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Monday, February 27, 2006 

The Mormon Machine: It just doesn't work without guilt

One of the things that outsiders who know anything about Mormonism find impressive is the degree to which things are organized. The hierarchy of the church, the manner in which responsibilities are assigned and carried out, and the way things operate perpetually is pretty amazing. In order for it all to work, it requires a deep, deep commitment from the members inclusive of consideration, and vast amounts of time and effort.

But the machine is only as good as the wheels, cogs and gears that keep it in perpetual motion. This is both to the advantage and disadvantage of the church. This is why I think that there is some validity in the claim that Mormons are "brainwashed."

Of course, don't think that the Mormon folk are literally hypnotized and forced to to anything. That's crazy. But the reason why the church works like it does is because Mormons are guilted and "holier than thou'd" into it.

Here are some examples from my motivation in my own experience with service in the church:

Calling: Ward Employment Specialist
I accepted this calling, even though I had no idea how to do it. I was actually unemployed at the time, had no idea how to get myself a job, or one for anyone else. I sent around sign up sheets for people who needed jobs or knew of jobs, out of obligation (i.e. guilt) , but I didn't actually help anyone find a job.

Calling: Visiting Teacher
I hated visiting teaching. I hated everything about it, but I did it faithfully and consistently, out of guilt. I hated visiting other people who I didn't really know or ever get to know. I hated being visited by people who came to my house out of obligation.

Calling: Education Counselor in Relief Society
I was called to this position because--wait for it--I was majoring in Education! So, I thought that I was hot stuff. I gave the other teachers feedback on their lessons and relished planning out the schedule of lessons. I worked so hard at this calling because I felt I'd finally been recognized as someone who was important by being called to the Relief Society presidency.

Calling: Stake Young Single Adult Activities Director
I received this calling because when I came back from BYU, I told my stake president I was worried about all of my friends who became inactive. Ironically, I went inactive while holding this calling. I did work my tail off for a year and a half, though, but it was more about me than about the people I was trying to serve. I wanted to do a better job than the person before me.

Besides proving that I am completely shallow, a sincere examination of my motivation for working at my callings shows that the work we do in the Mormon Machine isn't necessarily done for the "right" reason. It still gets done, though, so does it matter?

I think it does. And I think that if you look closer at your motivations for working at your callings that it will matter to you, too.

Posted by Kaycee.

I used to say yes to everything and I was the education counselor, as well, but I enjoyed it.

What I hated was being the homemaking counselor. I accepted it under that "officially cool and important" feeling and I quit, yelling screaming about the inhumanity, 6 months later.

I have no answer to that guilt thing. But I have no trouble saying no and I don't care if I'm cool or not anymore. That has been very freeing.

I don't think I have ever turned a calling down. Maybe? But I dont' think so.

I have had some pretty STUPID callings though, and I swear half of the callings they have, are just too keep ya busy and make you feel "part" of the team.

I have also called a few bishops bluff and said, "Are you sure this isn't desperation rather than insperation"

That being said: There isn't a calling I have ever had, that I have not learned a LOT from.

Guilt. Yes, yes, yes. However... is that such a bad thing? If we look at life, arn't there an enormous amount of things that we do because of feelings of guilt, that really have nothing to do with Mormonism?

And why do we feel guilt?

Good Questions.

One of the hardest things I ever did in this realm was to ask to be released from a calling. Teaching the 5 year-olds every week (my oldest daughter was 5 at the time, but in the other class, so she threw a fit each week because she wanted to be with me), and having to bring my sleeping 2 year old (who fell asleep during Sacrament Meeting), and, oh yes, I was 8 months pregnant. Husband had to attend other wards due to his calling. I felt major guilt about wanting to be released until I remembered that the church is meant to support the family, not the other way around. That calling was not working for my family.

I have turned down numerous callings. My husband and I both work full time and we have two small children and since I have started working and I have been extended a calling, I have turned it down. I have ONE night a week that my family is all together and I am not about to give up MY family time. I haven't been visiting teaching in a year and my husband has not been home teaching either. I have seen my visiting teachers twice and we have not seen our home teachers at all (I don't even know who they are)and it doesn't bother us. I figure that I am resposible for my own spirituality and growth and I can't depend on another person bringing it to me in a once-a-month visit. I think that in the end you need to do what is best for you and your family and not worry about the rest.

I like what FluffyChicky said:

"I figure that I am resposible for my own spirituality and growth and I can't depend on another person bringing it to me in a once-a-month visit. I think that in the end you need to do what is best for you and your family and not worry about the rest."

Well said, Friend...well said

Good post. I've reflected on the guilt factor a number of times, and have basically concluded to myself that, while it frequently ensures that certain jobs get done, we pay the price in other ways.

I can't think of many better examples of being "guilted" into doing something than home teaching. In my experience, guilt trips have been the primary motivator in getting people to do their home teaching. Guilt trips sometimes produce short-term results, but the effect is not felt in the long run unless the guilt is reinforced from time to time. And I really think this turns people off of the home teaching program, both the home teachers and the home teachees. Guilt trips totally miss the boat when it comes to motivating people to do things for the "right" reasons.

I honestly don't feel that the "guilt trip" is intended in the most cases. I think that, often, the lay ministry is underqualified as a motivational speaker. Since most people can't motivivate others effectively, they end up trying to guilt you into doing it.

Honestly, I can think of plenty of other places where we are guilted. I know I was guilted into going to high school. I feel guilted to go to school right now. I hate it, but I would feel guilty giving it up, you know, for my family.

I don't think that a little guilt is a bad thing.

Oh, and if we would do things because we want to, then we wouldn't feel guilt :-)

I agree, Kaycee, that the formalized Church process is mostly about guilt. I must admit that most of the good deeds I do in other, non-Church spheres are also motivated by guilt. I can't explain this away because of Mormon socialization since I'm a recent convert.

I think it takes a special relationship with someone to get beyond guilt as an inspiration to help them.

The committment pattern that we use in the Church (and that I use with people that I want to change something) is specifically designed to produce the guilt that one feels for breaking an agreement. That guilt isn't bad, but playing on it might be. I think those are separate questions.

I grew up thinking that you just can't say no to a calling. After a miserable stint at being primary president, I told my mother that if they ever asked me again I would say no. She gasped in horror.

Recently I was asked to be a seminary teacher. My branch president told me I could think about it and get back to him, "since it's technically an assignment and not a calling, you are not obligated to do it."

Now I've given up guilt (for the most part) and I am much happier. I would have no problem now turning down a calling.

I always tell them my situation up front when I know I'm about to recieve a calling. I have to work some Sundays, and I don't usually know until late Friday. I usually end up getting something like Assistant Scoutmaster, Primary teacher, or helper in the Nursery. I love those callings.

Yeah, it does work without the guilt. It works if you can cultivate enough love for people who aren't of your immediate kith and kin to want to serve them. Then, you want to do all you can for them...if this is our motivation and we sometimes fail, its not so much guilt as sorrow that we have fallen below the aims we set for ourselves. I don't think that's guilt, or if it is, its neither a destructive nor a bad kind of guilt.

Moreover, I think it's useful to distinguish between kinds of guilt--that which is derived from others' judgements, and that which is derived from our own judgements of ourselfs. (Russell Hardin, in All for One, describes the first as Jewish Guilt and the latter as Catholic guilt, I believe.) Of the two, I think only the first is in a meaningful sense by nature bad, since it is not based on commitments we make for ourselves. The latter is only problematic, I think, if it is in some sense pathological and uncontrollable (and caused by brain chemistry). Any guilt that may come from failing to measure up to the reasonable aims we set for ourselves, which we attach ourselves to, is I think a good and useful thing, as it helps to progress, to reconsider that which we have been doing, and why we have been failing to meet our commitment. To seek a life without guilt seems to me to seek a safe life, a life without challenge, without caring, without commitment, without real meaning outside the daily tasks of living.

Great post, Kaycee.

To be fair, there is a place for discipline. In any organization, there are needs that are harder to staff than others. To me the problem is that so much of the Mormon experience is merely about going through the motions. If that is the case, I don't see why I am supposed to sacrifice when it ain't gonna matter.

A calling such as employment specialist is a case in point. It's a great idea to have an employment specialist. There's certainly a lot of need for one in many wards. But how can one be a specialist though if one never receives any training?

Helping somebody to find a job is difficult and time intensive. The Church as an institution does not acknowledge that. There is no training, no mentoring, no budget, no nothing. Under those circumstances it ain't surprising that the successful employment specialist is a rare exception.

As employment specialist, one is set up for failure . . . and the resulting feelings of inadequacy.

Hellmut Lotz :"To seek a life without guilt seems to me to seek a safe life, a life without challenge, without caring, without commitment, without real meaning outside the daily tasks of living."

I wholeheartedly disagree. I think that people can continually seek to improve themselves and the lives of others and live compassionate beautiful lives without having to feel badly for not being perfect.

Guilt often has to do with a sense of inadequacy and I think there's entirely to much of it going around. And I don't think it's respectful of people to use guilt to motivate them.

I agree with you, Amy. I am a little bit surprised about the quote that you are attributing to me. It ain't mine.

Amy is actually quoting TMD.

Oops! Somehow in my scrolling up and down the page I mixed things up. I'm very sorry to misattribute the quote.

I agree with your comment hellmut lotz. I guess it's me and tmd that disgree. :)

AmyB: Guilt is a basic, physiologically derived emotion, that one has committed a moral transgression. It is distinct from shame, the belief that one has failed up to one's own ideals. The action tendancy for guilt is to approach, generally with the intent to reconcile; the action tendency for shame is to avoid, generally with the intent to hide (see for instance Elster, Strong Feelings).

Unless one believes that one cannot fail to meet thier commitments to morality or ideals, one cannot avoid shame and guilt (which, by the way, I think this discussion has generally conflated: what has been called guilt seems to be leading to both action tendencies). The only other way to avoid these tendencies is to derogate the meaning of the ideal or the relevant moral.

Put differently: 'living a life without guilt' means either that someone does not care about the commitment made as they make them, or one in a very self-interested way derrogates them when there is the possibility that they may lead to an unpleasant sensation.

Guilt and shame can arise whenever we make commitments with someone to whom we invest some kind of moral authority (be it others or ourselves). At an elemental level, guilt and shame are physiological signals we send ourselves that something is wrong. Thus, I do not see how we can really improve, or act in ways that are intentionally and reflectively compassionate (as opposed to a disordered, ad hoc compassion with little connection to ends or means), without making plans and commitments with ourselves that have some sort of moral or aspirational tinge. So guilt and shame are unavoidable if one is to seek a life with any kind of meaning in it, unless we are perfect (which of course could be quite easy if we set the bar very low and define every good act as somehow extra). Relatedly, because the kind of guilt and shame are generated internally, it is not motivating with guilt or shame, since the asker has no ability to control that. (And, even if they just volunteered, the guilt and shame would most likely still arise if they had any commitment in their voluntaristic act.) This, by the way, gives an idea of the importance of the atonement in our lives: through it we can overcome our guilt and shame without derogating our commitments. Because we are all, fundamentally, inadequate. In trying to deal with this, some confront the matter head on, others chose to ignore it or pretend that it isn't so, for them. I would call this last route the route of pride. (Since I know no one here, no one should believe that I am accusing anyone of this.)

Hence, I stand by my assertion that a meaningful life requires an encounter with guilt.

I don't think Mother Teresa felt very guilty.

I agree with Amy and Hellmutt.

I don't say "no" anymore, I say, "hell, no."

I don't think God works in guilty, I think it's counter-productive and turns too easily into despair and shame. Too much score keeping in our church.

There's this guy named Brother Lawrence, or there WAS a guy named that, who wrote the most wonderful positive letters to somebody about how he was able to do the best he could, cheerfully and shrug off what he couldn't.

Mormons are pretty guilt ridden, especially Mormon women. Especially women. My husband doesn't feel very guilty.

We're all working ourselves into the ground here, girls, and there has to be an "easier, less worried way." -CS Lewis.

Kaycee said: "But the reason why the church works like it does is because Mormons are guilted and "holier than thou'd" into it."

It deeply saddens me that this has been your experience and the experience of others. I confess that I have been on the receiving and giving end of that guilt. I acknowledge that it does happen.

But what also troubles me about your statement is that it leaves no room for the fact that much of what motivates people in the Church has nothing to do with guilt. And, I am truly sorry if you and others missed that in your experiences with the Church.

Have you never felt the joy and comfort of the gospel? Have you never been motivated out of love or gratitude for your Father in Heaven? Have you never felt the deep satisfaction that comes from creating something beautiful through your labors? Have you ever felt a sense of purpose in your calling or been lifted up in spirit because you were trusted to complete this assignment? Have you ever hungered and thirsted after righteousness? Have you ever been led by the Spirit?

Church experience in large part is what you make of it. Callings are done out of duty or guilt unless you make the motivation something else. The victim mentality only brings pain. Many posters have talked about the freedom they now feel now that they choose for themselves whether they will accept a calling, etc. Well, anyone can feel that freedom now (freedom is not synonomous with rebellion). You can choose to follow the Lord and his leaders out of joy and a desire to know the Lord more fully.

In any event, please acknowledge that guilt is not the only way the "Mormon machine" can work. I have acknowledged that it does sometimes work through guilt.

Actually, Mother Teresea's writings reveal that she often dealt with something akin to guilt and experienced much spiritual conflict, particularly in her last 50 years. She felt that she had recieved very strong spiritual experiences early in her life (before age 30) but then those strong spiritual experiences stopped happening. Understanding this in terms of Catholic theology, she (as with many other catholics now recognized as 'great saints') considered this a trial, parallel in nature but different from magnitude, from the isolation from HF experienced by Jesus on the Cross.

It is true that feelings of inadequacy are the result of a healthy upbringing. That does not justify that an organizations exploits those feelings to manipulate its members.

There is a reason why folks in Utah have to pop anti-depressants more than in any other state. Utah also has fairly high rates of suicide.

Unfortunately, we only have aggregate data that does not allow us to determine causal links. Mormon culture and practices, however, are reasonable candidates.

Yeah, there's that other, stupider reason for accepting calling. I call it "the officially cool" factor. That worked with me for a long time.

Now I'm smarter. I'm at the "go away, I'm resting" stage.


I think you have a valid point that because we are human, there is a discrepancy between our ideals and the way we actually behave. (Correct me if I'm misinterpreting you). Are you saying that guilt is the motivating factor that helps us continue working towards those ideals?

I'm not sure what your point is about guilt being "physioligically derived." All emotions have physiological correlates. That doesn't have anything to do with whether they are helpful or unhelpful emotions. We all use our thoughts, perceptions and emotions together to determine how to respond and act. Guilt is not unique in this respect.

That being said, I think guilt is a loaded word that means a lot of things to a lot of people. When I say I want to live my life without guilt I don't think I mean the same thing you would mean if you said the same words. I would hope if you met me you would see that I am trying to live a moral, ethical, meaningful life. However I am trying to reframe the way I look at things with language that doesn't carry so much baggage and cause unnecessary pain. (I'm okay with pain, just trying to decrease the unneccessary part.)

In defense of TMD, some psychologists believe that feelings of inadequacy are the unavoidable implication of nurturing parenting. This idea was popularized in the seventies in I'm OK, You're OK by Thomas Harris, an adherent of transaction analysis.

Sure, feelings of inadequacy are a part of life. What I take issue with is having the church, or anyone, co-opt those feelings and use them to make people do things.

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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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