Sifting the Sacred from the Mundane

April 8, 2013 | 24 comments
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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.

2013-04-08 Panning for Gold

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.

24 Responses to Sifting the Sacred from the Mundane

  1. Adam Miller on April 8, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Amen.

  2. Sam H on April 8, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Brian on April 8, 2013 at 8:35 am

    I am glad that someone else feels this way. How do we remind ourselves, in the moment of our distraction, to distill our experience as you suggest?

  4. Howard on April 8, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Why do so many Mormons faithfully tune in to General Conference twice a year and then promptly fall asleep? …the real problem is familiarity. No the real problem is milk! Milk and the soothing Utah accent puts us to sleep! The revelation that marks TSM’s tenure? Younger missionaries! That’s the most important thing God has to say to the world today? Really??? Is this of Biblical proportions? …familiarity with the miraculous quickly leads to a loss of our capacity to perceive the miraculous… While there is some truth to this statement most GC talks are mundane NOT miraculous certainly not by scriptural standards so what standard are you using?

    Tears and a quavering voice is either legitimate spirit 101 or mimicking the Mormon testimony model. But Mormons are not the only ones with access to the spirit and most of those who take up the practice of meditating on the spirit’s signal move well beyond the tears, quavering voice, simple hot/cold spiritual conformation/guidance to experience what many Mormons would probably call miracles and spiritual gifts some of it consistent with what we read about the early restored church. A few achieve a conversational relationship with the spirit literally becoming their own prophets. Along the way the introspection affords them insight into themselves and their subconscious. A centered calm typically replaces the beginning tears and a quavering voice.

    We have lost the power of God by allowing it to become watered down, diluted to the point that we have come to believe the miracles and manifestations of the early restored church no longer occur. We couldn’t be more wrong!

    Can beauty, peace and understanding be found in the mundane? Yes, of course. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Mtnmarty on April 8, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I went the other route. I have several levels of meta-nostalgia. I’m nostalgic about how I used to be nostalgic about nostalgia over my lost nostalgia over how I used to be nostalgic about…

    I was reading Augustine’s City of God were he talks about Varro’s accounting of the number of different philosophies about happiness. At root, one of the basic tensions is between virtue and pleasure and how this connects with body and soul and also with action versus contemplation.

    Your preferred mode seems to be making experience a virtue by a disciplined attention paid to experience.

    Augustine, I guess because he was catholic, but maybe because he was christian pretty much assumed all experience in this life was pretty much doomed to be unsatisfactory in the end and that sacred only paid off in the afterlife.

    Glad I’m not catholic but he might be right nonetheless.

  6. Nathan Whilk on April 8, 2013 at 10:21 am

    @4 “We have lost the power of God”

    Just to be clear, by “we” do you mean “the General Authorities”?

  7. Nathaniel Givens on April 8, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Would it be possible to delay the inevitable threadjack about whether / how the Church is/isn’t true? Not really close to the heart of what I was going for…

    Mtnmarty- I don’t know if I’d say experience is a virtue itself, but I do belief that experiences in this life can be glimpses of divine perfection, even if through a lens darkly, and that we can work to make the lens a little less dark with some effort. I think one of the halmarks of Mormonism is that–regardless of the exact lengths to which you take the relationship between God and Man–we believe that we’re fundamentally the same kind of entity. Whether it’s full-on Lorenzo Snow “as man now is…” or a much more orthodox “joint heirs with Christ” approach, there seems to be an emphasis on our ability to share in Godly experiences–even partially–in this mortal life.

  8. Howard on April 8, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Nathan Whilk,
    I have a strong testimony of the restoration and I believe the General Authorities are inspired by God. Do they enjoy the miracles and manifestations of the early restored church? Do the members? I’ll let you decide.

  9. mikecherez on April 8, 2013 at 11:25 am

    @4
    The scriptures contain many miraculous stories but I think it is important to remember that even then it wasn’t the norm. We jump from one major discourse and miraculous story to another. I am sure that Nephi and Alma and the rest had stretches of the mundane where they simply encouraged people to do the spiritual basics. How many times in the Book of Mormon are we told that a year or two or more passed and nothing important happened?

  10. Howard on April 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I know mikecherez, live the mundane if you choose. I’ll take the miracles and manifestations of the Spirit and knowing God.

  11. mikecherez on April 8, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Howard,
    All I am suggesting is that not every manifestation and miracle need be overwhelmingly powerful and not every day of our lives does God need to manifest the spiritual to us in some scriptural way. I don’t think God has ever worked that way.

  12. Robert C. on April 8, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Very nice, Nathaniel, very nice.

  13. J Watson on April 8, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you for the beautiful and sensitive insight. This post effectively articulates my feelings about much of life. While I often wish for more vibrant and obvious communion in our meetings, I freely admit that I’ve had more than my share of quiet moments with my wife, with my children, alone in the mountains, where the sacred ordinary is almost too much to handle. I found myself echoing Martin Harris is such moments: “Tis enough. Mine eyes have beheld.”
    That most of these moments–but not all–occur outside church contexts sometimes troubles me, but not overly so.

  14. CS Eric on April 8, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I have been thinking about what I remember as I re-read through some of my journal entries in the months before my wife died. I talk about the stress we feel while the doctors try to figure out what is going on with her, but I didn’t write about the tender moments I remember now. I didn’t write about how hard she worked trying to get better, or how much I enjoyed just holding hands, or the times when I got the feeling that, sitting there on the front room, was everything that was really important to me in life.

    And I cried when Dobby died, too,

  15. Ben on April 8, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Good post. I’ve had a few experiences that were naturally powerful or memorable, but all the more so because they were unique and extremely unlikely to ever happen the same way again. The experience was magnified by never-again-ness of it. One was a night-time space shuttle launch when I was young and obsessed with space. Another was a midnight horseback ride around the pyramids of Giza, under a full moon. Similarly, I was with a group in a large city once, and while exiting a restaurant, happened to make eye contact with a beautiful girl for maybe a quarter second, and was then outside. I thought to myself, “she is amazingly beautiful; I will never see her again in my life; and in another thirty seconds, I won’t even remember what she looks like.” I still remember the experience, but can’t remember the girl.

    Dobby got to me too.

  16. Bobbie on April 8, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Beautiful. My favorite line: 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.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 8, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    I had tears in my eyes when Gandalf the Grey put himself in the way of the Balrog to protect the other members of the fellowship of the ring. I teared up when Boromir, despite his own temptation to take the ring, sacrificed his life to protect Frodo.

    The nobility of self-sacrifice out of love for others is what the savior embodied, and Joseph Smith embodied, and every soldier aspires to do if the choice is placed before him (or her). It is what mothers and fathers do all the time, in small ways and large. It is a way of life that the Church teaches us, when we are called to give our time and talents for others, as missionaries and as parents and in the “mundane” callings we are given over the years. We learn to recognize the gold in the hearts of others as we practice refining that gold in ourselves out of the fires of stress and adversity and sacrifice.

  18. chris on April 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    This post makes me think of my own experience.

    I do not know how many of us can stand with Joseph Smith and say, “I have seen a vision, I know it, I know that God knows it, and I can not deny it….”

    But I can make that exact statement tied to a very specific experience, only replacing “seen a vision” with “received a revelation”. It was the culmination of about a decade of my life, and the revelatory experience was initiated by a prayer.

    I had a “testimony” long before this instance, and shared that testimony where appropriate. But the level of knowledge and meaning behind the words, “I know…” changed dramatically that morning I prayed.

    Ever since then, I’ve wondered how rare my experience is when I hear someone else’s testimony. I know a few people who have had visions and experiences of a different sort.

    We don’t always say the reasons *why* we can confidently assert knowledge. And sometimes people assert that knowledge because it’s what everyone is doing or what the community supposedly expects.

    But who am I to judge that knowledge. Perhaps someone would sit in the audience and here my testimony of “I know” and assume I’m just using a rote phrase. But to say otherwise, would not only be a betrayal of that experience, in my mind, but a betrayal of God. At one point I may have had that slight “unbelief” in the shadows of my knowledge, but not any more.

  19. Carey on April 8, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    I’ve developed a theory after looking back on photos of the countless kids birthday day parties I attend over the last few years. When I look at the photos I can occassionally remember being there bored and restless and resenting the photo opportunity my wife had thrust upon me yet again. But then as I see my kids, and my nephews and nieces, there is something sepcial that I feel about those past experience and I become not only grateful for the picture having been taken, but for having been there in the first place. The actual experience is reshaped in my memory. I know this is pretty normal, but then an idea then began to develop that perhaps there is actually more to any given moment that I can even discern at the time. In other words, perhaps there are actual Easter-Eggs just waiting to be unlocked by a skilled gamer of Life :) At first I dismissed the idea as just a product of how the brain processes the past and recontextualizes it, but as I began to let it influence how I behaved at the next party, lo and behold I began to catch glimpses of that same feeling in the present moment.

  20. Howard on April 8, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    chris,
    Nice! Thanks for sharing it.

  21. Nathaniel Givens on April 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    In other words, perhaps there are actual Easter-Eggs just waiting to be unlocked by a skilled gamer of Life :) At first I dismissed the idea as just a product of how the brain processes the past and recontextualizes it, but as I began to let it influence how I behaved at the next party, lo and behold I began to catch glimpses of that same feeling in the present moment.

    I love the way you described that, carey, and especially the video game reference! That’s exactly what I’m striving for: unlocking the genuine potential in every moment while you’re there, instead of waiting until it has faded into the past to realize–too late–what you had in the moment.

  22. Mtnmarty on April 8, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    Any one else cry really easily at movies or hearing stories? Its crazy, I cry at everything in a movie or story, way more at pretend stuff than real life.

  23. DSB on April 14, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Thanks for the post. It’s posts like this that restore my faith in the sometimes antagonistic bloggernacle.

  24. MRH on April 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    This was brilliant! Thanks!