Psychosocial Mormontorium

A few years ago I embarked on a year's worth of rage over an incident that would seem trivial to most people,

My sister went to London for six weeks. When she came home she was full of plays and books and people and places that she had seen, and, of course, she wanted to tell us all about it. Whenever she did, a little teapot inside me came to full boil in a matter of seconds, and I had to find a way out of the conversation before I tipped me over and poured me out.

Why this strange reaction? I wasn't positive until I read a little bit about Erik Erikson's theories on the stages of development. One of his ideas was that to grow up healthily in a western culture a young person has to go on a psychosocial moratorium: a big word for cutting ties and doing something different for a while, preferably somewhere far from home. Like going to London for a summer.

As far as I can tell, Erikson thought (and you psychologists out there can correct me if I'm wrong) that a psychosocial moratorium is a person's way of stripping him or herself down to a more essential self. To see what you're like without authority figures looking over your shoulder, or without the bonds and expectations of family and community. A time to find yourself so that you can reenter society as a more realized person ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as a person who can encounter the many difficulties of society gracefully, benefiting from them rather than being crushed.

I think Erikson may have something there. And as I look back on my Mormon upbringing I'm not sure I ever had a psychosocial moratorium. I graduated from high school, went on a mission, got married and spent the next ten years going to school, working, paying a mortgage (which, thanks be to Zeus, I escaped) and raising children. Hardly even time to breathe.

My wife (the more open-minded half of our partnership) hypothesizes that missions are Mormonism's version of the psychosocial moratorium. This is a good thought. In many ways a mission mirrors what Erickson was talking about: being away from home, in entirely new circumstances, and being relatively autonomous. But, frankly my mission was anything BUT a psychosocial moratorium. It was more like a psychotic socialization. I felt like the authority watching me was stronger than ever, like there was much more pressure for me to perform than there had been back in normal life.

But, as my wife points out again, maybe that's exactly the kind of moratorium some Mormons need. Instead of stripping themselves down, they prefer to be galvanized by a force powerful enough to motivate the rest of their lives.

I'm interested to find out what you all think of this. Was a mission a good moratorium for you? Did it do its job getting you ready to encounter life as an authentic person? Or are you lame like me?

(Side note: I think I did finally work my moratorium in over the last five years in Alaska. So no travel brochures, please.)


  1. Anonymous says:

    Was a mission a good moratorium for you? Did it do its job getting you ready to encounter life as an authentic person? Or are you lame like me?

    I think my mission was a good moratorium for me. So I guess that means that I’m not lame like you, I’m just lame in different ways.

    Maybe we can account for the differences in experience by considering the differences in mission presidents. My MP was about the most hands-off man I have ever encountered in my life. I don’t think a single missionary would describe him as authoritarian. He personified Joseph Smith’s dictum about teaching correct principles. On the other hand, I know a man whose MP required them to account, every day, for the amount of time, measured in seconds, they slept in after 6:00a.m. I’m frankly surprised that every single missionary in that mission didn’t have a breakdown.

  2. Nick Literski says:

    Erickson suggested that the psychosocial moratorium take place during adolescence, as a state immediately prior to taking on adult responsibilities. For most young Americans (including LDS) this would be filled by going off to college. I can see where a mission might also be considered in such a way.

    At least where young men are concerned, however, I’m not so sure that modern LDS-ism allows for a psychosocial moratorium. The “ideal” (for which I’ve seen parents express their gratitude to deity for, in testimony meetings) is that the young LDS person goes to college at one of the three BYU campuses. Like it or not, there is a subtle message that going to any other school is somehow inferior. What do we find at BYU? Not your typical college lack of supervision, but rather an administrative structure which is highly paternallistic, and clearly regards the student body as something less than “adults.” For example, the administration hand-picks candidates for student body officers. What foundation can such a practice have, other than a substantial belief that the students, themselves, are too immature to select their own representation?

    The mission is even more supervised and controlling. You are never supposed to be alone. Heck, my mission president was so freaked out at his orientation by stories of elders having bathroom liasons with young LDS girls, that he actually directed that we accompany our companions to the bathroom if we weren’t in our own apartment! (Yes, he calmed down later, and was a wonderful man.) Missionaries have a handbook of rules which they would never be expected to live in other circumstances. They have mission presidents of varying management styles. Then there are the LDS members—we had to start wearing missionary attire on preparation days, because a member called the mission president and complained about seeing “the missionaries” in t-shirts and knee-length shorts at the grocery store on preparation day. (“They didn’t look like missionaries!!!”)

    Once finished with the scrutiny of missionary service, the LDS church (not to mention biology) strongly urges a young man to promptly marry and start raising a family. By then, “adult responsibilities” have taken over entirely. Besides, a wife is more controlling of a man’s behavior than any mission president could be.

    The big question isn’t so much whether a young LDS has a psychosocial moratorium, or whether the mission serves this purpose, but rather what effect does the LACK of one have on personality development? Maybe Erickson is up in the night, since there are plenty of LDS super-achievers who trod this path.

    In an LDS theological sense, this entire earthly existence is MEANT to be a psychosocial moratorium, carried on outside the presence of deity. One gets the occasional letter from home, but nothing immediately enforces compliance with the will of the authority figure. So why do so many LDS institutions reject that example??

  3. Rick says:

    My mission was absolutely my moratorium. Not because it was fun or liberating, but because I had to strip away everything that I thought defined me (my clothes, my reading, my friendships, etc.) and turn myself into just one more elder in an army of clones. Having no real external identity for two years really gave me perspective on who I was internally. Not being able to pursue any of my own ambitions, I had two years to realize what they were. It was my transformation.

    (I might also add that two years of no sexual relations certainly had some effect…………different discussion, though)

    My dilemna now is that I have young children who will someday be mission age. I don’t support the idea of prosilytizing missions at all and really don’t want my kids to go. But then….what will be their moratorium?

  4. paula says:

    Well, how about a Gap Year for your kids, Rick? (Like British kids do.) There are a lot of organized programs,and our youngest wants to look into doing that. Or something like Teach for America– which does have to be a little bit later. My oldest has spent the summer working at the NIH in Maryland, and I think it’s been a moratorium for him. He knew no one when he went, and had to find housing, etc, and make new connections totally, as well as working in a really challenging field, at age 20. It’s been a great summer for him.

  5. Cool term: psychosocial moratorium. And based on my own personal experience it’s a cool phenomenon.

    My mission and undergrad experience at BYU certainly qualify for P.M., though they were subject to some of the caveats Nick and Stephen point out. A Mission President and the mission location are probably the two most important external ingredients affecting a mission’s P.M.ness. The Pres sets the tone of the mission and it filters alarmingly efficient throughout the mission. The location brings its own unique set of variables. For example, in Taiwan we never felt the presence of members looking over our shoulders, and as Americans in an American-friendly foreign country we largely felt like we could do anything we wanted. I also had a great President. All things considered, I felt a lot of autonomy to make my mission whatever I wanted it to be. As such, I do feel it helped me develop at least some degree of authenticity.

    I also enjoyed a 4-month, uh, “vacation” in Taiwan as a civilian during one summer two years after my mission that consisted of me, a motorcycle, a backpack full of books, a countryside dotted by Buddhist temples, and an occaisional “english lesson” to finance my meals and gas for the motorcycle. Heaven.

    I’d always wanted a family, but I waited until I was 30 to get married in large part because I wanted to experience the opportunities and flexibility that life with a wife and children could not afford. Though I was never entirely free of “the bonds and expectations of family and community,” in many respects I view my entire twenties as an extended P.M.

  6. Mark Butler says:

    If it weren’t so potentially hazardous to one’s spiritual health, a year or so away from the Church works wonders in this regard – with respect to appreciating the blessings active participation provides in particular.Of course hell may also be considered to be a psychosocial moratorium of a more serious nature.

  7. Jason King says:

    “To see what you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re like without authority figures looking over your shoulder, or without the bonds and expectations of family and community.”

    Under this definition, I’m not sure how most missions could qualify (I would say that mine did not); you’re with someone 24/7. Perhaps there is something to say for the mission because the old authority, namely your parents, are no longer there. But the reality of today’s mission is to have constant supervision, rules, and activies for the missionary for the their entire mission, perhaps more supervision than you had before your mission. Authority is an ever present reality; no freedom from authority means authentic actions becomes very difficult to do (even months after my mission, it felt wierd that I no longer had to call my zone leader or mission president. Being ‘alone’ was a very different feeling after two years of constant supervision and personal interviews with the president).

    “Did it do its job getting you ready to encounter life as an authentic person?”

    Serving a two year mission in Europe, I’d have to say my mission created a self for me, but it was anything but authentic. To be authentic I would say that the individual must have adequate understanding of viable options for living life in different and particular ways, and then when all these options are laid out for the individual to choose, she then decides to follow a particular path because it is ‘right’ or ‘true’ to her feelings of self.

    Instead, the mission only allows a very narrow understanding of what life is, who we are as individuals in this life, and the meaning this life has for us under these assumptions (in fact, the mission rules forbid reading of any text outside of the approved materials). So, without a deeply varied system of exposure to different understandings and philosophies of life, where each of these values could be just as ‘true’ or correct, how can one ever come to realize their authentic self? Authenticity arises from the spectrum of varied and viable options of exestenial paths, and then the indivdual can freely choose to live any path they truly desire, the path that is authentic to them because it is true to them.

    Exellent questions and post, Stephen.

  8. Nick Literski says:

    Excellent post, Jason.
    Personally, and especially after reading Jason’s post, I don’t feel I had a true psychosocial moratorium until I was 39 years old! I was raised by a very controlling parent–so much so, that I vowed never to let anyone control me like that again. So what did I do? Well, I promptly handed that control over to an institution, instead! I allowed the LDS church and its authorities to fulfill that “dominant parent” role for me, making decisions for me and telling what I may or may not do. What’s more, I liked it! After all, if I had an ethical question on organ donation, for example, all I had to do was find out what the church’s position was! Then I reinforced the dominant role of the church in my life, by marrying and beginning to raise children—just like the church leaders told me to do.

    Eighteen years later, I found myself a little more mature, and a little more educated. Chinks were appearing in the well-polished armor of the church. My marriage had become an abusive hell of constant criticism. Most of all, I found I could no longer suppress and lie about my innermost feelings and desires. As a result, I was divorced, had my name removed from the records of the church, and moved 2,000 miles at the beginning of this year. Arguably, I am *now* going through the things that Erickson said I should have done before “taking on adult responsibilities.” I was stripped down, both materially and spiritually, and had to begin rebuilding from scratch. I’ve learned a lot about who I really am, and so far, I’m liking the result!

  9. Preston Bissell says:

    This might sound a little strange coming from a person who has left Mormonism behind, but the 30 months that I was a missionary *was* a “psychosocial moratorium.” I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a remote island in the South Pacific (Niue Island), with little supervision from a mission president (whom we saw for about 2 hours every 4-6 months), a remarkable lack of rules (we rode motorcycles on our rounds and went swimming regularly), and considerable responsibility for four young men. (We had eight branches or dependent Sunday Schools that we had to supervise.) The independence, responsibility, and geographic isolation from the rest of the world (we only got mail every four weeks) was a break from my life up to that point, and was a seminal experience for me. There are many things about my life as a Mormon which I now look back on with a certain amount of disdain, but my mission experience isn’t one of them.

  10. Wow! Reading this provocative Mormontorium question and all these subsequent posts, catapulted me back to early 1952, when I left my Phoenix home to attend BYU. The Korean War was at its height, and I had a military deferment. But then I got homesick and quit school after a year to return to AZ to marry my HS sweetheart. Then, I got into a motorcycle accident and had forgotten I was fair game now for the draft. Believing I was now 4F (medically unacceptable) I went down to the Phoenix draft board to make sure the marriage could take place without a hitch (I was 19) . There was a hitch: my draft papers were on top of the stack of the First Sargeant’s desk, ready to send out the next day!

    My God! I thought, I don’t want to go to Korea! Maybe there’s something for me to learn instead? What would I want to learn in the Army if I had my wildest dream come true? Ha! I’d learn my father’s mother toungue! So, I asked the Sargeant, “Is there any way I could learn Russian in the Army?” (Knowing that was an impossibility.) The Sargeant looked at me and blinked. “This is amazing!”, he said. “Just today we received a letter from Washington, D.C. Headquarters for a quota of one for the month of April for the state of Arizona to the Army Language School for Russian! If you can qualify, you’re in.” I had taken a quarter of Russian at BYU. That qualified me. “Where do I sign?” That was Friday. I was on my way to Fort Ord, California the following Monday.

    Thus began my Psychosocial .Mormontorium! It became the adventure of my life: trained as a Russian interrogator, sent to Berlin at the height of the Cold War, and assigned to clandestine stuff that I couldn’t talk about for 20 years after returning home. I had married while at the Presidio of Monterey, but couldn’t even tell my wife I couldn’t tell her. Nothing like permanently warping a guy. Had to live with that secret stuff while it did its number on my psyche. Talk about developing deep shadow material! that became a psychological time bomb. It exploded ten years later.

    Back to when I returned home from overseas and returned to college on the G.I. Bill. I had bought a shack in Southern California in Capistrano Beach for me and by little family. My daughter had been born while I was gone. I didn’t want anything to do with the Church, but needed to tell the bishop so he wouldn’t have any illusions about my intent. “I’m searching for truth and don’t think its here. So, leave me alone,” I boasted. The bishop, also a young man, looked at me and said, “Well, the truth may not be here, but you don’t know it. Tell me, have you ever read the Bible?”

    “No”, I answered with discomfort.

    “The Book of Mormon?”


    “The Doctrilne and Covenants?”


    “I don’t need to go any further. You haven’t done the first things necessary to find out. You are the biggest hypocrite I have ever met in my life!”

    The guy cold cocked me. He was right and I had nothing to say. But I made an inner vow: No one would ever say such a thing to me again and tell the truth. I became totally active in the Church with a vengence, believing that after giving it my all, it wouldn’t work, and I could walk away from it with clear conscience.

    It took 35 years, a science Ph.D., three divorces and two excommunications to walk away with a clear conscience. How’s that for a psychosocial Mormon warping!?

    Yet, here we are now on the sidelines, where something of a familiar community still binds us as we blog each other. I like to know your true heart-felt stories. They are legitimate and important New Mormon History.

  11. Gordon says:

    For those of you who have a job, and responsibilities and don’t have the money to just hit the road and “go find yourself”, here are some ideas. Quit as many of your non mandatory reponsibilites as possible so you’ll have time to think. Find an “oasis” where you can be alone for several hours at a time. Tell your mother in law to “butt out”, there is a reason for all those nasty mother in law jokes. Tell your spouse that you love her but you’ve got to have some time to think, if you sound desperate enough she’ll believe you. Organize your time, if possible, to squeeze out a few extra hours from work, you know they don’t pay you enough anyway.
    It’s amazing what you can do with a little free time alone. Time to clear you head, re think your life, plan and organize. Read, the greatest escape in the world is a good book.
    I started in 1986 and it worked well enough that I just decided to just keep doing it.
    I did have to give up my church responsibilities, they are very time consuming.
    Even if you have to keep working, you can have a psychosocial moratorium or as I call it, going to my “oasis”. Good Luck!

    PS “All real freedom is in the mind!”

  12. Stephen Carter says:

    Amen, Brother Gordon.

    We just moved into a new area, and we’re doing our darndest to stay out of the way of incoming responsibilities. For example, the high school still needs a drama coach, even though I’d probably do just fine. And by teacher standards, i have all the time in the world (in other words, I frequently get a full 8 hours of sleep at night).

    The difficulty is balancing your own downtime needs with what the community expects of you. A few Sundays ago we met a lady who said, “I moved here from the East thinking I’d be able to slow down. But there’s just as much here to do as there is anywhere else.” The community expects a lot in order to feel like you’re being a good citizen. Especially when you’re a teacher. Most communities still treat teachers like they’re single with nothing to do but chaperone football trips and spearhead fundraisers. As a result, teachers are frazzled firefighters rather than peaceful rounded mentors. And then the Mormons, well, if you don’t have three callings, you ain’t a real Mormon.

    I wonder what it would be like if people stopped working themselves to death and took some real time to be healthy. Hey, didn’t Ghandi tell us to be the change we want to see? I’ll take the challenge!

  13. Stephen Carter says:

    Great story, Eugene.

    I have to admit that your bishop did have a point there. If one believes oneself to be a seeker of truth, then one had better be frequenting the places that claim to have a part of it.

    I feel like I did my due dilligence, being the guilt-ridden, cognitively disassociated Mormon I was for the first 27 years of my life.

    But it seems kind of sad that you would have to put so much of your life into finding out what you don’t need. Or maybe I’m reading you wrong. Maybe you did need to go through all that to appreciate what you have now.

    I have a friend who calls himself a post-Mormon now. He says he is honestly grateful for the years he was Mormon as they gave him a deep insight into a part of life he might never have known had he stayed on his original non-Mormon course. He compares his experience with the rings of a tree. There are some rings in his tree that are Mormon rings. He doesn’t feel any need to excise them. But now, new rings are growing along with his new outlook.

  14. Stephen, re #13, your post-Mormon friend’s analogy to growth rings of a tree is right on! That same young bishop who cold cocked me back in 1957 had become the stake president by 1975, when I returned to the Church after a ten year absense of learning and further high adventure (including visiting the USSR representing the governor of Oregon and discovering that those guys over there were like my guys over here–they even referred to their leaders as “the Brethren”!) . He allowed me to craft my re-entry in creative ways, such as: 1) having my oldest son Nick rebaptise me in the ocean in Laguna Beach where my first excommunication notification had occurred. 2) having the baptism occur on a day (25 JUly) precisely ten years after the event that put me on collision course with the ecclesiastical order.

    But a week or so before getting that far, I had to present myself before his high council, which was hostile to my return, to put it mildly. This SP allowed my to have 17- year-old Nick be in attendence with me during that HC grilling as a sympathetic personal witness. After an hour or so of interrogation, it didn’t look like the HC was about to let me through the gate. That was OK by me, because I had no particular expectations other than to follow the promptings on the path I felt. But then something amazing happened. The SP arose to speak in my behalf to the HC and said with great energy: “Brethren, this man had had irrefutable experience! You cannot ask him to deny what he has personally experienced and knows to be true.”

    With that the HC hostility ceased. And, after mumbling among themselves for a few minutes and looking at the floor a bit sheepishly, one by one each HC member raised his hand to receive me. It was a deeply moving event for me. I would never have predicted it. Nor would my mother have predicted it. She was sitting just outside the HC chambers (she being the SP’s private secretary). As my son Nick and I exited the HC room and passed by her desk, I heard her whisper to herself, “Oh, ye of little faith.”

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