Inquisitive Part V: Asking “What Else?”

Inquisitive Part V: Asking “What Else?”

Submitted by admin on Sat, 01/10/2015 – 14:53

As a quick recap, I’ve covered what I see as costs of getting stuck on “I know,” followed by the power of asking questions, especially when those questions begin with “I wonder.” Now I want to take it even a step further by adding the question, “What else?”

Humans are equilibrium-seeking creatures, which is why allowing ourselves to remain uncertain can be so unnerving. Latching onto what we know gives a feeling of safety and it takes both humility and courage to truly seek. As exhilarating as breakthroughs are, it is always a temptation to slip right back into the comfortable armchair of the known world. Yes, it’s a bigger world than before but what is still foreign can be staggeringly vast, and frightening.

Sometimes I smile about how God must think my understanding is on par with my two pups. They are good at being dogs, content and having no idea how much they don’t know. It’s a capacity thing. God probably thinks it’s cute when I learn a new trick and then pant for a pat on the head and a treat. Anyway, I digress.

My point is that rather than basking after we discover something new, it is possible to move on to the next question, perhaps tugging at the same thread for further insights. I like to ask, “what else?” Truths are entwined with similar truths, and very often the first answer is an over-simplification. Perhaps that is what frustrates me so much when people give Primary responses to nuanced questions. Yes, what they said is probably true as far as it goes, but it sounds hollow because it sidesteps the more complex facets of our humanity.

I have waded through some of the inevitable questions all seekers eventually get to: “why do bad things happen?” and its cousin, “why do people do bad things?” Captain Obvious can hardly wait to shoot up a hand to reply “Agency! We have the freedom to choose.” Okay, true. But why? “Because we need the opportunity to learn from our own mistakes.” That’s a little better, but when you’re the one who made the mistake, this answer has the edge of self-righteousness. “Have you learned your lesson yet?” I especially love this one when I’ve made this exact same mistake before. Knowing what is smart and doing what is smart can be entirely independent. At least for some of us, or for all of at least us some of the time.

Everybody marks a dot on the continuum of rule-following and wherever that dot lands will bring unique burdens. The innately obedient types (you know who you are) often live in the nicer quarters reserved for those who can observe quiet hours after nine. And if their patience runs a wee bit short with those who carry on at 2 a.m., well, they come by it honestly enough. If the rule abiders say things like, “I am sorry this happened, but you made a choice,” it is because they understand cause/effect relationships. They general act accordingly. It can be tough to see why other people make such idiotic decisions, and especially hard to show sympathy when an obvious consequence ensues. Basic “love and logic” at a toddler level, folks.

What then, when it happens to you? What about the time you absolutely knew better? Have you ever felt like a five-year-old whose grown-up asks, “Why on Earth did you do that?” You stand there in your Osh Kosh overalls and the only truthful answer is, “Because it looked fun. Because I wanted to see what would happen.” You brace yourself for “I’m sorry you got hurt, little one, but you made a bad choice.”

What then, when we’re not talking about cookie jar infractions, but choices in the dangerous adult world? What then when those choices hurt others more than they hurt you?

When this happens, shame, fear and guilt can snuff a person’s light. Those who have made mistakes and must finally recon with them can be so terribly vulnerable. Lectures, judgment, and condemnation all await.

But what if instead of giving a lecture, even one Christ-like person sees beyond the consequence to how much you’re hurting? What if that person senses that you already understand the lesson and what you need now is love? You need love that does not contain the word “but” anywhere in the sentence. When that happens, you learn a lesson, and it’s not the one you expected.


There is a reason this virtue shines as a pinnacle above the others. Now you understand what the word means. You understand how compassion can save your soul. You understand what a generous gift someone can give by loving without judgment or any expectation of return. You did not believe you deserved it, but you accepted the gift anyway. When that happens, your mistake can teach a second lesson, and again, not the one you expected.


You understand what it is to have another pay a debt you could not. You understand what it is for someone to put you back together after you did a damn fool thing and broke yourself apart.

Yes, you’ll do your best to make better choices in the future. You might even succeed more often than not. That’s a valuable lesson in itself. You will get your gold star for that (or a pat on the head and a treat), I’m just sure of it.

One lesson really matters, though. It is how to love another when they are bereft. Because you have been on the receiving end, you also now understand the cost of judging someone else’s choices, or worse, their character for making them. Now you know—not in your mind, but in that deep place that somehow knows everything—the meaning of atonement.

Without the opportunity to make our own–and sometimes tragic–mistakes, we may never become even small, mortal embodiments of love. And that, I believe, is why we are here.

In the case of “why are we allowed to make mistakes?” Agency is the obvious answer. The opportunity to learn love, compassion and grace are “what else.”

Asking “I wonder”

Asking “I wonder”

Submitted by admin on Wed, 01/07/2015 – 07:26

Inquisitive Part IV – Asking “I wonder”

To pick up where my last post ended, when I eased back to church again I could neither say “I know it’s true,” nor “I know it’s not true.” I only felt that church was where I needed to be. I only had questions, and heaps of them.

The abridged version of this story is tidier with a decade under the bridge, but I didn’t come to terms with going back right away. I mulled it over for a few months, not setting foot in church yet. I decided first to give up coffee and wine, figuring I shouldn’t let these details get in the way. After that it still took a few months to muster enough nerve to walk through the door. Fear had frozen me in place.

When I finally unstuck my feet, I was still not settled about any of it. (And this blog series covers many of the ways I still am not). I’d have to sort through my issues one at a time, examine each gear and cog, until I understood its purpose.

My reservations might have undone me if some dear friends had not reassured me that there was a place for people like me in churches of the world, even in the LDS faith. No kidding. They took my trembling hands in theirs and advised me to let my doubts simmer, give my questions air and explore where they led. I trusted and decided that this time I would not override “I don’t know.” I would replace it with “I wonder.”

Changing that mindset was powerful. A new sense of discovery filled me, thrilled me like a hike where each bend in the trail reveals aome vista or meadow. Desire to understand spirituality bubbled from inside me, curiosity blooming like wildflowers around a spring. I felt alive exploring the role of the church and perhaps what my place would be in it. I sidestepped pat answers from Primary and I didn’t get tangled in bitter questions leveled like indictments from once-believers.

New insights came rather quickly during this time and they began to shape not only my religious beliefs, but also my perspective on how the world works. Here is one small example.

One particular “I wonder” question arose from past discomfort with the institution itself, not only the Mormon Church but with all organized religion. Or perhaps it came from my perception that the institution had discomfort with nonconformists like me. Understand here that I left the church not only for doctrinal reasons, but for the structure itself. Religions run by humans are riddled with human flaws. I had heaped my reasons to leave pretty high.

So one of the questions I dealt with during this time was, “What purpose does hierarchy serve in the church?” I already understood the dark side of structure, the need for control and to keep a lid on dissidents. For the first time, now I asked the question giving the benefit of doubt. I was willing to explore the reasons a worldwide church might need consistency. As I let this question percolate, I opened my manual to prepare a Relief Society lesson. Did I mention they called me to teach Relief Society right away? (Funny, I thought.) The subject was unity.

Keep in mind here that the insight I gained did not come directly from the lesson plan. These prescribed discussions are meant to steer group conversation down a particular path, sidestepping controversial rabbit trails and they are, in a word, rather predictable. Perhaps all I really needed was just the suggestion. Just one word to turn over in my mind. It went to work on me. Unity. Unity. I ached for it in my life at that time, in my marriage and with my brothers at work. I wanted to understand it because I felt its opposite—contention—all around me and in my guts.

I looked up the definition of unity, found scriptures on it and thought of my own examples, scribbling notes on a yellow pad. It dawned on me that unity creates synergy. We lift each other, offering encouragement and inspiration. When we have it, we complement each others’ weaknesses and pull in the same direction. We are evenly yoked oxen, better together than alone. When we bicker, we each feel smaller, drained, and our creativity plummets. Contention drives out any spirit of God and with the spirit goes inspiration and light.

I realized that in my employment, the work itself never exhausted me, even with long hours. It was always the days when people argued that I questioned whether it was worth it and whether I was up to the task. Too many days like that in a row would leave me dusting off my resume. And I was, indeed, dusting off my resume at the time. With so many conflicts over strategy with my brothers (who I adored) and lawsuits brewing, I needed a reprieve.

Perhaps the idea of unity rang with such clarity because my ragged marriage was also coming apart. I left work each evening exhausted only to face fighting at home. Two stubborn oxen were yanking toward separate trails, leaving us both stuck in place and drained.

I craved peace. I yearned for the kind of joyful camaraderie that refuels a weary spirit. The word itself, unity, filled me with longing.

I already grasped the pitfalls in groupthink and of unquestioning obedience (those topics will get their due in later essays) but I had never considered the opposite. How does a church of millions move forward together without infighting unraveling the fabric? I understood this as a monumental challenge faced by church leadership and how certain guidelines for consistency were needed. It’s a lame example, I know, but the reason McDonalds became so successful was standardization. A Big Mac in Brigham City is the same as a Big Mac in Billings. That’s how “billions and billions” have been served.

Also, civility is not overrated and neither is showing decorum and respect toward leaders. Yes, of course I believe members need to consider tough issues and discuss them, sometimes even challenging the status quo in a public way. On the other side, I can also see how nit picking and criticism tears everyone down. Not to put to fine a point on it, but I already understood that there is a time to speak up and a time to walk out—I had lived it. It’s just that I had never considered the opposite. How would an organization function if everybody called the shots? Change happens slowly in any large institution, it’s the nature of structure (again, more on this later). Now I began to see wisdom in a Mormon framework that has a built in check-and-balance between personal revelation and institutional structure (yes, more on this later too.)

In short, here is the biggest insight I gained by considering the word “unity.” It was the enormous gap between the multiplicative power of when people function in unity compared to the diminutive effect of contention. That is why contention is so dangerous. Seeds of discontent grow like weeds and crowd out the spirit. Inspiration withers. Arguments drain energy and choke creativity. Infighting leaves people smaller than they were alone and far less than their synergistic potential together.

Perhaps for the first time I understood that there is a proper time to set aside one’s personal agenda and to support the whole. There is a time to support leadership. Belonging to a community has value, and making relationships work can require being supportive just for the sake of it sometimes.

This principle of unity was one small example of a new insight I gained by going beyond “I know” and asking “I wonder.”

Asking Questions: Can uncertainty be more powerful than “I know?”

Asking Questions: Can uncertainty be more powerful than “I know?”

Submitted by admin on Fri, 01/02/2015 – 14:37

“I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I love my mom and dad. Nameajesuschristamen.”

At this moment I cannot say that I KNOW, unreservedly, that any of these statements are true. That is, except the part about loving my mom and dad. That hasn’t stopped me from saying all of these words at various times in my life, though. Testimony began in childhood, with faith given to me by my parents, much like an heirloom watch. I valued it, and when I bore my testimony I really meant to say that I believed in them. I believed in their faith. I wanted them to be proud of me.

Later as a teenager, I kept saying the words but more because I hoped they were true than anything else. And yes, I still wanted to make my folks proud.

The “I know it’s true” years gave way to an enlightening, if uneasy “I don’t know” period in young adulthood during which I explored alternatives to faith. In college I began to train my logic and I learned the discipline of facts. My intellect grew during these years but while my mind expanded, my spirituality dwindled.

Outside school, I became interested in history and could see patterns and pitfalls that have plagued organized religions. I lost my balance and felt seasick when it came to my church, also a bit resentful. Skepticism grew inside me, cracking open the casing around my faith. I couldn’t help but wheedle and pry until it came apart. All at once, the sprockets went flying and broken bits of my belief would never fit again. The watch stopped working. When it did, I convinced myself that it never had worked, all a sham or an optical illusion.

This “I don’t know” period was ending and I found a new angle of repose. This time I cycled into another form of “I know,” only the opposite. Now I said, “I know it’s NOT true,” and with just as much gusto. The sharp minds around me seemed certain and I admired them, much as I had admired my parents before. Wanting to be good gave way to wanting to be smart. My learning tapered off.

But did I know?

When your timepiece stops working, when your foundation cracks, you have to examine each aspect of life anew and decide what to believe. You experiment to see what works and what does not. Well. I found out what did not work. When my experiments failed and my pride finally caved, I asked God for spiritual help and tiptoed back to church.

This time I exercised caution, not plunging headlong into commitments of fact. My confidence was battered after vacillating between the equally strong statements “I know it is” and “I know it is not.”

This time when I went back to church it reminded me of that intellectually curious period of young adulthood. I had a spiritual awakening and I felt free to ask hard (and hence great) questions. They mostly began with “I wonder…”

I now believe that if you can tolerate ambiguity enough to ask earnest questions, great breakthroughs are available. We can learn so much when we become like children, inquisitive and open. Confidence can stunt growth because truly, what is interesting about what you already know? Not much. Close the case.

Perhaps all this assurance is what causes the sleepy feeling that often drifts over Mormon congregations during so many services. It can feel like like we are just marking off our three hours from an endless checklist of duties. Seriously, listen to the pallid singing of some hymn circa 1860 that nobody knows, much less likes. Where is the fervor? The joy that music and spirituality should inspire? Even the good songs barely get a rise. Going to church too often leaves me unsatiated, like trying to pass off a snack bag of Lay’s and an Oreo as lunch. Plenty of calories, right? I did my time on Sunday, I’m good bro.

Perhaps I am only justifying that I some up short in the testimony department. Maybe this is how I tell myself that I’m okay. Still, I find myself most alive on the Sundays when I bring genuine curiosity with me. When I land on a really interesting question, I find my senses quickened and I am exhilarated to find that lessons feel directed precisely at what I sought.

I get it, though. Venturing into “I don’t know” territory can feel unnerving, like standing atop a precipice. It is scary for a reason; it is scary because such leaps can be dangerous. As an experiential learner myself, I am painfully aware that not all understanding comes the easy, academic way. The sage says, “Good judgment comes from experience.” The pupil asks, “Then how do you get experience?” “Bad judgment.”

Uncertainty can also be taboo. We are taught that saying the words leads the Spirit to testify that the statement was correct. Maybe so, but rigidity can squelch conversation. If you are halfway astute, you’ll pick up on which questions are okay to bring up in Sunday School, and which are not. It’s fine to ask about scripture trivia (it makes you look smart), but don’t get too obscure (it makes you look weird.) Questions asked by teachers are meant to steer discussions toward consensus and personal reflection, not curiosity. And, for the love of Pete, don’t ask why Joseph Smith’s other wives are not mentioned in the lesson manuals.

Yet, I do believe there is room for doubt, even if Relief Society isn’t the place for the thorny stuff. The very premise of our faith began with James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”

Okay, that’s enough for one day. My previous post shared a personal experience in asking for help. Today introduced the idea of asking questions, but I ran out of room to give examples. So next time I’ll share one small story about a time I asked a good question and gained an unexpected insight.

Inquisitive Part I: The Day I Lost My Faith

Inquisitive Part I: The Day I Lost My Faith

Submitted by admin on Sat, 12/27/2014 – 15:22

I’m not sure where my faith began, except that I was born into it. I can tell you when I lost it, though. More or less the exact moment. Alright, it may be unfair to lay blame on one specific day because nagging questions had been eroding the banks of my belief for a while. Still, one moment stands out in my mind, the moment I sat in Sunday School with my back rigid against a metal folding chair. It felt like a dam just busted, and it happened over something so small. After this, I would walk out of church for a decade. It would take a personal fall and a miracle to get me back.

I straightened up when the teacher taped a cartoon Noah’s Ark to the chalkboard. I heard—really heard for the first time—a story so familiar it was rote. There is no way that happened, I thought. I glanced around. The class looked adrift, nodding a little, raising hands to make inane comments, or just glazed over. I wondered, can I really be the only one not buying this? Before then I had never considered it. It was just a Bible story and a crowd pleaser among the primary set, what with the animals and all.

Now I had new ears. I was a college student away from home and newly married to a non-believer. He had a gay brother I adored.

The ark was suddenly a question, and along with it everything else.

I considered the details. The entire globe was covered with a flood. So where did all the water go? The faithful rounded up every animal, two-by-two? That means today’s biodiversity came from that limited stock? Just since Noah’s time? More troubling was this. Would a loving God kill all the people and animals to make a point? This story has problems on so many levels, I didn’t even know where to begin. I was dying to raise my hand, but that isn’t the sort of thing you do. The teacher was so earnest about it.

I had not been to church in a while and I am not even sure why I went day other than maybe I was not quite ready to let go yet. My young husband got perturbed when I attended, needling me for answers I could not give. He was a good debater and logical to the core. “How can you believe in a religion with so many holes? How can you belong to an organization that kicked out my brother?” I conceded each debate. I felt like I was losing a part of myself but it got harder and harder to hang onto it.

So I left church that day and didn’t go back. I mourned privately, without ever articulating why. I mourned the idea that something I believed my whole life wasn’t true. I mourned not being in on it with the rest of my family. I mourned losing this part of my heritage and my culture. I felt like a little house lifted from its foundation and dangling by a dubious crane. I had to decide, stone-by-stone, how to build a new base.

Ten years later I would tiptoe into the very back row of a Sacrament service, cry through its entirety and slip out before the closing prayer. I did not hear the speaker above the dialogue inside my head. I don’t know if I can do this. My friends will think I’m an idiot. My marriage might not survive another blow. How do I reconcile details that make no sense? Could the answer I got possibly be right, that I am supposed to be here? But I knew it was. That was the only thing I know right then.

The next week I made it through Sacrament meeting and Sunday School before tears overwhelmed me and I had to leave. The week after that I made it through the entire three-hour block, but still left crying. The following week I made a dear friend, a woman who would become one-part grandmother, one-part counselor. I began to sort through intense and conflicting emotions one week at a time. They asked me to teach Relief Society? Me? I haven’t opened scripture in a decade. That was when I began cataloguing questions, taking them apart and piecing the answers together into my new version of faith.

Inquisitive Part II: Asking for Help


Inquisitive Part II: Asking for Help

Last week I did something my younger self would not. I asked my boss for help. I asked her advice, I asked if she would help me with something, and after the dust settled, I asked her to coach me on how I could have approached it better. I don’t think I could have done that ten years ago.

I got to this place the hard way.

My brothers will tell you about my independent streak as in, “I can handle this job all by myself.” (It’s an inside story from when I was about four.) I would generally rather muscle and squirm against a problem, my shoulder pressed hard against it and feet slipping in place. Unless I’m desperate, I have too much ego to ask for a hand. So after I lost my faith, I stopped asking for God’s help too. Half of this was unbridled pride, a notion that I should do it on my own. I believed in work ethic, in religious terms “works”, and I’d bought into the idea of worthiness. I thought God wanted me to earn it on my own.

That was so stupid.

I did not realize that my skills were pathetic, my vision limited, and my little house would soon be dangling from that dubious crane I mentioned earlier. An orderly life is no certainty, not even when we follow the rules, and breaking them with wild abandon is usually not such a good idea either. This leads me to the other reason I stopped asking.

I didn’t think I deserved help.

Why should God run around saving any of us from our choices when natural consequences were such a good teacher? It seemed rich to make damn fool decisions and then expect God to get me out. For the record, I think there’s some truth in all of this, it’s just a partial truth.

My younger self, the one who wouldn’t ask for help, was struggling on all fronts. At work, the family business was still recovering from currency instability in our biggest markets. Our customers woke up one day to hyperinflation, and they could no longer afford imports from America. We had too much debt and our sales plummeted overnight. I had made it my responsibility to fix everything, probably having watched too many superhero movies. So I worked my guts out all week and released stress by playing hard on the weekends. If I could push myself into shape and then have as much fun as possible, it would counteract the emotional exhaustion. Maybe too, I did not want to be sorry that I got married right out of high school, some notion of squandered youth. Just do, do, do and fast, fast, fast. “I don’t believe in regret,” I told myself, so I proceeded to make decisions that I would, in fact, really regret.

Did my error rise from pride that I should go it alone or was my miscalculation born of unworthiness that I shouldn’t be needy in the first place? Two sides of a counterfeit coin, I have since realized.

I was like a strong swimmer on a bluebird day. I thought riptide signs applied to the weak so I jogged past them and plunged into the surf. In something like twenty minutes, emotional currents had dragged me out. Way out. I squinted at the shore but didn’t want inconvenience anyone. I chose to be there, so I’d use those swimming skills to get back in. I swam a little harder and burned gas. I was slipping farther all the time. Still, I would not wave an arm to let anyone know I was in trouble. Not my friends, not my family, nobody. These were my spiritual problems, I thought. I would be fine.

It finally dawned on me that I needed help when I had stopped swimming, then stopped treading. I was floating on my back now, just keeping myself from slipping under. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help until I finally understood I would drown without it.

The day I broke a ten-year silence with God is still sharp in my mind. I had taken a day off work to be alone. I was slumped on the living room carpet with fingers clutching my hair, sobbing and repeating phrases. “I know I don’t deserve it, God, but I can’t ask anyone else. If I knew what to do next, I would just do it. But I don’t. I can’t. Will you help me?” Next, I calmed myself down and sucked in a very deep breath before I added this. “I am finally ready. I will deal with whatever comes. Just show me how. Will you help me? I trust you. Please.”

I somehow knew then that help would follow. I also expected a lecture. I never got one. Not from God and not from friends or family. The compassion humbled me even further and left me trembling with gratitude. Back to my original question: why would God rescue me? Why indeed. I had not accounted for love.

Rather than rubbing my nose in all the ways I had frittered away what had been given me, I felt enveloped in love. I was shown that I had potential. Self-loathing had prevented me from seeing it, but it was there. Love made all the difference. It gave me courage and it gave me hope. It made me want to.

Through this and other experiences, I have come to believe that God is not terribly interested in punishment or humiliation. He just wants us to fulfill our individual purpose. He is also a lifeguard on watch, waiting for the signal.

Why then, does God wait before stepping in? I do not know entirely but I suspect it has to do with agency. Perhaps this is an immutable law that cannot be broken. Perhaps it would rob us of learning, or maybe we would never appreciate the gift. Acting before I was ready would have deprived me the meaning of grace. I could never have intellectualized this concept; I had to experience it from the brink of starvation.

Asking, however, changes everything. Consequences remain, but miracles are possible. In experience after experience in my life—from the mundane to the spectacular—I have wept in awe after my sheepish requests were met with extravagant gifts.

There is so much about faith and religion that I do not know. I seem to grasp only glimmers of truth while corralling in a menagerie of questions. That said, I now believe in two ideas above all others. The first is the raw imperative to love. The second is the power in asking.

That experience a decade ago changed the way I approach life and allowed myself to lean on others, not just God. It nudged me to reach out to my boss last week. She responded with a gentle and sincere willingness to help. Her warmth touched me and she seemed pleased that I trusted her so much.

Humility is still far from my default setting and I slip into hubris like a warm bath. At least now, however, I have an alternative. I know that asking is better than drowning.