Part 5: Types of Companionship Difficulties for Mormon Missionaries
There are as many different types of struggles for Mormon missionaries as there are companions. But through each experience, you somehow find a way to learn, to enjoy, and to improve. Here are some of my struggles, organized by companionship.
I'm sorry for the occasional all-caps text that follows. I left it in because I feel like it emphasizes the sometimes rushed, exciting, up-and-down feeling that helps define everything you do as a missionary.
Also, brace yourself for a fairly gusty tone of voice here. My assessment of my companionships is pretty brief and to-the-point, so I've left out quite a bit of nuance. Despite what you may think after reading this, I got along well with all of my companions, still communicate with many of them, and would not mind at all meeting any one of them in person again. And in cases where I seem like a tyrant, I think you have to place yourself in an excited 20-year-old's shoes and ask yourself what you would do when faced with a sudden challenge to improve missionary efforts in an area with a population of about 200,000. You have to summon a lot of energy that you didn't know you had, and I think some bluster naturally comes along with that.
Some People Can't Handle Criticism, and That's OK
With Elder Francoise (a senior companion to me) I had a hard time communicating my frustration. It was clear that he just couldn't handle complaints, and that he was already going at 150%, and something told me it would be useless to complain about all the mistakes he I thought he was making.
I wasn't sure what to do, so I just worked hard and tried to keep up with him. If I went back to my mission today, I'd probably spend a lot of time pointing out good things that he did. Eventually he'd probably understand that there were things I didn't want to be doing.
It may sound manipulative, but some people really can't handle negative feedback well. In any case, if you point out someone's gifts, you gain their trust and may earn a new friend.
Some People are Mostly Feelers, Others are Mostly Thinkers
With Elder Spaniel (a senior companion to me) I really felt out of my league. This guy was so touchy-feely that I felt SUPER uncomfortable trying to relate to him.
I think this just comes down to personality. Everybody's got a different personality, and not everyone works well with every single personality out there.
Elder Spaniel probably thought I was some really quiet, robotic guy. It was probably pretty spooky to him. At one point he told our mission president that I was not giving him any feedback at all, so when I walked into my next interview with the mission president, he asked me why I was "withholding information." I told the president I didn't think there was much to say, and that Elder Spaniel was doing a fine job. He let me go with a "well, be sure to tell him if you have any ideas."
Now, a lot of my ideas were negative ideas, like "Elder Spaniel rides his bike too slow," so I basically did not ever tell Elder S. that. Still, I liked Elder Spaniel. If I was to go back in time today I would probably spend more time relating to him, talking about my feelings and things like that. But hindsight is 20/20.
I know for a fact that I was in total shock when it came to mission life, and I was just keeping my mouth shut because it took a lot of energy to be a full time missionary AND try to adjust my personality to fit someone who was so feelings-oriented at the same time.
New Missionaries Work to Find Ways to Cope
With Elder Crow (a junior companion to me) I had a hard time because he was a shell-shocked, brand new junior companion and I KNEW he was. So my instinct was to train him the way I had been trained: Hard work and goal-setting. But he kept coming at me with these lines like, "well, my last companion would always do things this OTHER way."
Elder Crow's last companion somehow did all this awesome stuff and was Mr. Perfect. This made his current companion (me) feel completely worthless. So one day I just made a decision: I can only do the best I can do. That's it, nothing more. For better or for worse, this was my mission, and so we were going to have to use some of my ideas, no matter how dumb he thought they were.
So, eventually, Elder Crow came around. That critical behavior had really just been his security blanket, kind of a little insurance that he wouldn't be pushed around too much.
Another struggle I had with Elder Crow was that he saw the mission rules as being more flexible than I did. He showed me his CD collection and it was a bunch of pop / rock music. My first thought was, "I have personally thrown away an entire folder worth of CDs before my mission out of excitement to change my life, and this guy brought them along!" Speechless.
(Let's be clear here: His CD collection was a violation of a mission rule. It wouldn't get you sent home, but it wouldn't pass much scrutiny, either.)
I wanted to say something to Elder Crow about the music, but I got the feeling he couldn't handle it. I was going to work this guy hard anyway, knocking doors, talking to people all day, and bringing him into lessons where he wouldn't understand the language so well. I knew it, he knew it, and so he could keep the CDs and even listen to them for all I cared.
Eventually we were pretty great pals, and we're still friends today. He stopped the idolizing of his past companion--at least, while he was around me. We both went through depressing days and awful weather together and shared many disheartening experiences. When we came back to our warm apartment there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm to give into complaining, because we both felt we were there for a bigger purpose.
I should say something about rules and rule-breaking behavior: There were no inspectors who were going around digging through our stuff. You were two or four guys in a little apartment far away from the main mission office, and so the apartments and companionships had to be kind of self-policing (and sometimes not--as I learned later when I served in leadership positions). This independence is one of the things that helped us all realize we were really no longer boys. We could have done a LOT of bad stuff if we were really in the mood, but our leadership was relying on us to be creative and make good things happen, so there wasn't a lot of time to sit around and think of goofy things to do.
My Previous Companion Was Better than You
With Elder Vasser (a junior companion to me) I had YET ANOTHER case of "my previous companion was so awesome!" And I knew from the very moment he said that on our first day together that he was getting ready to complain about whatever he didn't like. Pretty soon it was "my previous companion this" and "my previous companion that" again.
I think it's important to understand that I knew his previous companion, and the guy had the most amazing looks and probably body--anyway, movie star looks. Those kind of missionaries would have people just hanging on their every word. Looks go a long way, and the rest of just had to kind of deal with it. My way of dealing with it was this smug understanding that these guys THOUGHT people were idolizing them as missionaries, but really they were idolizing them as hunks of meat, and most of those people didn't care about the gospel at all.
Or at least I told myself that. Sigh.
Anyway, Elder Vasser was never quite happy with my style of missionary work, and wrote me a very brief, quite nasty note as a going-away present. After I read it I thought of him as an extreme hypocrite, because he was always looking at girls and yet somehow he had a girlfriend back home that he was sending gifts to.
At the time I felt that Elder Vasser was simply distracted and didn't really have the inner strength he should have had, all thanks to his relationship with his girlfriend. We went way out of our way one day to buy her the stupidest little teddy bear, and I was blowing steam out my ears the entire time, trying to disguise it just to make nice with him.
I met up with Elder Vasser after the mission and he was really nice to me. He may have been embarrassed, for all I know. I'm sure his mission went pretty well overall, and I think he's a great person, but that companionship was an uphill swim for me. I'm glad we both made it through it.
Please Allow Me to Lead, Even Though I'm New Here
With Elder Brownback (a junior companion to me) I knew right off the bat that I had this companion who was focused and determined. He was trying to be humble and yet he was really smart. It's amazing--you meet, and live with, a lot of different personalities.
Elder B. and I got along great, until one day when we were doing companionship inventory. Companionship inventory is where you basically discuss how your work together is going, and talk a bit about your relationship. Elder Brownback suddenly started crying. I asked him what was wrong.
"I feel like I'm just being dragged along everywhere, like I can't make any decisions about what we do."
Fine. As I said before, I was becoming a more blustery person, more likely to take charge of our planning and make apologies later. This had its cons, but it had a lot of pros, too.
But that was all he had to say--I knew what to do from there. I had to soften up and help him. But I had to do something else, too.
From that point on, I involved Elder Brownback so hard that he was involved to the core of his being. I didn't do this maliciously (well, maybe like 20%, and just the first time) but I turned over huge amounts of planning to him. I learned again that people need to feel like they are valued and trusted.
Even when some companions know inside that you are in some kind of senior position, they still expect to be consulted like they are the boss, sometimes. That's fine with me. I was mainly just happy to have him aboard, working hard. And he worked REALLY hard after that. It was awesome because he would even help push us harder, which is incredible coming from a junior companion who's still kind of overwhelmed.
We had so many nights where we would come home soaked with sweat (mostly due to 90-degree temps + humidity + bike riding + stair climbing) and with ALL of our goals achieved. This was an amazing feeling. We also saw miracles happen. I don't mean any of the stereotypical Hollywood-style weird miracles, but just "life is good" miracles. The miracles were less amazing-feeling, and more like humbling experiences, like you were lucky to witness them and felt like you saw God at work, really helping people. It kind of shut you up and you felt like you had this little treasure in your brain to think about, whenever you needed a boost.
I Am One Bad Dude, So Hold On Tight
With Elder Figure (a senior companion to me), I was shocked and awed. This guy was supposed to teach me how to be a Zone Leader AND teach me how to learn yet another language, after the language I had been sent out to learn.
But really, Elder F. taught me that there are many styles of leadership. It so happened that his style of leadership was extremely off-putting to me. I was off-put nearly every day by his rowdy style. Sadly, I am pretty sure, based on his actions, that he hated Japanese people a lot of the time.
Elder Figure rode his bike way faster than you could call safe, and I'm pretty sure he did a lot of it to scare me and/or impress me. But it wasn't impressive. It was mostly sad. This guy was a real fireball, but you could just tell he had a hard life ahead of him, because he would take the most direct route to get whatever he wanted. He would manipulate people (though not really in a harsh way) if he thought it would help him.
Basically with Elder Figure I held on for dear life and tried to learn what I could.
After he left the mission to go home, we all (the four of us in the apartment) kind of laughed and let out a big sigh. I was amazed that Elder F. never talked back to me, even though he talked smack to just about everybody else we came across. I was flattered to realize I kind of intimidated him somehow. I think it was because he knew I was sizing him up as a leader, and I definitely was.
Elder Figure had good tactical leadership--get out there and get stuff done! But his strategic thinking was all kind of pointless. I think the church members were afraid of him, and everybody else just kind of shook their heads. That's not a really effective way to spread the gospel. Still, he worked really hard and did his best, so he had my respect for that.
I Feel Like Baggage When You Don't Listen
With Elder Ride (a junior companion to me), I found myself in yet another position where I took my new Zone Leader assignment way too seriously and called so many shots that he broke down crying.
"Argh! I broke another elder," I thought.
It was the same story, and it was my fault again. This time "I feel like baggage" were his exact words, I believe.
Looking back, I was pretty worried about not being perceived to be an effective Zone Leader, so I had just been doing 100% of all of the planning and directing, and as it turns out, even though he was a SUPER quiet guy, Elder Ride really wanted to be included in all of that.
So again: No problem. Have all the planning you can handle!
And this turned out to be pretty fun.
Elder Ride looked at missionary work kind of like a board game. He didn't take it too seriously, but he would get a grin on his face during our planning meetings and say things like, "what would happen if we did this instead of that," kind of like he was strategizing during a cooperative board game, or solving a puzzle.
We had a lot of fun after we got to know each other.
Maybe We Are Getting Along Too Well
With Elder Trane (a kind of equal companion to me, older than me yet in training to become a Zone Leader), I was over the moon. We got along SO WELL that it was really, really hard to be serious about missionary work.
We could basically start a conversation, begin knocking on doors, and then knock 150 or 200 doors before finally ending our conversation.
On occasion, someone would open their front door--and I really regret this--and I almost felt like, "aw darn, somebody opened their door. They're cutting off our conversation." It was a hilariously strange feeling--yet it happened again and again. I think we were both so excited to have found somebody we matched up with so well, that we were just getting all we could out of the situation before our next not-so-fun companion came along.
Plus, when you're knocking thousands of doors, you start to zone out a bit. You look for something interesting to talk about. It's just a fact.
This is why missionaries are highly encouraged to find better uses of their time than door-knocking. It's just that sometimes you have to use it to fill some extra unscheduled time.
We never argued or had any difficult moments, but I can't say that Elder Trane and I were very effective. We didn't challenge each other and try to find common ground in the gospel. We found common ground in just about every other thing that (gasp) we hadn't even thought about until we got talking!
That was a strange lesson to learn, but I don't think I'd change much if I went back today. It was nice to relax and I think I deserved it at that point in my mission.
I Feel Like I Should Just Love this Guy
With Elder Quince (a junior companion to me), I had a very, very hard time. I've already written about him here on the website, but I learned that God can and will help you with your relationships if you ask for specific help, and that love is really the key.
The more love you have, the easier it is to sort out relationship problems. I basically couldn't stand Elder Quince when we met, and by the time I transferred away, I absolutely loved the guy. I still get emotional about it.
Temper Tantrums: Not Everybody Leaves Them In Childhood
With Elder Ranger (a junior companion to me), I learned how important it is to build trust with your companion FAST. It is always to your advantage to find common ground as fast as possible.
Elder Ranger had a bad temper, and would kind of lose it when I would do something unintentionally annoying (I guess I did a lot of that stuff in his eyes) but because I built that trust early on, and I got to know him well enough (we'd joke around a lot), pretty soon his temper became his shame rather than my problem.
Elder R. was not happy about his tendency to lose his temper, and he'd apologize and try really hard to get himself back in line. He was a good companion overall, and it gave me a HUGE amount of joy to find that his next companion was pretty much a big goofy kid. I could see Elder Ranger biting his lip all the time, and finally he came to me for advice, looking like he was about to explode.
"What do I do?" he asked.
That was a major victory moment for me, and even though I don't remember what I told Elder R., I remember thinking, "I WON THE MISSION. I WON." This was my second-to-last companion, and Elder Ranger was basically confirming that I had been a good companion to him. I was almost done with my mission, and here I actually had some evidence that I had done a fine job.
Considering how hard I was on myself much of the time (a quirk of my personality, definitely not something I was told to feel by the Church, or anything like that), this realization really put a smile on my face.
Eventually You Just Get Better At It
With Elder Umlaut (a junior companion to me) I didn't really have a hard time. He was easy but he was ready to go home (early). I pulled together everything I could offer to Elder Umlaut and I think it blew him away: I had learned how to be nice, be relaxed, let my companion share responsibilities in a fun way, and I was happy to let him tell me stories of his times back home.
This companionship was a really good way to tie off my mission. I could have freaked out because Elder U. was being a punk, and didn't like talking to people about the gospel, but instead I had learned at this point that I was in this for the long run. Studying Jesus Christ and trying to follow his example in human relationships was crucial to my life, I now realized, and I was going to have a fun time learning more. So little things like Elder Umlaut's complaining didn't bug me anymore.
Hooray! I was a changed man. I was now somebody who could be good at relationships. As a complete introvert, and as someone who was FREAKED OUT by the word "relationships" prior to becoming a missionary, this was a gift straight from God.
A full-time mission is a challenge. But it's also a lot of fun.
Most moments weren't challenging; they were just normal. I remember being shocked to discover how much life in my first mission area was just like life in my hometown. But then again, even the normal moments were vibrant and different--there was a new and overarching purpose behind everything.
I'm really glad I didn't just sit on my butt in university full-time instead of going on a mission. And now that I've been out of the university environment for over 10 years, it's clear to me that my university experience was worth almost nothing compared to my mission experience.
That's saying a lot, because I loved my university student experience.
A mission is so different. You see the world--and by that I mean not just the sights, but you see the people, you talk to them, you get to know them, they let you see all their shortcomings, and you try to persuade them to find higher ground in their lives. It's amazing how common this stuff is. EVERYBODY has a problem, multiple problems. You work with them, you cry with them, you get frustrated with them (but hopefully not around them)--all stuff that you could only read about in a university.
After my mission I was permanently changed. I went from loving mainly my own self and my own close relationships, to feeling love for the entire human race, loving the world we live in, loving the universe, and loving the mystery of this life.
Did everything go perfectly from that point on? No. Just two short years later I was depressed to the point of feeling suicidal, and felt like I had hit rock bottom. I was disturbed to discover that there were people who I actually hated. Now I needed to learn how to apply my mission experiences to real life.
Fortunately, the lessons I learned on my mission helped me recover from all the pain that blindsided me after I had been home for a while. And those lessons have helped me recover many times since.
None of us are perfect, and we'll all stumble many times before we finally die. The purpose of life is not to become perfect.
What is the purpose of life then?
Ask any Mormon missionary; maybe they can help you find your answer.