Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Surviving the Holidays

While the holidays are stressful for everyone (even good stress is stress), being around relatives whose religion you’ve left can be uniquely challenging. 

How does a former Laestadian cope? 

Drawing on my own experience and others, I've come up with some tips that may be helpful. Mileage will vary, of course. Feel free to disagree and add your ideas in the comments.

1. Consider Your Options

You have no obligation to be with relatives over the holidays. If you left the faith recently, opting out of family holiday may be the best option, as it takes strength to stay unruffled among people who consider you lost (or wicked, or crazy). They haven’t had time to get used to the idea that you are gone, and may still harbor hopes that you'll return with a well-timed rebuke. Nurture yourself instead. Coddle your emerging identity until you feel settled, and can actually look forward to seeing them. 

If you want to be around some relatives and not others, or go to one gathering and not another, it's your choice. Don’t feel bullied into being with people who mistreat you. Honor your instincts; they are there to guide you. 
Honor your instincts; they are there to guide you. 
On the fence? You might consider travel, or celebrating at a friend’s house, or volunteering with a service organization. After leaving the church, I spent a few holidays alone and then, a few with friends, a valuable lesson in diversity. If you're like me and felt a bit cheated by the somber holidays of the church, embrace your freedom to deck a tree, listen to schmaltzy carols, attend the ballet, go to a candlelight service, or just eat Thai food and watch a movie.

However, consider that even if your family disapproves of your leaving, they haven't lost their love for you. Now that you are no longer in church on Sundays, they may truly long for the chance to be with you. My favorite thing about the holidays as a little girl was when my big sister came home. The happiness and lessons I would have missed out on, if she had stayed away! 

If enduring a little discomfort lets you lavish love on younger siblings, or see a relative from out of state, that may tip the balance for you. Only you can decide.

2. Set Limits

If you decide to see your relatives, set a time limit and make a back-up plan, in case you want to leave early. I've found that two hours is a good limit for my husband and kids, who (not being as familiar with Laestadianish), get tired thinking of small talk that won’t offend. If going solo, a couple of days is perfect for me. It's okay to be begged to stay, and it's okay to say, sorry, I can't. 

You may want to set a limit on how much to spend on travel and gifts. The reciprocity that Laestadian families regularly practice, trading phone calls, texts, visits, photos, cards, gifts, and favors, often stops abruptly for those who leave the church. That will sting, but don’t wreck your sanity trying to figure it out or fix it. Just remember that they are protecting themselves more than punishing you.
Just remember that they are protecting themselves more than punishing you.
Give only when you can do it with a full, free heart, with no expectations of return, and refuse to become a martyr. The Laestadian training in self-denial is unlearned this way (slowly, alas, I'm still working on it).

3. Let Go

There is a Buddhist saying that hope and fear are two sides to the same coin, and both cause suffering. Instead of fearing the worst or hoping for the best, shoot for equanimity. Then come what may, you'll be okay. 

If you have not “come out” yet as a nonbeliever, the holidays may present the opportunity. There is no right time or way. Only you can know when it feels both safe and worthwhile. Perhaps you will feel compelled to correct someone who mistakes you for a fellow believer or asserts as universal a personal truth, or condemns non-Laestadians to everlasting hell.

Some people are direct in self-outing; others less so. Some never come out. Some decide to forgo or alter the traditional greeting, some say "I no longer believe" or "I don't go to your church anymore” or “I would rather not talk about it” or any number of things. One friend, in revealing his heart, asked a missionary simply, "Do you think Gandhi is in hell?"
Unless you are being personally attacked, don't take Laestadian-talk personally. 
Stay grounded. Unless you are being personally attacked, don't take Laestadian-talk personally. Resist what we fundamentalists are taught from birth: to judge. Everything. 

Try to relax in the knowledge that there is so much more to a person than ideas, and in any case, you are not responsible for theirs. With patience and creativity, you will find things to talk and laugh about.

If you find yourself trapped in a gossip session, find the nearest escape route: "Sorry, I have to pee" is a common one. So is "I'd rather not talk about that." In a religion with rigid standards for conduct and the attendant hypocrisy, gossip is valuable currency. Coated with concern for those being discussed, it is embarrassingly easy to slip into. Resist! Indulging in gossip and holding onto anger are both like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

4. Don’t Try to Fix Them

Sharing our views without judging takes a level head and practice. We represent, with our very presence, a rejection of Laestadianism. We don't need to rub it in. We can be kind. It would be nice, but honestly, we don’t need our loved ones to affirm us, or to reveal their own doubts. 

Martha Beck: “Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don't waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother's opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather's bigotry, your sister's new religion, and your cousin's alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same."

Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.

Resist the urge to argue.  If you can't keep yourself from arguing, excuse yourself. This is where your back-up plan comes in handy.

Be true to yourself. Be loving.

This is your responsibility and privilege as a member of your family, which you will always be, even if you are never invited back. Even if you lose them all tonight in a flash flood. This you will never regret.

5. Make Peace

Whatever our beliefs, we can define the season so it creates peace in us and in those we encounter. We are wonderfully fortunate, as 21st century Americans, to have a choice in how to celebrate, when countless billions throughout history have not, and many still, around the world, are bound by custom and law. 

With so much to experience and be thankful for, the dumbest thing would be to sit at home and wallow in self-pity (but I'll confess, I've done that, too). 

So let's feed someone. Sing. Be of use. Visit family or not.

Make peace in unlikely places, because we can.

We're free!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dance Like a Former Laestadian

"I grew up in a culture that does not permit dancing. Why, I can’t reasonably explain to you, but it was unacceptable so I never did it. I was uncomfortable moving my body, had no idea how to shake my hips, and didn’t know what to do with my hands. Armenians, on the other hand, love dancing. They dance at every occasion—for hours on end."
I've been meaning to post an excerpt from Traveling Ev's engaging post about her learning to dance while in the Peace Corps, but it slipped my mind until today's news story about the seven Iranians sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes for making a "Happy" dance video.


A Tehran court found the video "vulgar." (Watch it and judge for yourself.)

Then go to Ev's blog and read her story. I love how she is using her new skills in her new life, and am quite envious. One to four times a week?! I love Zumba, and dancing with my husband to live music, but neither are frequent occurrences. I need to work on that.

What was your first experience with dancing?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kay's Story (The Voices Project)

Thanks to Kay for sharing her story. Please consider sharing yours.

Hello, I am a long time lurker on this blog, I would say probably since about half a year after I chose to leave the LLC. As I have broken my foot and have three weeks left of healing time, I figure it’s about time to share my story. Whether this is posted or not, it has been very cathartic to type my story down, to realize and remember why I chose to leave, and to think about what I have to look forward to in the future.

Both of my parents were born into Laestadianism, as were their parents and their parents before them. As both of my grandfathers were prominent ministers in the LLC, discussions of the church were common in the home and faith was always an integral part of life. When I was small, I remember enjoying going to church, and have fond memories of my parents and of being in a large family.

When I was almost six, my grandfather molested me when my mom and grandma were away shopping. He cried afterward and was angry and told me never to tell anyone or else I would go to hell. He died a year later, and I did not tell anyone, first for fear that what he told me would become true, and secondly that no one would believe me because he was a minister. When I grew older, I knew that what he did was wrong, but I did not want to hurt my mom. I didn’t and still do not want her to know that her father did that to me because she speaks of him fondly from time to time and I don’t want to ruin that bond she had with him.
I didn’t quite believe what I as being told. 
When I was about 12, I developed a large amount of anxiety about going to church, mostly because I was quite introverted and didn’t enjoy a large amount of social interaction, and partially because I didn’t quite believe what I as being told. I had a lot of questions with certain bible stories that no one could answer satisfactorily, and I found it hard to really TRULY believe my sins forgiven when it was preached. I figured there was something wrong with me and that if I just asked for a blessing every night before I went to bed that I would go to heaven, just in case I died in my sleep. From that time onward I dreaded going to church and would avoid it if possible.

I often felt that some believers were being so self-righteous (the very thing they say they are not!) that they said they believed without question all those bible stories which could not possibly be true word-for-word. At the same time, I also had self-righteous feelings, though I did not recognize it at the time. I would think: “Look, I am such a good believer that I don’t enjoy listening to country music on the bus” (I have since discovered I enjoy other “worldly music”). Or I would think “Look, I am such a good believer that I have no real friends at school” since my family and I were the only believers at our school. The thing was, I didn’t feel like I had any real friends at church either.
With a lot of sadness I decided that only one could be true. 
In high school I discovered that I loved science, and I rapidly devoured any scientific information that came my way, not realising this would cause me problems later on. As I continued to learn, it bothered me a little that my church did not agree with the most fundamental of scientific ideas. I decided to leave the church when I was 20. I saw what was ahead of me if I decided to stay. At some point I would get married, have a lot of children and settle into the same sort of life my mom has. I also had continued questions and no satisfactory answers from the church about science and I felt that I couldn’t commit to a life within the church and have these questions at the same time. I knew I could never be happy if I did so. I felt that my faith was dear to me, but I couldn’t reconcile how evolution and facts about astronomy, the beginning of Earth which have no other reasonable explanation could be true in regards to my Laestadian faith. My parents and siblings had left for a trip to summer services, but I stayed behind because I had to work that whole week (never mind that I had purposely not gotten the time off because I didn’t wish to go and my parents would have never taken that as a suitable reason). I decided to solve this problem once and for all and spent the week reading all of the LLC literature in my parents’ house and reading about science. With a lot of sadness I decided that only one could be true. When they came back, I told my parents with a feeling of numbness, “I am not a believer."
My grandma pleaded, “Why can’t you just try to believe?”
It felt like a hole had been physically ripped through my chest, and it ached for weeks. There was an immediate rush of phone calls, letters, emails and visits. My grandma called and pleaded, “Why can’t you just try to believe?” and I couldn’t get her to understand that a person cannot force themselves to believe something, otherwise the person does not truly believe. You believe something or you do not, and whether you have doubts or not, there is no middle ground. I learned that though I thought I had no true friends in the church, I do have one. She is the only one who continues to stand by me, and though she is busy with her new family, she respects my decision and remains friends with me anyway.

On some level, I still feel guilty when I go to my parents’ house and they have company over and people say “God’s Peace” to everyone except me. I still feel left out, but it is no different than feeling left out as a teenager. Sometimes my mom will make comments about my nail polish or my recently dyed hair, but she doesn’t seem to realize that while these things are superficial, they make me feel free. It’s so freeing and amazing to be able to do things because I want to, to have friends from very different backgrounds but still have a deep connection, to learn and not worry about whether learning things will be detrimental to my faith. It’s freeing to know I am not required to spend my life having many children and taking care of them. I can have a relationship and know that I can still keep my career in science if that is what I wish to do. I have a lot of my life ahead of me and I am so grateful I chose to leave sooner than later.

I am glad I chose to leave at the stage in life when I was still attending university, because it was at a time in which I could make new friends. Friends from school have become closer to me, and while from time to time I feel like they don’t understand where I’m coming from, they are still there for me. For those who are considering leaving, I would say having a group of friends outside of the church is very important. It would have been more helpful for me if I had built my group of friends outside of church first before leaving. After leaving I had no support system and it was very hard at times.
Sometimes I feel strength from knowing that while my family has hurt me, I will not hurt them back.
I have heard many stories through the years about how “unbelieving” family members don’t come around anymore, and I understand why they don’t. Most of my extended family no longer talks to me, it seems to be a sad reality of leaving the faith. If cousins see me at my parents’ house, they avoid me, but I don’t blame them for it. I know how awkward it is for them, because it used to be very awkward for me when I was in the same situation. I have a mostly good relationship with my close family, and I’m glad for that as I have seen how many people who leave are shunned completely. Sometimes I wish I could tell my family how my grandfather molested me, but I do not wish to hurt them. Sometimes, the decision I’ve made regarding that bothers me, and sometimes I feel strength from knowing that while my family has hurt me, I will not hurt them back. 

I don’t regret leaving the church, I only regret not leaving sooner, but I also feel I left at the time that was right for me. It wasn’t easy but I’m happy I did so.

Thank you,