By Susan Meredith Hinckley
Susan Meredith Hinckley is an artist/writer living in Arizona who loves desert living, running, unanswerable questions, wind in her hair, and a bit of green chili in everything.
“You’re a good person,” my psychiatrist once told me. “You’re just not a very good Mormon.” I couldn’t be offended because I knew immediately he was right. It was hard to hear, but it explained a lot. In fact, his observation suddenly seemed like something I’d known for a long time.
I’m naturally rebellious, for one thing. I love questions much more than I want answers. And I’m a raging non-conformist. Tell me what I have to do, wear, say, or believe, and my first reaction is always going to be, “Make me.”
I’m pretty sure all of this is in the genes somewhere. Recently an extremely willful daughter confided, “I don’t know why I’m this way. But I ask the waiter for his recommendations, and no matter how good he makes the thing sound or how much I want it, I can’t order it. Because I’m not going to let anyone tell me what to do.” I understand just how she feels.
I believe my psychiatrist meant to make me feel better with his diagnostic aside, and I guess I felt a small validation in it. But it also makes me wonder why I’ve spent the 30 years since he said it showing up every Sunday, sitting reverently and quietly, singing my beloved hymns with real sincerity, holding callings and performing them reliably, carrying a temple recommend (that should reassure me I’m handling the checklist about as well as anyone else), yet still feel that somehow deep inside, programmed by design into my most original equipment, I’m not a good Mormon.
Why continue to be one? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about from the moment I was old enough to realize I have a choice, which makes me think there might be something to the ongoing exercise of figuring it out.
I’ve imagined being asked from the smug seats in the middle of the chapel or—on the worst Sundays—from behind the pulpit, the question aimed at my chair in the overflow. Why don’t you leave? Anyone can see you’re in the process of leaving—you’ve been complaining, disagreeing, and uncomfortable for as long as we’ve known each other—why don’t you leave?
My answer is that if someone assumes I’m in the process of leaving, they have misunderstood me. I am in the process of staying.
I had a lonely childhood for many reasons, none of which are important here, but one image from it is. Sometimes at night, when the house was dark and quiet and I felt most alone, I would look down from my high window at the streetlight that stood directly across from our house. It was always there, standing bravely, fending off the darkness in a circle of light it had to draw for itself on the sidewalk. It never faltered; it stood in the dead of winter, crusted with snow and ice—and in summer too, coming on magically just as the last long rays of sunlight disappeared at the end of our street. Rather than living in the dark, it just turned on its light, creating a comfortable place for itself to stand. It surrounded itself with exactly what it needed until daylight returned, and gave off enough extra to help everyone around it, too. I always felt a kinship with that lonely streetlight. Something about the way it was living felt true to me. It lived in hope.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that in order to have light in my life, in order to have hope, I need to draw a circle for myself to stand in. Being surrounded by love illuminates just such a space, and although I can’t completely control anything, I can create love in my life for myself, by loving God and by loving the people around me.
By generating my own love, my own light, my own hope—drawing a circle for myself and then reliably showing up to stand in it—I not only survive, but sometimes I’m able to throw off a little extra into the darkness around me. And darkness is an important part of my story. I have felt it keenly in my life, but perhaps my acquaintance with the dark has made me sensitive to even the smallest hint of light. A light becomes more useful when the darkness around it increases.
When I was 14 years old, I felt conflicted about my Mormonism—chafing against its constraints, even as I took comfort from the hope I found there. Tired of feeling pulled both ways, I picked up my Book of Mormon one night and decided to put Moroni’s promise to the test. I tried to read with real intent over the next few weeks, and after I’d finished, I prayed hard.
And the increase of peace I received from those prayers came with a sense of place—like looking at a map with a bright dot that said, “You Are Here.” It wasn’t an undeniable witness of truth, but it was real and personal: a witness that I was standing in my place and need only turn on my light. I still refer to this as my pesky experience with the Book of Mormon, because I’ve never been able to extinguish its hope. I’ve never wanted to, no matter how much my head insists I should.
My connection to Mormonism has always felt more personal than doctrinal. We each need a certain quality of light to illuminate our darkness, and my darkness isn’t born of big questions seeking big answers. Rather, it’s a need to connect the small dots of my human experience, and then find a connection with others.
As I look back across my lifetime of membership, I see a long string of lights from which I continue to draw hope—people and ideas, feelings and experiences—a collective brightness of small things to which my heart returns when I need spiritual rest. They are uniquely mine, gifts that perhaps only I can see, but they illuminate my path and nudge me forward. There was so much to love in my Mormon upbringing.
I loved the Primary songs, that later became lullabies for my babies, Tell Me the Stories of Jesus and Little Purple Pansies and Whenever I Hear the Song of a Bird. Laughing at the chorister who had saggy skin wagging from her aging arms, hair piled up miles high above her head and a tremulous voice that was louder than the room was big. But even then knowing she had other things she could be doing and being grateful she was there. I took comfort in her kind hand, moving up and down with each note to show us where to sing. I wanted to grow up to wear the same white patent leather boots.
I loved the organ, booming its familiar hymns while my mother beat time for the congregation, her white baton swinging with feeling and her lipsticked mouth worshipping in a deep red alto O. She led the music as if God Himself had called her to it. Because He obviously had.
I loved the kids I grew up with, the same faces year after year, their dresses, their curled hair, their questions, their freckles, their boredom, their rebellion, their snickering, the inside jokes, the walks home after.
I loved my teachers, all the unlikely ones who showed up anyway when we did nothing to earn their time or love. We listened with one ear, watched with one eye, kicked the chair in front of us with both feet and ran our mouths nonstop in an attempt to prove that we already knew much more than anyone could teach us. Still, I remember treats in a battered aluminum pan. A handbag on the table, next to an open lesson manual underlined in careful pencil. Glimpses of my faith through a different mirror than the one I lived with. A flannel board, a magnet for the fridge, a token to remind me that my teacher cared, but Jesus cared about me most of all.
I loved the dresses my grandma made, years of Sunday ruffles in patterns and fabrics picked just for me. No one ever had the same clothes I had. How could they? Sitting next to her in church one day, I heard her sing that God is love and realized, with satisfaction, I already knew that—somehow she and God had made it plain.
I loved the fabric of our ward. Families lined up in their Sunday best, throwing off their daily lives and showing up like clockwork. Kind bishops, crying babies, missionaries who caught a hail-Mary haircut and were off to save the world—or perhaps themselves. Mothers who never doubted. Grownups knowing who I was and where I came from, caring where I went next. The booming man in the seersucker suit, the barrel-chested janitor, the head cheerleader, the orthodontist who loved poetry, that woman always on the 2nd row, stick-straight in a fox fur, its pointy face pinned just below hers. The same characters in every performance, pillars of my childhood faith. There was a hint of eternity in the constancy of it, so much humanity in the details.
I loved youth leaders, their hours so freely spent—the man who gave me waterskiing lessons, his zinc-white nose a legend under his threadbare hat, circling the boat as I dropped the rope again and again and again. He ignored my begging, my chattering teeth, promising if I’d try just once more I’d see. He knew I could even as I insisted I couldn’t. He was right.
I loved suddenly being old enough to sing in our ward choir, everyone showing up at 6 a.m. Friday mornings to spend an hour lost in the wonder of God so loving the world. Easter cantatas and Christmas miracles, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in July and tears on the cheeks of the conductor when we raised the last amen. And it was good.
I loved the complexity. Things I didn’t understand, things that spoke to my heart directly. Doctrines that answered one question but raised a dozen more. The secret feeling I was smarter than the teacher. The realization I knew nothing at all. Holy envy of another’s truth. The beautiful language of the scriptures, fantastic stories in equal parts faith promoting and troubling. Ideas much too big. Light through cracks. People called good who I knew did bad things, and people called bad who I knew to be good. Prayers answered or ignored. Figuring out which rules mattered and which never would. The tree of polygamy that offended deeply, but produced good fruit like me. Learning to keep walking while my heart and brain wrestled it all.
I loved summer reunions, ancient cousins swapping genealogy in the dappled shade of a small-town city park, picnic tables heaped with Jell-O and funeral potatoes and six kinds of cake, the buzz of children and swatting of flies, and everyone eager for the blessing on the food. I loved the blessing itself, its familiar cadence, its second nature phrases, the thankful language of food and family, the sustenance of belonging.
The moments of light that began in my childhood have continued as I’ve lived my Mormon life, in and out of wards, in and out of callings, in and out of belief, of faith, of hope. I gather them; I guard them. I am in the process of staying, the process of becoming myself. And I am a Mormon in ways so deep, I’ve never figured out how to reach or turn them off. If you’re going to say I’m not a good Mormon, you may as well say I’m not a good me. Because I’m not sure how to be anything but this.
For me, being a Mormon isn’t a destination, it’s a path—a way to something better, a process of hope. And hope is what carries me from one moment of darkness and uncertainty to my next. I’m not sure why Mormonism has always given me the kind of hope I need in order to draw my circle of light, because it gives me plenty of less desirable emotions too. But not being able to explain it doesn’t make it less real, valuable, or useful. Hope is both where and how I live.
Every time I act in accordance with my hope, I am shown a glimpse of my own light. Surely that’s the point of church: to allow us to catch sight now and then of what is possible. Whether it is something about Mormonism or something about myself, I believe in the hope at the bottom of it all. It speaks peace to my lonely heart.
Why do I stay? Because I want to be a light much bigger and brighter than I am now, and I feel it could happen if I’m willing to keep showing up with the wounded and weary and disenfranchised every Sunday, each of us a little less alone when we recognize something true in the other, standing together in a circle of collective light we draw for ourselves and anyone who needs it.
As a child, I learned of loneliness, and was called to turn on my light. I’ve been learning to use that light ever since. To be a Mormon is to be in a process—of conversion, of doubt, of faith, of hope, of wending our infinite separate ways. We’re always engaged in finding our path, or staying on it. We’re always in the process of becoming who we can be. So I stand where I am and draw my circle. I am here.