Thursday, March 26, 2009

Descending from My Pedestal

G and I were talking awhile back and discussing some of the issues we'd dealt with since leaving Mormonism. I don't go into my issues with Mormonism a lot here. This is largely because while things about the church piss me off, giving myself permission to leave it banished most of the cognitive dissonance that was making life so difficult right there toward the end of my stint.
That said, leaving the church and losing my belief in God necessitated a shift in my world view that was overwhelming at first. I had to reconstruct my reality in very fundamental ways. I had to do everything from change my conception of the cosmos to come to grips with the fact that people I'd taken as real historical figures never even existed. But I think the most difficult thing I struggled with after leaving the church was my overwhelming insignificance. This was what G and I were discussing particularly. We agreed to do blog posts on it. She's much more on the ball than I am :)
My loss of testimony happened the last couple semesters I was in school, so most of my "aha" moments happened as a result of things I was studying. The realization of my nothingness happened as a result of a "History and Philosophy of Science" class that I was taking my last semester. As we worked our way through each successive scientific discovery, I saw the need for a creator god becoming less and less. And while this is clichee I'm sure, our study of the cosmos was key in my realizing just how tiny, vulnerable and unimportant this planet--and as a result of that, myself-- was in the bigger expanse of the universe.
Growing up Mormon, I was taught that I was a daughter of deific parents and would someday, if I was righteous, be a goddess myself. I was told that I was special, that my generation would do magnificent things in the world. As a result, while I never really planned on being famous or anything like that, I still felt pressure to make my own particular mark on the world. The brand of Mormonism I was brought up in said that I would do this ideally through the influence I would have on my children. But the message was the same: You are a daughter of God. You should do great things.
When I left the church, I'd already made decisions that largely cut off the possibility of my making my own, kid-separate mark. I'd had children, hadn't gone to graduate school as I'd wanted, and I'd gotten a largely useless degree that didn't bring me a lot of financial freedom. It hit me at some point that I would probably never be that world famous philosopher. I'd never be a famous singer. I'd probably never make it out of the lower middle class. It was quite a blow to my admittedly large ego.
What was even worse was realizing that even if I did make some mark on this world, it would be transitory at best. I had an Ozymandias complex, I guess. Even if I wrote that great novel, came up with that thought changing philosophy, or even did a great job with my kids, eventually, it would be forgotten. Eventually all the people who remembered my stories would die. This caused me, and if I'm honest with my self still causes me, a lot of angst sometimes.
At my most fatalistic, I realize that if I ceased to exist, people would only be sad for as long as they were alive (and maybe not even that long) and then eventually, no one would care that I was gone. On those days, it's my stubborn, refuse-to-throw-in-the-towel idealism that keeps me getting up in the morning. But overall, the way I've dealt with this is to tighten my sphere of influence. I realized that the most important people in my life were not important to me because they were famous, but because they cared about me. I realized that if I lost any of them, it would be significant to me and their other loved ones, even though the rest of the world would never notice. And I realized that if these people were that important to me, chances were I was important to them too. So what if I never write the all-American novel (or even short story for that matter ;-)? If I've been a good friend, mother, teacher, lover, co-worker, whatever, to the people who share their lives with me, then it's enough. Because these people are absolutely vital in my eyes. If I lose any of them (and they are many) I would be honored to keep their stories alive. And even though I won't care once I'm actually dead, I'm honored to think that they'd be telling mine. Nothing is permanent in this world. And in general, I'm okay with that. 


darlene (Nemesis) said...

I think you have a good attitude about your impermanence. I do not have that same attitude...

If there's one thing that I miss about having faith, it's the fact that I will end, and so far, I'm still not comfortable with that.

No matter how certain I am that there is nothing more, I wish I was wrong...yet I can't bring myself to believe differently.

People ask why I don't promote my atheism, and I say, it's because I'm miserable in it...why would I want anyone else to feel this way?

Lessie said...

I'm sorry atheism is so painful for you, darlene.

I suppose what makes it bearable for me (and even allows me my sometimes flippant attitude about it) is that I won't care once I'm gone. Dying scares me, simply because I'm afraid of pain and I have this whole survival instinct thing. But being dead, ending, that's just how life goes, I guess.

Ultimately I like things to make sense. And my disappearing and ending just like everything else on this planet makes more sense to me than my living forever.

Peace, my friend.

angryyoungwoman said...

I guess I had the same sort of struggle when I left the church, and I still struggle with it. I'm such an attention-whore, I always wanted to write that novel or sing that song or act in that movie that would make me famous so someone would actually miss me when I was gone. It still grates on me that I haven't accomplished anything and I probably won't leave any kind of mark in the world.

Lessie said...

Hey AYW, I suppose that's exactly what I'm getting at. You're making a mark. You've made a mark on me, on your nieces and nephews, on G, and it's been a positive mark. I'm learning to be okay with just those kinds of marks. If I someday get famous, great. I'm not gonna deny that I still think it would be cool. I'm just learning to let go of it as the only sign of accomplishment in my life.

darlene (Nemesis) said...

You know, that's probably exactly what my problem is. I wanted to have that attention, that glory, that wailing and gnashing of teeth when I go (and then I want to continue to live forever in an afterlife).

So believing that I'm just part of the circle of life and won't have an afterlife, means that the fact that I have not achieved anything significantly glorious is weighing on my mind. I even mention this on my blog's 'about' page...I see it as a huge failure of purpose.

And Lessie, for someone so young, you have such a great attitude and presence of being to see those things I haven't been able to recognize, and to divine (ha!) the inherent worth you and your actions have on the world around you.

I'm hoping to learn from your example.

Lessie said...

Hey Darlene. I guess what clued me in to this particular aspect of my world view was the realization of how privileged I was to even *worry* about making a mark on the world.

I realized that there are billions of people in this world. Some of them will spend their lives simply surviving: working in rug factories, picking out metal parts from electronic waste, making bricks, etc. They may never even have the chance to wonder about being famous. It might never even hit their radar.

That I was born in the developed world is simply chance. But it makes me no more special or worthy of recognition than those born in Third World poverty. That I'm even able to enjoy life, have time to sit in front of this computer and think about these things is more than some people will ever have. And so I learned to place my expectations a little closer to home.

I'm not saying this to make you or my other readers feel guilty. I hope it's not coming across as preachy. I'm just trying to illustrate why I'm not as concerned about a blaze of glory as I used to be.

And lastly, my age may very well be what's allowing me to be this optimistic. Maybe when I get older, I'll look back and wish I had done something more noteworthy. And maybe I also realize that it's not too late for me yet. I have a lot of time to make things happen.

But in the meantime, I read a lot of obituaries ;-) And I see how people whom I've never heard of have made a significant impact in the lives of their immediate family and friends. And that's all most of us can hope to accomplish. And at the end of the day, is that really so bad?

G said...

(oh so not on the ball!) :)

yep. ditto. but of course you said it all much more brilliantly than I could.

I think that now I am able to have a bit more of a positive attitude about it than at first, I rather cling to this quote by Jung, "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of being in the darkness of mere being."

kinda what you were saying the end of your post, be good in what I can do, be good to those I am around... ect.
it works for me fore now.

JohnR's post on the subject also raises some of my inner demons about how maybe this is just lowering my expectations...
but still...
it's working for now.
at the moment.

Lessie said...

Thanks for linking to JohnR's post, G. And you're totally more on the ball than I am. You got your post up weeks earlier than I did ;-)

I admit I'm even more fatalistic than Jung. To me, there's only as much purpose to human existence as I/we give it. I'm just lucky enough I get to think about it.

h3 said...

I think I'm more of an agnostic than athiest. I don't know if a god exists, but I do hope so. And I suppose for some of the same reasons. It's scary to think this is it. That I could (and probably would) be forgotten when I die. I don't need to go into all that because Lessie described it exactly.

Like darlene, I can be rather miserable in my not knowingness. Sometimes I wish I could believe in the Mormom fantasy again, but the cognitive disonance was something I couldn't do. So here I am, struggling to come to terms with my own mortality and be OK with my ultimate and likely insignificance in the universe.

For me, there seems to be great peace in making friends with mediocrity. And it seems to me that personal peace is highly underrated. Do I really need to make a huge mark on the world? Why? Would that bring me more peace?

Loving the people I love and being kind to myself and others the best way I know how seems to be enough for today.

My daughter just came in and asked me to play Monopoly. When I don't need to be a big shot, it's easier to say "yes!"