Right now I’m reading the autobiography of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and watching a PBS documentary about the Mormons. Aside from mutual obsessions with the afterlife, you’d probably assume that these two parties have virtually nothing in common. The Swiss doctor, famous for writing “On Death and Dying” lived a free spirit, constantly eschewing conventional female roles, disobeying an autocratic father and becoming an iconoclast in the annals of modern psychotherapeutic theory. Conversely, Mormons as a group, are models of conformity, preaching a blind devotion to their scriptures and prophets. In one of the documentary’s interviews, an LDS (latter-day saints) elder says that Mormons should not question their leadership even if that leadership is clearly in error.
Yet reading and watching the accounts of these two parties, I found some overlap. The first was a clarity of purpose. Coming of age after WWII, Kübler-Ross couldn’t wait to serve refugees in war-ravaged Europe. She fed the hungry and nursed the sick in concentration camps and decimated villages all over Europe. One can assume that her purpose is to meet the needs of others. Likewise, the Mormon’s ostensible raison d’être was and is to be like Jesus. Though some of their tactics like conversion (pre-and-postmortem) might seem questionable in their utility, others like an internal welfare system and disaster relief are not. Like Jesus, the Mormons clothe the naked and feed the hungry. In other words, their purpose is to meet the needs of others. Yes, yes, they’ve made some glaring missteps—Mountain Meadow Massacre, the exclusion of black people until deep into the 20th century—but I don’t think these missteps applied to a collective body are necessarily worse than those of an individual. I’ve done some pretty stupid, harmful stuff (no murder fortunately); if there were a few hundred thousand of me, my stupidity and harm would be that much greater.
The other thing that’s quite similar between the two parties is their sense of identity. Kübler-Ross is unerring in her devotion to personal convictions, the Mormons to their collective ones. This might sound a bit contradictory, but it’s the same principle of a coherent self image brought to bear on both an individual and collective scale. I think the only way one can face doubt, persecution and other obstacles is by knowing what you are, whether what that is shaped by self-examination or submission to a greater body like a religion.
There are a couple personal questions that come up for me when looking at these two parties:
- What am I living for? Both parties seemed to have pretty distinct ideas about what their lives were and are about. Kübler-Ross seemed to have a innate moral compass. At least as far as she describes, she lived in accordance to her beliefs—to helping those in need, making death a peaceful event, etc.—even when it put her in opposition to those around her or in harm’s way. The Mormons seem to know what they’re about as well. It’s on their website. Whether they’re perfect (or even partial) exemplars of their beliefs seems less important than having a sense of purpose at all. You could discern both Kübler-Ross and the Mormons beliefs by their actions; the former fighting her way into concentration camps to help and building a home for AIDS patients when no one would care for them; the latter making 60-day death marches across the US in abidance to their prophet and launching massive relief campaigns. On the other hand, most of us are floating through the world bereft of any idea of what we’re doing. We might have fuzzy notions concerning evolution, happiness, truth, beauty, survival, etc., but what percentage of our waking hours are these beliefs present in our consciousness? Without a sense of what we’re living for, we will likely be treading water in an existential pool until our deaths. If we know what we’re living for, even if that purpose is part of a larger system like Mormonism, do we have integrity with our beliefs? Do we practice what we preach? If not, why not?
- Am I an individual or a follower? Most of us think we’re individuals, that our actions and choices are self-generated. This is obviously not the case. We follow the dictates of our religions, our place of birth, our socioeconomic stratum, our families, and increasingly the name-brand of our computers. I’m an Apple. It’s often safer this way. Making choices for ourselves, by ourselves, gets exhausting and lonely. What happens when those choices don’t align with those around us? What if I really decide that a PC is my best choice? How will I endure the scorn of my Mac friends? There’s nothing inherently wrong with following, even the most rugged individualist follows somehow, if only through his or her language. Nor is following a black or white thing. We can exercise individual choices that accord with collective ones. We can follow sometimes and stand alone or apart at other times. And individualism and following are not marriages; we might follow one day and stand alone another. But I think it might help to recognize which side predominates. If you’re a follower, what are you following? Is it something you’ve examined? For example, one of the more interesting things about some of these devout Mormons is their acceptance of contradictions in their faith. They’ve examined them and are willing to reconcile them in order to be better followers of something they believe in. Similarly, if you’re an individual, why? Are you doing it to be defiant? That’s just reactionary. Are you willing to stand up for your beliefs only when it’s convenient or all the time?
In personally answering these questions, I would say I do have a purpose. It’s more or less borrowed from the Buddha: I want to rid the world of suffering. And I believe that suffering stems from mistaken beliefs about the nature of reality. The chief mistaken belief is that things can be any way other than the way that they are. All violence and conflict stem from this belief. We try to change ourselves, those around us and our environment in its pursuit. If we, them or it doesn’t change willingly, we force it. I believe inquiry and examination about the nature of reality is as important as any product we can adorn ourselves with, so that’s how I try to direct my energies. My writing, the events I produce, the words I choose in conversation are, for the most part, directed toward this purpose. I think about these things quite a bit (at least 17% of my waking hours) and hopefully my actions reflect it.
In terms of whether I’m an individualist or a follower, I fall somewhere in the grey scale. While the surety of the Mormons is really tempting, I’ve tried associating myself with a couple religions and it didn’t work out. I don’t like large crowds and the things people do whilst in them. I would say I’m over 50% individualist, so it’s not unqualified individualism. I still long for the comfort of being protected and validated by a larger system. I will share my unpopular beliefs, for instance my great skepticism about salvation through technological innovation, but not without trepidation. I prefer to know first that you’ll agree—or at least not castigate me—for believing things that might oppose your beliefs.
I do believe there are many who have no clue what they’re doing in the world, whether standing alone or in a group. They might have a tacit belief in the importance of self-gratification, but they’ve little idea why or how to achieve it outside of second-hand ideas taken from a TV show.
Then there are the multitudes who do have some sense of what they’re up to but lack the clarity of a Kübler-Ross or a Mormon. We know something is true, but don’t feel powerful enough to go missionary about it. We keep our beliefs to ourselves. We neither truly stand alone nor align ourselves with others. We just get tossed about by the waves in the sea of humanity.
So the challenge to myself and to my readers is to clarify what we’re living for. How is it showing up—or not—in my life? Also, if we are part of something, why? If we know why, are we really part of it or just standing on the sidelines? Conversely, if we find ourselves alone, are we willing to be truly alone with our beliefs? Are we willing to be ourselves without validation, without cheering crowds? It’s not about which way is right. There are many awful individualists and saintly followers and vice versa. It’s about being clear about what you’re doing in this life, about who you are, both to yourself and those around you. In this clarity there truth and in truth there is freedom.