This I Believe
I believe in repentance
But it’s probably not what you’re thinking.
I actually dislike the word repentance. When I hear it, I think of those priesthood sessions of General Conference when I sat between my dad and my brother in the darkened chapel, knowing that I was full of adolescent sin. From an outside point of view, I’d probably look pretty innocent. But mine was a hyperactive conscience, having been molded by endless sacrament meeting and general conference talks, by priesthood lessons and standards nights.
Do you remember the old gray woman in Jim Henson’s movie The Labyrinth who waddles around hunched beneath the weight of a pile of junk? That was my soul.
Much later, when I was in grad school, I found myself pulled toward writing about my experience as a Mormon. Which surprised me because I moved to Alaska expressly to get away from the overwhelming Mormoness of Utah. But I wanted to see what would happen, so I kept writing.
As I did, I realized that even though I was the person typing, I didn’t actually have control of my stories. I could feel them being fought over by two forces. One was the sacrament meeting mentality. It wanted to take all my stories, scrub them down, and tack a moral onto them. The other was the deconversion mentality. It wanted to dismiss my Mormon experiences as naïve pit stops on the way to true enlightenment.
I became very angry with both sides. They had the audacity to think that they knew how to tell my stories better than I did. It was like the stories were trying to tell me, instead of the other way around. I decided it was time to take a stand. These were my stories, dadgumit, and I was going to tell them my way.
What I didn’t know was that accepting responsibility for my own stories was going to be a huge undertaking. As I struggled to cast off these two influences, I found myself alone. I hadn’t realized before just how much I had relied on prefabricated stories to make sense of my life.
After a lot of work, I had a few almost finished personal essays on my hands and I was itching to send them out. But I could tell that they just weren’t ready yet. There was something missing: something essential to the essays’ life. And, as it turned out, something essential to my own.
I started to see that my unfinished essays all had one thing in common, they pointed out the fact that I was carrying a huge weight of contradictions on my shoulders. Sometimes the priesthood seemed like a wonderful thing to me. Other times, it seemed an oppressive weight. Sometimes I could feel the binding power of the temple. Other times, it seemed to only cut me off from my loved ones. My mission was at once an elating and awful time.
These contradictions stared me in the face, daring me to make something out of them. And there was never any way around it. To finish those essays right, I had to take that pile of junk off my back. But instead of walking away from it, I had to dive in. Deep.
It was hours of pondering. It was dozens of drafts. It was contest deadlines passing me by. There was only one way of knowing that an essay was finished. It was when the essay had finally changed me. When I had collected the used tin foil, the ratty teddy bears, the rusty bicycle frames, the dog-eared magazines, the old toilet paper rolls of my experience and made something new with them. Something that derived its beauty not from the perfection of its materials, but from the interplay of their imperfections.
So when I say I believe in repentance, I mean that I believe in creation. I mean that repentance leaves a monument of beauty wherever it is performed. I mean that that pile of junk on your back may be exactly what you need to work out your salvation.
Just make sure that it’s your salvation.
(An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2008 Sunstone Northwest Symposium.)