It sounds so zen: losing my pants helped me find myself.
I felt guilty, zipped snug inside my tent wearing a short thin nightgown, with the lack of covering for my bottom half bringing such a reprieve. You see, due to a forgotten suitcase and an incident with the lake and a zip-line, the one pair of jeans I’d brought to girls’ camp lay outside, drying in the cool twilight. And I was left unable to attend the evening’s testimony meeting further up the mountain.
I was glad, and ashamed for being glad. Remembering how earlier in the week, the leaders had handed us all letters from our parents and told us to go off into the woods and have a spiritual experience. I settled by the lake’s edge, feeling sick and withered because when I read that letter, nothing sparked inside. I tried. I tried to be touched to the point of weeping, like I knew the other girls must be doing. I tried to have an overwhelming realization of my many sins with a dramatic remission afterwards, like the men in the scriptures. As usual, I came up empty. I had come up empty ever since I could remember; ever since my Primary teacher put a pen and paper in my little hands, telling me to write my testimony so that she could tape it to a balloon and release it for some lucky non-member to find. Then, like now, I looked into my heart and found only that I felt uncomfortable. Why was I wrong? Why couldn’t I make it work?
So I wasn’t exactly pleased when a girl poked her head into my tent and offered to keep me company. Was she here to “fellowship” me, the puzzle piece no one could find a place for?
“You shouldn’t have to be by yourself,” she said, “just because you don’t have pants.”
She settled across from me with a sheepish look. “Besides, I don’t really like the testimony meetings.”
Testimony meetings where you couldn’t just listen. You could sit, and sit, but nobody left until everyone took a turn. “Who hasn’t gone yet? Come on, Heidi! Just tell us what you’re feeling.”
I often went last. I always cried.
I was sure that the crying and the shaking meant that I was feeling the Spirit. And I knew it was wrong that I dreaded going up there.
But here was someone who shared in my wrongness. I felt a twinge of guilt as I smiled. “Me neither.”
We talked about writing. At that age, nothing could part me from my notebook and pen, especially on a camping trip full of cool crackling woods, slimy ponds, and a foggy lake. Jo, we’ll call her, loved to write too. And we both loved Lord of the Rings.
“Knock knock,” a voice sounded outside my tent door. “I’m here to keep the pantsless lady company.”
It was Rebecca, one of my favorites; blunt and overly familiar in a dependable way.
“I’m all right. You don’t need to miss out for me.”
“Oh, you’re doing me a favor.” She plunked down next to Jo. “What are we talking about?”
Phantom of the Opera. And two minutes later the tent door parted again.
“Can we stay with you? Testimony meeting is lame.”
“I brought you some pants.”
Once I had the pants on–big black sweats that were refreshingly dry and warm–no one suggested we leave our tent to hike up the mountain and join the others.
I felt guilty for providing an excuse for the others not participate dutifully. And guilty for talking about it with them, for smiling, for saying yeah, bearing my testimony makes me really nervous and I don’t like crying in front of people. No, I didn’t feel the Spirit in the woods the other day either.
I still felt broken. But I knew I wasn’t broken alone. And that did make it better.
Years later, I have the words and experience to express what was really happening, as we all piled in together with rumpled sleeping bags and muddy backpacks. Crammed inside my tent, we carved out a spiritual space where we could express ourselves honestly. It would take me a decade to realize I wasn’t broken or wrong; I just couldn’t speak to God in the language my teachers wanted me to use. A language written by committee, written to be tidy and efficient and safe. Put scriptures and prayer in, properly definitive testimony comes out. It works for a lot of people. But how many others don’t speak the language, and how many don’t know it’s all right to speak their own? Do they sit like I sat beside that lake, all curled up on themselves, grasping for a way to feel what everyone else says they feel?
We need more tents; more places where people feel safe enough to be honest. Maybe we need more people to lose their pants. There’s probably a metaphor in that somewhere. Maybe someday we’ll have one big tent where everyone can speak their own language and feel welcome and whole. But for that to happen, first we need more people to poke in their heads and say, “Can I keep you company? Because to tell you the truth, the way they’re talking out there makes no sense to me.”
Aside from telling a beautiful story, you bring out an essential, unresolved tension in religion: either a religion can offer unity of all people without offering spaces that really fits each individual, or it can offer each individual a space that is designed just for him or her, without offering unity with all others of the same religion. If I were designing a religion, I don’t know how I would balance those competing aims, but I’d certainly err on the side of too little unity in an effort to make sure nobody feels like she has to choose between being at ease/honest and being a part of the group.
Well said Miriam! I think in this example, there is a lot of pressure to have some sort of emotional, spiritual experience. When this experience doesn’t happen, there could be a lot of guilt involved.
Love the story, Heidi! I, too, have always dreaded testimony meetings. In part because I don’t like the pressure to get up and express my (very intimate) feelings in front of everyone, but also because I always end up feeling like, really, no one else is bearing their testimony there, either. Or at least, very rarely. Once in a great while someone bears a deep, genuine testimony–and they’re usually short. More often, it’s a ‘thankimony’ or a ‘mini-talk’–and while these can be nice enough, I can’t help but feel they often miss out on what a testimony actually is.
Yes, I do know that bearing testimony to one another can be a powerful tool. But do you know where I felt the best about bearing my testimony, where I truly felt the Spirit and *knew* that what I was saying was an actual, honest to goodness testimony? (And no, I’m not a cryer, either.) It was when I was on my mission, mostly. In small, intimate groups, where it wasn’t about the peer pressure, but about–as you said–carving out a spiritual space in which to express honest feelings. (On that same note, I *hated* testimony meetings on my mission. In part because it was unspoken but ironclad rule that–because the branches were so tiny–the missionaries HAD to get up and bear their testimonies. And whenever we had an investigator there, inevitable the poor, lovely crazy members would get up and, bless ’em, start bearing testimony about, um, aliens.) I hated YSA wards’ testimony meetings for the same reason, although there I stubbornly stayed put instead of joining the peer-pressure dash to the ‘testimony line.’
And you know something else? I have realized, over the years, that I don’t feel guilty about it so much any more. I have a testimony. I try to pay attention to when I really, really need to share it. Sometimes (rarely) that happens in a testimony meeting. But usually it’s to a single person, or a very small group. And there, I can tell you, it is something very real. 🙂
It seems to me there are two things heald in tension in our LDS community: intimacy and stability.
We want to trust people and sometimes people’s stories can lead to an instability of that trust and so when we go to church, there is this tension between intimacy and stability.
Intimacy only comes when we share our true stories that will sometimes provide data points that will destabilize the story and so most of us go to church for stability, not for intimacy.
Again – Most people go to church more for the stability than the intimacy. Being intimate, even though it is a lot better, it is also a lot riskier, and takes a lot more work.
Anyone that has experienced intimacy knows that it is a lot more “awesomer”, but much more difficult to achieve and requires a lot more vulnerability.
Often we don’t want to deal with the truth because it makes us feel uncomfortable. We want to be able to trust. We want structure that gives us stability to our lives and when we come across data points that undermine that security, we tend to push it away. Even though in the long run, doing so might actually hurt us.
So at church, when we are wanting to share a kind of road map of where we are, we are often unwilling to share the complexity and the intimacy of that road map because it is complex and because it can possibly destabilize.
The question then becomes, how much are we willing to share and how intimate are we willing to be about that road map? Because there is a lot of pressure to conform.
Beautifully written post Heidi. Thank you so much.
This is beautiful. All of it. Thanks for sharing.
What a great post Heidi. I didn’t have the girls camp experience….they never invited me….but I did have a similar experience or two with the group testimony/group think emotional experiences with EFY. I look back now and wonder how many of my “spiritual” experiences were simply emotional responses to all the other emotional fireworks going on and how much was actually the spirit.
As someone who once hid in a porto-potty for the entirety of girl’s camp testimony meeting…I say bravo. 😉
Hopefully it wasn’t a well used one!!