Mormon culture, especially in America, exhibits what I call “ruthless optimism,” which is the habit of unreasonable striving to be (or perhaps to appear to be) happy regardless of circumstance. This perpetual optimism is both ridiculous and endearing to outsiders, but for those within the faith, the association of righteousness with happiness can create incredible strain. If you’re not happy, is it because you’re doing something wrong? Congratulations: Now you have two reasons to be unhappy. This pressure is compounded by the Mormon emphasis on evangelizing: How can you be an effective missionary if you’re depressed?
But a lot of human behaviors are more or less adaptive depending on the context in which they are enacted. I have come to believe that ruthless optimism falls within that category. In response to the day-to-day vicissitudes of life it can be unrealistic, callous, and contrived. In response to severe tragedy, however, one cannot call it anything but truly heroic.
Mormonism’s ruthless optimism has been on display recently in the wake of the awful murders in Spring, Texas. Ronald Lee Haskell forced his way into the home of Stephen and Katie Stay to try and force them to tell him where he could find his ex-wife (Katie’s sister). The family refused, and Haskell shot all seven of them in the head, including the parents and their five children ages fifteen, thirteen, nine, seven, and four. Only the fifteen-year-old, Cassidy Stay, survived.
Cassidy Stay appeared at a rally just five days after the killings where she smiled, held her hand aloft in the “I love you” sign, expressed her love of Harry Potter, and then quoted Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Most reports emphasized the tragedy of the situation and her bravery in playing dead despite her painful injury so that she could call 911 and warn police that Haskell was on his way to her grandparents’ home next.
However, the juxtaposition between her apparent happiness and our expectations of traumatic stress and mourning in the wake of personal tragedy served as grist for conspiracy theorists who claim that she is a crisis actor and the murder was staged for some nefarious purpose or other. (If you enter her name into a YouTube search, most of the top hits are for videos claiming to unmask this “hoax.”) People apparently find ruthless optimism unbelievable.
In this regard, Cassidy Stay is not alone. Robbie Parker, also Mormon, was the first parent of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to come forward in a public press conference. He spoke to reporters on December 15, 2012, the day after the shooting. Although he did not identify his faith at the time, there were numerous tells that gave it away. (He used terms like “Heavenly Father” and “free agency,” he was a young father with lots of kids born close together, his family was from “out west,” and he was teaching his daughter Portuguese.)
Robbie Parker was also recorded smiling just moments before beginning his public statement. The rapidity with which he spoke publicly convinced some ex-Mormon commenters that he might be “using this tragedy as a way to elevate himself or his religion,” and the fact that he smiled before beginning his comments became the linchpin in conspiracy theories arguing that he was a crisis actor, that his daughter Emilie (who died that day) had never really existed, and that it was all part of a government plot to take our guns.
Stay and Parker are vulnerable to criticism because they acted without any guile. Conforming to social expectations did not appear to be a factor in either of their decisions, and as a result both Stay and Parker deviated from what we expect of people responding to deep, personal, and public loss. They spoke early instead of waiting, they spoke themselves instead of using a spokesperson, and they failed to comport themselves with sufficient gravity. These reactions were quintessentially Mormon. It is part of our culture to treat funerals as opportunities to uplift, to find the good in every tragedy we suffer, and to always seek to help others. Selfless, socially awkward, and sometimes spiritually profound: those are the recognizable hallmarks of Mormonism.
The actual content of Parker’s comments included expressions of love and sympathy for the family of the man who murdered his little girl, saying “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you, and I want you to know that our love and support go out to you as well.” He defended the reputation of his Father in Heaven as well (claiming that God is unable to stop any of us from using our free agency, no matter the cost) and finally sought to turn his family’s tragedy into an opportunity for service, saying:
I’m not mad, because I have my agency to use this event to do what I can, to do whatever I can to make sure that my family and my wife and my daughters are taken care of and that if there’s anything that I can do to help anybody at any time anywhere, that I’d be willing to do that.
This is ruthless optimism in its element. Who can question Parker’s heroism and selflessness, lack of polish and unconventional timing notwithstanding? What’s more, the Parker family has continued to be true to the Mormon ideal of ruthless optimism. Not only have they founded several charitable organizations, but on the first anniversary of their family’s loss they released a heart-wrenchingly beautiful video called “Evil Did Not Win” reaffirming their faith. In the video Alissa Parker (Robbie’s wife), says:
People ask, “But where was your God when this happened? Why didn’t He stop it?” God allowed others to kill his Son. He allows for us all to make our own choices, good and bad, because that’s the only way good can be in us: if we freely choose it, over all else. Evil didn’t win that day. We’ll carry on that love, like she had. It’s quiet. It’s not on the news. It takes effort to find. But what I’ve realized through all of this is how strong and how big God’s love is.
In the face of ordinary challenges, ruthless optimism is one thing. It can cause us to deny our feelings or try to fake happiness. But in the face of true darkness, ruthless optimism is another thing entirely. The agonized attempt to reach for good and light beyond pain and dark is a pure expression of faith in the idea that there is a God who reaches back. What can in relatively easy times be a liability becomes a shining jewel in the blackest night. There is no one correct response to tragedy, but this is certainly a beautiful one.
Nathaniel Givens writes at Difficult Run.