Like many, Siandhara Bonnet turned to religion during a dark time in her life. The kind-hearted people within the Church of Latter Day Saints appealed to the young journalist during her sophomore year of college, but the warmth they offered eventually clashed with the beliefs they preached. I asked Siandhara to tell me about her journey with religion, and in doing so, learned about her existential curiosity, inner strength and ability to find joy in life’s little moments.

A: So I remember last semester you were thinking about joining the church of LDS – is that something that you are still thinking about?

S: No, definitely not. So, the entire premise behind that is actually rather complicated. A lot of really bad things happened last year leading up to that, joining the church, and the people there are great — they’re fantastic people, they’re kind hearted, genuine, very pleasant. But the inherent beliefs are not what I agree with or believe in. In my opinion, they’re not feminist, at all. They think that women have their place, and it’s behind their husband, and that they should completely and fully support them. And for me, I grew up in a household where it was filled with women, powerful women, women who are empowered. And that’s just not something that I inherently believe in.

But when I was thinking about joining the church, I was very much in a place where I was not completely myself. And right now I’m still trying to regain who I was before all these bad things happened.

So no, not going back there. It was kind of just me running away from everything else that had been happening in my life and it just gave me something else to focus on.

A: What do you think it was specifically about the church of LDS that offered you something that you needed at that time in your life?

S: I think it was my vulnerability and just being willing to get away from other things. The things that I had been affected by had been so dark, they had been so dark and the people that I was around, their beliefs, versus the church of LDS, were complete opposite. I guess it was kind of like a magnet affect, where it was just like, alright this is south and this is north, and they’re butting against each other — so I made a jump. And it was just so completely opposite that it was just almost refreshing.

A: Can you elaborate more on what those differences were between the people you were around and the church?

S: One person in particular that I was around a lot was just — I usually say people aren’t inherently bad, that there’s always some kind of goodness in them — but this person was, right now it feels, very inherently bad. It was just a very toxic aura, something that being around was really bad. There was a constant anxiety and worry in every situation where that person was involved, and it made my stomach turn. He wasn’t kind, and he was constantly asking questions, constantly making me doubt myself and all of my choices and everything I was about, and making me question, ‘Okay, is this actually this?’ Where it was almost at the point where he made me question my reality at every given point in time. Versus LDS, where it was very much like, ‘Hey, come hang out with us — we’re not going to make you question things, we’re going to make you think about these writings and we’re going to guide you in a direction,we’re going to let you think about it.’

It was that kindness — everyone was really happy and excited to see you and they all chatted about you. It very quickly — looking back, scarily — was everyone knew who I was. And everyone was very kind hearted and pleasant and would ask about my day and seem very genuine. So when, having gone through traumatic events and being in such a toxic environment and pushing myself into an environment where it was so bright and nice and almost like a fairy tale, it made sense to make a jump.

A: So how far did you get into that fairy tale before you realized, wait, this isn’t me, this isn’t — ?

S: So, I got to the point where I was actually getting ready to get baptized. I had met with missionaries and I had planned out, ‘Okay, this is how my ceremony’s going to go.’ I had picked the hymns, I chose the speakers, I knew who was actually going to baptize me, I knew who was going to speak at the institute meeting the next day. I had been pretty far along and it got to the point where it was the day of, the day that I was going to get baptized and submerged in all the water and wear a white gown.

My mom called me, and I had told her what was going on, but she called me upset. And it was not until I heard her start crying that I was just like, ‘Something is very wrong.’ Because my mom and I have, I think we have a pretty good relationship where…I can tell her everything that’s going on. And I had been surface-talking to my parents, but I hadn’t been going in-depth with like, ‘This is what’s been going on and this is how I’m feeling.’ They knew about the traumatic things, but they didn’t know how I was dealing with it. They knew that my day-to-day was okay, and that I had been going to therapy sessions, but they didn’t know that this is the internal battle that’s happening and I’m crumbling inside. So when I heard her start crying, which I had only ever seen her do maybe twice, and it was from stress, it was a giant wake-up call of just, ‘Okay, something is wrong. I am doing something wrong, this should not be happening.’  

A: So it was just kind of like that moment, when you realized?

S: It was that phone call, and there were very small things that led up to that, of people being like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ and ‘Okay, that’s an interesting choice, why?’ And me, covering up and making excuses and ignoring things. But yeah, had I not had that phone call with my mom, I would probably be part of the LDS church right now. Which is a very interesting concept.

A: So how did that work when you decided not to go through with it? What was their reaction and how did that kind of play out afterwards?

S: I got off of the phone with my mom after crying for a really long time. And I was actually outside of Copeland Hall so I walked into the newsroom and I kind of just sat on the ground and I sent a text to all of my friends first, all the people that are super important to me that I had invited and was just like, ‘Hey, this isn’t happening. I’ll give you an explanation later.’ I told everyone first because that was my way of backing myself up of just like, ‘Okay, I can’t do this.’

I ended up texting the missionaries that I had gotten really close with and I was just like, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry but I can’t go through with this.’ And they texted me and they’re just like, ‘Hey, can we call you, are you okay?’ And I gave myself a couple seconds to calm down. I was slightly in tears just sitting on the ground in the newsroom, and they picked up and they’re like ‘Do you need anything, are you okay, do you want us to come talk to you?’ And I was just like ‘No, I can’t, I cannot do this today. I don’t have any answers right now.’ And they’re just like ‘Okay, we totally understand, just know that we love you and we support you and we hope that whatever you’re going through you can get through, and if there’s anything we can do let us know.’ And I told them thank you and hung up.

Then the following weeks, I ended up meeting up with the missionaries again, and kind of explaining ‘Hey, this isn’t happening for me right now.’ And they’re just like, that’s totally fine, we love you, as long as you know that a heavenly father exists, then we’ve done our job.’ And then I was in Tulsa over the summer, so the Tulsa branch tried to get in contact with me, and I was just like, ‘Sorry, no thanks.’ And then at the beginning of the semester, I met up with one of the missionaries again and he wanted to know what was going on, and I was like, ‘You know, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I’ve figured out that this just isn’t my thing. I was coming here for the wrong reasons. I love you guys, and I love the atmosphere, but this isn’t for me. And I feel like if I’m going to join, then I need to do it for the right reasons, I need to do it as, this is something that I want to do, not this is something that I’m running away from things.’ And they took it a little harder than I thought they would – one of my other friends from the church was there as well and she took it very hard. But I’ll see them around campus every once in awhile and just be like, ‘Hey,’ and it’s civil and calm. But they were a little distraught.

A: So it seems like you kind of turned to religion in a dark time in your life. Has religion always played a role, whether it was LDS, or was there something before that and since that?

S: The funniest part is that, a year before all of this happened, that’s when I started looking into beliefs and religion just because I was curious – I’ve always been super curious. When I was younger, I was baptized in the Catholic church because my father was Catholic. And then as I was growing up, my parents separated, but my older sister and I kept going to church with my dad and I mean, I was a little kid, I hated it. I didn’t want to wake up Sunday mornings and wear dresses and super fancy clothes, and sit and eat the small little cookie thing that wasn’t even a cookie – it was like a wafer – and have water thrown at me and whatever.

And then when my mom married my stepdad, he was an atheist and she was an atheist, so we kind of just stopped altogether. The conversation was always there, but it was very much just like, it’s kind of known within the family that it’s not a thing. But I always claimed agnosticism just because I wanted to kind of keep that tie with my dad. But it was also just like, it was kind of, I can kind of do without this, I don’t really care at the moment, plus, you know, I’m a kid,  what do I know?

And my parents were always, they’ve always said, like yeah, we’re going to support you no matter what, if you decide you want to join, that’s fine, just do your research and stuff. So when I started looking at religion my sophomore year, I was doing a lot of research, I was going to a couple Bible studies and asking questions and talking to my friends who I knew were religious or were faithful but didn’t have a religion, and that made so much sense to me. But it was never, ‘Oh I’m having a whole bunch of issues, let me pray’ or ‘Man, I’m having a really rough time right now, I think I need to read a Bible.’ It was never something like that, it was just satisfying my own curiosity.

A: And since you didn’t go through with the baptism, have you gone back to your agnostic beliefs or have you continued to look into other things, have you found anything else?

S: As of recent, I think I might always be agnostic, where I believe that the possibility is out there. And I mean, if millions of people on this planet are going to have a belief in some kind of being that exists that can control fates and destinies and stuff, maybe there’s something to that.

Religion is definitely something that I view as like, it’s a hopeful thing, it’s a light, there’s something to look forward to. But the way that I was raised, with science and facts and logic and there’s always an explanation for something, it challenges that – which I always think is good,  challenges are fun – I love looking at things in different ways.

But right now,  it’s kind of one of those things where it’s just a fun thought, where if I decide to explore it later, it’s fine, but right now it’s kind of just like, alright, that’s on the back burner, I’ve got like 30 other things that I should probably focus on.

A: So it seems like you were drawn to the church during that rough time in your life just because of, you mentioned the kindness in people and that kind of thing. Is there anything else that can fulfill that need for you, like something besides religion that you’ve been able to find that kind of lightness?

S: Yeah, I’ve gone to a lot of therapy sessions and one of the things that we talked about a lot was definitely just finding the things that do boost me up and keep me going and what are the things that make me happy. And I’ve been indulging myself in those. For me personally it’s listening to music and playing music and reading poetry and writing poetry and talking to people more and looking at photos and editing photos and taking them. And for me, those are my lights. Those are the things that I’m just like, I will wake up for those things, every day, no matter what it is.

I struggle with depression and anxiety and some PTSD, and it’s not fun, and getting out of bed in the morning is real hard the majority of the time, where it’s just like, I don’t feel like doing this today. But it’s just like, ‘Okay, there are new songs to listen to today,’ or ‘Oh I really want to hear that song again,’ or ‘Shoot, I really want to learn that song on my ukelele’ or ‘Hey, it’s my friend’s birthday, I should totally wish them a happy birthday, I have to get out of bed for that.’

It’s finding those things. So I don’t know if there’s one giant thing that could contribute to that. I couldn’t say one huge, all-encompassing beautiful light that I’m going to put on a pedestal. It’s, there are so many small little things that do exist, it’s time to take those and put it into something else.

A: Is that your religion?

S: According to Webster’s dictionary, no. But it’s definitely my belief.  

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