Of all the deaths in Harry Potter, Dobby’s strikes many people the hardest. It did me. There was absolutely no way I could have kept my eyes dry.
If John Locke is right, if actions are the best interpreters of mens thoughts, does this mean that my grief was, in the moment, real? Did I believe, at some level, that Dobby had really lived, and then really died? Did I believe the events of the book were true?
Obviously I’m not confused about whether house elves do in fact exist, let alone whether or not Harry Potter is fact or fiction, but there’s good reason to believe that our beliefs are not always as tightly under our rational control as we think they are.
Consider a mind-bending experiment reported at Nature.com in which participants were easily duped into employing their rational faculties into the defense of a positions that were diametrically opposed to their real views. The experimental setup was tricky, so I’ll quote at length:
The researchers, led by Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden, recruited 160 volunteers to fill out a 2-page survey on the extent to which they agreed with 12 statements — either about moral principles relating to society in general or about the morality of current issues in the news, from prostitution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
But the surveys also contained a ‘magic trick’. Each contained two sets of statements, one lightly glued on top of the other. Each survey was given on a clipboard, on the back of which the researchers had added a patch of glue. When participants turned the first page over to complete the second, the top set of statements would stick to the glue, exposing the hidden set but leaving the responses unchanged.
Participants were then asked to read aloud three of the statements, including the two that had been altered, and discuss their responses.
Not only where the participants surprisingly unable to detect the changes, but a full 53% of them argued in defense of positions that were the opposite of what they had just indicated their true beliefs to be. They leaped to defend positions that contradicted their actual views by 180 degrees.
There’s another example that is, if anything, even more troubling: symbolic beliefs. Julian Sanchez described this concept in a political blog post from back in 2009 when “Birther madness” was still raging. While both lamenting that fewer than half of the Republicans in the South were willing to state that Barack Obama was born in the United States and also pointing out that “comparable numbers of Democrats during the Bush Administration told pollsters that they thought Bush had foreknowledge of 9/11—or at any rate were uncertain about whether he did”, Sanchez gives this definition of the term:
The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble.
The idea that people have preferences over beliefs–that is, that their beliefs conform to their preferred view of the world–is also entering the economic literature. In Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan documented systematic biases in the ways voters interpreted the world, with even well-informed voters demonstrating surprisingly stark and systematic ignorance about basic economic factors in order to preserve their narrative for the world. Voted for Ronald Reagan? You’re likely to believe that unemployment fell and the economy grew during the 1980s. Didn’t vote for him? You’re likely to believe the exact opposite. Substitute in “Bill Clinton” and the “1990s” and you get the same trend. The actual numbers just don’t matter and–most shockingly–neither did your overall intelligence, education, or level of familiarity with the news. The evidence is very strong: our perception of the world is heavily distorted by what we expect–what we desire–to see.
So here’s my question: when someone gets up to bear their testimony on Sunday and, with tears and a quavering voice, testifies of their knowledge in the reality of God, what kind of belief are they reflecting?
I certainly don’t mean to undercut either the sincerity of people who bear their testimonies with great emotion or the legitimacy of their beliefs. I am convinced that of course someone with a real and genuine testimony of the Savior would be in tears describing His great sacrifice for us, a sacrifice I believe in. But I also believe that there’s a real and genuine danger in mistaking emotion for conviction, and in failing to realize that if we can cry real tears for fictional elves we ought not to assume that all tears shed for Christ are necessarily of a different order.
There’s also a real danger of fetishizing particular outward signs of conviction. So many people seem to want religious experiences to be sublime and transcendent, but to a certain degree that expectation is self-defeating. Our perception of events is dictated by our past experiences. Whatever we have experienced in the past becomes commonplace in the present. Comedian Louis C. K. has an entire sketch revolving around the absurdity of complaining that cell phones drop some calls when the idea that you have a tiny piece of plastic you can use to call virtually anyone in the world is such a staggering miracle by comparison. What does this mean for religious experiences? It means the only way for a religious experience to be earth shattering is for it to be novel. That is to say: rare.
The reality is that if you are visited by angels on a daily basis, it’s going to become commonplace. It will seem mundane. Why do so many Mormons faithfully tune in to General Conference twice a year and then promptly fall asleep? Surely some of the talks could be better, yes, but the real problem is familiarity. The Lord has Apostles on the earth, yes, but this will be the 365th time we’ve heard from them. It doesn’t matter how miraculous that event is: we’re bored. Sound stretched? Just think of how much we complain about seats on airlines while we’re hurtling through the air in near-perfect safety. (Another element of Louis C. K.’s routine, which, by the way, is titled: “Everything’s amazing, nobody’s happy.”)
As familiarity with the miraculous quickly leads to a loss of our capacity to perceive the miraculous, we naturally try to recreate the spiritual-emotional highs with novel new experiences. This would be bad enough if it merely turned us into a generation of sign-seeking spiritual ingrates, but it’s actually potentially worse because it necessarily requires decreasing the frequency of real spiritual experiences as a means to protect their individual impact. Whether we’ve thought it through or not, we’re in danger of censoring the Lord because we’re more enamored of the idea of revelation or spiritual experiences than the reality of revelation and spiritual experiences which–frighteningly–can become mundane.
My reaction to all of this is simple: privilege the mundane. After all, the every day is by definition almost all you will be able to experience. If you can’t sift the profound and the sacred from the ordinary and pedestrian, you’re going to live life in a perpetual spiritual desert. The first step in this endeavor, for me at least, was the realization that my emotional reaction to experiences is not a good estimation of their actual importance or significance. Rather, it is heavily contaminated by my mood at the time, the apparent context of the experience, and most of all by an arbitrary degree of desensitization. It is therefore a confusing struggle to recapture the transcendent in what you have rather than seeking to find it in what you do not. Let me give you an example of what this looks like:
When I was only 5 or 6 years old and lost my first tooth, I wept bitterly after the Tooth Fairy took it away. It wasn’t that I wanted my tooth, it was that the idea of having lost it forever triggered the raw terror I still feel to this day in the face of the concept of “forever” or “infinity”. It’s an existential dread that matches my animal fear of death or annihilation. Of course I couldn’t articulate that at 6. I just knew that the idea of “never” was horrifying, and so my poor dad had to dig through an entire kitchen trash bag to find the tooth and return it to me. I was pacified. Shortly after that, I lost the tooth, but it didn’t matter to me. It had never really been about a tooth, and misplacing something (even if you might never find it), was a completely different experience from knowing the day and the hour when it was gone forever.
I had a similar experience a couple of years later–age 8 or 9–when I was swinging on the swings in our backyard. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year, and this was a perfect fall day. The sky was clear and achingly blue, the weather was mild with just a hint of chill in the breeze, and the leaves were crisp and crunchy on the ground. But I knew hat the season was almost over, and that this could be the last perfect day of the year. It would never be like this again. Yes, there would be another fall, but it wouldn’t be the same. I would be a year older. This perfect moment was already slipping away from me into the same bottomless dark void that had claimed my first tooth. A nothingness that was always at my heels, devouring whatever I loved most. There was nothing to be done, and so I just cried.
The next memory like this I remember is more vague, and comes from when I was about 16. Life seemed confusing and complicated, and I thought back to the carefree days I had spent at age 12, and how little I had had to worry about. At that time, my family had seemed like something that would last forever. I would always have a home. At 16 I was already starting to feel the first whispers of the end: the home that I loved and cherished was starting to slip away.
This time was different, however. This time I realized that at 6, 8, and now 16 I had mourned for the time that had already passed. Although I couldn’t really imagine what life would be like in the future, I knew there would be big changes. My mission, for example. At 16 I had the premonition of leaving home, but at 19 I really would leave home and then I would look back on 16 with nostalgia. It was as though I had everything I needed to be blissfully happy every day, but my clock was off. There was a simple mismatch between when I was living and when I wanted to live. Couldn’t I fix that? Couldn’t I treasure what I had at the moment, rather than mourning for what had I had just lost?
There was another insight that completely my strategy, and that one came from my father. We were talking, on one of our occasional long drives to family in Lynchburg, about why people feel nostalgia for the past. My dad’s theory was that we were simply too distracted in the moment to apprehend what really mattered, but that instinctively we clung to the important things in our memories so that the superficial chaff was washed away. Consider this car ride, he said. Right now we’re thinking about how far we’ve traveled, how much farther we have to go, whether we will arrive on time, and how much gas is in the tank. Our conversation is just one thing we’re paying attention to among many. But years from now, we might remember this conversation, but we won’t remember any of that other stuff. In hindsight, we will see what really matters. So, once again, I realized that I had all the raw material for heaven readily available, but I wasn’t seeing what I needed to see. Couldn’t I fix that?
In the years since then, I have tried to fix it. I haven’t been perfect, but in 15 years I’ve never again wept for years gone by, and I’ve experience more moments of quiet, near-perfect bliss in every-day moments than I could possibly have predicted.
I’m keenly grateful that I figured this out before I had children. Ever since my children were born I have spent quiet hours just being with them, just holding them, watching them, listening to them, breathing in their childish smells and drinking in their presence. I know they are growing older. I know these moments pass like water through my hands never to be recalled again. There is a quiet pang of sadness in that knowledge, but also a comforting thought: I am living this right now. I feel a sadness whenever I go into their rooms after they have slept to check on them, adjust their blankets, and whisper quietly “I love you” because I know such nights are numbered, but it is a gentle, sweet sadness. I know these days will pass, but they haven’t passed yet. I know I will lose these quiet moments, but I haven’t lost them yet. I cannot stop the passage of time–and I wouldn’t want to–but I can make sure that I don’t want for the clarity of hindsight to realize the joy that I have with me every day that my family is healthy and alive together.
I have become so deeply, viscerally jealous of what I have that there is no room left to pine for what I no longer possess or for what I haven’t held yet.
This is so much more than the tired cliche “live in the moment”. It is how I sift patiently the experiences of my every day life. I am like a prospector swirling mud and grit and knowing that, every day, I can find a nugget of purest gold. It is one method I have found to extract the sacred from the every day.
In the end, I think the problem is not that experience renders the sacred profane, but simply that it obscures our vision. We can react to that by trying to seek ever greater doses of spiritual narcotic, by symbolic beliefs and overwrought testimonies. Or we can get down to the quiet, drama-free work of purifying our vision to see what we already have.