Originally published December 28, 2013 on earlyhomecoming.com.
When I came home early from my mission I went through a period of adjustment that perhaps wasn’t too far off of what most returned missionaries go through. I went through a cycle of feelings that ranged from sad to relieved to depressed to happy to guilty. It was a bit of a vicious cycle. I was relieved to be home from my mission, but I felt so guilty for coming home early. I felt like I had let others down, and even worse like I had let Heavenly Father down.
Missions are interesting things. So often we hear in church culture that missions are the best two years of one’s life, or the best years for one’s life–it just depends on who you talk to. For me, two and a half years later looking back, I can’t say either, but I do not look back on my mission with resentment, fear, or guilt anymore. I’m not happy I went on a mission, but I’m not upset about it either. There have been blessings that have come from my service that have taken awhile to see, but those blessings may have come in other ways too. Then again, I’m not sure how I would be friends with anyone in the Philippines right now had it not been for my mission.
One thing in particular that I really struggled with when I came home, and that was how very happy missionaries that had “completed” their missions seemed. Surely, I thought, they had hard times on their missions too. Surely, they had days they didn’t want to be on a mission anymore. And I was probably right. Indeed, the more I have talked to those that completed their missions, the more I realize that what I went through on my mission, apart from the two parasites, was really quite normal. So then why was I “chosen” to come home early instead of someone else? I’m still not sure, but I don’t dwell on that question anymore.
I’m not sure why people hide the hard parts of their missions, never really write home about them, or talk about them. It may be a cultural thing. I certainly remember feeling like I should only write about the happy parts of my mission. I also felt like when I came home I had to lie and say that I loved my mission, or at least say it was a wonderful learning experience (and it was, but the emotional side of my brain always wanted to omit the word “wonderful”). I felt this was especially important when talking to a parent of a son or daughter serving a mission in a third-world country: if I didn’t end my mission story by saying “I loved it,” worry would be etched onto their faces.
I remember when people wanted me to tell stories from my mission and how my mission was really the last thing I wanted to talk about. One time someone told me that I should want to talk about my mission, to inspire others with my story. I was a little on edge that day and I remember curtly telling that person that my mission was not a happy story and quite frankly something that I wanted to forget. That person never asked me to share a mission story again. I’m okay with talking about my mission now, but for that first year after coming home early, it was really hard.
It took me a lot of time to move on–or at least it felt like it did. I guess it’s only been two and a half years since I came home. What I’ve realized in those two and a half years though, is that it’s OKAY if you struggle to have good feelings about your mission. “Mission are hard” as the mantra goes, but no one really knows quite what “hard” means until they get out on a mission and experience it for themselves. I thought missions were only hard when someone you’d been teaching stopped taking the lessons or you go a whole day without teaching anyone, but those hard parts were the easier hard parts. At least, for me they were. There was also the learning the language, getting used to the culture, and getting along with my companion. You hear about those too. More than those things though, it’s sometimes hard to just get out of bed, to feel like going out again that day, and to just be happy. Those are the hard parts of the mission that no one really talks about, probably because they fear they’ll get a letter saying, “Forget yourself and go to work,” which wouldn’t help anyways because that is exactly what they are trying to do, and are already beating themselves up for having a supposedly bad attitude anyways.
Missions are not always those smiling missionary pictures that you see in LDS bookstores or magazines. In fact, I’d say those smiling pictures are more of the exception than the norm. I had those days where it was a smiling day, but more often my mission was really hard, and I’m willing to bet that the hard days are more the norm than the smiling days. I don’t know what it’s like to serve a mission all the way to the end of the expected time. I imagine that it’s really much the same as the beginning except that you get more into a routine. Perhaps it really does get better. Perhaps there is more joy towards the end. I don’t know.
But I do know this: missions are very good things for many reasons; they are not always right for everyone though and that is okay. The church is true and the gospel needs to be shared, and missions are an effective way to share the gospel. The missionary program certainly should continue, but there needs to be more open communication about what missions are like, and what individual missionaries go through. For some, I have no doubt that it was the best two years of their life, or the best two years for their life. For others though, it wasn’t, and although they may not regret going on a mission and never will, they are glad it is over and that they can move on to something else. They are still strong, faithful members that share the gospel in other ways.
So this is my plea: be honest about your mission experience. Be tactful about it, of course, but be honest about the hard times you had. Be willing to let others share their hard times. Encourage friends or family members on missions to talk about their hard times, and don’t judge them for their hard times. I think many missionaries don’t write about hard times for fear of getting that, “Forget yourself and go to work letter.” And for some missionaries, I think that letter would be exactly right. Some do have a bad attitude and need the push. But for most, I think they are feeling the normal tiredness of a day-in-day-out routine and could use some encouragement and cheering up, and maybe just a safe environment to talk in, and then they can “forget themselves and go to work” without anyone telling them to do so.
And for those of you that did love your mission, continue to share what you loved about it, and how you came to love it, but be mindful of those that may not share your same enthusiasm. Be aware of your friends who are struggling and remember what you did to help yourself love your mission: the personal habits you developed before leaving that helped you love your mission so much, or the habits you developed on your mission that helped you not want to leave when your time came.
Missions are wonderful things. Now let’s help them be wonderful for the missionaries. And remember, if you didn’t love your mission, that’s okay. Remember the good, but acknowledge the bad and know that it’s okay to do so.
October 2017 Update
Today (almost four years since originally writing this post) I would add that I still wouldn’t say the six months I served were the best six months of my life, or that they were the best six months for my life, but they were definitely not bad for my life. I grew a lot in those six months. Serving a mission is never a bad thing, and how long you serve is ultimately between you and the Lord. The emotions a missionary experiences while on their mission are real, raw, and okay, even if the feelings are that of annoyance, fatigue, or even sadness. Missions are hard. They are a labor of love, but you do not always love your mission.
June 2018 Update
I explore this idea more in my new book, Early Homecoming. Learn more at earlyhomecoming.com.