Wednesday, September 5, 2012

No Thank You, Please

If one learns theology before learning to become a man, one will never become a man. —Ludvig Holberg
I still remember vividly the afternoon I told my Mormon bishop that I wanted my name removed from the records of the LDS Church. Utah sunlight, coming through a large window to my left, lit up his office; portraits of Mormon leaders and Jesus and Book of Mormon heroes decorated the walls of his office; photographs of his family cornered his desk. During an earlier meeting he'd told me with enthusiasm of the happiness he and his wife experienced singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He had mementos on the shelves behind him of their travels.

He received my news with sadness. He tried to get me to explain my decision, but I refused to do that, and he soon gave up. With grim professionalism he told me how to proceed; he also told me what I'd lose, which amounted to everything: the assurance of life at God's side in heaven, with my family, forever.

While he talked I thought mainly about him. I couldn't help but see him as a projection of myself 30 years from then: soft-spoken and wise, silver in every respect, kind, and harmless, and maybe, I thought, vaguely angry. He seemed to abide, like many religious leaders, in a kind of patriarchal self-assurance that I found both enviable and scary. What he no doubt meant as compassion I experienced as condescension. He seemed sexless—or nearly so: too sexless, anyway, for me to trust. His assiduously combed hair and clean-shaven cheeks both saddened and frightened me; but adult innocence, or an adult's ambition to appear innocent, is always sad and is often frightening.

After a while he reassured me of God's love for me and sent me on my way.

I have never, not for one day, regretted my decision to abandon Mormonism—not because the church is evil or its theology incoherent but because from adolescence I'd used religion to avoid becoming an adult. Yes, I can provide a mildly sophisticated repudiation of Mormonism on philosophical or rational grounds. But the truth is simpler: I left the church because I was tired of childhood. I yearned for messy complexity, for the bewildered authenticity—the earned blue happiness—of adulthood.


Watching Mitt Romney reminds me of that bright April day, because Mitt Romney strikes me as a version of myself, had I allowed my life to unfold differently. I see him as many things, some of them good, but mostly I see him as miserable. He carries his misery in his body: his smile is miserable; his laugh is miserable; even his notorious hair is miserable. He's embittered by innocence, by obedience; he's crushed by the myths of superiority and chosenness that have been pounded into his head since he was a toddler and which, in some gleaming corner of his consciousness, he knows to be false.

That knowledge haunts his life; his vast ambition, including his quest for the presidency, is little more than a tireless battle against his misery.

And it's not just his misery: it's the misery of anyone who has only been obedient. Romney was told to be good, and hardworking, and conscientious, and self-reliant, and god-fearing, and tolerant, and compassionate, and obedient, and honorable; and he's been all of those thing. But to have been only those things—to have never known disobedience, and rebellion, and secrecy, and drunkenness, and dancing and swearing and fucking—precludes the possibility of growing up. And a man who never grows up is a miserable man.

In Romney's cruel unhappiness I see the future I could have had, if I'd been obedient to my destiny. Of course I would have been less wealthy than Romney, and less handsome, and less ambitious and less renowned. But I would have been similarly miserable. And, like Romney, I would have asked the people around me to collaborate in my misery by pretending that it was happiness and worth emulating.

Romney now seeks my collaboration by asking me to vote for him. Instead, I'll vote for the adult, with his blue happiness, his easy smile, his hard-won, complicated calm. I'll vote, in other words, for the man I wanted to become, long ago, when I took a last look at the dreams of my father, and told them goodbye.

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