My favorite robot testicle blog (calm down, it’s a metaphor) posted an interesting Q&A with Craig Harline, the author of the book Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary.
(What a title! I haven’t read the book, though I am curious to after reading the Q&A.)
Having as many countries in the world as we have, and having missionaries who served in as many different decades as we have, I don’t doubt that mission experiences are as varied as the number of people who served LDS missions. Add in variables for different mission presidents and companions and backgrounds and expectations and emotional intelligence and…
That’s a lot of variety.
I feel like it would be tremendous fun to get some type of panel together, made up of Latter-day Saint men and women who served missions in different countries and at different times and under different circumstances, just to hear different answers to the same questions. Maybe that’s a fun project for later.
For now, I decided to answer these questions from my own mission experience.
The colored/indented text will be from Jana Riess’ original post (hyperlinked above).
Craig Harline’s experiences as a Mormon missionary in Belgium in the mid-1970s are ingeniously funny, but they also point to important issues: how religious people deal with apparent failure and navigate grown-up faith after childish certainties have proven inadequate.
I served in Hawaii from Feb 2005 to Feb 2007 (that’s three Valentine’s Days, folks). I also, like most missionaries (I imagine), have experiences that are “ingeniously funny” – I think that comes with the territory. What’s more, I also, again like most missionaries (I imagine), could point to difficulties borne of maturation and failure – that definitely comes with the territory.
I’d add my own nuance, of course. That’s what this post is all about!
RNS: When you left for your mission, you had sky-high expectations about what you’d accomplish…. What were you hoping for?
CH: It was to make a lot of converts. And unusually, I did have a specific number in mind: 84 converts. It just came in to my head, as I describe it in the book.
I think a lot of missionaries just expect people to immediately respond to what you have always believed to be true. I just thought people would be so glad to see us, and hear us.
I didn’t have any expectations around convert baptisms myself (I discuss more about that below). I’m not sure I had any substantive expectations at all. I was certainly no Kevin Price.
You see, I knew about missionaries, but it was all superficial. I’d seen the church video of smiling missionaries set to “Called to Serve.” I’d hear missionaries bear their testimonies in their mission language once they returned, usually skinnier than when they left. I’d been to plenty of those awful farewells (thank goodness the Church has discouraged those kinds of sacrament meetings).
But, for better or worse, I had no idea how difficult missions are. People has said as much – people always mentioned how difficult missionary work is – but it didn’t register.
More on that later.
Failure, Discouragement, and Other Peoples’ Agency
RNS: You say you felt like a failure most of the time. What was the most discouraging part?
CH: When people did not respond in the way that I hoped. I really expected that they would be thrilled. The first family we went to see were so kind to us, I was just sure they would convert. But that happened over and over again, where people were kind but did not want our religion.
It just made you feel really lousy, like you were doing a bad job or there was something wrong with you.
I don’t know that I “felt like a failure most of the time.” And I definitely didn’t feel like there was something wrong with me,
I decided, early on, that I couldn’t make goals based on other people’s agency. Someone else decided whether or not to be baptized, but I could invite people to take that step. Someone else decided whether or not to come to church on Sunday, but I could introduce them to other members beforehand to make them more comfortable, or give them a tour of the chapel on a Saturday, or arrange for a wake-up call and a ride. Someone else decided whether or not to accept a copy of the Book of Mormon, but I could control how many people I spoke with, how many doors I knocked on, and how long my line was in the water.
Let me add two things about this.
First, I don’t deserve any credit for this philosophy. I had fantastic leaders, before and during my mission, that helped teach me that I may water, but it is God who gives the increase. That changed, fundamentally, what “success” meant to me – I could appreciate that I was imperfect, with room to improve, while still feeling successful.
For example, I think about my mission president (who told us that he didn’t baptize a single person during his mission in Scotland). As I approached my first Christmas in the field, he told us about how some missionaries in the Church set the goal to have a “White Christmas” – one or more converts who decide to get baptized during December – as their gift to the Savior.
For the record, I hate things like this that attempt to add arbitrary drama and sentiment to spiritual occasions.
My mission president encouraged us to set a different kind of goal. Instead, he offered, we should think about giving the Savior a different kind of gift. What was one issue, one concern, one vice, one habit that kept us from reaching our potential? Perhaps we could give that up, could lay it on the alter, so to speak. Additionally, what was one Christlike attribute that we could work on?
It wasn’t about being perfect, of course. Rather, the whole idea was to be a more effective instrument in the Lord’s hands – to be a little bit better and a little less worse. That was something I could control, something I (through the Savior’s grace) could be successful at. I loved that idea, and it’s something that I continue to do annually each time the Christmas season rolls around.
Second, having this different definition of success or failure didn’t mean that I avoided discouragement. In fact, discouragement and frustration were some of the most common emotions I felt as a missionary.
During one Zone Conference, my mission president finally put words to what I’d been experiencing for close to two years at that point – LDS missions are really long periods of monotony and difficulty punctuated by moments of ecstasy.
Even on my first day in the field I was having second thoughts.
We left the MTC in Provo quite early (like, early), taking a bus to the airport in Salt Lake City. Our first flight lasted maybe 90 minutes and got us to San Francisco, where we wandered around in an awkward missionary gaggle before catching our next (5 hour) flight to O’ahu.
That’s a long flight when there’s an embargo on secular entertainment.
After arriving at the airport in western Honolulu, we were taken in vans to “the Tab” (the tabernacle) in downtown Honolulu. There, we spent a few more hours in an orientation of sorts – we met our mission president and his wife, heard from the APs (Assistants to the President), and were instructed on all the things we’d need to do to keep disease free in those tropical islands.
Frankly, it was terrifying. And the zoomed-in pictures of those creatures…
From there, we met our first companions, our trainers (or mission “dads”). My trainer was from American Samoa. He told me later that he thought about pretending to be unable to speak English – perhaps when he saw me I looked too fragile for a joke like that. He did tell me that we were actually in the area we’d be proselyting in – glorious Makiki – and that we’d be on foot.
I could handle that just fine – really, I was still reeling from the new-found knowledge that fungus and disease were lurking around every corner. That terror was augmented when we were dropped off at our new place and saw that the counter top was covered in dead gnats. My trainer and I were both new to the area, and the two missionaries that had lived there told us that while they cleaned up the dead gnats each day, a new batch of dead gnats seemed to turn up each morning.
In denial, and exhausted, I decided to put my bags into my new bedroom. There, I found… nothing. No beds. No mattresses. Just floorspace. Makiki had previously been an area with only two missionaries. Now, there were four, including my trainer and myself, and they weren’t quite ready for us yet.
Back to the kitchen. Maybe there would be something to eat.
Turns out that there was. One missionary handed me a bowl of (now) cold curry and rice that a local member had dropped off for us.
I’d never had curry, let alone cold curry, and as I sat at the table eating it out of a paper bowl I couldn’t help thinking to myself sarcastically, “I hope they call me on a mission…”
And I wasn’t even aware of a number of other things yet, like how this pad didn’t have a dryer (everything we washed would need to be air dried), or how it didn’t have air conditioning (except in the other bedroom where the other two missionaries slept, a fact they hid from us for most of my time there), or how we had to keep things like cereal in the freezer so it didn’t get mushy and buggy.
It was a hard first day that ended with me balling a bunch of my clothes inside my pillow case so that I could have something to sleep on.
I’ll be the first to admit that these sources of discouragement are largely superficial – what can I say, I had a posh upbringing (like most middle- to upper-class Americans). But that didn’t make the discouragement I was feeling any less real. Even as I adapted to my new way of life, there was never a shortage of challenges, usually far less superficial, to keep me wondering what on earth I was doing there in Hawaii.
Rough Stone Rolling
RNS: In a time of great discouragement you had an epiphany of sorts: that you were supposed to just be yourself on your mission. But the answer to prayer you’d really been hoping for was “magical proselyting techniques” or a “new dose of heroic resolve” to get those 84 converts. The idea that God wanted you to just be yourself seemed to fly in the face of the idea you’d had growing up that you’d transform into some kind of super-missionary.
CH: I imagined that I was going to become this other stupendous person, rather than what I’d been so far. I had definitely failed at some things – at sports, or with girls, or even at religious things. I just imagined that a mission would transform that. I was going to morph into the kind of missionary who would “overcome objections”—that was the language we used—and magically make these people convert. I always thought that if I just had the right answers, others would see that.
Just being yourself is hard to accept at first, because it’s so much less than what you imagined yourself becoming.
Harline mentions how he expected to become a “stupendous person.” I felt the same types of things before my own mission.
I had seen plenty of missionaries leave and return, and I recognized the change in most of them between when they left and when they came back. And yet, for some reason, I thought that it was something that just happened. You left a dweeb, and you came back awesome – it was a natural product of the maturity you gained by simply continuing to exist for two more years.
That was a mistaken assumption.
I absolutely grew on my mission, but it was anything but natural. It was more reminiscent of what Joseph Smith said of his own development:
“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force…., all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.”
I can give you one less than flattering example.
I made my companions cry.
Not all of them, mind you, and not all the time, but I know of at least three, and I even sent a fourth into a panic attack (we were separated later that night).
You see, I was a horrible person, and I didn’t even recognize it.
It was seemingly good intentions – that, and my pride – behind it all (like Malcolm Reynolds, one of my favorite fictional heroes, says, “Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he’s right with God”). You see, I had a very specific idea about what made someone an effective missionary, and that made me critical – intensely critical – of my companions.
I was an awful person.
The panic attack woke me up. That night, my companion was emergency-transferred out of my area and replaced with someone else, and for whatever reason, that was the thing that got me to realize that something had to change.
It was painful at times – I’d irreparably damaged a number of relationships, and that doesn’t just go away. There are times when I still have to check that part of my personality, or when I feel shadows of the bad choices I made on my mission. But I am grateful for those experiences, because they made me a little more polished, and a bit more smooth. I was still able to be myself. I just got to be a less awful version of myself.
The Stepford Church
RNS: What happens if your mission doesn’t work out according to the “One True Missionary Story” that says if you stay righteous and work hard, you’ll make converts?
CH: Yeah, that’s when you have the crisis. That’s when you have to find some other way of coping. The first thing you do is to fix the things that might be wrong with you, and there are lots of those. You can keep doing that forever. The next thing is that you lose faith. Maybe you lose faith in that missionary story, or even faith in all of it.
Or a third path is that you just alter the missionary story. And that’s part of maturing. It’s hard to do. But adjusting your ideals and accepting yourself is an important part of growing up. You begin to realize that your missionary story is the One True Missionary Story. You help create this new ideal of beauty and truth. It’s not a selling out. You still have an ideal, but you have taken responsibility for creating it.
When it comes to this whole “One True Missionary Story” thing, I have to say that I don’t know where it’s coming from.
Certain people, including the hipster progressive Mormons and the media that eats up stories about them, promote this narrative that everyone in the Mormon Church is force-fed this happy-go-lucky story. You ignore any tarnish there may be, and if you can’t ignore it, you fake it ’till you make it. It’s basically a Stepford church.
I don’t see that.
I don’t see it generally, and I definitely don’t see it in relation to missionary work. I’ve never heard this “be righteous and you’ll convert the world” narrative. Everyone – everyone – says that it’s insanely hard work. Many will say that it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done (and why else would General Authorities care so much about raising the bar?). Many admit to limited success. I certainly didn’t baptize droves.
That doesn’t mean a mission isn’t also a rich, rewarding experience. I am impacted positively every day because of my missionary experiences. I am fiercely grateful that I went on a mission, and given the choice, I would choose to go again. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. In fact, I’d say that most of my easy experiences don’t impact me like my mission impacts me.
I wouldn’t trade my mission experience for a million dollars, but you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do it again.
His mission was far more demanding than my own, but I can relate to that. A “one true missionary experience” that’s all flowers and rainbows and puppies as long as you’re wearing your CTR ring? Psh. That’s just not the case. If you believe that things are going to be that rosy, it’s probably because you’re naive.
That’s okay, though! I was naive before I went on my mission. I didn’t plan to convert all of Polynesia, but I didn’t know it was going to be as hard as it was. But that’s not the Church’s fault. It’s just me being a dummy. I’d been told about the hard work of missionary work my whole life. I just didn’t appreciate it until I experienced it (the very definition of naive, by the way).
RNS: I was totally fascinated to read that you, and other RMs, still have nightmares that you’re suddenly called back on a mission.
CH: I started asking people about it maybe 10 or 15 years after I got home. Some people had no idea what I was talking about, but so many others had the same kind of dreams. People who have the dream never felt quite good enough on their mission.
A 60-year-old man, a university professor, emailed me last week and said, “I thought that was own my private struggle all these years.” And even though he hasn’t been in the Church for years, in the dream he always agrees to go when he’s told that he has to serve another mission!
It helps just knowing that someone else has also experienced all this, that their mission was really difficult for them. There are plenty of us who are happy to be Mormon, but didn’t like everything about our mission.
I have totally had this nightmare. 🙂