“The Namesake” – On Cultural Immigrants And Flourishing In A Post-Mormon World

As often happens these days, I had a fine experience a few nights ago as a result of tagging along with one of my children. My 17-year-old son brought a movie home — “The Namesake” — at the suggestion of his girlfriend’s mother. I decided to sit down and watch it with him. Time well spent. You can find reviews athttp://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20014… and http://www.boston.com/movies/display?…. It pleases and humbles me each time my children teach me.

“The Namesake” is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, and explores ideas related to what it means to be a member of more than one society as a result of immigration. The movie has a variety of interesting subplots, and I won’t try to explain those. However, I would like to say something about the main theme.

A young man from India comes to North America to study, and becomes a literature professor. He returns to India and goes through the traditional process leading to an arranged marriage, and then brings his bride with him back to New York. They have two children in short order, and become an American family with strong Bengali roots, which are nurtured as a result of their regular participation in the New York City-based Bengali community. Their first child – a boy – is named “Gogol” after the great Russian writer whose work has particular significance to the father. The role this name – connoting a third cultural influence – plays in the boy’s life and his relationship to his father, gives the movie its title.

Both the father and mother become Americanized, but he much more so than she. She barely speaks English upon arrival in the US, but eventually adjusts enough to hold down a job as a librarian, while continuing to dress in traditional Bengali fashion. Their children, however, are almost completely American. The story eventually brings them back to their roots, to an extent. However, some of the most touching moments relate to the gulf between mother and children. Try as she might, having spent the first two decades of her life in India and then as much time as possible within the expatriate Bengali community in the US, the mother cannot understand what goes on inside the heads of her children, and nor can they understand her.

Some of these painful moments reminded me of my own family. There is an unbridgeable gulf between my parents and me, and an even greater gulf between them and my children. There is significant distance of a different kind between my wife and I, on the one hand, and some of our children on the other. This is, for the most part, a good thing. They are being raised in a non-Mormon world. Having placed them in that world, told them that there are nowhere near as many important rules as we once thought, and encouraged them to make their own decisions, we struggle at times to understand them. Hesitant acceptance of their choices is at times the best we can do. Our upbringing as Mormons that makes it as difficult for us to understand our children’s rapidly evolving non-Mormon social world as for the mother in “The Namesake” to understand her children’s New York.

I am happy with this situation. I accept it as the best of the possible alternatives. I have launched my children as well as I can, and know that my ability to perceive their world is limited. I have adopted Mordecai Kaplan’s statement as part of my credo:

Our responsibility to our forefathers is only to consult them, not to obey them. Our responsibility to our descendants is only to impart our most cherished experiences to them, but not to command them.[1]

I am proud of my children. Most of what they do pleases me, as the introduction to this essay indicates. And when what they do does not please me, I remind myself that for the reasons I am about to indicate, they (as adults at least) have eyes for their environment that I do not. I must trust their judgement ahead of my own.

Generation Gaps

In virtually every culture there are gaps between generations. This is what has kept the human species alive and evolving, and recently, made it dangerously dominant on this planet.

The human brain does not mature until roughly age 25. This requires a significant amount of brain formatting outside the womb, and therefore causes brains to be shaped by the environment by which children are surrounded[2]. This means that each generation of humans is custom fit to its environment. As ice ages come and go, wars wax and wane and various other massive environmental changes occur, this constant reformatting and the flexibility from one generation to the next that it causes, has been our salvation. Tension between parents and children is a small price to pay for this, in a sense. However, there is little solace in this knowledge as we struggle to understand our children. This illustrates life’s tragic aspect – the price of many goods includes foregoing what is also precious to us.

Immigration between cultural groups exacerbates generational differences. Children quickly and thoroughly format to their new culture[3], whereas parental lack of brain plasticity prevents them from doing the same. “The Namesake” movingly illustrates this.

Cultural Immigration

Those of us who have left Mormonism, or other literalist religious traditions, are cultural immigrants. Most of us had no idea how isolated we were from a cultural perspective until we left the Mormon cloister. As I try to fit into non-Mormon culture, I regularly feel like the newly blind.

While Mormon, I did not worry about office politics or community affairs. These were at best games – and usually silly games – that in the eternal scheme did not matter. I was above them. I did not hang out with the folks at the office after work, and tended to find excuses to avoid all but the most important work related social activities. I was involved in my children’s sports and school activities, but beyond that remained aloof from community affairs. I was so busy with matters of eternal significance that I did not have time to dedicate to these relatively unimportant issues. Not all Mormons are just like me. There is a probability distribution of behavior in this regard in the Mormon community. Some Mormons are socially adept outside of Mormonism. Think of Mitt Romney, for example.

But on average, Mormons are more like the kind of person I just described than non-Mormons. If the average Mormon was raised outside of the tight-knit Mormon community, much more of her energy would have gone into these “silly games”. And, significantly, the more serious the Mormon the more likely this is to be the case. Once again, those who were the most devoted to Mormonism suffered the most damage. There is something profoundly wrong with any organization of which this can be said – the people who adhere most completely to the organization’s values suffer the most damage.

Now that I have lifted my eyes from Mormon eternity, I see social activities as the rich stream of human communication that they are – a social life-blood. These games now have my full attention. However, as I try to play I find that my instincts are underdeveloped. The Mormon social system is relatively simple. Lines of communication and authority are clearly drawn. The play is well scripted. I did not have to have my antenna up or use my communications skills to their fullest in order to get along. I simply did what I was called to do, and that kept me more than busy. I did not very often have to decide what I wanted to do, and then marshal the resources necessary to bring that into being. At about age 50, it is not surprising that I find it difficult to radically upgrade the only way I know to play. I am, nonetheless, trying.

So, I empathized in particular with the mother in “The Namesake”. Having left India, she was an outsider on those occasions when she returned. She had become just American enough that she did not completely fit in there. This had a lot to do with her perspective. She saw the old world, her family and their society differently than she did before spending time in North America. This is not necessarily better or worse – it is just a social fact. Exposure to new points of view irrevocably changes what and how we see.

And the children did not fit in India. There were tourists – and reluctant at that – there. Her ties to them meant that even after her husband died and she returned to India, she would always have one foot firmly planted in American soil. But she was never completely comfortable in America. She missed her family. She did not understand to a lot of what was going on around her. Her instincts were, largely, “off”. Her children’s behavior baffled her. The best she could do was accept that while still loving them. She demonstrated how to do this admirably, even while Gogol rejected his tradition (and her) for a time.

One of the many important things I’ve learned as a result of the reading I did while re-wiring my Mormon brain is that we are better off focussing on our strengths than our weaknesses. This will make us both happier and more effective. The best research in a variety of fields points to this.[4] We should identify the strengths we have inherited as a result of genetics or circumstance, and spend most of our energy working with those strengths to the extent possible. We should protect ourselves against our weaknesses instead of trying to remedy them. For example, if I am poorly organized, I will be much better off hiring someone or investing in technology to help me to become organized than changing my most basic habits. Disorganized people are often creative, good salespeople, etc.. If I am one of those people, I am likely to be much happier and more successful if I pour my energy into feeding my creative (or sales) talents instead of trying to force myself to become a detail oriented guy. If I employ people like this, I will likely make the organization stronger if I tell them that all they have to do is get their sales (or creative output) up to some defined level and I will hire them a fill time administrative assistant and they will never again have to fill out a form themselves, or keep their offices organized.

So, let’s assume that we have worked through the grieving process, vented our anger to the extent it is productive to do so[5], recognized that it is dysfunctional to continue to do so, and are trying to move on. We have figured out that the brain’s nature orbit is more negative than positive, and hence that we have to make an effort to stay in positive territory, and that when we do so, lots of good things follow.[6] We have decided to spend more time on the things that promote satisfaction with life[7]. Having recognized all of that, we ask ourselves, “What is it about this new world into which I have been thrust, when combined with my native strengths, that offers me the opportunity to flourish?”

This is an individualistic exercise, and so I can’t do more than offer my point of view and time requires this not be exhaustive. So I am going to mention a few of the opportunities that have presented themselves to me, and I would love to hear about what others have found to be the best of the post-Mormon opportunity in their lives.

Chaos and Growth

See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star… at page 22 in this regard.

Leaving Mormonism broke the main patterns in my life, bathing me in terrifying, life giving chaos. My intellectual life exploded. My desire to learn was insatiable for a time, and continues to be unusually potent. I suspect that this attribute will characterize me as long as I have energy. Not all people react to this post-Mormon experience as I did in this regard, but a large number of people open new intellectual chapters upon leaving Mormonism.

Art and Creativity

Again, my life has literally exploded. I think this has to do with the importance of symbols within the mythic systems that underpin our personal narratives. We all perceive ourselves as characters in a grand story of some kind. We are narrative animals. If we come to perceive ourselves as not fitting into the story comfortably, we usually change the story as well as the nature of our character within it. This can happen for many reasons. Maybe we discover that we are gay when the narrative we inherited from our culture impugns gay people. This requires that we come to perceive ourselves differently, and that new aspects to the foundational narrative be discerned, or that narrative be abandoned. This causes us to re-write our foundational narrative and our role within it, and to seek the company of people with whom we can communicate and be understood on this basis – to find a new tribe[8]. Most of the time, even when we think we are abandoning our inherited narratives, we have kept as much of what we inherited as we can. We do not let these things go easily.

Or maybe we find that as our perspective matures and we learn more about the foundations of our inherited story, it no longer makes sense. Our foundational narratives or worldviews do not need to be true in order to perform their function in our lives, but they must make sense to us in light of all of the rest of what we believe to be true. This is the story of spiritual maturation that when combined with social change drives the evolution of religious institutions.[9]

Or maybe our society collapses, or is overrun by another stronger cultural group and a new story is forced upon us. In the Middle East we can see two kinds of war being waged, with the same effect in this regard. The military action raging in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is re-writing foundational narratives in many ways, and Western culture is riding on slick internet rails into the heart of societies dominated by powerful people who are unsuccessfully fighting to hold it at bay. They play a fools game in this regard,[10] but the tides of history mean little to dogmatists. The important point for present purposes is that the energy invested on all sides in their literal and cultural wars is forcing individuals to re-write their foundational narratives.

As we re-work our life frameworks, symbols play a crucial role. Jungian psychology (or at least metaphors drawn from it) speaks to this. The artistic urge that led Jung to his archetype theory[11] is similar to what I and many other people who have re-worked their worldview from the foundation up have experienced as we groped toward ever-elusive essential meaning. The deeper we probe the more we find ourselves using a language of basic symbols that is probably a function of our biology, including our brain structures, and the common nature of human experience. This is the language of art. Spending more time in this space, and less in analytical activities, helps most people who are re-wiring their brains.[12]

As an aside, many have noted the negative correlation between literalist religious belief and high quality artistic output. This is likely due in part at least to the fact that most good art requires the recognition of irony and life’s tragic foundation. Dogmatic belief creates irony impaired people who tend to see the world in black and white terms. They write hagiographies in stead of biographies. Their attempts at art tend toward propaganda, or as James Joyce put it, “didactic pornography”.[13]

Outsider Perspective

Isaiah Berlin’s story suggests something in this regard.[14] He is one of my favorite scholars, who started out as a philosopher and became an intellectual historian.[15] I mention Berlin because he attributed much of his success as a scholar to his outsider status, and hence “The Namesake” reminded me of him.

Berlin’s Jewish family immigrated to London, England from Latvia just before the second world war. He never felt fully part of British society, while being considered by many who knew him well to be quintessentially British. His self perception radically differed from the perception of those around him. His self-perception created the emotional distance that was part of what made him a great scholar.

During the second world war, Berlin played a significant diplomatic role between Britain and the United States, and spent a lot of time in New York and Washington in that regard. His acute observational powers and abilities as a politician and communicator brought him into contact with many of the most powerful people in America and Europe during this period. But he never felt like he belonged in the United States either. He returned to his homeland, as well as spending a significant amount of time in the Soviet Union where his family had ties.[16] Again, he was the outsider. He was a non-believing Jew. Again, an outsider.

Berlin believed that his role as an outsider in every conceivable circumstance gave him the ability to see things within the various social groups of which he was part that the insiders could not see. He yearned for greater connection, while the same time recognizing the fact that his disconnection largely made him what he was. And he revelled in what he was.

Berlin describes something relative to this irony that captures a deep truth with regard to human existence more efficiently than I’ve ever seen it captured. This idea is so obvious once it is properly stated it almost doesn’t seem worth stating. However, the more I think about it and use it to explain what I see on a daily basis, the more powerful it becomes for me.

The idea, as Berlin put it, is that life has an essential tragic aspect that provides much of the emotional force we feel. This is most easily visible in the fact that we are often confronted with many good things that cannot be simultaneously achieved. This forces us to make decisions that cause pain to ourselves and others.[17] These forces operate at the macro (societal, species, etc.) as well as personal levels. His life illustrates this tension – as noted above, while longing for the full social embrace most members of society feel, he recognized that his inability to experience this made him what he was. There are countless other examples of this tension. Here are a few that are on mind this morning.

· As I noted above, generational gaps and the pain they cause are the price we pay as a species for our tremendous inter-generational flexibility. The family that left India for the opportunities North America offered could not have these, as well as the comfort of remaining embedded in their native culture.

· When leaving Mormonism, I had to choose between hurting my parents and others I love by publicly rejecting beliefs they hold sacred, or hamstringing my children by allowing them to continue to be influenced by a social system I had decided was extremely dysfunctional.

· One of the best descriptions of intimate relationships I have seen captures this tension with the following words:

THE ACHE OF MARRIAGE by Denise Levertov

“The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,

are heavy with it,

it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion

and are turned away, beloved,

each and each

It is leviathan and we

in its belly

looking for joy, some joy

not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of

the ache of it.”

In our most intimate moments we feel a simultaneous ebb and flow. We want both merger and independence. Both can’t be satisfied.

The same concept can be explained in terms of complex adaptive systems[18] terms using the concept of the “adjacent possible”. We (and social institutions such as Mormonism) can be thought of as social organisms that exist on an evolving landscape much as do biological organisms.[19] As the landscape changes, the organisms roll into different valleys. In all cases, these organisms automatically seek the most efficient alternatives available to them – those that require the smallest expenditure of energy. This means that moths may change color to better protect themselves from predators as their environment changes, but won’t turn into elephants. In graphic terms, it means that the balls won’t suddenly roll up to the top of a hill. However, with the expenditure of a bit of energy or as a result of a small random change in the landscape, they may roll over a low pass into the adjacent valley. The different environments represented by neighboring, accessible valleys, are “the adjacent possible”. However, each time we roll from one valley into another, our adjacent possible changes – what was adjacent and accessible before each move is different afterwards. This means by taking advantage of one opportunity, many others are foreclosed.

Returning to intimacy, Kahlil Gibran memorably told us that “For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.”[20]

When I think of this process in evolutionary terms, I see more co-evolution than one partner pruning the other. I think this is the concept toward which Gibran groped as he juxtaposed growth and pruning.

We evolve to fit our environment. Our closest human companions are a major part of that environment, and have more influence than any other factors on what we are from moment to moment, and hence what we will become. I noticed this first during my mission. My personality changed significantly on the basis of the personality of my companions. And I liked myself more in the form I took with some companions than others. The same dynamic is at work in our intimate relationships. It is not that one prunes or shapes the other, but that they both change as a result of the presence and therefore influence of the other. It is a mutual grinding, or refining, or perhaps better yet, intertwining growth. The shape and growth characteristics of each influence the other. Kind of like the way in which each little valley in France has managed to produce at least one wine and cheese that go together incredibly well. This is co-evolution.

I will not become anything like Isaiah Berlin, but have seen something that evokes him emerge in my life. As noted above, my cultural immigration has made me an outsider. I have chosen to leave the only culture to which I fully belonged. Late in life, I am trying to become a secular North American, with full knowledge that my brain will not allow me to make this transition. This gives me a perspective few people have. Like Berlin, I know a tremendous amount about many social groups – Mormons; literalist religious people; secular westerns; law firms; etc. while having a degree of emotional detachment from each of them that allows me to see things that are going on differently (if not more clearly) than most other people. I can use this ability in a variety of ways, and since I am more than out of time today, I will stop here.


Most cultural immigrants have not chosen their path, but rather suddenly found themselves thrust into an initially terrifying world. The better our perspective, the more beauty and utility we are likely to find as we continue along this way.

[1] Mordecai Kaplan, “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, at page 98.

[2] Quartz and Sejnowski, “Liars, Lovers and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are”.

[3] Language learning is one of many areas in which studies related to this have been conducted. There is a clear correlation between language and cultural proficiency that is possible and the age at which immersion occurs.

[4] See Seligman, “Authentic Happiness”, for example.

[5] See again “Authentic Happiness”.

[6] See Jon Haidt, “The Happiness Hypothesis:, and various works by Daniel Goleman, some of which is summarized at http://www.affirmativeactionhoax.com/…. Here is a sample Goleman quote:

“Good moods, while they last, enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity, thus making it easier to find solutions to problems, whether intellectual or interpersonal. This suggests that one way to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise—a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relationships and foreseeing the consequences of a given decision.”

[7] Like meaningful work and other activities that allow us to use our strengths, active leisure, developing long term relationships, promoting social causes important to us, meditating, becoming more healthy, etc.

[8] Some of the foundational studies in narrative psychology relate to the acknowledgement of sexual orientation. See Dan McAdams et al, “Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition” and “Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative” in this regard.

[9] See Fowler, “Stages of Faith”; Farmer, “Neurobiology, Stratified Texts and the Evolution of Thought: From Myths to Religions and Philosophies”, athttp://www.safarmer.com/Farmer.Beijin…; Boyer, “Religion Explained”; Atran, “In Gods We Trust”; and Rue, “Religion is Not About God”.

[10] History has not treated kindly social groups that shut themselves off from the world. Islam circa 1100 CE led the world in most ways scientific and cultural. A religious resurgence then occurred, and Islam’s leaders turned it away from science and international relations, and toward more important “spiritual” matters. As a result, Islam was soon a scientific and cultural backwater. By the 1400s, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of scholarly knowledge, navigation, military power, culture and wealth. The rudder on the huge Chinese trading ships of this era were almost as long as the entire flagship Columbus used in his landmark voyage almost a century later. The Chinese imperial library included over 4,000 printed volumes at a time when the two of Europe’s most power figures – England’s Henry V and Florence’s Francesco Datini – had six and 12 handwritten books respectively in their libraries. Printed novels were routinely sold in Chinese markets; Europe would not discover the printingpress for decades. Then, a change in Chinese domestic and foreign policy occurred in the mid-1400s, caused by purely secular considerations, and China turned inward. It is only now beginning to recover. See Menzie, “1421 – The Year China Discovered the World” at page 62 and 63, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing. For a smaller scale example, consider the difference between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons. While Mormons are backwards in many ways, they are positively urbane when compared to their FLDS cousins.

[11] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archetyp….

[12] See “Art Therapy for Recovering Mormons” at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%….

[13] See Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, and “Does Religious Belief Affect Creativity?” at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.crea… .

[14] See Michael Ignatieff’s masterful biography with regard to Berlin, titled “Isaiah Berlin — a Life”.

[15] As an aside, among the many ideas Berlin traced is that the greatest exercise of freedom is the making of the decision to be bound by a powerful social authority. He illustrates how this idea’s modern incarnation occurred in the late 1700s and shows how it influenced the fascists of the 20th century. Though he did not indicate this, it is easy to see how this idea, being dominant during the early 1800s, became foundational to Mormonism and was then freeze-dried. See “The Mormon Conception of Freedom”, at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.the%…, which compares ideas Berlin collected from the late 1700 and early 1800s to statements made by Mormon leaders up until as recently as a few years ago. The late Enlightenment philosophers (such as Rousseau) who came up with these ideas, fascist leaders and Mormon leaders were all dipping their buckets into the same stream. Mainstream political philosophy continuedto evolve, and either completed abandoned or substantially re-worked Rousseau’s ideas. Mormonism did not largely as a result of being conservative (we have the truth and the truth should not be changed) and not being subject to the forces of democracy and the information transparency that it requires.

[16] A fascinating sidebar in Berlin’s story, from a post-Mormon point of view, is the difficulty Berlin and other expatriates had in understanding the intellectuals who chose to sacrifice themselves – in many cases submitting to what amounted to a death sentence – by refusing to flee places like Russia. On the other side of this divide, those who remained committed to their countries of origin could not understand how anyone could leave. Along the same lines, Berlin was criticized for not becoming more passionately involved in many of the burning issues of his day, including the conflict between socialism/communism and capitalism. Her remained the aloof and incisive observer, while many of his colleagues gave their lives to these causes. Similar differences – often passionate – can be seen in the ways in which the people react to the post-Mormon phenomenon.

[17] Interestingly, after studying Berlin’s life for over a decade and writing the biography I mentioned above, Michael Ignatieff (a Harvard professor at the time and now a Canadian politician ) continued studying the theme I just mentioned and eventually gave a series of influential lecturers and wrote a book titled “The Lesser Evil” (seehttp://press.princeton.edu/titles/757…), the roots of which are found in Berlin’s work. As an aside, I note that I am proud to be a citizen of a country (Canada) where those who wish to have a chance to be elected to high office do not have to declare their belief in the functional equivalent of the Great Pumpkin.

[18] See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star… at page 9.

[19] See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star… and the diagram on page 10 in this regard.

[20] Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”.

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