Mission Tales, Part 2: Boredom, P-Day Eve, The Pay Phone
I swear I have forgotten more doorway encounters than most people could experience in ten lifetimes.
Elder Russell (my first companion) and I turned it into a game, an impersonal way of making our numbers. It was nearly a complete waste of time. We'd spend well over 20 hours a week just knocking on doors. We had the routine memorized. We would practically race from door to door, seeking those who would listen to us.
Later I would theorize that Elder Russell wanted to race around because he was running from something: Dissatisfaction with the way his mission was turning out. He was hoping to baptize hundreds of people, as I recall, and I just happened to be his companion when he started to realize that it might not happen.
Knocking on doors was boring, and street contacting was only a mild improvement. Elder Russell and I didn't know any better, though. So we were bored, and the only cure for the boredom seemed to be walking faster, biking faster, eating faster. My thighs felt like they were becoming monstrously huge as I learned to control a bike like I never had before. In 90-degree weather we were careening through the streets at bicycle-unsafe speeds. When it began to rain, we still rode fast. Once my bike slipped on the slick tile of a covered sidewalk, and I slid sideways, rear wheel first, toward a crowd. I almost mowed down several senior citizens. I felt a large crowd of people staring at me, wondering what the heck I was doing. To this day that memory makes me cringe.
To add to the boredom, we were frustrated. We thought that people should be responding to our fast-moving, fast-talking ways, but I'm sure we just looked like two impatient, suntanned American kids with poor Japanese skills. Nobody was listening to our message, and when it seemed that somebody would, the opportunity would slip through our fingers. We were excited to start teaching a very kind family that expressed an interest in our experiences, but after our first appointment with them, we realized they just wanted to know where our energy came from. Most other people our age were doing pretty lazy things, by their calculation. I don't think they were satisfied with our answer, which was rooted in spirituality.
Much later in my mission, I would learn that you could put a plan together, focus on building relationships, and have a much more successful mission without needing to rush around. You could basically just enjoy your time AND still be a very effective missionary. Even now I chuckle to think of everything I hoped to accomplish inside what I saw as a two-year capsule. In reality I should have just found a way to enjoy life from the start, and settled in to plan for my life as a missionary; I still consider myself a missionary and wish I could have seen that when I was wearing the badge. Don't pressure yourself, just enjoy life, get to know people, open yourself to them, and build them up. Help them see how Christ sees them.
Anyway, the first three months of my mission had basically been an exercise program. Ride bike fast, climb stairs, descend stairs. No baptisms occurred. It had been a special type of boredom.
There was another kind of boredom. A sort of boredom that occurs when you feel that nothing you do is really working. You have long since given up on your goal of baptizing hundreds. You don't even believe it's possible to baptize thousands anymore. And you are frustrated to think that several of those you've baptized are already dropping out of the church, having found more interesting things to do.
You still believe in everything you're doing, but you doubt that you can pull it off.
Everything you do starts to feel like it's not really adding up to much. Visit a member's home, knock on a door, teach a lesson. None of it ends up going anywhere (for the time being) so you allow yourself to get bored.
I had become the senior companion to Elder Ride, a soft-spoken mountain biker who just wanted to take things slow. He talked slow, he moved slow, and he even laughed slow. I have a lot of respect for Elder Ride now, because I realize he just needed time to process things. He liked to think, and he wasn't in a hurry to force things to happen. I could have learned a lot from that. Instead, I showed him how we were going to work hard, and pulled him along.
When this pulling failed to bring us results, we both became frustrated. I began scraping the bottom of the barrel during our planning sessions. "Maybe let's go knock on some doors over here," I would say, pointing at the map. "Then let's prepare for English Classes." The classic thing we did to kill time. Prepare a really, really good English class. It was just more busywork, but it allowed us to get away from our boredom for a while.
Finally, at one of these plannign meetings, Elder Ride began to weep. He looked at me with his red eyes and said words I won't ever forget.
"I feel like baggage. I feel like you're just dragging me along."
I realized at that moment that I had been dragged along, too. My trainer, Elder Russell, had dragged me along as we cycled so fast through the streets and ran up and down stairs all day. I never shared my feelings about that (I should have, but I thought it was how things were done) and I felt that I should probably be a trainer like that, too.
Even though two years seems like an incredibly short time to me right now, it sometimes seemed like a day could last forever when I was a missionary in Japan. Elder Ride was really starting to feel it. He didn't want to knock on doors all day. He didn't want to ride around behind me all day, basically taking turns being rejected by people. He had ideas, and he had a right to fight against the boredom, too.
After listening to Elder Ride's ideas, I realized we had a breakthrough on our hands. A huge part of the boredom was that I wasn't letting myself learn from other people. I was just repeating the same stuff over and over again, hoping it would stick. I had a set idea of what a mission was, and since I didn't push those boundaries out to try new ideas, I grew bored.
Most of my mission was spent being optimistic about some new idea, chasing it down, and finding unexpected treasures. New relationships, new ideas, new ways of looking at life, new understandings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of my mission was definitely not boring. But boredom was certainly there, and I'm glad I found ways to fight back, glad I listened to people like Elder Ride and changed up our routine a bit.
P-day Eve Movies
Elder Curley was a very unique guy. The mission president assigned him to me and said, "just do whatever Elder Curley wants to do. He says he's ready to quit and go home, and I want him to relax a bit, see the pleasant side of the mission more. If he wants to stop and get some ice cream, go for it. Whatever helps." I was incredulous when I heard that. I wondered how many missionaries got to hear their mission presidents say something like that. My mission president was basically telling me I couldn't do much traditional missionary work, but it was worth it if I could just help Elder Curley. This was frustrating because it was at the end of my mission and I wanted to GET OUT AND WORK, but Elder Curley demanded finesse. You really had to go easy on him or he'd run out of batteries and then you weren't going anywhere and you could just sit around and listen to him complain.
Up to this point, before meeting Elder Curley, I only knew of one time slot during the week when that sort of go-get-ice-cream behavior was normal. That was P-day Eve. Our P-day (preparation day) was on Wednesday, and it was full of little errands like taking suits to the cleaners, doing grocery shopping, and maybe some bowling or a visit to a museum. You went out and worked hard on all those little things on Wednesday, because you wanted to have them all tied up so you could do missionary work for the rest of the week.
The night before P-day was like a celebration. Missionary work sort of came to a halt while you stopped and got some celebratory treats, loosened up a bit, and felt relaxed to consider that you'd have a full day to kind of goof around tomorrow.
With Elder Curley, every moment of every day was potentially a P-day Eve. Elder Curley would stop and say, "I ain't doin' no more door knocking or talking to people." So I'd offer a trip to get some ice cream at a nearby convenience store, and he'd get happy again. He'd tell jokes, tell stories, and oh my...he was a great storyteller.
This was all, as I said, very frustrating because job #1 was supposed to be missionary work, but to Elder Curley that was like job #7. Job #1 for Elder Curley was being some kind of entertainer. Well, fine. If that's what will make the mission president happy, let's have more of Elder Curley's entertainment.
Pretty soon we (the three of us in the apartment with Elder Curley) learned that Elder Curley could recall EVERY MOVIE HE HAD EVER SEEN, with exacting detail. So P-day Eve became like a movie night. Elder Curley would say, "well, did you ever see [movie name]?" We'd all say, "dude, that was rated R!" And like a virtuoso, Elder Curley would edit out all the R-rated parts and tell us the full movie in all its glory. It was so great!
Amusingly, I later learned that this was also something that American POWs in Vietnam did. And the movie, to fill all the time they had available, had to last two hours.
Elder Curley's movies didn't last two hours, but they were still awesome. They'd all start the same way.
"OK. So there was this guy, right?"
You did what to a WHAT???
Elder Curley had to do daily phone calls with the mission president, too. We had a small walk-in pantry right off the kitchen, and he would drag the phone in there and talk. At first, this was cool with us because we wanted to support Elder Curley. We saw ourselves as these generous guys who just wanted to love him and support him and make him feel great inside.
Elder Curley had a loud voice, so the three of us other elders would make conversation amongst ourselves at the breakfast table so as not to hear what he was saying. But one day, I guess we didn't really feel like talking. We just wanted to eat our breakfast in silence. After the initial small talk, suddenly all we could hear was EXACTLY EVERY WORD Elder Curley was saying. And it just happened to be right in the middle of a vivid recounting of his sinful behavior, pre-mission. And what we heard--wow. I'm pretty sure none of us will ever again hear a sin like that recounted. (Not that we're not sinners ourselves...standard disclaimer)
Elder Rangers dropped his spoon into his cereal bowl. It made this CLINK-clink-clinkclinkclink sound. "That's...that's, okay, I can't do this anymore." He stood up and headed for his bedroom. He had a disturbed look on his face that made him look like he needed to take a long walk and think about life. It was THAT awkward, THAT gross. It was way, way beyond the "normal" misconduct that we all knew about. And none of us were really that naive. We all had the typical teenager experiences before our missions, from what I had learned.
In my final interview before returning from my mission, my mission president asked me, "well, should I cut Elder Curley's rope?" That was very direct language for this well-spoken ex-attorney. But I knew how he felt. I think we both felt completely stupefied that this person who was so completely uninterested in missionary work had convinced himself and his family that he wanted to go on a mission, and had then put up with all the training, the travel, the boredom, and was still out there dragging his companions off to get ice cream. It was time for him to go home.
I really liked Elder Curley, and I know he liked me, too. He was a really nice guy. I hope that he ended up in a better place after his mission experience. But I'm 100% positive he's still telling great stories to whoever will listen.
Insert Ten Yen to Continue
My first apartment (the one with the huge stereo) had been occupied by female missionaries before we got there. So in some ways it was dolled up and kind of girly. But there was one feature that drove us absolutely crazy: The apartment had a pay phone.
I did not know it was possible to have a pay phone in an apartment, but that's what happened. Apparently one of the female missionaries (or "sister missionaries") had been really homesick. Letters weren't enough. She wanted, nay, NEEDED to talk to someone back home. And it wasn't good enough that we got to talk to people back home twice a year (Christmas and Mother's Day). She NEEDED. TO. TALK. NOW. *sob*
So she picked up the phone, and somehow figured out how to make international collect calls. Pretty soon she was doing it all the time.
Before long, the mission president heard about it. Probably from this sister missionary's companion, or maybe from her parents back home. This mission president (before my time) had a reputation as a pretty gruff guy. He was nice, but he kind of saw himself as having been sent there to turn the mission around and really get people focused on sharing the gospel again (his predecessor had been printing Calvin and Hobbes comics in the mission newsletter, and apparently was allowing missionaries to cross mission boundaries to visit theme parks).
So, I think this mission president kind of lost it. He just called up the phone company: "Please put a pay phone in apartment such-and-such." And they did it! And they removed the coin door. Coins would fall out of the phone into a little dish that we kept for the purpose.
The problem with this was that it was SUPER easy to miss your cue and forget to put a coin in the phone. I remember many nights when Elder Russell would be in the middle of a heart-wrenching phone call with one of our students, helping them clean up their life or whatever, and suddenly, *click*. "DANG IT!!!!!!" Elder Russel would pound the desk and shout, "I HATE THIS STUPID PHONE!!!!!" So loud that I'm sure our neighbors wondered if the Americans were having a little fight.
I'm 100% sure we could have had the thing replaced, but to be honest we were both so new and green that we didn't even imagine bringing that up with the mission president.
I'll never forget the look on Elder Xavier's face when he walked in as a new transfer to replace Elder Russell, looked at the phone, and with an open-mouthed smile, asked me:
"...is that thing a pay phone?"