I haven’t got a really well thought out post ready to go this morning, so I’m just going to start writing and see where it goes. I’m going to start with short reflections on dementia, then talk about memory, then get to a Mo app in the last couple of paragraphs. Have you watched a friend or relative slowly sink into dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease? I have. It can be a slow-motion heartbreak, spread over several years of decline.
Memory. Here is my non-specialist observation: the whole sad process of dementia progression shows me how important, how integral, simple memory is to other aspects of life we take for granted: rationality, identity, even casual conversation. The stereotypical early manifestations are that an afflicted person can’t remember a word for this or that common object or the name of a familiar person. But before too long short-term memory loss intrudes on everyday conversation. The same stories re-told several times during a visit. Worse, an afflicted person has difficulty following the thread of even a simple conversation because they can’t recall what was said two or three sentences ago. Difficulty watching TV because one can’t follow the plot from scene to scene — the show doesn’t make sense. Difficulty reading because one can’t remember the flow of the discussion from page to page. Everything becomes disconnected.
Anxiety and Discomfort. Less obvious is the emotional confusion an afflicted person faces even in their own home, surrounded by what should be the familiar and comforting items in a living room or kitchen or bedroom. Here’s the thing: when you as a normal person walk into your living room, you don’t just see generic furniture, a chair and a couch, or a bookshelf of random books, or nice pictures of a family, somebody’s family, on the wall. You see a chair you bought five years ago at a particular store, a shelf of books each of which you have read or maybe plan to read, pictures on the wall of your family from a reunion or a vacation or some special event. It’s home: every object, even the little stuff, carries a load of memories and feelings. That’s what makes it home. Someone else’s living room has similar objects, but no memories or associations for you. A hotel room is even more bland. Here’s the rub. An afflicted person loses those associations. In their own home it’s like they are sitting in someone else’s living room, struggling to make some sort of connection with the items around them. It just doesn’t feel right anymore. It’s not home sweet home anymore. Even in their own living room, they cannot relax because they are just not comfortable in what has become, to them, a strange environment.
Pseudo-memories. It’s not just your memories of lived events and actual persons you meet and know that give you your rich sense of identify and context and life continuity. You learn all kinds of facts about the world and history that get poured into your mental worldview. You weren’t there for the Civil War and you didn’t meet George Washington and you didn’t accompany Pilgrims and Puritans settling New England in the early 17th century, but those and a thousand other facts are up there in your head, extending your personal memories to give you a larger sense of who you are and what your place is in the world. I’ll call them pseudo-memories. Beware, they are fallible. Most people have a somewhat flawed view of historical timelines and events. Some people have a grossly flawed view of the world.
Call it folk history if you want. You can probably recall reading something in a history or science book and going, “Wow, I missed that in school. I had no idea.” I’d even go so far as guessing with some confidence you had that reaction a time or two when reading LDS history, except you didn’t miss it in Sunday School or seminary, it just wasn’t taught there.
Alienation. Here’s where I’m going with this. Some Mormons, average or even super-dedicated members of the Church, find the right book or article or website or conversation with a no-longer-active friend and hit a few “Wow, I didn’t know that” reactions. For some, a certain sense of alienation sets in (a gentler word than betrayal or “I was lied to”) as this or that LDS narrative you grew up with gets rewritten inside your head. It’s like updating those faulty pseudo-memories about history or science that you somehow grew up with. But it’s not just a random or even mildly relevant fact or event that gets updated, it’s religion and belief and participation and commitment. As reality updating goes, updating your religious facts and beliefs has a much deeper effect. Some become, in a sense, an alien in their own church, which suddenly seems like a different church. I don’t particularly feel that way, but from reading many sincere online accounts, some people do.
Then for some people the familiar and comforting objects and practices and songs in church on Sunday lose that sense of familiarity. The home-sweet-home feeling many people get in LDS church on Sunday (even a different ward you are visiting) slips away. Instead, the Sunday experience becomes uncomfortable, even disturbing. Just like someone with dementia loses the rich and pleasant associations with the items in their own home, some people lose the pleasant associations with the standard items and practices at church. Familiar lyrics, when examined closely, become problematic. A familiar lesson you’re heard before a time or two is now troubling. Some people move from a sense of alienation to anxiety and discomfort and even anger. What am I doing here? Who are these people?
Again, I don’t really feel that way. I hear questionable stuff in a talk or lesson and I might roll my eyes or even make a correcting comment in class, but I don’t stomp out of the room (well, not very often) or vow never to return. Some can roll with the punches, others just can’t — and I’m not judging either way, just noting that different people react differently to that scenario. It’s similar to the work scenario you have probably experienced. At some point you realize you don’t really like your co-workers or your boss or the work you are doing. Some people soldier on for a year or two or three (good paycheck? tough to find another job? easy commute?) and other people look in the mirror one morning and say, “I can’t work here another day” and that’s it. They quit, that day. Not judging either way. It’s just that different people make different choices.
Conclusions. So what I called reality updating, the process of replacing your fallible pseudo-memories with better ones, can be painful. We don’t like to admit we were misinformed or even bamboozled. Some people refuse to update and instead double down on or even spin fanciful sets of unfounded facts to reinforce their initial but faulty beliefs. The whole American Trump experience shows how deep and pervasive this latter reaction can be. One can’t help but generalize. It’s easy to critique someone else’s conspiracy theory but (uncomfortable thought) we may be blind to our own little versions thereof. Know thyself.
Maybe a better issue for discussion is alienation. How comfortable or uncomfortable or totally agitated are you in LDS church on Sunday? What changed the game for you? Alternatively, how or why did you remain comfortable in the pews or classes after doing some of your own personal LDS/reality updating? Again, I’m not judging either way. It’s like with the work scenario I alluded to earlier. Some people soldier on for years, other people walk out the door one Friday afternoon and never come back (and of course some people are perfectly happy there). In church, are you a “sure, there are some issues but it still feels like church home” kind of person, or are you a “open up the gates of the church and let me out of here” kind of person? Or are you an “I love church on Sunday, what’s your problem?” kind of person?