Sunday, May 19, 2013

The dark side of "losing yourself" in the work

My greatest fear before leaving on an LDS mission was losing myself. Every Mormon boy growing up hears how the mission changes you. One of the most often repeated platitudes was to "lose yourself in the work". They say you become less interested in "things of the world" and more in the things of god, you become more spiritual, and so on. Apparently, it is a mission that "molds" you into the good Mormon soldier you are supposed to be as a Mormon priesthood holder.

The thing was, I liked a lot of my hobbies. I was an avid anime fan and owned a number of series. I liked sports, music, and gaming. I genuinely liked these parts of myself and didn't want to lose them. Every story from the "good" missionaries I heard (later I heard other, more colorful stories) confirmed to me that I'd have to part with these hobbies. Being the uptight kid that I was, I couldn't conceive of a world in which I could keep them and still be a good Mormon. Clearly I could always be more spiritual, always spend more time with the "things of God". I could see how focusing on Mormon things would naturally take away my interest in the things I liked.

More than that, though, I realized most of the stuff I owned wasn't exactly Mormon kosher. Some of the series contained nudity (oh, the horror of boobs!), some of them suggested the possibility that God didn't exist (oh noes), some contained pretty graphic violence (though my moderately conservative family seemed not to mind the violence so much as the if a naked person is going to tear your head and arms off and use your body as a human shiel...oh wait, I forgot about THIS (NSFW)). A few of my guilty pleasure musicians swore pretty heavily. (Oh, the horrors of words (NSFW), they will destroy you, won't they?)

Mormonism constantly teaches you to avoid things like these - they destroyed the "spirit", after all, and any time the spirit lacks in your life, you have no direction. You're in the "clutches" of the devil, they say. You will be deceived. Problematically, though, no one ever defined directly what was bad. We couldn't see rated R movies, but we could see PG-13 movies if they were OK. But what was OK wasn't defined, at least not concretely. In fact, Mormon scripture basically tells us we must always be looking for the bad stuff, because it is everywhere. Mormons are even counseled to "avoid the appearance of evil", which functionally meant that if someone else thought it was bad, you can't do it. If I was going to be a representative of the Lord, I had to be free of any blemish, as they say.

The social pressure of a mission is hard to ignore in Utah. In the face of my own doubts I decided to destroy anything that might "take away from the spirit" (which functionally meant anything that wasn't directly connected with the church in some way). Out went my anime collection, my non-church music, my games and my books. In came the Mormon Standard works, the "Missionary Library", the emotionally manipulative videos from seminary, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. My purging had begun.

Looking back after 10 years has given me a bit of perspective. Was I right to be afraid I would lose myself? In a word, yes. A High School friend of mine has told me recently I was a different person when I came back from Japan. I felt different, too. I didn't enjoy life as much. I was maladjusted and paralyzingly afraid of anything that could be construed as "bad" in the Mormon sense.

The silver lining in all of this is I eventually got back some of the things I lost, but not all of them. I've had to fight, tooth an nail, to regain what I could.

At least I now have a story to tell.

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