Yesterday I had a Facebook exchange with an old friend about the political situation in Ukraine. I shared my political convictions and values and applied them to the situation as I saw it. My friend was adamantly opposed to my take on things, and I reacted more harshly (and snarkily) than was warranted. From there, the conversation devolved into my friend saying I was self-righteous and ignorant. Needless to say, it was not a positive exchange, and when I realized that my next responses might possibly contain profanity and insults, I stopped responding.
This morning, however, I read the following post from my friend Seth Payne–who coincidentally also completely disagreed with my opinions on Ukraine–and it made me think about yesterday’s exchange and my behavior.
Advice for LDS Missionaries
It was a good reminder for me that, when challenged, even in a very personal way, it’s best to listen to what other people are saying, take time to investigate what they’re saying, and learn from the disagreement, no matter whether you agree with their position or not.
One thing I have learned over the years is that when people express their opinions to you, they are usually sincere. I particularly liked this section of Seth’s essay:
When you hear something unfamiliar or perhaps even something that conflicts with what a seminary or Sunday School teacher may have taught you take the time to ask questions rather than assume what is being stated is incorrect or false. Always remember that as a missionary you have not been trained as a Mormon historian or sociologist. You have been encouraged to be a representative of Christ and part being that representative is displaying humility. Unless you have been accosted by one of those General Conference protesters it is usually best to assume that a person with a different viewpoint or information you may not be familiar with is not out to attack you or your faith. Just as you want people to treat you with respect and give you a fair hearing, so to should you be willing to hear and discuss different ideas without accusing others of unstated motives.
I am often guilty of assigning motivations to others, particularly when I think other people are being unkind or unfair, but I think it’s the lack of humility that is the problem for me. It is pride that drives me often to believe that I am unassailably right and my “opponent” is wrong. When I am directly contradicted, I often tend not to listen but instead react defensively and sometimes with hostility. And, sad to say, I often come across as self-righteous.
Seth reminds me of a better approach:
You are going to be asked difficult and unfamiliar questions. Be prepared to be surprised. Learning and being challenged is one of the great things about being a young LDS missionary. Take full advantage of this unique opportunity.
Yes, a mission is a unique opportunity, but the rest of our lives we are going to be faced with difficult and unfamiliar questions, and life often presents us with surprises, sometimes devastating ones. You would think someone my age would have figured out how to deal with differing ideas, perspectives, and beliefs, but maybe I am still learning.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Jerry Seinfeld once described relationships as being like fish swimming upstream: the moment you stop working at it, you’re left with a dead fish. Learning is like that, too: once you stop learning and growing and changing, you are just waiting to die.
If life involves constant learning and growing, then obviously we have to acknowledge we don’t know everything. I’m not sure why that is such a hard thing for many of us to admit, especially for me. Here’s Seth again:
You shouldn’t expect yourself to know the answer to every doctoral or historical question. When you don’t know something or when something is unfamiliar it is always best to acknowledge your ignorance but promise to follow-up once you have had a chance to look into the question. Talk to other missionaries and your mission president. Ask questions in your letters home. Commit yourself to learn and view each unfamiliar question as an opportunity for growth.
Those around you will respect your humility and honesty.
I am grateful to those who offer to help me learn and grow, though I am sometimes too stubborn to accept their help. It’s much easier to try to find backup and support from others for my point of view than it is to simply acknowledge that I don’t know everything. There are only a few people I know who adamantly disagree with me but whom I know I can trust when I ask questions or want to learn. Generally speaking, these people have shown me their good intentions and kindness, and I know they aren’t trying to attack or hurt me. Of course, it takes much more confidence to be willing to learn from people I don’t trust, and sad to say, I don’t have that kind of confidence most of the time.
Finally, Seth reminds me of what matters:
Christians are not to be judged solely by their words but rather, by the love they show for others (see the entire Book of John ). People will always be more impressed by your example than by your words. Be kind and generous. Always look for opportunities to serve those around you. Allow others to see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has worked for good in your life.
Your mission is an opportunity for tremendous spiritual growth. As you look back on your mission experiences it will be those moments of kindness (both given and received) as well as the service rendered to others that you will remember most. If you are anything like me you will remember the “bible bashing” sessions or arguments but they will all run together as ultimately unimportant. You will, however, remember those whom you served and those who served you in great detail and with fondness.
That is absolutely true. What we remember is love, service, kindness to each other, not disagreements, not fights, not who “won.” The only “Bible Bash” I was ever involved in on my mission occurred about 3 weeks after I arrived in Bolivia, and I remember it only because I learned so much from my companion. The man we were visiting was stubborn, sharp with his words, and completely certain that he was on God’s side and we were in the devil’s employ. I got very defensive and upset, having never been raked across the coals like that about my beliefs. My companion, on the other hand, just smiled, listened, asked a few questions, and then suggested we bear our testimonies and leave. “He was a funny little man,” was all my companion said about it afterward.
I’m not sure why I let that lesson from my mission fade away and picked up the “bashing” club in the last few years. Maybe I needed to be right, to come out on top, because I felt I had been spectacularly, humiliatingly wrong in the past. Or, most likely, it was just pride.
Looking back on my days as an amateur Mormon apologist, what I remember is the friendships I have made. Once, for example, I reached out to someone who was as hostile and disrespectful to Mormonism as anyone I had ever met, and as we came to understand each other, we became fast friends and still are today. At the same time I met my friend Ray, who has called me everything from a Nazi to worse and has been as critical of me as an ex-Mormon as he was when I was a believer. I love Ray like a brother and always will; that’s what I remember, not our disagreements and sometimes hurtful comments to each other. I cherish the friendship, and I’m ashamed of the unkind things I’ve said to him.
Yes, I understand that there are people who genuinely wish me ill, but they come and go. They aren’t important, and it’s not worth my time to argue with them or get defensive. But as Seth reminded me, I can learn from them if I am patient, humble, and kind.
I’m working on it. (And I apologize, Hellmut.)