I grew up hearing a lot of prodigal son stories. A lot of reassurances that no matter what, no matter how far behind you leave him, no matter how long you’re gone, God will always welcome you back. I believed the stories. I found them reassuring.
In a lot of those stories, the prodigal would look around at their shambles of a life and decide, yes, I really do need God.
My life isn’t a shambles; in fact, it seems on the brink of several very exciting things.
In some of the stories, people would suddenly become ashamed of their lives, of how tawdry and small. They would feel bad for all of the wicked things they’d done, and come running back in a desperate, last-minute bid for salvation.
I don’t feel too small. Kind of the opposite, actually.
I always hated the saying, “There are no atheists in the foxhole.” I hated how patronizing it seemed, how it invalidated my experience, my personal wisdom, and the experience and wisdom of so many others, smugly insisting that we’d change our minds someday. I don’t expect to ever change mine.
But I’ve been thinking about it pretty seriously over the last few days. It’s been a strange ride. This is a long one, so hold on.
When I was a young teenager, frustrated at my inability to perfect myself to the degree I wanted, I desperately told God, in a moment of total fear and sincerity, “Do anything to me, Heavenly Father, anything at all. Whatever it takes to make me faithful to you. Whatever it takes to make me fully your servant.”
When I made my offering, I was scared he might blind me, cripple me, take something from me, take everything from me, like Job. I expected a “that’ll teach you” kind of moment, somewhere in my head.
Now, I have no idea what Job was thinking when God let the devil play that mean little trick on him. But he probably wasn’t thinking “show me your worst!” In fact, I think he was probably thinking something much less selfish or melodramatic, like “I am your servant, lord. Use me according to thy plan.”
I didn’t get the Job treatment. Instead my worst fear at the time came true: I stopped believing. I left the church and set out to discover the world on my own.
I was told things about this endeavor, too. I was told that those who leave the church depart from the Lord’s presence. I was told they experience the only true hell there is: Outer Darkness, where the lord’s presence doesn’t reach.
That’s not what I felt, at first. And by “at first” I mean every year for the last ten years. Mostly what I got was an exhilarating feeling of freedom. I got confidence, knowledge, self-actualization, and joy. But then, last weekend, I got a little glimpse of what “Outer Darkness” might look like.
When I was very small, so small I still tried to will Narnia into being with my brain, tried to take off flying after I’d run very hard, when I was so small the hard limits of this world seemed a little more permeable, and I believed I could make something true just by wanting it hard enough, I began to feel very disappointed with this world.
So prosaic. So plain. So boring. So painful.
Why couldn’t there be fantastical creatures? Why couldn’t there be magic? Why did there have to be science and physics and math instead? Why hours of church and uncomfortable clothes? Why discipline, why lessons? Why broken wrists and not having enough money to go on field trips and the dentist not using enough anesthetic?
I even had a dream that confirmed to me how boring my own personal adventure was to be, my own personal timeline: I dreamed that Aslan the lion took me in his mouth and showed me people at a bar. A bar! He said “Save them.”
That’s it? The kids in the books got to fight battles and fly in the air and interpret runes and have tea with fauns. And I was supposed to be a freaking missionary?
I recently read the book “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman, which takes that exact concept—that burning, aching desire to go to Narnia, to have real adventures instead of these crappy fake ones, here—and deconstructs it, the same way I’ve deconstructed my entire world in the time since that dream.
In his Narnia, Aslan is instead two rams, who end up being rather sad, small creatures, no more wise or powerful than anyone else (or why couldn’t they save “Narnia” themselves?) They’re the rams behind the curtain, so to speak.
This was ultimately an unsatisfying unveiling, though. Because of course, the draw of Narnia is that there are things you can’t understand, and a consistently kind and good and invulnerable leader you can follow who won’t hand you everything on a platter, but who is always there the minute you figure it out for yourself. Grossman’s rams were weak and pathetic because he wrote them that way, not because the character of Aslan cannot possibly exist.
My parents already know about my polyamorous relationship. For almost exactly a year (or more like seven months, depending on how you do the math) I dated both a man and a woman at the same time as they dated each other. A triangular relationship. A triad.
It was wonderful. I learned so much about patience, about love, about trust, about myself in a relationship, about the ways that others are different from me. It was truly a fantasy, fantastical at times. At others, I came to understand the cost of divided attention.
They continue to teach me marvelous things. We continue to support one another. I love them immensely and I don’t regret it at all.
Most of my friends knew about this, too, and our closest friends were extremely supportive of the relationship, saw it in some ways as a shining example of all that love could be. I will forever be grateful for that support, and for their ability, and desire, to allow us to be happy in our own way.
Most of my friends also know about my drug usage. My parents don’t. Reading this may or may not be their first inkling that I’ve ever dabbled in the world of illegal drugs. In the past year I’ve tried: marijuana, MDMA, cocaine, mushrooms, Adderall, and possibly some other things that I’m forgetting.
Not such a fan of cocaine or molly. They just made me feel amped and sort of nervous. Helped me stay awake. I liked Adderall—honestly, I could probably use it in my life, as a prescription to help me when my focus is shot.
I love weed. It’s like wearing a giant pillow as you go through life. Things still hit you, but not as hard. Also it helps with: migraines, hangovers, depression; pretty much everything that’s not respiratory. I was a stoner for three solid years.
I love mushrooms. Every time I’ve done them, I’ve had this amazing, euphoric, sparkly lifeline to the very center of the universe and all it means. I’ve done mushrooms probably a dozen times. I lost count somewhere. The last time I did them, I figured out that my responsibility to myself is the same as my responsibility to the Other, a careful balance of the two, a mediation of the things I want and need vs. the things others want and need. I also stopped being afraid of death. I decided that when I die, I am free from desire and fear and float in the Great Awareness.
I literally thought I’d found the ultimate key to life, the universe, and everything.
The first time I did a full trip on acid, I loved it. It was like my brain opened Photoshop and let me paint over the whole world. I could funhouse mirror people’s heads without even trying. The colors were so perfect…I was on a roll, saying extremely witty things nonstop…I felt like I was seeing through the matrix…
And then I did it again on Independence Day, and I felt like I’d collapsed my whole world in on itself.
My greatest fear when I was sixteen was that I would stop believing in Mormonism. It came true; I survived. More than survived, really; I thrived. For ten years, I came to know myself better and better, came to feel more at home in every setting, learned more and more how to love my neighbor as myself. After that, my greatest fear (which I was too afraid to look in the face) was meaninglessness.
Before my July fourth nightmare, I had already stared the possibility of meaningless in the face once before. Walking down the road after a fight with my sister, in which my every deficiency had been laid bare, my every flaw used as ammunition against me, I was feeling sort of hopeless about the idea of selfless love. Familial love. It seemed such a crock all of a sudden, and it was short work to chalk it all up to instinct, to the simple polarity of nature, the mother instinct designed to keep the child alive translating into our entire idea of love, nothing more, after all, than the hungry push—forward, more, forward, more.
I was all set to kill myself that night, but the more I unpacked the idea, the more I wanted to write it down and see if anyone else had thought of it before. And then, as I was distracted with this, I looked up at the neighborhood around me and felt a little fearful for my own safety. Which, if everything is meaningless, why would it matter whether I talked to anyone about it? Why would it matter if someone committed violence against me? Didn’t I want to die anyway?
That time, the very fact of my powerful survival instinct pushed me forward. I think at that point, my greatest fear became fear. The idea that my fears would stop me from getting the things I wanted. From being the person I wanted to be. I was working on a book at the time, and I wanted this book to be my big breakthrough, the book that would make me, at last, unequivocally successful and capable of survival in this world and Safe.
I still haven’t finished it yet. I measure its completion in fractions. Three-fifths of the way through, almost. If I keep finishing just a fraction of it, according to the laws of physics, I will never be finished, and I will never have to find out whether or not my greatest hope is enough to make me a success.
The book is not my greatest hope, though. I feel reasonably confident it will inspire at least some people, and whether or not it does, I’ll be glad I wrote it, if only for my own sake. My greatest hope centers around a man I finally learned to love unconditionally a little bit too late.
I think, therefore I am. Descartes’ great line was the beginning of one of my deepest held beliefs to this day: that we are all the same awareness, looking out through different forms and eyes and observing itself. To what end is our personal internal experience, if it is not part of the Great Awareness itself? Where else and how else could it be recorded? And if it’s not recorded somewhere, somehow, why should it ever exist in the first place? How should the illusion of time exist?
In any case, I was already firmly convinced that the same awareness which observes this human woman, Me, as she struggles through her thoughts about the world, as she negotiates her fears and desires, is the awareness that flows through everything else that is, i.e. God. I already believed myself to be God. In the tradition of the transcendentalists, of Ginsberg and Emerson, of philosophers and poets and scientists aplenty, I thought of myself as, somewhere deep inside of me, at least, all powerful and all knowing. I Am that I Am.
But what is the logical conclusion of this thought? Where do you land when you follow it all the way? I found out, as the acid that night took me deeper and deeper into my own head, into my own understanding of the universe. What good is it to be all powerful if you can’t manifest the things you want? I wondered. How do I take advantage of this power? Where do I go from here?
There were several things I concluded as I searched myself. One: the entire universe folds in on itself constantly. Every line of thought I chased came out again on the other side, saying the opposite of what it started out saying. Every time I thought I found a Truth, I kept going and saw my own tail still trundling after my front half. I did a series of M.C. Escher thought puzzles, and by the end of it, exhausted and certain I’d solved the mysteries of the universe again, to an even greater degree this time, I suddenly felt convinced that I was just a vast and lonely power, putting on an enormous puppet show for itself.
If the things I wanted were to manifest, it would be more obvious than ever that I was in charge of the whole show all along. I couldn’t maintain my investment in my personal storyline, and deliver to myself all of the things I wanted, at the same time. The minute things got too easy, the minute my dreams started coming true, wouldn’t that just convince me of the unreality of everything that is? Wouldn’t the game be up?
No. I realized that the only way to convince myself that I wasn’t all alone in the great vastness was to face challenges, to not get everything I wanted—for some things to remain unreachable. In this instance, the man that I love. For some reason I became powerfully convinced that I had reached my Event Horizon. That I was at the perfect intersection of my power and powerlessness; the perfect line between a convincing world and a world in which dreams come true. I decided that if I couldn’t make, or coax, or seduce this man to come and visit me in the next few hours, he would never come back to me.
The heart of another—designed to be the one thing impossible to “positive think” our way into getting. The one thing I wanted, the one thing I could never attain through believing in, or persuading, since he’s done listening to my arguments.
The more time dragged on (and it seemed to move interminably slowly) the more I tried, simultaneously, to reason myself out of the dilemma, and reason him into my world. One of my first thoughts was that if the world was indeed my personal illusion (a conviction I had somehow survived, though it seemed it should have imploded due to my certainty alone), that perhaps it was time for the next level of experience. Perhaps it was time to train myself as a god.
I focused on objects around me, trying to get them to move, to lift, to disappear. No luck. Was it because I wasn’t really a god, or because I couldn’t do such things without undoing the reality of my world and waking myself from the delusion? It seemed that my reality and my fantasies had turned into railroad tracks stretching to the horizon, seeming to meet somewhere in the distance, at some glorious realization, but never actually joining.
The idea that I would never have anything I wanted, ever again, became so overpowering that I nearly wanted to disappear into the ether. Or rather, the idea that either he would never love me, or if he did, it was just me loving myself; somewhere in between these two thoughts, I felt mad and hopeless.
He’s the perfect example of something that you increasingly lose the more you do to try and earn it. Having asked for silence, he forbade me from pursuit. And yet, the longer I wait and he does not return to me, the more certain I am he will go away forever if I don’t do something drastic to show him what he means to me.
And so I push and push and know that I’m pushing him away, but fear that he’s forgotten me entirely when I keep silent. So I think, I should forget him and move on, but the more I manage to forget him, the less worthy of his love I feel, the less I trust that our love will be alive when I return. The more I try to let go and focus on other things, the less I want to. The more I focus on this watched pot, the more certain I am it will never boil.
Grossman’s point was less, “Aslan doesn’t exist,” and more, “the more you understand magic, the less it seems like Real Magic and the more it’s just work, like the mundane world was.” It was sort of about being our own gods, and sort of depressing.
As I listened to my dad talk, I was drawn to the idea that there is, indeed, an Aslan out there, one with a battle plan that involves all of our happiness, one in whom we can place our trust and be reassured that yes, indeed, everything will turn out all right in the end.
I was ready to trade my agency, my search for truth, the great lessons the world has been teaching me my whole life—that hierarchy is insidious; that group mentality is problematic; that we need to trust ourselves, trust each other, trust our own doubt, and let the world reveal itself just a little at a time; that you can’t make something true just by wanting it hard enough—I was frightened enough by my own experience, looking at myself in the LSD mirror, that I wanted to put on a mask, hide myself from myself, hide myself from others. I felt like Narcissus looking into the mirror. I can’t worship myself. I’m not worth worshipping. But it’s a false dichotomy—either me, or the Mormon God. I think I was on the right path worshipping Love itself.
Why would I let this frightening dream convince me that I needed to delude myself in order to survive annihilation? Obviously there is more, or I wouldn’t still be here. Obviously I am not the only one, not some great lonely oaf—how can something begin that has no beginning? How can it end? My fear is the product of a human mind encountering a dimension it cannot comprehend without the grounding, euphoric love that mushrooms offer. My fear is the inferiority of the inferiority/superiority complex. I fell off the balance beam for a moment. I was tired of walking the razor’s edge. But there is no other choice.
And yet there is still a tiny part of me convinced that I have already died, or already encountered the peak of what I am capable of on my own, of the happiness I can achieve without giving myself over to something larger than I am. The one person I was able to love more than myself, I was able to love so much partly because I didn’t love or trust myself very much to begin with. What if I can never love again?
The one person with the potential to wake me from this nightmare. How long should I wait for him? How long before I am convinced that, yes, this is purgatory, and my only way out is to pray to god in heaven?
I don’t want to make a decision driven by fear, and fear is what I’m hearing, so I’m going to take another tack for a moment, just so I don’t lose my train of thought. Here are the indicators that some higher power is driving me here: I’ve been driven by the idea that I need to return to Utah, though I have no idea why. Counterpoint: I feel more at home when I’m in Salt Lake City, the place where I found myself after Mormonism, than I do in Provo, the place where I was raised to be one of the faithful.
There was a girl waiting outside in the car when one of our friends came down to visit, on the night we tripped. Her name was Patience. I never saw her. I do not think this is a coincidence.
On the morning after I nearly self-annihilated, on the morning I was grappling with the twin monsters of my complete power in the universe, and my complete inability to wield it to satisfaction, I saw him. The one I pine over, the one who drives me mad with the possibility/impossibility of reunion.
Each time I see him, he seems more perfect to me, and less accessible. Example: this time, he had a dog with him. It is possible the dog belongs to his brother. It was about the same color and dimensions, if I recall correctly. But it seemed like his.
I’ve been having little moments that I would certainly call revelation. One, when I was trying to keep up hope that I would see him again, and I had been tossing the word “kairos” around in my head as a new word for love, and just when I needed it, I saw it again, as I passed a building while on the train to work.
Surely it was in my head because I’d already seen it one of the previous days, passing it. But it provided the reassurance I needed and it felt like a message just for me. Why am I so afraid of waiting?
It is possible I am still trying to get what I want by force, under the guise of “humility.” Trying to manufacture an emergency so great that he would have to come save me. One of my thoughts was to call him and say: please, this is serious. I’m on my way to becoming Mormon again, and I need your help. The truth is, I would do anything to get him back, including change my entire ontology, but I can’t expect that to get him back, especially as he shows no signs of becoming Mormon again.
Then again, I didn’t know he was moving back to Utah, either.
Okay. Why did I start feeling like I was being told to become Mormon again? S told me not to make the decision while I’m feeling vulnerable. He said that’s how missionaries get people. And it makes sense that an idea illness would be able to best take hold when you’re at your weakest.
But it also makes sense that you’d have to feel humble before being willing to follow a higher power again.
Here are some things that convinced me as I was talking to my father. First: the literal gathering of Israel, and the restoration of the ten tribes, that Zion, the new Jerusalem will be built upon the American continent. That Christ will reign personally upon the Earth, and that the Earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.
What he was reading to me from Hugh Nibley matched perfectly with my ideas about how we shouldn’t be waiting around for God to come and renew the Earth; that we’re called upon to increase our stewardship now, and to make it now into the paradise we hope to see Jesus reign over. Nibley talked about sustainability, and about the incompatibility of God and Mammon, something I see a certain amount of hypocrisy over in the church.
I started talking to him about “One, two, three, let’s go shopping,” and we got into a chat about the fallibility of man vs. the mouthpiece of God: why should you follow the so-called mouthpiece of God when you can see clear evidence, right in front of you, that he is just as fallible as you? Why not, then, trust yourself?
Answer: because you already know you don’t have all of the answers. Because if you never trust someone else, nothing gets done. Because we have to align our visions in order for any one of them to come true.
He described a choir, the intense training and self discipline that goes into singing really perfectly together. That sure, you don’t have to sing in the choir, but why would you choose a noisy, hellish cacophony over a glorious harmony?
All of this made sense to me. It made sense to me that there are always going to be some people who cannot be convinced, who will not want to participate. That these will exist in their non-choir singing states, not suffering, just listening, staying just outside the reach of knowledge.
Mormons don’t believe in hell. They believe everyone will be basically happy where they’re at, and if that changes, they will be allowed to move up to the next level.
Is it fear of being left out, or a desire for harmony driving me back to the church? Is it the fear that I will wait and wait and nothing will come of it, that endless bleak purgatory of everything-but-my-heart’s-desire? Or the willingness for there to be a force in the universe that knows better than I do what’s best for me? Am I driven by love or fear? Is it fear that my own song is not glorious enough? That the music I’m following already is an illusion?
Fear that I will never be able to convince anyone to sing the same song as me? That I will never find a more beautiful song? When I search my heart for the love that is driving me back to Mormonism, I can’t find it.
Am I driven by love or fear back to him? What if he loves me but can’t find that love, the way I can’t find my love for Mormonism? What if this is how we find each other again: by singing the same song, the song we grew up singing?
Here’s where I think I’ll leave it for now: in the tension between the possibility that I should humble myself, and the possibility that it is my insecurity that tells me to do this.
My dad said that inspiration most often comes as a call to repentance, which is the hardest thing to listen to. That once we follow this, more inspiration can come.
My overwhelming sense is that I need to practice patience. That my greatest flaw is my inability to wait and trust. After all, that’s what lost me my love the last time around. My impatience, my inability to see his need past my own, my inability to trust perfectly in the love that has driven me for all this time. If it is real, and true, I need to trust he feels it as well. If I’m going to trust anything, why pick an intermediary? Why designate a god? Why not trust this love that pushes me, pushes me, ever back to him?
I will wait. I will watch. I will trust in love…