Performing #givethanks

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

 

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?

 

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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37 Responses

  1. Carrie says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I feel the same way. I am currently in the middle of a social media break because of the inherent performance aspect of that medium. It causes unhealthy thinking patterns for me to behave that way and to witness others behaving that way. I’ve been off since October 1 with no end date in sight, and I was not about to join in, just to post things every day for a week, when I normally post ~3x/year. And of course that decision makes me self conscious: Will my friends be noticing that I don’t post? Will they be judging me for it? I understand the motive behind it—having been a member of advertising campaigns as well as auxiliary presidencies in my wards, but it was as stressful as it was easy to keep my gratitude journal as private as it has been for years.

    • Liz says:

      Yes! I’ve had the same thought – will people assume things about my church involvement if I’m not posting, or if I am? It’s felt like a tricky “pick a side” dynamic that I don’t love.

  2. Lily says:

    Amen Liz and Carrie!! I thought I was the only one that felt this way.

  3. Elisa says:

    Yes, totally agree and you’ve described it so well. I would say the other things that are triggering to people on the margins (whether leaving or have left or struggling) are:

    (1) many of the posts to me seem more like “look at this beautiful family of mine” or “look at my handsome husband who I love more and more every day” which seem more like humble-brags than gratitude. The posts I’ve seen that have actually been touching to me are *sincere* posts that give thanks without also suggesting that the poster him or herself is awesome (like thanks for teachers and medical workers and first responders, or even thanks for grandparents since that’s not so much a reflection of you being awesome).

    (2) I am just so triggered by leader worship, so the “he says jump we say how high” is annoying to me – and the posts giving gratitude for RMN are the worst.

    But your point of performative Mormonism is so important and this is just one great example of that. I’ve recently decided to stop performing – just couldn’t do it anymore – and that is a really tough threshold to cross.

    • Liz says:

      Yes!! The humblebragging has been really difficult, and even that has been performative to me – so many of them have centered on “the family” or the temple, things that we’re taught set us apart as a distinct social group.

  4. Fairie says:

    Two things: One, I’m angry that the leader of the church can tell people to take a fast from social media in one breath because it’s toxic, and the next breath he says, flood the media with messages. I was taught that this was the church that had the truth and never deviated from it. Two, weren’t “these people” thankful for things before this week long show? Why didn’t they express gratitude on Facebook before they were ordered to? (some were) And doesn’t it make their show of gratitude a little less authentic that they had to be reminded? Are they all children? “Say thank you to the nice lady.”
    And I feel guilty because some of them are so heartfelt and beautiful that I’m mad at myself that it’s annoying me.

    And an aside…now Book of Mormon photos start showing up. So, is this really a veiled missionary attempt. Grrr!

    Another aside…”bring us a cup of sugar” (slow poison) but “clutching coffee” (sometimes healthy) is a no-no.
    So Mormon.

    • Liz says:

      Yeah, I actually really love the semi-organic gratitude-fests that happen in November every year, and I wouldn’t have minded (as much) if that had naturally come after a specific talk about gratitude. But to have it be an explicit suggestion of a campaign kind of cheapened it for me.

  5. Hillary says:

    I appreciate your post. I want to like this gratitude blitz–really, I do. I believe there is value in expressing thanks. But from the start, this whole thing did not sit right with me. First, the big hype leading up to the message–just like the build up to April conference, it ended up being a huge let down. There is so much pain, confusion, strife, and sickness out there right now. I was hoping for something more groundbreaking or at least some concrete, real world ideas or even solutions. Instead we got 11 minutes of pre-recorded platitudes while RMN mugged for the camera. It came off as remarkably tone deaf to me, from someone who lays claim to revelatory authority. The other reason I’ve found myself cringing at this is the monumental lack of awareness from friends, family, and acquaintances who’ve chosen to “hop to.” Their give thanks posts follow an easily identifiable pattern, starting out with a spouse, then kids, then parents and siblings. But, as Elisa pointed out, it comes off as humble brags and glowing praise for their own righteousness masked as gratitude: “I’m so thankful God led me to him/her. I’m so grateful God chose us for each other. I’m so thankful God trusted me to be their mother. There is nothing more important in life than being a wife and mother. I’m so thankful that both of my parents raised me as a member of the church.” There is no thought to the many privileges that made these circumstances possible, and zero discussion or acknowledgment of actual hardship (toxic positivity for the win!). So what we’re left with is a fall holiday-tinged, 21st century version of the prosperity gospel. And I find it hard to generate any hope or healing from that.

    • Liz says:

      Yes! The prosperity gospel aspect has really bothered me too, especially after reading Kate Bowler’s book (“Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved”).

    • Arly says:

      I think your comment really captures what I felt about the whole give thanks thing. Well said.

  6. Caroline says:

    Liz, I love your post.(And I love these comments.) You’ve perfectly captured my mixed feelings about the #GiveThanks campaign. I couldn’t quite articulate why I was feeling this way, but what you write here really resonates with me. Thanks for shedding light on this episode.

  7. violadiva says:

    This post is such a great analysis of the multi-faceted nature of this campaign, and a great explanation of the variety of responses we see.

    I’ve also thought that to see people express gratitude for exclusive gifts, blessings, or privileges will always land flat to those who don’t have those same gifts or privileges. It’s a public display of the haves and the have-nots, from relationships, material possessions, education and opportunities, etc. So many performances of gratitude look like displays of privilege. Without a willingness to share those privileges with others, gratitude takes on an air of selfishness. One way to combat that is to think of what gifts and blessings are more inclusive – given or available to all of god’s children across the world. That list is a lot more compelling for me to think about than what special things are exclusively mine.

    • Lily says:

      Very nicely put.

    • Robin V says:

      Yes. I was very uncomfortable with this campaign, because so many of the things I’m grateful for do come from a position of privilege. I was happy to see one friend express gratitude for water, and another express gratitude for science. I’m trying to follow their example, so that, as you put it so well, my gratitude can be more inclusive.

    • Liz says:

      Yes! And if you’re going to be grateful for your privileges, at least acknowledge that not everybody has them and work to make these things accessible to as many people as possible.

  8. Allison says:

    This closely (and eloquently) articulates my own thoughts and feelings. Thank you.

  9. Anna says:

    Thank you for verbalizing why things like this irritate me. It helps to see that I am not alone in being irritated at the all too common Mormon way of encouraging doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Jesus said the people who pray in public have their reward, but our prophet failed to see that those who express gratitude because the prophet told them to, are not really expressing gratitude, but trying to impress their Facebook followers with what good Mormons they are. It doesn’t actually impress anybody, just gets irritating. How to annoy your nonmember friends on Facebook; fill your Facebook feed with the latest Mormon fad.

    But then I was the kid who purposely refused to do the things that earned me the little badges when I was in primary and YW. Oh, I can’t go to church today because my attendance is approaching the % where I earn the little award for good attendance. Oh, I can’t do this service project because one more hour of service and I earn their stupid little trophy and made sure my tithing was one penny short of ten percent, so I didn’t earn the stupid plastic thing. So, I made a stupid game of refusing to play their stupid game of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. No wonder I have never “fit in” at church. I just refused to perform Mormonism for the leaders to measure, just like I do when I purposely use the word “Mormon” because the prophet asked us not to and when the church really got weird about the second pair of earrings, I went out and got my second ear piercing.

    My daughter in law posted on Facebook about how we should show real gratitude for our home by helping the homeless, and show real gratitude for our family by helping those who don’t have a loving family, and then she named organizations we could donate to for organizations helping with the world’s real problems of homelessness, domestic violence, kids kicked out of their parents home for being gay, and so on. Sort of put your grateful money where your grateful mouth is.

    • Liz says:

      Yes! Gratitude should spur us to action! I love the idea of looking at what you’re grateful for and then working to make those good things available to as many people as possible.

  10. Eleanor says:

    Thank you Liz, for opening the door to expressions of the discomfort some of us feel with this recent campaign. I believe in the power of gratitude so much that I keep a gratitude journal year-round. It’s a scriptural imperative that is supported by social science. So what bothers me about the new #givethanks campaign? All the things you said. Plus, the fact that The Brethren get to yank our chains by telling us to fast from social media one day, then jump into a social media frenzy the next (as mentioned by a commenter above). And the fact that RMN once again gets to let us all know that he had the opportunity to become a world-famous heart surgeon PLUS have 10 children, because his wife was willing and able to ultra-perform traditional female Mormonism. And the fact that he once again took the opportunity to publicly revel in his good fortune at being consecutively married to TWO wonderful spouses–even though he won’t allow a living woman to be sealed to two spouses consecutively. And the fact that the camera operators even made his closing prayer feel like a performance of sorts. So I’ll go ahead being grateful at Thanksgiving time like I usually am, and I’ll continue to avoid social media like I usually do. To be fair, I will say that I was very grateful for his endorsement of science and of responsible behavior during the pandemic–that was an important take-home message for people contemplating their Thanksgiving plans.

    • Liz says:

      Yeah, the way we are performing gratitude has a super gendered aspect, and I hadn’t even considered how much that is mirroring RMN’s words until you mentioned it! Of the posts I’m seeing, men are grateful for their jobs/ability to provide, priesthood power, supportive wives, and women are grateful for children, husbands who provide, temples… if I try to look at it sociologically, it’s been such an interesting pattern.

  11. Barbara says:

    Thank you, Liz, for this post that puts my muddled feelings into words. I love all the comments, too. I had never reflected on this whole idea of performative Mormonism and how important it is to fitting into the community. I’ve been on a long path towards ceasing to perform, and I just find myself utterly unwilling to jump through the #givethanks hoop. Thank you for helping me explain what o couldn’t find the words to express.

  12. Abby Hansen says:

    I have tried to figure out my weird feelings about the whole thing, and now besides just thinking it made my newsfeed super uninteresting because 97 percent was people posting pictures of their spouse or kids and saying almost identical things – I think it’s because of the in-group/out-group thing you talked about! They’re all having one big #givethanks party that I don’t personally feel comfortable attending, but I’m going to spend an awful lot of time this week reading all about the party that I’m not part of.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Liz says:

      Yeah the phrase that kept going through my head was “it’s like everybody is hanging out without me.” And I know that I *could* participate, but that didn’t feel right, either. Sigh.

  13. PWS says:

    My lack of participation comes from a slightly different angle. I don’t care for gratitude or love that is expressed because someone has to do it. I honestly don’t care if I get an anniversary, a Mothers Day, or birthday gift. I know my family love and appreciate me because of the way they treat me on the other days of the year when they don’t have to treat me well. What they do for me on those other days means much more than anything they might do on the occasions when love is pretty much required. I obviously don’t know for sure, but I expect that God feels the same way. Do I show and express my gratitude throughout the year, or do I only express gratitude when commanded to do so by the Prophet? For me, the former is more sincere, and therefore much more meaningful.

  14. Laura says:

    It looks like I’m in the minority here, but I’ve liked the campaign though I do agree with many of the points brought up in this post. After months of avoiding the politics of social media, hoping it would be over the first week of November, only having it drag on with more friction, I’ve enjoyed a reprieve from what occurred pre-election. It’s given me a chance to connect with some people I haven’t seen for a while. Since my family already has a nightly gratitude practice in place, it didn’t seem too contrived to participate. I also think as the week goes on, we might see less “thankful for family” posts as people might be forced to come up with other things.

    • Heather Vance says:

      Thank you! I loved seeing ANY post that was non political! Facebook before the gratitude onslaught was all political, disgusting and vile! I loved all the gratitude posts. They made my heart lighter and breath a little easier.

  15. Davy says:

    Talk about “Negative Nelly”. Do you remember the vile postings leading up to and after the election. Neighbors trolling neighbors with incessant negativity. The #givethanks has nearly obscured that garbage into oblivion. I post, normally, 10-15 times per year and am choosing to post these 7 days, not out of obligation, but because it’s a great idea and it’s ok for a modern prophet to use modern means to help bring positivity back and squash the negativity.

    • Risa says:

      Imagine what would happen if this modern prophet used modern means to tell followers to wear their damn masks, socially distance, and stay TF at home?

    • Elisa says:

      Good for you Davy. Sounds like this post isn’t for you. We don’t all experience the same things in the same ways and that’s ok.

    • Chairoscuro says:

      Talk about a ‘negative nelly’. if you don’t like to hear someone else’s honest feelings, don’t come on their post and complain about it. fake gratitude doesn’t cloud out anyone’s real concerns. feel free to enjoy what you enjoy, without criticizing people who have complicated feelings about it.

  16. Jennifer says:

    Huh. I really liked President Nelson’s message. I’m not an active member, but I have a great deal of respect for him. I understand why he suggested the media blitz thing even though I cant stand doing those kind of prescribed activities. I’ve enjoyed reading what my friends have posted. They are grateful for things I might not have thought of.

  17. SisterStacey says:

    Thank you for this post! You expressed my feelings so well. I knew I wasn’t going to watch or listen to the “special message.” I tried to read it, but it just seems more of RMN’s usual “See how awesome I am? Did I mention I was a surgeon?” I saw the first posts on Facebook on Friday. I haven’t read one. I mean, you see a picture of a family and you know what’s coming. For me, single, having some family issues, and going through a faith crisis, it’s been like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day combined! I posted that I was glad it was over and one of my friends posted that they were grateful for it, but respected my feelings. So it’s more performative Mormonism to me. When I posted that I was having issues reading the BoM because of all the violence and death, one of my friends made sure to post how helpful they’ve found reading the BoM. Just further reminded me that I am not on the inside right now. I’m not toeing the line.
    So I really needed to know I wasn’t alone in my feelings.
    Thank you, Liz.

  18. Chiaroscuro says:

    #rameumptum

  19. Di says:

    I wasn’t able to watch the broadcast and I haven’t wanted to review it afterwards because frankly watching RMN or even seeing his face in my social feeds these days creates a weird kind of anxiety. The other reason this whole campaign feels uncomfortable and awkward is because it’s very US centric. It fits for the American Thanksgiving narrative but when you live in a different country like I do, suddenly seeing all your FB people flooding your feed with a weeks worth of it just seems a little too much – even though I have enjoyed a few random posts. I’d say my natural cultural default is to be a bit reserved about what I put up on FB and prefer to see posts generated from a more organic flow – not because we’ve been asked to do so.

  20. EmilyB says:

    Thank you for this. And considering Mormonism’s treatment/disparagement/colonization/enslavement of Native Americans, we really need to talk about why they expanded this “extermination holiday” from one to SEVEN days, yikes. And on the year of nationwide protests to try to reclaim protections for BIPOC, ouch.

  21. EmilyCC says:

    As usual, you rocked this, Liz. Thank you for helping me name my complicated feelings around this campaign.

  22. Loira says:

    Liz, this was such a great post. I’m late to replying, but I just read it today and agree wholeheartedly with many of your statements. I’m someone who doesn’t use facebook, hardly puts posts on IG, but I do a fair bit of IG stories.

    With this challenge, I decided I may as well post some stories (because anything other than that felt really inauthentic to how I’ve been using social media). I stayed away from expressing gratitude for family and kids and all the privileged “blessings” (is it bad I hate that word?) I may have. I tried to truly think about sincere gratitude– such as popcorn that I enjoy at the end of most days, or the sun gleaming through a foggy day. I expressed how I don’t usually participate in LDS initiatives (they make me so uncomfortable!) even though I’m an ‘active’ member of the church because of missing the mark to “mourn with those that mourn.” When I posted about asking people to try and be more aware of those around them, and to truly reach out for another person who may not be feeling as grateful, I got a few messages back saying how I was shaming others for posting their own thanks. I appreciate a lot of posts I saw but was also annoyed by so many (that’s on me, really). Personally, it made me appreciate a ‘happy list’ I keep on my phone where I write things that make me smile — such as seeing a kid with an umbrella too big for him, or overhearing a guy on the street talking to someone about how they cook their fish (I’d like to think it was their mum). I have no judgment for anyone who didn’t participate, as I’m usually the person who doesn’t participate and it doesn’t make me any “less-than” because no one needs to know the level of my testimony. This time around though, I did appreciate the refocus on gratitude as I have been feeling so much angst, anxiety, and ill-mannered feelings towards others due to the political climate and the pandemic.

    I agree with a poster above about the US centric nature of this challenge too. I lived many years in the US (currently live in London) and my husband and I are really aware and pleading for the decentralisation of the church from Utah, and even the US.

    I apologise for the rant. I just really resonated with the above. Who cares who ‘accepts’ these challenges or not? I wish we, as Mormons, really just let people be and loved everyone just the same, regardless of religion or ‘performative actions.’

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