Missions, art, and surveillance

September 11, 2008 | 23 comments
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One unique aspect of the missionary experience, quite distinct from life before and after, is the feeling that someone is always watching you. It’s probably the one aspect of my mission that I could have done without, although I wouldn’t say that it was entirely unproductive.

I’m not talking about the requirement to turn in weekly reports about my efforts and their effectiveness. Reducing the rarified and inexpressible essence of human and spiritual interaction down to a number that can be charted, graphed, and manipulated is pretty much the nature of life for everyone over age 18 or so. No, I’m talking about those mornings when your companion is hanging up on a quick call to the mission office as you get out of the shower, or letters to the president from the other guy in your apartment that focus on your own failings, or interviews about how well you and the people you know are following mission rules, and friends who report afterwards, sheepishly, that they blabbed more than they meant to. The late phone call, the mail gone missing, the unexpected knock at the door.

Once, during a grad school seminar on East German literature, the professor told us that we, not having lived under a totalitarian system like the DDR, could hardly understand what it was like for the people at that time. Why, there were East Germans who even denounced themselves to the secret police! Who could imagine such a thing?

Well, me, for one, as I had, in fact, once denounced myself to my mission president. If a sympathetic reading of East German literature is important to you, serving a mission can work wonders.

Now hold on just one minute—isn’t it grotesque to compare missionary service to being a captive of a totalitarian regime? Missions don’t have walls and guard towers and barbed wire surrounding them. There were no Young Pioneers, no Black Sea holidays in socialist brother lands, no Trabis… You get the picture. Life in the former East Germany was nothing like life as a Mormon missionary, and the very comparison is in poor taste, and I am in no way comparing two utterly unlike things.

Except that, you know, I really am comparing them, because the comparison might just have something to it. Missionaries are kind of like those devoted socialists who only wanted their workers’ paradise to better conform to their ideas of Marx and Lenin, and whose greatest fear was to be forcibly expelled from their socialist not-quite-Paradise, like the penalty imposed on singer and songwriter Wolf Biermann thirty years ago. I met a lot of missionaries, including some real choice specimens of the human species, but I never met any who wanted to flee from their mission (probably because there wasn’t actually anything stopping them if they wanted to).

Besides, I was not the one who started the absurd comparisons. Fairly early in my mission I heard about omerta, the mafia’s code of silence, but in this case applied to missionaries who didn’t tell all. Towards the end of my mission was the zone conference where the definition of sons of perdition was broadened to include missionaries who slept late. One exaggerated comparison deserves another, don’t you think?

And a little bit of surveillance is not entirely a bad thing if you want to romanticize entirely mundane acts into daring escapades and blows struck for freedom. In a region inhabited by 20 million people, there were less than 200 who cared that I was not, at some moment, within my district boundaries—and I could successfully evade every one of them! Hooray. (Trust me, it was pretty exhilarating at the time.)

In fact, I was temperamentally well suited as a missionary to dealing with surveillance culture. If some mission leader might want to check my weekly planner, or my memorization of the discussions, then my planner would be filled out and the relevant texts would be memorized. No, the hard part for me, the parts of my mission I could really have done without, were the brushes with surveillance closer to home. I could have done without the loose-lipped roommate. I could have done without the angelic companion (silent notes keeping, and then sending those notes on to the mission office). I can’t say that the relevant policies didn’t make the mission as a whole happier and more effective (I have no idea if they did or didn’t), and I can’t even say that I didn’t learn anything from those experiences; intense anger, and betrayal, and the kind of persistent unhappiness that sabotages your health were all new emotions for me when I was twenty and twenty-one.

George Packer has observed that “national cinemas often become great just as dictatorships loosen up or fall.” Perhaps we might postulate something similar on an individual scale for Mormon art. If, as Packer says, dictatorships make artistic creation impossible by restricting it, and freedom makes art trivial, then perhaps the tension between mission rules and the release into freedom will continue driving Mormon artistic creation for some time to come.

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23 Responses to Missions, art, and surveillance

  1. Matt Evans on September 11, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Great post, Jonathan, and a fun read.

    Except that I was never asked to report on the behavior of my companions. Is the difference due to our mission presidents, or a cross-mission policy change? I was in Spain, 1992-94.

    We were required to submit weekly reports about our work and progress, but were never asked to report on our companion’s behavior or quirks, though I suppose some may have used the weekly letter to gripe about their companion, and that similar issues arose in interviews with the mission president. I’d have assumed, however, that my president would think less of someone who tattled on their comp. Assigning blame for a team failure is a double-edged sword few handle safely.

  2. Hunter on September 11, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Yeah, I remember my mission president saying, “No one likes a tattle tale.”

    But I know what feeling Jonathan Green is describing. I felt it on occasion from the members. I once had a member quietly chew me out because I had used the phrase, “We believe” when explaining our beliefs during a radio interview. She had been listening to the interview and felt like we should have said, “We know” at every turn. I didn’t like that feeling that I was maybe being judged by the members.

  3. Lon on September 11, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    I have to agree with #1. When I was serving my mission, my MP never asked me about a companion (unless there was a previous discussion with the MP, the companion & I in which the specific details of what would be reported were laid out).[1] I would guess that some missionaries took it upon themselves to report on companions since I recall at least one mission conference where the MP told us it was not our job to tattle on our companion. We were all assumed to be adults and he would ask each of us about our behavior directly. He was pretty clear that he didn’t want to be in the position of secret service police chief.

    I *thought* you were going to talk about constantly being watched by the ‘native’ population. Missionaries, in some parts of the world – including the US, just stand out in the crowd. Everywhere you go, you’ve got the badge on. You are dressing in a manner highly unusual for twenty year-olds and frequently travel in equally odd ways. I distinctly remember tracting neighborhoods and watching kids run house to house ahead of us, alerting the occupants that we were coming. More than once, sparking five or six adults to come rushing out, climbing into vehicles, and departing post-haste. I’ve been told that I should just leave the streets since person A has already called everyone and ‘warned’ them we were there to drag them off to SLC or Hell.

    That would have made the mission a much harder experience, and it was tough enough as it was, to constantly be watching your back like that.

    [1] I had a couple of companions with specific health issues. I was asked to look out for certain things to make sure the companions were not pushing themselves so far they would hurt themselves. In today’s ‘Raise the Bar” mission world, they likely would never have been sent, a fact that makes me both happy and sad.

  4. Matt W. on September 11, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    My mission didn’t have phones, so I can’t really relate. Even still, there was a certain feeling of independence and aloofness in the philippines. The only time things got reported were fights where the bruises were unhidden or when someone crossed the line with a person of the opposite sex. I had a companion who got up late and did his hair for about an hour every morning, but It was just up to the two of us to work it out, and we did (I let him do whatever he wanted and I was the only companion he had to that point which he didn’t punch in the face) Further, people would report stuff to the mission president, and he’d just shrug it off and encourage people to work it out themselves. I think this is dependent on the MP mainly. Mine was awesome. (From telling me “Rules were meant to be broken sometimes” to telling the missionaries that since he was bald he wouldn’t be enforcing any rules regarding haircuts he couldn’t keep (this was when the part law came out))

    As for Art, I have never felt restricted artistically by my religion. At Indiana University we had a large group of LDS musicians and a small contingent of Visual arts people, and so far as I know, none ever had issues with feeling censored. Of course, none of our specialities were nudes or anything, mind you. I guess it just depends on the place and the people.

  5. Sarah on September 11, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    That mission sounds pretty creepy to me, Jonathan. Letters gone missing? For crying out loud.

    It does sound oddly Soviet, though. I suspect you wouldn’t have been sent into internal exile for writing jokes about your mission president’s moustache. Then again, what would “internal exile” even look like for a missionary?

    For our local missionaries, the biggest problem usually comes down to rules which make no sense at all — e.g., missionaries cannot be served dinner at the homes of members after 5pm or in the absence of an adult male… and I doubt that one out of 100 member families in the district manages to have an adult male home before 5pm on any day other than Saturday. This is usually coupled with occasional rebukes about how we collectively fail to feed the missionaries, and/or fail to have them over to meet our neighbors/friends.

    Personally I’ve decided this is just to ensure that the missionaries don’t miss out on two years of critical training in enduring mind-bogglingly irrational irony — a rite of passage in our modern culture.

    (the only time I feel like I’m under surveillance is when I think about dropping in at Kroger on a Sunday afternoon… it sometimes seems like the entire population of 16-20 year olds in our stake work there, and they all have the “after church” shift; some of them bring their uniforms to change into after Sunday School.)

  6. mmiles on September 11, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    I often felt watched too as a missionary, but not so much by other missionaries as by government–and then there was the phone tapping.

  7. Jonathan Green on September 11, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Ah, well. Like I’ve long said, it’s all but impossible to identify a common mission experience. I thought maybe more people would have had similar experiences, but I guess not. What Matt Evans suggests is certainly true, that different mission leaders can have entirely different policies and procedures for any number of things.

    I do think there’s a difference between members’ and local citizens’ scrutiny of the missionaries, and the unusual situation where one can’t escape observation by returning home and closing the door. It may not be a pleasant phenomenon, but it’s educational.

  8. Steve on September 11, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Great post. Terryl Givens explores this same theme (though from a different angle in his fantastic work, People of Paradox: a History of Mormon Culture. He argues that much of Mormon cultural expression can be seen as an outgrowth of (I think it’s like) 4 or 5 paradoxes that are at the heart of Mormonism. Among these paradoxes is the disparity between the faith’s embrace of both hierarchical authority and radical freedom.

  9. Brigham Daniels on September 12, 2008 at 12:48 am

    This was really well done and pretty funny. On my mission, one of my missions presidents found out from my companion that some missionaries in my district (I was district leader at the time–the extent of my “leadership” experience as a missionary) has left the district boundaries. The mission president insisted on talking to me. He pressured me to fess up. I resisted. He responded, “Elder Daniels, you need to decide who you serve here: the Lord or Satan.” My former mission president would have never taken that approach, for which I am very grateful. This at least gave me some perspective that differences in personality has a lot to do with the sort of personality the mission takes.

  10. Cicero on September 12, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Attitudes like yours drove me nuts on my mission!

    It seemed like there were always a few missionaries who were obsessed with mission rules- either keeping them or breaking them. The rebel missionaries always talked like they were so cool in striking a blow for liberty by breaking rules and slacking off. While the brown nosers seemed to think the way to advance was by tearing down others over every little thing.

    Didn’t anybody besides me go on a mission to WORK!

    That’s what I cared about. Get the work done, and preach the gospel. If a rule got in the way and the choice was keep the rule or preach the gospel, I’d usually say a quick prayer to check with God, and then broke the rule, (a couple times God told me not to). Once I stayed out till midnight teaching a part member family on a night we report hours- my district leader was furious at me- despite the fact he always broke the rule about being in before 9:30. Why was he mad? because I made him look bad to the Zone Leader.

    I obeyed the rules because that was what I promised to do, (I just figured that my promise to preach the gospel was the higher priority). When other missionaries started rule breaking it was almost always for the fun of it. I just made it clear I wouldn’t participate, and that it was between them and God- until it started interfering with the work. Then I would put my foot down, and yes, I’d report it to the mission president. What do you expect when you drag me off to the beach for Memorial Day, and blow off the barbecue I had set up with our recent convert who wanted to introduce us to his non-member friends. What do you expect when you ditch me at a member’s house for 5 hours? What do you expect when you insist on watching R rated movies at a member’s house instead of going tracting?

    Yet somehow the disobedient missionaries all hated me more than any other missionary, and by the end of my mission I had the reputation of being the strictest “anal” straight arrow missionary ever. Meanwhile the super obedient missionaries didn’t much like me either. Mainly because I’d tell em off when they start chewing people out. I told the AP off once for yelling at missionaries who came to visit the temple without proper clearance. He looked to me for support, and I told him he was out of line.

    The whole thing drove me nuts. The only part of your post I empathize with is this: “I can’t even say that I didn’t learn anything from those experiences; intense anger, and betrayal, and the kind of persistent unhappiness that sabotages your health were all new emotions for me when I was twenty and twenty-one.”

    I won’t say they were new experiences for me. I started learning that life sucks by the third week of pre-school. However, it reached a new level of intensity on my mission. And it was missionaries with attitudes like the one you describe here that did it to me.

  11. Nate W. on September 12, 2008 at 2:23 am

    Wow, Cicero, sour grapes much? I haven’t seen that much pent-up sputtering rage since my old college roommate who didn’t advance as far up along the leadership hierarchy on his mission as he thought he should have done. I’m not trying to psychoanalyze the cause of your anger, but it doesn’t seem healthy. I’d try some yoga and a healthy dose of perspective. After all, these are 20-year-old kids with little wisdom and a lot of pride–self-righteousness is to be expected and shouldn’t inspire rage more than six months after you get home.

  12. Tim on September 12, 2008 at 5:53 am

    In my mission, the fastest way to become ZL was to kiss up to the President. Of course, it never hurt to criticize your companion or other missionaries. Our mission president loved snitches, even if the only thing they had to snitch about was “he doesn’t do things exactly like my trainer did.”
    I remember getting home late (10 pm) from a zone activity so that we could watch general conference at our own ward house the next morning. It was a big event–the satellite had been installed days before. The other six missionaries decided to “follow the rules,” and watched general conference at the distant stake center. Yet, technically, they were the more obedient missionaries because they didn’t stay out late.
    I think being seriously dedicated is more important than being 100% obedient.

  13. Peter LLC on September 12, 2008 at 7:36 am

    I found out on the interwebs six years after my mission that my third-to-last comp considered me his worst companion ever. Since he hadn’t ever taken a photo of me, his web page covering our exploits was completed with a blown up photo of my face chopped from a mission portrait. He does play a string instrument, however, so maybe we can expect great things from him.

  14. Velska on September 12, 2008 at 7:52 am

    This discussion has established pretty well that there are different personalities among Mission Presidents as well as missionaries. I have had experience with a number of Presidents (not always as a full-time missionary), and they all have had different styles of leadership. But no one, not President, AP’s, ZL’s or DL’s have ever asked me about anyone else in connection to rule-keeping or the like.

    But 20-year-old kids can be pretty childish. They can feel the sophomoric urge to break the rules, that are meant to protect them and the Church, just because someone has told them not to. It feels “liberating”, I understand. Perhaps I really don’t understand it, because I was 19 when I was baptized and had really seen the other side – and I did NOT miss it.

    Anyway, a full-time mission pretty much gives you as much as you’re willing to give of yourself. If you go out to serve others and expect to spend your time doing just that, it doesn’t bother you that there’s someone hanging around all the time. Or that you’re not supposed to go to the movies or watch TV whatever. The local members were sometimes tough to get along with for me, because the childishness I mentioned didn’t exactly help them trust the full-time missionaries. I learned that it is very important to earn that trust.

    Anyway, mission is not always easy or fun. I don’t know if one should expect it to be. But in general, if your heart is in it, you can have fun, or something even better when you see that someone finds happiness because of something you helped them find.

  15. Mormon Paleo on September 12, 2008 at 10:05 am

    Fascinating post and comments.

    I sympathize with you, Cicero.

  16. sam on September 12, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Never had the feeling that anyone was watching me on my mission. Never.

    In some areas, it felt like not a soul in the world could see me.

  17. WMP on September 12, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    I also don\’t recall feeling that I was being watched. Then again, I still consider many of the missionaries that I served with (well over ten years ago) to be good friends, so maybe that says something. I suppose I was also confident enough in my MPs (and in their opinion of me) that if the very few companions that I didn\’t generally see eye-to-eye with ever wanted to \”snitch,\” my MP would take it for what it was worth.

    Still, this isn\’t to say that we didn\’t push (or exceed) some limits (the benign type) — my mission was a blast on a number of levels.

  18. Kevin Barney on September 12, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    This gives the movie “The Lives of Others” (great flick, btw) a whole new meaning for me.

    I knew a missionary who kept two journals. His real one he kept well hidden, and then he had a fake one that he left out on the desk. The fake one was a model of working hard all the time and orthodoxy, for the benefit of prying eyes.

  19. Marianne on September 12, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    As a missionary I was more concerned with my own feelings of inadequacy and sinfulness that I didn’t really bother with others (except for one elder who flirted too much with one of my young investigators, but I didn’t report him, I gave him the full righteous-wrath-scold treatment myself). I didn’t feel the burden of surveillance until I came home from the mission and went to BYU. I felt it then. Everyone watching to see what everyone else is doing so they know what they can get away with.

    As for art, I mostly despise “Mormon” art. Too formulaic, too saccharine. My decor is mostly B/W photos I’ve taken myself and things I’ve picked up travelling. Not all is missionary-appropriate, so when the elders wanted to drop by a few months ago I deliberated taking my naked-lady sculptures off the walls, but I settled for moving some plants to block the view instead.

  20. Lupita on September 12, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    There were times when I definitely felt watched on my mission and specific times when I was asked to watch other missionaries for a variety of reasons. We even had one missionary who was officially assigned to be in “charge” of the other sisters, primarily to watch them.
    I experienced more bizarre human encounters on my mission than I ever thought possible. Thanks for reminding me :)

  21. Peter on September 14, 2008 at 12:07 am

    I don’t think I ever felt watched during my missionary service. I suspect this phenomenon varies largely by mission president and by logistics. I was in a Latin American mission with a large geographical area. We generally were on our own, and for the most part, it went okay.

  22. Kathy on September 14, 2008 at 11:39 am

    I never felt like I was under surveillance by other missionaries, but as a missionary in Utah, I did get that feeling from members in the area. And being Utah, there were plenty of them! Usually the ones I got the most \”judgmental\” feeling from were the recently returned missionaries who didn\’t think we were \”doing it right\” because the practices and techniques in our mission were different from theirs.

    Don\’t get me wrong – I loved being a missionary and particularly serving in Utah, and most of the members were great. But we had to be very careful what we did because there were also lots of people watching to make sure we were toeing the line.

    For example, if our P-day was officially changed to a day different from Monday for whatever reason, and we were spotted in our P-day clothes doing laundry on -gasp- Tuesday, the mission president would often get a call reporting our aberrant behavior. If the concerned member had bothered to talk to us directly, of course we would have explained the situation. But it didn\’t usually work that way.

  23. Marianne on September 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Heh, Kathy, I would probably have been one of those judgmental members! When I served my mission was known as one of the strictest in the church–having no way of measuring, it’s hard to say, but it was a thing whispered about with much pride. Not only did we have the white handbook, but we had a supplemental rule book as well (full of all kinds of things like “missionaries must not keep pets in their apartments”). Coming home and seeing those casual American missionaries was tough for me.

    My mother likes to hug the elders and my dad patted a sister on the arm once and I nearly freaked out: “YOU DON’T TOUCH THE MISSIONARIES!” (can’t remember if that was a canonical rule, or just one of those “understood” rules that had come detached from it’s original mooring).