by Jerry Waxler
This is the fourth in my series about launching into adulthood, inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. It completes the triad of challenges both she and I had to undergo in order to transform from child to adult. Click here for my post on sex and here for my post on finding a job.
Every week, my parents took me to synagogue where men in robes chanted on the dais, preparing to slide open the doors of the ornate tabernacle. In slow motion, they reverently lifted the holy Torah, removed its lavishly embroidered cover and silver protecting plate and set it on a table. Then they unrolled the scrolled parchment, and read from it in voices so filled with emotion I thought they might cry.
By the time I reached high school, I began to feel silly about going to a building and chanting. School books became my sacred texts. When I read a physics problem or a literary novel, I felt smart and empowered. By the time I left for college, I knew that God had no place in my life.
However, I soon discovered that my belief in my all-powerful intellect left important gaps. For one thing, when studying science I found myself in the company of loners, more interested in equations than in each other. My focus on knowledge made me feel lonely. And I was disheartened by things that brilliant minds didn’t seem to be able to change such as injustice and war.
To fill the holes left by my new belief system, I joined anti-war protests and screamed at the police. Participating in a mass movement made me feel more connected to people. Together we could fix the world.
My euphoria ended abruptly when the police decided to “keep the peace” by bashing us with clubs and burning our lungs with tear gas. I slunk away, bewildered by my lack of power. The violent confrontation destroyed my belief in an orderly method of correcting social ills.
I had reached an impasse. Religion seemed irrelevant, and science and collective seemed to have little effect on the evils of the world. My eager, idealistic mind imploded.. Stumbling forward into nothingness, I felt that nothing to believe in, there was no particular reason to be alive.
As if in answer to my desperation, someone introduced me to a mystical teaching that included a higher power, but skipped the robes and scrolls. Instead, the system led me to the sacredness within my own soul. This belief system lifted me out of despair, and invited me to see the universe through more hopeful, loving eyes.
When I finally settled into the rhythm of adult life, I could barely remember the insane turmoil of those younger years. In fact, I didn’t want to remember. I pushed away that troubling ten-year period as if it happened to someone else.
Then, forty years after my tumultuous launching into adulthood, I began reading memoirs. In them, I found that many writers experienced complex journeys to understand their own beliefs. Later, when I began teaching memoir writing, I met many aspiring writers who want to make sense of their own journey to find a viable set of beliefs. All the evidence added up to the observation that sorting out one’s belief system can be a crucial task of growing up.
This observation about the importance of belief systems has been described perfectly in Elna Baker’s memoir, New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. The memoir is not just about belief systems. It covers the author’s attempt to succeed at the three tasks of launching; love, career and beliefs.
Elna Baker grows up in an intense Mormon household. When she leaves home, she continues to identify with Mormon ideas and culture. However, most of the boys she meets run the other way when they learn her religion forbids sex outside marriage. After being dumped by a series of suitors, she begins to doubt her own convictions.
Should she toss away her belief system in exchange for a sexual relationship? The stakes are enormous. Losing her virginity means eternal damnation of her soul. And for her, the soul is not some abstract concept. She takes her soul very seriously.
When her atheist boyfriend says he doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul, it’s her turn to be horrified. She confronts him with one of the sweetest, most convincing defenses of the soul I’ve ever seen., and she does it without any reference to theology or ancient texts. Through her eyes, it’s easy to see that her boyfriend’s soulless approach increases the risk of interior deadness. By contrast her belief nurtures a vibrant interior life.
But her conviction about the existence of the soul doesn’t solve her immediate dilemma about whether or not to have sex. On the contrary, she wonders if lowering the barriers and establishing an intimate connection with another individual might be the best thing she can do for her soul,.
To steer through this unsolvable problem, she pleads for guidance. “God, if you’re there, I need help. Speak to me.” I connected instantly with her appeal to a higher authority. In fact, I felt so interested in her inner appeal, I had to ask myself why a young Mormon woman’s plea to God would resonate so strongly with an old Jewish man.
Then, it hit me. Elna Baker’s story helps me understand the dark, confusing time when I was struggling to become an adult. I too felt lonely and my loneliness led me deeper and deeper into confusion. At the time, I assumed my loneliness was caused by my inability to connect with people. Now New York Mormon helps me see that by cutting myself off from an inner dialog, I had isolated myself even more.
Elna Baker’s attempt to dialog with God helped me find language to understand the quandary of modern culture. Those of us who try to live in a post-religious world have no one with whom to discuss our dilemmas in the privacy of our own minds.
Perhaps this helps explain why the Twelve Step programs are so helpful for many participants. By insisting on belief in a higher power, the Twelve Steps offer members an inner sponsor. Such an interior conversation with a higher power provides a valuable tool to stay on the high road, transcending self-involved, addictive thoughts.
New York Mormon even helps me understand why my parents took me to synagogue. When the rabbi chanted on the dais about a relationship with God, every one of us in the congregation was attempting to reach up and achieve the same thing. We were all affirming our belief that having a connection with a higher power is a valuable tool for a healthy life.
So why was I, as a young man, so quick to reject this connection? New York Mormon helps me understand that, too. When Elna Baker grew up, she was handed a belief system as a complete package. The package said “You are a Mormon and you believe all the things a Mormon believes.” Unfortunately, her religion, like mine, didn’t include instructions for how to survive the questioning stage in life when we are trying to use our intelligence to put all the pieces together.
So during launching, those parts that seem to make no sense instigate the need to challenge the entire system. And when we reject the whole system, as many of us do, we find ourselves in a crisis of identity, creating an unforeseen obstacle on our journey to grow up.
Power of the Memoir Revolution
Around a hundred years ago, William James, chairman of Harvard’s psychology department, wrote his influential book Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he attempted to describe the psychology of one’s direct relationship with God. Back then, the primary source of such information were the thought-leaders of religious movements. James urged his academic audience to set aside their prejudices against religious founders, who sometimes sounded crazy, and instead focus on the many benefits of religion in everyday life.
Now, a hundred years later, we have a new source of information about direct relationships with God. Through memoirs, we learn about the inner worlds of contemporary individuals, their conversations with God, and their moments of knowing, or trying to know, a divine presence. Such perspectives enhance our shared vocabulary about the varieties of religious experience, in a personal, egalitarian way that brings us all together. Rather than splitting us into separate camps, each of which tries to prove its God is better, the Memoir Revolution gives us the opportunity for the first time in history to understand the similarities of our interior worlds.
Write a few scenes and a synopsis that reflects your emerging belief system as you made the transition into adult life. (For example, church membership, seeking, rejecting or embracing parent’s religion, ah-ha moment about God, attending a yoga class, etc)
For more discussion and examples about using memoirs to explore personal spirituality see my book Memoir Revolution, about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.
Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.
More memoirs about spiritual launching
When Mary Johnson was trying to grow up and find rules to live by, she decided to devote her life to a transcendent conversation. In her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst she tells of joining Mother Theresa’s order, renouncing possessions and devoting her life to serving God. Instead of rejecting her parents in order to become more worldly, she rejected their normalcy and went the other way.
Return to Need for Spiritual Belief Systems
Spirituality and religious searching are not completed during the launching period. Many adults return years later to establish a guidance system that helps them cope with grief or to find the spirituality that will allow them to face trauma and mortality.
Lorraine Ash explores spirituality and personal relationship to God first in her memoir Life Touches Life, after the loss of her baby in the eighth month of pregnancy. After writing that memoir, she didn’t stop searching. Her search for a personal relationship to God is continued in Self and Soul. Click here for my article about these two books.
Two more memoirs of a search for beliefs later in adulthood:
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup. A chaplain uses religion to help others and at the same time find her way after her husband’s death. Click here for my article.
Devotion by Dani Shapiro. A woman in middle age goes on a quest to find truth amid a variety of belief systems. Click here for my article.
Father Joe: the Man who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, who leaned on his mentor for insight, hoping this kind monk would help him steer through his own barren internal life.
The Path: One Man’s Quest by Donald Walters who left home to join a spiritual commune led by Paramansa Yogananda. Click here for my article
American Shaolin by Matthew Polly, who joined a Chinese monastery to learn martial arts, Click here for my article.
The Islamist by Ed Husain, who rejected the gentle religion of his parents. When he saw someone knifed, Husain realized that the power-hungry demands of his new crowd distorted his higher values. He returned to the roots of his religion to find the compassion and divinity his parents had been attempting to teach. Click here for my article.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior who tried to stray from religion but found that to find her way, she needed deeper insight into a loving universe. Click here for my article.
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. Attempting to push away from the intellectual rigor of her graduate program in Harvard, she accepts the mystery of mothering a Down Syndrome child. Click here for my article.
Stress Fracture by Tara Meissner. A psychotic episode, involving visionary experiences of instructions to murder and other destructive imagery, decided that to preserve her sanity she needed to distance herself from the otherworldly teachings of her religion. Click here for my article.
Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic Roots Accepting or Rejecting the entire system