Sometimes growth comes in spurts. There are peaks and valleys. Sometimes before I have a period of great growth and insight, it is preceded by profound grief and confusion.
Yesterday I felt drained after I wrote my post about Eminem and my young friend at Sundance. My empathy was exhausted from the suffering my soul sensed in these two troubled young men. Their anger, their suffering, and their hostility overwhelmed my coping mechanisms and I had depressive symptoms for the rest of the day.
I talked to Ben last night about what I was feeling and why. It hard to have empathy for those who suffer. I can’t do it without sufficient self care and spiritual connection to the Savior. Yesterday started out great, but I didn’t eat anything, I exhausted myself emotionally, my ADHD kiddos did not take their medicine, and I found myself irritable and overwhelmed.
In that time of weakness, I came across an intriguing website of an organization called “Room to Thrive.” It is designed to help people recover from religiously induced spiritual trauma. Almost everything this website described, I have personally experienced in my church. For an hour or so I considered whether or not this process of “deconversion” would be beneficial for me. I think in some ways, I am “deconverting,” but I prefer to think of it as a molting or a stripping down of my faith rather than a dismantling of it.
I have my core faith which is comprised of my own personal spiritual experiences with God. I have read my sacred book, The Book of Mormon. I have received a witness from the spirit that burned in my heart, opened my mind, and gave me spiritual vision that I didn’t have before. I have read the New Testament and had spiritual images and insights come to my mind about my Master and Savior. These are core parts of me that I could no more deny or disavow than I could cut out my heart from my body.
On the other hand, there are perceptions, interpretations, traditions, and customs that are not a part of that core spiritual identity. All those things are like branches on a tree. If they are serving the health of my tree, I will keep them. If they are redundant, unnecessary, or diseased, I remove them. My life right now is in a state of pruning or molting.
As I cast off the old concepts and traditions I have outgrown, I allow my core spiritual traits and identity to shine brighter. I become the daughter of God that my Savior intended me to be.
This summer I have been encouraging my boys to incorporate spiritual study into their daily routine. One of my boys has really taken this to heart. One of the chapters of study in Come Follow Me this week is Matthew 24, or more particularly the Joseph Smith translation of that chapter. As we read the chapter together we talked about the signs of the second coming. One verse stuck out in my mind above the others. It is verse 30.
30 And again, because iniquity shall abound, the love of men shall wax cold; but he that shall not be overcome, the same shall be saved.
The reason this verse seemed to jump off the page to me was because of the experience I had yesterday with my empathy and the emotionally draining aftermath. It occurred to me that as the second coming approaches, and our tribulations increase, it will be a normal and natural thing to harden the heart, to withdraw empathy, to simply close our eyes to the suffering of those around us for emotional survival. But this verse says that we must learn to overcome that tendency if we are to be saved.
There is so much suffering at our Southern border right now. There are many desperate children and families seeking asylum and a better life. The resources of the border facilities are being strained beyond capacity. It is a humanitarian crisis. There are also millions of refugees fleeing terrible conditions in Syria. At first, the plight of these desperate people, the images of dead children, or children in cages with foil blankets, or children taken away from their parents stunned me and brought forth my empathy and compassion. I was outraged at those responsible for the circumstances and willing to assist in any way I could to make it right.
As time goes by, I find my heart getting harder. There seems to be little I can do for those who are suffering. I find myself turning away from the stories and images that remind me of my impotence. In this way, I harden my heart.
Likewise, as I see my representatives compromise their principles in service to Donald Trump, I start to feel cynical. I begin to think that my letters and emails will do no good. I harden my hearts toward my elected leadership assuming that they are not capable of standing against corruption.
Likewise, with my church leadership, I feel betrayed and angry. I don’t want to reach out to them or trust that the spirit of the Lord can help us work through our problems. I want to withdraw, to protect myself, and to assume the worst about their character and motivations.
Again the words of my Master come to me. “Because iniquity shall abound,” yes we are in a time of iniquity. Integrity, honesty, fidelity, and kindness are vanishing virtues. Tyrants like Assad, Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong Un lust after power and persecute their own people. “The love of men shall wax cold,” even Christians are showing shocking levels of hard heartedness. On the left, there is a lack of compassion for the unborn. On the right, there is lack of compassion for the refugee. The one tribe points out the hypocrisy of the other, but neither sees it within their own. And then there is the key point, “he that shall not be overcome, shall be saved.” If I can keep my ability to love, to forgive, to reach out, to show empathy, to cultivate compassion, I will be saved.
I’m not going to do it perfectly at first. Like yesterday, I was overwhelmed. Still, I can learn from my failure. I have always known that the only way I can reach my potential spiritually and compassionately is if I can tap into His living water. It is the only way that I can stand the pain of true empathy. It hurts to love people. We are fallen. We suffer and we cause suffering. Connecting yourself emotionally with other people hurts.
And yet, the Savior did not shrink from this. He took the bitter cup. He could handle the pain of loving all of us and suffering with all of us. He shows us the way. He commands us to “Love one another as I have loved you.” He tells us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort; to bare one another’s burdens; to have charity. This crowning virtue of the true disciple of Christ is painful. To extend compassion and love to every one of God’s children is the most vulnerable thing you can do. And yet, that is what He did.
And so He said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, that ye have love one to another.” This charity is the one defining characteristic of discipleship. If we don’t have it, we aren’t his disciples. We are, as Paul described, as sounding brass.
Charity for all seems to stand in opposition to current mental health advice. It is advised by counselors to have circles in your life where you put people. Your inner circle is small and that is where you keep people that you know you can be safe with. You can share your innermost thoughts and feelings with these people. As the circles extend from the center like rings in a tree stump, the people have less access to your trust. This protects the emotional core of an individual from those who have not earned the privilege of your trust.
The concept of vulnerability seems to contradict the trust circle model. As we become more secure in our identity, we are more willing to show vulnerability, even in unsafe places. We can reveal our true selves to those who have not earned the trust to appreciate who we are. We are able to overcome their judgement and shaming because we understand them and have compassion and forgiveness in our hearts. The Savior exemplified this as he was crucified. He understood the Roman soldiers who crucified him. He had compassion on them even as they tortured and killed him.
I imagine the Savior’s inner circle. Who is in it? He didn’t really need support or validation from anyone because he had it perfectly within himself. Instead his love and compassion radiated from himself and touched everyone within his influence. In this way, the circles were obliterated by His love.
People who have managed to live lives of extraordinary compassion like Mother Theresa, have managed to tap into Christ’s capacity for love. Mother Theresa herself said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across waters to create many ripples.”
And so I work to create ripples. Perhaps my words will resonate with others who will dare to love. Perhaps my circles will become ripples that will change the world for the better. Faith, hope, and charity can work miracles. I know that as I strengthen my connection with my Lord and Savior, that my ability to extend trust and compassion to others will increase. I know that through His love, he has shown me the path to my own salvation. I love Him with all my heart and I hope that someday I will meet him and He will say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Blessed be His name!