As a business owner, holding on to your conviction can be tough. For a nun departing from the ancient ways, it may be even tougher.
In one compelling scene in the new film The Letters, directed by William Riead, a twenty-something Mother Teresa is pictured stooping over the festering body of a middle-aged man. She’s informed by the attending doctor that this man is so sick, his own family can’t take care of him.
Here, roughly 40 minutes into the movie, Mother Teresa breaks face for the first time by coughing indelicately into a handkerchief.
There are few moments in The Letters where the much-lauded Nobel Peace laureate, played by British actress Juliet Stevenson, departs from her legend: A woman full compassion and steeled to the hardships of those around her. Still, scenes like the one above show that keeping up the persona is far more difficult than it appears.
The Letters is uncompromising in its positive view of Mother Teresa, born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia. The film doesn’t touch on issues such as her controversial opposition to abortion or the use of birth control, acts which the real-life Teresa decried as a rejection of Jesus and the “greatest destroyer of peace,” in her 1979 Nobel lecture.
The film is framed as a retrospective, in which a Vatican priest, tasked with learning more about Mother Teresa’s life and legacy, uncovers the letters she wrote to her spiritual advisor, Father Celeste van Exem, over the course of nearly 50 years.
These letters reveal that Mother Teresa suffered from depression, and that she believed that God had abandoned her. The dichotomy between what she felt, and how she appeared to the rest of the world, will certainly register with entrepreneurs, who similarly put up fronts while growing new ventures to scale.
Here are three lessons from the film, which opens Dec. 4, that will help leaders deal with adversity in the modern workplace:
1. Be prepared for rejection.
At the early stages of growing a company, you might think that it’s easy to attract customers.
Mother Teresa was firm in her belief that it was her calling to help the “poorest of the poor.” She was, as the film suggests, ill-prepared for the reality that the poorest of the poor didn’t necessarily want her there.
In the film, the residents of the Calcutta slums grow convinced that “this white, Christian woman” was only interested in converting them to her religion.
Mother Teresa persists in her attempts to win over the poor families, not with words, but with action. She begins to teach a handful of children how to read, etching out the A, B, C’s onto a piece of dusty stone in the street. Over time, as she shows the Indians that she isn’t interested in forcing them to believe in God — but rather in helping them to live — they begin to warm.
As a business owner, it may behoove you to focus less on your marketing, or the language that you use to couch your product. Instead, focus on your broader goals.
2. Not all relationships will benefit you.
Your best friends are not necessarily going to be supportive of your decision to start a company. Mother Teresa faced considerable opposition from her fellow nuns, as well as delays on the part of the Vatican.
All said, Mother Teresa left a very comfortable life. She served as the principal of a private gir’s school at the Loreto convent in Calcutta. When she elects to help the poor instead, the Mother General of the convent works hard to prevent her from succeeding, because she views her to be upending the traditions of Catholicism.
All leaders will come across adversaries. It’s important to learn early on who your enemies are, and who it is you can actually trust.
3. Find a mentor.
Mother Teresa benefited from having a spiritual mentor, the Father Celeste van Exam, to whom she could express her despair in writing: “How long will my heart suffer?” she asks in one letter.
The letters make clear that Mother Teresa was desperately lonely. In one scene, she receives word that the Albanian government had refused her mother and sister passage to India to visit her — family members whom she hadn’t seen for as many as 28 years.
It’s important to find peers who support your mission, even and especially when you can’t. It helps when that person is removed from your startup, and can provide a fresh, outsider’s perspective.