The Pain of Growing Up

[I'm worried about this post. It's pretty close to my heart. I wrote it weeks ago, but I keep putting off publishing it. And then in quiet moments I’ll think of it and feel, again, like I need to say it. So let's all put on our generous hats, shall we?] 

One Christmas I came home to visit my family and realized that my oldest niece and nephew were growing up. They were twelve, I think, on the cusp of teenagehood, and I realized I was terrified for them. They were (are!) such awesome and good kids, and I was excited for them, in a way, but also scared. That was when the world got complicated for me, and I don't think I've ever quite forgiven the world for becoming so. When I say I was scared for them, I mean I was nearly trembling. It was almost a physical reaction, a slow-motion "Noooooo!" in my head, willing them away from the cliff of further development.

I just got called into the Young Women's program, the organization in our church for girls at just this age—from twelve to high school graduation. And I've been asked to teach the youngest girls, the twelve to thirteen-year-olds. Last Sunday, I went to meet them and sit in on the lesson, which was being taught to all the girls by someone else. And it was an hour of that "Nooooo!" feeling. I kept looking at these girls, and thinking about myself at that age, and looking down at Henrietta asleep in her car seat, and wondering how on earth I could teach them anything worth knowing, how I could avoid destroying their lives. I drove home, singing to the baby to keep her happy, but nearly trembling all over again. It was an upsetting Sunday for me.

I really am worried about destroying their lives. They had this scrubbed-clean look, this fresh-faced beauty. Oh, they are beautiful girls. Physically lovely, but also strong and smart and well-dressed and savvy and compassionate and good. It shows. They glow with it. If there's hope for the future of the world, it must be in (young) women like these.

But I think what panicked me was a sense of their tendency to think in black and white: that there are good people and bad people and categorically good decisions and categorically bad decisions, and if we follow all of the rules and be very good girls, everything will be fine and we'll be happy forever and ever amen.

And hey, I used to be that girl. I used to believe that. I wanted it to be true, and I thought I was being told that it was true, and I lived my life believing it until it became absolutely necessary to change my way of thinking or perish. I was a zealot, my friends. I used to correct the "bad" language of my church friends. When someone once asked me if I'd ever done anything wrong, I told them of course I had because I knew that's what I was supposed to say, but I honestly couldn't think of anything I had ever done that I shouldn't have. I wondered if I was perfect, and at the same time knew that this was a problem, that the fact I was wondering whether or not I was perfect was, in and of itself, bad news. (Sigh.)

Still, I was a relatively happy zealot until the discrepancy between the narrow way I understood the gospel and the way I was beginning to experience the world nearly tore me in half.

So I'm worried. I'm worried I'll muck up that fresh-faced-ness with too much nuanced thinking too soon, and I'm worried they'll someday feel torn in half if I don't acknowledge the complications.

And maybe I'm being too vague now, or maybe you've stopped reading because I'm sounding too liberal, and this is the part I was worried about writing, but listen, here's the thing: 80% of single women in their 20's leave the Mormon Church. Let's let that sink in for a moment. 80% of single Mormon women in their 20's leave the Church.* I found myself looking around at these young women, wondering which of them would leave and which of them would stay, and looking at my baby and wondering what her experience would be, and thinking about myself, and wondering if I counted as someone who stayed, or left.

I stayed, officially. I never stopped going to church, even when it nearly killed me because I couldn't feel anything when I was there and I was lonely and sad and nothing at church helped me feel better. I would have panic attacks in the pews and come home early, but I kept attending.

For me, this was all a bit past where they are now, but when I was going through that transition from black-and-white to more nuanced thinking, I had a lot of blame for what I learned at church when I was their age. I walked around wondering why no one told me that though there's a Plan of Happiness, the details of our individual lives are meant to be unique and God knows our lives will be complicated, and He means for us to do the absolute best we can anyway, and He loves us. Nothing we can do can interfere with that love (though our choices can make it harder for us to feel), and it's a big shiny monumental love, that, if we let it, fuels our lives and makes us strong, regardless of what happens. I wish someone had told me that.

So for the last several years I've been frustrated with the Church, thinking it somehow failed me. But in the wake of that introduction to the group on Sunday, as I've worried about my involvement and wondered how I could help, I've been talking to my sisters about their kids who are this age, and I've realized something huge, something that changes everything.

That black and white thinking? That, to some extent, was me. I mean, religious structures tend towards it, sure. And as teachers and leaders of teenagers, we are obliged to be careful about how we approach significant subjects, and not all of my teachers played things perfectly. But to some extent, I've been blaming the pain of growing up on the Church, and really, growing up is just painful. It's hard to grow up and become who you really are (e. e. cummings said so), and it's pretty normal for kids to see the world in black and white, and I was even more prone to it than your average kid. There's not a lot I can do about how these girls see the world; they'll have to make their own transitions, but I can listen and I can speak to my own experience, and I can tell them about that love, that most significant love.

This is already long, but will you permit me to say one other thing about this? I think part of what I'm worried about is what I'll say if they ask me about my marriage to someone outside the Church. And I can't answer that question in a sentence. I can't really explain in a concise way how I love and value Temple Marriage, and encourage them to head in that direction, and how I also love my husband desperately, and feel like God led us to be together. And maybe that's what I'll tell them, just that, that both of those truths are true, and sometimes that happens.

But part of the answer is also that Sam helped me navigate this transition. While he didn't share my faith, he never belittled it, never tried to get me to be not Mormon, and he helped me understand how to see things with more nuance and still walk around in the world. He helped me grow up. And on the other side of that (am I on the other side of that?), I couldn't bear to let him go. The world didn't make sense without his enormous brain to help me figure it out.

This was just as true last week, when I came home from church wide-eyed, and wondering what to think. I told him about my experience, and he said what I think is true, that God must be behind this, that I'm meant to help these young women see a bit more nuance and be prepared for their future, and that they are meant to help me remember what it was like to be that girl, to get in touch with my previous self, who was very sure of wrong and right.

I like the sound of that. I wouldn't mind visiting that little Deja again. She wasn't at all perfect. But she was good.

*Edited to add "single," which wasn't in the original post. I forgot that was a piece of the statistic, and I'm sorry to have misrepresented. It's still disturbing, yes? I know I just barely made it out of my twenties still active. I've had some questions about it, so go here and here if you want to hear more talk about this statistic. I'm working on tracing it back to its absolute original source. If you know it, let me know.


Holy schmoley! Where did you get the 80% figure? That seems really high. Does this mean they stop going to church, get excommunicated, ask to have their records removed, or all of the above? Wow, if that stat is in fact correct, we are in TROUBLE.

For myself, my crisis of faith has more to do with life, than with religion. I guess you could say I was born with a believing heart. I've just always known there is a God, that he loves me.

That said, I just have a hard time coping with the atrocities that happen daily in this world. The tragedy of human existence is hard for me to grasp, I don't quite understand it, but I guess, therein lies the need for a savior. There's hope in that.

Deja said…
I've heard the stat several times, on podcasts. I'm assuming it refers to inactives, nothing official like asking to have records removed. But yes, we are in trouble.

Katherine said…
I've heard other numbers, well over half, of how many young adults the church is losing. I stay primarily for my husband's sake, and I'm a BYU grad! Married young in the temple! Seminary super star! Youngwomanhood award!

Your post really resonated with me. I teach 12 and 13 year old Sunday School, so the same type of girls plus a few young boys. And my own little girl is growing up so quickly. In terms of cognitive development, I know black and white is a hallmark of childhood and that's not a bad thing in childhood. But I don't know how to teach nuance to 12 and 13 year olds, or even how much nuance they need. I simply don't know.
Kristine said…
I love this! I wish we'd stop talking about faith "crises" and maybe even faith "transitions" and just recognize that faith is not static, that growing hurts, that our worlds will fall apart over and over again, and growing up is about learning which pieces to pick up and how to start putting them together in new ways.

There's an old Protestant hymn I love, that starts out "In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time..." It's _supposed_ to be like this; we should expect catastrophe on a regular basis.
Annie said…
I think what you will have to offer those girls will be wonderful and unique! What everyone at church needs is real life people sharing real life experiences with each other--not textbook cases and caricature people.
belann said…
You were a good girl. Still are. But, life has a tendency to beat us up pretty good, no matter how much we want things to be black and white and "all you gotta do is..." We soon learn that sometimes it is not as easy as always trying to be good. We can't always pray our way out of situations. We just have to plow through knowing that God loves us and will help us through. And, He does.
Deja said…
Here's a SLTrib article that brings up the 80% stat:

And a By Common Consent post that parses it:

I forgot and should clarify that it's SINGLE women 18-30, which does make a difference.

Katherine, I'm finding they can handle more than I assumed they could, and mostly the nuance is manifesting as honesty: I admit when I don't have an answer, and/or that there are times when the answer didn't satisfy. But I'm so new at this. We'll see how it goes ...

Kristine, thank you. I like the idea of expecting faith catastrophes. I'd love to somehow teach them to be ready for one, though I don't think I could have understood until I met my own.

Annie, well said. So so true.

And Mom, I have no idea why I didn't get what you tried to tell me--since you really did try to keep me from assuming there were easy answers. Thanks for trying anyway.
Kristin said…
This was a great post. I think the black and white view of the world *might* be more of an issue for those who are raised in the Utah. Or at least around a lot of Mormons. I've met several missionaries and members who were raised around a lot of members who seem to live in a bit of a bubble. When they have moved to an area (here in Tennessee) in which they meet far more people who aren't Mormon or of any faith at all, it tends to throw them for a loop. The fact is we live in a very nuanced world. Keeping young women ignorant of that fact doesn't help them; they should still be taught right and wrong but it doesn't hurt to tell them the world is complicated! By the way, that statistic makes me very, very sad.
Jennie Larsen said…
Loved the post! I had an epiphany the other day that kind of goes along with this: I used to consider myself a jello-mold Mormon; followed instructions as best I could, let it all set just right, and voila! Life is perfectly shaped and done... But that's SO not that case!!! Rather, we are clay being constantly molded (notice there are scriptures about being like clay; no jello scriptures!) as clay, we can take on new shapes, the potter can fix/ strengthen us when we are feeling chipped or broken; and YES...god loves each of us. The YW will definitely learn wonderful things from you as you share your life with them! Thanks for the post ;)
Unknown said…
I really liked this. I also appreciated Jennie's comment. I couldn't FATHOM your 80% Stat until you clarified it as SINGLE women. I was there. I never left the church but it is hard to find your place where traditional family is the goal. Nice job Sissy..
AM said…
It's nice to know I'm not the only person who saw things in black and white and then grew up to see shades of color. At first this brought a tremendous sense of loss; now I think that I was still spiritually immature, for all my earnest, girlhood strivings. Mostly now I think that faith is a choice, even for those who have strong faith as a spiritual gift. Maybe that was what the hard road of experience taught me--to choose faith, even when it seemed like a mighty divine betrayal had taken place (it hadn't, but that's how it felt at several points).

You are a compassionate, thoughtful, kind, gifted, and faithful woman, and I think you will guide those girls and Miss Adorable Plum by your wisdom. Thank you for being brave and writing close-to-your-heart words.
Deja said…
Kristin, I do think it's more common with folks raised in the church, and possibly in Utah, but I wasn't raised in Utah and there weren't a ton of Mormons around. I honestly think I was born with this black-and-white thinking. It was when I went out in the world--really went out in it, to Mississippi, that I had to confront nuance, and it was terrifying. I'm also assuming this is true in other faiths as well, not just Mormonism. As I said, organized religion is prone to this kind of thinking.

Jennie--I love that! And jello mold metaphors are perfect for Mormons. ;)

Kira, that's gotta be a lot of it, right? It's just hard to make sense of where you fit when your family hasn't shown up yet.

Ann Marie, I adore you. It does my heart such good to know you went through a similar transition. My word, you have no idea what good it does me. I like the idea of faith as choice, always have.

Deja, Don't be too hard on yourself. We are all works in progress. There is quote attributed to David O. McKay..."Testimony, in order to be worthy of it's name, must first pass through the crucible of doubt." You'll be just what those girls need because you care.
Giuli said…
I'm afraid that I was that "overly good wanting to never make a mistake" young woman too, but it took a good shaking in my family life around the age of 16 for me to change my perspective. I wish that my view on sin and forgiveness and God's love wouldn't have come in such an earth shattering, sad, and soul breaking way, but it did, and I survived. In fact, it was my faith that kept me from completely hating church and the perfect family mush that's fed to us sometimes in lessons. And ironically, I followed the Mormon cliche of marrying at 19 in the temple to a return missionary, etc. But my soul and my heart were much wiser than my exterior, and now after ten years of marriage my expectations of faith and my husband are that we both strive the hardest we can and hold each other up. Honestly I live with the complete faith of the resurrection every day and knowing that my son will be whole one day. Sometimes it is the engine that drives my faith. I have to do my best so that I can see that day. I'm am still a raving perfectionist, and sometimes I can picture the Savior chuckling at my mania and giving me a warm hug and a kindly "chill out" glance. What I learned, all those years ago when my earth shattered was that the perfect Mormon family that you see on Sundays (and think you see sitting so nicely on the pews) really doesn't exist and that we are all just clinging to what we believe the best we can and trying to survive. No one knows the pain, hurt, or challenges that the person behind you in church is enduring and for many it's just a miracle that you show up in church at all. (Says the mom who can't listen to anything most Sundays because her son is throwing shoes, screaming, kicking, or otherwise making a fuss--we are currently on a Primary protest.)
Giuli said…
It's me again. Sorry, there was something else that I forgot to mention. This sunday, when I watched a young woman get her youngwomanhood award in sacrament, I was struck with the memory. When I was that dudley do-right teenager, there was a member of the bishopric that gave me those awards, and always told me on Sundays how fantastic I was and how he loved me for just trying my best. He has since passed away, and I remembered the impact that his words had on me then. I was a very confident young woman, but was still plagued by ordinary teenage self-esteem issues. It was nice to hear from someone other than my parents (who are partial) how I was doing great and that they were proud of me. When sixteen, then seventeen, eighteen passed without a date, it was Randy believing in me that made me realize I was okay. I still believe that he's cheering me on somehow from the spirit world. Just love your girls and it will make a difference in their lives. I think that answering them honestly about Sam and other things will help them realize that our lives don't always have to follow the perfect layout to be fantastic. Love you lots. Hope that I'm not rambling.
Amara said…
OK, I read the comments too, and have a few things to add. I see a TON of "black and white thinking" all over --not just in the church, and not even just with religious conservatives. For example there are blogs I read for years until they came out and made blanket statements about ALL religious people, and ALL older white men, etc. etc. the implication was "bad guys good guys" and it makes me want to scream. I think this is why our political process in this country is stalling out. I think we recognize it more in the people around us. But isn't it all the same thing? Not having an open mind?
Also, between the ages of 12-18 (and beyond into college), the majority of these girls are flooded with hormones that keep you from thinking clearly --I know it was true for me. When I had a choice to make, I needed that "perfect family mush" very clear in my head as something I was fighting for. I knew it was only an ideal, (I remember a conversation with Mom during that time about families in our ward, and how there was only one couple that actually seemed happy together) but the alternative? That many -no most! of my friends were facing? Was abortion or teenage pregnancy (all but ONE of my H.S. friends had an abortion before college). Not decisions you want to have to make when you are 13 or 15 or even 17. But yeah, when you are single and still chaste, and 23? 29? It would be extra difficult to remain true. I'm not saying that is always the reason, but something to consider. Having said all of that, I had big decisions to make in college and grad school where I thought I knew the "formula", and it wasn't true for me at the time. Thank goodness we believe that that channel of personal revelation is open to us. What if we had grown up thinking we always had to take our teachers' or our leaders' word for things?
Deja said…
Hansen's Gazette (are you Uncle Greg or Aunt Bonnie?), I love that quote. I'm stealing it. And thanks for reading and commenting.

Guili, I love both of your comments and you were not rambling at all. I do wish our wisening didn't come at such a high price, but I suppose it's ultimately a blessing--not the trial itself, but what we gain from it, that's the blessing. And I love that story about the guy who encouraged you at church. I think I can do that! And gosh, I do remember needing to hear that someone could see I was trying.

Amara, yes yes, and yes. That's one of our biggest pet peeves--folks who claim openmindedness, but dismiss religious people entirely. It's absurd. And I was just thinking today how hard it would be to be pregnant as a teenager. Having done it now, I can't even fathom doing it before, well, 30, let alone before I graduated high school. Any choice you made subsequent to that one--abortion or adoption or keeping the baby--and your life would be haunted by it. Keeping someone safe from that--even by steeping them in black-and-white thinking that they'll someday have to grow out of--is probably worth it. I do think that knowing about personal revelation and having a chance to practice it and know it worked is the most valuable things I took from my upbringing. You've made me feel better about the "happy family mush," though I'll try to temper it some. They might need it.
Jeanette said…
Thanks for the post Deja. I agree that going from seeing the world from black and white to more nuanced shades is a normal part of the growing up process, regardless of whether the shift is happening along the lines of religious beliefs or other philosophical structures.

That said, I think that the certainty of belief and the ideal narrative often set forth in Church culture (and how rigidly it is set forth could depend on one's ward, one's parents, one's YW leader) can be particularly difficult to adapt to the reality of adult life. I wonder if there is a way to inspire these young women with core beliefs that will enable them to make good life choices now but also be flexible enough for the contradictions and muddiness of life that are the stuff of life. I don't know. I sure enjoyed the black and white message of my youth (made me feel righteous and special and secure), but I could not in good conscience try to create it for someone else because the let down was so difficult for me.

I used to think that my faith "crisis" would somehow end, but I realize that it is a journey, taking me to places both light-filled and dark that I never imagined.
Deja said…
Thanks for commenting, Jeanette, and I'm absolutely hoping I can teach core beliefs and also somehow prepare them for contradictions and muddiness. I'm not sure I can do it, but like you said, I can't in good conscience do otherwise.

This realization--that kids see in black and white and it wasn't entirely the Church's fault--was an important part of my faith journey--a light part, that's helping me move forward. I'm sure I'm not through yet, and that I'll meet plenty of dark spots going forward, but it was nice to hit a light patch, and I'm hoping that serving the young women in general will be one. There's something refreshing about their fresh-face-ed-ness, even as it frightens me.
For me, everything you wrote in this post shows exactly why you are the one who should be teaching those girls.
Meeshab said…
I'm going to read this and comment later but I wanted to say that Julianne wrote up a big comment then Facebook lost it for her :(. This happens to me too sometimes. stupid facebook. She had such a clever response. I will tell her to go on here and rewrite it!
Deja said…
Mary Anne, that is a super nice thing to say. I hope you're right. So far, I love talking to them, so that seems like good news.

Meesh, you should totally tell her to write the comment on her! I wanna hear what Julianne thinks!

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