Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thoughts on Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon"

Slowly, I'm making my way through the Cheryl Strayed edited collection of the The Best American Essays of 2013.  Most recently, I completed Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon."  Originally published in The New Republic in 2012, the title had me expecting something lurid and provocative. However, this was not the case. Instead, Kirn's article inspires a consideration of community by reflecting on his experiences with Mormonism. In spite of my intrinsic agnosticism and my love of personal space, and with the caveat that I recognize this article is but one man's evaluation of his experience, I am intrigued by the way an ideology based on the notion of sharing rather than hoarding might impact overall satisfaction in life. 

Kirn's experience with the Mormon church begins when, deep in the midst of midlife confusion, his patent attorney father moves the family from Minnesota to Arizona in hopes of a new start. Instead, Kirn's father falls into even greater mental turmoil. Following a near breakdown, while boarding a flight, Kirn's father is seated next a couple, who sense his despair and begin talking about their church with such radiance that Kirn's father reaches out to the church a few nights later. Kirn was 13 at the time the two young missionaries visit; his family joins the church shortly thereafter. Kirn recalls feeling genuinely included in the Mormon church, a feeling he's not previously experienced at his Lutheran church or elsewhere for that matter. However, when the family moved back to Minnesota, he and his family eventually fall away from the church.

Walter Kirn

Mormons have a bit of an image problem to say the least. In fact, Kirn cites the criticism aimed at Mitt Romney, during his presidential campaign, and regarding his "magic underwear" as initial inspiration for the essay.  A long lapsed Mormon who had grown disgusted with the church's stance on issues such as gay marriage, Kirn was surprised by his anger at the attacks on Romney, and disappointed with Romney showed restraint in his response. He felt a need to defend Mormonism. But where had this loyalty come from? He had been a Mormon only a short time; and he left, without ever serving a mission over questions about key doctrines of the faith. 

30 years after Kirn's introduction to Mormonism, he unexpectedly had another encounter.  At 46, and in spite of finding success as a writer with his novel, Up in the Air, which was later made into a movie starring George Clooney, Kirn is unhappy. He is lonely, and using a number of drugs to deal with depression and anxiety when he meets a woman on the internet who lives in Los Angeles. They like each other and he decides to move to Los Angeles temporarily not only to be present for movie related meetings but also to see if this relationship has any potential.

Kirn finds a guest house rental on a private Beverly Hills property where several young Mormons live communally. Again, he experiences the feelings of inclusion he recalls from his youth.  There are almost endless opportunities to socialize within the group. Moreover, their willingness to help each other out without the insisting on returned favors, and their easy generosity with the fruits of their various successes is shocking but ultimately medicinal for Kirn. His depression subsides, and he breaks his dependence on drugs.

From their starchy white shirts and bicycle powered door to door mission work, to their spirit babies and magic underwear, Mormons are sometimes mistaken for a Cult; and maybe this is deserved.  Certainly some of the fundamentalist sects engage in extremely cult-like and even criminal activities. However, as Kirn relayed his story, I admit I felt drawn, just as he did, to their genuine commitment to supporting their community, to helping each other out, and to sharing their resources. It's all very un-American.

America has long romanticized  the feats of the individual; and a resistance to acknowledging community contributions to individual success, such as those discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's, The Outliers, is evident. In fact our entire economy is constructed to allow individuals to pursue and ultimately amass enormous wealth if they so choose and if they are so fortunate. The problem with the structure is that the distribution of the spoils rarely mirrors the community contributions to the individual's who are credited with the success. We believe "great" individuals deserve EXTREME financial reward.  However, Gladwell's work shows us that while be like believing the Bill Gates' of the world were bound to be Bill Gates' regardless of outside factors, that simply isn't the case. Sadly, this cultural mindset that values individual greatness over community greatness sets nearly all of us up for disappointment because greatness can't be distributed too generally or else it ceases to be meaningful. So, on some level, we average underlings are left to feel a sick sense of collective failure.

Individually, we turn to yoga and pharmaceuticals and fast cars and the biggest houses we can afford and special diets and therapists and self-help books.  We turn inward or take up running or vow to lose weight or read more books or work for an animal rescue or practice a faith all in the quest for the greater life satisfaction our averageness doesn't afford us. But these are all symptomatic cures - and to be sure - they are really all we have when significant systemic changes that would place greater value on community success will not occur anytime soon.

Perhaps this all makes me sound like a raging socialist; and maybe that's what I've become.  But once upon a time I bought in to America's rugged individualism. I moved west in pursuit of my own American dream and I had no doubt that I..I alone could actualize that dream. Some might call that idealistic narcissism.  But I think I was a pretty average young American.  It took me about a year to learn the truth of Maya Angelou's refrain: "nobody but nobody can make it out here alone." So, while I'll never be able to ascribe to God-centered community, the Mormons are on to something with their rugged communitarianism. We would all be wise to stop putting such heavy value on the successes of individuals.  They don't do it alone.

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