finding my voice
By Hannah Wheelwright
I heard my own voice for the first time the other day. I know that probably sounds weird. I’m not talking about my physical voice; I’m talking about something much deeper and thus much harder to describe without sounding cheesy. Bear with me.
A few months ago, I prayed for the first time without pre-supposing that God was there and would respond. I still prayed with an open mind; but for the first time, I didn’t hold the default view that of course he would respond. I left it open that he might or might not- and I didn’t get a response.
It made me realize that my religious experience as a Mormon has been somewhat contrived. I’ve been taught to expect to feel the Spirit when I pray- which I understand for many people is a logical conclusion, but it also causes a different religious experience than if one prays without their mind looking for those specific feelings.
When I was about twelve, my Sunday School teacher mentioned briefly in his lesson that when we all die and go to heaven, our friends will turn to us and ask why we didn’t share the gospel with them. This concept hit me really hard for some reason, and it provided the push for me to gain my own testimony. I recognized as I pondered that I wasn’t incorporating what I was learning in church with how I acted at school and during the week.
So at twelve, I started seeking earnestly to actually feel and recognize the Spirit. I wrote in my journal and read my scriptures and did so every night all throughout high school. I got my patriarchal blessing at 14 and cherished the way it made me feel important (it uses that word repeatedly) and unique. When I went to boarding school, I was the only Mormon, and from Sunday to Sunday I often had no contact with the church except for seminary, when I could get a ride, and my own personal study. I tried very hard to consult the Lord in prayer whenever I made decisions. I had many experiences where I felt prompted to make a decision that then put me on a path of deep pain and loss; my initial reaction was to feel bitter for being forced to go through the trial, but I trusted that it was for a reason. I spent many lonely nights praying and praying and praying and felt like I was being comforted, like there was someone there beside me who knew what I was going through and knew that I would emerge a better person because of it.
But when I prayed without assuming that God existed; when I took a step back and simply said, “God, I don’t KNOW if you’re there, but if you are, please help me hear you,” and then I waited for that feeling of having a warm blanket wrapped around me that I normally felt and had attributed to the Spirit and I waited for some kind of whispering like I had heard before and I waited for a rush of emotion that usually happened when I prayed so fervently and with such longing. And none of that happened. Instead I just felt normal, status quo, nothing remarkable. And I realized that I’m not sure anymore if everything I felt came from an outside source or from myself. I can easily imagine how my religious education and my own personal desire to feel a connection with God could have caused me to over-anticipate the kind of reactions I wanted and expected.
The thought that maybe I just made it all up is not bitter to me per se; I don’t know if maybe all religion is supposed to be that way, if it’s supposed to come from within. But I refuse to fake a religious experience just to bring myself comfort. So from that moment on, I stopped trying to understand the world through terms of God and prayer and spirituality and just took a break. I’m not calling myself an atheist. I just took a break.
It’s been very difficult because I never realized how much I prayed until I didn’t think God was listening. Then I realized that I pray constantly. I constantly thank God when something is going well or ask for his advice when life feels like an avalanche. I used to view my life through a lens of God and myself working together to figure things out because I believed that I would be more effective and successful, more able to help people as detailed in my patriarchal blessing, if I lived my life as a partnership with God. I had thought that it was going well and was successful. It’s painful to extricate myself from this partnership that now feels like it was only in my head, because it brought me such comfort and a feeling of accomplishing my divine destiny at the time.
But when I turned off that switch of constantly talking to the empty space around me that I assumed God inhabited, I found that I have a voice. That my own spirituality and connection of body and spirit that makes up my soul is powerful and real, and I don’t think I’ve ever explored it before because I didn’t need to when I could just focus on my partnership with God, on seeing the world through that lens of united spirituality with deity.
And the first time I heard it really happened in a very mundane way. I was standing in my kitchen working a hand mixer through cookie dough as I daydreamed, and I heard my voice as I mused with myself. This probably sounds really ridiculous; maybe it’s not very important, maybe this sounds like a silly recognition, maybe this shouldn’t stop me from still believing whole-heartedly in God. I don’t know. I just know that now that I’m not listening for other voices inside myself, I can finally hear my own. And it’s brought a greater strength and understanding of my own character and morality than I could have anticipated.
11 Responses to “finding my voice”
Hannah, this is fantastic. Thanks for sharing.
Dude, when I got back from my mission this past summer, I started talking with some atheists, and it really got me questioning things a lot. I totally know the feeling you’re talking about, that separation from God, the wondering if He’s really even there in the first place. The stop praying because you don’t get anything out of it. The removing of the God-goggles. (Although my experience is different because during this time I’ve really wanted to remain somewhat connected. I’ve just been wondering how necessary it was to do so).
It’s really interesting reading your post just right now, because just a couple hours ago, I felt like crap and I started doing little things in my head to feel better. “Curtis, you’re awesome. Don’t worry. You’re the best. Love yourself.” It’s worked before, but now it just wasn’t working. So, I prayed. Just kind of haphazardly, also not expecting anything special (like I haven’t felt anything that strong for a while), and out of the blue, it was just like, “Woah. I remember this. This very real contact with God. And it’s awesome!” And now, it’s something I don’t want to lose again. (Although, I probably will have ups and downs, because that’s part of being human).
HOWEVER, I’m not preaching to you, because I’m thankful that I have had some “alone time” moments these past few months and something. There’s something valuable about it. To me, I’ve learned important things about myself, things I think I was supposed to learn. Right now, that I have just “refound” that connection with God again, I know I’m a better person for this time apart, that kind of like you were saying, I now know things about me I did not know before.
One thing I have learned for example: although its important to act like you’re going to succeed to enhance the probability that you will, it’s also probably not bad to be open to the idea of being wrong.
I love this post. I relate to this on so many levels. My feminist awakening of the last year or so has also been about learning to be myself and hear myself, and most of all *own* myself. And yes, for me too, it has meant pulling away from the orthodoxy, the ingrained cultural assumptions of Mormonism.. Some of which really taught me to not trust myself or respect myself. Which is quite sad, and not doctrinal. What *is* doctrinal is eternal progression, and I think being a person with a voice and ideas and autonomy and independence is most definitely part of that.
I can definitely relate to this whole thing. It feels like such a loss, looking back on past spiritual experiences with honesty and realizing how I primed myself for the feelings I wanted to feel, and how it all seems self-generated now. I guess it doesn’t disprove the existence of god, but it definitely suggests that if god exists, the imagination is an important part of finding god. And it also calls into question anyone’s claims of divine communication, and although I think a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing, that’s also sad, because we Mormons find such comfort in trusting church leaders and their revelations.
I can relate. Thank you for sharing, and for being brave enough to write about it.
This is really powerful and important (I think your patriarchal blessing was right about that!). It reminds me of a one-woman show former SNL comedian Julia Sweeny did called “Letting Go of God.” She was an ardent Catholic most of her life and is now a humanist. One of the powerful moments from the show was when she talked about how her whole life she’d always felt like God was in her head–every thought she had she shared with this observer. She describes the first day she realized her thoughts were her own, and how liberating and empowering it was-akin to what you’ve written here.
I am not an atheist–I believe in the possibility of a benevolent divine presence that can be a balm and ally in our work on earth. But I also very much believe in the Mormon concept of personal progression, personal agency and that an over-dependence on God or the surrendering of our own conscience to something we’re told God desires, runs counter to the core of LDS teachings. Finding ourselves alone in our spiritual lives–not alone with God, but truly alone–is a feeling Mother Teresa described. It’s a feeling many deeply religious people understand. One benefit of an LDS view of eternal progression is that we can turn that sense of solitude and darkness into something that makes us realize that our lives, our spiritual potential is truly our OWN. If God did everything for us, we’d never progress. I think people who are willing to open the door to their biggest questions, to deeply examine their faith even when they know it will change as a result, are engaged in the kind of soul development that will ultimately do the most good here on earth and (hopefully) in the hereafter. You seem to be one of those people. Though it may not match the narrative you’ve been raised to expect, I hope this new experience in your spiritual life will continue feel like a blessing of a whole new variety.
Thank you for sharing this. I’ve got this girlfriend who’s crazy struggling right now with this same exact “How do I know that what I’m feeling isn’t just me giving myself feedback” issue. Tell me what you think on this. It’s absolutely a good thing to teach kids to recognize the Spirit; the good feeling you get when you help someone, etc. But at the same time it seems like for this friend, and probably other people too, she was *so* drilled on How Exactly You Are Supposed To Feel About X, Y, and Z that she’s struggling to figure out what she really feels and thinks about anything now as an adult. The gospel included.
It makes me think of kids who start acting careers very young. They grow up being told who they should be today and coached on how to behave, feel, and be motivated in every situation. And then they grow up and have no idea how they really feel about anything, just how they “should” feel. (At least most people don’t have Hollywood-level easy access to cocaine when we’re going through our own identity crises. Lucky us!)
Overall I’d have to say that my spiritual life is a whole different animal than it was in high school and there’s been a whooooole lot of tearing-down and rebuilding in between. Some promptings I thought I had didn’t pan out. No disasters, just ones that make you wonder. And I guess I really don’t spend a lot of time or energy “trying to feel the spirit,” I guess because of the reasons you describe. I’d just wonder if it was me giving myself feel-goods.
So I sort of said “Well who knows what’s going on there spiritually, but I do know I want to make the world a better place through XYZ lifetime/academic endeavor” and went for it. I love dirt, I love agriculture, I love being able to have a job where I can “live above the shop” and work with my husband and kid/s so as to help the work:life balance problem go eff itself. And the US and world agriculture situations are such a huge mess that there’s really no question in my mind that in any moral framework, making it so more people can have jobs making more and better food would be a plus for me and the world in general.
Having given the spiritual areas of my life some space to just unfold, I gotta say that in between the years of silence, there have been a couple of real moments of connection that I didn’t expect. I’d just be daydreaming and all of the sudden I guess I’d hit on something good, and suddenly there would be this feeling of Presence. It has been really nice to have those odd moments of resonance with the Divine that come out of nowhere. They’re infrequent but they do happen and it’s honestly been really helpful. With those, you never wonder if it was just yourself talking something up.
One of the things that this years-of-silence-with-two-or-three-surprises experience has really been bringing home to me was that yes, I think God does want us to do a lot of feeling and thinking things out on our own power. He and She want us to do it in the context of compassion and justice that They have taught us; *and,* they don’t want us stumbling along in the direction of good just because somebody told us that’s where to go. They want us to look around for the destination, and *begin to see it ourselves with our own eyes.* I love what Liffey said^ about “the imagination is an important part of finding god.” Absolutely it is. We need to develop our vision. We don’t live just to learn how to obey. We live to learn how to create. To envision and conceive things within ourselves. And to look around us and from here, start chart our course home.
I think often the doctrine gets very warped by the fact that people tend to be on very different parts of their spiritual journeys, and teach only what they know at the time. The entire purpose of this life is to learn and grow to be more like our heavenly parents. Many people choose to lean heavily on their parents rather than living their own life, because, let’s face it, making choices and learning who you are is very, very scary. It’s much easier (and not wrong, because it’s what children naturally do) to just always be talking with parents, always be following their advice. And, spiritually, it’s also easier to think of much of your own feelings as coming from God rather than acknowledging that they might be coming from yourself. But just as children must eventually mature and make their own decisions and mistakes and live their own life separate (but not estranged!) from their parents, so does this need to happen spiritually. There are many who never reach that point, and they have missed out on a wonderful opportunity to find out more about themselves. But our heavenly parents want us to grow and become who we were meant to be–like them someday–not just continue to be wholly dependent children. Our parents want us, despite learning that we can be strong, independent beings, to choose to continue to believe in them of our own accord, not out of habit and not out of dependent necessity, but because, just like our mortal parents, we love them and will consider their advice when it truly is offered. After all, we hear that prayers aren’t always answered, I’m very glad that you have begun this journey of finding out who you are. It is a sign of spiritual growth. And like any good journey of the self, you’ll eventually be making choices on what to believe and not believe, on who you are and who you wish to become. And all of that is wonderfully exciting (albeit scary) but immensely empowering. And if you are truly honest with yourself, and don’t attempt to put labels or group yourself but to only be yourself, you’ll come out of this journey a better, stronger person. Don’t be afraid to trust yourself!
This is amazing. Thank you for sharing it. I have had similar experiences, and I think many men and women have, and I think it is brave of you to talk about it. Despite how powerful it can be to have a sense of the divine working within us, it is equally powerful to let silence have a place within us so that truth can eventually emerge, however it comes. I hope truth comes through your voice that you have been able to find; I think it already has, based on your writings.
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