When I read Jeff’s post Friday (“Maybe Everything Is a Lie?”) that was in response to Andrew’s post Wednesday (“4 Reasons Why Disaffected Mormons Become Atheists“), I knew I had to get my own response in. It’s an important discussion and probably the real reason the bloggernacle exists. Why does new information create deeper conviction in some but put others on a completely different path? Is it the nature of the information, the nature of the individual, the support structure, the circumstances, a mix of these, or something else entirely? And what about those who, like Jeff in his post, face their doubts head on and hang in there?
The Disaffection Blitz
I was recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. In it, he talks about the anticipated vs. actual effect of the London Blitz during World War 2. British leaders were prepared for the worst, not only in terms of casualties and collateral damage, but in predicting that the psychological damage would be severe. They expected citizens to be disoriented, shell-shocked, fearful, their morale so devastated that they would be wandering the city by the thousands, in need of psychiatric care. They thought it would cost them the war, but they were wrong.
The panic never happened.
Although the Brits are hasty to credit their inherent stoicism (the famous “stiff upper lip”), Canadian psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy evaluated the effect in his book The Structure of Morale. He looked at cities that were bombed, dividing the affected population into three groups: those killed, the near misses, and the remote misses. As I read the descriptions of these groups, I couldn’t help but see clear parallels with those impacted by new negative information about their faith.
Here’s how MacCurdy described the Londoners during the Blitz:
- Those directly killed. While there are some who are immediate casualties, and clearly they have the most severe impact, it is not their loss, but the reaction of the survivors that affects the psychological reaction of the group. These folks actually cease to influence the community, or as MacCurdy callously (yet accurately) put it ‘corpses don’t spread panic.’
- The near misses. In a bombing, these are the people who feel the blast, see the destruction, are horrified by the carnage, may even be seriously wounded but not killed. They survive, but are deeply impressed by the experience. In these cases, their “impression” reinforces a fear reaction associated with bombing. They are usually jumpy, dazed, preoccupied with the horrors of what they saw and may experience PTSD. This is the reaction leaders expected to prevail in the wake of the bombings.
- The remote misses. These are the people who listen to the sirens, hear the bombs, and even see the explosions in the distance, but they are not personally injured or often close enough to be blown off their feet by the blasts. Psychologically, the consequences to these survivors are the exact opposite of the near miss group. Their survival comes with an excitement associated with the attack and a feeling of invulnerability. A near miss leaves you traumatized, but a remote miss makes you believe you are invincible.
“We are all of us not merely liable to fear. We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration. When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”
So how does this play out in a faith crisis? The parallel between the two latter groups is the most interesting one to understand how different people handle a faith crisis, and how they respond to others in the community who are likewise affected by doubts.
Remote Miss or Near Miss
While working on the StayLDS board, I have noticed that people come to the forum with different issues: Joseph Smith, polygamy, treatment of homosexuals, political discourse at church, racism, sexism, boredom, depression, ecclesiastical abuse. Invariably, the issues they are dealing with are incredibly important to them. But those same issues are not equally important to every participant in the forum.
For a quick example, a recent discussion was started by a woman who was rattled by the overt sexism in the temple ceremony. While a few of the men agreed that they disliked the sexism inherent in the temple, nearly all the women agreed that it was a big concern for them, one that created a lot of personal hurt and disaffection, and several stated it was one of their core issues. Perhaps understandably, the men who expressed empathy simply didn’t consider this to be a core issue for them. For the women in the discussion, sexism was a near miss. For the men, it was a remote miss. In this case, these were men who had also experienced near misses of their own, just not on that topic.
Empathy vs. Optimism
Another example from the book is a self-made man, Dr. Jay Freireich, who was orphaned at a young age and lacked the support many children take for granted. Against all odds, he was able to overcome his financial and familial adversity and become a doctor. He was mostly a great success story, but with an important caveat. He lacked empathy for his colleagues and nearly all of his close friends could give examples of his angry outbursts, argumentative nature and even his accusation and insults hurled at colleagues. At the same time, he had unparalleled optimism and felt that other doctors were giving up too soon when a prognosis wasn’t good, and his dogged approach led to unparalleled success in curing childhood leukemia.
This seeming paradox is because empathy comes from being supported, understood and comforted in our suffering (which he wasn’t); that support gives us a model for how to feel for and care for others. But the roots of optimism are from remote misses, and remote misses create the kind of optimism associated with a sense of personal invincibility, a personal feeling that you are magical or special enough to have survived adversity; conversely, those who were killed or injured (near misses) weren’t special, weren’t invincible. It’s a short step from seeing yourself as invincible to victim-blaming of those who have been impacted, the byproduct of lack of empathy.
Dr. Freireich faulted those who gave in to feelings of depression or pessimism. He couldn’t relate. After all, he never gave into depression, and look at all he had been through. He never sat around crying. He worked hard and fought for what he wanted. Why didn’t everyone just do what he did? He had optimism, but not empathy.
I don’t doubt that there are many who have faced their issues head on and found satisfaction to their issues. And as Jeff points out, sometimes the issue is related to unrealistic levels of trust and previous lack of rigor. But that same optimism that issues can be resolved for individuals can often include a lack of empathy for others for whom the issues fall nearer.
- Does the concept of near misses vs. remote misses help explain how some people are greatly impacted while others come out feeling stronger than ever?
- Have you observed people who were remote misses for a specific issue who lacked empathy for those who wear nearly missed (or killed) by that issue?
- What role does support play in the development of empathy within the church? Are those who lack empathy people who’ve been given less support in their doubts? Are they simply modeling the lack of support they had in their own families (e.g. intolerance for doubting)?
- Given that polygamy and other sexist issues can’t be a near miss for men, is there any hope women’s concerns will be taken seriously? Likewise for how homosexuals and minorities are treated, given that all decision-making church leaders are white heterosexual men? Taking it one step further, have any of our top leaders had any near misses (in terms of church disaffection), or only remote misses with thorny issues?
- Does empathy really help or does it just prolong feelings of frustration? Is it optimism and action that are needed to address issues?