Sunday, May 9, 2010

You, me and the Church

I came across an episode of the radio program This American Life where a young Mormon woman received annual birthday letters that were written to her before her mother died of cancer when the girl was 16. Her mother wanted to have an influence on her daughter's life, so she wrote a series of letters, essentially from her deathbed. (You can listen to the episode here. It begins at 9:25.)

Each year, following the wishes of her deceased mother, the young woman's father would mail one of the letters to her. There were 13 of them. At first the letters were comforting and a reminder of her mother's love. But they also contained counsel and moral instruction from an LDS perspective that over time became problematic. I recommend listening to the story.

I have often thought that in marriage the LDS Church is the third person in the bedroom (in kind of a creepy way). Something like this is also the case with LDS family relationships. The young woman in the interview eventually diverged from traditional LDS belief and went on to medical school. She was conflicted, though, because her mother's continuing instruction to her couldn't be reconciled with the person she was becoming. She was not a person of faith, but her life's work involved compassion, science and commitment to others. It was not a comfortable place for a young Mormon girl to be. Eventually, the letters stopped, and life went on.

I have tried with my own LDS family members and LDS friends and acquaintances to bridge the gap. From my side, I don't see why this shouldn't be possible. It's certainly not necessary that we all share the same opinion on matters of faith. I'm sorry to say that the results are not what I would have hoped for. (Interestingly, things were better before the Prop. 8 debacle.)

It's truly unfortunate that the quality of family relations seems to vary inversely with the doctrinal orthodoxy of the family member in question. For example, a gay Mormon friend of mine comes from a family of eight siblings. He’s in his fifties and his parents are still living. Some of his family members are close to him and treat him with kindness, even though they all have to deal with the dissonance that arises in the Church from having a gay family member. Others take a harder line and refuse to justify sin by allowing my friend to visit or associate with their children. If you line up his family in order of orthodoxy (liahona vs iron rod order), you see a correlation. The iron rodders just can’t deal with him. His parents, who are pretty much on the iron rodders side, are caught in the middle. It’s a big source of stress for the entire family. It's also complicated by envy-- my friend has had professional and personal success that some of his siblings resent. (Oddly, it's again the more orthodox siblings, which I can't explain.)

In my own case, the kindness toward me shown by the less orthodox members of my family is noticeably greater. (The exception is one TBM sister who has always had a soft and loving heart.) I’ve also noticed a huge difference between my generation (I’m 50) and my siblings’ children who are now in their 20s and early 30s. Across the board, my nieces and nephews treat me better than the older family members. I have had excellent relationships with my nieces and nephews since they were born. (The only problem areas are one or two very orthodox spouses who have recently joined the family.) My LDS parents have passed away, but I always had a very close relationship with them.

You might say, "But, MoHoHawaii, you're such a pain in the ass, of course your LDS family and acquaintances keep their distance." :- ) I don't really buy the charge. The problem is that it's a triangle-- it's not just "you and me," it's "you, me and the Church." And we know what the Church's position is-- it would shun me by powerful ritual if I hadn't left first. It seeks me out in the political sphere and tries to do me harm. It's hard for you to love me when this other thing you love hates me. If it were just "you and me" I think we'd be okay.

Maybe we will be someday. I haven't given up on my efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable with my LDS family and acquaintances. Sometimes it works; sometimes not so much. Sometimes it’s my own fault. In any case, it’s an ongoing effort.

Note: Radio program via Times & Seasons


Chester said...

Oh hey, I totally heard that story when it aired! Coolness.

I feel incredibly lucky with my family. My parents and siblings are currently active with the church, but with most of our extended family being either non-members and less-active, there is an ingrained 'live and let live' attitude.

Just...really lucky.

Daniel said...

What a horrible thing to post on Mother's Day. I'm mad at you.

Not really--the story really touched me, but it is hard to think about today as I contemplate my relationship with my own living mother. I have a wonderful, amazing mom whom I love dearly, but she also has Mormon expectations for me that I cannot and will not meet. Reminders of those expectations make me feel much like the woman in this story. I too wish I could have a more direct relationship with her without the looming presence of the Church.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Chester,

Count yourself lucky to have a live-and-let-live family.


MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Daniel,

Those of us whose mothers have passed away treat Mother's Day a little like Memorial Day. I should have put a warning notice at the front of the post. :- )

My mother had a strong positive influence on me, and when I became an adult, she and I also shared friendship. I was closer to her than any of my other siblings because I was willing to listen to her in a way that let her step out of the parent role. She fully accepted my homosexuality and became a strong advocate for better treatment of gays. She passed away 16 years ago. I miss her deeply to this day.

Daniel, you'll have to be patient with your mother. It's hard to predict the future.

Galloway Fam said...

I just found your blog & I am so excited to read your postings.