One unique aspect of the missionary experience, quite distinct from life before and after, is the feeling that someone is always watching you. Itâ€™s probably the one aspect of my mission that I could have done without, although I wouldnâ€™t say that it was entirely unproductive.
Iâ€™m not talking about the requirement to turn in weekly reports about my efforts and their effectiveness. Reducing the rarified and inexpressible essence of human and spiritual interaction down to a number that can be charted, graphed, and manipulated is pretty much the nature of life for everyone over age 18 or so. No, Iâ€™m talking about those mornings when your companion is hanging up on a quick call to the mission office as you get out of the shower, or letters to the president from the other guy in your apartment that focus on your own failings, or interviews about how well you and the people you know are following mission rules, and friends who report afterwards, sheepishly, that they blabbed more than they meant to. The late phone call, the mail gone missing, the unexpected knock at the door.
Once, during a grad school seminar on East German literature, the professor told us that we, not having lived under a totalitarian system like the DDR, could hardly understand what it was like for the people at that time. Why, there were East Germans who even denounced themselves to the secret police! Who could imagine such a thing?
Well, me, for one, as I had, in fact, once denounced myself to my mission president. If a sympathetic reading of East German literature is important to you, serving a mission can work wonders.
Now hold on just one minuteâ€”isnâ€™t it grotesque to compare missionary service to being a captive of a totalitarian regime? Missions donâ€™t have walls and guard towers and barbed wire surrounding them. There were no Young Pioneers, no Black Sea holidays in socialist brother lands, no Trabis… You get the picture. Life in the former East Germany was nothing like life as a Mormon missionary, and the very comparison is in poor taste, and I am in no way comparing two utterly unlike things.
Except that, you know, I really am comparing them, because the comparison might just have something to it. Missionaries are kind of like those devoted socialists who only wanted their workersâ€™ paradise to better conform to their ideas of Marx and Lenin, and whose greatest fear was to be forcibly expelled from their socialist not-quite-Paradise, like the penalty imposed on singer and songwriter Wolf Biermann thirty years ago. I met a lot of missionaries, including some real choice specimens of the human species, but I never met any who wanted to flee from their mission (probably because there wasnâ€™t actually anything stopping them if they wanted to).
Besides, I was not the one who started the absurd comparisons. Fairly early in my mission I heard about omerta, the mafiaâ€™s code of silence, but in this case applied to missionaries who didnâ€™t tell all. Towards the end of my mission was the zone conference where the definition of sons of perdition was broadened to include missionaries who slept late. One exaggerated comparison deserves another, donâ€™t you think?
And a little bit of surveillance is not entirely a bad thing if you want to romanticize entirely mundane acts into daring escapades and blows struck for freedom. In a region inhabited by 20 million people, there were less than 200 who cared that I was not, at some moment, within my district boundariesâ€”and I could successfully evade every one of them! Hooray. (Trust me, it was pretty exhilarating at the time.)
In fact, I was temperamentally well suited as a missionary to dealing with surveillance culture. If some mission leader might want to check my weekly planner, or my memorization of the discussions, then my planner would be filled out and the relevant texts would be memorized. No, the hard part for me, the parts of my mission I could really have done without, were the brushes with surveillance closer to home. I could have done without the loose-lipped roommate. I could have done without the angelic companion (silent notes keeping, and then sending those notes on to the mission office). I canâ€™t say that the relevant policies didnâ€™t make the mission as a whole happier and more effective (I have no idea if they did or didn’t), and I canâ€™t even say that I didnâ€™t learn anything from those experiences; intense anger, and betrayal, and the kind of persistent unhappiness that sabotages your health were all new emotions for me when I was twenty and twenty-one.
George Packer has observed that â€œnational cinemas often become great just as dictatorships loosen up or fall.â€ Perhaps we might postulate something similar on an individual scale for Mormon art. If, as Packer says, dictatorships make artistic creation impossible by restricting it, and freedom makes art trivial, then perhaps the tension between mission rules and the release into freedom will continue driving Mormon artistic creation for some time to come.