This I Believe

Daniel - Somerville, Massachusetts
Entered on November 7, 2006
Age Group: 18 - 30
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Facing our Faith

Confronting our own convictions can be an uneasy experience. These days, I find myself having to reevaluate some of my most cherished beliefs more often than I would like. That is partly because I am a new graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, the University’s religious studies arm. Between classes and meetings with professors, I have a lot of time to reflect on my own belief. Sometimes I find reassurance in my course work, while other times I find reasons to doubt my religious tradition.

In addition to the occasional anxiety I feel over my studies, I recently found out that I am susceptible to a unique type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called “scrupulosity.” Scrupulosity is a religious based OCD where the sufferer fights off feelings of shame and inadequacy by engaging in rituals, such as prayer. Those of us with scrupulosity are especially anxious about proper religious observance – we try to be more Catholic than the Pope. What otherwise may be healthy activities become unreasonable methods of quelling disturbing thoughts. Prayer is an excellent meditative practice, but as a compulsion it looses its spiritual element, its transcendence.

Being a Mormon with scrupulosity at a divinity school famous for its liberal theology hasn’t exactly been easy. However, I have learned a valuable lesson from my experiences here: it is much better to confront our problems than to shy away from them. In one form of therapy, OCD patients are encouraged to expose themselves to whatever causes them anxiety as part of the healing process. This is called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. Eventually, obsessive compulsive patients learn to control their reaction to their fears simply by not recoiling from uncomfortable feelings.

Before entering Harvard Divinity School, I thought I would be happiest if I avoided learning things that I knew contradicted my religion. Why should I feed my disbelief? I had a sense of what types of classes might shed unfavorable light on my convictions, and I wanted to avoid them. Thankfully, I soon “repented,” to use a faithful parlance, and began critical study of my own tradition alongside others. Both with my OCD and with my church, I feel much more comfortable learning to live with the inconsistencies than I do when I try to pray them away.