So, for many, many years I was stuck in a position of spiritual self-confirmation (I’m sure I still am, to a degree, but my eyes are definitely a little less squinty now). In order to identify this self-confirming trait I had, a few months before I left my religion, I started keeping tabs on and actually quantifying my experiences. What I was trying to do was to break down what I call the “11:11 effect.”
What’s the 11:11 effect?? Some people all over the entire world (okay, I don’t really know for sure if it’s all over the world, but that sounds cool, so I’m saying it) believe there is something special or sinister about seeing 11:11 on the clock. They feel like Andrew McMahon, singing aloud that they “always see the clock at 11:11.” Then they either feel special or get a little freaked out (or both).
But here’s my certifiably-scientific hypothesis: Uh…11:11 visually stands out. Like a lot. It’s also smack dab in the middle of two parts of the day when people commonly look at the clock (right before lunch and right around bedtime for many folks). So, it makes sense that it would appear to be seen more often than other times of the day/night are seen.
But really, I’m thinking, if you wrote down the times on the clock every time you saw them, and then tallied up the different times, 11:11 would actually not appear more than other times, especially once you controlled for times of the day when you’re awake, etc.
The 11:11 effect of spirituality works pretty much the same way. You’re looking for something, so you see it. To put it another way, you’re looking for a particular thing, so when you see the particular thing standing solemnly amongst all the other non-particular things, your mind scrawls down a little note and prominently displays it on your mind fridge, so you won’t forget it.
I used to pray, open scriptures, and find — so often — that perfect scripture that said just what I was looking for. But was this really happening “so often”? And even when it was happening, was I stretching the words to fit my situation? I mean, fortune cookies can usually apply to all sorts of situations. Were my scriptures working in a similar way?
Being honest with myself, I knew that many times in the past, I had actually turned to a scripture that pretty much said jack. It’d be something like, “And they may travel also if they choose, but rather be ordained for standing presidents,” which had absolutely nothing to do with what I was seeking for. (I know, super helpful, right?). “BUT wait!”, I would think, “Probably this time God just doesn’t want to answer me through the scriptures,” or “This time I haven’t thought things out enough on my own yet,” or “This just isn’t the time/way for me to get my answer.All in God’s due time.” Right?
But was I assigning meaning to these experiences in a fair and logical way? Was I quantifying them correctly in my head, or was I ignorantly confirming what I already expected (wanted) to happen? I started checking the number of times I got “an answer” versus the number of times I got nothing. I noted along the way how I was feeling, whether I had studied things out for myself beforehand (the leg-work that Mormon doctrine requires before an answer will be given), and whether I was stretching the words I read in order to fit my situation. Of course, I gave a little leeway for the fact that God could most definitely answer me in a way that required some stretching of words; those kind of answers were not immediately discounted.
At the end of the experiment, I realized I had indeed been subject to the 11:11 effect. There were way more non-answer times than there were answer times. But I was mentally over-emphasizing the “answer” times and was quickly slighting the “non-answer” times in my head. The result was that I had an array of strong spiritual experiences prominently displayed in my memory, while all the non-answer experiences faded to the background or even just disappeared altogether.
And it wasn’t just with the flipping to scriptures for answers thing either. Mormons believe the Holy Ghost can be with them all the time, guiding anything they need guidance for every minute of the day, as long as they are worthy of it. So there are all sorts of “opportunities” for spiritual confirmations every day. Growing up, I would often pray, for instance, for help making life choices, relationship decisions, and even for help finding my way to a new place or finding something I had lost. My memory collection includes several episodes where prayer shows up at the last minute — when all is almost lost — and saves the day.
The standard narrative goes something like this: Brie has an important and righteous thing she has to do (talking with a friend to encourage him to go on a mission, getting to the temple, bringing a meal to a family in need, etc.). Brie needs to go to these places right now, in order to continue doing God’s will. But Brie can’t find her keys! Brie freaking freaks the heck out! Brie looks everywhere and cannot find the keys. Brie takes a second to kneel down and pray. Brie looks up and sees the keys! (Or Brie gets a picture in her mind’s eye of where the keys are. Then, lo and behold, there they are!).
So, here’s what happened last week. I couldn’t find my wallet. I really, really needed my wallet. I looked and looked. No wallet! I started to get a little frantic. I’m really not supposed to do anything illegal, being a DA and all, and driving without a license on you is technically illegal (admittedly not the most important law, but still). I need to go pick up my kids, like right now! Looking. Looking. Nothing. Looking frantically! Nothing! Then…shit.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! And with those expletives, there went any chance of my having the Holy Ghost to guide me (okay, really I can’t have the H. G. with me anyway, because I’m a hell-bound apostate, but had I not been, the H.G. would have been long gone by that time).
So I decided to do something a little crazy (and totally disrespectful and utterly inappropriate and completely self-sabotaging, if my past self had any say in the mater). But since I was no longer Mormon, and since I was interested in learning more about my self-confirming tendencies, I did the crazy thing anyway.
Exhausted, the words just came shooting out of my mouth without restraint: “Dear Satan, please, please, please help me find my wallet. I need it in order to go out in the world and buy crap, to drive safely and legally, to pick up my children on time so that I can raise them up to not suck. Satan, please help me find my wallet. Please”
And then, lo and behold, there was my wallet! Amazing! Miraculous!
Now comes the part where my brain gets to categorize this experience (and thus either further confirm my spiritual biases or not). I can call this thing a “tender mercy,” if I want. And indeed I would have done exactly that several years ago (well it would have been one from God, not from Satan, but whatever). I can call it a sign. I can call it luck. I can call it a coincidence. Mormon readers might even say this is Satan just using his power to tell me one truth in order to get me to believe ten lies.
I can do any of these things, or I can hypothesize that maybe — just maybe — taking a minute to stop, a moment to breathe, and a second to halt the rush of anxiety that fuels hot cognition and blocks cool logic actually allowed my brain to do its job and remember where the wallet was. Sounds kind of crazy, I know. Who would believe that brain working crap? It’s probably more likely that Satan just did it, because he loves me.
For reals though, I don’t mean for this to be just a cynical story in a cynical post. And I also don’t mean for it to be consigned to religious situations. Truth is, quantification can be useful in a gazillion ways (precisely a gazillion, no more, no less).
Here’s what I mean: some people get really down on themselves because they feel they’re always doing x or y when they don’t want to, because they wish they did more of x of y but they just can’t get themselves to, etc. Their head voice tells them they’re always making mistakes, they’re never good enough, they’re too this or that, they’re not enough that or this. Or it consoles them, saying they’re not that lazy, or that rash, angry, resentful, unhealthy, undeserving, etc., that they can do this negative thing just one more time, and it will be fine.
Self-loathing, health, gossip, lying, punctuality, depression, defeating inner dialogues, bad financial decisions, the list goes on and on of all the topics that quantification can help us better understand and fix.
Does your interpretation of things really check out with reality? Are you really exercising 5 hours a week like you think you are? Are you really only eating 2,000 calories per day like you think you are? Are you really as inept as you think you are? Are you really working as many hours as you think you are, sleeping as much as you think you are? Are you really as financially stable as you think you are? Are you being harder on yourself than you should be/easier on yourself than you should be?
Take a few weeks. Keep track. Write it down. Note all the times you do x or y. Add up your numbers. Compare it to what you thought was happening. Seeing the numbers, actually quantifying the behavior, can be a wealth of knowledge you never knew you had.
I’m such a huge fan of self-analysis, and quantification is one of my favorite ways to self-analyze, even though it sometimes completely destroys my sweet little comfort blankies — rattle decals and all. In the end, I firmly believe that it is better to trade up for the feather comforter (or quilt, or bedspread, or Snuggie — choose your metaphor) of reality. So take a few weeks and upgrade your thinking.
Except, maybe skip the praying to Satan part — you never know what the future consequences of that might be; it’s entirely possible that I am now downright cursed (even more than I already was).
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- Konstantine, by Something Corporate
- The E-Myth, by Michael Gerber
- Wallet, by Regina Spektor