Write Your Own Epic

There was a required class in the computer engineering curriculum that was only ever taught by one particular professor. This professor had a penchant for creating pointless busywork. His homework for this class consisted of one page reports on each section of the book that we read. He didn’t tell you this at first, but these were no ordinary reports. He expected you to fill up that one side of the page with as much information as possible. Margins should be as tight as possible: usually ¼” all around. The last line of each paragraph should be as long as possible: whitespace was the enemy. Smaller fonts got more points. Color got more points. Diagrams were good but should not take up too much space. None of those criteria were stated up front. The class members discovered them through trial and error over the course of the semester. This is only one illustration of his eccentricities as a professor.

His arbitrariness clashed with my sense of fairness. I had a hard time bringing myself to just do whatever it took to pass the class. I took the class four times before the professor gave me the required C or better in the class. By that fourth semester, I knew the material in the class better than he did. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge that I didn’t pass; I didn’t pass because I didn’t want to bend to his will.

I tell this story to give you the context of why I hate admitting what I’m about to say. One of this professor’s favorite sayings was that each of his students was “special, just like everyone else”. That really bugged me, but I must now confess that he was right. Each of us is unique and special, but that makes us no more special than anyone else.

Lately I’ve been feeling kind of empty. My first reaction was “Oh crap! The Mormons were right. I’m losing the Spirit!” I fell prey to the indoctrination of my youth, but only for a moment. I reassured myself that some other reason must explain the emptiness that I felt every time I thought about life. I just had to find it.

It took me a while to put my finger on the cause: I miss being part of a grand epic. Mormonism put me in the middle of a larger-than-life struggle between God and the forces of evil. It told me that I was a valiant spirit in God’s army before I was born. God took a special interest in the course of my life. Everything that happened was part of his eternal plan. My life would determine my future eternal state. My destiny, if I lived worthy of it, could be to become a god to rule and reign over numberless worlds and their inhabitants. Mormonism gave my life a greater context and purpose than the mundane appearances of my day-to-day existence. It reassured me that I was special, more special than those who had chosen not to embrace the truth.

The initial euphoria of casting off old religious demons and tasting sweet freedom and intellectual integrity has now worn off. The euphoria had anesthetized me while my sense of my own inherent, unearned specialness was being removed. I’m just now becoming aware of the hole that Mormonism vacated.

My brother recently made me aware that Maslow extended his hierarchy of needs beyond what we typically hear about. Usually the hierarchy includes five levels of need (from the lowest to the highest): physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow later included cognitive and aesthetic needs in his hierarchy, but more importantly for me, he made the top of his hierarchy self-transcendence.

My needs for self-actualization are finally being met. My native self is finally finding expression outside the culture-imposed narratives of Mormonism. I am becoming self-determined. This self-actualization has come at a price. I have lost the Mormon myths that gave me a false sense of self-transcendence, Maslow’s next higher level of need.

The hunger that I feel in my heart is born of the questions “Why do I live? What greater purpose will my life hold?” I have to answer these questions on my own for the first time in my life. I no longer have a source of ready-made meaning to turn to. No one-size-fits-all story could possibly anticipate the full effect of my life. I have to write the story as I go. My purpose will be unique (just like everyone else) because my place in the universe is unique (just like everyone else).

What will I do to transcend myself? This is my story, my quest. No other hero can take my place.

[Originally posted at Green Oasis]

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6 Responses

  1. exmoron says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Nice post. You did a good job putting into words the very experience I had leaving Mormonism. Initially, it’s exciting, because it’s almost like you’re doing something wrong (though, of course, that is absolutely not the case). Then you realize just what this means – you are special, just like everyone else.

    I remember the exact time and place when this thought hit me. I was at the post office mailing a package (living in the mid-West at the time). I looked around me and said, “Wow, I’m just like everyone else. That person and that person and that person – we’re all equal. None of us are special.” I walked into the post office in a daze, realizing the enormity of my epiphany.

    It took me a while to fill the “hole” left by Mormonism as well. You’re absolutely right (IMHO) that we get to create our own meaning, at least to some degree. I came to believe that there is some inherent meaning to life, though it is a tautology – life is its own meaning. Our purpose in life is simply to create more life – from a strictly biological and scientific standpoint that’s what we are – gene replicators.

    But beyond that, you get to create whatever additional meaning you want. I haven’t gone so far as to paint that idea as developing my own epic, but I have found other “purposes” in life that have nothing to do with supernature: contributing to our scientific understanding of the world, sharing this time with loved ones, and trying to make the world a better place for those who follow me. But whatever purpose you come up with beyond creating more life, it is yours – no one else gets a say in it. You’re free!

  2. Sometimes I look at the people around me and have this odd moment, like you describe, where I realize I’m just like everyone around me. I’m not Mormon with all the attending feelings of superiority or separateness. I never realized while I was Mormon how much it put a barrier between me and other human beings. Of course it says something about me that I allowed Mormonism to have that effect on me, but I’m happy I can start diving into the pool of humanity with both feet instead of fastidiously worrying about how clean the water is.

  3. Jonathan,

    This post is excellent. You have a real skill with writing the feelings many of us feel as we leave the Mormon religion behind.

    I too held onto my belief that someday I’d reach a divine destiny of goddesshood. Women in the church probably cling even harder to this thought…especially considering their status in comparison to men and their status within the church.

  4. Thank you for your kind words, Sister Mary Lisa.

    I just watched The Devil Wears Prada. What you said about women in the church reminded me of the scene where a character is passed up for a promotion of sorts despite decades of thankless service. This character clings desperately to the slim hope that Miranda, the boss, will make good in the end.

    Speaking as one who has never walked in women’s shoes (how do y’all deal with heels?!) and will never truly understand, it seems that women’s self-esteem is attacked from all sides. I can understand why a woman would cling to such grandiose affirmations of self-worth to stave off that destructive pressure. “I may not be a size X supermom who lives a perfect balance of family and work and whose home is an immaculate temple of order and cleanliness, but damn it I’m going to be a goddess some day!”

  5. Jonathan,

    It’s sad, however, how much emphasis is placed on godhood vs. goddesshood within the church. (Is goddesshood even a word?!)

    If I’m going to be “revered” like our Heavenly Mother is by God…meaning if I’m going to be forgotten, never mentioned to my children, and not prayed to, glorified, or available for Q&A, then what’s the point?

    This is the tragedy with women within the church working so hard and following all the (many) rules and striving to be righteous and bear the burdens…yet they do it for what?? To continue to do so in the next life as her husband gets to enjoy going out with the guys, creating worlds, being prayed to, glorified, and feared, while being in control of it all. She gets to continue to have countless babies in heaven, and if the men of earth follow our God’s example, she will not be mentioned when her children are sent from her presence to be tried and tested to see if they will follow HIS counsel and plan for them without any input from her.


  6. Hellmut says:

    That’s interesting, Jonathan. Life is also a story. Or may be, it works better the other way around: all our stories are about life.