Janet used to complain about her brother-in-law a lot. Everything from his finances to his personal hygiene was scrutinized and criticized. She didn't like him but she put up with him because he was family. When she received the call, Janet went from happy-go-lucky to bawling-her-eyes-out in a matter of seconds. Suddenly she was frazzled and inarticulate. She was both asking me for permission to leave work and telling me she was leaving, or maybe she was switching back and forth. She'd apologize for having to leave, but then she'd ask if I would let her. She forgot her purse and then came back a second time for her phone. She was suddenly so different from her usual self. It was weird.
For some reason, I was reflecting on that memory today and I wondered how much of my reaction was a result of patterns of behavior that were ingrained in me because of--wait for it--my Mormon upbringing.
When Janet was explaining what happened, I was listening carefully, hoping for clues on how I was supposed to react. I knew she thought that her brother-in-law was a fat waste of space, so I was kind of surprised to see her crying so much. I didn't want to act too casual about it, in case I'd underestimated how much she cared for him, but I didn't want to act too concerned about it, either--in case I'd underestimated how much she loathed him. Her behavior confused me, so I didn't know how I needed to react. Maybe she was so upset because she knew her husband and mother-in-law would take his passing much harder? Maybe she was just in shock and she'd be fine in a minute? Maybe, despite all her complaining about him, she really did consider him family and cared deeply for his well-being?
When she asked me if she could leave (and told me that she was while asking if she could but she had to and was it okay but she needed to leave right then but she's sorry to leave me hanging like this but she has to go and would I mind terribly letting her leave early?) I didn't know what to do. I've made kind of a weird reputation for myself at work that I don't like physical contact--I find it weird to hug or touch my coworkers in any way that's more than a casual greeting or less than physical violence. Should I give her a hug? Would that send the message that I cared, or would it look like I was making too much of a show of throwing my no-hugging rule out the window?
Of course I let Janet leave. I'm not heartless. And I think what I wound up doing was maybe giving one of those vague "call me if you need anything" or "text me later to let me know you're okay" expressions of concern. And I had to fight to smother the urge to work out some of the practical how-this-relates-to-me details on the spot. I thought that asking her if she'd be at work tomorrow or telling her to let me know when the funeral was as soon as possible so that I could make sure we could afford to do without her that day would be kind of insensitive.
There are a couple of explanations for why I had so much trouble reacting to Janet's personal tragedy. The first one that comes to mind is that I'm an emotionless sociopath and in twenty years I'll have half a dozen skeletons of dead hookers piled in my basement. But that's not as interesting to me as the other explanation I came up with.
So much of Mormonism is about appearances. It's implicitly stated in just about every church meeting that it's important to appear as close to perfect as you possibly can. Occasionally, it's even stated explicitly, such as in the time-honored Mormon adage, "Avoid the appearance of evil."
Especially when I got into the Aaronic Priesthood, image was of paramount importance. If I was unworthy, I'd have to stop passing the sacrament. Then it would be obvious to everyone that I'd done something wrong. I couldn't have the entire ward branding me as a sinner and wondering what I'd done. Had I been drinking? Did I have sex? Was it something worse? Especially if I had any hope of dating, I needed to keep my appearances up, otherwise I'd have some big scary high priest looking down his nose at me when I tried to ask his daughter out--simply because he was suspicious that I'd had a masturbation problem.
Though it may not be written plainly in the doctrine, the culture of the LDS church is heavily, intensely, oppressively saturated in the need to appear to be the most pious, the most righteous, the most dedicated and the most...Mormon. This meant that, in conversations at church, when I was reacting to other people's words and actions, I didn't want to react naturally. It was important to forgo reaction until I could decide what the socially acceptable response was. Because of the church's culture, I had to teach myself to react the right way as opposed to the genuine way.
When my sister told me she was pregnant again, I simply said, "Oh, cool!" to buy myself a second to assess the situation. I knew a family is important to her, but she also eschews excessive attention. So instead of gushing, I carefully said, "So I guess congratulations are in order...."
When another coworker told me she was pregnant, I didn't answer for a moment. I knew she kind of wants a kid because of her biological clock, but she thinks the world is too crappy to raise a child in. She's crazy about her boyfriend, but they don't have a great financial situation. So after my weird hesitation, I asked, "And are you happy about this...?"
Who says stuff like that?
I'm so worried about how to react the right way that my reactions tend to carry zero emotional weight. I treat everything like it's an exercise with a specific answer and I don't let my first instinct through unless I've carefully examined the situation first. In many circumstances, there isn't one correct way to react to someone. And if I care about the people I'm talking to, shouldn't I give them the benefit of a sincere and genuine reaction?
I suppose a third explanation for this is that I just have some need to analyze things somewhere deep in my neural framework. Or maybe my neural framework has that need because of all the mental abuse I took during my Mormon childhood.
I don't want to simply blame everything I dislike about my life and myself on Mormonism. But even if there isn't a direct cause/effect relationship here, the whole Mormon thing is definitely a contributor to a good chunk of my problems and personal issues.
And, let me tell you, that does not seem right to me.