I know John’s book has been discussed here before, but I wanted to devote another thread to it because I just finished it this morning. Yes, I’m a Luddite who waited for the print version. I can’t get over the emotional attachment I have to the feel of a book.
For a normally verbose person, oddly I don’t have adequate words to describe my reaction to this book. But I’m going to try, awkwardly.
My mission was, bar none, the most difficult experience of my life. And, at various times, I’ve had a lot of challenges in life. I was in a horrific marriage for 15 years, the victim of a near constant onslaught of verbal and emotional abuse. I’ve been through very serious health challenges with each of my three children. I’m now helping to raise my son’s daughter after his marriage collapsed and he got primary custody of the baby. I’m not listing these things in the expectation that these experiences made my life harder than anyone else’s, because I think we all face our challenges, make serious mistakes, and grieve. I’m listing these things to no one suspects that my overall life must be really easy, if I view my mission as the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced.
No. The fact is that missions are really, really hard.
The difference between these life challenges and a mission was that, in some ways, I could, at least momentarily, escape some of these problems, even if it was just by going to work every day. I had another life, a different life, outside of the sometimes all-consuming problems of the day.
There was no such escape as a missionary. I think that is what made it so grueling, and even unique in my life experiences.
My mission was different than John’s. I served in southern France, the Toulouse mission, which has gone in and out of existence since then. I had running water, no parasites or huge spiders. But I also had next to no baptisms, like every other missionary there. I knocked on doors for the bulk of my mission. Most of those doors were rudely slammed in my face. I don’t blame the French for disliking us or being rude to us. Since most of them live in apartments that are easily tracted, and there are lots of JWs in France, they must get disturbed on a regular basis by the religiously obsessed. And there was much about France that I loved, and I met some really interesting, kind, and generous people. I will never forget the couple who actually had a nice house and every year would let all six missionaries in the city use it for Christmas, as they were going out of town. They cooked us a huge, lovely dinner ahead of time and left little treats. It was the best day of my mission. One of my greatest hopes is to return to France after I retire, for a long, extended visit.
But the fact is that my mission was utterly demoralizing. It would take an extraordinarily strong ego, or sense of self, to withstand being sworn at and having doors rudely slammed in your face all day long, ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, and not become demoralized. Even worse was how we were treated by visiting GAs, who seem to view it as their mission to berate and browbeat us into being better missionaries, and somehow, despite the failures of all the faithful before us, find all the noble spirits just waiting for The Truth, just waiting for us to find and baptize them.
The fact that I believed in the church as strongly as I did made it even worse, because my failures to teach and baptize (with the exception of two young women who immediately went inactive, so I heard) felt like immense spiritual failures. Ammon had enough faith to single handedly convert an entire Lamanite population, along with chopping off arms right and left, and I couldn’t even find someone to listen to one discussion. Literally, we had weeks without even a discussion. In a good week, we’d have three or so. I knew a sister who was viewed as THE hardest working and most faithful sister in the entire mission, and she didn’t have ONE SINGLE baptism her entire mission.
I think I was clinically depressed on my mission, had I had access to a mental health professional for such a diagnosis. At one point, it got so bad that I developed a form of agoraphobia. I couldn’t stand to leave our tiny one-bedroom apartment. Every time we got on our bikes to go tract, I would start weeping uncontrollably. After about almost two months of being so incapacitated, I finally was able to function again.
I remember, at one point earlier in my mission, looking at myself in a mirror and wishing suicide could be a possible end to it all. But I believed that if I committed suicide, God would be so angry at me that He’d probably punish me by making me be a full-time missionary for all eternity. So not even suicide offered an out. That was around the time I packed my bags and told my companion I was going to the mission headquarters and demanding to be sent home. It didn’t work. I was “assigned” to the mission president’s wife for three days and she browbeat me into staying, by telling me I’d be a spiritual failure my entire life if I gave up and went home. I did believe in the church, and the thought of condemning myself like that was too much, so I stayed. Miserable, but there, knocking on endless doors.
I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like had I not served a mission. I learned some valuable things in my mission. I doubt I would have ever had the opportunity to live in a foreign country for 18 months otherwise. And that’s a good lesson for Americans. We tend to be very egocentric, I think because our country is so large we can travel for days and be around people who may be a little different than us, but still understandable. In Europe, you could travel a few hours and be in a totally different land. It’s good to understand that, while there is a common band of humanity that unites us all, there are other, sometimes large, differences that are due solely to culture. Americans are not the world. We are who we are in large part due to the culture in which we swim.
But I learned a lesson that I think also harmed me later in life. I learned that I could buck up and tolerate misery for a greater good. That’s why I stayed in a truly horrific marriage as long as I did. I though the “greater good” was keeping my temple covenants by staying married, no matter how miserable it was. That was a harmful lesson, because reality is that sometimes change, and giving up, is the only sane solution.
So, at the end of it all, and even 30 years later, I ask myself, “So what did we end up doing?” And, like John, I answer “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Read this book. You won’t regret it.
Thank you, John, for sharing it with us. It sounds funny to say I still need some healing thirty years later, but in a way I do, and, in a way, your book did that.
We hate to seem like we don’t trust every nut with a story, but there’s evidence we can point to, and dance while shouting taunting phrases.
Penn & Teller