Almost a decade ago, I began the process of starting my mission papers. I remember anxiously texting my bishop, going to doctor’s appointments, and begrudgingly getting my wisdom teeth out. On a more spiritual level, I started attending temple prep classes and reading Preach my Gospel. I received my endowments. I finally submitted my application. I remember confidently checking the box indicating that I would like to learn another language. Although I would never admit it at the time, I prayed I would get called somewhere cool and foreign to impress my friends (although when they asked I would coyly say I wanted to go “wherever the Lord called me”). I became insufferable to my poor family as I ran to the mailbox every morning hoping my call had arrived.
My call finally showed up in the mailbox on Christmas Eve. I waited six more hours to open it so that my older sister could be there with me. I was so anxious about the whole ordeal my mom swept me into the car to run mindless holiday errands with her in hopes that I would calm down before opening it. I had recently graduated high school and frantically texted my classmates to be there with me when I opened the letter. This was quite customary for my graduating class since I had graduated from high school in Utah County and the majority of my peers were also LDS and considering missions. When I arrived back home to rip open the white folder my dad had placed under the Christmas tree my house was buzzing with teenagers from Timpanogos High’s 2013 cohort.
I honestly have no memory of opening my call. I think I blacked out. I’ve watched the shaky video my little sister filmed of me opening the letter. When I watch it back I hear the shock in my voice as I read “Guatemala City Central Mission- Spanish Speaking.”
Immediately after opening my call the anxiety set in. I remember feeling so confused- isn’t this exactly what I wanted? Isn’t an exciting, foreign mission exactly what I had prayed for? Wasn’t I the person who submitted my papers? Didn’t I check the box indicating I wanted to learn a foreign language?
The reality was that after the initial excitement and attention from submitting my papers wore off, the fear set in. The reality of what I had signed up for felt crushingly intimidating. Eighteen months felt like an eternity. I had dropped out of eighth grade Spanish, why did I think I would be able to learn it now? What if my companions didn’t like me? What if I didn’t make it? My deepest fear, although I would never admit it at the time, was that I would come home early. The shame and fear became paralyzing.
The three months between opening my call and getting on a plane headed for Guatemala City were some of the longest, hardest months of my life. Truly, I felt like I was just white-knuckling my way through. I cried the entire way to the airport.
Looking back all these years later, I wish I could hug the 19-year old version of myself who was boarding that plane. Whether she realized it or not, she had become swept up into the cultural pressure and shame that can often accompany missions within the Church. If I could go back and give her advice, these are the things I would tell her:
1- It’s okay if you don’t serve the whole 18 months (no really, it’s okay).
So much of my anxiety was caught up in worry that I would return home early from my mission. I feared the whispered conversations speculating about why I came home. I worried, deeply, about what other people would think of me. While I wish I could tell the 19-year-old version of myself that no one cares if you come home early, I know that (unfortunately) there is a lot of pressure to stay in the mission field and a lot of shame to navigate if you don’t.
What I would tell a missionary leaving for the mission field is, it’s okay if you come home early. Really, it’s okay. Yes, some people might judge you. But at the end of the day, the people whose opinions matter won’t. Your mission call says it is anticipated that you will serve for 18 months (or two years) but it isn’t a contractual obligation. There are countless unforeseen circumstances that could cause you to come home before that. No matter what your reason may be, if you come home early it’s okay. No one knows your circumstances and what is best for you better than you do. This will be one of many instances in your life where you make a decision that other people may not understand, but that doesn’t mean that decision is wrong. Stand in your power and rely on your relationship with your Heavenly Parents. I promise you that, while it might feel like the end of the world right now, as time passes this will too.
2- You don’t need to “lose yourself in the work” in fact, it’s better if you don’t.
Every young missionary in the field has heard the phrase “forget yourself and go to work” or been counseled to “lose yourself in the work.” I remember feeling this pressure to an extreme as I entered the field, especially during my training. I would feel guilty, embarrassed, or even shameful if I caught myself feeling homesickness because (in my mind) I wasn’t “losing” myself enough.
Your Heavenly Parents called you to serve a mission. By trying to lose yourself or forget about the background that shaped you to who you are, you are showing up as a less-genuine version of the person who got called on this mission in the first place. It’s okay to still be a human being while you’re a missionary. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated, or homesick during your mission. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad missionary, it means that you’re human and you’re having a very mortal experience during your time serving. By allowing yourself to feel all of these emotions, you also open yourself up to feeling joy, excitement, humor, relief, and the ability to form genuine relationships. You can’t selectively numb emotions, by choosing to recognize and process the hard emotions, you open yourself up to the happy ones too. There is room for all of it and feeling it all doesn’t make you a worse missionary (in fact, it makes you a better one). The Lord called YOU to be a missionary, not a robot.
3- The relationships you build on your mission will be the most important part. Focus on the people and let the other stuff go.
I remember feeling so stressed about mission transfers, contacts, memorizing sections of Preach my Gospel, challenging people for baptism, and so much more during my mission. If I could go back, I would tell myself to focus less on the little details and focus more on the relationships I was building on my mission. Eight years after my mission, I don’t remember if I hit every bullet point I wanted to during that important lesson- but I do remember the people I was teaching. I’ve forgotten about the ways I embarrassed myself by messing up my words in Spanish- but I remember my companions who were so kind in helping me learn. Truthfully, I don’t even remember if some of the people I taught joined the Church after I was transferred away from their area, but I do remember the stories they shared with me as we huddled around their kitchen table. Eight years after I first got my mission call, I can confidently say that the relationships matter the most: my relationships with my companions, the people I taught, other missionaries in the mission, my Savior, and my relationship with myself are what matter.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t obsess over the details. People have their own agency and will choose their own path here in this life- your mission is just a wonderful opportunity to learn about Christlike love. Make the most of it.
Lots of love,
(former) Hermana Wise