A few days before Christmas, I received a package in the mail from mom and dad. In it was a book and a note from mother. The book was entitled: Our Search For Happiness, by M. Russell Ballard. I was asked to read the book, which I did, as I have a great many books. I was asked to ponder the book's message, which I did as I have a great many messages. I read also the note which said to me: "Dad and I anguish daily that you will not be in our family chain throughout eternity unless you come back into the church." I have spent considerable time pondering this message as well.
At first I was angry, too angry in fact, to read the book and give it a fair chance. It sat on my desk in my studio for several weeks, collecting dust. Now, with the book and note digested and my views formulated, I carefully considered my options:
3) Avoid the issue
4) Be honest
As strange as it may seem, option number one held a certain appeal for me. It would be easy enough to do: Take an assignment overseas, leave no forwarding address, make no contact. Simply vanish. But, as my wise and beautiful wife pointed out, this would only leave behind a gray cloud of unanswered questions. It would simply be unfair. Therefore, this option was eliminated.
Option number two isn't really possible. It's terribly difficult to live a lie. I know. Therein lies the problem with option two; I've spent enough of my life living a lie to please my parents, I can't do it anymore. Option two was thus eliminated.
Then there was option three. Throughout the whole of my adult life, I have ran and hid, side-stepped and avoided, fabricated and lied to avoid upsetting mom and dad. This has been the predominant mode of operation in this and most Mormon families as long as I can remember. There is no open, free exchange of ideas in this family because it's taboo to upset mom and dad or question the dogmatic status-quo. You don't share your personal beliefs, fears, doubts, dreams, concepts, theories, discoveries, attitudes, opinions, and views because it will just upset mom and dad. You keep your personal, family, and marital problems locked tightly away from prying eyes until they fester into a cancer that eats away at your will to live because you don't want to upset mom and dad.
The only time I saw dad truly angry with me was a time I expressed myself about something which made mother cry and I thought he was going to come unglued. So I tucked my tail in and crawled back beneath my stone of silence. And there I have been ever since, because I didn't want to upset mom and dad.
Well, I've had all I'm going to take. I'm sick and tired of sneaking around and hiding in theological closets. I've had a belly full of the deception and dissension within our own ranks. I've grown weary of the expense and trouble of visits home, only to sit in silence as the suspicious stranger. All I want, is what any child wants: To be accepted for who they are and not judged for who they are not. I've had it with guilt being used as a weapon against me, held responsible for the emotional well-being of other adults, and saddled with the repayment of spiritual debts incurred by others and I'm not going to stand for it any longer. I hereby draw a line in the sand and declare publicly for the record: The emotional blackmail stops here.
Some members of my family believe in their heart and soul they will be forever cut off from me and nothing I say or do can make them feel any better or any worse. I cannot be shut any further outside than I have been already so to hell with it. I'm going to spill my guts. Which brings me to option four.
I was raised to be honest and truthful, so for the first time in my life, I'm going to be more honest and truthful with my family than I have ever been. I had hoped to avoid this, but it seems as though I've been backed into a corner and an answer has been demanded of me. The gauntlet has been thrown. Our lack of real communication in this family throughout my life makes this all the more difficult. The longer you put off lancing a boil, the more likely it will explode in your face once you do. Throughout the body of this text, I will undoubtedly make statements that will anger, trouble, shock, and distress many of you. Indeed, collectively my words will shake this family to it's very foundation and then turn it on its head. Ordinarily, I would worry that this paper would drive a wedge between me and my siblings, whom I barely know as it is. But this house is so divided already, I can't see how my free expression could damage us any more and so, I will press on. I assure you from the bottom of my heart, it is not my intent to make a personal attack on anyone's character. On the contrary, the judgment of others goes to the very heart of this issue and is one of many problems pervading the very fabric of our family dynamic.
I do not expect, nor is it my intention to persuade anyone to my way of thinking. All I want is to honestly express my views with those I care about the most, without the fear of judgment or reprisal. The fundamental differences drawn along theological lines has fractured this family into two warring camps. For many years each side spent their energies cranking up the volume on their brand of rhetoric, with no one willing to sit at the peace table and communicate. So we fell into an interminable silence. This was because - and yes, I'm going to say it - Mormon doctrine sets no place at the table for outsiders. Mother's statement concerning the state of the family in the hereafter makes this very clear: We are not welcome. This is one of many fundamental problems I have with the LDS church.
That last statement will no doubt be taken personally. It's not because I meant it so. It is difficult for people of devout faith to separate themselves from their spiritual beliefs and therefore, it would be virtually impossible for me to avoid hurting someone's feelings when talking about the basic tenets of their religion, unless I am in complete agreement. This is yet another reason why we, as a family, have avoided talking at all costs. But this must be done. Someone must clear the air of our differences and I guess fate has elected me to be the bad guy. So be it. I was brought into this world with three distinct, and innate talents: Speaking, composing music, and writing. I am the communicator in this family and apparently, this is the burden I was destined to bear.
On the following pages I will attempt, as clearly and articulately as possible, to detail my beliefs and, if I can, how I arrived at them. I do this only because it has been my experience that members of my family feel a great need to be given explanations for one's belief systems. I do this as a courtesy to you because you are my family and because I hope that it may spark a flame of trust and understanding, not because I feel that one's spiritual beliefs are anyone else's business. I don't.
From the beginning, it has been obvious to me what mom and dad will think of this and that is what has troubled me the most. I do not wish to hurt my beloved parents and have in fact, in recent years, tried desperately to express my undying love and respect for both of them through my music. Father, when I composed your anthem, it took me three weeks to record just two and a half bars because I would weep like a child each time I sat down at my piano. The keys have tear stains on them now. Mother, I love you more than words could ever express and my gratitude for the sacrifices you have made to give me the faculties I need to be a productive member of the world can never be fully repaid.
But I am no longer a child. I must be allowed to speak openly and freely.
I do not know what J-------- will think. J------- has never shared her thoughts with me. I don't know what D---------- will think. I do not know my brother. Frankly, I would be hard pressed to recognize him on the street. I don't know what L------------ will say; however, (and I don't know why I believe this) somehow I think deep down inside L---- knows just how truly dysfunctional this family really is. I don't know what K-------e will think, but I imagine her advice to me would have been: Don't send it. L----------- and K---------e have never been boat rockers. K---------m on the other hand, always used to be but now, I have no idea who she is. K----------m I think, took option number one.
So it comes down to me and here I will tell you what I think. If you don't feel you can handle this, read no further.
This is my testimony.
"There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages."
- Ruth Hermence Green
Like most people, my belief systems are not yet fully formed. The belief in a higher order within the universe, and all that that may entail, is a complex issue which has harassed the inner most thoughts of humans since time beginning. We are preoccupied with it because we are preoccupied with our own mortality. Belief systems are designed to alleviate, if not fully eradicate, our fear of death, or even more ominous, what lies beyond. It is the one, great universal truth: That all human beings are terrified of death. This is the foundation of our instinct to survive. Our belief systems relinquish us of this overwhelmingly oppressive burden so that we can be free to be productive. Without this, we would never have the presence of mind to concentrate on anything else. Let's face it, nothing else can compare. When measured against the Behemoth of death and beyond, the school yard bully, or that deadline for the monthly report, takes on a whole new perspective. A belief system and it's foundational logic, coupled with a generous dollop of an intangible condiment we call faith, provides us with a sense of completeness, peace, belonging, and purpose within the otherwise chaotic cosmos. This feeling of connectivity provided by what we know and augmented with faith for what we do not know, is spirituality.
As our belief systems grow and become more complicated, we develop rituals. Ritual provides the ballast with which to anchor the intangibles of our beliefs to our mundane, routine lives. Rituals are important for they provide a comfortable procedure with which to focus and cast our faith, and they come in many forms: The lighting of a candle, the turning of a prayer wheel, the laying on of hands. Our beliefs and our rituals make us happy and we wish to share our happiness with others and often ask them to join us. As they do, our new companions require explanations as to the purpose of the rituals we perform and we provide this by composing books of doctrine. And in this manner we create religions.
I believe that spirituality and religion are two entirely different things, neither one being dependent upon, or necessarily associated with, the other.
I believe that spirituality comes from within each individual, according to their own needs, knowledge, and abilities. I believe that religion is a man-made convention, designed to justify beliefs and give them a contextual frame work for explanation. I believe that each individual is entitled to their spiritual beliefs regardless of whether or not they are aligned with an established religion. Therefore, I believe that non-membership in an established religion in no way invalidates an individual's beliefs. I believe that spirituality must be found and developed by each individual on their own personal journey toward enlightenment, that it cannot be neatly pre-packaged and labeled: "Salvation-in-a-box." I believe that established religions can, and most often do, provide people with what they're looking for. But I also believe that religious doctrines and precepts must be flexible enough to allow for individuality.
Unfortunately, this is most often not the case.
"...faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction - faith in fiction is a damnable false hope."
- Thomas Edison
In February, my work center received a Communications Security Inspection from Headquarters, Tactical Air Command. During the course of the inspection, it was determined that a segment within a series of cryptographic keying material had gone unaccounted for, for a period of 24 hours. This is a gravely serious problem. Indeed, federal prisons across the nation are filled with men who have made such errors in judgment and I was terrified. As the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge, it is I who must stand accountable for such problems. I immediately launched myself into an investigation of my own and fortunately, was able to prove that the material was secure during the time in question, but that the documentation had been completed improperly. This is a slightly smaller, but nonetheless, serious problem.
At the end of my analysis I was left with a choice: Direct culpability toward those of lesser rank beneath me, or accept for myself accountability for the actions of my men. The choice was clear. I would stand and be counted for my duty section.
When Colonel R-------- had finished reading his statement of charges and asked me what position I would take, I told him that I would accept responsibility for Staff Sergeant T----------- and the others. He stared at the paper work on his desk for what seemed to me, an eternity. Then, he looked at me and said, "According to the report of survey, you did not create this problem yourself. Why would you take the punishment for it?" to which I replied, "That's what you pay me to do, sir."
Then, he took the documents on his desk, handed them to the First Sergeant and said, "I think a letter of reprimand would be more appropriate in this case." Secretly, I breathed a great sigh of relief. I had just avoided an Article 15. Then Colonel R---------- asked me where I had learned to exercise such values of responsibility and I told him that I had learned these things from my father. He shook his head and said, "Your dad must be one hell of a guy. I wish I had had one like that."
I tell this story because I think it illustrates an important point about having faith. I believe I was able to avoid catastrophe because I had faith that I was doing the right thing, and that the right thing would come of it. I had faith that the positive, forward movement of my life would not come to an abrupt end that day. I held out faith that my commander was a man of reason, because I was always taught to have faith in the basic goodness of human kind, and the higher purpose of each individual within the universe. My faith did not fail me that day.
I believe in the power of faith; that its power is dependent upon the strength of conviction within the believer, irrespective of the beliefs themselves. I believe faith has a place in our lives but it is not a universal answer to all questions.
Despite our differences, the cement that has always held this family together is the towering strength of our father. He and he alone has stood as a rock against the wind. The strength of his convictions has sustained all of us at all times even though we have not always agreed with his beliefs, in and of themselves. This is a difficult concept to swallow. How can you believe the messenger, and not the message? If dad believed that stones could fly, would you believe it? Would you believe that he believed it? Would you believe that he believed it so strongly that he could make it happen before your very eyes?
This is where your own faith takes over.
"Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt."
- Clarence Darrow
"Fear paints pictures of ghosts and hangs them in the gallery of ignorance."
- Robert G. Ingersoll
There is a maximum security prison in the great state of Washington. Oddly enough, I happen to know two people there. One is a prison guard, the other is an inmate. The inmate is R-------- P------------. I grew up with R----------; went to school with him; played sports with him; attended church with him and his parents, R---d and N-----n. Like other families in the XXth Ward, the P----------s did all the right things. R------d was even appointed to the Bishopric. But what a lot of people didn't know, was that late at night while the world huddled behind closed doors and pulled blinds, R-------d P---------n would go downstairs to R-----------'s room, beat him into submission and then rape him.
R---------P------------- went on to have a successful career as a social deviant. He is now serving a life sentence for sex crimes. He lived the life he lived because he was taught well by his father. He preyed on the weak and allowed himself to be manipulated by stronger but equally disturbed malcontents. He suffered from mental illness brought on by a common, social virus called domestic violence. But the devil didn't make him do it.
The world is full of bad people, just as it is filled with good people. As it is throughout the universe, one balances the other. The Yin and the Yang. Bad people do bad things for the same reasons that good people do good things: They are compelled to do so. Either through social conditioning, mental illness, learned behavior or simply an opportunity to exploit a situation, bad people do bad things because that is what bad people do. And sometimes even good people do bad things. Dad told me once that the lockers in the dressing rooms at the temple had locks on them. When I displayed my surprise he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Even in the temple people steal things." I guess locks are only meant to keep honest people, honest.
Good people sometimes do bad things because if we allow ourselves, humans can be weak, petty, and opportunistic. It's in our nature, just as it is in our nature to be kind, forgiving, and generous. But we are not manipulated by evil, unseen forces to do bad things any more than we are manipulated by unseen divine forces to do good things. We all do the things we do in order to harvest the results of our behavior. Sometimes children are naughty in order to get attention. Sometimes adults do the same thing.
This past Christmas, D--------- and I intercepted a letter to Santa from a little girl in S-------------------. We went down to the mall and started going down the list. By the time we were finished, the trunk of our car was filled with the best Christmas this little girl has probably ever had, and our hearts were filled with a sense of satisfaction that only comes from reaching out to the less fortunate. We did this because we were both taught by good parents to appreciate the sense of peace and joy that comes from doing benevolent things. We did it because we chose to do it. We did it because it made us feel good. To believe otherwise would be to shun personal responsibility.
As a child, I was told that evil spirits, emissaries of a great and powerful devil, were lurking around me at all times, skulking in black shadows and waiting to snatch my soul away if I were bad. I cannot count the number of childhood nightmares and hours of adult therapy this has caused me.
I believe the concept of Satan is counter-productive and serves mostly as an elaborate ruse to keep children from playing with matches, and to allow adults to shirk their responsibilities for exercising poor judgment.
To blame an evil spirit, a devil, or some supernatural force for your actions is grossly irresponsible. It has been my experience that people who point their finger at evil spirits when bad things happen are only attempting to exonerate themselves from liability. Conversely, I've never heard those same people give credit to a crafty little angel for taking an apple pie to a shut-in, helping a stranded motorist, or donating time to a charity.
"Some things have to be believed to be seen."
- Ralph Hodgson
"The best of seers is he who guesses well."
I am reminded of a story I heard not too long ago about a man who survived a plane crash in Florida. You may have seen it on the news. The plane came in for a landing and exploded on impact. By the time the aircraft came to a stop at the end of the runway, it was in ten thousand, burning pieces. Everyone aboard that plane died almost instantly except this one, solitary man who, amazingly, walked away from the wreckage.
Then there is the story of F--------. Since childhood, F------ had dreamed of flying in Space. In 1985, his dream came true when he was chosen to train as a member of the teachers in space program. His shuttle slot was bumped because of weight considerations and instead, Christa McAuliffe was chosen to be the first teacher in space. To F-------, who watched as the shuttle Challenger exploded, it was a bitter-sweet miracle that he'd been taken off the crew roster just one week prior to launch.
For both of these men, these were deeply moving spiritual experiences. This is most often the case. Those whose lives are changed by miraculous events often turn to their spiritual beliefs for the answers. And the most troubling of questions? Why me? Why was I spared above all the others? Why was I singled out? What makes me so special?
For many, the experience becomes an affirmation of a higher purpose and they often embark on a new course in life. Miracles can be liberating. They can also be a terrible burden. I know. For my entire life I have been: "Mitch the miracle baby: Saved by God for a great and wondrous purpose. Lifted from the clutches of death by the hand of the Almighty Himself, to stand forth in these last days, and lead the armies of the saints against the forces of evil."
Don't talk to me about miracles, man. I know all about 'em.
When I was a child, I would often wonder about my great and wondrous purpose. I would lose sleep over it. Frankly, it scared the living hell out of me, which is one reason I declined a patriarchal blessing. To be told these things when you're only four or five years old, adds an ominous load of responsibility to your life and frankly, I knew I'd never measure up. After all, Joseph Smith had had his great and wondrous purpose, and look what happened to him. And I certainly didn't want to go blasting out of a jail house window in a hail of gun fire. I knew when I was baptized at the age of eight, that that was the end of the road for me. From that moment on, I had to be perfect, because God Himself had saved me for a great and wondrous purpose and I simply couldn't mess this one up or I'd pay for it eternally. But secretly, I knew I'd screw it up. Even at that age, I knew deep down inside, I was only human.
No one knows the burden I've carried because of this. No one knows the childhood night terrors I endured for something I never asked for. The men in the examples above were rational adults, capable of deciding for themselves what their experiences meant to them. I, on the other hand, was born an unwitting pawn in a game of spiritual one-upmanship. Raised in a religion built on the myth of miracles, I was gussied up and hung around my family's neck as a medal of honor - a tangible sign of devout faith. I was told that God had saved me above all others for a special purpose and that I now owed Him for it. From the moment of my birth, I was saddled with spiritual debts that others concocted for me out of their own wild imaginations, in an attempt to explain to themselves, what they couldn't otherwise understand.
Miracles can be dangerous.
I believe in miracles. I believe that NO one set of beliefs holds a monopoly on them. I believe that people can create very real miracles in their lives, but I also believe that more miracles are imagined than real.
The religion of my birth is rife with spiritualism. Doubters are always shown a miracle and then challenged to explain it. This is tantamount to a magician requiring his audience to explain the illusion as their payment of admission to the show. But what better way to enlist converts (and indeed, maintain the fold) than with works of wonder? And if that doesn't work, fear or guilt will do well to keep the rabble in line. If you're cynical enough to doubt, then you'll pay for your blasphemy. Survival within the fold means acquiesce or suffer unbearable guilt and fear.
Skeptics have never faired well under the heavy hand of organized religion, particularly Mormonism. To ask if maybe, just maybe, the miracle was created out of the mind of the person themselves, is a leap of faith in their own abilities that many believers are not willing to take. Divine Intervention is an easier answer.
But it's not anymore plausible.
"I'd love to find God, but religion keeps getting in the way."
At least a thousand books have been written on this subject, and I've read a great many of them. Throughout the course of my adult life, I've attempted to unlock the mysteries of God. What do I know? I know nothing of God. Oh, I understand a few things, I believe a few other things, but I don't know a damn thing. And frankly, neither does anyone else, despite what they tell you. The belief in the existence of God always, always, always, comes down to faith. Personally, I'd prefer some evidence, thank you.
I am an agnostic. I do not summarily discount the possible existence of a higher intelligence within the universe, nor am I willing to accept it's existence on faith alone. I believe it is my innate right as a rational human being to demand and examine to my satisfaction, physical evidence, before I claim to know or understand anything to be the absolute truth.
We do not accept on faith alone, the evidence in a legal proceeding. We would not accept on faith alone, the value of a house we wish to purchase. We do not decide on faith alone, the best investment to make with our life's savings. Detailed intelligence and careful planning, not faith, determine our nation's military and foreign policy.
Why should the concept of God be any different? The metaphysical, by its very nature, demands the closest of scrutiny.
Everyday, in every aspect of our lives, we use reason and logic, often with a healthy dose of skepticism, to guide our decisions, except when it comes to our spiritual beliefs. Then, the rules are thrown completely out the window - and in an even more bizarre twist - those who try to maintain reason are castigated for not investing in the myth. But no one, no thing, not even a deity, is exempt from the demands of rational thought.
One thing I believe I have learned: Too many people spend too much time trying to define and understand God, when they should be trying to understand themselves. Indeed, most of the world's problems would vanish if people would stop focusing on a possible life not yet lived, and pay more attention to the one they already have.
"Go forth, my book, and take whatever pounding the heavy-fisted destinies prepare."
- Leonard Bacon
This has been a short treatise on a very long subject. There are additional topics I could have discussed - some I have considered at great length, and others I've given little attention to. But I think I've satisfactorily covered a representative cross-section of the major issues.
In my life I have penned a textbook, a novel, and countless essays and short stories; I've drafted innumerable citations, letters, reports, instructions, career guides, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. But these few, short pages have been the most difficult words I have ever put to paper.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I was kept in the cradle of the Rocky Mountains and spoon fed a steady diet of Mormonism. For the last eighteen years I have traveled the world, feasting on its intellectual delicacies. I have determined for myself, through first hand experience, what sits well in my stomach. So before I brace myself for the onslaught of pity for "losing my spirit," or admonishments for "throwing away my eternal salvation," let me be very clear on this: I do not have a problem that requires fixing. Please believe me when I tell you that I don't wish to be rude, but I must be very firm. I don't need to "have a dialogue" about these issues, nor do I need to "hear the truth." Living the gospel more fully each day will not bring me happiness.
I am not unhappy to begin with.
It has taken me the better part of my adult life to escape the grinding weight of depression I lived with growing up. This feeling returns anew each time I visit home. I once read an account of a POW in North Vietnam who talked of how his captors would lock him in a cage, suspended in the air, restricted such that he could not move his arms or legs. He could not sit or turn around. He couldn't even tilt his head enough to look at his feet. This would best describe the feelings of manipulation and control I remember of my Mormon adolescence. It is difficult to even talk about it.
But with the completion of this document, and now for the first time, the open airing of my position, I can begin exorcising my demons and start living my own life - a life I build for myself according to my own needs and those of my community - not a proscribed life with a wash-and-wear tag and a one-size-fits-all label.
This letter requires no response. If you wish to respond, I welcome your thoughts, but please, I don't wish to engage in a debate. I already know how you feel. I harbor no animosity toward anyone. I love and respect all of you, regardless of your beliefs. All I ask is the same in return.
Peace be with you all. I sincerely hope you find what you're looking for.