I delivered the following to the unofficial Las Vegas Singles Conference over President's Day Weekend. It's been a busy time for a military analyst but I wanted to post this before too much time had past. I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks so much for having me. I attended these conferences for years. Being the geek that I am I mostly attended the classes, and being the guy that I am I mostly stayed for the food. I was very disappointed that it was cancelled but very pleased that some unofficial version of it has been recreated. I hope everyone is having a good time and learning a great deal…and maybe meeting a few people.
Before we get started, I wanted to highlight a few things from my background that might help enhance the message I’m going to share. I wasn’t always going to be a military historian. It was what I love studying the most but as an undergraduate I was told that you can’t really have a career in military history. So, I applied to various programs around the country with specialties in other areas. But I got rejected from all of them. I was questioning my ability, feeling like a failure, and wondering what I was going to do moving forward when I found a military history program. It was online, expensive, and not very well known so it was kind of a gamble. But I did it, and it was great. I received advanced training in what I have always loved. The rest is…history eh eh eh. Not only do I specialize in military history, but I also regularly teach, publish, and present on the subject. That success was because I failed. I can’t imagine doing anything else and I don’t know if I would have specialized in military history if I succeeded at first.
Going back farther than that, I served in the Marine Corps. After I discuss some of the military history about wounded soldiers suffering from combat stress, I’ll give you some application. Those applications might sound indulgent or lazy. I’ll talk about this more after I set the stage, but I expect all of you are really good at giving yourself the Mormon version of the Patton speech, but not very good at paying attention to your mental health and emotional needs. So, it’s important to realize that when this crusty old Marine who knows a thing or two about sucking it up and pushing through it, suddenly talks about mindfulness, and self-help, you should give yourself a break too.
The final point is simply that I’m single too. I know that you can get good advice from any source. Yet it does get kind of annoying when you’re getting advice from someone who’s single experience consists of marrying the first person they dated six months after their missions when they were 21. As some of might feel in back or knees every day, 21 was a long time ago. I’ve been single for awhile like many of you here, and I hope that helped me really personalize the message for you today.
With those personal notes out of the way we can get to the scriptures. The Stripling Warriors were always very inspirational. I read all the war chapters during boot camp and appreciated them a great deal. The young men sacrificed their own happiness to march off to war, and fulfill an obligation for their parents, who had covenanted not to take up arms. And the young men had so much faith they trusted their commander to lead them into battle. It’s recorded in Alma 57 that they fought and to the great astonishment of Helaman, not a single one of them had died.
But many of them had fainted due to their battlefield wounds. In Alma 57:25 and 26 we read: And it came to pass that there were two hundred, out of my two thousand and sixty, who had fainted because of the loss of blood; nevertheless, according to the goodness of God, and to our great astonishment, and also the joy of our whole army, there was not one soul of them who did perish; yea, and neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds.
And now, their preservation was astonishing to our whole army, yea, that they should be spared while there was a thousand of our brethren who were slain. And we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God…
What impresses me about this scripture, and it forms the central point of my talk, is the treatment of those who fainted was no different than those who hadn’t. All of them received many wounds, and those who fainted from them weren’t put in a different category that had less faith. They weren’t considered doubters cast off from God because their wounds made them stop participating in the battle. They were described in verses 19 and 20 of Helaman 57 as “firm” and “undaunted.” And yet even though they were faithful- to use modern terms they were rms, went to church, attended seminary, and were considered valiant youth- they still faced wounds in battle to the point that at least for a time they couldn’t continue the fight.
How long they were out of the fight depended on the care they received. We have some clues from scriptures that discuss the care of wounded soldiers. Alma 6:40 indicates that the Nephites had an understanding of herbs used to cure fevers. Alma 4:20 suggests Alma the Elder was wounded in battle and he recovered enough to lead the nation and preach for years. The survival of these individuals suggests medical care on the battlefield, though the majority of cases refer to off-field treatment. We don’t know what care the Stripling Warriors received. Alma 58 concludes the account of the war in that theater. It included garrison duty, but also daring maneuvers of Helaman’s small army. So, it is possible that they were in that army, or they convalesced for quite a while in garrison duty.
Either way they would likely have mental scars that lasted far longer than their physical wounds. Surviving a battle often left both long-term physical and psychological scars. Our knowledge of conditions like post traumatic stress, and combat stress as we’ll see below is rather new but suffering from it is not a uniquely modern experience. Shakespeare suggested that victorious soldiers would reminisce every St. Crispin’s day, and those who didn’t participate in battle would “hold their manhood cheap” or feel like less of a man for missing the battle. Yet in reality, those who survived battle still suffered a great deal. Many people lost limbs, walked with a limp, or held battle scars. Captain Moroni died at the relatively young age of 43 shortly after the war (Alma 43:17; 63:3), allowing for the possibility that his life was cut short because of the rigors of the campaign, the lingering effects of his wound in Alma 52:35, and the stress of nearly 20 years of constant combat and campaigning.
Lisa Hawkins and Gordon Thomasson writing for what is now the Maxwell Institute employed a methodology used to describe survivors of the Holocaust and found that both Almas, Amulek, Jacob, and especially Mormon and his son Moroni showed elements of being survivor witnesses to incredible carnage.
The Stripling warriors survived the battle, and were considered faithful. But they likely needed mental support after the battle and for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, we have modern research that indicates how that might have looked in the immediate sense of combat stress, and how that can look generally as they and we pursue our spiritual goals
One of the modern terms we know best is called Shell Shock. This was first reported in British soldiers who reported the symptoms of head wounds- things like a ringing in their ears (which having TMJ I relate to), amnesia, headaches, dizziness, tremors, and hypersensitivity to noise- without reporting any head wounds. By World War II this had been identified as combat stress disorder, which occurs during combat, as opposed to post traumatic stress which is long term and after combat. Combat stress includes symptoms like fatigue, slower reaction times, indecision, disconnection from one's surroundings, headaches, hyper vigilance, nausea, and the inability to prioritize. Many of these symptoms are like regular stress we face in everyday life. Where the body’s reaction system is left in the on position, with resulting flooding of chemicals into our brains and bodies, which in turn produces physical challenges.
The difference between World War I and II was seen in the treatment of those soldiers. It remained poorly understand early on and as a result it wasn’t treated very well. There was confusion regarding how it was caused, if it was more physical than mental, and how closely related to battle it really was. Shell shock related to physical conditions like close artillery fire and concussions in the British army resulted in the soldier receiving a wounded stripe and qualification for a pension. If the shellshocked soldier was not closely related to a shell explosion they were labelled as sick and that soldier was not entitled to the wounded stripe or pension.
Going back to the Book of Mormon, it would have been like attaching an asterisk to the fainted Stripling Warriors and only praising those who didn’t succumb to wounds. Thankfully, by World War II the identification and procedures for handling combat stress was much better. It was recognized as a combination of physical and psychological stress and in high intensity combat scenarios- think the Battle of the Bulge in World War II- could be just as common as physical injuries.
These simple methods addressed two competing factors that often complicated treatment. Both factors had to be accounted for at the same time but were often contradictory when seen in the soldier. First, there was an overwhelming physical reaction and need to get away from combat. And the second was a feeling that they needed to stay strong and prove themselves IN combat, and that they were letting down their friends who were still fighting. In short, and to repeat this important point, you had people who physically felt compelled to flee combat but also the compelling urge to stay in combat. It is no wonder their nervous systems went crazy, because they were being pulled apart from the inside.
Accounting for these competing principles in dealing with combat stress are the most import part of understanding the spiritual concepts of being fainted without fallen like the Stripling Warriors. You won’t get this from other speakers who got married at 21 like it was no big deal and have stayed married, or the usual homilies you hear so often at church that never help.
But being single is painful.
You see everyone else get married. For year after year and eventually decade after decade you wonder when your turn will ever come. You go on hundreds of dates, thousands of church activities, say millions of prayers, give yourself the same pep talk over and over again and nothing ever changes. You have to endure everyone’s meet cute stories in sacrament meetings, you get told that you can get married after you die, which is the Mormon version of better off dead. You have bad date after bad date to try and remedy the problem, and you get accused of being sinful, mean, or jealous if you roll your eyes at any of the above examples.
At a certain point, like the soldier in the trench, or the Stripling Warrior in battle the pain is too much, and you have to faint, or get away from the battle. Your nervous system and body are telling you that you need a break. That is the first point of combat stress, to get away from the pain.
The second point exists at the same time, and it is most important to a Mormon audience. The second point is that you worry over feeling like a failure. You want to show faith in God, build the church, raise righteous kids and worry that fainting from the fight means you have failed in all of those goals.
I’ve lived this so I know it well, but Mormons are really good at putting pressure on themselves instead of recognizing their own mental health needs. In other words, you are really good at prioritizing the second imperative, the notion that you are Saturday’s warrior and can’t give up the fight, instead of the first notion, that the pain is too much and you need some rest and recovery before you have a mental breakdown or leave the church for good.
As a result, you end up being the combat stressed soldier, that no one ever treats for stress. You already know why that is, because you’ve internalized the mantras to the point that you probably hate yourself for even feeling point number one, or the desire to get away from the pain. The mantras include: You don’t have enough faith; you don’t try hard enough to make meeting memorable. You don’t have a positive attitude for the lame singles activity. There are no boring meetings only boring people. You have to endure to end and return with honor. I could go on.
Yet, the Stripling Warriors were allowed were enough space to feel both. They exited the battle, its true, but remained faithful. Allied soldiers were fighting Hitler, and they were allowed a break from the battle. You are a beloved child of Heavenly Father, Jesus died for you, you can give yourself a break too.
And the techniques for dealing with combat stress aren’t that complicated. One British officer summarized it pretty simply: for emotional cases, unless they are very bad…give him a rest at the aid post if necessary and a day or two’s sleep, [hot shower, and warm food, then] go up with him to the front line, and, when there, see him often, sit down beside him and talk to him about the war and look through his periscope and let the man see you are taking an interest in him.
Put simply, they let the soldier go to the rear areas. In most cases, it was only a couple miles from the front. Sometimes simply a warm meal, shower, and good night’s sleep for a couple days was enough to get them battle ready. The leaders cared about the soldier’s life and emotional wellbeing. So, a short break from the combat relieved imperative number one, to get away from the pain, and some self help with the expectation that their break was temporary, was enough to get them back into battle and obviate imperative number two, the feeling that you are letting down your fellow soldiers and country.
It isn’t an exact comparison, but we can make some spiritual points here that are very clear. Most singles are good soldiers, but there comes a point when the battle pains effect every faithful member. The Stripling Warriors showed you don’t have to feel split in two by denying either of them.
Let me say clearly, if any experience, attending church, singles events, reading scriptures, going to the temple- is painful, so much so that you feel like you’re bursting your emotional stiches, stop doing it. It is okay to prioritize your mental health. If attending church is too much, you can do something else until you feel emotionally healed enough to go back. Go to the park, watch church videos. And because you’re good at those Patton speeches I have some scriptures that will help. Jesus has said plainly in John 4:24 that he is spirit, and you can worship him in spirit and in truth. Alma asked the Zoramites in Alma 32:11, “do you suppose you can only worship God in your synagogues once a week?” If the singles activity isn’t something you want to do, stop doing it. Host your own movie and pizza night instead. If the temple experience isn’t helping, try reading some books about it instead, or simply enjoy the lush courtyard instead of the ceremony.
This is where my Marine Corps experience comes in handy to make me sound authoritative. I was a corporal and had to put my foot in the rear end of people that wouldn’t perform. And I’m telling you, it is okay to prioritize your mental health at the expense of your church obligations. At worst you have fainted, but you haven’t fallen and like the Stripling Warriors there is no asterisk by your name for supposedly having less faith because you attend to your emotional pain and stress.
Perhaps more importantly we might look at Moses. I first heard this scripture from a psychologist at a past singles conference. He treated, basically, overworked LDS housewives, that were so worn out that they were committed for psychiatric care. In Exodus 18 the father-in-law of Moses came to him. Moses was working all day hearing the cases brought before him and leading the people. Moses said he had to do this because the people needed him (or in other words, imperative number two for those suffering from combat stress.) But Jethro’s advice addressed imperative number one, the need to address his mental health, he said, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.”
The psychologist at the conference hammered this point home with personal application. How many people would Moses have helped if he drove himself mad? How many members of your family are you helping if you’re in the car sobbing in between meeting at church? How many people is that relief society president helping when she’s in the white padded room? You aren’t living the blessed life God wants you to if your stress has made you numb and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In that fraught mental state, you aren’t enjoying the sunset, smiling and laughing with your kids, providing service to your neighbor, or doing any of the good things that God wants for your full and happy life. I’ve been watching the Office. And if you can relate to Michael, who was so stressed and hurting from life that he saw a train in the background and start sprinting towards it, you aren’t going to advance the work of God. And most importantly, you aren’t going to meet your eternal companion by hoping they’re making themselves miserable the same time you are.
You’re more likely to attract someone while living your best life. Be mindful of your stress and anxiety. Make sure you are eating and sleeping. Fill your life with good activities and hobbies. We all have this fear that maybe we will never find someone to marry. If you don’t, at least you are still living in a way that gives you the best chance of making yourself happy. You aren’t waiting for someone else to come along before you start living.
In summary, if the things in the above paragraphs applied to you, then you might be a fainted soldier, but not fallen. You can give yourself treatment to get back into the fight. If you’re computer has virus you take it into the shop. You get your broken car fixed right away. But you won’t take the time to deal with the trauma, and yes, I mean trauma, of being a single, divorced, or gay member of the church. Like the Stripling Warriors, or shell-shocked rifleman in the trench, you may feel the need to withdraw from combat, but it doesn’t have to be long term or bad for your spiritual health.
I tried to offer a theory based on the Stripling Warriors and likened that story to combat or just plain stress, and the great emotional pain of being single in a church. I then gave advice about how to be fainted without fallen by giving yourself time to heal. This involved two major imperatives: You want to remove the pain at the same time you struggle not to betray the cause and disappoint God. Hopefully I given you some good advice that addresses both imperatives.
The modern member who is fainted but not fallen might not look like a traditional member of the church for awhile. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t faithful, they don’t care about the fight, and they aren’t trying their hardest to rejoin the fight as soon as possible. They are attending to their combat wounds by increasing their mental health. They might be staying active in nontraditional ways. Because they care about their mental health, they are likely far more sensitive to their fellow warriors who might seem ready to faint, but are unnoticed by any of their church leaders.
As you do these things you will be granted greater calm. Like the Stripling Warriors in Alma 58:11 they could feel God’s Spirit speak peace to their souls. As you heal, eventually you’ll be able to rejoin the fight and be a member that is considered no less faithful than the fainted Stripling Warriors.