Bees, Chimps, and Returning from Missions


Shawn Tucker is an Associate Professor at Elon University and occasional voice of bloggernacle satire

You have been on a rowing team for a short time, when, one day, a new rower shows up who might take your spot. You are not happy. You love rowing, and you are committed to doing what it takes to keep your spot. In a few weeks, your team will have its first competition. You and your team are all working hard to be the best. You want to be the best to keep your spot. Your team wants to be the best to win.

Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, Chapter 10) uses an example like this to illustrate how humans compete in two ways. We compete on an individual level, like you against the new rower who just showed up. We compete as groups against groups, rowing team against rowing team. Haidt puts forward the idea that we evolved to do both things. When we compete with other individuals, Haidt says that we are like chimpanzees. When we compete with other groups, Haidt says that we are like bees in a hive. The success of the hive depends upon each bee working together for the good of the hive.

What do chimps, bees, and hives have to do with finishing missionary service? Specifically, what might this metaphor tell us about why it is so hard to return home after working diligently as a missionary? [1]

Haidt has the idea that our bee-like behavior includes what he calls a “hive switch.” The switch here is like a light switch. Haidt says that humans evolved to enjoy certain rewards that come with being in a group. We experience those rewards when our hive switch is flipped on. When the hive switch is flipped on, we feel the joy, satisfaction, and even euphoria of being part of the group. The hive switch is flipped on when you go to a Duke basketball game, hear the crowd, see everyone dressed similarly, and experience everyone yelling, cheering, booing bad calls, and becoming ecstatic with every monster dunk. The hive switch can be flipped on when everyone is singing in unison at a concert or even during a hymn at General Conference. The hive switch can be flipped on when you are part of a strongly bonded sports team or musical group. When the hive switch is flipped on, your individuality melts away and you find a sense of place, purpose, and even wholeness in being part of the group. Having your hive switched flipped on can feel great, and that is why we seek out so many experiences that flip it.

Everything about the mission field, or almost everything, is about having your hive switch constantly flipped on. It starts in the MTC. All of the individual things about you—your unique clothes, movie and music tastes, hobbies and interests, and even your first name—are taken from you. In the place of your first name, you are given a title that refers to your place in the group and in “the work.” Not only does everyone dress alike, but an important part of the MTC is getting everyone “of one heart and one mind,” with a single focus on bringing God’s blessings to the children of our Heavenly Parents. In the mission field, everyone has the same schedule, the same basic situation, and the same focus. And every day, except Sunday and Monday, is the same. Missionaries are encouraged to lose themselves in the work. This is a powerful, joyous, and even euphoric two year flipping on of the hive switch.

And then it ends. Abruptly. You go home, and the powerful things that helped you experience the constantly and euphorically flipped on hive switch have been replaced with…replaced with what? All of the things that made you feel so happy as a bee have now been replaced with all of the things that make you a chimp. You used to be part of a vast hive; now you are chimp forced to compete in relative isolation with other chimps. That abrupt change can be difficult and disappointing.

Understanding bees and chimps can help you see why it is so difficult to return. It is difficult to leave the joy, satisfaction, and euphoria of the hive. It is difficult to be forced to be an individual again. Individuals, chimps for example, don’t have the comfort, security, and sense of place that bees in the hive enjoy. Chimps have to compete with other chimps. Chimps have to make personal decisions, plan, and deal with isolation and loneliness that bees never experience. Chimps have to grow in ways that bees never need to grow. Chimps grow in ways that bees never can grow.

What makes the return home more difficult is if you believe that you should always be a bee. If you believe that living the hive life is the “real” or “true” or “divine” way to live, then the post-mission life will seem like some miserable substitute. Post-mission life might seem like a painful season in the “lone and dreary world” that you have to pass through until you and your wife can serve a mission together. If you believe that having your hive switched flipped on like it constantly was as a missionary is how God wants you to really live, then you will live your life as a chimp longing to be a bee. And that sort of life sucks.

So, how can this metaphor help someone make the transition from the divine hive life to an equally important yet differently divine chimp life? The first thing is to realize what is happening. Yes, after the mission you lose the constantly flipped on hive switch. You might label that as losing “the Spirit.” Certainly it might feel like that, since that wonderful sense of place, of being caught up in the work, and the joy, satisfaction, and euphoria of the hive life is gone. But flipping the hive switch on is not the same as feeling the influence of the Holy Ghost. Yes, there can be an overlap, but they are not the same.

Wait, so how exactly are they not the same? Are there times when we feel the influence of the Holy Ghost but it is not flipping the hive switch on? Can we feel the Holy Ghost without feeling an evolutionary reward for our groupishness? The answer is yes, and it is important to see why. The reason why is that our chimp side, our chimp experiences, are just as important as our bee side and hive experiences. As I said above, bees don’t grow like chimps grow. In fact, God does not love us as a group or in a hive. God loves us as individuals. We are not saved by being part of any group; we are saved as individuals. Baptisms are not done for nameless people in a huge group. Baptisms are done for individuals. Temple ordinances are done for individuals. In the temple, your individuality is highlighted with an individual, personal, private, secret new name. You pass through the vail as an individual. Returning from the mission field is a powerful reminder that you are an individual.

Part of the reason why returning is hard is because being a bee is so darn easy. No hard decisions. No painful planning. No isolation or loneliness. Yes, missionaries struggle and grow, but when they return they must struggle and grow in new ways. And, with the new struggle, and with the loss of the euphoria that came with the hive switch constantly flipped on, it can tempt you to longingly look back to the hive life and say something foolish like “those were the best two years of my life.”

It is easy to get nostalgic (and lazy) and be a chimp yearning for the hive life. So here is my only bit of advice—gain a powerful witness that God wants you to be a chimp and to live a rich, vibrant, sometimes difficult, occasionally euphoric, yet equally divine chimp life. Love the divine chimp life. Be grateful that you are both a bee and a chimp. Enjoy the times when you feel the hive switched flipped on. And be grateful that now, outside the hive, you get new chances to learn, grow, and stretch yourself. Don’t fall into the temptation of looking down on the blessings of the chimp life because you long for the bee life. Love the blessings of the present, since the present is God’s gift to you right now.

* * *

[1] Let me clarify that I’m using these natural phenomena metaphorically. Sheep are not naturally virtuous and goats are not naturally vicious, but Jesus used them metaphorically in parables to describe human behavior. There is so much more to chimpanzee and bee behavior (in fact, a certain scholar in Moab taught us much about bee behavior!). Bees and chimps are used below as a metaphor to describe what seems to happen to missionaries.

*Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash


  1. This was very insightful. As someone who has found hive-life difficult, there’s probably another essay here to the chimps who can’t abide bees.

    One thing: “until you and your wife” leaves lots of us out. I’m not part of the “us” and “our” anymore. The chimp in me is cool with it, but the bee notices.

    Thanks again for this helpful analogy!

  2. I had no problem returning home from my mission.

  3. I didn’t have a problem returning home from my mission either, but it probably helped that I started back to school less than 2 weeks later and so almost immediately had a new focus.

  4. Duke?

  5. My biggest problem coming home fits well in the hive paradigm described above: a loss of purpose and importance. I went from a conception of myself as preaching unto salvation to working a paint factory while I was waiting for school to start. I worked hard, but it was hard to convince myself what I was doing was worthwhile, comparatively speaking. I also remember for the first month home thinking every conversation I had was useless—no baptism was going to result from shooting the breeze about sports or whatever. I’m sure I was insufferable for a while.

  6. Shawn Tucker says:

    When I originally composed the content of this post, it was as a letter for my son who was about to return home from his mission to Ecuador. He’s a Duke fan (sadly, please pray for him). The “until you and your wife” line also reflects this original audience.

  7. Jack Hughes says:

    I’ve seen enough instances of missionaries acting primarily in their own self-interest that I don’t find this analogy all that relevant. I admit that at times, I’ve been that missionary.

  8. When we compete as chimps we manage to kill and eat our rivals. Chimps compete as groups but as armies and aggressors not as hive-mates. Anyway, bees are expendable.

    The whole analogy is bad.

  9. We need to live as bonobos.

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