Thursday, April 12, 2007

Of Sinners and "Saints"

As those of us who have painfully crawled, or been dragged kicking and screaming, out of the proverbial cave into the painful light of day all know, the Mormon church (and Christianity in general, in most cases) has very damaging and repressive effects upon the psyche, all of which last well beyond the escape of the damaging religious social system.

I am not very much into "self-help" books myself, given that I object to what I see as the solipsistic subjectivism of much of New Age thought. [1] However, some time ago I happened upon and found interesting a book by one of my favored authors, Bertrand Russell [2], called "The Conquest of Happiness," and bought the book for LB. Reading it myself, I find it to be excellent and quite relevant to current circumstances.

[1] The denial or minimization of objective reality, instead positing that subjectivity is the only lens that matters, that the self is the only provable truth, and that the highest calling of the enlightened human being is to focus on the self and be at peace with the rest of the world, no matter what its state.

[2] Russell is, of course, is, like me, an objectivist/realist -- one who believes in the independent existence and verifiability of the world outside the self, and in the ideal of human interconnectedness and cooperation in finding universal truth, rather than individual searches for individual subjective truth.

More particularly, in his introductory chapter, "What Makes One Unhappy," Russell touches on a major source of deep, abiding unhappiness that is, to be sure, endemic to humanity in general, but that is exacerbated and brought to crushing heights within puritanical Christianity, and even more so within its more manipulative and suppressive forms (such as, of course, Mormonism): self-absorption.

One of the foremost goals of Christianity in general to inculcate in people a sense of real inadequacy, sin and need for redemption. The psychological fallout from this is broad in scope and deep in effect, and the sense of preoccupation with self, combined with the lack of a sense of personal identity, is among the worst and most difficult-to-repair damage.

So, for those of us who have imbibed an excessive self-consciousness from within this kind of religion, I thought I would reproduce, with minimal editing, a small section from Russell's first chapter that I find to be insightful. His paragraphs are a bit long, and this is, overall, not the shortest passage in the blogosphere, but I highly recommend reading it, as it gives a big-picture view of a phenomenon of which many of us are accustomed to thinking in terms highly-tailored to our own life and religious experience. Also note that the book was written in 1930 Britain, and it is evident. Footnotes are my commentary.

. . . I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: "Weary of earth and laden with sin." At the age of five, I reflected that, if I should live to be seventy, I had only endured, so far, a fourteenth part of my whole life, and I felt the long-spread-out boredom ahead of me to be almost unendurable. In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. [3] Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire--such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other--as essentially unobtainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies and shortcomings. I seemed to myself--no doubt justly--a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventative of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind. It may lead to the keeping of a diary, to getting psychoanalyzed, or perhaps to becoming a monk. But the monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from becoming a crossing-sweeper, provided he were compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way.

[3] Math??

Self-absorption is of various kinds. We may take the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac as three very common types.

When I speak of "the sinner," I do not mean the man who commits sins: sins are committed by every one or no one, according to our definition of the word. I mean the man who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin.

This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval, which, if he is religious, he interprets as the disapproval of God. He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is. If, in his conscious thought, he has long since discarded the maxims that he was taught at his mother's knee, his sense of sin may be buried deep in his unconscious, and only emerge when he is drunk or asleep. Nevertheless, it may suffice to take the savor out of everything. At bottom he still accepts all the prohibitions he was taught in infancy. Swearing is wicked; drinking is wicked; ordinary business shrewdness is wicked; above all, sex is wicked. He does not, of course, abstain from any of these pleasures, but they are all poisoned for him by the feeling that they degrade him. The one pleasure that he desires with his whole soul is that of being approvingly caressed by his mother, which he can remember having experienced in childhood. [4] This pleasure being no longer open to him, he feels that nothing matters; since he must sin, he decides to sin deeply. When he falls in love, he looks for maternal tenderness, but cannot accept it, because owing to the mother-image, he feels no respect for any woman with whom he has sexual relations. Then, in his disappointment, he becomes cruel, repents of his cruelty, and starts afresh on the dreary round of imagined sin and real remorse. [5] This is the psychology of very many apparently hard-boiled reprobates. What drives them astray is devotion to an unattainable object (mother or mother-substitute) together with the inculcation, in early years, of a ridiculous ethical code. Liberation from the tyranny of early beliefs and affections is the first step towards happiness for these victims of maternal "virtue."

[4] Or, perhaps, from authority figures within one's community or church -- any early-life source that offered beaming, seemingly-unconditional approval at an early age before that approval became conditional.

[5] I have studied violence against women and domestic abuse in general, and this brings to mind the "cycle of abuse" that abused couples go through. According to one researcher, conservative religious affiliation is "one of the greatest predictors of child abuse, more so than age, gender, social class, or size of residence." This quote comes from Kimberly Baker, "God's Warrior Twins," Toward Freedom, Fall 2003. See the studies cited therein for more information.

Narcissism is, in a sense, the converse of an habitual sense of sin; it consists in the habit of admiring oneself and wishing to be admired. Up to a point it is, of course, normal, and not to be deplored; it is only in its excess that it becomes a grave evil. In many women, especially rich society women, the capacity for feeling love is completely dried up, and is replaced by a powerful desire that all men should love them. When a woman of this kind is sure that a man loves her, she has no further use for him. The same thing occurs, though less frequently, with men: the classic example is the hero of that remarkable novel "Liaisons Dangereuses," which describes the love affairs of French aristocrats just before the Revolution. When vanity is carried to this height, there is no genuine interest in any other person, and therefore no real satisfaction to be obtained from love. Other interests fail even more disastrously. A narcissist, for example, inspired by the homage paid to great painters, may become an art student; but, as painting is for him a mere means to an end, the technique never becomes interesting, and no subject can be seen except in relation to self. The result is failure and disappointment, with ridicule instead of the expected adulation. The same thing applies to those novelists whose novels always have themselves idealized as heroines. All serious success in work depends upon some genuine interest in the material with which the work is concerned. The tragedy of one successful politician after another is the gradual substitution of narcissism for an interest in the community and the measures for which he stands. The man who is only interested in himself is not admirable, and is not felt to be so. Consequently the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object. But even if he does, he will not be completely happy, since human instinct is never completely self-centered, and the narcissist is limiting himself artificially just as truly as is the man dominated by a sense of sin. The primitive man might be proud of being a good hunter, but he also enjoyed the activity of the chase. Vanity, when it passes beyond a point, kills pleasure in every activity for its own sake, and thus leads inevitably to listlessness and boredom. Often its source is diffidence, and its cure lies in the growth of self-respect. But this is only to be gained by successful activity inspired by objective interests.

The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men in history. Love of power, like vanity, is a strong element in normal human nature, and as such is to be accepted; it becomes deplorable only when it is excessive or associated with an insufficient sense of reality. Where this occurs, it makes a man unhappy or foolish, if not both. The lunatic who thinks he is a crowned head may be, in a sense, happy, but his happiness is not of a kind that any sane person would envy. Alexander the Great was psychologically of the same type as the lunatic, though he possessed the talent to achieve the lunatic's dream. He could not, however, achieve his own dream, which enlarged its scope as his achievement grew. When it became clear that he was the greatest conqueror known to fame, he decided that he was a god. Was he a happy man? His drunkenness, his furious rages, his indifference to women, and his claim to divinity, suggest that he was not. There is no ultimate satisfaction in the cultivation of one element of human nature at the expense of all the others, nor in viewing all the world as raw material for the magnificence of one's own ego. Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation. Napoleon suffered at school from inferiority to his schoolfellows, who were rich aristocrats, while he was a penurious scholarship boy. When he allowed the return of the émigrés, he had the satisfaction of seeing his former schoolfellows bowing down before him. What bliss! Yet it led to the wish to obtain a similar satisfaction at the expense of the Czar, and this led to Saint Helena. Since no man can be omnipotent, a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand. And whenever psychoanalytic repression in any marked form takes place, there is no genuine happiness. Power kept within its proper bounds may add greatly to happiness, but as the sole end of life it leads to disaster, inwardly if not outwardly.

The psychological causes of unhappiness, it is clear, are many and various. But all have something in common. The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it. There is, however, a further development which is very common in the present day. A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion. He then becomes a devotee of "pleasure." That is to say, he seeks to make life bearable by becoming less active. Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide: the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.

The narcissist and the megalomaniac believe that happiness is possible, though they may adopt mistaken means of achieving it; but the man who seeks intoxication, in whatever form, has given up hope except in oblivion. In his case, the first thing to be done is to persuade him that happiness is desirable. Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact. Perhaps their pride is like that of the fox who had lost his tail; if so, the way to cure it is to point out to them how they can grow a new tail. . . .
And thus ends my lengthy quotation.

As a side curiosity, it's interesting to note the difference between deceitful hedonist, Joseph Smith, and his successor, the iron-handed powermonger, Brigham Young. It is plainly clear to me, from my reading of history, that Smith was a charismatic narcissist whose love of himself could only grow as he gained adulating followers. It is also plainly clear, on the other hand, that Brigham Young was not. He was a megalomaniac. Fuck love, you sentimental assholes; give me power, do what I fucking say, and enjoy your proximity to my power. (Indeed, he explicitly said as much several times in Journal of Discourses, though not so bluntly.)

I do think there is a relationship here, in this context, between these megalomaniacs and the sinners who follow them. The American beauty rose rises to heights of beauty and size usually unmatched by other similar plants, but it does so by greedily grabbing nearby nutrients and sunlight for itself, stunting the growth of nearby plants. So it is with those who wish to fulfill their dreams of self-elevation. After all, if you desperately need people to give all their attention to you, your interests and your thoughts, it will naturally require that they stunt their own growth and selves, and will require various methodologies to get them to accept their own de-emphasis as autonomous, equally-valid human beings.

If you have read through all of this, I'm impressed and appreciative. Again, I apologize for the length (particularly of Russell's paragraphs -- he writes 'em long). I'd love to hear any thoughts on this, in either direction. Who knows? Maybe Russell's full of shit.


JulieAnn said...

I will read this again and again until I can really absorb it, but GREAT post, Gluby. I am fascinated (always) by the human psyche; especially in relation to religion, specifically to Mormonism. Your post is eloquent and better than my usual summation: "What a fucking mind job!"



Gluby said...


Oh, how you warm my heart. I was expecting absolutely no one to read through that. You've made one cranky, flu-ridden fellow quite happy today. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

JulieAnn said...

I lurk here quite a bit, you know :0) Again, great post; I'm impressed.

belaja said...

I read it...look at MEE!!! (haha)

I need to do some absorbing as well I think, but here's what popped up for me in terms of the commentary on power. This quote in particular:

Power kept within its proper bounds may add greatly to happiness, but as the sole end of life it leads to disaster, inwardly if not outwardly.

I think power was also a preoccupation of Joseph Smith's though he was clearly much more charming about it than Brigham was. It was part of his drive (whereas with Brigham I think it was most if not all of his drive) that was intertwined with the narcisism you rightly identify. But I was always struck (even as a believer) in the D&C by the constant references to power, power and authority, kings, priests, powers, principalities, ruling and reigning forever, and so on..

I think it is, as a result, something of a central preoccupation within Mormonism. Of course, being female in Mormonism, that one sort of jumps out at you if you choose not to cover your eyes. I have been somewhat astounded over the years at some of the conversations I've had with otherwise pretty accomplished and smart mormon women who get very anxious at any discussion of women having power and in fact deny the need for any such thing. WOMEN don't need power. Why would they want such a MALE thing?

How this ties back in to the above quote is this: power kept within its proper bounds--well, what are those proper bounds? For the purposes of what I am discussing I would say that the proper bounds of power for any individual human being (INCLUDING those invested with power by the group) is to have enough power to be autonomous, to control your own life to a large degree (ie, no other human being is controlling it once you are a mature, competent adult) and to some level of power to impact the decisions and life within the community of which you are a part--some sort of independent, autonomous voice if nothing else, that can have real impact. Obviously those are ideals that in democratic societies, at least, are only ever imperfectly reached. And I think the whole bit in the Declaration about "the pursuit of happiness" is not possible without this sort of individual level of power. To feel that you do not need that power for yourself and within your community--to be positively frightened at the prospect or angered by it. To me that bespeaks some serious "stunting." If nothing else in one's concept of power.

The sort of totalitarian rule that you see growing in the church community (fiats coming down from Salt Lake and everyone just wordlessly expected to abide by them--and no sense of by whom and where and why exactly these decisions were made) and which has always existed for women and lower status males in the church causes the repressions (and I would add regressions) that Russell talks about--and from within which no genuine happiness is possible. You cannot grow and mature without this sort of power. Unless you seek some sort of oblivion. Which does not have to be a seeking of "pleasure." How about full-on cog dis as a form of oblivion? (And I guess that represses development and thwarts maturity as well.)

Of course, his further comment about the sole pursuit of power leading to disaster certainly plays out in obvious ways--but it's interesting that he adds inwardly. I think, not to belabor it, the "disasters" can also take the form of the psychological damages that this preoccupation wreaks on both those who gain power within and through Mormonism and on those who are summarily deprived of power or feel forced to make it a pursuit because they have little. It damages everybody. (I like your American Beauty analogy here very much, Gluby).

I guess what I'm rambling badly towards is that the idea of power sharing never seems to occur to them as a solution--like power is finite and once you give a little away you are somehow diminished. That the idea of democratic power sharing--on all kinds of bases, not just gender--is so deeply threatening. Perhaps they don't see a problem. But power as total entity and not just one person's or group's possession, it seems to me, grows and thrives as it is shared. The bounds of power can also be too tightly drawn, too concentrated, even as they can also reach too far in the individual. The idea feels healing to me, even as I struggle with the effects of having been disempowered in some very real spiritual and psychological senses all my life.

Anyway, now I'm just rambling, Glube, sorry.

Maybe I'm full of shit too. :-)

Gluby said...

Amen, Belaja!

I really loved your insights.

In light of the constant reference to power, power, power in Smith's writings, along with constant reference to divine empowerment as reward for obedience, I think you've definitely nailed the point in: yeah, Smith was a powermonger as well as a narcissist. His writings, his whole outlook, have a rather egregious preoccupation with it.

In fact, taking it further, take a look at the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. Why, first and foremost, is God worshipped? Power. He is all-powerful. We fear him and therefore we love him. Most references, it seems, appeal to his ability to wreak havoc, rather than his championing of virtue and principle or his capacity to love. Overall, the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is heavily infused with this preoccupation with power.

In reference to your comments on the proper bounds of power, I think you articulated it quite well. Put another way, without that power, we are kept from growing into adulthood, permanent children, much like plants that are kept in pots too small, or fish in an undersized aquarium. Life does constrain its growth within the bounds it finds available, and I think that translates very well to our psychological growth as well.

Moral agency requires the power to be the arbiter of moral decisions, not just a fawning sycophant trying to obey the dictates of a megalomaniacal deity (and therefore, given the invented and fictional nature of the deity, the dictates of self-serving representatives of that deity).

I love it that you brought up power sharing. I've been having long conversations about the concept with a good friend recently, and I think it's essential to understanding, conquering *and* satisfying that part of our nature that wants power.

Power-sharing is a threat to people whose privileged and empowered lifestyle is made possible by the unjust exploitation of others. After all, if the powerful suddenly begin power-sharing with the powerless, the injustice becomes immediately apparent, and their privileged status comes into question. It's much safer to vaunt the status quo and heap disdain upon any calls for justice or power-sharing.

No, I definitely don't think you were just rambling, Belaja! I appreciate the insights behind your words, and always long for conversations of this depth.

Cheers to you!

wry catcher said...

Okay, I read it again. It's good stuff. It shames me. Not news.

This quote in the comments I hadn't seen before (I love bel's whole comment), which you said:

"Power-sharing is a threat to people whose privileged and empowered lifestyle is made possible by the unjust exploitation of others. After all, if the powerful suddenly begin power-sharing with the powerless, the injustice becomes immediately apparent, and their privileged status comes into question. It's much safer to vaunt the status quo and heap disdain upon any calls for justice or power-sharing."

So, so true. Hit me like a ton of bricks - a graceful statement of the obvious reality I'm always kicking around like a dirt clod. I like tidy truths like this, it makes things a little more clear. I'm easily obfuscated.