Get Comfortable with Failure
What? Get comfortable with failure? That might sound like an invitation to be complacent; or an excuse for giving less than one’s best. But sometimes in missionary work, that’s exactly what we need to do. Elder A is a case in point. Elder A grew up rarely experiencing failure. He had the intelligence to get good grades with minimal effort. He was blessed with athletic ability, which usually made him a first choice when sports were involved. His good looks and personality won friends and admirers in most social situations. Yet his mission lasted only a few months due to the overwhelming anxiety he experienced; and the resulting health issues that required an early release. What happened?
For one thing, he experienced failure for the first time in his life. In spite of his best effort, he and his companion had zero promising investigators. Others in his district were teaching; but he and his companion were not. He found his gospel study to be boring and unfulfilling. Try as he might, he was having a difficult time feeling the Spirit. His companion, who was from the local culture, thought of him as a rich, self-absorbed American; and frequently made negative comments to that effect. Not to mention his companion’s unorthodox approach to missionary work, which emphasized a great deal of social time with members. Elder A didn’t see any success in his missionary work, in his personal growth, or in his ability to relate to his companion. At the same time, he knew he was involved in the Lord’s work, and he felt significant pressure to be successful. Always a recipe for anxiety, he was caught needing to do something that he considered very important and doable; but which he was not able to do no matter how hard he tried.
Furthering his discomfort and sense of failure, it seemed like he was the only one failing in this most important assignment. Others in his family, among his friends, and his current missionary associates had experienced what seemed like the success that eluded Elder A. They had wonderful stories of changed lives to tell, spoke of how much they had grown through their service; and they spoke in glowing terms about their general mission experience. Elder A couldn’t help but believe that success as he defined it must be possible. Therefore his failure had to be his fault. And this was failure on a grand scale? His life to this point might have been a success in a lot of relatively meaningless ways; but here was something really important; something many others seemed to be able to do; but he simply couldn’t do it!
The truth is that Elder A was unnecessarily hard on himself. In fact, he saw himself as a failure when he really wasn’t. His expectation of success, not his performance, was the problem. Here are a few ideas that would have helped Elder A see the situation more correctly; thereby reducing anxiety while improving overall health and resilience.
1. Periods when it doesn’t look like much good is coming from one’s efforts are a part of all missions. True, many of those serving and those who return from missions have great stories to tell. But these stories typically summarize experience over a long period of time, with lots of daily grind and seemingly unproductive time along the way. In many cases, the less productive time can last for weeks or months, as in the case of Elder A. Furthermore, Elder A, himself, had powerful stories to tell; they just didn’t happen as often or sometimes as dramatically as he expected.
2. A successful mission needs to be determined on the basis of desire to serve and level of effort; not number of baptisms and lives changed. Desire and effort are within a missionary’s control. The decisions others make are not. As examples, Enoch saved his people through preaching repentance and the gospel of Jesus Christ (Moses 7:69). Noah, likely with equal ability and Spirit, was assigned to do the same thing but failed (Moses 8:19-20). Ammon had great influence on many during his mission (see Alma 17 thru 20). For a period of time, his brother Aaron and companions, with equal commitment and effort, had no success and suffered miserably. Why? Not because of anything personal; but rather because “…it was their lot to have fallen into the hands of a more hardened and a more stiff-necked people; therefore they would not hearken unto their words…” (Alma 20:30). Likewise, Elder A’s “failure” was due to circumstances beyond his control. Recognizing the fact would have helped him endure the negative circumstances.
3. And when judging one’s level of desire and effort, it’s important to be realistic. For one thing, Elder A judged his effort to be lacking largely because he and his companion wasted so much time. This was true, but primarily because of his companion’s decisions; over which he obviously had no control. He could not force his companion to work harder or be more productive. In effect, his effort was as good as his circumstance would allow. Another problem was that Elder A felt guilty because he no longer really wanted to stay on his mission. But the fact is that most anyone would want to quit. It’s not what one feels at that point, but what one does, that defines character. In spite of everything, until his health got so bad that he simply had to quit, Elder A stayed the course for several months. His endurance was even more to his credit because it was under such difficult circumstances. Lastly, Elder A considered himself a failure because he so seldom felt the Spirit. In his case, he had the Spirit with him; but he didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel it because anxiety, worry and concern got in the way of experiencing those feelings. In other words, it wasn’t unworthiness or withdrawal of the Spirit, but competing emotion and distraction that caused him to feel an absence of spiritual influence.
4. The Lord sees value in our service and there is much good that can come from our effort to serve even when the benefits are not obvious. For a detailed discussion of this point, see the Blog entry on this site entitled “Is there value in serving even on a missionary’s worst day ever?” In summary, it would have helped if Elder A had understood the following points:
a. Sometimes there are significant positive outcomes that happen at a time or in a way that cannot be known to the missionary involved.
b. At the end of the day, doing ones’ duty is what really counts with the Lord, not blowing away “the competition” by having a high number of lessons and baptisms each week.
c. Being obedient and serving faithfully when results are meagre proves our discipleship. It demonstrates that we are something more than a “fair weather” follower of the Savior.
d. It’s important to the Lord that everyone have an opportunity to accept the gospel. Therefore, any invitation made counts, even if it is not accepted.
e. Any great accomplishment requires great sacrifice. Sometimes the sacrifice involves patiently persevering in faith when it doesn’t look like we are getting much for our effort.
f. It’s the least we can do for someone who has sacrificed so much for us.
Dr. Gary G. Taylor