Perfectionists Against Self-Improvement

“Why are you so mean all the time?” I asked one of the religious conservatives in my life, this one Mormon.

“When am I ever mean?” This particular family member had just posted on social media urging everyone to be Christlike. Immediately afterward, he posted his view that the very concept of institutional racism was evil, and right after that he quoted a leader of the LDS Church wishing everyone joy and peace in their lives.

“Supporting a law absolving people who run over protesters feels a little mean,” I ventured. I’d also seen this family member’s post declaring the atrocities committed against Native Americans fully justified. “Locking people in prison for decades over a little cannabis feels mean, too.”

“Enabling someone to sin isn’t compassion,” he countered. “I’m showing tough love. Being hard on people pushes them to better themselves, so I’m doing them a favor. That’s compassion.”

“You think being tough on folks who are behaving poorly is a good thing?”

“Don’t you?”

“Why do you think I’m pointing out your poor behavior?”

A longtime friend, also Mormon, used to share with me words from the language she was creating for the subjects on her future planet. She couldn’t be bothered, however, to learn rudimentary Spanish, though thousands of Latinx immigrants lived in her community, some even members of her congregation. Those people were in America! It was their job to learn a new language, not hers.

One doesn’t need to be a polyglot to be a good person, obviously, but it does seem odd that a perfectionist hoping to become a god in the afterlife reached her sixties still disdaining any responsibility on her part to communicate with others of different backgrounds.

While Latter-day Saints may be the only Christians preaching progression to godhood, many other white Christians still seem to feel equally superior to Black and brown neighbors. Indigenous peoples everywhere are treated like bedbug infestations, not as brothers and sisters sharing the same Heavenly parents. It’s no more audacious, I suppose, to believe you’re on the fast track to deification than to believe God prefers you right here, right now, over someone with a tad more melanin.

Racial bias disguised as sibling rivalry would hardly impress a Being who was truly Supreme, would it? “Dad loves me best!”

Even a sinless God wouldn’t be able to resist rolling his or her eyes.

I hope most of us don’t want to worship a God who treats some humans better than others, who pits his kids against each other like dogs in an illegal dogfight.

A God who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent surely has enough love to go around. He’s not forced to dole it out in zero sum portions.

So why do so many white worshipers keep telling ourselves that we’re better? Even flawed sinners who acknowledge they’re doomed without God’s forgiveness still think they’re somehow just a little more deserving.

“Ugh, Just Mercy? I don’t want to watch a movie about Black people in prison.”

Our refusal to learn more about others is a deliberate attempt not to feel empathy.

Not to feel equal.

We know that learning would change that dynamic, so we choose not to learn.

I know fellow Mormons who won’t watch classic movies like Schindler’s List, The King’s Speech, or The Accused. Just as “nothing good happens after midnight,” apparently no good can be gleaned from R-rated movies. Ever.

Everybody has their preferences, of course. I get bored with most westerns. But I do watch movies from almost every genre, in at least a dozen different languages. I can’t possibly watch every worthwhile movie or television show, read every great book, or listen to every fascinating podcast, but that fact saddens me—it’s not an excuse to shrug off my ignorance.

When I saw the first Highlander movie and realized the prize for the sole survivor was to experience everything every other person had ever experienced, know everything about the human condition there was to know, I wondered if a Latter-day Saint had written the screenplay. A lapsed one, of course, since the film was rated R. But “the prize” seemed very Mormon.

I was taught that after Judgment Day, everyone would know everything that every single person throughout history had done or felt or thought. This was a necessary step before we could move on to our assigned kingdom. Even folks relegated to the lowest degree of the Telestial Kingdom would intimately understand billions of lives. Those awarded the top level of the Celestial Kingdom, where they’d then continue with their progression toward godhood, would need to learn even more.

To become a god, we’d have to understand everything there was to know about biology, about chemistry and physics and engineering, about music, painting, sculpture, stained glass, and…everything.

But when I dare to read the FB posts of my Mormon friends and family, I see them railing against Critical Race Theory. They call anyone questioning Christopher Columbus’s character evil. They’re livid if anyone calls the LDS Church’s longtime ban on Black members going to the temple (and thus also qualifying for the Celestial Kingdom and therefore godhood) racist.

They rail against “antifa,” though until the last couple of years, they believed that fighting against people like Mussolini and Hitler was a good thing.

They love “freedom” and yet blindly follow pundits and politicians who tell them that “undesirables” in our country shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Everyone has blind spots, and everyone progresses at their own pace.

But that’s really the problem, isn’t it? On so many issues, most of the Mormons I know, and most of the conservative Christians in my circle, think they’ve already reached the pinnacle of enlightenment. There is no further advancement to be made. Mormons may still need to learn astronomy before they can become a god, but they’re good in regard to empathy. They’ve nailed that one.

Marked it off the “To Do” list a long time ago.

White Christian evangelicals also seem to know everything they need to understand about poverty, and homelessness, and addiction, and mental health, and immigration, and trans women. They’ve reached the apex of compassion and caring and love.

Which must be why so many post memes making fun of gay marriage, Black Lives Matter protesters, and Greta Thunberg.

I may be too intimidated by rock climbing to learn how to do it, but I want to. I want to learn architecture and screenwriting and paleontology, too. I want to train for a marathon and learn to play tennis and master the butterfly stroke. In a perfect world, even an Earthly one, I’d learn everything.

Shouldn’t all of us, religious or not, at the very least want to learn how to be kind to those who are suffering?

As gods in embryo, do my fellow Mormons believe it possible even to become a good, decent person, much less a Supreme Being, by dismissing every other human on the planet who doesn’t think and behave exactly like us?

Is the superior conscience of white Americans really telling us to subjugate eighty million non-white Americans?

People lie to themselves all the time about any number of things. But there does finally come a time when we look in the mirror and realize the truth.

My imperfect hope is that we can all push ourselves through the discomfort of real change to understand that any meaningful self-improvement includes doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, not doing unto others what we don’t want done unto us, and just stop being assholes quite so often.

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2 Responses

  1. Donna Banta says:

    Great post. There is a vast difference between a perfectionist and a person who considers him/herself to already be perfect–as we have daily proof when dealing with some of the folks you describe. Education would be helpful, but why bother when you already know everything? As Mark Twain said: “Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

  2. chanson says:

    Personally, I think the two greatest human traits (or virtues) are curiosity and empathy. As you point out, it’s impossible to learn everything in one lifetime, but ignorance should lead to a hunger for learning.

    The LDS doctrine of “Eternal Progression” is one of the most appealing parts of Mormonism. I’m not sure how someone could believe they’re on track to become a god if they think they’re already done learning.

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