I’m temperamentally a neurotic person, anxiety-prone and a worrier. Thinking back to some of the things I remember best about growing up in the Church, it occurred to me that many of them evidence an interaction of my neuroticism with my Mormonism. I thought it might be interesting to share some of these experiences.
- At the ages of six and seven, I really internalized the teaching that children who died before the age of accountability would be guaranteed exaltation. I also didn’t learn too much (i.e., anything) about grace, and it was pretty clear to me that that was likely my only shot, since as soon as I was baptized and became responsible for my sins, I was sure to sin up such a storm that I would never be able to keep track of and repent of them all. Considering these facts, I mused a fair amount about suicide. I wasn’t particularly depressed; I was just thinking through things logically. I never made anything like a concrete plan, but I often turned the idea over in my mind, and wished that I could come up with a way to make it happen. It seemed perfectly in line with what I was learning at church: better to suffer a small pain now and have happiness later than avoid pain now and have sadness later. When I turned eight and went ahead and got baptized, I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t been able to work up the courage to go through with killing myself. I was resigned to the reality that I now had my feet firmly planted on the path to damnation.
- As a child in primary, I quickly learned that the “right” answer in any particular moral dilemma presented to me was to choose the option that was less fun. For example, in the oft-repeated stories of children who had to choose between participating in a sporting event on Sunday or going to church, of course the answer was that they should be bored in church rather than having fun at the sporting event. I concluded that the commandments could be reduced to a single one: Thou shalt not have any fun. It summarized everything so perfectly. As Jason K. put it in a recent post at BCC, “God forbid that our children should believe that rules and prohibitions rather than communal spiritual life are the central purpose of their Church participation!” What Jason is hoping against is exactly what I learned: a gospel of rules and prohibitions and grim, joyless existence to placate a disapproving God.
- Still hoping for an easy ticket to the celestial kingdom, as an older child and a teenager, I was fascinated with the story of the three teen boys who, according to the widely-cited Brigham Young quote, were assured exaltation for sacrificing their lives in carrying members of the Martin Handcart Company across the Sweetwater River. (Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that it didn’t actually happen that way.) I was jealous. Why couldn’t I just be asked to make one big sacrifice and have it guarantee me exaltation? Why did I draw the unlucky card of having to live a (potentially) long life, full of opportunities to fall behind on the perfect record of repentance that would be required?
- I worried a lot about nuclear war when I was a teenager. It was the Reagan years, so it kind of makes sense that I did. I read books about war and weapons. I would lie in bed at night and wonder when it was finally going to happen. I remember sometimes hearing my mother in the next room singing to my sisters at bedtime, and thinking (I’m not sure why this was connected in my head) that it was nice of her to sing and try to make them happy, but that soon the missiles were sure to come and erase all happiness. The connection to Mormonism here is that I had a few teachers in church who stoked my fear by talking about the Second Coming constantly. I swear there was one teacher in particular who brought it up every single week for the year he taught my class. He talked endlessly about issues like the importance of being prepared with a year’s supply of food (or two to be conservative), the need to have guns to protect yourself, and of course, all kinds of speculations about exactly how the world as we knew it was going to end (would it be nuclear war or something else?). Of course, he talked about it because he was fascinated about it. I was terrified.
- Having heard all the talk about how the Second Coming was right around the corner and could happen at any moment, I was utterly convinced as a teen that I would never actually serve a mission. I distinctly remember sitting in meetings in my teachers’ quorum and hearing the teacher talk about how we all needed to go on missions in a few years and thinking that of course Jesus would come back too soon for such issues to concern me. If I died in the dramatic end of the world, I would be off the hook, and if I somehow managed to survive, all bets would be off, as he was sure to shake things up pretty dramatically. I was, of course, anxious about serving a mission, so I was unhappy to discover that Jesus was not in fact at the very doors, and I did end up having to go.
- I learned and internalized that, as a boy, my role as an adult was going to be to marry and get a good job so I could make enough money that we could have as many kids as possible. This really stressed me, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t up to the task, particularly not having a lot of kids. When I was in my mid-to-late teens, a guy from my ward who was a few years older than I was got married and his wife suffered some complication while giving birth to their second child that made it impossible for her to have any more children. When I heard this, my overwhelming response was jealousy. They were off the hook for having kids! With only two! I was sure that I would never be so lucky, so my plan was to never marry.
- I rose in leadership in my mission like a lead balloon. Some (elder) missionaries rise to become DLs, others to ZLs, others even to be APs. I did none of this and I wanted to do none of it. I didn’t even want to be a senior companion. My mission was very big on constant reporting and “holding people accountable” when their numbers weren’t good enough, and I was sure that I didn’t want to be the one responsible for what the companionship produced. My Mission President pushed me and pushed me to try it, so finally after I had been out about ten months, I agreed. It was a disaster. I was in a small area with nobody to teach, stuck between apartment complexes where the managers kicked us out when they saw us coming and large homes where nobody was ever home when we went tracting. We did hardly any teaching. Every night, my district leader called me up and berated me for our bad numbers. This was extremely difficult for me. I slept fitfully at night, and when the alarm went off every morning, I remember getting up and walking downstairs from our apartment to exercise and just wishing and hoping and praying for death. I couldn’t imagine going home early, so this was the only way out that I could see. I cursed my belief in an afterlife, and wished that the Jehovah’s Witnesses could be right, and that the wicked people (of which I clearly was one) would just be annihilated when they died. The threat of having to talk to my DL each night was too much for me, and after just a few days, I called my Mission President and asked to be demoted. I was never a senior companion again for the rest of my mission. My nasty DL became a ZL and an AP because of course he did.
I don’t think the Church is at fault for my being neurotic–that’s probably pretty hardwired–but that personality trait in combination with Mormonism was often not a good one. I wonder if I might not have had a happier childhood if I had been raised in a church with less of a tendency toward fundamentalism, because the Church really does have a lot of teachings that do a great job of pushing the buttons of anxiety-prone people. I know my experiences are far, far from the most difficult that people have had, but I think they at least suggest how this button-pushing can be bad.
On the bright side, now I’m middle aged, and I’m much less neurotic than I was as a child an a teen. Perhaps not coincidentally, I think, I’m also much less of a believer than I was as a child and a teen. I’m much less sure about what the afterlife might look like, or even if there is one at all. I sure hope there is one, because I’d love to see my family and friends again, but I’m just not sure. Overall, though I’m just happy to be not too worried about it.