A few years ago, after my mission memoir was published, I was interviewed for Dialogue along with fellow author Roger Terry who wrote Bruder. I was asked why I hadn’t spent more time in my memoir explaining my personal beliefs, looking back at my young thoughts and explaining how they now differed. That was something I noticed he did in his book as did Craig Harline in Way Below the Angels. I had a few reasons for wanting to do something different. First, knowing that very few women served during my era, I wanted to present the experience as I lived it, not as I see it now as an adult. Second, unlike most Elders, I was an adult when I served, and my perspectives didn’t change quite as radically. I didn’t go out as a child and come back as an adult, like most men seem to do, at least in that time frame. Lastly, I am incredibly skeptical of the explanations we give for why we believe the things we do.

As I’ve quoted before, Jonathan Haidt refers to beliefs as a rider on an elephant. The rider explains why the elephant is going where it goes, but the rider is not really in control, and the explanations are post hoc justifications to explain what the rider thinks is going on, not what is really going on. So it is when we try to explain our beliefs. We come up with something that sounds good to us, but if we try to get below the surface, most of these explanations fall apart. They are all made up, so why wouldn’t they? We don’t really know why we do what we do.

Sometimes we accidentally type a different word than we intend. This occasionally happens when I’m listening to something or lost in thought about something unrelated while also typing. Those words and thoughts will accidentally show up in the thing I’m typing, and I only catch it later when reading through it. We sometimes call it a Freudian slip, if the word we say by accident appears to be psychologically revealing, but sometimes it’s less meaningful than that. Just an accidental insertion of a parallel internal monologue.

But have you ever done something that you really couldn’t explain away so easily? Behaved in a way that you thought was atypical or unlike who you think you are?

I talked to a friend of mine who has never been a member of the church, someone I was close friends with in high school. He was reading my mission memoir which I had given a link to on Facebook. He was baffled, reading about this experience I had that was so completely foreign to his concept of who I was. He said it was like reading a book about a stranger, someone he didn’t know at all. Where was the me who was full of attitude and anti-authoritarian? The cool girl? The rebel? As I pointed out, I was the same person, but in completely different contexts. But maybe I really was two people. Maybe I wasn’t as cool as he thought I was. Maybe I was way cooler than my fellow missionaries thought I was. Maybe both were true.

People whose brains have been divided between hemispheres, disconnecting the communication between both sides of their brain, may suffer from something called alien hand syndrome, also known as Dr. Strangelove syndrome [1]:

Film buffs may remember that the title character of the classic 1964 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had what looked like alien hand syndrome. Dr. Strangelove’s hand would perform what appeared to be purposeful acts but were in fact unintentional.

In a report documented in the medical literature, a man’s alien hand started undoing the buttons on his shirt as his other hand buttoned them. In other case reports, patients have said they awoke from sleep to find their hands choking them.

In another case, a 56-year-old patient recovering from a stroke reported that his right hand was behaving of its own accord—flipping light switches, grabbing papers, and batting away his left hand. 


Because we don’t suffer from alien hand syndrome (which can also occur in legs, just FYI in case your legs start doing weird stuff against your will), we have the illusion that we are in control, that we are the driver, not the rider, of the elephant. We attribute quirks like typos to inattention or muscle memory. We tell ourselves a story that maintains the illusion of control, that we are who we think we are, who we’ve told ourselves we are.

Fast and testimony meeting seems to me to be an exercise in crystalizing our own personal narrative, interpreting our actions and observations into a faith-promoting narrative. We’ve been told that a testimony is found in the bearing thereof, and there’s a psychological reason for that. The more we tell a story a certain way, the truer it feels to us. The facts examined in a testimony can be interpreted in many different ways. For example, a non-believer can look at the Word of Wisdom and scoff at it, considering it a narrow-minded way to judge others, not based on actual scientific benefit, something to keep people inside the community and isolated from outside influences. A believer can look at it as a confirmation of divine intervention, a revealed health code from God to His children for their benefit, a higher standard of living. The story we tell, how often we tell it, and to whom we tell it, all make it easier to continue to see things that way and harder to see them another way. The more we tell a story, the more we believe it. The more real it becomes.

  • Have you ever changed your story about yourself?
  • Have you wondered why you did something that didn’t seem like you at all?
  • Have you observed that you behaved differently in different contexts?


[1] Best name for a mental disorder that I’ve ever heard, hands, er, hand, down.