Looking Back: 10 Years of Reflection on the Value of a Mormon Mission
Recently, I had the privilege of attending my ten-year mission reunion. (I’ve technically been home for 11 years, but who’s counting?) It was so wonderful to sit and reminisce with old mission companions and friends, and to learn how their lives have progressed over the past decade. Even though we’re all a little older, a little plumper, and a little greyer, there was still a deep bond that connected us all these years later. I left the reunion thinking about how much my mission has impacted my life and what it has meant to me over the last ten years.
For those who don’t know, Mormon missions are organized into geographic regions. A prospective missionary applies to Church leadership, who then assign, or “call” the missionary to a particular mission somewhere in the world. My call was to serve in the Virginia Richmond Mission, which at the time comprised approximately the area between Lynchburg and the entire Virginia coastline, with little slices of North Carolina and West Virginia thrown in.
Before we continue, let’s just all acknowledge that Mormon missions are unique experiences. They take a relatively normal human being and turn them into a door-knocking, perpetually-happy, pure-as-a-newborn-babe proselytizing machine. They’ve even made a Broadway play about it. I haven’t seen it, but this scene pretty much sums up the classic missionary stereotype.
For sister missionaries, missions also tend to take girls who are relatively good-looking and turn them into their Pioneer ancestors. Nowadays the dress code regulations seem to have relaxed a bit so sisters still look like 21st century girls (which is probably much more effective at finding people to teach anyway), but ten years ago the common uniform was Jody dresses and Dansko shoes. If you were lucky you found time to shop at the local Wal-mart to class up your wardrobe. Or you just dug through closets of clothes discarded by previous sisters until you found something you liked. Whatever the source, the end result was never very pretty.
Missionaries are also placed in companionships for six-week increments called “transfers”. You are supposed to remain with your companion 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. The only exception is bathroom time. As you can imagine, some companionships go more smoothly than others.
Nevertheless, in spite of the oddities of a Mormon mission, the experiences encountered there routinely change the lives of the missionaries who serve, as well as those they teach. For me, my mission was a life-altering experience that instilled in me 4 lifelong lessons that have had a profound effect on my own success and character development:
1. When the doors keep slamming, you keep going.
Most people see Mormon missionaries on the street and immediately turn and walk the other way. People frequently asked us if we were nuns (we’re not) or polygamists (we’re not). Some asked us about dietary restrictions (yes we drink milk; no we don’t drink alcohol, tea, or coffee; yes we eat chocolate like it’s going out of style); others tried to compare us to various minority religions (no we’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists).
Many days we just had doors repeatedly slammed in our faces; other days dogs would chase us out of the yard or people would pretend they couldn’t see or hear us when we were standing right in front of them. One day my companion and I approached a woman who was outside her house. When she saw us coming, she turned and let out the most blood curdling scream I have ever heard. We looked at her in shock then immediately turned around to see what great danger had started her suburban tranquility. Viewing nothing, we turned back only to see her slowly edging up the sidewalk towards her front door and shaking her finger at us. We just stared at her in stunned silence and then chuckled and went on with our day once she was safely behind her bolted front door.
Sometimes these experiences (like the Screamer) were kind of funny and lent some variety to an otherwise dull day; other days they were downright disheartening. It takes a lot of courage to go door to door for 18 months, trying to share with people the things that matter most to you, only to be yelled at or treated with contempt. Yet each time a door closes, you have to pick yourself up and move on to the next one, hoping that the next door, or the next one, or the next one, will be opened by someone who has been waiting to hear your message.
Unbeknownst to me, all those closed doors were preparing me for things that would come later in my life. Whether it was pushing through the burn out and stress of grad school, fighting to get noticed in job applications, or wrestling with the heartache of bad dates and lots of ghosting, my mission taught me to pick up my head and just keep going. Most importantly, it taught me to stay true to the religious doctrines I so faithfully preached, even when those doctrines were disparaged by the world around me. As a result, I am much stronger in my religious commitment and much more capable at accomplishing my goals.
2. Discipline and obedience are much more than a cosmic game of “Simon Says”
Somewhat related to the first skill, my mission became a concentrated lesson in discipline and obedience. From the earliest days of my mission, the phrase “obedience with exactness” was instilled in my impressionable heart through the fear of God, my mission president, and my trainer (my first companion). Obedience is already a foundational doctrine in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it becomes almost fanatical to missionaries out in the field who are relying on God to aid them in their efforts. And I became militant about my obedience (just ask my companions).
Here’s the thing – when you take a bunch of 19-year old men and 21-year old women and remove them from everything they know, you need to give them some sort of structure, both to aid them and to protect them in their work. Even though we weren’t nuns or priests, our weekly schedule could easily rival the best convents or monasteries. We had to be up by 6:30 am; had mandatory exercise time for 30 minutes, which often consisted of “stretching” on the apartment floor (we might be missionaries but we’re still human); followed by breakfast and getting ready; then finished the morning off with personal and companionship study time. By 9:00 am we were outside, knocking on doors, meeting with church members, and teaching lessons to investigators. One day a week was our preparation day, or P-day, during which we would write home, go to the grocery story, and take half a day off from our labors.
Although this may seem extreme (and it was), the rigor and discipline of a missionary schedule has had a profound effect on my ability to hunker down and get things done. Nowhere was this discipline more important than in grad school, when I was shouldering two graduate programs, a host of extracurricular activities, and some semblance of a social life.
Before you dismiss this as an obvious outcome, remember that discipline is a trait valued by the most successful people in the world. This article from CNBC lists 10 common traits of wealthy people. Guess what? At least 8 out of the 10 have an obvious tie to discipline (or state it outright). The people we admire most know that discipline is an essential part of progress and success. When it seems like the outcome isn’t worth the effort, just remember – no great person has ever gotten by without discipline.
The same thing is true of obedience. Obedience isn’t always popular in our society, particularly when it comes to challenging antiquated standards. Although there are times when challenging the status quo is both appropriate and necessary, there is still danger in the anything – or everything – goes mentality. Obedience is more than blind observation of someone else’s rule book. As one LDS leader stated, “Obedience is an emblem of our faith in the wisdom and power of the highest authority, even God.” Willing obedience to a moral code not only protects us from falling into dangerous moral and physical situations, but it also builds character and teaches us integrity, patience, and (you guessed it) discipline.
3. Selfless service is a divine endeavor
Nearly nine months into my mission, two elders in the mission were shot. One of the missionaries died within hours – the other survived and valiantly finished out the rest of his mission. The parents of the elder who died came out to retrieve their son’s body, never having had the chance to tell him goodbye.
At our subsequent mission conference, the father of the young man who passed away shared the following scripture from the New Testament: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 10:39) In that moment, for the first time, I truly understood what selfless service meant. Here was a young man who had left his home to serve his God for two years with no thought of his own needs or wants. Everything he did was to benefit the people he came in contact with. And now, near the end of his mission, he was suddenly and unexpectedly called home to that God he had so faithfully served.
People don’t talk enough about service. We live in a world focused on selfies and likes and we take as much as we can from the environment around us. But in spite of how much we consume, we remain unhappy and unfulfilled. Millennials are ridiculed for their desire to have a job that is meaningful while simultaneously being taught to idolize greedy celebrities and corrupt politicians. See this fun article called “A Boss’s Guide to Managing Bratty Millennials”. Just look at Instagram for the rest. Everybody is talking about success, but hardly anyone is talking about service. In fact, one could argue that posting service experiences to social media could be considered digital duplicity, depending on how it is done.
However, I have learned that selfless service might just be the cure to 90% of the world’s problems. By focusing on the needs of others, we stop focusing on ourselves and get lost in the deep satisfaction and personal joy of making someone else’s life just a little bit better (see this talk from the 2017 LDS General Conference, and this article from HuffPost). There is something divine about helping another person in need. Just look at the outpouring of love and service given to victims of hurricanes in Texas and the Caribbean, as well as the rush of people to donate blood for victims of the shooting in Las Vegas. Through service we are able to set aside our differences and stand shoulder to shoulder instead of face to face. In the midst of a world that can often be cruel and cold, service keeps us human.
4. Comfort zones are comfortable, but they won’t get you where you want to go.
Judy Blume once said: “Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.”
Going door to door to talk to people about Jesus was, by far, the hardest part of my mission, which was unfortunate because it also comprised the majority of my time on the mission. When I arrived in Virginia, I was 21, relatively shy, and still figuring out who I was as a person. I wanted to slowly ease my way into proselytizing, but my much-wise trainer had me knocking doors and initiating conversations within my first hour. I hated her for that.
I also often had companions who were much better than me at connecting with people. In fact, most of my companions were social workers or health care professionals by trade, which I took as a sign from God that I needed help in the showing-compassion-to-other-people department. Nevertheless, 18 months of initiating conversations with people who didn’t want to talk to me fast-tracked my ability to find common ground with other people. It also taught me how to speak up and articulate my message in 60 seconds or less (however quickly the person closed the door), a skill which came in handy more than once when called upon in both law school and business school.
Another consequence of spending those 18 months outside my comfort zone is that I am now not afraid to choose the harder path. In other words, I became comfortable with discomfort. Over the last ten years, I have consistently pushed myself beyond my own comfort level – whether when asking for additional responsibilities at work, leaving Utah to go back east for grad school, pursuing a joint graduate degree rather than a single degree, or choosing to go to Boston rather than coming back home to Utah. Some call it crazy; I call it ambitious. Crazy is probably right.
Nevertheless, choosing the harder path, even if it’s scary, is, for me, almost always the more productive way to go. One of my favorite songs is sung by the unhappy drunkard Pierre in the Broadway play Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Pierre is reflecting on a near-death experience and sings the line, “Did I squander my divinity? Was happiness within me the whole time?” That line just speaks to me. It reminds me that I have more to contribute to this world, and I refuse to live beneath my potential simply because of fear or laziness. No one broke barriers by staying inside their comfort zone. Of course, life also requires balance, and that’s something that I’m still trying to figure out. However, thanks to my mission, I’m not afraid to try.
The Ultimate Lesson
Last but not least, my mission provided a very clear foundation for a lifelong commitment to God. On my own road to Emmaus, I got to know Christ and learned to love Him as a friend, a mentor, and my Redeemer. Even if I had learned nothing else, that alone would have been worth it.
Did you serve a mission? What lessons did you learn from your experience? Or have you encountered Mormon missionaries? What did you admire or wonder about them?