Here is my 2nd post in my #MormonPositive series.
So, to recap I’m writing about ways in which my life is either harder or more stressful because I’m Mormon, but illustrating how that difficult issue and/or stressful event made me a better person. I guess I have to discuss my absolute most stressful time ever as a Mormon: the 8 weeks I spent in the MTC.
Many people speak with fondness of their time in the MTC (Missionary Training Center), they talk about how it was the first time in their lives that they were able to focus on their spiritual selves and the first time that the various truths they had learned about the gospel finally coalesced into a unified testimony of the restoration. However, for me the MTC marked a time of extreme anxiety and internal turmoil.
Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT
I had reported to the MTC expecting the time of my life. I was one of those LDS kids that had sung “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” with gusto, because I meant it! Sometimes when I was home alone I would watch the old “Called to Serve” VHS and think about how that would be me someday. I lived a life worthy to become a missionary (and very much by choice, not accident nor lack of opportunity). Yet, my arrival to the MTC was filled with voices telling me that I wasn’t good enough, and due to an inherent problem within me that I had not yet overcome, I believed them.
I put the blame for my stress at the MTC on three people: the first counselor in my MTC branch presidency, one of our language teachers, and myself.
The first one was a seminary teacher from somewhere in Utah County, so our branch president delegated most of the presidency instruction to him. Right from the get-go he was very open with his opinion that young adults were not the best way to preach the gospel to the world, but because this was the way the Lord said to do it right now, he was going to do everything in his power to get us ready. He openly said that if the Church was serious about increasing convert baptisms they would shift focus from sending out young adults and start sending out more senior couples. He openly called us lazy, unprepared, unworthy, unfocused, and undeserving of our calling. The interesting thing is that I knew his whole opinion about the missionary program was incorrect because I had a family friend who was transitioning from the roll of mission president into general authority while I was preparing for the MTC, and I had personally heard him bemoan the fact that senior couples in the Church are extremely hesitant to serve missions. But, while there in the MTC under this man’s influence, I unfortunately allowed myself to believe this member of our branch presidency regarding my personal worthiness to serve a mission.
The second one, one of our language teachers, had just returned from his mission to the Philippines and was hired by the MTC to teach Cebuano. I’ll give him this, he learned the language beyond what most consider possible for a Westerner, let alone as a proselyting missionary. In my opinion though, his unique ability to learn this language filled him with a level of arrogance unbecoming of a priesthood holder. He was hired about a week after I reported to the MTC and he substituted and observed my class for about 3 weeks until the next batch of Philippines-bound missionaries arrived. I was happy to be rid of his daily presence, but unfortunately not his influence. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that the Philippines was a blessed land (which I agree with) and that he was disgusted and disturbed that the Church headquarters would have called a group of so unprepared and unacceptable missionaries to be sent there. When a missionary in one of the Tagalog classes got reassigned to an English speaking mission after he’d had some difficulty, this teacher openly asked if our whole class ought to have the same fate when we mis-conjugated a verb he was teaching us.
And then there was me. At that time in my life I believed pretty much anything anyone said about me. The sad thing about this is that my own stake president, minutes before setting me apart as a missionary warned me that this was a weakness of mine, and that it would be a serious challenge for me, particularly while I was in the MTC. Today, I understand this problem through the psychological theory of Locus of Control, which in brief says that people either define themselves through internal beliefs or external influences. For much of my childhood, especially during the years that I was bullied, I defined myself and my self-efficacy through external voices. When voices the voices that were critical of me (bullies & some teachers) outnumbered the voices that spoke positive of me (my parents, different teachers, a Sunday school teacher) I had difficult times. If the positive voices got louder, I would feel better. Currently, I know that the healthiest thing is to self-evaluate myself and my self-efficacy so I don’t get into a shame spiral when criticized. That was a long and hard lesson, but the foundation for me to learn that also came during my time at the MTC.
The voices telling me that I wasn’t worthy to me a missionary were rather loud, but I kept myself tied to my determination to be a missionary. Fortunately, a much more influential figure came into my life and helped me silence those critical voices. One of our Tuesday Devotional speakers while I was in the MTC was Elder M. Russell Ballard. He came and gave a wonderful lesson on the gathering of Israel and of foreordination. It was a great talk, but it wasn’t the talk that left an impression on me.
Elder M. Russell Ballard
Prior to Elder Ballard’s arrival, I had been in the auditorium early to participate in the MTC choir. Once we had finished our rehearsal the rest of the elders, sisters, and MTC leadership began to arrive. The MTC is organized into branches and the branches into districts. One of the district presidents had been selected to conduct the meeting. By this point, I had gotten used to the MTC devotional routine of the conductor standing up a few times as people filed in and asking everyone to take their seats quickly so we could begin. Once everyone was finally seated the speaker and his/her party would then be the last to enter and sit on the stand. This district president though, called us to order well before people had started coming in, basically while just the choir was in the room. He read a prepared statement that read something like this: “Elder Ballard has another obligation following the conclusion of his remarks here. At the conclusion of the closing prayer, REMAIN IN YOUR SEATS until he has left the auditorium. DO NOT approach the stand expecting to meet Elder Ballard or shake his hand as he needs to leave IMMEDIATELY.” As he read those words, which as just words were harmless enough, his tone created a message of derision or contempt. The emphasis he placed on the commandments in the statement were in the same tone that a drill sergeant would use with a belligerent soldier, or a warden with a difficult prisoner. I felt disrespected, and I felt as though I had one more person who didn’t respect the choice I had willingly made to become a missionary. My ill feelings towards this man increased every 2-3 minutes as he stood up and repeated the statement as more and more people came into the room, each time the tone harsher and the statement given louder. It didn’t bother me that much that Elder Ballard had to leave and we wouldn’t be able to shake his hand, but the tone of this man telling us that bothered me a great deal.
Eventually the meeting began, and as I said before Elder Ballard’s talk was wonderful. I was lifted and filled with positive emotion. Little did I know how quickly that could all be undone. The same district president who had opened the meeting stood to announce the concluding hymn and prayer, and then before we got to those he started reading the announcement about Elder Ballard leaving early again. (As a note, since Elder Ballard had been the last one to enter the auditorium, this was the first time he heard this district president read this statement.) The harsh tone was identical to the one that had preceded the meeting, and immediately the warm feeling within me retreated and I felt my anger return. I remember looking down at the floor because I couldn’t stand both looking and listening to this man. Then, as I was looking at the floor, something interesting happened, the harsh voice of the district president stopped mid-sentence and was replaced by Elder Ballard’s calm and reassuring voice. I immediately looked up. To the best of my memory, this is what Elder Ballard said, “Elders and Sisters, I know that typically propriety does not require me to disclose why I would need to leave early following a meeting, but since you are my fellow servants in full-time service to the Lord, I feel I owe you an explanation.” He then continued and told us about a sick relative who lived nearby and that this evening was the only opportunity he would have to visit this person. He asked us to forgive him for giving time that he would normally give to us to this sick individual. Of course I forgave him, he called me a “fellow servant.” At no time while at the MTC had I felt as respected or cared for. From over 100 feet away and with over a dozen rows of people in between us, an Apostle of the Lord spoke directly to me. I’m sure that other people in that room needed that same message, but I know that the ill feelings in my heart towards that district president were part of the reason Elder Ballard was prompted to stand and break from propriety.
After that, those two people who had been such tormentors to my soul didn’t bother me as much in my remaining weeks. I knew why I was in the MTC. I knew that they were not witnesses to the work I was doing outside of their purview, I knew they couldn’t see the motivations in my heart, and that the motivations of my heart were pure. I had had and Apostle call me a “fellow servant” and certainly his opinion was worth far more than that of a prideful language teacher or a grumpy old seminary teacher.
It took me several more years to learn to always look back within my heart when faced with criticism and to not internalize the critiques of those not worthy to critique me. One of the people who helped me learn that and built on the foundation Elder Ballard had laid I met in the days following my departure from the MTC. He was my mission president. I remember knowing within seconds of meeting that jovial, loving man that despite my challenges in the MTC, I was right where I needed to be.