Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My Mormon Drama

Nam et multa incidunt quae inuitos denudant, et, ut bene cedat tanta sui diligentia, non tamen iucunda uita aut secura est semper sub persona uiuentium.  Lucius Annaeus Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 17.

I was raised Mormon.  For whatever reason, I was not the kind of Mormon who has strong faith in the faith of other Mormons.  I did not resent or dislike others' faith (quite the contrary), but I needed my own.  It was always vitally important to me that religion mean something personal, something unique to the individual.

Though I was baptized at the age of eight, I never really considered myself Mormon (i.e. to the point of using the word Mormon to describe myself) until I experienced conversion--a long, slow process of deliberate reflection and introspection that began when I was about eleven years old.  I spent many hours poring over the Mormon scriptures (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price, and the King James Bible).  I read them all several times over a period of years, to the point that when I entered the mission field at age nineteen I was intimately familiar with them.  They were permanent fixtures in my mind, comfortable pieces of mental furniture that I both knew and loved.  I use the word love here on purpose.  My interest in the scriptures was not dispassionate.  I was emotionally attached to them.  I invested myself in them, all-in, no backsies.  Why?  I am not a psychologist.  If I were, I might say something about adolescents needing some kind of identity, some persona to put on as they confront the world around them and inside them.  I like these myths psychologists tell.  It seems to me that we really do need a persona, a "mask" (literally translated) to reduce the chaos inside us to something resembling coherence, so that we can defend ourselves from the raging incoherence all around us in the world outside.  Some people find their persona in politics, some in economics, some elsewhere and anywhere human activity might reach.  I found mine in religion, which in my personal circumstances meant Mormonism.  Religion was there, wearing a Mormon dress; I was there, wearing my naive adolescence; and I fell in love with her.

Reading the scriptures, I encountered some important truths that have defined my life (and continue to define it): 

(1) You will know righteousness by its fruits, which are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness, self-control.  

(2) Righteousness requires doing the right thing. 

(3) Righteousness requires doing the right thing for the right reason, with the right motivation. 

(4) Righteousness means leaving yourself open to correction, recognizing that you cannot always know what the right thing is and that your motivations are always imperfectly righteous. 

The last truth is one that has proven especially important to me over the years, as I have discovered again and again how human righteousness, individual and collective, is always insufficient to solve or remove all the problems we point to with words like evil.

For some people, I have discovered, this fourth truth of mine means subjecting personal judgment to someone else--another person with a "mantle of authority" (in Mormon terms) that allows him to make decisions that individuals are uncomfortable making for themselves, for whatever reason.  I tried this approach to my fourth truth for several years.  I tried it, and the fruits I harvested were not righteousness.  I had moments of joy, it is true, followed by hours of agony (striving to rekindle lost joy).  I was kind, gentle, and forbearing with others.  I lived at peace with them and even loved them, with a love that was not utterly self-serving (as love so often is, not least when it pretends to be charitable).  But inside I was a mess.  I did not control myself well.  I hated myself.  I was anxious about myself, on edge that I would do something awful and ruin life (my own and others').  I was not gentle with myself.  Self-control for me meant turning upon myself viciously, violently, masochistically.

Laden with the immense weight of conforming to someone else's righteousness, I became ruthless toward myself.  I saw my own imperfections vividly, viscerally, graphically, all the time.  I was tortured by them.  I was fascinated by them.  Try as I might to break their power by confessing to my Mormon authority-figures, I never succeeded.  Confession made them stronger.  Confession made me feel weak, powerless, and vulnerable--the perfect mark for domination by something strong.  Confession made me the man in Christ's parable: 
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth [it] empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last [state] of that man is worse than the first (Matt. 12:43-45).
Breaking this destructive cycle required stepping outside the ritual of confession, which was manifestly wicked for me--a source of destruction rather than salvation.  I had to reject my idea that confession would bring me heaven.  I had to see how it was bringing me hell instead.

In the end, I did see this.  It was not a pretty sight.  Imagine for a moment that you are Oedipus.  Imagine that you have crafted the ultimate righteous identity for yourself: you are the savior of Thebes, the one who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, the husband of a worthy queen.  In defiance of the evil future prophesied by the Delphic Oracle, you have taken whatever junk the fates gave you and fashioned out of it a worthy persona, a mask for heroes (perhaps even for gods).  Then, something happens.  New information appears.  A plague strikes Thebes.  Prophets rant in the streets.  A messenger comes to you.  The outcome is that you are not what you thought.  You are the very worst scum of the earth, the sole cause of Thebes' plague, the man who murdered his father and married his mother--breaking all the laws of heaven and earth.  Your persona is utterly ruined, smashed beyond all repair, a source of damnation rather than salvation.  What do you do? 

For years, I thought that I could be a certain kind of person (a righteous Mormon with personal integrity unique to myself).  I thought my Mormon identity was one that fit within the society of Mormons (to which I aspired to belong).  I wanted to belong, to participate, to learn from others and share my own experience (without imposing it where it was unwelcome or unwanted: I never aspired to make all Mormons like me).  I spent years practising for this part, conforming to this role (that I fondly imagined myself playing), hoping against hope (as time went by) that I could reconcile my Mormon truths with the Mormon truths of the community around me.  At some point, I had to give up.  I recognized that my Mormon persona was too hard for other Mormons to bear.  Healing myself, as a Mormon, I ceased to be the kind of Mormon other Mormons want to associate with.  For me, this peripateia (Aristotle's word for what happens to Oedipus; if I were less snooty, I might have written reversal) involved more than just Mormonism.  I began questioning my identity in every community to which I belong, starting with my family and proceeding on to the United States of America (where I am a citizen), the university (where I have spent almost my entire professional life), and the local supermarket (where I buy things and become part of another kind of organized society).

I discovered that I wear an infinity of masks, that I hide under personae all the time, that I change from one to the next as circumstances around me change.  I am always working on these mask--tinkering with them, fixing them, breaking them, looking for new ones to replace ones that have outlived their usefulness.  This was quite unsettling for me, especially when I came face-to-face with the real me--and that me was merely emptiness, an incoherent possibility that might exist or not, depending on one's point of view.  It was also liberating.  I realized I could change the mask if it didn't fit.  I didn't have to spend my entire life suffering from a bad Mormon mask (that made me a self-hating masochist).  I could fix that Mormon mask, removing the masochism.  I did fix it. Unfortunately, some Mormons loved me for that masochism.  Without it, they see me as something evil--with or without good reason: I have no need to validate or attack their reasons.  The masochism that made me hateful to myself made me lovable to the Mormon community.  Maybe they loved to pity me.  Maybe they loved to see me humiliate myself.  Somehow, the process of my self-destruction made their lives better, and the reversal of that process makes their lives worse (to the extent that they come into contact with me, intimately enough to perceive my Mormon persona).

The real problem I have here is not these Mormons.  It is larger than any single community.  Today I find myself in a very difficult position where communities of human beings are concerned.  On the one hand, I affirm Aristotle's declaration that man is a social animal: I want to be part of societies.  On the other hand, I find that society is not really comfortable with me.  No matter what I do to serve her, I am not really what she wants.  If I am trying to serve her as a Mormon, other Mormons are more righteous.  If I am trying to serve her as an American, other Americans are more patriotic.  If I am trying to serve her as an academic, other academics are cleverer (and more successful when it comes to getting published and "making a career" from whatever masks they have created for themselves).  If I am trying to serve my family, worst of all, I find they need things that I am unable to provide without society.  They need food, shelter, clothing, etc., and they have expectations set by their past experience, expectations that life will provide for them as it has done (once upon a time).  My desire to serve them drives me back into the arms of Society, whom I woo in the guise of a failed lover.  Society has gotten over me.  She has moved on, and found better suitors, but I have not gotten over her.  If I try to explain my reasons for failing ("I was having a major wardrobe malfunction: my face kept dissolving"), she just laughs and says that shit happens sometimes ("Maybe you'll get lucky with someone else, darling").  I want to believe she is right.  I want to retain the hope of existing someplace where my love is not unexpectedly poisonous (to me or to those I am attempting to serve).  But I find it hard.  I have not quite recovered from the realization that I am Oedipus--a curse to all who know me.  I don't say this to be pitied.  I don't say this to attack the success of others (more fortunate in their masks than I have been) or to belittle their failure (I have been quite fortunate in many respects, chief among them being that I still have a family and some standing in certain societies that value me momentarily).  I say this because it represents the problem that worries me most currently, an adult problem to replace my defunct adolescent angst.  


  1. It occurs to me that my problem can be put briefly thus. I entered life's battlefield as a soldier for God, only to discover in time that I am always a mercenary for the Devil (no matter what side I might fight on). Contention is of the Devil, and War is the father of us all (contenders that we are semper et ubique).

  2. My problem is the same as that of Nietzsche's Wanderer (Jenseits von Gut und Böse: § 278):

    — Wanderer, wer bist du? Ich sehe dich deines Weges gehn, ohne Hohn, ohne Liebe, mit unerrathbaren Augen; feucht und traurig wie ein Senkblei, das ungesättigt aus jeder Tiefe wieder an’s Licht gekommen — was suchte es da unten? —, mit einer Brust, die nicht seufzt, mit einer Lippe, die ihren Ekel verbirgt, mit einer Hand, die nur noch langsam greift: wer bist du? was thatest du? Ruhe dich hier aus: diese Stelle ist gastfreundlich für Jedermann, — erhole dich! Und wer du auch sein magst: was gefällt dir jetzt? Was dient dir zur Erholung? Nenne es nur: was ich habe, biete ich dir an! — „Zur Erholung? Zur Erholung? Oh du Neugieriger, was sprichst du da! Aber gieb mir, ich bitte — —“ Was? Was? sprich es aus! — „Eine Maske mehr! Eine zweite Maske!“....