Five years ago, a friend called and asked me to “take care” of a dead Icelandic sheep at her farm. My friend was out of town for two more weeks and couldn’t allow this one sheep’s rotting carcass to pollute her pasture and possibly infect her other grazing animals. I put down my book, looked out the window to Virginia’s freshly April Shenandoah Valley and told her I’d take care of it after lunch.
Equipped with my worn overalls and ragged farm boots, I drove up to my friend’s farm. Her pastures rolled green with gentle, vibrant hills. Densely packed yellow poplar and maple trees tangled themselves on the pastures’ borders. I felt a cool breeze blow the one-of-a-kind scent of rotting flesh against my nose as I moved past the farm’s rustic barn. It’d been raining the past couple of days, so the areas leading to the hills were one big cesspit of ankle-deep mud mixed with animal feces. Nothing new there.
What I didn’t expect was the full extent of the carcass’s decomposition.
Turns out my friend must’ve found out about the dead sheep days after it’d died. The sheep’s belly was twice the size of a pregnancy, and the flies had definitely had their good time with its face. The mud surrounding the sheep was just as repulsive as the carcass itself — I think you probably get the picture.
I found an old wheelbarrow and plowed it through the mud to the carcass. With my gloves on, I hefted the dead sheep like a squishy barrel up to my chest, careful not to slip in the bloody mud. I plopped the animal in the wheelbarrow and pushed it out of the mud and into the pasture. In hindsight, I probably should have loaded it into my truck and dropped it off at the dump. Instead, I decided to bury it on the edge of the forest.
It took me an hour and a half to dig that 6-foot grave. The humidity pressed into my clothes, and I found myself soaked and baked in mud and other things. Even my face was splattered. Carefully, I lowered the sheep into the pit and stood up, leaning on my shovel. As I caught my breath, I heard footsteps behind me.
My friend’s only horse, a Camarillo White mare, slowly stepped beside me, head down as her white-as-snow coat gleamed in the sunlight. Behind her, an equally white 3-month-old Pygmy goat carelessly pranced toward the pit. She gave the rotting animal a brief glance, then hopped onto a nearby tree stump. The three of us stood there together, a make-shift, multi-species funeral service for this nameless sheep.
None of us made a sound but our own breathing. I looked into the forest and saw the main flock of Icelandic sheep laying in the shade. I looked up at the deep blue sky and watched the wind gently blow Virginia’s spring clouds without a worry in the world.
What made this experience so existentially profound was the duality of death and life, simultaneously existing right there in front of me. If it had been only the rotting sheep carcass in a deep grave, the experience would have been purely dreadful. If it had been only a spring day with sheep and a horse in a green field, the experience would have been only beautiful on an aesthetic level.
But that’s not real life — we are constantly bombarded with death, rot, corruption, rejuvenation, atrophy and tranquility, all existing at the same time. The problem is, it’s not enjoyable to willingly see the two together, and it’s not easy.
Five years later from this burial, I’m a 25-year-old divorced, single father finally about to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. I’m coming up on the 2-year mark from breaking up with my wife. At the beginning of this year, I looked back at what I left cankering in the mud these past 2 years, and I saw the decaying remains of my spirituality.
It’s common to hear someone say, “Oh, it was an ugly divorce.” I’m sure you’ve also heard other adjectives substitute for “ugly,” like “messy” or “rough.” I’m gonna take a shot here and claim that every divorce is ugly in one way or another. For me, it was spiritually cataclysmic.
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, marriage is an essential religious tenet. Indeed, according to our theology, it’s required in order to live with God as fully as possible after death. So when a 23-year-old husband and father packs a suitcase and drives away in the night from his wife and 1-year-old daughter, many outside Church viewers see it as an abominable sin. Nevermind they don’t know what happened during the 3 1/2 years of marriage behind closed doors before that — that doesn’t matter in their judgment.
In my case, for the first six months after leaving my wife, I received phone calls, texts and direct messages on a daily basis from dozens of former-friends and mentors.
Past counselors from my Elder’s Quorum called me to let me know they were going to drive down to Arizona and chastise me “to show you how you need to repent.” A member of a stake presidency called me, yelling at me that he’d “teach me a lesson if I ever came back to that town” and that my daughter was better off not having me as a father. He also demanded I repent.
I had to stop receiving notifications from text messages because of the never-ceasing bombardment of texts quoting scriptures and modern prophets condemning my actions. Add to this all the drama of lawyers and custody arguments and you get a snapshot of my life.
All this and yet, deep down and still to this day, I know that leaving that night was absolutely the right choice. I’m deeply proud of making that decision despite all the rhetoric flung at me in response.
What I didn’t realize was the effect their religious-based attacks had on my spirituality. My religion was so paired with my marriage that approaching scriptures or hymns reminded me of the emotional war I was raging. I stopped praying due to fear of God trying to convince me I was wrong, even though I was convinced I was right. In consequence, I drifted away from him and hid myself on an isolated psychological mountain.
The one time I needed him the most, the one time all my 5 years of dedicated piety should have clung me to the Comforter, I cut myself off in what seemed to me self-defense and psychological survival.
I couldn’t keep staring down at the rotting sheep carcass that was my life.
Instead, I manically looked eye-level, never holding still. I went to party after party, argued theology and philosophy with Christians, agnostics and atheists alike, dove head-first into anti-Church literature and podcasts. I tangled my crippled heart with girl after girl, searching for something I couldn’t have held onto even if I’d found it — the elusive and ever-fading hope of love.
It wasn’t like I became a nihilistic hedonist. I still felt like there was meaning somewhere in the world, and maybe if I invested myself in art, nature and human connections, I’d find it there. I did everything I could to be the best father I could be, given my circumstances. I developed the deepest friendships I’d ever had, hoping that’d be enough. Maybe if I found romantic love I’d feel whole again.
I looked in the dense spring forest, glued my eyes to the newborn fawns dancing in the woods. Meanwhile, the dead, festering sheep lay in the mud of my mind, ignored and forgotten.
I did find romantic love. I thought I’d never be able to feel it again, but I found it — and the woman I loved didn’t love me back. This exploded a crater in my chest, the final blow to what I thought was the pursuit of existential meaning. I saw how foolish I was, thinking someone else could make up for my personal spiritual frailty. At rock bottom, I curled up on my kitchen floor at 3 a.m., numb and alone.
Lying there, I felt a breath of relief leave my lungs. My brow furrowed as I wondered what this feeling was creeping into my tingling fingers, what this thought was taking form in my head. I saw a glimpse, a glorious glimpse, of the man I could still be, confident, humble, happy, shoulders squared as he grinned and reached out his hand. And, better than just seeing this potential future, I realized I was already capable enough to become this man.
One step at a time, I waded back into meaningful texts and poetry, searching for the path to this man. I studied mythological tales of heroism, world-class fiction exploring what it means to be human, and psychological texts about PTSD recovery and Stockholm Syndrome. I met with a therapist to tackle my bipolar disorder. I opened up to my closest friends and asked for their help. I began to take ownership of my spirituality and well-being.
I started to approach the sheep in the mud, keeping an ear open to hear the robins sing beside me.
I realized there was a dungeon in my soul where my deepest potential waited, locked away, guarded by a dragon sleeping in the darkness. This potential wouldn’t come out on its own. I couldn’t call for it to come out and meet me. No, I had to confront the dragon of my past and plunge into the cave to save the future me.
Deep in thought and tears, day after day I found my way to the cave and saw what the dragons was, a culmination of my life’s doubts and fears: Would my daughter replace me with her new step-father? Am I permanently damaged due to my past decisions and experiences with love? Will the pain ever cease? Will I ever find rest from the race of my life?
The dragon stared at me, feeling my dread. Still, I pushed past, not bothering to grapple with him, knowing full-well that his kryptonite waited behind him somewhere in the void.
I expected to find that future me chained in the furthest part of my soul. I found him, but it wasn’t me. It was someone better.
It was Jesus, the Son of God, not chained but patiently waiting on a windowsill, looking up at the moon as I made my way to meet him again.
I’d pushed him away, but he’d never left. Just because I hadn’t felt him didn’t mean he’d abandoned me. With him side-by-side with me, I began to read his words in the Bible again. I began living them, tentatively dipping my toes back into prayer. I felt meaning flood into my heart, in my soul, washing the dragon away.
I dug the pit and placed the sheep in the grave, knowing it was still there, ugly and messy, but it’s coexisting with the life around me, all part of myself.
I don’t pretend anymore that I’m resilient to spiritual damage. I don’t run away from seeing the corrupted disappointments of life, and I don’t dwell on those corruptions, either. Like my dad says, “It’s good to look at the past, but don’t stare at it.”
I swallow the yin and the yang, and the result is reborn life amid the inevitable cyclical sorrows that accompany courageous living. To be born again, to become a new creature is to die first — that is the inescapable truth of following Jesus, and it is liberating.
I’m proud to say I have reclaimed my spirituality. It’s a departure into a new sea, right along my graduation in a week as I sail away from the harbor. The destination isn’t the point; I know now that my boat is sound and protected, Jesus peacefully sleeping beside the mast as I sail into the storm of my future.