I had been in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) for about ten minutes when I started to think I had been the victim of a giant Mormon conspiracy. A conspiracy where every human who served an LDS mission swore to never tell anyone under 21 that the whole experience was kind of terrible.
When you grow up as a Mormon in Utah, missions are somewhat ubiquitous. Nearly every male you know went on one and you likely know a decent percentage of women who did as well. My parents both went when they were young. My grandparents did it when they were old. From the time I was a tiny person and learned the missionary anthem "Called to Serve", missionary service seem both awesome and totally expected. I grew up hearing great stories from my mom and dad, listening to endless glowing mission reports at church, getting letters from friends out in the "field" who raved about what an amazing time they were having. Whenever you asked someone's mom how so and so was liking their mission it was some version of "they love it! The never want to come home!".
So when I was 21 and eligible to go, I didn't even consider NOT going. I filled out papers, I went to the doctor and the dentist, I went to interviews with my ecclesiastic leaders. I got a call to Switzerland and I bought dresses and shoes and luggage and new and unique underwear and then suddenly, my family was leaving out one door and I was leaving out the other door and I realized I had no idea what I had signed up for.
I don't know what I was expecting. I knew there would be rules and structure. I knew my time wouldn't feel like my own. I knew I would have a "companion" who would basically function like a human shadow and we would have to be together all the time. I just didn't realize what all of that actually meant. I didn't realize that as a fairly independent college graduate, it would feel a little bit like I had joined the Borg.
I also didn't realize that NO ONE HAD EVER MENTIONED THAT THIS WOULD BE HARD. No one. I cried myself to sleep the first night thinking that just about every human I knew had been through this and not one of them said, "this is a really hard thing to do". Actually, one did. I ran into an old high school crush the Sunday before I left and when I told him I was headed to the MTC that week he looked me in the eye, chuckled and said, "if you knew what was coming, you wouldn't go." I remember thinking that was a really odd thing to say to someone, not realizing I would be using that as a mantra a scant week later when I felt like my whole world was upside down. But outside of that comment, my entire life people had painted missions in such a rosy hue, I immediately felt like a failure for being scared and homesick. I think I expected that I would be enveloped in some kind of spiritual cocoon that would turn me into someone who didn't care about missing her friends, or music, or shopping or boys or the myriad of other things that I suddenly couldn't stop thinking about.
I panicked for awhile and felt like I was probably the worst missionary in the history of missionaries until I started to make friends, and run into people from my outside life who I could talk to, and I realized that what I was feeling wasn't that unusual. I felt better but I vowed that when I was back from a mission, I would try to be truthful about the whole thing. That I wouldn't sugar coat it.
When someone tells me they are going on a mission, I get starry-eyed and I tell them it will be one of the best experiences of their lives. I don't tell them how lonely it gets, how inadequate they will feel, how exhausted they will be by the end. I tell them about the tender moments they will have, how much they will learn about themselves, how good it will feel to spend 18 months doing something that isn't all about them.
I've been thinking quite a bit about my mission and the way I talk about it these last few weeks. I was catching up with a close friend recently who just moved to a new city and took a new job. He's posted some cool photos so I asked him if things were as awesome as they looked. And he said, "well I'm not having as much fun as you are that is for sure." His comment shocked me because the last eight months of my life have sucked on just about every level. I won't go through my laundry list but save having a baby, I've had pretty much every other major life event on my plate since August and I guess I thought I had been pretty open with him about how tough it's been.
And yet. I post fun things on the internet. I tell people how rad SF is and how cool my job is and that my dad was sick and we were prepared so it's been easier to deal with the grief.
Those things are true. Just like all the things I say about my mission are true. This is a cool city and I feel lucky to live here after years and years of dreaming about it. I work for a great company and have these fantastic coworkers and I'm learning every single day. And I don't cry about my dad every day. I get waves, tidal waves sometimes, but a lot of the time I am really ok.
I do not say that I have felt inadequate and out of my element for nearly all the days since I took the new job. I do not say that sometime I feel so sad about my dad that it feels like a giant weight is pulling me down to the bottom of an ocean. That I am so worried I will be alone my whole life that there are nights I cry myself to sleep.
Do we want to tell each other these things? Do we want to hear these things? Would we still go on missions and get pregnant and move across the country and fall in love if we knew the truth about how terribly awry these things can go?
I think the answer is yes. I think we would. For the same reason I have now moved to a new place six times and taken jobs that scare me to death. Because I sincerely believe that for most of us, we know the very best way to grow, the very best chance to develop empathy and the very best way to lay bare our own weaknesses, is to go through something very hard. Have you ever watched a little kid learning to walk? They fall and they fall and they fall. They know that is going to keep happening but they keep getting up because somewhere in their new little brains, they also know this is a thing they need to master. It's hard and it hurts and they are bad at it for a long time. And then one day it clicks, and then they are so awesome at it you can't even keep up with them anymore.
I think that drive stays in our not so new little brains. We don't have to be afraid of telling the truth about our shared experience because someone can tell us, "this thing is going to be hard you know," and we will say, "bring it". There is something that actually feels a lot like freedom when you stop thinking that you are the only one doing it wrong and you get to just....do it.