Small Families Are Best

As the third of eleven children, I know what it’s like to be part of a big family. And as with most things, it’s not all good nor all bad. I can’t imagine giving up any one of my siblings. I care about them, and I am glad they were brought into existence. In fact, the sibling I am closest to is actually the last of the bunch, number eleven. Without him, I’m not sure I would have survived 2018, the absolute worst year of my life. In large part due to him, 2020 has been comparatively wonderful. There is no way I would want to go back in time and tell my parents that they really should have stopped after me, number three. No way!

Having said that, when I imagine what my life might have been like if there were only two or three of us, I feel like a lot of my life’s biggest struggles could have been either avoided or mitigated to some degree.

Every child has their own unique challenges and needs. They don’t all need the same rules or amount of personal attention. They don’t need hugs to the same degree of frequency. They don’t all need to be told that they are loved every day to feel that they are loved. Some can be left alone for long periods of time without harm. Others need constant social interaction from their parents.

When I raised my own two children, I recognized that treating them both in exactly the same way would be a mistake. So, I treated them differently. I learned how they each feel love, and I did what I could to make sure they both felt loved by me. I taught them to read, differently. I taught them arithmetic, differently. My son, though he does value fairness, was able to understand when I explained why the penalties for breaking rules could not be the same for both of them. Even the rules could not be exactly the same. They were two different people with different needs. Maybe schools and governments have to treat everyone the same, but a family shouldn’t have to. What was important to me was that each child felt loved in the way they needed and that their opportunities for individual growth and life success were maximized.

The more children there are though, the more difficult this approach becomes. I think that, out of necessity, most parents of large families use the much simpler strategy of treating every child the same. They try to show the children that they are being fair and that they love each child the same. At least, this is the approach my own parents seemed to employ. One positive benefit of this approach is that I never got the feeling that they were playing favorites. 

Unfortunately, what all of this fairness also meant was that my own unique individual needs weren’t quite being met. For example, I was not a happy child, but my parents never took any real action to discover why I was struggling. On those occasions where I felt a need to talk to them about some concern, I often had to wait in line. I can remember multiple occasions where I simply gave up and went off to be by myself elsewhere. 

Sure. My parents loved me…, but unless I did something drastic, I could never get the attention I needed. Among the things I tried when I was young were screaming at the top of my lungs, walking out and being gone for hours at a time, breaking walls, doors, and mirrors, getting F’s in classes, stealing, and even getting physically violent with siblings. I was awful, and I needed help. But did I get the help I needed? I got punishments. I got put in time out. I got extra chores. I lost privileges and access to things I enjoyed. They tried to control my behavior by meting out punishments. I don’t remember any time being spent to find out what was really wrong.

Of course, I didn’t know what was wrong either, but I was the kid. I was too young and inexperienced in life to understand my own psyche. I remember the phrase being often used in my house, “they just want attention,” whenever a child acted out. As if wanting or needing attention was a bad thing! In my mind, I was just an awful person, and all of the punishments and parental admonitions just supported that belief.

In middle school, things got especially bad. I heard about the possibility of homeschooling, and begged my mom to let me try. I needed something to change. My mom actually arranged a meeting with my principal to discuss the option, but he told my mom that I would just be running away from my problems. According to him, I needed to face them in order to overcome them. The logic doesn’t sound bad, and I don’t blame my mom for listening to him, but the choice was still wrong for me. Going home at that time wouldn’t have been running away from my problems. It would have been giving my mom a chance to figure out what the problems were, away from so many other distractions. 

A year or two later, my mom let my younger sister stay home to be home-schooled while I attended my first year of high school. High school was a lot better than middle school though, and I started to have some hope for the future. The next year though, in my sophomore year of high school, my mom decided to home-school everyone at home. For the family as a whole, this might have been a good decision, but I’m not sure it’s what was best for me personally. As just one in a crowd, my parents never really understood my own personal individual needs. 

The point of this post is not to criticize my parents though. I believe they did the best they could given the circumstances. If there had only been one or two of us, I’m sure they would have spent more time with me. They would have come to understand me more, and they would have been able to meet my needs better. If they weren’t able to understand what was going on with me or didn’t know how to help me, they would have had more money to spend on a child therapist or psychologist. Perhaps, I would not have had so many suicidal thoughts, a fact my parents never knew about me until I wrote it out in a blog post just a few years ago.

More recently, I have had some unpleasant interactions with my mom that I feel are caused, at least in part, by the sheer number of children she has. I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has caused great harm to me and millions of others, and I have written much about this. Until recently, my mom refused to admit that this could be even a little bit true. She finally did acknowledge that the “attitudes of members and the policies of the church have caused [me] pain,” and that “perhaps if [she] had [gone through what I did, her] perspective would be different.”

This partial acknowledgement made me both happy and sad. I was happy that she was starting to see, just a little bit, what I’d been going through all of these years and how the church was a part of that. I was sad that it made no difference to her. Now, this may have nothing to do with the number of children she has, but I can see how it might. If I came to believe that one of my children had been hurt by the members and policies of an organization that I loved, and that that organization was continuing to hurt others without apology, I would want to rethink my relationship with that organization. Even if I couldn’t give it up, I would want to keep my relationship with it a lot more low-key.

However, if I had many similarly devoted children and grandchildren that looked up to me and would see if I wavered in my dedication to this organization, I might hesitate changing any of my behaviors. I think that my mother believes that the church helps and blesses the lives of her and almost all the rest of her family, and I am just one sad exception. In her mind, changing her attitude toward the church might help her relationship with me but hurt many others. She can’t afford that, regardless of how it might affect me. 

To me, it seems pretty clear that numbers matter. What a parent will do for one child alone, they might not be willing to do for that same one child out of a great number. Imagine if all eleven of my mother’s children felt hurt by the church. Would all of her family-directed emails then be full of worshipful statements about the church? Would she then continue to exclaim her great joy that the church is true? Would it permeate all of her communication both public and private? No matter how much she believed the church to be true, even to the point of certainty, I think she would more carefully evaluate whether she needed to affirm that confidence at every step, destroying family relationships in the process.

And so, back to my original point, I think small families are best. When schools, governments, etc. have to treat all the same, regardless of personality differences, psychology, etc., parents should be able to do what’s right for the good of each individual. Parents, especially, should not have to choose between the good of many and the good of one child with unmet needs.

Positivity

I think I am naturally a very positive person. I like to be optimistic and to look on the bright side of things. I like to smile and enjoy positive interactions with people. I’m friendly and easygoing, and I try to quickly forgive people that offend me and move on. If there is someone that seems antagonistic or otherwise unfriendly toward me, I will generally smile and get out of their way quickly. I don’t deal well at all with confrontation and avoid it the best I can. Perhaps I’ll try and send an email later to try and smooth things over, especially if this is with a person that I will need to interact with regularly like a boss, coworker, roommate, or family member.

But what can a person like me do when the abuse feels constant? When the unfriendly attitudes seem never ending? I tried to express my feelings in private emails. I tried posting to my blog, hinting publicly about some of the interpersonal issues that I’m experiencing. The result was that many people stopped reading my blog. Other people told me to stop complaining and feeling sorry for myself. Now, people think that this is who I am.

It kills me that many people now think of me as a complainer, a whiner, a negative person. I want to write positive blog posts again. I want to move on. I don’t want to write about the negative, but I feel trapped. The negative has become an ever intrusive part of my daily existence. It feels like poison in my heart, eating away at me every day. 

So what do I do now? There are some people that you just can’t cut out of your life or even avoid. I’ve tried everything I can think of to restore peace, but minds are made up, and I see no way to restore positivity to the relationships. Is it time to give up? What would giving up even mean if we still have to interact?

I want to be myself again. I want to see light and goodness in every person that I meet. I want to breathe fresh air outside and fall in love with the trees, the earth, and everything. I want to marvel at the beauty that surrounds me every day. I want to hum and whistle and sing with nature.

I put up walls to protect myself from the abuses of others, but those walls prevent me from really living any kind of life. How can I come outside those defensive barriers without being destroyed in the process? I am weak. I am sensitive. Living within my protective walls, I have become afraid and lonely. I don’t want my life to be this way, but where do I go from here?

I know that there is still a lot of good in the world and in my life. I’m trying to shift my attention away from the negative and toward the positive. Perhaps I can’t fix the negative; there’s nothing I can do at this point, but at least my conscience is still clear. I have been completely honest in all of my interactions and have consistently striven to maintain the moral high ground at every juncture. I can be falsely accused and judged, and even persecuted, but at least I’m still me inside. And inside? I’m a positive person. I’m friendly and optimistic. I’m open and honest and never judgmental. I’m definitely also soft and sensitive which makes it difficult to live in this world sometimes, but maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

Is it safe to come out yet? I want to live!

I Know … I’m Sorry

The other day, a relative posted their testimony of the LDS gospel to social media, and they used the words, “I know.” I got a bit triggered by this statement because in recent years, those words have come to mean an expression of extreme arrogance. What sounds good and beautiful to the speaker sounds like, “I know I’m right, and you’re wrong,” to me. It sounds like, “no matter what you think you’ve learned, experienced, or discovered in your life, you’re on the wrong path because I know the truth.” It sounds like an impenetrable wall being built up. It sounds like the worst kind of arrogance.

At the same time, I’m going through some difficult times with my wife and our divorce proceedings. I’ve been reading some of the emails we exchanged in the early days of our marriage. In one of the first, I bear my testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wrote, 

“I have a strong testimony of the church and of my savior Jesus Christ. I know the church is true. … I am determined to [stay on] the path that leads to my Heavenly Father. I have felt His love strongly in my life and I know that … His love is unconditional … . I have faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ. I know that He suffered and died so that I can repent and find happiness … .”

I used the same absolute terms as my dear relative. Was I being arrogant? If not, then what is the difference? Why does one feel like arrogance and the other not? I thought about this for a while, and decided to go back to my journals to find more instances of the same. I found the first evidence that I believed the LDS gospel in 1990. As a 12 year old, I wrote, “[The bishop] asked if I believed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I happily responded, ‘I do.’ The best thing about that is, I could honestly say it.”

In the following years, those instances of private testimony multiply greatly. By the time I turned 16, I was absolutely certain that the church was true. Every other page of journal writing talks about spiritual experiences, reading the scriptures, and prayer. I wanted nothing more than to please my Heavenly Father and to return to Him one day. At the age of 17, I wrote the following:

“I went out in the rain and sang into the darkness. I feel the Spirit most readily through music, so often I’ll sing my prayers if I feel no one is within listening distance. This night, I stopped singing, being overcome with the Spirit. I felt His presence so strongly around me like a warm embrace. I made a promise at that time to my Heavenly Father that no matter how difficult things got, I would return to him in the Celestial Kingdom. I promised never to give up. If I fell, I would get up again.”

That promise defined me for the next two decades and is still with me in my thought processes, and my journals attest to that fact. At the same time though, my depression never let up. As a missionary in Hungary, I wrote, 

“I was feeling so depressed.  Sitting on my bed, close to tears, I cried out in my heart, ‘Father, hold me.’ The Spirit was instantly all around me as though he were giving me a hug, and I believe, in a way, that’s what it was.  I know He loves me in spite of me. The tears are still flowing though. Despite my prayers, I’m still me. I’m wishing right now that I had never been. I wish I could just cease to exist, both body and spirit.  God Help me!”

Several months later, I also write,

“Help!!! Sinking, ever sinking, the lights are growing dim.  I almost welcome the enclosing darkness, being nearly smothered in a familiar blanket of depression.  As I’m about to be swallowed up, voices call out and give me further desire to struggle and not surrender to the powers of hell.  O great, merciful God! Hear my voice from the great abyss!”

I have no written record of it, but I remember a particularly bad depression when I was 15 years old. I was seriously contemplating suicide and went to my Heavenly Father in prayer. I believed the church and gospel were true, but I was still not absolutely certain, and I needed an answer. If the church was true, I would keep on living because suicide wouldn’t free me from anything. If the church wasn’t true, then I … I don’t know what I would have done. I remember I didn’t want to think about it. I wish I had written more about this time of my life.

One week before my 16th birthday, I made a list of goals to accomplish. Among them is to “Find out for myself whether or not the church is true.” In one week, I finished reading the latter half of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon to its conclusion. Each day of that week I recorded my progress through these books. 

On my actual birthday, there was a situation with my dad where my birthday gifts were somehow locked in the trunk of the car, and he couldn’t get them out. He wanted me to help him figure out how to open the trunk. I had no clue, and I didn’t really care either. I had other things on my mind. I overheard someone asking my Dad why I seemed unhappy, and my Dad told them that I was disappointed that I might not get my birthday gifts. “If only my problems were that simple,” I wrote. I didn’t care at all for presents. I had more important matters on my mind… Like, would God answer my prayer about the church? I felt that if I could just finish the Book of Mormon that day, there might be some chance to turn my life around. All I actually write though is, “I read in the Book of Mormon until I finished it for the first time in my life.  And minutes after I finished came the call for supper. We had hot dogs.”

Despite not writing it, I remember feeling good about my accomplishment, and I took that good feeling to mean that the book was true. From there on, there was no looking back. I would accept that the church was true, and I would live on. Even though I often felt depressed, I put suicide out of my mind. It wasn’t a viable option anymore. I would just have to endure the pain and live on, though I often cried out to God to please just end my existence altogether.

I wasn’t happy, but I knew the church was true. It had to be. The alternatives just seemed too terrible to imagine. Although part of me wanted to die, another part of me was deeply afraid. I needed the church to be true, and I could not afford to doubt. For the next 20 years, I continued to pray regularly. I had countless spiritual experiences that confirmed my knowledge that the church was true. I was incapable of doubt. … 

And when I said, “I know the church is true,” it wasn’t arrogance; it was survival. 

And so, when I thought again about my relative’s declaration of sure knowledge, I decided that there may be other reasons besides sheer arrogance. I still don’t like certainty of any sort, and especially in religion, but I can see how it may feel necessary at a personal level. And though a person may believe that they are being open-minded, I think there are layers of consciousness or subconsciousness that may disallow doubt in order to preserve well-being. 

I guess I should get to the point now or risk rambling on and on without end. I forgive my family and friends for their certainty. I forgive them for seeming arrogant and closed-minded. I’m sorry for being arrogant myself when I’ve looked down on those expressing certainty in their positions. I’m sorry for thinking I was right and they were wrong. Sometimes, it’s not about right and wrong. These things can go deeper.

“I have a testimony that will never be shaken. I know who I follow. I know my master. As I try and live the way He would want me to, I come to know Him. God isn’t some distant force in the universe somewhere, but He’s my Father, my Heavenly Father, who stands here beside me, teaching me and leading me, holding my hand and He is showing me the way. I love Him.” – November 11, 1997

Vile Spirits

A number of years ago, I decided to try alcohol for the first time. Out of curiosity and a belief that a small amount wouldn’t cause any lasting harm, I bought a small fruit-flavored beer. The alcohol content was actually quite low, but as it was my first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first impression of the beer was that someone had poured paint thinner or other toxic chemical into some fruit juice. I had difficulty swallowing as I am, I think understandably, quite averse to ingesting poison. After finishing the small drink, I rinsed the vile taste out of my mouth with water and felt none of the purported positive effects of drinking alcohol.

Still, despite that first experience, my curiosity was not sated. Maybe I just needed to try greater amounts or drinks with a higher concentration of alcohol. Over the next few months and on a weekly basis, I tried varying amounts of other types of beer, wine, champagne, vodka, and whiskey. As I tried more, I was able to experience some of the other effects that I’d heard about. I never felt like I lost any clarity of thought, but I did lose some motor control, vomit, and get a terrible headache. I really felt like I was just killing myself with poison. In the end, I decided that if I was going to experiment again, it would have to be small amounts and only socially. I get absolutely nothing good out of drinking on my own.

This experience really made me wonder about all the alcoholics out there and others that actually enjoy the taste of wine or champagne with a meal. I just don’t get it. To me, the taste of alcohol is absolutely vile without a single redeeming feature. However, it is clear to me that not everyone has the same experience. Some drink and enjoy the experience. Some get hooked. And some, like me, don’t. [The rest of this post is published on the M.O.R.E site.]

Stepping on Others to Get Ahead … and M.O.R.E.

In recent days, I have been feeling like my personality has been changing in some big ways, so I took another MBTI personality test on the 16 Personalities website to see if I was still typed the same way. I felt like I answered all the questions differently this time, but it seems like no matter how I answer the questions, I always get the same result – INFP. Over a period of decades, I’ve taken MBTI tests on various websites with completely different questions, but the results have been consistent without exception. This time, the only difference was the percentages in each category showed me to be even more strongly INFP than previous tests (81% introverted, 69% intuitive, 82% feeling, and 83% perceiving). In the past, my introversion, feeling, and perceiving percentages have all been lower – nothing in the 80s.

Truth be told, I was kind of hopeful I’d get something different this time. I couldn’t lie though, even to myself. I had to put what I felt. For example, I had to rate the following statement with regard to how true it felt for me: “In your opinion, it is sometimes OK to step on others to get ahead in life.” How could I choose anything but the strongest possible NO. Maybe others felt differently, but this was not me. 

When I thought more about the question though, I thought about my wife. Nearly fifteen years ago, I married her because I wanted something that I couldn’t have on my own. I wanted a family. I wanted kids. I didn’t really want a wife at all, though if I had to be married to a woman, she seemed pretty great. I learned to respect and admire her for her many talents and positive personality traits. I have often felt guilty over the years though because I believed she deserved better than me. She deserved someone that would marry her for her and not for what she could give.

Over the years, I’ve tried to ease my guilt by reminding myself, and her, that I did tell her from the beginning that I was gay. She chose to marry me anyway. Basically, I placed the blame on her where none belonged. It was my mistake, an unfortunate result of social, family, and religious pressure. I further tried to make myself feel better by being extra nice to her all the time. Again and again, I gave her what I thought she wanted, sacrificing my own desires at every juncture.

Eventually though, the guilt caught up with me. I realized that I had stepped on her to get ahead, to get what I wanted. I used her. It’s no wonder that she doesn’t want to be with me any longer. I may not have made the mistakes she accuses me of, but I certainly made a big mistake. I married her under false pretenses. I told her I was gay, but she thought I was over that. It was something I used to be but was no longer the case. I think she believed I loved her the way a straight man loves a woman. After all, that was how I tried to act. I tried to be what I thought she wanted, even if it wasn’t how I felt. I never lied with my words, but I certainly tried to deceive her with my actions.

And so… is it “sometimes OK to step on others to get ahead in life?” It may be hypocritical, but I still say no, absolutely not. I would not do it again. No way. My wife and I will probably not stay married much longer, and if I ever get married again, it will be for all the right reasons. It will be because I want to be with him, not because I need him for something. It will be for love.

On another topic, I’ve recently started another blog site with a couple other people. It’s a unique experience for me as I’ve never worked collaboratively before. I’m planning to post some of my more religious and philosophical posts over there while this site will be for the more personal ones. Feel free to take a look – M.O.R.E..

At the Red Light

One of my more vivid middle school memories never actually happened. You see, I had this habit of imagining conversations and scenarios with the people I knew or saw around me. The beginning of the story is true enough though. I was walking to school one early morning and approached an intersection.  A long line of cars, occupied mostly by parents and their kids, were stopped at the red light. Of the people I could see, nobody looked particularly happy. Tired faces looked blankly ahead. I certainly wasn’t the only one that would have preferred to sleep in that morning.

My mind wandered, and I began to imagine the conversation I might have with a boy in my grade, a boy with a reputation, at least in my mind, of being somewhat of a bully. Even in my imagination though, the boy didn’t want to talk with me. I was frustrated that he was being so stubborn. If only we could understand each other, we could be friends, I thought.

Whatever… I hate that word. Whatever. Closing the door. Conversation over. Talk to the hand. 

I got angry with him. I totally lost it. With a thought and a hand gesture, palm faced forward, I lifted the kid off the ground and suspended him high in the air. I don’t remember the particulars of the conversation, but I remember that the attempt to communicate ended in failure. I wanted to shake him, to make him listen to reason, and to make him stop his bullying behavior. We could be friends.

Ha!

Perhaps my imaginary scenario could have been successful if I weren’t playing both sides. I wanted to imagine him agreeing to give up his bullying ways and then enthusiastically asking to be my friend. Instead, I imagined myself as the poor kid being suspended in the air by some mysterious power. I freaked out. Friends? What? As if that could be possible! Maybe I’d say the words this monster wanted me to say, just to get away, but that would be the end of it. I’d be out of there as fast as I could.

Disappointed, I ended the scenario in my mind. Force doesn’t work. No matter what a person would say or agree to do in that situation, it would be false. It wasn’t what I wanted. 

I had other conversations with other kids where I tried logic instead of force, and these were similarly ineffective. As humans, we’re emotional beings. Logic can feel too much like manipulation. It can feel cold and calculated. Some behavior or action may make logical sense, but who are you to tell me what to do or how to act?

I realize that as I’m sharing this experience, I’m slipping back and forth between different points of view, but that was the nature of the experience. I played every role and tried to get in everyone’s head. I was every person simultaneously, and I did and said what I thought they would have done or said in that situation. 

In recent days, I’ve experienced some real-life closed doors and minds. It can be so frustrating, especially since I know exactly what it feels like to be the one with the closed mind. Words mean nothing. Logic is irrelevant. Just go away already! I can’t do this. It’s too hard. You are that way. I am this way.

I know the feeling, and I can feel it again if I try. But I prefer to just let it go. Optimism is better than pessimism. Hope preferable to despair. Maybe I can do it. Open the door. Just a crack. Some thoughts are more helpful than others. Let them in.

In my mind, I lower the poor frightened kid back onto the ground, and he takes off running. I’m sorry, I say silently. He’s long gone already. I wanted to be friends, but that’s not going to happen. That’s okay. I’ve let it go. I hope someone else can reach his heart though. Both being the bully and being bullied are terrible experiences that no kid should have to go through.

Force doesn’t work to change people. Not really. I gave up trying a very long time ago. Logic can work with some people sometimes, but not particularly well. I wish it worked better because some ideas make a lot of sense, and the world would be a better place. Respect for people often works. If I respect somebody and they say I should change in some way, I’ll think about it. Emotions though… feelings and emotions rule the heart and our paths through life. 

 

Why Must We Suffer Alone?

My post from just two weeks ago, Who I Am and What’s Been Going On, has somehow become my most viewed post of the last 5 years. Friends and family members in 13 countries on 4 continents came to see what has been going on in my life. Frankly, I have been more than a little surprised by the response. Not only did you read my post, but many of you decided to reach out and try to connect with me personally. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Many of you had kind words for me, and words of solidarity. As I read your words, and interacted with so many friends and family members, I realized that as is so often the case, there has been a misunderstanding. I do indeed experience a great amount of loneliness in my life, but I have never believed that I was alone in these feelings.

As a highly empathetic youth, I was always acutely aware of the feelings and emotions of the people around me, whether I knew these people personally or not. As I observed and listened to people at school, church, the park, or just in my neighborhood, I realized that suffering seems to be a universal phenomenon. We all suffer. We have pain that we don’t always express. We smile with our faces, but we cry inside. 

I have written before about my habit of sitting in my bedroom window sill as a teenager. I remember one day being so overcome with the pain of those around me, that I couldn’t help weeping aloud in my window sill as I looked out upon my hometown. Their pain was my pain, and it overwhelmed me to the point where I couldn’t function at all for hours. 

Mission Viejo - View from deck 2
The View from my Bedroom Window Growing Up

To this day, I sometimes wonder when I’m feeling the lows of depression, if it’s really my depression at all. I know that, at least sometimes, I can literally feel the pain of those I interact with. When I write posts about depression or loneliness, I’m not meaning to imply that I’m alone in my condition, or that others have let me down in some way. As I tried to make clear at the beginning of this post, I have a lot of people in my life that care about me. I have met and connected with good people wherever I’ve moved to and lived in my life. Most of the readers of this blog are people that have known me in person. If you are one of these, I appreciate our connection. Thank you for being a friend.

I know I’m not alone, and you’re not either. As many of you have reached out to me, to comfort me and to connect, I have felt your need as well. I wish I could be there for all of you. I wish I could be the answer to your own private suffering and longing for real connection. … But for the vast majority of you, I can’t.

Around five years ago in Taiwan, I was walking and talking with a friend. This good friend was feeling overwhelmed by the perceived obligation he had to maintain a connection with a growing number of individuals. He was constantly on his phone, chatting with multiple people at once. Like me, he was highly empathetic. He wanted to be there for all his many friends, to help them with their assorted worries and concerns, to give meaningful advice, and on and on.  

As we walked together, I convinced my friend to turn off his phone for a while so that we could have a more meaningful conversation. I can no longer remember the words that were spoken at that time, but I remember what lessons I took away from the experience. We can’t be there for everyone. We can’t be everyone’s good friend all the time. If we divide ourselves too thinly, our ability to do good is greatly decreased. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on just a few people in our lives.

The people that matter most to me are the people that I see in front of me. If someone falls, and I’m there to do help, I should. If my neighbor is hungry, and I have more food than I need, I would gladly share. I really don’t know my neighbors at all, but they matter to me. I can sometimes hear them, and feel their emotions, through the thin walls of my apartment. When I’m at work, my students and fellow tutors are the most important people in the world. When someone emails me or reaches out to me, they matter.

I don’t feel bad when distant friends or family members don’t go out of their way to try and connect with me. I assume they have their own lives and issues to deal with just as I do. I hope they don’t take it personally when I don’t reach out the way they might like me to. When I share my issues online, I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for me. I’m just taking care of a personal need to express how I feel. I also hope that the words I write can help others. If it doesn’t help you, maybe it will help someone else. We all have our own circumstances.

Finally, if it does make you feel sad or uncomfortable when I share my experiences relating to depression or loneliness, consider taking action. I don’t mean writing or trying to connect with me, though I certainly do appreciate those people that have contacted me recently. What I mean is that there are countless others just like me all around. These people may seem fine when you see them, but things are often not as they appear. Everyone suffers. There is so much pain that is never expressed. Hidden  wounds. Unshed tears. Silent screams.

So, if you feel something for these silent sufferers, go connect with the people around you. Give a hug. Express gratitude. Offer a compliment. Don’t let the people closest to you continue to think that they’re alone or that nobody really cares.

Can an Atheist Pray and Receive Answers?

Earlier this month, my mom posted on her blog about her experiences with personal revelation. As I read through her posts, I was reminded of how I used to feel when I would actively seek out spiritual experiences. I have had so many wonderful experiences that I still treasure to this day. As an atheist, I have had to reevaluate the source and meaning of some of these experiences, but I can’t deny the feelings I once had. I miss them.. a lot.

My relationship with spirituality didn’t end suddenly when I lost my faith in religion. It was more of a gradual process. I still prayed at first, though to who or what I wasn’t so sure anymore. Maybe my feelings and experiences really had come from some sort of god. Perhaps I’d just imagined them or misinterpreted chance events. Or maybe they’d come from myself somehow, from some part of myself that I was unaware of –  my subconscious. As time went on though, it became harder and harder to keep praying and seeking out these experiences. Faith was required and mine had all but disappeared.

When my mom wrote her blog posts though, I remembered how I’d felt and where I’d been, and I wanted to be there again. I wanted to pray. But to who or what? I thought about Durand. Could I pray to him? I’d certainly imagined conversations with him, but I’d never really talked to him in earnest. I felt that he was real – at least in some sense – but was he an entity that could interact with me actively?

I had a lot of questions, but I didn’t worry too much about them. I had at different times chosen to have Durand represent my idealized self, my subconsciousness, and whatever reality existed behind my experiences with the Holy Ghost. As I said my prayer that day, all of these representations merged into one bigger idea.

I’m not sure that prayer is the right word to use here. I don’t consider Durand to be a god. I don’t believe he is all-knowing, all-powerful, or any of the other characteristics often assigned to the god or gods I grew up hearing about. Durand represents potential. What sources of knowledge exist in my subconscious that I could potentially tap into? What might I be capable of if I could access my full potential? I don’t know what Durand is capable of, but at least I believe he’s real. So, I talked to him.

I knelt down beside my bed because that’s a method I’d often had success with earlier in life. “Hello,” I said, directing my attention inwards and thinking about Durand. “I’m here.” And then I waited. Before leaving religion, I often prayed this way. I started with a hello and then waited to feel like someone was there. Today, I would say this approach is very similar to meditation. I knelt there and waited and paid attention to the feelings that would come.

After a short while, a few minutes at the most, I felt a warmth envelope me. I’ve described this feeling before as a welcome, loving hug. It was the same warmth and the same feeling, though I was directing my thoughts toward Durand. “I’m sorry it’s been so long,” I said. I’d never really thought of my prayers as being toward Durand before, but because of how I felt at that moment, I felt that I was talking to the same entity I’d always talked to. Durand wasn’t a new entity. He’d always been there.

As I spoke, I felt surrounded by love. I didn’t hear words, but I felt the idea that he’d never left, that he was and always would be with me and part of me. I cried then… couldn’t help it. I remembered when I’d prayed after losing my faith in my religion. I asked what I had then referred to as the Holy Ghost if he was just a part of me… like a figment of my imagination or a creation of my mind. I remember feeling an answer in the affirmative. He was part of me. That knowledge stayed with me, but I gradually stopped trying to talk to him. What sane person talks to themselves and expects answers? … I guess I do. Just a few days ago, I talked to him(myself?), and I felt answers.

As I talked and listened in turn, I recognized the return of what I’d lost. Does this make sense? Is this logical? Does it matter? Here’s the gist of it: I ask questions. I quiet my mind and wait for potential answers to come. The answers that stick are the ones that resonate with who I am as a person. The answers I accept make logical sense and make me feel love for myself and others. They feel right. Any other answers come but are quickly forgotten.

And then I feel gratitude. I used to thank god, but that doesn’t work anymore. Still, I have a need to express gratitude. I realized that some gratitude can indeed be directed toward Durand. If he can represent some of the hidden workings of my own mind, then he can be responsible for how my mind perceives the outside world. If the world is beautiful, then it is because my brain perceives it as such. Thank Durand! If things work out for my good because I felt inspired by an idea that arose in my mind, I can thank Durand.

However, if someone prepares food and shares it with me, Durand is not the one I should be thanking. If I get sick and a doctor helps me recover, Durand isn’t the one most deserving of thanks. There are so many good people in the world that don’t receive enough gratitude for their efforts. Thank God if you want, or whatever name you want to give for your own Durand-like inner voices, but don’t forget the real flesh and blood people in your lives that do so much.

Anyway, my conversation with Durand ended, and I continued to go about my day. Because he stayed on my mind though, I have since been able to see things in a different light. I’ve spent more time looking for the positive in my day to day experiences. I’m looking for lessons and learning opportunities wherever I go. And thanks to Durand, I’m finding them. More posts will come on some of what I’ve noticed or learned recently.

Sleepless Nights, Supernatural Experience, Life After the Church

It was nearly 5 in the morning when I went to bed, but even then, it took a good half an hour before I finally fell asleep. In a few weeks, I’ll be flying to Utah to be with my family as they participate in my youngest sister’s wedding. Because of my current religious beliefs, I won’t actually be permitted to attend the ceremony itself, but I’m looking forward to being there anyway. During the week prior, I hope to be able to see and spend time with many of my family members. I hope the experience won’t be too awkward. The church is such an important part of their lives that it can be difficult for some of them to talk to me now as they would have in the past.

When we moved here to the eastern coast of Taiwan several months ago, we attended church a couple times to see how it would feel, but soon decided that time was up. Unlike in our previous town, we felt no connection to this new group. We stopped going and turned Sunday into a family outing day instead. Honestly, we’ve had a blast traveling around the area and enjoying more family time. I pretty much forgot the church completely. I stopped paying any attention to it whatsoever.

Recently though, because of my plan to be with family in America soon, the church keeps intruding on my thoughts. I’m glad we live in Taiwan because it has been much easier to get on with life being far away from the church and my Mormon family members. I do love them though and care about them, but the church is no longer what it used to be for me. Like a delicious looking fruit that you suddenly realize is riddled with worms just under the surface, I can no longer feel the same way about it anymore.

The shiny exterior is nothing more than a wax coating. The promise it seemed to offer is broken. But although I have discovered this truth, others still hunger after this tempting fruit, convinced that I am the one in error. So what do I do about it? I let them chase after the fruit. It’s their life. Most of them seem happy enough to see that beautiful exterior and they trust that at some future point after they die, they’ll be able to fully taste of it. All of their suffering and sacrifices will be worth it. And actually, in order to taste of that fruit, they live better lives in general and experience some joy as a result. What does it matter that the fruit itself is a lie if the direction they are moving in to chase after it is beneficial to them? But not all of them are happy, and some suffer quite a bit as a result of following a path that is wrong for them.

Realizing it’s a lie though doesn’t exactly make anyone feel better. I’m fortunate to have passed through to a better place, but others that leave the church are often left bitter and angry. Hatred may even consume some of them. Faithful members of the church often attribute those negative feelings to the ‘devil’, but I think this does them a great disservice. Former believers often feel lied to and deceived. They feel that years of their lives have been stolen from them. They are often hurt and feel a great void take the place of the church. Losing the church can be as bad as or worse than losing your family, and faithful members don’t seem capable of really understanding how it feels to be on the other side.

The church itself may not be true, but I am still grateful to it. Because of the church and teachings of my parents, especially my mother, I sought a connection with divinity. I learned to commune with some entity I called the Spirit. I learned to feel more than I could feel with just my regular senses. I’ve shared some “spiritual” experiences already – about loving others on my mission, an animal intervention, praying for a friend, being led to China, and so on.

I’ll mention a few other short ones. As a youth, I remember sitting in a church room with a group of raucous teenagers waiting for a speaker to come and talk to us. All those around me were totally irreverent, but I had been praying for a spiritual experience and I was waiting for God to answer that prayer. As I faced forward, meditating silently, I suddenly felt energy course through my body and knowledge that our speaker was here and that he was a good man. Nobody else in the room was aware of his presence yet, but I turned and saw him walking in at that moment. He was a humble follower of Jesus Christ and I respected him greatly.

In early March of 1995, I was nearly 17 and a part-time student at the community college. I attended my class as usual, but I remember having a feeling come over me that something sad had happened. I felt rather more depressed than usual but I couldn’t understand the reason for it. When my Mom came to pick me up at the college after I finished, I saw that she had been crying. She told me that our Mormon prophet, Howard W. Hunter, had just died. At the time, I had special feelings for President Hunter and I was sad at his passing. At the time, I thought I was feeling the loss of a great man from the Earth, but now I wonder if I wasn’t somehow tuning in to my mother’s feelings as she found out the news.

As a missionary in Budapest Hungary, I taught a woman about the Holy Ghost and the love of God. I remember feeling that love and energy overwhelm me and I testified to that woman that the Spirit was there in that room and was witnessing the truth to her at that moment. Despite it being one of the strongest feelings I had ever experienced, the woman claimed to feel nothing whatsoever, despite a truly honest and even desperate desire to feel something of what I felt. My companion at that time (we were on exchanges so he was not my regular companion) also felt what I did and admitted to me later that he had never in his life felt the Spirit so strongly.

These stories could go on and on. The church is not true. I’m more sure of that than I am that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but there are still great mysteries in the Earth that neither science nor religion has yet answered for me satisfactorily. Every day around the world, people in every culture and religion are having experiences that they can’t explain. When science comes around to try and verify the claims, there is almost never any evidence to back them up. It seems to me that belief and faith are probably the most important contributing factors, but it’s not simple.

Most often, people seem to have experiences that confirm their beliefs. If you believe that the Mormon church or the Book of Mormon is true and pray to know whether that’s right or not, you may have an experience that supports the belief you already have. Faith precedes the miracle. If you don’t believe the church is true, then you will probably not have any such experience. There seem to be cases though where individuals have experiences contrary to their beliefs. Believers are given experiences that contradict the belief and faith that they have.

Most of the time, people seem to pray and have no experience whatsoever. I sometimes wonder if spiritual experience might not be related to genetics. My mom is quite spiritually sensitive. Did I inherit my gift from her? Many others have never felt anything though, despite true desire, faith, and effort. It doesn’t seem fair. These experiences though are not limited to members or investigators of the Mormon faith. Countless people around the world have claimed to have experiences with spirits or ghosts. Others believe that they are communicating telepathically to aliens from other planets. Some people have had near-death experiences and have seen things that nobody can explain.

Various experts go and try to prove some of these experiences to be hoaxes, hallucinations, and the like, but because of my own personal experiences, I can’t believe that all of the experiences people claim to have are all false, though many of them certainly are. I’m still searching for the truth, and I don’t plan to stop. But, I think, truth truly is stranger than fiction. We can all find evidence for the beliefs we want to hold, but what about when we take all of the evidence together? What is really real?

The truth? I have no idea. Maybe we create our own reality. What you believe bumps up against what somebody else believes and sometimes the realities we have created clash and maybe even crash. As far as religion goes, I think many of them, especially ones that promote belief in spiritual experiences and unseen entities, take advantage of this strange tendency of the universe to give us what we expect. I don’t know how or why this happens, but it seems to be true. You very often see what you expect to see, feel what you expect to feel, and experience what you expect to experience.

I have a lot more to say or write and I’m finding it hard to stop. I haven’t written much about these topics for months and it all wants to come out at once. Anyway, maybe as I try to write some of these things down, I’ll be able to sleep better at night. But, I’ll take a break for now. Thanks for reading.

“Oh Well, Thanks For Reading”

desertA few months after I married my wife, we took a vacation to the States to give her an opportunity to meet my family for the first time. During that vacation, we drove from California to New Mexico, up to Utah, and back to California again in a borrowed car. As a child and throughout my youth, I had been back and forth between California and Utah many times, and I loved it. I loved the beauty of the desert. I loved the way you could look off into the distance without any buildings obstructing the view. There were mountains, small pockets of vegetation, cacti, desert flowers, and so on. I loved the experience of opening the car door and feeling the dry desert heat on my face. If you kept your eyes open, there were lizards, snakes, and other creatures to be seen.

The cities were fun too, but they never captured my attention the way that nature could. I would feel sleepy driving through Las Vegas, but my eyes were wide open as we drove across the open desert. On that vacation with my wife, I looked forward to introducing something that had always inspired awe within me. As we set out though, I quickly realized that my wife and I did not see the world in the same way.. at all.

As my wife did not yet have a driver’s license at that point, I did all of the driving. I wished that I could freely gaze upon the surrounding nature but I needed to keep my eyes on the road. I still enjoyed the experience, but it wasn’t quite the same for me. I hoped that to make up for my lack of ability to enjoy the scenery, I could enjoy my wife’s reaction. When she did not immediately see what I had seen, I tried to encourage her to really look and see what I saw.

“Look at how far you can see in all directions,” I’d say. “You can’t see this in the city.” “Do you see those flowers?” I’d ask, hoping she’d be impressed. “Wow. Look at those clouds. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen clouds like those.” I wasn’t particularly articulate. I had no ability to express the emotion the sight inspired within me, but I hoped I wouldn’t need to. All she needed to do was really look, to open her eyes and see what was there.

My wife didn’t see what I saw. “There’s nothing here,” she commented. “It’s all empty.” For her, if there weren’t buildings and people, cars and traffic, then there was nothing worth looking at. She couldn’t see it at all. The desert contained absolutely nothing worthy of her attention. She felt sleepy and struggled to keep her eyes open. I couldn’t understand. How could we both be seeing the exact same sight and have such different reactions. I saw beauty. She was bored. I thoroughly enjoyed the hot air on my face. She just felt uncomfortable. For three weeks, I tried to get her to see something positive in the scenery, at least once, but I failed completely.

I feel uncomfortable in crowded spaces, but my wife feels the more densely populated a place is, the more convenient it is to find what you’re looking for. Shopping centers, places of entertainment, the homes of friends and so on are always just around the corner. There is no need to get in a car and drive anywhere to do what interests you. Why would anyone want to live or spent time far away from these conveniences? I couldn’t understand. I don’t care about shopping, and I enjoy long drives if I do need to go out for something. Nature is my entertainment. The people I live with, my family, are the only friends I really need. And with the convenience of the internet, there is even less need for me to care about city life.

My wife loves making food that tastes good and is attractive to the eye. She is always very observant of food in whatever environment and has quite the talent for improving upon whatever she sees or tastes. I have little sense of taste and less interest in its appearance. I am easily captivated by beautiful music and frequently “zone out” when I listen. My wife asks, “are you okay?” She doesn’t even seem to notice that music is playing.

Some guys love watching sports to the point of being unable to control shouting, jumping, and otherwise expressing emotions that they would otherwise keep suppressed. I am completely clueless. I feel bored by sports and have no interest. Playing football, soccer, or basketball is a painful experience that I avoid at all costs. I don’t mind swimming or even a game like table tennis, so long as it doesn’t become too competitive.

Sometimes, I think we can be so greatly moved at times by various things in our lives that we think others should be similarly moved. “How can you not understand how great this is? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you feel what I feel?” When others don’t share our excitement and our joy, we can feel confused and disappointed, especially when we are moved by religion and things of a “spiritual” nature. How can you not feel the spirit that I feel? You must be doing something wrong. You need to keep praying and reading your scriptures so that you can feel the way I feel.

Well, maybe people that feel this way are right. Maybe there is a “right” way to feel about everything. Maybe we should all appreciate the same things in the same ways. Life might make a whole lot more sense if we were all awe-inspired by the same things, if our hearts talked to us all in the same ways. After all of these years though, my wife still doesn’t see nature the way I see it. I still can’t appreciate good food the way she can, though I try, and she tries to see from my perspective as well. She still asks if I’m okay when I am listening to music that really moves me.

Above all else, a good idea is what touches me the most. I walk and I think, and sometimes, an idea strikes me as if it were lightning from the clouds. I feel goosebumps and a smile breaks out across my face. Like the most awesome view or the most delicious cuisine, I can be struck with knee-buckling awe at an idea that seems so perfect, it could not have come from my own mind. In excitement, I go home and try to write it down. I write blog after blog, trying to express the idea with my poor ability. I just can’t write the way I feel. I can’t paint the picture in your mind the way I see it in mine. The perfection is lost. And even where I feel I’ve expressed the idea well, it is like when my wife offers me a new creation. Although I can enjoy the food, I can’t taste it the way she can. I can’t understand it. I wish I could close the distance between you and me, but sometimes, I just have to say.. oh well. Thanks for reading anyway.