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Write Your Own Epic

There was a required class in the computer engineering curriculum that was only ever taught by one particular professor. This professor had a penchant for creating pointless busywork. His homework for this class consisted of one page reports on each section of the book that we read. He didn’t tell you this at first, but these were no ordinary reports. He expected you to fill up that one side of the page with as much information as possible. Margins should be as tight as possible: usually ¼” all around. The last line of each paragraph should be as long as possible: whitespace was the enemy. Smaller fonts got more points. Color got more points. Diagrams were good but should not take up too much space. None of those criteria were stated up front. The class members discovered them through trial and error over the course of the semester. This is only one illustration of his eccentricities as a professor.

His arbitrariness clashed with my sense of fairness. I had a hard time bringing myself to just do whatever it took to pass the class. I took the class four times before the professor gave me the required C or better in the class. By that fourth semester, I knew the material in the class better than he did. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge that I didn’t pass; I didn’t pass because I didn’t want to bend to his will.

I tell this story to give you the context of why I hate admitting what I’m about to say. One of this professor’s favorite sayings was that each of his students was “special, just like everyone else”. That really bugged me, but I must now confess that he was right. Each of us is unique and special, but that makes us no more special than anyone else.


Lately I’ve been feeling kind of empty. My first reaction was “Oh crap! The Mormons were right. I’m losing the Spirit!” I fell prey to the indoctrination of my youth, but only for a moment. I reassured myself that some other reason must explain the emptiness that I felt every time I thought about life. I just had to find it.

It took me a while to put my finger on the cause: I miss being part of a grand epic. Mormonism put me in the middle of a larger-than-life struggle between God and the forces of evil. It told me that I was a valiant spirit in God’s army before I was born. God took a special interest in the course of my life. Everything that happened was part of his eternal plan. My life would determine my future eternal state. My destiny, if I lived worthy of it, could be to become a god to rule and reign over numberless worlds and their inhabitants. Mormonism gave my life a greater context and purpose than the mundane appearances of my day-to-day existence. It reassured me that I was special, more special than those who had chosen not to embrace the truth.

The initial euphoria of casting off old religious demons and tasting sweet freedom and intellectual integrity has now worn off. The euphoria had anesthetized me while my sense of my own inherent, unearned specialness was being removed. I’m just now becoming aware of the hole that Mormonism vacated.


My brother recently made me aware that Maslow extended his hierarchy of needs beyond what we typically hear about. Usually the hierarchy includes five levels of need (from the lowest to the highest): physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow later included cognitive and aesthetic needs in his hierarchy, but more importantly for me, he made the top of his hierarchy self-transcendence.

My needs for self-actualization are finally being met. My native self is finally finding expression outside the culture-imposed narratives of Mormonism. I am becoming self-determined. This self-actualization has come at a price. I have lost the Mormon myths that gave me a false sense of self-transcendence, Maslow’s next higher level of need.

The hunger that I feel in my heart is born of the questions “Why do I live? What greater purpose will my life hold?” I have to answer these questions on my own for the first time in my life. I no longer have a source of ready-made meaning to turn to. No one-size-fits-all story could possibly anticipate the full effect of my life. I have to write the story as I go. My purpose will be unique (just like everyone else) because my place in the universe is unique (just like everyone else).

What will I do to transcend myself? This is my story, my quest. No other hero can take my place.

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  1. His Sexy Wife said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

    I remember that semester. I think it was just because you were suppose to be graduating and you wife was expecting. Maybe he felt sorry for me really. Or he just didn’t want to put up with you for another semester.
    Is he still teaching?

  2. mel said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

    Sounds as if, in his eccentric way, he was teaching how to deal with ambiguity — though I have no idea why CS students would need an extra dose of that?!

    So here’s my pithy response to the conundrum of finding meaning after Mormonism:

    Daniel Dennett has this saying that “if you make yourself small enough you can externalize everything” … and though it’s not his intended meaning, it occurs to me that by giving up the Mormon myth we have simultaneously found ourselves to be much, much smaller _and_ much, much larger. In this new found view of self we are no longer so much agents that work on the universe, but integral to the universe. We are the universe.

    Kind of new-agey sounding, I realize. But nevertheless, we do not disappear when we die, we just change material states … we get reorganized and retasked.

    I recall reading Carl Sagan talk about the chances of being restored to a state that is a roughly equivalent of a continuation of our current selves (the question being: will we see each other again) and he said, if I recall correctly, “why not”? Infinite means infinite. And the time it might take to come full circle is meaningless.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

    He might have had pity on me because you were pregnant, but I earned that A-. I swallowed my pride and did exactly what was expected of me. He retired a couple of semesters after I graduated. Not soon enough to save my pride. :)

    Mel, I’ve been pondering the smaller/larger paradox, but haven’t really had a good way to express it yet. I like how you put it. If we think about it we can define our self smaller and smaller. I am not my body. I am not my personality. I am not my thoughts. And so on until nothing is left. Or we can define our self larger and larger until it includes the universe. I need my body to exist. I need food to sustain my body. I need the earth and sun to make food. And so on until the chain of dependency ends up including everything and all time. There’s another way to include everything in our definition of self: my thoughts are a product of my brain. My brain operates on its inputs. My brain’s inputs come from the part of the universe that I perceive. The parts of the universe that I perceive are supported and influenced by the parts that I can’t perceive. So my thoughts are the product of the entire universe and everything that has come before the present moment.


    I also just read The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh. It made me think about death and what it really means. His view of reincarnation seemed to align with what you’re saying about being repurposed. I plan to write a review at some point.

  4. mel said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 4:17 pm

    I like it. Especially the brain path to cosmic Zen. Seriously, isn’t this profoundly more meaningful and awesome and … and ringing with truth than the “man-god creating planets with his harem” paradigm?

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 5:18 pm

    I do find it more meaningful, but I don’t think it has become instinctual to see my life from this perspective yet. I also don’t think that I’ve quite found a specific way to seek self-transcendence yet, so my hunger goes unsatisfied. I’m happy to be able to feel this hunger though because I can only see it motivating me to good things.

  6. Eugene said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 9:05 pm

    Your blog caught my eye when I clicked on your name for your comment to Stephen Carter’s SunstoneBlog essay. I like the way you and your wife are talking and wondering and deciding. Regarding the notion of “self-transcendence”, might I suggest a peek at Joseph Dillard’s I’d bet that if you gave it a serious look it would intrigue you. Besides, I believe JD is an admirer of Maslow.


  7. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 11:53 pm

    Do you suggest the dream yoga program from personal experience? If so, what was you experience?

  8. SilverRain said,

    June 1, 2007 @ 7:18 am

    Although I haven’t “given up the Mormon myth” as you put it, that search for self-transcendence and the desire to be special or unique is something I understand all too well. Perhaps it is because I rode the crest of “Generation Y,” but it’s hard for me to adjust to the humdrum daily life after the blaze of growing up.

    I think it is inevitable that we go through times where we feel “empty.” It’s a sign that you haven’t stagnated – that something within you still searches and yearns for more. It is a good thing.

  9. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 1, 2007 @ 8:20 am

    I agree. My next question is what to do about the emptiness. :)

  10. SilverRain said,

    June 1, 2007 @ 5:26 pm

    Well, you probably wouldn’t like my answer to that one! :D

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 1, 2007 @ 9:43 pm

    No, I guess I probably wouldn’t. ;)

  12. Write Your Own Epic | Main Street Plaza said,

    June 2, 2007 @ 6:39 am

    [...] [Originally posted at Green Oasis] [...]

  13. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 2, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

    You know, the more I think about it, the point of this post is that your answer isn’t good enough for me. My answer isn’t good enough for you. We must each quest for our own answers. We may share thoughts and inspirations, but it is ultimately up to each person to choose to accept the truth that resonates with that part of ourselves which recognizes truth.

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