It’s been eleven years now since I learned that lesson. I was living in Michigan, serving as a missionary. For those unfamiliar with Mormon-dom, let me tell you about those fellows who wear white shirts, ties, and black name tags. The pair of them must be within eye sight of one another 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The only break they get from one another is the occasional “trade-off” where they switch companions for a day.
And did I mention you don’t get to choose your companion?
And it can last anywhere from six weeks to six months (and sometimes more).
Sometimes those weeks or months are hell. You begin to hate the way he chews his food or how his voice inflection always lilts in this singsong way at the end of a prayer.
Onward and upwards, servants of God, and all that jazz.
In 2004, I was assigned to serve with a fellow (we’ll call him Elder Pratt) that…er…well…he kinda hated me. I had no idea why, really. How can you not like the D-man???
But Elder Pratt didn’t like me at all and he wasn’t afraid to show it. I’d be eating breakfast, he’d walk by and just shake his head and tighten his jaw. We’d get in the car and he’d fold his arms across his chest and shake his head. We’d bike to an appointment and he’d bolt a half mile in front of me and when I finally caught up, he’d yell at me for going so slow before bolting off again.
His only words were angry silence or loud clips of frustrated demands.
What was wrong with this guy??
I had no idea. Really. Hadn’t a clue. I’d ask him and he’d either ignore me, or say in clipped words, “nothing,” or “none of your business.”
I started to get annoyed. Then I started to get angry. Problem was, this guy was biiiiiig and had a wicked temper. I knew, if I lost my cool, I might also lose my head.
So I silently endured. And enduuuuuuuured.
My anger turned to dejection. How could I possibly endure another several weeks of this treatment.
Then the insight came. I was kneeling in prayer, seeking answers and the solution came to me:
tell him you’re sorry
What? What the heck did I do wrong? He needs to say sorry to me!
tell him you’re sorry
I don’t even know what I did! How can I say sorry for–
tell him you’re sorry
But, but, but, but…
I still remember the night. It was dark outside and the air was cool. We drove in the country roads of Michigan without the assistance of a single street light. My six week therapy of the silent treatment continued. Knowing what I had to do, I finally opened my mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He said nothing.
“I know you’ve been going through a rough time and I haven’t been the best of companions for you. And I’m sorry for that, man.”
Something changed. I don’t know what cued me in. Maybe a tangible change in the atmosphere or something, but the anger melted from him in an instant.
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve been a jerk. And to tell you the truth, you’ve been the best companion I’ve had.”
For the next ten minutes, he told me what he appreciated about me.
And all the while, I thought, “what the…??????”
Where did this nice guy come from?
Wanna know? I dropped the ball and stole his ammo.
An argument is like a game of catch. When one person gets mad, they lob a mild insult or a gruff tone or a silent treatment. When their partner catches the ball, what do they do? They get mad! So they throw it back, but a little bit harder.
And guess what? What does that person do next? They catch the ball, get a little more angry, and shout, scream, hurl insults, or do something else offensive.
And this continues until somebody gets hurt.
But what if, instead of catching the ball and throwing it back, what if we stepped aside and let the ball pass.
We took their ammo!
Sure, they might have more balls to throw, but eventually, they’re going to run out.
And that’s exactly what happened with Elder Pratt. He threw ball after ball and, in my own way, I threw it back.
Until that day when I let it pass. And I let it pass by being humble and meek.
It’s kinda hard to stay mad at someone who is meek. In fact, you feel kinda dumb for having gotten mad in the first place, don’t you?
At least my companion did.
Of all the lessons I learned as a missionary, this is perhaps the one that has served me best. Amber (my wife) is, perhaps, the sweetest bit of sunshine this side of the solar system. She rarely gets angry at me, and when she does, she never lashes out. But she throws ammunition in her own way. (Usually through a frank discussion of what she perceives I’ve done wrong). And my natural reaction is to prepare the soldiers for an all-out attack.
But time and time again, I remember Elder Pratt.
Granted, sometimes my “I’m sorry” really means, “Can we get this discussion over with yet? Can we please just stop talking so I can go to bed? Fine! I’ll say I’m sorry, but I’m really not but I want to be done with this.”
Interesting how humans have a hypersensitive sincerity detector. A passive-aggressive sorry won’t cut it. But a sincere, humble, meek apology will.
And sometimes, that’s really hard to do. How can you possibly say sorry when every atom in your anatomy screams don’t back down! You can’t let her win! You can’t allow this injustice to continue. Be a man! Be the boss! Your dignity, nay, your honor is at stake!
But here’s the thing–I love my wife. I love my friends. I love my family. I relish peace and I despise that unsettling feeling of having a rift between myself and someone else. And if the expense (or the investment) required is my pride…
I can pay that. Time and time again, I’ll pay that if it means I can have peace.