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The Day I Found Out I Was a Jerk

June 27, 2013

Elder Bliss, how do you think the past 3 weeks have gone?

Pretty good, I think.

What do you think of the other people in your district?

Oh, they’re all great.

How do you think they feel about you?

Ah. . .

The look on his face told me that whatever I answered, I was probably going to be wrong.

They hate you.

What? Why?

Because you’re being a jerk.

Really? How?

He went on to explain in kind but clear terms how I had completely alienated everyone that I was working with. It was one of the worst days of my life. I had no idea.

I was 19 years old and at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah learning American Sign Language and how to be a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons.

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My biggest problem was that socially I apparently had zero skills. I realized that I constantly demanded to be the center of attention. I seemed to always assume I was the smartest person in the room. At one point, we were learning the sign for headlights. You put both hands in front of you with your hands in fists. Then, you open your hands to form the shape of two headlights.

Some people in the room weren’t getting it. I, of course, either already knew it, or understood it immediately, it didn’t really matter.

Here, let me try it.

The instructor was too shocked to really say anything as I took over his class. (My fellow students still didn’t get it, and I viewed that as one more example of how superior I was.)

I wasn’t intentionally trying to be obnoxious. It might have been better if I were. Unfortunately, I was one of those “natural” jerks, who don’t really have to work at it.

Elder McGhee, the instructor who pulled me aside that day, saw something that no one else did. He saw a frightened young man, desperate to prove he belonged. He saw someone worth spending some time on. He was probably only four or five years older than I was, but in terms of experience he was an adult and I was a child.

What do you suggest I do?

I don’t know that there’s really anything you can do. I just wanted to let you know because I knew you’d probably prefer hearing it from me than from one of the other missionaries.

I really appreciate it. . .I’m going to change.

Elder Bliss, no one can change that much.

We had another five weeks at the MTC before we headed out to various locations around the United States. I’ve always been a doer. Now that I recognized the problem, I put together a plan for fixing it.

First, I apologized to everyone. Then, I quit talking. . .literally. I decided that I would practice sign language 24 hours per day. Now, you can be just as obnoxious using sign language as you can using English, or just your actions can be annoying. So, I also looked at how I was treating others.

I acknowledged that I didn’t know sign language nearly as well as I thought I did, and there were other people who were willing to teach me if I’d just let them. I became a very attentive student.

Missionaries are housed in dormitories, and eat in a common cafeteria. You are literally with your fellow missionaries 24 hours per day. I started asking the other missionaries about themselves. . .and I really listened. I only told about my own background if someone asked. Otherwise, I shut up about it.

There were twelve missionaries in our group who were learning sign language. I did the math. That meant that in a 60 minute hour, I shouldn’t be talking more than about 5 minutes. That was hard.

I also looked for opportunities to help others. Not in the obnoxious “let me take over for the teacher” kind of way, but as missionaries we were doing language study, and scripture study, and LOTS of memorization. I made sure they knew that I was always available to be a willing audience if they needed to practice.

For five weeks I did that. . .and I never once asked “How am I doing on not being a jerk?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Finally, the day arrived for us to head out “into the field.” Elder McGhee pulled me aside on our last day.

Elder Bliss, I’m surprised.

Oh?

I told you I didn’t think anyone could change that much. I was wrong.

I appreciate you making the effort to help me.

I helped you learn ASL. The relationship stuff you fixed on your own. There’s a group of 4 of you going to Chicago. I’ve suggested that you be the travel leader. Your fellow missionaries agree.

I often wonder what my life would have turned out like if Elder McGhee hadn’t pulled me aside that day. Would I have figured it out on my own? How many years would I have wasted being a jerk before I finally clued in?

I’m glad I didn’t need to find out.

Rodney Bliss is a blogger, author and computer consultant. He’s still fluent in American Sign Language and lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and 13 children.

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8 Comments
  1. Ken Clark permalink

    Thank you for sharing Rodney đŸ™‚
    And, congrats on theg new position!

    • Thanks, Ken. I’m constantly amazed that people find some value in hearing these stories. Invariably the ones where I’m making some mistake, or talking about some weakness as I do here, are by far the most popular.

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