I was praying one night about my mental illness and current state and the phrase “cheat the asylum of a victim” came to me. This phrase is from a letter written to George Albert Smith, a Latter-day Saint prophet, by his uncle, Dr. Heber Sears. Dr. Sears sent this letter to George when he was an apostle for the Church in the year 1909.
You can see the pdf of the actual letter at this website. I highly recommend braving his handwriting to read the entire letter. It has harsh and blunt advice given freely and openly by a family member to someone who is struggling. Of course, we don’t “know” exactly what happened to or was plaguing George Albert Smith, though it seems obvious that he had some combination of mental and physical illnesses.
The Asylum of a Victim
I really relate to and appreciate this letter from Dr. Sears. He states, “For heaven’s sake George— ‘side step’ or step backward not forward— cheat the asylum of a victim. Dump your responsibility for awhile before the hearse dumps your bones.”
Bringing this back to my life, I pondered this answer to my prayer: “Cheat the asylum of a victim.” We often think of asylum in a negative way, our minds harkening back to “insane asylums” and the like. One article on lds.org links “asylum” to two other words though—”refuge” and “sanctuary.”
So what does “cheat the asylum of a victim” mean? Do we sometimes find refuge and sanctuary in being a “victim” of our circumstance, whether that circumstance is mental illness or physical illness or even a church calling or some other emotional, social, physical, or spiritual condition?
The “asylum” of church service
Dr. Sears in his letter to George Albert Smith was cautioning him against overworking and burning himself out in church service, counseling him to take care of his mental health before it took over his life and dictated what he could and couldn’t do.
I had initially thought Dr. Sears was referring to the mental illness making George a victim, but perhaps he was actually referring to George’s sense of duty related to his church performance and responsibilities.
Do we also sometimes we hide behind our duty and sense of obligation when it comes to our callings, thinking that is where we will find refuge, peace, and sanctuary because we are “on the Lord’s errand”? But could it be that those responsibilities (or at least our idea and perception of those responsibilities) are actually victimizing us? Perhaps at times we are sacrificing our mental health, family life, and other essential parts of our being on the altar of “being the best Mormon.”
In another paragraph of the letter, Dr. Sears writes, “If the church requires your life give it to the church in a thiner layer spread over 30 or 40 more years instead of 3 to 5. Could you not do more good in this way?”
This idea makes me think of “endurance training” in exercise versus “burnout rounds.” Sometimes I think we take our church callings and make them burnout rounds rather than using them as endurance training. We go as hard and as fast as we can, thinking that doing that is what it means to magnify our callings and be a good church member.
The aftermath of burnout
Frankly, I’m having a really difficult time with this concept currently. I often feel like we receive guidance from church leadership or hear and read talks or articles that more or less tell us that the Gospel and the Church are the most important thing in our lives and we need to be doing more. Being more. Feeling it more. We need to read our scriptures more. Pray more. Go to the temple more. Serve more.
But at what cost? We are spiritual beings, yes. We need the Savior. But we are also physical beings. Mental beings. Social beings. We need balance and health in all of these areas or we cannot be whole.
When church begins to take over, other areas of our lives suffer. It happened to George Albert Smith. It can happen to us. In a not so often quoted but supremely interesting part of his letter, Dr. Sears wrote, “I need but call your attention to the number of good people who have gone insane in your own localities and in the same field of usefulness that your own efforts are directed in. Insanity is largely on the increase as statistics will show.”
Remember, this was 1909. Over a hundred years later, we may call this “insanity” mental illness. But the fact remains that if what Dr. Sears wrote is true, there were more church leaders or members who also had mental illnesses or at least experienced severe burn out, perhaps due to over burdening themselves with spiritual work rather than tending equally (or even at all) to the other parts of their souls that made up who they were as people and children of God.
We tend to believe that serving more and harder will protect and sustain us. But Dr. Sears wrote, “There are more ways of keeping the word of wisdom than by abstaining from tea, coffee, beer. You are an apostle while I have only one foot in the Church yet in my opinion I keep the word of wisdom better than you do. Should there be any dispute on this point I would offer in evidence a body 48 years young in a splendid state of preservation—free from disease—and capable of great endurance.”
We cannot ignore our bodies. We cannot ignore our minds. If we do, we will find ourselves unable to function properly in any part of our life. I have to agree with Dr. Sears that killing ourselves to become more spiritual is not keeping the Word of Wisdom or being wise spiritually either.
The “asylum” of mental illness
Of course, then again, maybe the “asylum of a victim” sometimes does refer to our mental illness. We might accept our diagnosis and fully embrace it, doing certain things and acting in certain ways without questioning or trying to change because “well, I have a mental illness and that’s what people with this mental illness do.” In this way, we can find a twisted sense of refuge and sanctuary in our relationship with our mental illness.
We sometimes slip into letting ourselves become one with the mental illness rather than acknowledging that it’s a part of us but we can still remain in control. We can “cheat the asylum” of that victimization too. We can accept that we have a mental illness but not let it control everything we do.
I would love to hear your thoughts on “cheating the asylum of a victim.” Please click the above link to read Dr. Sears’ letter. I find it so comforting and fascinating that the Lord uses the words and writing of others to answer our prayers and provide guidance and advice. That’s why we have the scriptures. That’s why we are supposed to write in journals. And some part of me believes and hopes that’s why I write too.