Recurring Nightmare

About a decade after returning from my Mormon mission to Germany in 1970 I began having nightmares—one or two a year—in which I was, inexplicably, required to serve another two years as a missionary. The shock each time was palpable. I always tried to explain (although the responsible party was never present or even evident in any way) that I had done my duty. As the years went on my explanation began to include the fact that I no longer believed Mormon doctrine, that I didn’t even believe in god. All to no avail. I was simply required to serve another mission. I consoled myself, mostly, by noting that since I would be in Bulgaria (or wherever it was) I would at least learn Bulgarian.

Last month I read Craig Harline’s new book Way Lower than the Angels, a sometimes funny but mostly harrowing account of his own mission in Belgium. Craig reports being caught in the three-legged conundrum of (1) knowing he should convert lots of Belgians, (2) seeing that no one was really interested, and (3) believing that if he kept mission rules perfectly, really perfectly!, God would reward him with lots of converts. That circle went round and round, beating the hell out of him psychologically.

Although I wasn’t nearly as rule-obsessed as a missionary, I still recognized plenty of the horror.

And then I had a new dream, one that shifts from nightmare to discovery, a therapeutic nightmare, I think:

I’m in a big city in Turkey. I am a missionary. My companion and I walk from door to door, trying to engage people in religious discussion. They have no patience with us, no interest, and I understand why. For one thing, I don’t understand a word of their language. The task is endless and fruitless.

The scene shifts to the inside of an apartment (how did we get inside? I wonder). While we stand there a man comes in carrying a small child. He sees us and starts to say something. I mumble something about a religious discussion and that sets him off: I’ve got a sick child! Get out! Get out!

We quickly retreat, stopping to think for a moment outside the front door of the building. We stand on the busy street. After a few minutes, the man steps through the door. He speaks English with me and we begin an interesting, non-religious discussion. My companion grows antsy. I tell him this is better than our door-to-door futility.

While we talk, I watch four or five homeless people lounge against the wall of the next building. They look ill and gaunt and perhaps stoned. Children who live in that building torment the defenseless people with stones they shoot from a platform at close range. I wonder how they can do that with such impunity. Why don’t the gaunt people attack them? The fusillade grows intense and the homeless people disappear.

My companion too has disappeared, gone to join other missionaries who continue their tracting while I continue the interesting conversation. I ask the man where to find the city’s best bookstore. I want to buy a Turkish-English dictionary. The conversation ends. I step away from the building as the man goes inside. The old apartment building looks different. I notice for the first time that it is next to a busy harbour, a vibrant scene in which working lights create a beauty that astonishes me. The building, I can now see, is really a remarkable boat crafted out of beautiful dark timbers. I stand admiring its lines and the man reappears with a small bag. He hands it to me. Inside is a Turkish-English dictionary. The first word I look up is FRIEND.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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2 Responses to Recurring Nightmare

  1. davidly says:

    Fascinating retelling. About twelve years ago I was on a journey, on an artistic mission of sorts, and found myself in Brussels for a few months. I didn’t like it there much, didn’t care for the scene, and after a hard time of it I eventually ended up not venturing out much except to go for a walk and see a film now and then.

    One rainy day I was on one such trip when I happened upon a pair who’d happened upon me on the sidewalk. One had the “Elder” badge, the other, whatever the other one says (the trainee?). Years previous I had learned from a friend that it was more fun to engage than to run away or slam the door. So I chose the former.

    After we’d exchanged a few pleasant enquiries as to our whatabouts, it became clear that the newer of the two was actually inspired by my tale about having dropped everything to look for a place to live abroad, and it was just as clear that the elder was uncomfortable with this fact. We said our polite goodbyes and I went on my way.

    A week or so later I encountered the pair at a bus stop. I chatted them up, even made them miss one bus and wait for another. It was a polite conversation, nothing weird of uncomfortable but, again, the elder was less eager to continue our conversation, was only interested in my coming around (to wherever) for a discussion that would suit his purpose or maybe a church service, if I recall correctly. We said our polite goodbyes and they boarded the next bus.

    Another short time later I saw them on the opposite corner of a large intersection. I saw that the elder saw me, but don’t know if he saw me see him see me. At any rate, they hurried away in another direction, quite obviously to avoid me.

    I quite unintentionally turned the tables and scared Mormons away.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      What a nice story. While they would have both been “Elders,” you are right that one would have been the “Senior Companion” and the other the “Junior Companion.” More importantly, as your story bears out, they would have been two individual human beings beyond their name tags and dress and places in the system. Missionaries can easily forget that in their attempts to be good missionaries.
      My son Ben was a missionary in Brussels about the time you were there. He’s now in Rennes doing a two-year post-doc, making good use of his French in a very different context.


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