What if a friend told you that numbers printed in grayscale on a black-and-white page each appear, for him, to have color? In addition, the number “2” is always blue, the number “8” is ALWAYS orange, etc.? Would you think the friend was testing your gullibility? Or, what if a loved one claimed to FEEL music, each new melody flowing through her flesh and bones in a pattern she’d never experienced until that moment? Would you quietly turn to the internet, searching for a competent, local psychotherapist whom you could hire to assist your loved one in regaining some sort of normalcy?
Hopefully, the therapist you found would recognize that this person whose experience you may easily dismiss is a SYNESTHETE. The brains of synesthetes are like yours and mine in that separate areas process different types of information: colors, for example, or numbers. Those areas of the brain are not next-door-neighbors, and do not normally co-mingle their signals, but in synesthetes… they do. Your friend or relative is not crazy. They just experience the world in a way that is foreign to you.
Unless your brain is somehow manipulated to experience temporary synesthesia, you will NEVER know what it’s like to see only colored numbers, or feel a symphony literally moving through your body.
What does this have to do with religion? I believe that some of us – either those who “stay,” or those who “leave,”… may be religious synesthetes. Despite nearly 50 years of trying to have a normal LDS experience and gain a solid testimony, I cannot see it as the “stayers” do. I see and feel only God and a purpose that is –for what I trust to be good reason — unknowable to me. Call me unworthy. Call me spiritually handicapped. Or call me…. a synesthete. I am convinced that, if you are a true believer, our perspectives can never match.
One day, two months after returning from a mission honorably served, Jefferson – my youngest birthchild – announced that he was leaving the church. I was devastated, yes. I felt I might not survive this completely unexpected blow. And yet, I was also amazed: my child, MY child — one whom I knew to be a committed seeker of truth and to have worked diligently to gain a testimony — had found the courage to be honest about his failure to receive the sure answer I’d been seeking for nearly 50 years.
Leaving cost Jefferson a lot, more than most will ever know. Over the year which followed his announcement, unexpected visits on my part often caught him with the remnants of tears on his face. He suffered, but he sure did it honestly.
Jefferson’s courage gave me the strength to finally face my own testimony-blocking demons. I studied, prayed, talked with my believing family members, including my amazing husband, parents, and friends. I bargained with myself: I would stay because I didn’t have the right to change the game in my marriage, mid-stream. I would privately define myself as one of those who would never KNOW, but would “believe on the words” of those who know. I would stay and contribute to a higher level of honesty in ward-level teachings. But finally, I saw that each of these solutions would require me to abandon integrity, and ultimately abandon myself. I could not make what I saw as untruth, be true.
Ultimately, in spirit, I left the church, though in body – by attending Sacrament Meeting with my husband – I remain.
If indeed I had issues with the church throughout all my adult life, why had I stayed? This is why:
First: My very youthful parents joined the church in 1959, bringing to me what they believed to be the greatest gift possible: the Truth. God still spoke to mankind through a living prophet, his mouthpiece. I could count on being guided, spiritually, for all of my life! My mother and father were so happy to have found this gift, and to pass it on to me, and all of their children.
Two, although my first doubts about religion occurred during a 10th-grade course in Ancient Mythology, I did NOT have the courage which my children would later display. I would not outwardly question the religion which my parents had taught me. Also, I loved God and could not imagine living without some sort of explanation for why we are on the planet.
When I became a mother, I determined that I would give to my children the same gift my parents had given me. While I would encourage them to think and question freely, they would be smarter and better than I and thus able to see the church and indeed, the world, in the same (clear?) way my loved ones did. They would be capable of treasuring the gift more than I had, though not for lack of trying.
It didn’t work.
Marinne rejected organized religion at about age 15. She grew weary, and then angry, at the constant judgment demonstrated by seminary and Sunday School teachers who were too insensitive to be entrusted with young, forming minds in any setting (in my opinion). On top of that, she fell in love with a boy who smoked! She left the church, and then left our home. I was devastated, and I missed her very much.
I doubt that Marinne knew, then, that I understood her reasons for leaving. I provided all the standard LDS explanations: These teachers were fallible human beings; they did not speak for the church. I felt I must remain the stalwart, the stoic, and model the Believing Mormon Mother so that my daughter would one day return. This was my entire focus; but it wasn’t natural to me, and I hated it.
Mikelle, my eldest, left the church gradually and without fanfare. She had not expressed any depth of belief since childhood. She proved to be a changeling, mirroring whatever beliefs were prevalent in whatever company she kept. I was certain that this quality, dangerous for a teenager, would be a blessing to her later on; that her faithful siblings would be able to influence her back into the church.
I only began to panic when my third child, Emily, left the church four years after being married in the temple. Emily was a spiritually-minded girl, but as a teen she began, privately, to judge herself very harshly for her imperfections as measured against the standards of the church. I did not, and do not (in looking back) know why this would be. She was beautiful and intelligent, and did not deserve to be so miserable within.
Following a divorce in which I did not support her, for I judged that she had not tried hard enough to make her marriage work, Emily found a friend online, a returned-missionary-atheist who shared a philosophical perspective that was completely new to her. She listened, studied, fell in love, and left the church, all while somewhat estranged from me.
Years later, as I tearfully told her of my journey out of the church, Emily would look at me with sad eyes and say, “Mom, I know!!! That is exactly what I was feeling when you left me all alone.” We are now very close, but still I am sorry to have abandoned her at a time when she deserved my unconditional love.
Jefferson left the church right after his mission, as I’ve earlier described. I would be next, though mine was a fairly secret struggle. My husband and I had always openly shared our feelings about the church and its’ doctrines; but now, in addition, we each worked to understand the other’s perspective. We found this task to be impossible. Which one of us is the synesthete with regard to religion, I wonder? Does it really matter?
Perhaps the greatest pain I have felt in seeing my children leave the church came after my process was nearly complete. Nathan still believed. He is a child-soulmate to me from his childhood; how could I abandon him, as the only member of his 7-person bio-family to stay? We danced together on the evening of his temple wedding in 2009, he leaned down to me and said, “Momma, I promise I will never give up until Jefferson and the others return to the church.” His sweetness and sincerity melted my heart, even as his words stabbed clear through it.
It’s painful to reject the framework around which you have built your life. It is a sort of terrible self-surgery in which you cut out parts of yourself even before you know what will replace them, or even whether you will survive the cuts. It is honestly not a process I recommend to anyone, unless their conscience and integrity so require.
When Nathan admitted his own doubts regarding the church, I was tormented by the thought that my near-leaving – which was now known – had influenced him. How could I do that to a son I’d so carefully raised to be faithful and committed to the church? I suffered panic attacks which were calmed only by Nathan’s reassuring voice or by his physical presence. When he announced that he, too, was leaving, it brought me no happiness. What would Nathan do without the framework of the gospel? How would HE survive his own self-surgery?
Truthfully, I am less than overjoyed about some of the decisions my children, religion-free, now make. It more than bothers me when they drink alcohol, or even swear, and it probably always will. But they are free agents, and I am thankful they trust me – and you – enough to be open regarding their beliefs. I know my children. Their motives are good, and they are true. They will each leave the world a better place, and they will find happiness… probably more quickly than has their stalwart, stoic, Formerly Faithful Mormon Mother.
Perhaps I really have sinned so much in my life that I can’t, mentally, afford to believe in an angry, vindictive God. It may be that I have trust issues, or am too spiritually handicapped to grasp the need for One True Religion in a world populated by peoples so diverse and fascinating, from whom there is so much to learn.
Or perhaps… I am a spiritual synesthete, and my eyes and heart see things differently than yours. Perhaps YOU are the synesthete. I don’t think it really matters.
Love, integrity, trust, service, and peace are what matters to me now. I seek to BE these things. I am fine with not “knowing.” Life is beautiful. Life is simple. And so am I.