I was a child both dutiful and resolute. If I started a book, I finished it. If I received a letter, I answered it. If I said I'd be somewhere, I showed up--on time.
This felt so natural and necessary that it seemed like the natural inclination of my own heart. Whether it was or wasn't, my sense of urgent obligation was supported and fed by my mother's firm belief--which she still lives by--that when you make your bed, you have to lie in it.
It all became more urgent and obligatory in adolescence, when I first encountered the scriptural command to "endure to the end." It shows up in the New Testament, but for reasons I never fully understood, as it set them apart from rather than brought them closer to other Christians (OK, I guess that's the reason), Mormons prefer to emphasize passages in their own scripture that use this phrase, like some passages from the Book of Mormon. (I'm not in a mood to look them all up and link to them. Just google the phrase if you don't believe me. You'll probably turn up this weird page featuring a ring designed by some Osmond.)
Anyway, the point is, this personal moral obligation I felt suddenly became religious. It wasn't just something I had to do because I was wired that way; it was something I had to do to please God. So I did it all the more.
I knew within 20 minutes of saying good-bye to my parents at the Missionary Training Center that I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. I saw immediately that the enterprise I was so hopeful about had more to do with conformity and indoctrination than with truth and exploration. But I never seriously considered going home. Even when my mission devolved into "a horrible exercise in entropy," as I labeled it at the time, I still went about the business of trying to convert Buddhists and Taoists to Mormonism, walking around parks and handing out pamphlets while tears of unutterable grief and desperation streamed uncontrollably down my face.
The end I tried most desperately to endure to was the church. I really did not want to leave the church. I didn't want to hurt my family; I didn't want to abandon my roots; I didn't want to live with the ramifications of admitting that so much of my life was based on error; I didn't want all the suffering of my mission to be a mistake, something I could have avoided if I'd just made better, wiser decisions.
When I did leave the church, it wasn't because I was embracing something else. It was because I had to. It was because I was broken. Because I failed. Because I lost. I lost my faith; I lost the battle; I lost my life.
And that was when I learned, viscerally, the truth of the statement that "She who will save her life will lose it, and she who will lose her life shall save it."
It didn't feel like that at first, of course. It felt like failure. It felt like loss. It fucking HURT.
It was necessary, and I'm glad I managed to leave. It has given me so much richness and possibility. This is why I say I'm an advocate of leaving the garden and venturing into the lone and dreary world: because it really is BETTER out there. But I wish it hadn't been so hard. I wish someone had recognized what I eventually realized: that what I had needed all along was not encouragement to endure to the end, but careful training in the fine art of judicious giving up.
I'm still not very good at giving up, though I have made some progress. I no longer finish books or movies I hate (unless I have to write a paper on them or teach them). I occasionally ignore email. (Though never from my friends, 'cause that's just shitty. Yes, you know who you are.) I sometimes find the strength to end bad relationships.
And I have also decided that things I've invested in for years aren't really what I want after all, and that I need to do something else.
But it never feels good---at least not at first. It never feels liberating in the beginning. It feels like loss. It feels like failure. It IS failure; it IS loss. It fucking HURTS.
I'm currently in the process of giving up something big. It feels nothing like "giving up" in the sense of renunciation, the way you give up caffeine, and everything like "giving up" in the sense of admitting defeat. I don't like it. I don't want to do it. But I see more and more clearly that I have few other viable alternatives.
And I still really wish I'd been given some training in this, instead of having to figure it out on my own, as it becomes absolutely unavoidable and necessary.