A recurring dream that many returned missionaries find stressful will be familiar to many readers. You’re back on your mission. You have to be busy. You have a companion to deal with, someone you didn’t choose. Suddenly you realize you have a spouse and family back in the states. Wait a minute! How are you supposed to handle all these responsibilities and obligations at once?? You feel a sense of panic (I can’t be living two separate lives!) and dread (am I really back here again, of all places? Do I have to go through this all over again?).

Returning missionaries go through a decompression phase in which normal life just seems meaningless. There’s so much free time! Nothing you do feels as meaningful as what you were doing before. As a missionary, all your time was spent pep talking yourself about the needs of others and the responsibility of growing the Church and spreading the gospel. Those big goals seem so much more important than registering for classes or going on dates or, worst of all, watching TV.

I remember when I returned, and I discovered that I needed all new clothes. I just couldn’t bring myself to care what I wore (pictures reflect this attitude, unfortunately). Fashion was not important. The material world was not important. My education was not even important. Nothing else was important. Does that sound culty? Yes, of course, but it is probably also what it feels like to return from a tour of duty in the military (which, FYI, also rates as a cult according to Hassan’s BITE model). It’s also partly how it feels to graduate from college. It’s how it feels to go through almost any major life transition. Our entire worldview has to shift. Our heightened senses need to calm back down to daily normalcy. The thing which has filled all our thoughts and attention is now gone, and we have a void to fill. We have spent the last two years believing that there is nothing as important as the thing we are thinking about constantly, and now it’s gone.

I hear echos of this hyper-vigilance when I have heard Church members, particularly women, lamenting their unworthiness, their fears that they aren’t good enough or haven’t done enough to be worthy of exaltation. Perfectionism creates a heightened sense of importance to every small act, the details of life, especially for women who have internalized the idea that their lives should be lived in service of others. If only I had called that person. If only I hadn’t gone to the gym. If only I had listened harder to the spirit. If only I had said that differently. If only I weren’t imperfect. If only I weren’t human. If only I could transcend the natural man or woman. I had a ministering sister give me a spiral bound book of General Conference talks wrapped up in a ribbon, and I remember thinking “What a waste of time and money! These are available for free online if I choose to read them (or even listen to them).” Truth be told, though, my life is full enough without treading through these threadbare talks yet again. After all, every lesson and talk at Church is already a rehash of these exact same talks, GAs quoting other GAs, quoting themselves.[1]

Occasionally, as a missionary, I’d stumble across an Ensign article or a book left behind by a missionary. Since we were limited to reading scriptures, I was always voracious for any new material. Invariably, these articles would only foster a scrupulosity in me, a mea culpa depression over my flaws, a renewed vigor to pay attention to the utter minutae of my life choices to ferret out any possible weakness or humanity that was preventing me from immediately being translated. Once I was so bored I read back through the “white Bible,” the book of rules for missionaries, and I made note of all the rules I was accidentally violating that apparently were preventing our success, including accepting a letter of apology from an elder who had told me I looked like a brick house, and allowing my luggage to weigh more than 20 kilos. Missionaries struggle to comprehend the difference between rule violations and sins. If it’s a rule, it must be a sin to break it, even if it’s kind of silly. I always tried to find the “reason” behind the rules to see if I was violating the spirit of the law, and in general I felt like I was doing all right on that front, but then again, that’s how rationalization works, right?

I have never been more miserable in my life than during those moments when I took the rules too seriously. I was recently reading about Draco’s Law, the first written legal code in ancient Greece (7th c BC). Prior to that time, the laws were all given verbally, and the wealthy often exploited them or altered them to their own benefit. By writing the law down and posting it in a public space, everyone was under the same law, and it couldn’t be altered without everyone knowing about it (or at least those who were literate). Nearly all of the rules carried the death penalty, even for minor infractions.

“It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones”. (Plutarch, “Life of Solon, XVIIgutenberg.org.)

It was also said that Draco wrote the law in blood, not in ink.

“Consequently, because his laws seemed to be more severe than was expedient, they fell into disuse not by decree and official action but by the silent and unwritten agreement of the Athenians.” (Gellius)

For some, scrupulosity is the entire point of the gospel. Becky Craven’s talk Careful vs. Casual is a recent example of this idea that we have to ramp up our vigilance to be sure we are obeying every tiny little command or suggestion with perfect execution, regardless of the varying levels of importance each of these aspects of life may have. We have to be “careful,” not “casual” about every single decision we make, where we go, what we wear, what we watch, what we eat, etc., etc., and constantly thinking about and obsessing over whether we’ve done enough. Every tiny decision must be filtered through a “gospel lens” which really just means approval of the Church. To me, this doesn’t sound like the surefire recipe for happiness that her talk says it is. To me, this sounds like a recipe for mental illness, for PTSD. Maintaining this state of hyper-vigilance is simply exhausting, and it neither makes one happy nor pleasant to be around.

Imagine you are a soldier, constantly aware that around every corner may be a new threat, a violent burst of gunfire, that could end your life. Every day you must prepare for the potential for battle, carrying with you armor that defends and weapons that can help you escape if a conflict arises. That’s no way to live. That’s why tours of duty, and missions, are brief. We return to daily life. We can watch TV, read books for pleasure, enjoy the sun, relax, grow a garden, laugh with friends. We don’t have to inject every moment of our lives with imagined guilt and terror. Most people don’t.

  • Have you lived in stressful hyper-vigilance at times in your life? Were you happier as a result?
  • How do you avoid the excesses of scrupulosity?
  • Do you think some people are more prone to guilt and obsessing over rules?
  • What rules do you see that Church members (the Athenians) tacitly agree to ignore because they just don’t agree with them (like those living under Draco’s law)?


[1] I suspect at some point in the not too distant future we’ll have a new Relief Society manual just called Oaks Quoting Oaks. On the cover will be a picture of him with a slight smile, next to his wife who looks up at him with worshipful adoration.