Sunday, July 18, 2010

Introspection

I've been thinking recently about introspection and what a powerful thing it is. This has been brought on by recently re-reading The Stranger by Camus, creating a profile on the new Mormon.org, and a few other random experiences.

The Stranger is about a guy who lives life without any introspection or thought about what he is doing. He does what feels good and avoids what is painful or annoying, solely acting on instincts. He is not much different from an animal, really. After killing an Arab for no reason (for which he feels no remorse, of course) he begins to actually think critically* about life. He has a soul-shaping epiphany at the very end of the book as he realizes that not only does he not believe in God, he doesn't even care about the question; however, he succeeds in finding meaning in a moment of existential baptism after his anger with a priest who tried to get him to gain faith while on death row:
"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself--so like a brother, really--I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."
I love love love this ending! I could easily write an entire paper on it. No, I don't agree with his militant agnosticism, but it strikes me as important that he only becomes human, an agent unto himself, when he has actually looked into himself. His life has no meaning until he has searched his soul for meaning and forged it with his own will. He sees the world as alien and hostile, but he has a narrative, a purpose, a desire to act and not be acted upon. While I don't reach anywhere near the same conclusions as he does, the book got me thinking about how important it is to be looking critically at our own lives, thoughts, and goals.

I had similar thoughts as I filled out my profile on the revamped Mormon.org. The new design is genius, as far as I'm concerned. [One of my favorite featured profiles was of Josh, a NYC skateboarder. I wish I could embed the video, but go here and click on the guy on the right with the beanie and Buddy Holly glasses.] The wonderful variety of voices come across as simply real. I have high hopes that it will be a wonderfully effective missionary tool.

But back to the theme of the blog post: I created my own profile (and I encourage you to do the same), and found it forced me to inspect my faith in a somewhat new way. I think about my faith and Mormonism in general multiple times every single day. But it was different to try to answer simple questions about that faith for an audience that knows next to nothing about it. What's the best way to explain "Why am I a Mormon?" or "What is a 'testimony'?" Putting my answers succinctly (or semi-succinctly...) into words made me stretch some spiritual muscles and think a bit deeper--or at least from a fresh angle--about what I really believe. It was a great experience.

These thoughts on introspection stem also from my budding appreciation for literary criticism. I've always thought that reviews of literature and articles on literary theory were pointless--just write good literature, don't write about good literature! But reading Eugene England's review (warning: long!) of Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch started changing my mind. For one, it is epic--the review doesn't even start discussing the book it's nominally about until halfway through (paragraph 28, beginning "Well, my main point today..."). England dissects Card's career not just from a literary, but also from a theological angle. He critiques, celebrates, and puzzles over Card's works, and then situates Pastwatch within that context. Another thing I loved about the review was that it was a work of literature in itself. No, it didn't use beautiful similes, introduce me to new characters, or other things I have always thought of as important to literature; it is admittedly a much more functional literature. But it was fundamentally creative. It interpreted a large body of work in an original way, it gave a framework for understanding a writer's books in a new way, it exhorted me to apply the atonement in my life. It went beyond a simple I-liked-this-but-didn't-like-this-and-I-gave-it-4-out-of-5-stars kind of review. It was a true response to literature. And this has gotten me taking works of literary criticism--which is nothing if not literary introspection--more seriously.

So finally, I'll tie this all up by mentioning how this blog has been an important vehicle for me to examine myself. I view it as a somewhat more public version of my journal where I actually re-read what I wrote at least once to edit it for a minimal level of clarity. As I type out what at times may seem drivel, I am thinking about what I think. Just as my Mormon.org profile doesn't come close to capturing the totality of my spirituality, just as literary criticism is probably as often fruitless as it provides useful insights, so all introspection is most valuable not in what it produces, but rather in the fact that the process is occurring. Essays about literature can't answer my questions about what makes good literature, but they can give some great do's and don'ts. My personal journal is more a reflection of a confused life than a well-ordered history from which I can easily pick out valuable life lessons, but it is therapeutic and empowering to create. Camus' stranger may have only found his humanity on death row, but how much better off will he be in the afterlife he doesn't believe in for it!

Moral of the post: introspect. Today, write in your journal trying to understand yourself, and don't worry when you don't. Today, take time to look in a mirror, not to judge but just to see. Tonight, read The Stranger and argue with the conclusion. But before any of that, don't forget to go do some fun missionary work on Mormon.org!

* I hate that the English word "critical" can mean both "fault-finding" and "analytical"; I am using it throughout solely in the latter use. When we analyze something--our lives, the scriptures, relationships--critically we may find some faults, yes, but it is not with that purpose in mind that we undertook the analysis. Rather, it is to better understand the subject in its entirety, warts and all.

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