Although I nearly went insane a few times, I don’t regret serving a two-year Mormon mission. It did me a lot of good, although not necessarily in ways many might think.
First, it kept me alive. Of all the things I still have faith in, one is knowing that I would have been dead within those two years if I hadn’t gone.
Second, it gave me valuable insight into the kind of Mormon I could never be even if I wanted to — and that some deep believers should be avoided at all costs.
Third, and most important, my mission is where I met my wife.
I was thinking about these things in church last Sunday, while listening to sacrament meeting talks on the importance of young people serving missions. It almost sounded like serving a mission was a commandment.
It’s not. It’s strongly encouraged and even deemed an expected rite of passage for young LDS guys. In the stupidest of cases, it’s a condition of continued familial acceptance, but none of those really amounts to a celestial directive.
That brings me to the thing of which I’m most proud about my mission. It isn’t that I stayed the entire two years, that I managed to baptize a few people, or even how I learned to cope with some major squirrels for companions.
It’s that the whole thing — from start to staying to finishing — was entirely my idea. Mine.
My parents certainly didn’t expect me to serve a mission. Even today, they’ll acknowledge being surprised that I reached age 20.
Nobody in my family had ever served a mission. The Old Man didn’t go, being rather busy with the Korean War at the time. Mom had me first, so there were no older siblings to lead by example. And none of my closest drug-addled friends intended to go.
Worse, nothing I heard in church made missionary work sound fun or appealing. The older guys I knew who went came home changed. It’s like they went to some junior executive school.
I won’t go into details here about why I decided to serve a mission. The parts that aren’t boring remain personal. It surprised my parents, disgusted my friends and scared the hell out of the bishop.
The point that I’m doing a bad job of making is that something as significant as two years of a person’s life should be undertaken only on that person’s say-so.
If not, then serving a mission is more akin to being drafted, one in which everybody has the same number: 18.
Drafting people, or simply making something socially compulsory, is a good recipe for fielding a large force. But not so great for those who feel pressured against their own idea of the sort of person they want to be. That fosters resentment.
One particularly discouraging day on my mission, another elder lamented the fact that he didn’t really feel “called by God” to serve a mission. I told him that I was pretty sure I wasn’t either.
Him • “I was called by my parents, the ward and my girlfriend. Who called you?”
Me • “I did.”
So your daughter opted for marriage instead of a mission, or your son went to MIT instead of the MTC. You don’t have any right to feel disappointed. It wasn’t your call to make in the first place.