A Cool Little Mormon Trick

Yesterday I was listening to some of the songs from Parker and Stone’s “The Book of Mormon (The Musical).” Yes, much of it is crude, and they have taken some liberties with Mormon beliefs and practices (OK, that’s a bit of an understatement), but it is funny and creative, and the songs are well-done and catchy. But one song hit me hard, and I wondered how Stone and Parker could have understood so clearly my experience growing up in the LDS church.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s obvious to me that my experience isn’t the same as anyone else’s; I am speaking only of my experience. But the song suggests to me that I may not be alone.

Many of the songs in the show make joking references to the perception that Mormons are perpetually “nice” and polite, but it’s this song that explains why this may be so. Part of the socialization process in every human being involves suppressing our desires in favor of the greater good. We count it civilized, for example, to obey the laws of traffic, even if we need to be somewhere in a hurry. Those who do not keep their desires in check in accordance with the law may find themselves paying a fine or serving a prison term.

And many of us take this self-suppression even further. Because we need to fit in, we keep our desires, our dreams, hidden. I’ve always loved this quote from Marge Simpson, which explains beautifully this need to suppress the self: “It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” Of course, going along to fit in never results in happiness, and you probably won’t be invited to parties, either.

What Marge is talking about is external actions that express our feelings. “It’s what shows up on the outside that counts.” As a Latter-day Saint, I was really good at keeping up surface appearances, and I think a lot Mormons are. In every leadership position I held in the LDS Church, I learned that, while on the surface, most church members seemed to be doing just fine, there were serious problems in a lot of homes and families. There really wasn’t anywhere in the church to frankly discuss our problems, except to the bishop, but we had been told that bishops were not there to counsel us or help us with our problems. In public, we had every incentive to proclaim that what was on the surface was reality. We told everyone in testimony meeting and other places how happy we were.

But, for me at least, the reality under the surface was quite different. For one thing, I was dealing with chronic depression, and ironically, my attempts to be happy on the surface kept me from acknowledging the depression or dealing with it. And part of the reason for that was my desire to make my feelings and desires accord with the surface appearance of “doing fine.” Thomas Monson famously said that, if we were struggling with our desires, we should “fake it till you make it”; in other words, if we act as if our desires are “good,” eventually our thoughts will catch up with our actions.

Looking back, I can see that there was tremendous pressure to bend (or break) my desires in favor of doing and thinking what the church teaches. Jesus taught that lusting after someone was the same as adultery, and in keeping with this, LDS scripture tells us, “See that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love” (Alma 38:12) and on the other side, “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (D&C 121:45). In other words, I was supposed to drive out bad thoughts and think only good thoughts.

So, controlling your thoughts becomes paramount for a Latter-day Saint. Boyd K. Packer taught:

Probably the greatest challenge and the most difficult thing you will face in mortal life is to learn to control your thoughts. … The mind is like a stage. During every waking moment the curtain is up. … Have you noticed that shady little thoughts may creep in from the wings and attract your attention in the middle of almost any performance on that stage and without any real intent on your part? These delinquent thoughts will try to upstage everybody. If you permit them to go on, all thoughts of any virtue will leave the stage. You will be left, because you consented to it, to the influence of unrighteous thoughts. If you yield to them, they will enact for you on the stage of your mind anything to the limits of your toleration. They may enact themes of bitterness, jealousy, or hatred. They may be vulgar, immoral, even depraved. When they have the stage, if you let them, they will devise the most clever persuasions to hold your attention. They can make it interesting all right, even convince you that they are innocent, for they are but thoughts. What do you do at a time like that, when the stage of your mind is commandeered by the imps of unclean thinking, whether they be the gray ones that seem almost clean, or the filthy ones which leave no room for doubt? If you can fill your mind with clean and constructive thoughts, then there will be no room for these persistent imps, and they will leave.

So, it’s not enough to behave righteously, but it is important to think and feel righteously, too; otherwise, your mind will yield to evil such that “all thoughts of any virtue will leave.” The ability to think and feel only righteous thoughts is variously spoken of as “self-control,” “self-mastery,” and “purity of thought.” Parker and Stone describe pretty well the way I did it:

When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head
Don’t feel those feelings hold them in instead

Turn it off, like a light switch
Just go click
It’s a cool little Mormon trick
We do it all the time
When you’re feeling certain feelings
That just don’t seem right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light
And turn ’em off like a light switch

But I was never entirely sure that the feelings were really gone and would not resurface at some point. Was I the only Mormon who was afraid of alcohol and drugs not because they were dangerous but because I might “lose control”? No, I had to switch it all off, as the song describes:

Well, Elder McKinley, I think it’s okay that you’re having gay thoughts
Just so long as you never act upon them

No – cause then you’re just keeping it down
Like a dimmer switch
On low (on low)
Thinking nobody needs to know (uh oh)
But that’s not true
Being gay is bad but lying is worse
So just realize you have a curable curse
And turn it off

I don’t think my struggles were anything compared to that of gay Mormons, but the principle is the same. As long as you still feel and desire something contrary to the gospel, you are guilty. Church leaders have often used this passage from “Huckleberry Finn” to illustrate the point:

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. … I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing … ; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.

Of course, Huck’s lament is mean to be taken as ironic, as it is his conscience that won’t allow him to do the “right thing and the clean thing” by turning in the slave, Jim. But we were meant to understand that, if our heart isn’t right, we have to find the “determination to choose the right when a choice is placed before us” (Thomas Monson, Ensign, Sept. 1993).

The only solution is to choose only positive, uplifting thoughts and switch off every bad thought or feeling: anger, lust, greed, laziness, whatever it is. Self-mastery, then, is a constant effort to think and feel and do the right, no matter what, and it isn’t just avoiding pornography. In the “Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood” manual, we read, “Developing self-mastery will help us form positive habits such as arising early, studying the scriptures daily, and fulfilling our assignments promptly. Such habits can free us from confusion.” Other positive habits listed include paying tithing and keeping the Word of Wisdom. The manual urges us to set goals “to live [gospel] principles” and “do our best to reach those goals.”

Strangely, the analogous lesson in the manual “The Latter-day Saint Woman” gives an example of how to achieve such goals. The manual describes an American woman who feels tremendous guilt for eating “nearly a whole box of chocolates” at Christmas time. She continues:

Eating the chocolates represented my low point. I cannot describe what I went through to one who has never experienced similar feelings: I was stuffed with chocolates, disgusted with myself, despondent, and thoroughly discouraged. Through this ridiculous, silly weakness, Satan worked with me and brought me down. All my feelings and thoughts at this time were unworthy.

“So that Christmas I decided that I would never experience that situation again. I sat down and wrote myself a letter. In the letter I described my feelings so I couldn’t forget them, and I promised myself that I would not let another year pass without gaining total control over my appetite. I’ve seen such progress in myself in the year since then, and my confidence has grown daily. I know that I have almost won this particular battle” (“My Worst Enemy—Me!” Ensign, Feb. 1975, 62).

Most people would just shrug this off as a typical holiday overindulgence and not repeat it (well, at least until the next Christmas). But this woman feels disgusted, despondent, and discouraged; this is truly her “low point.” One box of chocolates, and Satan has brought her down until all her thoughts were “unworthy.”

I could relate to this overreaction. Towards the end of my mission, I saw a movie poster in the main plaza, which showed a woman in thigh-high stockings and heels. I quickly averted my eyes, but I knew I had felt something unclean when I saw it. I spent a ridiculous amount of effort chastising myself for that fleeting thought, which otherwise would have been nothing more than a moment in time. But I couldn’t allow that image to gain a foothold in my mind, as I had recently read in a church magazine that, once an image was in your mind, it “may never be erased.”

Obviously, I’m not advocating that we abandon all self-restraint in our lives, but I don’t think I was the only Mormon who obsessed over small things because I desperately wanted the stage of my mind to be free and clear of any shady thoughts that might commandeer it and lead me to misery and sin. It seems to me that obsessing over these things made me miserable, perhaps as much so as if I had let the persistent imps take over.

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5 Responses to A Cool Little Mormon Trick

  1. Diane Sower says:

    One thing missing from the mormon church, aside from the truth, is a continuing process of support groups. Support groups listed on the back of each week’s program, so that people have a place to go to talk about their depression, their exhaustion, or whatever may be the case. It would have been nice for me to have other women to feel comfortable sharing my despair with. I really believe it would have helped, not necessarily in keeping me in the church forever, but in just getting through each day.

  2. How about the old saying I’ve often heard quoted in church: “It’s as bad to think about a sinful act as to carry it out.”

    I don’t know about you, but I’d far rather have someone think about killing me than carry it out.

  3. Beautifully written. I remember once in Relief Society telling the women there that just because things may look perfectly fine on the outside doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of inner turmoil and heartache. I got some stares when I said that, but immediately two other people popped up to agree with me.

  4. chanson says:

    I totally disagree with your suggestion that the musical is loaded with errors, but just got that one song right. I think it’s the opposite — there are a few errors and a couple of points of legitimate artistic license (having the elders get their calls at the MTC so that they can all do one number about their calls together), but overall they got Mormon culture more right than practically any other work I’ve ever seen or read.

    There’s a thread over on Main Street Plaza discussing all of the stuff they got right. If you want to weigh in with all their many errors, please go over and comment.

    • runtu says:

      That wasn’t my suggestion at all. I think the play nails the culture, but that one song really, really hit me. It’s not that they got just one song right, but that one song spoke to me.

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