Since Saturday, I have had my social media feeds filled to the brim with posts tagged #givethanks. People who I haven’t seen on Facebook or Instagram in months are suddenly popping in to express gratitude, usually for the people in their lives, the privileges they enjoy, or the things they’ve learned out of hardship during this especially taxing year.
I love gratitude as a concept. I have participated in gratitude rituals off and on throughout my life – keeping gratitude journals, saying prayers of only gratitude, making a conscious effort to show gratitude in my interactions with others. I think a focus on, and expression of, gratitude changes us for the better. And so I found myself feeling rather conflicted when these #givethanks posts were making me so completely grumpy. And when I thought about it, I decided it was the performative aspect of it that was really stressing me out.
We perform Mormonism in so many ways – how we dress, how we act, how and when we marry, whether we have kids (and how many). We have a whole weird vocabulary that doesn’t map on to the rest of the Christian world, like “wards” and “stakes” and “relief society,” that sets us apart as Mormons. Sure, there’s going to be some variation in how Mormonism is performed, but on the whole, there’s a reason you can pick out a Mormon at any airport.
So in this seven-day campaign blitz, Mormons are not only expressing gratitude, but we are also performing our in-group status. We’re showing that not only are we grateful, we’re willing to do what the prophet says, even if it means posting on social media when we normally don’t, or adding a prescribed hashtag and message to our already-regular posts. We perform our Mormon-ness by showing obedience. I think this is a regular feature of our high-demand faith. When I was a teenager, this meant that you showed that you were willing to take out that second pair of earrings. You’re not going to find women clutching cups of coffee at a morning service project. When a person decides to swap their garments out for regular underwear, that’s not just a personal choice in fabric or fit – that is a decision to stop performing Mormonism, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard women say that a certain person has left the church (or will soon) because they stopped wearing their garments.
All social systems have some level of performativity – in today’s world, women often have longer hair, whereas men tend to keep it short. But if you see a man with long hair, or a woman with a pixie, you don’t usually assume that they’re performing a different gender. But because Mormonism is a poorly-differentiated social group, we require a high degree of conformity and compliance within our group, and there are high social consequences to nonconformity. Showing up to the Relief Society potluck with a beer in one hand wouldn’t just be perceived as an unusual choice in beverage, it would be perceived as a hostile display of not performing Mormonism, and people would interact with that person very differently that day and going forward. Similarly, there are tremendous benefits to looking and acting the part – Mormons do a great job of caring for our own. We easily make friends, we have built-in social groups almost anywhere on the globe, and we can count on somebody to bring us a cup of sugar or care for our kids on a moment’s notice. The degree to which that extends past our in-group of Mormonism varies, I think, but I’ve had several people express awe at how nice it must be to move to a new place and have a community into which I could fit fairly seamlessly. And fitting into that group requires some degree of showing that you belong. The performance of Mormonism says to the group, “I share your values, and you can trust that we have this in common.” Similarly, the outward nonperformance of Mormonism creates rifts that vary – some people leave the church and no longer are accepted by their families and friends, and others are still included, but lose a certain amount of moral authority and spiritual capital.
For many who have left the church (or who are leaving, or who perpetually reside in the borderlands), this #givethanks campaign has been really anxiety-producing. And it’s not because we hate gratitude. It’s because this campaign is a reminder that there is an in-group and an out-group, and that we are in the out-group. It reminds us that our unwillingness to perform Mormonism the prescribed way has caused really difficult social consequences, not to mention a lot of spiritual and emotional pain. I don’t think it’s the only reason these messages have struck a nerve. Maybe we see our former selves in those posts, happy to receive and act on guidance to incorporate more gratitude into our lives, and grieve the simplicity of it. Maybe some of us see the toxic positivity, the ‘there-is-sunshine-in-my-soul’ messages that led us to “fake it ‘til we make it,” presenting a fresh and optimistic look while ignoring or denying any negativity in our lives. Or maybe we just remember that we used to be part of a club, and there were tremendous upsides to feeling included and a part of something, and we’re not in that club anymore or to the same extent.
And that’s a tricky bit of it – we’ve all heard the adage that “people can leave Mormonism, but they can’t leave Mormonism alone.” Part of that is because Mormonism is more than a set of religious beliefs; it’s a cultural and spiritual identity. Being part of such a high-demand religion means that it’s excruciatingly difficult to extricate all the Mormonism out when you choose to, almost like picking grains of sand out of a section of grass. And many of us don’t want to lose everything – most post-Mormons I know want to retain certain quirky traditions or character traits, even if they choose not to participate in Mormonism in other ways. One way I’ve seen this is through post-Mormons using the “givethanks” hashtag, some to “give thanks” that they found their way out of the church, but others to express gratitude unironically, finding that an emphasis on gratitude is something they kept from their time in Mormonism. But for a lot of us, this #givethanks social media blitz is a reminder that we have consciously chosen how we do/do not perform Mormonism, and it’s a reminder of the grief and pain of the process of deconstructing and/or reconstructing our spiritual and religious identities.
What do you think of the #givethanks campaign?