Dec 18, 2015

On Faith: Q&A with Myself

LDS Hymn # 237: "Do what is right, let the consequence follow."

I've wanted to write this post for some time, but couldn't figure out how best to do it. Unlike other blog posts where my goal is to just let you know what's going on in Austin-land and hopefully make you laugh along the way, my goal today is to open up more than I possibly ever have, despite the resistance I'm feeling. (Even in my last post about leg pain, depression, and suicide, I was holding back). And hopefully intersperse it with Austin humor, while still opening up. I'm up to the challenge.

I'm aware of the fact that when someone tells you they're about to be open and honest, it often means they're going to be anything but open or honest. (See: Politicians) But, sometimes (I hope) it means those opening up may have deceived (or at least withheld the truth) for a long time, and for whatever reason they're done deceiving, and finally ready for honest, frank, openness. Such I hope is my case now. Being open doesn't scare me. The fear of offending, losing, or hurting those I love does. Hurting anyone is kind of the opposite of what I like to do. So I'm opening up, but admittedly still trying to be conscientious about it.

Many of you already know. Some of you may suspect. A few of you might have no clue, and the rest probably don't care (in the nicest way possible). I am an atheist. I prefer Post-Mormon Secular Humanist Freethinker/Skeptic; but that's just a label. (and a wordy one). As is atheist, I suppose. Many people hate labels because it pigeonholes us into holes we may not completely fit in, and fails to tell the whole story, for the sake of convenience. Labels often "other" people, and one of my new beliefs is that eradication of "othering" is essential to our progression and survival as a society. No "us vs. them" or even "us and them." Just us. But back to my identifying as atheist. Atheist isn't a label. Atheist is just a description for one thing I don't believe in. 

Even writing "I am an atheist," I feel like I owe you some sort of apology. To apologize for being who I am, when what I probably should apologize for is taking so long to come out and say it. 

Hopefully, it's obvious why I've feared coming out. In recent studies, people distrust atheists more than anyone, including rapists. Fun. The irony baffles me, because, while many factors led me towards my faith transition and atheism, one primary reason was my desire to follow what I believe in my heart to be right, good, moral, ethical, honest, etc. In short, so I could honestly live with myself. Now, I'm finally ready to be honest with you. Lucky you. 

In my multiple attempts to write this blog post, and over the last 2 years since I finally accepted my atheism, I've asked myself many hypothetical questions, and I think that's the best way to address it now. Of those of you who already knew, until very recently, almost no one has asked any questions, so maybe you're in the I don't care group. (In this case, 'I don't care' means 'I love you anyway and don't want to or need to know why.') I've wondered why that is; why no one has drilled me on the standard questions or even non-standard ones. I have a few guesses, but that's all they are. So, if you would indulge me (since you're reading this, I can only assume you are already) here are questions I'd like to answer.


Austin, was the impetus to write this blog post related to the recent LDS policy regarding the children of homosexuals being denied baptism in the Mormon church until age 18 and with the caveat that they disavow their parents?
In short, yes. At length, I've been meaning to write this quite a while, as previously stated. This new policy just pushed me to ask "how much is too much?" and forced me to face the fact that I can't be silent about what I feel is injustice and/or just plain wrong, any longer. I may write a separate post about the policy in the future, but for now, I'm writing about me, and my doing what I believe is right.

But Austin, I thought you were a mostly private person about your religious beliefs? Now that you're Atheist, you can't wait to talk about it?
I am mostly private about religious beliefs. Like good writing, I think most tenets of religion should follow the maxim of "show, don't tell." I speak out now for several reasons. I'm tired of feeling censured (by myself mostly), I'm tired of feeling like I'm not being truthful/myself with those I care about due to fear of rejection/offense. Also, I'm fairly sure at least some of you who know but aren't asking questions are making assumptions/guesses about my spirituality/lack thereof. So I'd like to set the record straight, and take control of my own narrative. If you're still going to make up stories about me, I can't stop you. I only ask you to give me a bit more hair and a lot more charisma.

Austin, what's your religious background?
I grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I went to early morning seminary, bore testimony, believed with all my heart. I served a mission to Minnesota and loved it, I read the Book of Mormon over 11 times (so... 12) if you count the time I read it backwards one chapter at a time, so I could say "I've read this book backwards and forwards," (and I'd read it about four or five times already on my mission at that point, so the desire to mix up reading it was there too). Both my parents and their parents are Mormon, all my grandparents ancestors (minus one) go back to the earliest Mormon pioneer converts. Mormonism is in my blood.

Austin, did you ever have a testimony?
I had what I thought was a sure knowledge of the divine calling of the prophet Joseph Smith, that the line of succession went through Brigham Young down to Thomas S. Monson. I believed with all my heart the Book of Mormon came from God, that the church was led by prophets, that the Holy Ghost manifested all truth. I also believed what Henry Eyring (the scientist and father of Henry B. Eyring) taught, that "if it's true, it's doctrine, it's part of this religion." God is the author of all truth, so scientific discovery should prove Mormonism true, and not be in conflict with God's only true and living church.

Austin, you look like you have something else you want to say. What is it?
Thank you for being so perceptive. I want to emphasize the love I have for all of you. That I'm trying my best to be as open and honest (and tactful) as possible, and please don't view it as an attack on you or your beliefs. I will fight anyone for your right to believe what you will and worship how you may. But I'm going to also ask you to afford me the same privilege.

I really wanted to tell many of you individually/in person, but the hypothetical conversations in my head often led to arguments and contention. In effort to avoid that, I've decided to lay it all out here on the good old blog. Hopefully this will lead to productive conversations we can have in person if you wish, or conversations we don't need to have, if I've covered sufficient ground/answered all your questions. Regardless, here it is.

Austin, where did your religious transition start/what is the story you're dying to tell?
That's harder to answer than you may think.

Many former Mormons talk about a "shelf" where they once put their questions and issues with their beliefs. Polygamy is a popular topic. Questions about race and the priesthood is another. Homosexuality is a hot-button issue right now. Concerning the "shelf's" purpose, most Mormons know the church is true because we believe we've received a spiritual witness. So when issues and questions arise that appear to contradict the truth we know is Gospel, we place the issue on this "shelf," with the intention to ask God about the concerns one day when the scales are lifted off our eyes, the veil is removed, and we have a perfect knowledge and it will all make sense.

So, where did my shelf begin? Was it when I was a child and I was told there is no Santa Claus (spoilers), and asked "so does this mean there's no God and Jesus either?" Was it when I first started college and read Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks the title character "Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον, meaning good/moral/righteous) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Was it troublesome issues in the church's past? Polygamy, institutionalized racism, historical revisionism, etc? Or was it on my mission, where obedience seemed even more important than listening to the Spirit? Correlation, (to me now a dirty word) where I must follow the lesson plan, rather than my own heart, my conscience, and/or the whisperings of the Spirit? These were seeds of doubt I did my best to push back onto the shelf rather than feed. Then, several years ago, Tracie experienced a transition of her own, which led me to study more church history, doctrine, and confront the issues I had so reverently and carefully hidden on my metaphorical shelf. (You can read about her transition on her blog, I'll wait).

Both on my mission as a proselytizer, and growing up in Southern California as a Mormon minority, I encountered "anti-Mormon literature" and/or "anti-LDS lies" before. What I couldn't outright avoid always seemed biased and demonstrably false. (And I still believe that much of it   looking at you, Godmakers   is. Concentrated, evil-spirited, lies.) Yet some things started appearing to make more sense than the narrative I had believed my entire life, and appeared to have evidence and truth backing them up. I asked myself what makes something anti-Mormon? If it's untrue, or if it paints the church in a negative light, regardless of it's truthfulness? The things I studied, I wasn't even sure if they were anti-Mormon, since it was independent of Mormonism, but taught things contrary to what I believed in. But I had a testimony! I had served two years preaching this. I knew it was all true. I wouldn't waste 2 years of my life preaching a lie. And so much of the church still made more sense than not. Why would the Three Witnesses of the golden plates lie, even after they left the church, for example? Besides, even if it's not true, it's a good belief system, right? The church is filled with (in my admittedly strongly biased opinion) some of the best human beings on the planet. I'd rather be in Hell with them than Heaven without them, so the saying goes. But then, the shelf started cracking. Why spend $1.5 billion dollars on a shopping mall? Why spend money and energy on Proposition 8 in California, rather than "letting them worship how, where, and what they may"? Why hide Joseph Smith's rock in a hat translation method, then act like it wasn't hidden? For quite awhile, I felt like I was straddling a fence in the mouth of Plato's cave: afraid to walk out, but unable to venture back inside.

I expressed my distress at fence-sitting, and several friends (both on and offline) suggested I read The CES Letter. (Or "Letter to a CES Director.") Basically an in-depth summary of one disaffected member's shelf. All the issues with Mormonism he could think of. The friends who suggested it said it would help me get off the fence and decide where to land once and for all.

I read it. If I took it at face value, it seemed pretty damning, and gave simple and rational explanations for all the issues I had placed on my shelf, presenting much evidence and sources for issues I had (and issues I wasn't even aware of). Unfortunately, the explanations concluded that the church was not what it claimed to be. But, I didn't want to take it at face value. I wasn't convinced. If this was correct, then the faith I'd believed in for so long was false. I wouldn't just be swayed by convincing arguments, I wanted to hear what the church had to say about this. At the time, I couldn't find anything. My bishop was no help, and most church sources were vague and general "just have faith" repeats. On my mission, another source of light I had found was Apologetics. Apologetics explained issues with history and doctrine using a scholarly perspective. Issues like early church history, the lack of archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, the dubious origins of a certain Egyptian papyrus, etc. Surely they would have answers. Daniel C. Peterson (I could be wrong, possibly someone else at FAIR) wrote a response to the CES Letter.

I don't think I need to go into much detail (although by all means, if you'd like me to, feel free to ask, non-hypothetical people). Suffice to say that the answers/justifications/excuses I read from the Apologists did more to destroy my testimony than anything supposedly "anti," in the CES Letter or elsewhere. Rather than denying things I'd categorically been told were lies, they admitted to them. Rather than providing simple explanations, the author of the response wove convoluted and intelligence-insulting spins. Spins ranging from death threats from angels, justifying lies, double-standard morality, to changing definitions of words with the ease of a Clinton.

I felt lied to. I felt betrayed. I felt hurt. I tried so hard to hold on. Grasping desperately for something to still believe. The peace I once felt with a surety had abandoned me. I prayed. I fasted. I prayed more. I searched the scriptures. For the first time, I felt like my prayers weren't going anywhere. That I was just kneeling there, talking to myself. A flash of inspiration came. This was in late September. General Conference was coming! I'd find my answers there! I always did.

I did my best to repair my collapsed shelf, to hold out to hear what the modern prophets would say. Many people often say the words spoken at conference feel like their talks are written especially for me; and I can still say I've had that experience more than once regarding general conference talks.

However, this general conference was different. Rather than love and wisdom, I heard excuses, I heard vain repetitions. Rather than answers to prayers and new revelation, I heard worn platitudes and bland catchphrases. And, in the case of at least one man claiming to be an apostle of Christ, I heard hate speech. The feeling I once called "The Spirit," in the same voice that once whispered to me the church was true, told me this man did not speak for God.

I was no longer Mormon. Yet I was. As pointed out by Harold Bloom in The American Religion (and I'm sure elsewhere by others) a strength of Mormonism (I'm paraphrasing here) is that, like Judaism, it succeeds in not just being a religion, but a unique people and culture. So I still felt Mormon. But I no longer believed. I felt my shelf collapse completely, and I was faced with the unpleasant task of sorting through the shelf wreckage of former beliefs for anything still valuable.

Wanting to keep a relationship with an interventionist God proved harder than anticipated. One of the many things my mission and upbringing instilled in me: the belief that not only is the Mormon church the only one possessing all the truth, but how false other sects of Christianity are (and every other religion, essentially). But, at this point, I wasn't so sure. I read writings of other Christian sects and other religions. I began listening to theological debates, often Atheist vs Theist, sometimes Jewish, frequently Christian, other times Muslim. I found the people and ideas I often agreed with were the Atheists, and among the theists, the Jews. (I couldn't find any with a Mormon debater, if you know of any and can recommend, feel free). About this time I also realized that all religions to one degree or another teach they are the only way, truth, life, etc.

I felt I hadn't devoted enough research to the words of those against the motion: the unbelievers. I started reading the more famous atheists. First the so-called "New" Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, (whose debates I enjoyed more than any other, followed by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach), and Sam Harris. Then the older Atheists as well, like Percy Shelley, Thomas Paine, (actually a deist), David Hume (his religious beliefs are still unclear. But he was a thorough, if not the quintessential skeptic), Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, and others. They presented a worldview that seemed to make sense, left room for morality, for questions, and still allowed for a sense of mystery and wonder. I'm not entirely sure of the exact moment(s) that I went from a believer in a personal god, to a believer in an impersonal god, to someone who doesn't know if there is a god, or gods, to someone who now thinks the existence of deity is inconsequential and what matters is how we live our lives only, and how we treat our fellow creatures. Regardless, I hope I'm not done in my spiritual quest, and I try to remain open to new information and evidence. At the present I find it acceptable to think that as long as I remain flexible and follow tenets of love from compassion and truth from empiricism, I should be just fine.

Regardless, there's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Austin, how do you now feel about your Mormon upbringing?
I don't feel angry, if that's what you mean. Nor do I regret it. I'm grateful for it, it made me who I am (I was born of goodly/loving parents, after all. The goodliest) and growing up LDS brought me into the acquaintance of many of my favorite people in the world. But I no longer feel tied to it. The Mormon faith and Gospel/dogma gave me my sense of ethics, my beliefs in right and wrong, and the ongoing quest for truth. Or at the very least cultivated it. I now feel that the church has failed to live up to the morality it once taught me. Whether it's because the church has changed, I have changed, or it's always been that way and I just didn't realize it, I don't know. I'm not referring to the fallibility of leaders, or not exclusively that. I'm more referring to church history and apologetics sparking more questions and mental gymnastics than answers and simple resolutions.

Austin, how do you feel about the Mormon church now?
I love the people, and still would like to consider myself a Mormon, although I realize the more open I am about my beliefs (or lack thereof) the greater the risk I run at being forcibly ejected from the church. I think the people are salt of the earth and I love them, I think much of the leadership is well-intentioned with a few exceptions, but they have the disadvantage of either believing or being told they speak for God, like most other leaders of other religions, and then become burdened by the arrogance that comes from thinking rules don't apply to you.

Austin, are you just angry? Are you offended?
I was angry at one time. I still get angry about certain things, like thinking people I love are being misled, or other people I love are being maltreated by a church supposed to comfort and succor them. One thing I've learned in my journey about the "angry apostate" stereotype, is the anger we feel is often a mask for genuine hurt, feelings of betrayal, and frustration with something we once trusted and believed so completely. We left the church not because we wanted to sin, but because we found what we feel is the truth, and can't ignore what is in our hearts. Anger is a part of the grief process, and for many, losing one's faith is akin to death. A part of your identity dies, and it's natural to grieve,

Am I offended? Not at all. There were a few times before my transition that made it easier to be inactive, like someone telling me not to bring my special needs son back to church until he learns to behave (he still hasn't), and a member of the bishopric telling Tracie and I he was inspired to call us to a calling, but got our names and the reason for the calling wrong. I chalk those up to human error, not evidence of the church's imperfection, and hope not to be thought of as a modern Symonds Ryder or Thomas Marsh. These (and similar) issues were not reasons I left, although I'll readily admit they didn't make me eager to return either. I agree with Stephen Fry that "being offended" is often nothing more than a whine, it doesn't further the argument, but stops it. That being said, people's feelings are genuine, and while I don't think I was offended and don't think my offendedness or lack thereof was instrumental, I hope I'm not offending or upsetting anyone reading this. Or at least keeping it to a minimum.

Austin, you left the church, why can't you just leave the church alone?
First of all, I hope none of you are really asking that question, as in my mind it suggests an un-charitable attitude. But maybe you're wondering. In that case, I understand. I once wondered the same thing about those who left. I can't speak for everyone, but here's why for me: If you found something that changed your perception, and you felt your loved ones could benefit from it, would you leave it alone? What if you wanted to leave it alone, but part of you still loves it and wants it to do what it claims and perfect the saints, when you frequently feel like they're making them worse, not better, less tolerant, and less Christlike? Another reason I can't leave it alone is it can't seem to leave me alone. Around 90% of my loved ones are still very much ingrained in it, and I want them in my life, so I can't leave it alone. (Not to mention the fact that I live in Utah, and if you think you can live in Utah and not be affected by the Mormon church, 1) I think you're deluded, and 2) please show me how.)

And finally, I would ask: do you consider me a lost sheep, or your enemy? Either way, I'm fairly sure I know what Jesus said about enemies, and about lost sheep, and hoping they leave the church alone is not one of them. I love you all. Leaving the church was the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm still not sure I wish it on anyone. But I also feel happier and more at peace than I ever have. (Please don't tell yourself what Austin's feeling isn't true happiness. Having experienced happiness both in and out of the LDS church, I think I'm fairly qualified to judge my own feelings and my current happiness level, tho I know the mindset of 'only we in the gospel experience true joy' is a tempting one). I will not leave the church alone because it's still part of me, and because it's still important in the lives of many of my loved ones. I don't plan to bash on it, but I will also not remain silent when I feel it is not acting morally or ethically or what I view is its mission of perfecting saints, proclaiming gospel, or redeeming dead.

Austin, haven’t you heard of Pascal’s Wager? What if you’re wrong?
Greater minds than mine have answered this question better than I could ever hope. Bertrand Russell said he would reply "I'm sorry, Lord, but you didn't provide enough evidence." Richard Dawkins said "Ask yourself what if you're wrong? What if every time you pray to Yahweh you're making Allah or Poseidon or any other numerous possible jealous deities angrier and angrier?" Christopher Hitchens and others said they would appeal to God's professed love and fairness, and ask if there's room for an honest nonbeliever, than a dishonest believer who believes just because they think they're better off to believe because Pascal said it was a good bet. My goal is to do good for its own sake, rather than for hope of a celestial reward. To quote Joss Whedon (yes, I quote a lot) from Angel:

"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." If I'm wrong I'll apologize, say 'I did the best I could with the information and light you allowed for me, and I will go where you want me to go, dear Lord.' I don't fear being wrong. It's possible I am. I just trust that if God's worth worshiping, He'll understand, and show me some of that infinite mercy I've heard so much about. If not, hopefully I'll finally get to meet Christopher Hitchens and George Carlin.

Austin, what about your converts on your mission? Why don’t you try to deconvert them? Are you going to try to deconvert me?
Technically that's three questions. 
Stop dodging the question. You're the one who asked them.
Fair point. Your first question I suppose leads into the second, which leads into the third. So it's a natural progression. In short, no. At length: I've debated emailing or calling the people I taught about the Mormon church to on my mission. Tell them something along the lines of "Apparently I was wrong. Sorry about that. Here's what I've found:" But my current belief regarding the church and those in it is twofold. First, if it makes you happy, and makes you a better person, I want no part in trying to take your faith away from you. A large reason I chose to leave is I felt it was making me unhappy, and in following what I saw as its teachings, I felt it was making me a worse person. The other half is probably more optimistic/unrealistic. I believe the truth about the Mormon church is available for anyone interested in really finding out about it if they truly want to. (Refer to the J. Reuben Clark quote above). But the change should come from within. 

Another huge nail in the coffin of my unbelief was when the church began releasing essays on LDS dot org on topics like race and the priesthood, polygamy, translation, folk magic, and others. I confess that even after my shelf collapsed, part of me still believed I had just been deceived and what I heard were anti-Mormon lies. But the church itself is now owning up to the stories that caused me to stop believing. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that another reason I don't try to deconvert my converts is I value my relationship with them, and fear I will lose them as friends if I try. (Change only comes from within, etc.)

And to answer my final question, no I am not going to try to deconvert you. I love you and I respect you. A large part of me wishes I too could still believe. If my unbelief really is an affliction and God is out there and cares for me, I hope one day he will consecrate this affliction for my gain. But I'm happy now. Happier than ever. I of course still have bad days, still get angry. But I also still have a sense of the sublime and awe. I'm not a scientist, but I do think science is the best way to view and define reality. I hope the church brings you happiness and makes you a better person. If it doesn't, however, let's talk ;)

Austin, what do you believe in now?
I suppose I started answering that earlier. I believe science, reason, and evidence are the best ways to know what's really true. I believe that morality comes from within and is a byproduct of evolution, that the earth is billions of years old. I believe in most of the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, in David Hume, in Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and others. I believe in the redemptive power of art and poetry. I think there's poetry and ethics to be had in the Bible and Book of Mormon, (as well as the Qu'ran, Bhagavad Gita, Tao te Ching, and others) but we should weigh their teachings on our own conscience, and not simply do what the book says because the book says it (and not just because I love shellfish and wearing cotton-poly blends). I believe freedom of thought, freedom of choice, freedom of religion, freedom to an education are all paramount to happiness. I believe if there's a God worth worshiping, it has a lot of explaining to do. I believe Dr. Pepper is the best soda, coffee is better, and alcohol tastes terrible. I believe in being generous to buskers and panhandlers, and giving to charity whenever possible. I believe that churches should not be taxed, but they should disclose their finances like other non-profits if they wish to maintain their tax exempt status. I believe in your right to freedom of religion until it encroaches on another's freedom, and I feel the same about their religion and rights. I feel I'm getting political now and that's plenty for another post and this one is long enough already, and besides, I'm getting near the end.

Austin, isn't your faith in science and evidence just a new religion?
 No. Are we done? Not yet? Ok. There's the quote (dubiously) attributed to Voltaire: "To learn who rules over you, find who you are not allowed to criticize." If I disagree with Richard Dawkins for example, if I can prove him wrong he will celebrate it, rather than ostracize me, and/or kill me, and/or send me to hell. (I use Dawkins as an example, as he's a fairly famous atheist.) To quote Tim Minchin "Science adjusts its views based on what's observed. Faith is the denial of observation so belief can be preserved." Believing in the scientific method is not equal to believing a man who says God said so. 

Austin, what's your current view of Joseph Smith? The Book of Mormon? 
It's complicated with me and Joseph Smith. I hope this doesn't offend too much, but I feel about him the way a lot of people now feel towards Richard Nixon. An extremely flawed individual who usually did what he thought was best, regardless of what others thought and regardless of the consequences. But I admit I'm being generous. I think there was much evidence he was a fraud, selfish, and worse, despite the fact that he was also to most accounts a brilliant and compassionate leader.

I still love a large percentage of the Book of Mormon, I don't know if it's because of the sunk-cost fallacy, or it truly is a great book. I'm currently writing either an essay or spoken word poem about what it means to me, and how my belief that Joseph imagined it is more miraculous than reading it off an egg-shaped rock. I plan to read it again from an unbelievers perspective. I love King Benjamin and Ammon the missionary and Captain Moroni and others, though now I also feel kinship to Nehor and Korihor, because they questioned. But I believe I can love the book without loving the author, similar to the practice of loving the sin and hating the sinner.


 If you stuck with me, thank you. This was beyond cathartic, I hope we can remain friends and family. I love you and am grateful you took the time to read this to better understand me. While I intend to start being more open about my atheism, I do not intend to attempt to affect your theism, (Assuming you're not one of my new atheist friends.)

I hope this is a beginning of my new life. I've experienced a lot of changes these past few months. I hope this is a start of many future dialogues I can have with many of you. Not seeking to be understood, (at least not at first) but to understand. In many ways I'm a different person. For the first time in over half my life I'm pain free. My blood type has flip-flopped from Type AB+ to Type O- . I've gone from Mormon to Atheist, Republican to Left-leaning Independent, non-vegetarian to someone who still eats meat (not everything has changed). But I'm still Austin, and I still want you in my life, not only because I believe this life is all we're given.


P.S.- Another reason I've feared coming out is the fear of losing friends. All my life I've struggled with being myself versus being who I thought people I wanted to like me wanted me to be. So I would hide or minimize things I enjoyed, (and things that made me, well, me) things like but not limited to: an obsession with Star Wars, a love of Dungeons and Dragons, or a predilection for Broadway musicals. I was afraid of being rejected for my nerdy interests. (This was before the rise of Comic Cons, good Superhero movies, and geek chic). Because of this fear, I've sometimes acted fake, not spoken when I wanted to at various times or subjects, and I apologize. Lately, I've realized this in full force due to the above mentioned atheism. Regrettably, I've felt a rift grow between many of us, and I've come to the realization that, because of my hiding the less acceptable parts of myself, from atheism to part-time Freddie Mercury disciple, I drove a wedge between us by my insincerity / shielding. So now I'm here saying this is me, take it or leave it.

Because at long last I've realized that if I'm going to lose friends, I prefer to lose them for their not accepting the real me, rather than losing friends by drifting apart due to my insincerity in being who I think you want me to be. And, for what it's worth, I hope I don't lose you, you're pretty awesome to be my friend in the first place. Thank you.

 If you have questions I didn't answer, want me to expound on anything, whatever, feel free to comment, call, text, IM, let it fester inside, wait, not that one. I want to be more open, but destroying your faith is never my goal. Destroying our relationship is never my goal. Communion/coming closer together through shared conversation, finding common ground through love, charity, and shared memories is my goal. Thanks for listening, maybe my next blog post will be about the new Star Wars or something...

Jul 30, 2015

On Pain: The Abyss Gazes Back

This has been a long time coming. Practically no one reads or writes blogs anymore, except the proud few who somehow (clickbait) make money off it, but for anyone who is reading this, thank you. And get ready: in the words of David Bowie, “I don’t know where we’re going, but I promise it won’t be boring.” (Content warning: lots of talk about chronic pain, depression, and suicide. Possibly boredom.)

I don’t like talking about my pain because, believe it or not, I don’t like to complain. I mostly like living a private life: my business is my business, and my thoughts are my thoughts. My pain is my own. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy if hesitant to invite my family, friends, and loved ones (different names for the same group of people) in to jump down the rabbit hole as far as they’re willing. The reason I don’t like to complain is I don’t like to burden others. I don’t like to bring people down. I like to be the funny guy and make people laugh, rather than tell them that (until a few weeks ago, I'll explain why) 90% of the time I sincerely wish I was dead. The whispers of kill yourself, kill yourself in my own voice and voices of others constantly creep into my thoughts everywhere I go.

For the past 17 years, I’ve lived in constant pain. Over half my life. You probably know this, but I suffered from bone cancer when I was 15. I assumed I would be in the hospital for a year, get a metal knee, and be done with it. Maybe acquire a few stories or something to make my life more interesting and help me develop into a better person. That was partially correct. However, what I didn’t realize (aside from the complications of chemotherapy and all the other fun stuff that cancer brings) was the results of cancer would plague and color my life for the worse from that point on.

After being pronounced cancer-free, my leg kept hurting. Varying between aching, stabbing, throbbing, itching, gnawing, sharp pain, dull pain, (“gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning”) but, ever constant, pain. I’ve become something of a pain connoisseur, at least as far as my leg has been concerned. I’ve been on crutches, used a cane, had numerous surgeries hoping to correct the problem, including one where they removed my hip, but the pain has always returned, like an unrelenting wolf lurking in the shadows, never satiated, striking again and again.

Another reason I haven’t liked complaining about it is the feeling that the continued pain was somehow my fault. That the surgeries didn’t work because I was somehow deficient. Or I deserved the pain. I was either being punished or prepared for unspecific greatness by an inscrutably loving God. He was surely teaching some great lesson that, once learned, would show me the great vistas of Heaven, rather than wonder if Hell could be any worse.

I’ve thought of (and tried) killing myself many times. The thought of old age has been one of dread, as I expect aging will magnify the pain eventually to the point of collapse. I constantly fear one day the pain will grow too great, and my reasons I desperately hold on to for living won’t be enough anymore.

My religious upbringing taught me to believe that God gives us trials to overcome them. That He will make weak things become strong (Ether 12:27). That He will consecrate our afflictions for our gain (2 Nephi 2:2). Nietzsche famously said “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” While I tried to believe what I was taught, the last 17 years have given me ample evidence that the scriptures and Nietzsche were wrong. Wrong, wrong, WRONG!

Because the pain hasn’t made me stronger. It’s made me bitter. It’s made me more selfish. It’s led to depression. When I say pain has colored my life, I mean it’s dulled it—all the colors turn muted. When you’ve experienced chronic pain, joy isn’t as sweet; passion is downgraded to amusement (if that).

If you’re reading this, most likely you’re in the group I mentioned above, family and friends. If you’re willing, you’re welcome to jump down the rabbit hole with me, as I act as guide in my world. Most of the time, at best, you feel malaise, ennui, and other emotions originated by the French. At worst, you feel suicidal and harbor feelings of bleak despair, festering self-loathing, and consuming bitterness at everyone who is not in constant pain. The specter of pain is always with you, telling you “You can’t enjoy this. You’re not allowed.” So you sit back and watch your son grow up without you, trying to feel gratitude that he has good aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, etc. who play with him when you can’t. . . because the pain is too great. So you sit on the sidelines, wanting more than anything to chase after him to tickle, tackle, and hug, wanting to hear his infectious laughter and know that it’s because of you. But either you literally can’t, or you know that if you do, the tremors of pain will erupt and you won’t be able to even move the next day without wincing or screaming in pain.

You feel like a bad husband because you can’t be the strong Protector with a capital P that society, the media, your church, and fairy tales say you should be. You can’t help as much as you’d like to with the housework, with simple errands, with keeping a job. You fear that if an intruder intrudes, the best you could manage is a temporary distraction before they take away everything precious to you. It makes you angry, and you turn your anger toward your wife—not abusively, thankfully—but you’re harsh and angry when you really just want to cry. You lash out at a wife who by all accounts is the greatest woman on the planet. Beautiful as the morning and, in your eyes, the only contender for People’s Sexiest Person Alive. Kind and loving, you literally could not wish for a better mother for your children, or a better friend. Brilliant, cunning, witty, and hilarious—she challenges your perceptions and preconceived notions of perfection. You often have to stop yourself and wonder if you’re just looking at her through the rose-colored glasses of a devoted husband. But even trying your best to view her objectively, she’s divine. If you saw her on the street, you would think she is the most fascinating person you’ve ever seen, and you must do absolutely anything to get to know her.

But the pain causes you to temporarily forget all of this. You yell at your beloved wife for asking you to help with the dishes or put your children to bed. You hate yourself, so you transfer that hate to her, even though at the same time you marvel at her patience and love. You secretly fear she thinks a) she could do far better with damn near anyone else, b) you’re faking pain to get out of helping (almost never true), or c) both of the above, but pretends not to for the sake of your relationship, further proving she’s too good for you.

Continuing in your journey as me...Your selfishness and pain make you a worse person. You used to love giving service. For some twisted reason you really liked helping people move. Now you sit and make excuses when someone needs help, hating yourself for it. You can’t give blood because they don’t want your cancer blood. (Until recently). You can’t give comfort or succor because you are so starving yourself. When you try to serve in spite of the pain, the pain gets worse, punishing you for daring to think of others, daring to think you could be normal.

By now, you might be wondering about efforts to manage the pain. You try to lose weight to lessen the pain, but exercise leads to further pain, and not the good pushing-yourself kind of pain, the make-you-wish-you-were-dead kind of pain. You blame others; you blame yourself; you blame everything. You feel bad because you know others have it worse. You hate complaining because others are in more pain. There are people starving. People being tortured. Children abused by the parents supposed to love them. People murdered because of the way they were born, their race, their gender, their orientation, their beliefs. Surprisingly, this doesn’t make you feel better about your situation. Just because someone may have it worse, you only have your own experiences and your own pain reminding you that you still have it pretty bad. Because the pain is always there. Distracting you from living life. Distracting you from being happy. Distracting you from trying to feel charity for others.

What about pain meds? You try pain killers like morphine, Valium, Vicodin, codeine, and combinations thereof. Some work better than others. Most have side effects that are worse than or just as bad as the pain. Side effects including, but not limited to, hallucinations, severe itching, vertigo, memory loss, and depression. You realize you’re trading pain for side effects that aren’t worth it. You know your pain. You’re used to it. So you choose the pain: the devil you know. You make do with taking plenty of over-the-counter medications to take the edge off the pain. This means you can go to exotic places like the store, the park, the movies, places with your family where you can pretend to be normal. . .before the pain returns, as always. The ravenous wolf invariably gnaws and gnashes at your leg, reminding you that you can’t be normal, and that he will always be with you.

This has been your life for nearly two decades. You learn to accept it. Eventually, the pain becomes part of you, weaving itself into the fabric of what makes you inherently you. Dulling the once brilliantly colored tapestry of who you once were: a person happy with who they were, comfortable in their own skin. A person who loved telling jokes more than anything, delighted with the knowledge of contributing to someone else’s happiness. But you’ve grown, or shrunk depending on your point of view, into the person you are. At this point, this is all you have known, and all you think life can be.


Maybe now you see why I’ve been hesitant to let people in, reluctant to let people know how much my pain has affected my life, my very core of who I am.

For better or worse (it’s worse), my pain has tempered who I am, even if I hate myself because of it. Because I should have risen above it, should have mastered it, should have told myself I am not my pain. But I am. Or I have been.

That’s what makes this next part so scary. My pain has defined me, even when—especially when—I haven’t wanted it to. However, there does in fact seem to be light at the end of the rabbit hole, and falling down may yet have turned out to be falling up.

A few weeks ago, I asked a Facebook group I’m in if they knew of any chronic pain support groups in Utah County. Although I had resigned myself to a life of pain, I thought joining a club of fellow sufferers could make the suffering more bearable. The Facebook group didn’t know of any pain support groups, but a few recommended the Utah Valley Pain Management Clinic in Orem. My life couldn’t be any bleaker; I figured what did I have to lose?

(Note: Tracie would like everyone to know she’s been telling me for years and years to go to a pain management clinic.)

Not knowing what to expect, I set up an appointment. The doctor asked lots of questions, and I filled out lots of paperwork. Then, he did lots of tests and inspections on me and eventually prescribed a new medication. “This isn’t an opiate,” the doctor said, “It’s called Neurotonin, or generically as Gabapentin. It helps with nerve pain. It’s an anti-seizure medication.” I figure what the hell. Give it a try. But then he says something that makes me cry, cracking the dam of emotional pain that has been building up for years. “But if this doesn’t work, we have many more things we can try to make you feel better. We will keep trying until you do.” I’ve only wanted to kiss a man twice in my life. Once was Freddie Mercury because, Freddie Mercury. The other was when this doctor promised me he’d help me feel better. I didn’t kiss him, but I started crying and thanked him.

This was about four weeks ago. I’ve steadily increased my dose of Gabapentin as prescribed, and the pain has slowly decreased to the point of near non-existence.

Sometime last week, Tracie asked why I’ve been so happy lately. Simultaneously, we both realized it. How dark our life has been because of this ominous shadow of pain, a cave of bleak depression and helplessness affecting both our lives. But here’s the thing: I barely feel any pain in my leg now. We went to the local discount arcade (Nickel City) a week ago, and not ONCE did I complain about wanting to leave.

This was huge. For the first time in years so long I can’t even remember, I had fun outside of my home without pain bringing me down, preventing me from enjoying myself fully. Instead of needing to sit down in a lonely corner, instead of watching my wife and son enjoy themselves without me, instead of wondering if they’d be better off if I weren’t there, I had fun with my family!

I hope so much it continues, and as cliché as it is, I feel like I have a new lease on life. I think I have a chance to be normal, a chance to be happy, a chance to help others without the pain restricting me. This exhilarates—and terrifies—me.

Terrified because, what if the pain comes back? The wolf is not gone. In the shadows, he silently stalks back and forth. I can sense him pacing in the corner of my eye, watching intently when I take my medicine, eager to attack if I ever forget. I’m not ignorant enough to think the pain is gone forever, that my problems are magically fixed. The medication doesn’t remove the pain; it shields the transmission between my leg and my brain whenever my leg hollers, “Hey brain, I hurt!” (He’s probably sick of shouting it. I know I’m sick of hearing it.)

As I sit here writing my first blog entry in over a year, my leg is still aching and throbbing a little. Nowhere near the pain experienced before I started taking Gabapentin. But it’s still there. And of course I know that life is a certain small percent what happens to you and a much larger percent how you let it affect you, but I’m still hesitant to be fully happy. The pain has ALWAYS returned, with a vengeance. What makes this time any different? I’ve been the victim of my own leg, the prisoner in my own body so long, I fear the escape. And, to quote Jim Butcher, “I'd hate to find out that the universe really wasn't conspiring against me. It would jerk the rug out from under my persecution complex.”

But whether the pain returns or not, for now I choose to be happy. Now is all I have. Because if I can truly be happy—if I can be the husband, the father, the friend, the service-giving person I’ve wanted to be—that’s all I want. To not have my leg cage me. I’m so happy at this moment, but afraid. Because for the first time in 17 long years, I’m stepping out of the cave, away from the darkness of pain I’ve known so well and become such an integral part of me. And this scares me. I’ve identified as a person who lives with chronic pain for so long, it’s who I’ve been over half my life. Even though words can’t express my joy at being free of this Sisyphean boulder, in a weird way, I’m mourning the loss of that Austin. Not only that, but I’m afraid that I actually am just a horrible person who’s been using his pain to mask the horrible person he is. It’s made me selfish for so long; I’m not entirely sure how to be charitable again, or how to be this new Austin.

But I’m excited to find out, and I will do my damnedest to improve, to make others happy, and to be happy myself. Whether this is my new life, or a temporary reprieve, I look forward to a brighter future. I’m stepping out of the cave, leaping out of the darkness. The wolf is there, but I won’t let him catch me.

You have escaped the cage. Your wings are stretched out. Now fly.