Monday, November 12, 2012

Listening to the Doubts and Questioning of Someone You Care About

Have you ever had a moment when something switched in your mind in an instant? Most ideas evolve gradually, the line upon line kind of progression, but a couple of times my thinking changed immediately. The first time I remember was when our daughter was a fourteen-year-old. When she was twelve and new to Young Women’s, she was fully onboard with the gospel: she read her scriptures, attended all her meetings, gained medallions and so on. Things changed. By age fourteen the difficulty of adolescence set in and she started to balk about going to mutual. This scared me. I was going through my own mid-life crisis which magnified the seriousness of this minor change in her life. I was afraid that if she stopped going to mutual, she might make serious mistakes, ones that could alter her course permanently. Yes, I was making a mountain out of a molehill, but I couldn’t see clearly. In my desperation I pleaded with my Heavenly Father to right my daughter and prick her heart so that she would know how important church and Young Women’s were. Instead He pricked my heart. I had a comfort flow over me such as I’d never had before. The comfort was powerful and undeniable and it was this. She is just fine the way she is. Do not worry.  The feeling changed the way I treated her. I relaxed and my new attitude made all the difference. My worry was eased and the relationship with my daughter was strengthened.


The second change came years later when our daughter was about 19 or 20. On an Easter Sunday afternoon I’d come home after church and was at the stove cooking dinner. Our daughter had been away to a university about two hours from home and had told us that she wouldn’t be able to come home for Easter. So when she opened the front door and peaked inside and said hello, it caught me off guard. When I turned to see her, I knew by what she was wearing that she hadn’t been to church. The look on my face must have registered disappointment because her happy face fell and she said, “Aren’t you excited to see me?”

In an instant, I knew I was wrong, very wrong. I had a moment of teaching. Was it the Holy Spirit who taught me? I don’t know. But what slammed into my mind were these words Shame, shame, shame on you for allowing your values to damage the much more important relationship with your daughter. “Go back out and come in again,” I said. She did. She stepped outside and came in again. “Hello?” This time I ran to the door, shouting her name, hugged her and showed in every way how excited I was to see her. She laughed and said that was better. But what if I hadn’t recovered? What if my daughter wasn’t bold enough, or confident enough to call me on my behavior? I don’t think she knew that what she first saw was disapproval, she may have thought I was indifferent about her visit. Either way, my first reaction was not the right one.

My daughter had skipped church and driven two hours to surprise me on what I had always told her was my favorite holiday. Graciously she allowed me a do-over. As parents we often blow it. Sometimes our words do damage. Sometimes our actions do damage to our precious relationships with family and friends. We don’t always get do-overs with relationships. We never get do-overs with our first reactions. 

As the months and years passed we suspected our daughter wasn’t attending church very often. She’d never told us her feelings about it and we really wanted her to be active, find a good Mormon boy to marry and settle down with. We really wanted her to believe! Deep down I knew this wasn’t what she wanted. Deep down I suspected that certain aspects of church doctrine, especially the temple, were things she could never fully embrace. Still hoping though, every once in a while my husband or I would ask her if she had found the local church wherever she happened to be in the world. Finally one day she said, “I know you think the church is important, but it just isn’t important to me. I don’t feel like I need it… right now.”

I think her adding the “right now,” was to soften the blow. We had raised her with certain beliefs and she was rejecting those. When our children reject our values and beliefs, it’s easy to feel like they are rejecting us. Even though we suspected she had rejected the church, until we heard her voice it out-loud we hadn’t wanted to believe it. It still stabbed me in the heart. My husband was sad too. Later when she told me online that she, “no longer believed.” I felt sad. My fears for my world-traveling daughter sometimes bordered on the extreme, but I have kept going back to that moment of clarity on an Easter Sunday. And even further back to the very real comfort when she was fourteen. Since then, we’ve always tried to support our daughter. I believe she feels our approval not only of what she does, but of her. I wholeheartedly approve of my daughter. She is just fine the way she is.

 Orson F. Whitney taught Joseph Smith’s doctrine in General Conference in 1929 and this has been reiterated several times since by our leaders, “Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Whether in this life or the life to come…” Comfort for any Mormon parent. What we may perceive as wandering may be a different path, but not necessarily the wrong one. Mark Nepo, a philosopher, said “We grow into truth, one self at a time: questioning, declaring, missing, questioning again. As fruits all are encased until ripe, light comes full term in the dark and truth ripens in the heart. The only way to know the truth is to live through many casings.”

What I have learned as a parent and what I have learned because of my own crisis of faith may benefit others. Here are some things to think about if your son or your daughter, your mother or father, your spouse, your best friend, or someone else important to you tells you that they have deep concerns about the truthfulness of the gospel. First of all, be grateful that your relationship with this person is one of trust. If they didn’t trust you they wouldn’t be able to tell share their innermost fears. Know that the deeper you are committed to the gospel the harder a faith crisis is to admit. Most likely this admission has come very slowly over time. Getting to this point they have exhausted other possibilities. They have tried very hard to believe and they have fallen short. They’ve probably struggled for a long time before reaching out, hoping you will understand. Admitting their truth may be one of the hardest things they have ever done.

What you do when you hear them express their disbelief, especially if it’s your son or daughter is crucial. I know now that I did some things right with our daughter, but I did some things wrong. I wish I’d told my daughter that it’s okay with me. That no matter which way path she’s on, even if it’s not my path, if it brings here peace and joy, then it’s fine.  I wish I had asked her if she wanted to talk about it. Instead of doing those two things, I just didn’t say anything. Worse, I may even changed the subject. Doubt is part of the process, but we are afraid of the questions. Later, much later, we’ve talked about it, but at the moment she needed my support the most, I gave her a hand but not a very encouraging one.  You can take a lesson from me or you can take a lesson from a friend of mine who has a gay son. When he “came out” to her, she said, “So? You are still my son. I love you.” Now obviously coming out for him was more dramatic than someone who rejects their faith, but there are some similarities. Fear of rejection is paramount. You have only a moment to alleviate those fears. Your loved one will do far better if the first thing that comes from your mouth is your unconditional assurance of your love for them. “So? You are still my daughter, my son, my friend, my spouse… And I love you.”

When someone shares his or her fears and doubts, resist the urge to lecture or bear your testimony—right now. It isn’t helpful when someone is hurting to tell them what you think they should be doing or what you believe. Chances are, especially if you are the parent, that you’ve taught them and they know what you believe already. Telling them at this tipping point that you believe the church is true insinuates that something is wrong with them. We are taught as Mormons to be bold in bearing testimonies. You may think if you don’t bear your testimony of faith to the unbeliever you are failing, but we are also taught to bear testimony only when the spirit is right and if you listen, really listen, this isn’t the right time. Bearing testimony can feel like an assault and judgment. The best thing you can do for them right now is to assure them that all will be well. Don’t miss the opportunity to be kind.

Some people assume that those of us who are doubters are sinning. Resist the urge to ask your loved one what they are doing wrong or if they are reading anti-Mormon literature. Resist the urge to ask them if they are still praying. Resist the urge to ask them if they are reading their scriptures. Chances are they have prayed harder than you have. Ask if they want to talk about their feelings. Then listen with all your heart without interrupting. Please keep the trust they had in you. Don’t talk about them with anyone that they haven’t given you permission to talk to.

It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to even show you are sad. You can say it makes me sad that you are struggling. But try not to infer that your happiness depends upon his or her church activity. If we are the parent of this person it’s very hard, but pinning our happiness on someone else’s church activity isn’t right and it isn’t fair. Now what? Keep being there. Keep the door open—always. Be a friend, a true friend without an agenda. There may come a time when they will want to know what you believe and how you came to believe it. Be patient. Wait until they ask. If they never do, that’s ok as long as your friendship or your love isn’t dependent on that.

 Keep talking about the things that are important to them. If it’s school, a job, a relationship, music, art, travel, computers, whatever—ask them about it. Show your approval for all the things that they are doing right and good.  There is so much that they might be able to teach you, if you listen. You don’t have to pretend you aren’t concerned about church, but don’t let your concern become the elephant in the room. Do not let the church be a wedge in your relationship. If the relationship is broken, chances to heal the broken spirit are lost. We have all our lives and eternity to figure everything out. Remember that and put things in perspective.     

35 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Carole. I really believe that our job as parents, or neighbors, or ward members, or whatever is to love and accept people--no matter what. But it is so hard when we think we know what will make them happy. And it's so hard to hold in all the advice and wise words that we think will change them to be more like us, and just let them BE. It's something I struggle with, too.
    This was written so beautifully. Your daughter will love you all the more for letting her find her own path, and she knows that you support her, even if it's not the path you chose for her. What a cool mom. And what a cool lesson for everyone on this earth!

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    1. Jenny, I'm so glad I got to know you. You make me smile.

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  2. Thank you Carole for so eloquently writing what I have been feeling. When I have prayed about a situation that is close to me, the answer I always get is to love more, love more genuinely, love more deeply. Carole, you are so much more than a pretty little face. You have helped me and I feel hopeful. Thanks!

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    1. Bev, I love your thoughts. No matter if you are feeling healthy or not--you always have made me feel accepted and even loved. I miss your face!

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    2. Such wise words. My moment of regret for a bad reaction was over a short skirt worn to the funeral of my daughter's friend's mother. I often think I got a shortage of maturity, add a shortage of saratonin and all the Primary lessons on trying to be like Jesus are my saving grace.
      Thanks for sharing.

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    3. Anonymous, at different times in our lives, we all have a shortage of maturity. I wonder will I ever really grow up. My feelings are easily hurt, my temper is short, but we keep trying. We make amends. We say we're sorry and we keep trying to do better.

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  3. So beautifully said, Carole. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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    1. Thanks Nancy, I'm so glad I got to know you more fully recently. I knew because Josi thought so highly of you that you must be awesome and of course I was right.

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  4. Thank you, Carole. I've experienced/observed the truth of your words several times in my life, and although love and acceptance might not "cure" what can be perceived as "wrong", whenever it has been applied immediately and without reserve, the relationship grows, and does not shrink.

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    1. Thanks for reading Krista and for adding your thoughtful observations.

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  5. This is tough. I am experiencing it with my niece. I don't want to approve of her current lifestyle but I do want her to know she is well loved. I think it's like Heavenly Father explained it to me once. I love you no matter what...but there are things you will lose or will be delayed until you are back on track. I try to remind myself she has lots of time to get back on track. It's tough being a parent. Guess that's why God wanted us to be ones...so we truly could understand Him and learn to be like Him. Wonderful post.

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    1. Teri, I don't perceive to know or even think what God's answers for you are and your relationships. I should also add that the reassurance I felt was for me--no one else. Our daughter wasn't participating in any at-risk behaviors. The answer might have been different if she had been.

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  6. Beautiful and so needed, Carole. Thank you (and thank Ginger too) for opening this up. It something all of us need to be aware of because I think we will all face it in one way or another. If we believe that this is Christ's church, then shouldn't we act like He would? I've no doubt he would react with love and perspective and patience.

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    1. Thanks for always being there for me--dear friend.

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  7. Your reaction to your daughter - and fixing it - what a great example for parents. I think you're talking about unconditional love. Not so easy to do, but as parents, most of us have that moment when we realize we could lose a child by forgetting the most important thing we can do - - - love them for who they are. Missing that opportunity - how sad. Thanks for the wonderful post.

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    1. Janet, "love them for who they are..." Since we both have grown children, we know how important that is and how long it may take us to get to that point. When we are young parents things are often distorted. Maybe now too!

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  8. Thanks so much everyone who read this and also for your added comments which bring so much to this discussion. I do want to add as I said to Teri--my answer from my Heavenly Parent was for me. I don't believe that would always be the answer. Our daughter has always made really good choices and is very responsible, but my perspective was skewed because they weren't necessarily the choices I wanted her to make. Everyone who knows her will tell you that she is quite a remarkable person. I believe that had I tried to mold her into what I thought she should be, she would still be a remarkable person, but I might not be able to enjoy her journey with her since our relationship might not have survived.She has been very generous with sharing herself with me and my life is so much better because of it.

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  9. Like Janet, I believe this is about unconditional love. It's easy to love the child that does everything that we want them to do, but if they decide a different trail, loving them unconditionally is what the Lord does to us every single day. He loves us for who we are. He may not be happy with "what" we are doing, but He loves us just the same. I have had to learn this in my family also. It is a hard lesson to learn.

    But I have also learned through the Spirit, that there are times we still have to act as a parent and offer guidance. It may not be the easy thing to do. But we aren't our children's friends, we are their parents. We have the responsbility to be an example, to be a guide, to be a parent. At thse times, we may not be so popular with our kids. We just need to reinforce that we love them.....we just may not like how they are living.

    My writing is poor, so I really appreciate the way you are able to so beautifully express things.

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    1. I've been lucky in that my children have made pretty good choices. When they were young we had a hard time figuring out the balance of being a parent and being a friend. I love adult children because to me, we are peers. It's more fun if I no longer feel responsible. I know not everyone feels this way--but it works for us.

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  10. Such a great post, Carole. Beautifully written, heartfelt, and TRUE.

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  11. Great post, Carole. I think sometimes we are afraid to let our children be who they are because we don't keep an eternal perspective. It can be very hard--and probably part of our journey to accept that others will take different paths than our own.

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  12. This is a great message, and very truthful.I have had these thoughts and have so many times not know what to do or what to say. Love is the answer. It always is. Thank you

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    1. Thanks Linda. I'm happy you read it. Love is the answer!

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  13. This is perfect. Just perfect. Sometimes I think we Mormons are know-it-alls, and I have a really hard time with that attitude in our church. It's actually kind of grating to me and I have issues with that, even though I'm Mormon. None of us knows what path another should take, not even what path our kids should take, and our path isn't always the right one for everyone, even for our kids. This message needed to be stated. Thank you!

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    1. Oh thanks so much Alyson for reading. I wish there wasn't so much emphasis on the "one true church" kinda thing. We might respect other people's choices if we weren't so hung up on that idea.

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  14. Well put, Carole. (And Ginger too.)

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    1. Stan, you're the 3rd nephew to weigh in on this post. So glad to hear from you anytime. Thanks for reading. Miss you as always.

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  15. I am the one with the parents who are worried about my faith. I would love to slip this article into my mom's scriptures...They love me, I know they love me, but anytime they see the tiniest crack it's always with the "You really should be back at church fully; you'd be happy then." I did that, and it didn't guarantee happiness. In fact, it made where I was at the time even worse. I do believe the church is true, but need my own space to work through my issues without my parents pushing...I know they're worried. I have a son I worry about too. I'm trying to learn and do better by him. It is tough.

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    1. Marca, These issues are tough. It's hard to be a parent. I at one time felt like your parents and as I said in this post, my thoughts switched in an instant. It could happen for them or you may have to learn to let it go and ignore it, or confront them and tell them to accept you as you are. And do try to slip this to them. I've written this to be acceptable to mainstream LDS.

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  16. Well done Carole! Although members of any faith feel angst and concern when their children stray from the faith, the Mormon doctrine of the eternal family unit puts a particular stress on the parents of the LDS wayward sheep. When I converted to Zen Buddhism several years ago it was very difficult for my parents. To them, not only were my choices affecting my salvation but theirs as well since what they had hoped for an eternal family unit may be in some jeopardy. I am lucky, like your daughter, to have parents who are willing to discuss rather than condemn - And to discuss honestly. They don't pretend not to care about my choice but at the same time they are able to be happy that I do have some spiritual practice, as odd as the one I picked might be. Strangely enough, through the discussions I am now able to have with my parents I am more open and honest with them than ever and more importantly much closer. I hope many read your posting and take it to heart.

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  17. Craig, is this the Craig that went to Orem High class of 75 by chance?? This was a nice comment to my post. I'm so glad that your parents learned to listen and to see you for who you are. It's strange that we as LDS put so much into the eternal instead of the here and now, and sometimes jeopardize relationships NOW and somehow think that will fix the eternal relationship.

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  18. My son served a successful mission 4 years ago. He was an exemplary missionary for the Church; but has not returned to activity since his return. This has saddened my husband and I greatly. At first I nagged him, then begged him to return. Some days I was even angry, trying to blame someone or something and wanting to tell him how hurt we all were by his choices. I'm glad I didn't blow it... I feel better these days. I felt inspired to just love him and validate him in other aspects of his life. Love is the key. We have a great relationship with this son, we accept him and love him for who is: a remarkable young man who is very talented and responsible. I am grateful I didn't turn my back on him, but believed in HIM. We teach our children correct principles and then we let go and let them choose. It is why we are here. Thanks Carole for being courageous enough to share your thoughts and feelings. I appreciate your honesty, not just about this but lots of things that people may be afraid to comment on.

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    1. I think you hit several wonderful principles here, "loving and validating him in other aspects..." How narrow our vision is when we focus solely on the church and forget that many good things can happen outside of the church. We don't have the market on goodness for goodness sake. I love that you good see that. Teaching correct principles and letting them govern themselves... of course is something Joseph Smith said, and its something that works well.

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  19. What a beautiful lesson for all of us. I have a wayward one who struggles with more than the way he thinks I think, than the way I really do. I try to reassure him that I love him no matter what, but when we are having real conversations, he usually brings it back to religion. He knows that I love him and he loves me also. But, he has lost his family over his wayward ways, which breaks my heart. I pray daily that he will someday come back, but for now, I respect him as my son and love him with all of my heart. Thanks for your wise words. Karen Naugle Nielson

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    1. Thanks Karen, Sounds like you are wise also. Good to hear from you on FB these days. So much fun to reconnect.

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