  My mind's ear heard the record scratch and we course corrected toward basic gospel principles.

We moved to the Dallas area in 2013.  What a soulless place that was.  The only bright spots of the move were our neighbors, the schools, and the bishop.  I continued conversations with this bishop almost immediately.  He’d come grab me out of whatever class we were in and we’d chill in his office.  He’d hang his suit coat up and sit in a normal chair.  No behind-the-desk positioning.  Just two dudes talking casually about existential stuff.  I kept praying.  I’d stopped reading scriptures by this point outside of family scripture time.  For 18 months we talked.  Worked through some insanely difficult personal issues and I never once felt judged or patronized by him.  What a great guy.

We moved back to Austin at the end of 2014 and immediately started working with another bishop.  Same issues, mixed in with personal and family difficulties.  I don’t envy that job.  I admire them for taking the job and doing their best.  I was called to teach the 14 and 15-year-old youth.  There were 26 of them in one class.  My “team teacher” hardly ever showed so I handled that mob on my own.  There were some great kids in there.  And there were three or four that will end up in prison because they suck as humans.  I don't care if that's unfair because they're young.  They're horrible people already.  As time passed I found myself less and less comfortable teaching gospel principles.  The pre-existence, resurrection(s), millennium, judgment, and kingdom placement just sounded so foreign and preposterous to me.  I’d been rationalizing teaching the youth from a “curriculum” that wasn’t my own.  I didn’t have to actually testify of anything, right?  I just had to deliver a curriculum to the class.  Should be easy.  Yet after several months I could no longer teach that class in good conscience so I asked to be released.  Concurrently I had experience with people that met the criteria for exaltation, i.e. ordinances, but proved to be wholly disgusting, vile, black-hearted people.  And I finally vocalized my #1 hang-up with Mormonism...the concept of a "checklist God."  I know too many incredible, giving, loving, beautiful people that hold different, myriad beliefs.  I can't imagine an eternity where they are barred from entry to God's presence because they failed to be baptized by the right guy, marry in the right building, and belong to the right church.  Yet people that have filthy, repulsive souls that manage to check those boxes while hiding behind facades of service and commitment get in.  Nope.  Not in my world.  If that's heaven then give me HELL.

I had a couple very close friends that were transitioning or had transitioned out of the church that were recommending resources for people like me.  This was the first time I’d heard of any “essays” or a “CES Letter” or “Mormon Stories.”  But at my core I was still resistant to any kind of authority steering me in any direction that I wasn’t choosing for myself.  My whole life I was told to only read certain things or accept certain ideas.  I wasn’t going to let any other agenda dictate the future of my mind and soul.  So I stuck to the things that I knew.  I tested the claims of the LDS church.  I put Moroni’s Promise to the test (which I’d shared countless times in the mission field) and you know what I got?  Nothing.  SILENCE.  It wasn’t because I didn’t study hard enough.  Or pray long enough.  It was because there was nothing on the other side confirming anything to me.  Period.  And at this point I decided to “leave” the church.

My wife and I talked about it for dozens of hours.  We discussed it with our therapist.  And finally came to a joint conclusion that leaving was the only authentic choice to make.  We gathered the kids and told them about my journey and my decision.  They each reacted differently.  There were tears from some and instant acceptance from others.  But at the end of the conversation, they all threw their arms around me and told me how much they loved me and that I was the BEST DAD EVER.

Navigating the transition has been hard at times and weird always.  All of a sudden there were rules that I’d subscribed to and, on some level, “bought in on” my entire life.  And magically they were no longer there.  I could drink bourbon and beer.  I could wear black undies.  I could shop on Sunday.  And it was all initially weird.  But Sherri was a rockstar and the kids were outstanding.  We navigated it all the best we could and we continue to do so.

I am proud of the way I transitioned.  I used my own brain and my own soul to put church practices to the test and came away confident in my decision.  With the exception of a handful of months, I was fully worthy to go to the temple.  I’m not proud of the time when I wasn’t, but I am proud that I ended in good standing.  My daughter turned eight during the middle of this journey.  I didn’t know how my journey was going to end with the church so, after discussing at length with the bishop and people I trust and admire, I decided to baptize her myself.  A temple recommend was needed to confirm her.  I was temple worthy but didn’t hold a recommend…and didn’t want one.  I wasn’t comfortable interviewing to enter the temple so spiritually conflicted, so I arranged to have her uncle fly in and confirm her.  And I’m proud of that.  I am happy that I didn’t let emotionally difficult scenarios influence my authenticity.  Instead I talked to my daughter as frankly and honestly as possible and she was totally fine.  She was ecstatic to have Uncle Derall come out and confirm her.

People I have loved for years have left the church.  One of my favorite mission companions on the planet was excommunicated for refusing to stop posting his views on same sex policy to social media that conflicted with official church stances.  His was the first Mormon Stories episode I watched.  I slowly started to inform myself with the church essays, CES Letter, and personal accounts of others that have transitioned.  I’m happy I waited.  My spark would have ignited into a brushfire if I’d gone there early on and I wouldn’t have so thoroughly tried.  Now they are simply supporting materials that validate some of my fundamental struggles.  What the church labeled as “anti-Mormon” literature is largely just information and opinion that differs from core teachings and doctrine.  There’s certainly some inflammatory and ugly stuff out there, which I categorically avoid.  But there’s also some incredibly intelligent, well-researched information.

I’m not angry at the church.  Some social and cultural policies drive me bat-shit crazy, but I don’t take it personally.  I’m not picketing conference or tongue-slapping church leadership.  I can genuinely look back on aspects of church membership fondly.  The community, for the most part, has been unreal.  I fully support my children being brought up in the church.  If they choose that path then I will support them and wish them happiness.  I sincerely hope they will examine their beliefs early in life instead of waiting until they are 33 years old and terrified, then choose whatever path works for them.  I still go to primary programs and church functions and have dear friends that are all in.  Two of my closest, most respected and intelligent friends are true believers.  I don’t think anything less of them for buying in and they don’t think less of me for choosing my own way.  Life is a series of decisions.  We all do the best we can with the information and instincts we have.

So what now?  I don’t know.  I don’t really care.  I’m happier for sure.  I’m in no rush to replace a lifelong religion with a new one.  I have work to do on myself.  Physical, emotional, maybe even spiritual.  I believe in The Cosmos.  It reciprocates what you put into it.  I believe in kindness and love and full acceptance of others.  And I have to believe that whatever God exists will appreciate that, smile, and welcome me home.  Or maybe blackness.  Either way I’m good.


Cynthia Rees said...

Beautifully written. I'm so pleased that you were able to choose your own way to your chosen path.

Paul Breinholt said...

Tyler, we have been friends for a very long time and I want you to know first and foremost I love you, respect you, and after reading about your journey I want you to know publicly, that has and never will change. LOVE YOU

Matt Weiler said...

You're the man, Tyler. I may not be on the same or similar journey, but I can relate to much of this and appreciate authenticity wherever I can find it.

John Harper said...

You are an amazing person Tyler. I love you and your family very much. I appreciate your honesty. How grateful our paths have crossed. Much love.
P.S as long as you still play the 🎹 piano it's all good. J/K

Pallina said...
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Pallina said...
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