Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Mormon Mission

Jesus wants me for a salesman,
To shill for him each day,
In every way try to pimp him
At home, at school, no play!

A salesman, a salesman!
Jesus wants me for a salesman!
A salesman, a salesman!
I'll make my quota each day!

When Mormon youth reach social majority, they usually go out and spend two years (or 18 months if they are female) "serving a mission" in some place remote from their home.  This activity is a right of passage for Mormons, for young men especially, and is often described as "the best two years" of a good Mormon life--a kind of palate-cleanser between childhood and adulthood that prepares the young to find their way from naive incapability into mature responsibility.  This essay represents my latest thoughts on my own mission experience, about which I have very mixed feelings.  I definitely learned many valuable lessons from my mission, lessons that I carry with me to this day as a kind of treasure that I am very grateful to possess.  Some of these lessons were a joy to learn (and I carry them fondly to this day).  Others were very painful (and I carry them gingerly to this day).  Here I will try to share a little of them all.

First, the good stuff.  The brethren sent me to northern Spain.  I already spoke Spanish, so I got to spend only three weeks in the Missionary Training Center (in Provo, Utah), heading directly into "the mission field" after I had finished memorizing the six "discussions" that missionaries in my day shared with "investigators" (people interested in learning more about Mormonism).  I was very excited to be visiting a foreign country, and to have something real to do.  During the last leg of my very long flight from Salt Lake City to Bilbao (where my mission president had headquarters), I struck up a conversation, in Spanish, with some guy sitting next to me.  We chit-chatted a bit, and I told him who I was, what I was doing, etc.  He was very nice about it.  I was, too.  I didn't try to pressure him into anything (to make commitments to baptism or reading the Book of Mormon or whatever).  I just told him what I was up to (and felt very flattered when he asked if I was from Bilbao: apparently he was visiting there from the south, and my accent was good enough to pass for native).  Throughout my mission experience, I followed this same pattern: I talked with people.  They would tell me things about themselves, as they pleased, and I would respond by telling them about myself.  I never felt comfortable pushing them to take something from me that I wouldn't take from them.  I think this is an important balance to respect in relating with other people.

I came into my mission with some serious psychological problems.  (Every young person is crazy, right?  Well, I was no exception.)  For years, I had worried more or less constantly that every sexual experience I had might be a sign that the devil finally owned me, that I could not ever serve God or do good in any meaningful way.  The mission helped me a lot with this problem--though I almost didn't go, when I was too afraid to answer questions honestly in the "worthiness interviews" that candidates must have with their local priesthood leaders: I was so afraid my leaders would sense my evil and kick me out of the church.  The mission did much to break me from this fear.  In the first place, it placed me among a cohort of hormonal young men for the first time in my life.  (Unlike most of my fellow missionaries, I did not go to high school.  I stayed home, got a GED, and went straight into college.)  I quickly learned that my sexual experience was tame (and practically nonexistent), comparatively speaking.  If the Lord could not be served by horny lads, then the entire mission was in trouble--and I was somewhere at the bottom of the list of people to worry about: somewhere below the elder who baptized a well-known local prostitute, went home under a cloud of awkward gossip, and then came back to marry her and take her to the US.  God didn't sent that guy straight to hell (far from it: I think he was a district leader), so maybe I was OK.  Besides putting me with peers, the mission also gave me a ton of work, so much that I had little time or energy to waste on the endless soul-searching that I had done before.  I was too exhausted to stay up at night wondering whether I was worthy in the eyes of God.  Instead of praying and crying and debating my next visit to the bishop's office to confess some spurious sin, I was sleeping or working.  Every few months, I would have a slight relapse into guilt (a memory that I should feel bad about something, that I hadn't been confessing much recently, that I still "looked upon women to lust after them," etc.), but these relapses were few and far between--and the pain they caused me was much less than I experienced before I became a missionary.  

Getting out and about in a foreign country was good for me, in many ways.  I met a wide variety of people: poor and rich, immigrants and locals, educated and not, religious and not.  I learned not to judge people prematurely: some of the nicest folks we met were pretty rough on the exterior (like the branch president in the last town where I served, who lived in a ramshackle house surrounded by chicken coops and wore rags around his house; I love that guy).  I learned that people have a very different view of me than I have of myself.  People who considered themselves friendly or hostile to the United States would randomly walk up to me and offer outlandish praise or blame, as though I had something personal to do with whatever American policy they loved or loathed.  Outsiders constantly mistook us for Jehovah's Witnesses, to our mutual consternation--but both faiths are American, rabidly dedicated to proselytizing, and fond of Bible-thumping.  The more I got to know the people in Spain, the more I learned to see myself from their perspective(s).  The more I saw myself from their perspective(s), the more sense their view of me made.  They taught me to look at myself critically, to examine my motives and activity skeptically (why am I asking you to do X? is that a fair request for me to make of you, given our mutual positions, the circumstances that bring us together? am I taking unfair advantage, or vice versa?), to put my feelings aside enough to consider those of people unlike me (as so many of them were). 

I love the people I met in Spain.  I love the guy sitting next to me on the plane in.  I love Courage (his English name), the crazy Nigerian who gave me the scariest car-ride of my life in Bilbao.  On the way to his house, where we met his wife Faith and their little baby Wisdom, we changed lanes with abandon, honked constantly, grazed at least one little old lady (not to mention lots of cars), and never went less than 40 mph (seemingly).  I love Jacinto, a nice old guy from La Coruña who would always talk to us, respectfully and at length, feed us, help us, come to meetings with us, etc., though he had no intention of joining any church.  I love Jairo, who invited us into his home and his church (a very charismatic church from Brazil, in which the gifts of tongues and prophecy were loudly practiced).  I love Felipe, a Venezuelan refugee who took us into his home for Christmas and shared so much with us, though he too had absolutely no interest in Mormonism.  (I can hardly blame him.  The one time we did take him to church, our local members spent the entire time babbling about the Book of Abraham and the necessity of submitting to priesthood hierarchy.  Felipe responded by calling them scribes and Pharisees, quoting the New Testament liberally from memory.)  I love Andrés, the kind old Jesuit who introduced me to the reality that some really good people read scripture allegorically.  I love Juan, who from a chance encounter in a crowded street has become a life-long friend.  I could go on, of course.  I could talk about Daniel (and our visits reading the Book of Mormon back and forth in Spanish and French), about Prince (and his epic trip across the Sahara in a broken-down jeep: he had to bury himself in the sand for a few days and drink his own urine), about Santiago (and his willingness to be baptized, to please us, if only we wouldn't make him give up sex), about José Luis (and his facility with English, unusual for a Spaniard, though his Catholic atheism was par for the course).  There is no way I would ever wish these people out of my life.

Now the bad stuff.  When I became a missionary, I thought I would be helping people improve their lives.  I thought I would be performing a service for them.  I aspired to be a kind of saint or hero (writ small), a person known for his dedication to making the world a better place.  That dream died within six weeks of the day I stepped off the plane in Bilbao.  I quickly realized that I was destined to spend two years annoying the shit out of most people I met--in the church and outside it, as it happened.  My church associates came in three varieties: priesthood leaders with direct authority over me, local church members in the areas where I worked, and fellow missionaries.  Outside the church, I dealt with whatever people crossed my path (or had the misfortune to encounter me knocking doors: there were only so many neighborhoods in the areas where I worked, and most of them were already tracted out before I arrived to confirm for the umpteenth time that José Manuel and Maria Luisa had absolutely no interest in leaving their family, friends, or society to join some crazy American cult).

Inside the church, most of my time was spent attending meetings with mission leadership, meetings during which we missionaries were regularly berated for poor performance.  You see, the apathy and active disgust that most non-Mormons (especially Spaniards) felt for us and our church was apparently our own fault.  We were not righteous enough.  We did not pray with enough faith.  We lacked vision.  We kept forgetting to brush our teeth (or if we remembered, we got to bed five minutes late--and wham! amen to the priesthood of that missionary).  If we could just keep all the mission rules, if we could just walk faster and smile more, if we could just use this brilliant new technique for stopping families that our local General Authority learned from Jesus, etc., miracles would occur: we would step out of our miserable existence into the life of Wilford Woodruff (who didn't have to tract because he could simply walk into an English country church and expect to preach to a crowd of people eager to listen).  The pressure from mission leadership was unremitting, with missionaries internalizing lots of responsibility (I have to do this for Jesus! today we cannot be even five minutes late for anything) and, even worse, policing one another (with the best intentions, of course).

The consequences were many different kinds of bad.  Some missionaries became raving lunatics, scarcely able to function in a normal fashion as they wondered how they might be damning Spanish souls to hell today (did I smile at that old lady right? is it really my fault that this guy just told me to go to hell and blow American Jesus?).  Nervous breakdowns were pretty common, only occasionally so catastrophic that mission leadership noticed (and sent the missionary in question to a doctor, who usually recommended things like "more exercise, more free time, less stress," etc., i.e. stop being such a good missionary, kid).  Others slipped quietly into depression, doing whatever they could to maintain appearances of working hard (like management wanted) while they died inside.  I was one of these.  Others yet learned how to game the system.  They would teach an impressive number of discussions to teen girls, or mental patients, or immigrant workers.  Most of these "investigators" were completely unaware of their commitments to Mormonism--right up until the day when they failed to show for their scheduled baptism in one of our store-front chapels.  Some of the girls were genuinely sad (not to say heartbroken) when their boyfriends moved off to a new area, to convert new chicks, and neglected to stay in touch (let alone come back and take them to America).  Immigrants who could not speak Spanish caused all kinds of headaches for local church members, who were left with responsibilities they could not meet (your home-teaching assignment, should you accept it, is to venture into a ghetto of desperate foreign toughs speaking a language you cannot comprehend; good luck finding the guy we just baptized: he has probably been stabbed, moved to France, or become a Seventh-Day Adventist by now).  The game we played was always lose-lose.  If we pleased the Spaniards by avoiding work, mission management would breathe fire and brimstone down our necks.  If we pleased mission management by committing every biped in sight to baptism, we annoyed the heck out of most folks (who wanted nothing to do with Mormonism and were tired of having to affirm their disinterest to a new set of missionaries every few months) and ran the risk of annoying our local Mormon church, too (when the only people we could baptize were minors with angry parents, junkies with no mind, or immigrants with no fixed address and no cultural ties to Spain or any of the Spanish peoples).

When I applied to serve a mission, I imagined myself doing lots of service work (kind of like Ammon in the Book of Mormon).  I thought I would get to put principles of Christlike devotion "out there" in the world for people to see, doing deeds whose goodness other people could not deny.  Instead, I found myself confined to a crushing schedule of street contacts and door-to-door salesmanship (10 hours per day, 7 days a week, with 2/3 of a day off to do laundry and clean).  Every moment of every day was planned out, regulated, allocated (and set in stone: the first rule of mission life is that nobody admits to bending the rules).  It was really suffocating.  The only service we got was a little four-hour window, which we didn't always fill: as a rule, management was much more interested in making sure we were hitting the streets at least 60 hours a week than in helping us do any meaningful community service.  (Why did you only get 50 hours of proselytizing in last week, Elder?  Oh, you were wasting time with that volunteer clinic again, packing medical supplies for doctors abroad, who insist that they need contraceptives?  Do we need to pull you out of there so you can get back to the Lord's work?)  We could help people, sure, as long as this frivolous waste of time did not distract us from the real work ("the Lord's work") of proselytizing (which I recognized as a complete waste of time within two weeks of landing in Bilbao: imagine the horror I felt then as I contemplated the prospect of doing useless busywork virtually non-stop for two fucking years).

I admit that my dream of being a real servant, not just an annoying shill, died rather hard.  I still did everything I could to make myself feel that I was representing the Lord and the church to the best of my ability, in a way that was at once honest and attractive.  But my lived experience made this illusion really hard to maintain.  I still recall vividly the afternoon when another salesman knocked doors two floors above us in a rather large apartment building.  We started on the building first, buzzing our way in (or using a credit card to jimmy the lock open, I don't remember) and going to the top, where we commenced knocking doors and being sworn at.  About halfway down, we heard our competition coming behind us--a gravelly-voiced Spanish man pounding on doors as loud as he could, shouting, "¡Máquinas de coser!"  He got precisely the same reception we did, for the most part, though some of the people uninterested in our polite offering of American religion were apparently more intrigued by his brusque offer of sewing machines.  He was moving through the building really fast, much faster than we were, and in the end we bolted rather than face the prospect of confronting him in the hall for an epic sell-off.  But the incident burned itself into my mind--painfully, especially when I would go to mission conferences and hear blatant sales rhetoric from my priesthood leaders (Help your investigators feel obligated in some way: it will assist them to come to Jesus).  Growing up I had a good friend who was really into authors like Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, and being naturally curious I gave these guys a look-over.  I found them rather distasteful (even sleazy).  They approach life from a position that in my experience is either hopelessly naive (take this drug! nothing bad happened to me when I took it!) or wickedly malevolent (take this drug! it will make me rich, and who cares what it does for you?).  I don't want to win friends and influence people naively or malevolently.  As a 19-year-old kid, I didn't want it.  It was hard to hear that God really wanted me to want it.  While I definitely felt some guilt about being a failed missionary (terrible sales numbers from start to finish), I admit that this guilt was much less than my youthful guilt associated with sexuality.

There were rebellious missionaries.  I was not one of these.  When I first came home from my tour of duty, I used to have nightmares that I was back in Spain, back under the thumb of mission leaders and their impossible expectations.  Today, I no longer have those nightmares.  Today, I wish I could back.  I wish I could go back, sit down for one of those cursed early-morning planning sessions (mandatory of course), take my little blue day-planner out of my pocket, rip it to shreds, and say to my companion, "Elder, today we are going to make a list of soup kitchens and start contacting them to see what we can do to help. Fuck baptisms, discussions y la puta que los parió."  (Perhaps I should apologize for all the swearing in this post.  But in my defense, I have never heard as many expletives in my life as on my mission, which was practically a two-year course in being sworn at--by some of the most renowned and disgustingly eloquent potty-mouths of Europe.)  I wish I could go back and do what felt right to me, instead of wasting so much time doing wrong because some wannabe Napoleon Hill just knew that his little manual of marketing techniques was a better teaching tool than the New Testament.  This aggressive response was a long time coming to fruition, but the seeds were definitely planted in my mission.  I saw myself and other elders walking around like zombies, trying to implement stupid sales tactics that only sounded good to morons with no field experience.  (We called the new missionaries "greenies" and praised their wholehearted faith in tactics we knew to be worthless as though it were some kind of virtue.  The sad thing is that within our corrupt mission culture, it was.  We aspired to be cheerful dupes, eager to believe the latest tripe from mission headquarters even when we knew it would never work.) 

The more I lived as a missionary--the more nonsense I heard from the pulpit (have faith, keep making goals, and miracles will happen: Spanish people will flock to the church and transform their lives for better), the more I failed to make positive contact with non-Mormons, the more insults I fielded (from everybody--Spaniards angry with me for being an American, a missionary, and a god-damn nuisance; mission leaders angry with me for failing to meet their sales quotas; church members angry with me for crap other missionaries did, like baptizing immigrants or drug addicts; missionaries angry with me because I was a convenient outlet for all the frustration they felt as they confronted a hopeless situation), the less I could believe in the integrity of what I was doing.  What does a devout young Mormon do in these circumstances?  Naturally, you turn to God.  You pray.  You break down and cry.  And you sit back and wait for answers.  I am still waiting.  The silence of God was initially very tough for me, I admit.

There was at least one time in my mission experience, that I recall, when I let my thoughts become explicit as deep doubts.  I was riding in a car to some zone conference (to be browbeaten and force-fed another fake sales push guaranteed to save the world), and the missionary at the wheel put on a tape containing one of Truman Madsen's lectures on the life of Joseph Smith.  I listened to Brother Madsen go on and on, in his melodious voice, telling me about all the wonderful spiritual experiences that accompanied the foundation and dedication of the Mormon temple in Kirtland (Ohio), and I wondered where the miracles were today.  Why did I get no miracles?  Maybe I was faithless.  Was the entire mission faithless, too?  Our conversion rate was less than one baptism per missionary per two-year mission.  I was not the only one failing miserably, from the standpoint of our leadership (which ran things by the numbers, collecting statistics carefully every night from each companionship and then rewarding people whose numerical outcomes were best--in public and privately, in the regular personal interviews our mission presidents conducted with their sales force).  Where were the angels, the trumpets, the pillars of light on the road to Damascus?  We got nothing.  Nada.  (That's not quite true, of course.  As you already know, we got a lot of mierda, from everyone, all the time--and Jesus did nothing to stop it.)  I was terrified by these thoughts.  I was not ready to drop the only hope I had left in what was a very bleak psychological wilderness, the hope that God might at least be grateful for all my effort on his behalf, despite its being utterly worthless (or worse) to everyone and everything I could see around me.  So I abandoned my doubts.  I retreated from them.  I had almost no access to books (though the special permission I got to bring copies of the scriptures in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek was a real life-saver).  I had no leisure time to speak of.  I had no strength or time to do much more than grimly hang on, pound sand, and wait for the blessed day when my time in hell-on-earth would end.

When the end of my mission came at last, I was not an atheist, nor even an ex- or post-Mormon (as I have since become, not because I hate Mormonism per se but for reasons which include but also transcend my mission experience).  I still believed (and to be honest, still in many respects believe) in the Mormon gospel as a useful moral framework, a valid paradigm for assessing difficult ethical decisions (that historically find no easy or definitive resolution, at least never one that obtains for all men and women in every circumstance).  But my testimony of missionary work was completely changed.  From the perspective of many faithful Latter-day Saints, we could correctly say that it was utterly shattered.  When I went into the mission field, I had a naively beatific vision of what I was as a missionary.  I thought I was a child of God, an altruistic saint dedicated to serving others.  I thought church leaders had my back.  I was willing to believe in proselytizing as a worthwhile human activity.  When I came home, I knew I was an hijo de puta, a selfish cabrón whose idea of community service was pestering people to change religions and refusing to take no for an answer.  I knew certain church leaders didn't give a flying fuck about me as an individual capable of making useful decisions.  And I knew that I am terrible at marketing, that I hate it with the passion of a thousand burning suns, that I would rather shoot myself in the face with a shotgun than do it again.  To this day, I still recall with awe the sense of overwhelming joy that washed over me when I thought that in a few weeks, a few days, a mere handful of hours, I would take off that idiot badge--and never have to knock another door in my life.  I was still deep enough in organized Mormonism to feel a little guilty about this.  I knew David O. McKay's dictum, "Every member a missionary," and I had already been admonished that this required some enduring dedication to proselytizing.  I confess I did not care.  I was done, and I still am.  If there should come a day when I am presented with the stark option, Proselytize or go to hell!, I will gladly take my chances in hell.

One of the last places I lived as a Mormon missionary was the ancient city Santiago de Compostela, an object of pilgrimage even before it acquired the remains of a Catholic saint and became Christian.  I spent a lot of time walking in and around the cathedral in this town.  I spoke with pilgrims and locals, including some people who were devout Catholics.  I remember thinking to myself that it would be a real shame, culturally speaking, if all these people suddenly stopped being Catholic--stopped maintaining the cathedral, stopped saying mass there, stopped walking on foot from central and northern Europe, stopped caring about their religious heritage (which some of them held differently from others: each pilgrim walks his own path)--and replaced it all with my Mormonism.  I imagined the cathedral boarded up and shut down, while all the town flocked to our little strip mall, to dress in awkward American suits and talk about American religion as though it were somehow more universal and universally beneficent than it really is.  I thought of this, and the thought filled me with sadness.  I realized that I, good Mormon that I was then, wanted there to be good Catholics.  I did not want them to stop saying mass.  I did not want them to convert to my religion, even.  I had seen enough of them to know that some of them were genuinely good people--as good as any Mormons I ever met, and as likely to make it into heaven as I was.  To me it seemed that they would be taken care of, that God did not need me to pester them, that he would attend to any external requirements needed to save them (whatever that means or meant to anyone then) in his own time, in his own way, and that I should just butt out and let them be. 

Seeing so much Spanish heritage laid out for me there in Santiago, warts and all (the Catholic saint I mentioned bears the epithet Matamoros), I realized that I did not want to erase or replace it.  I did not want the coffee shops to go away.  I did not want the bars to close.  I did not want the bare naked ladies to put on three shirts in the middle of summer, to cover their sunburned shoulders or their plunging cleavage.  I loved the Catholics, the Spaniards, the Basques, the Gallegos, all these people, for who they already were, not for their imagined ability to look like me.  On a very deep level, I perceived truth that came to me as a revelation: proselytizing, the way most of us do it, is the work of the devil.  If we aim to do good in the world, real good, then we should aim to help others live their own lives, rather than attempt clumsily to shoe-horn them into ours (as though that were even possible).  We should not be there to teach but to serve.  This does not mean that we should abandon our own integrity.  I am not Spanish today (nor Catholic, nor Catholic atheist, etc.).  But we should deliberately build that integrity as something unique to us, something personal that exists between God (or nature or the universe or whatever you like to represent the mystery of life outside us) and ourselves.  We should not pretend that it can be easily transferred to other people, that the results must be good when this happens.  To do this is to ignore the facts, plain before our very eyes every day, that we are all different and require different things to exist, move, and have our being with any kind of happiness.  I am not you.  My happiness is not yours.  My marriage is not yours.  My family is not yours.  My love is not yours.  My health is not yours.  My diseases are not yours, and their cure will not be yours.  Don't try to make me take your medicine.  The fact that it helps you says nothing definite about its helping me.  What if the drug that saves you becomes a poison that kills me, eh?  (The ancient Greek word pharmakon nicely captures this paradox, as real today as it ever was, by meaning both drug and poison.  Life is built out of death.  What brings one civilization up to a better state of being might easily plunge another into rigor mortis.  Caveat medicus, diffidat gravatus.)  There is no such thing as "the good life" that involves us all doing the same things the same way.

This lesson recurs throughout my own lived experience.  One of my favorite anecdotes for conveying it (e.g. to a class of undergraduates studying philosophy) comes from my own family.  A sister of mine suffers from Celiac disease.  Eating wheat makes her die.  I do not suffer from this disease.  It is demonstrable that we cannot get the same effects from the same food.  The imperative to find one single diet that must serve both of us is fundamentally stupid.  I am a man.  She is a woman.  I do not have Celiac disease.  She has it.  I am one self.  She is another.  If we went to see God today, both of us, and he cared enough to give us the time of day and prescribe a regimen aiming to give us perfect health, then he would give us different regimens.  Because we are different.  Obviously.  And yet so many people, not just naive Mormon missionaries and their clueless leaders, don't get this.  They insist on finding "the one true diet" and then forcing whatever that is upon the rest of us.  If they are Mormons, they come by insistently asking you to be Mormon, too.  Just ditch your family, your friends, your culture, your upbringing, your nationality, everything you know and love, and join this weird American cult that wants 10% of your income, the right to tell you what kind of undergarments to wear, and lifelong loyalty.  No wonder so many Spaniards told me to go fuck myself (¡por el culo, maricón!).  When you read my message from their perspective, with empathy, you realize that I am asking them to commit suicide.  I am telling them to give up the reality that they embody for a dream I have of what they might be, a dream most of them don't even like--with good reason, since it involves destroying whatever integrity they have spent a lifetime building.  I am telling them to close their eyes and jump off a cliff, in hopes that something good results.  Even as a very young man, I knew I could not offer this challenge with integrity unless I was willing to make that leap myself.  I knew I had to lay myself open to the possibility that God might not exist the way I thought he did, that he might not want from me the things I thought he wanted, etc.  I had to be willing to put myself through the same rigor I demanded from them.  I had to face my own doubts (referenced above) honestly.  No hiding behind some prophet's skirts for me.  I was the one standing in people's doorways, offering them the gospel.  If I was not willing to take it myself, then I had no business dishing it out.

In sum, then, my Mormon mission taught me (1) that I had a moral duty to test my faith the way I invited investigators to test theirs; (2) that I hate marketing more than death; (3) that I am a terrible marketer, in part because I care more about how people use products than about what particular products they use.  Being good for me is a matter of personal moral integrity, not affiliation with some group (any group anywhere: it does not matter, until membership in the group requires you to sacrifice your integrity; at that point, you have a moral duty to disaffiliate, it seems to me).  These lessons I am not sorry to have learned.  I think they have made me a better person--and unfortunately a worse Mormon, from the perspective of many faithful Latter-day Saints.       

1 comment:

  1. For those who care to know such things: the mission in which I served no longer exists, having been closed down and subsumed into other missions (with headquarters in Madrid and Barcelona, I think). I think back to all the overblown rhetoric we heard in zone meetings about northern Spain being on the cusp of mass conversion, and I laugh. What nonsense.