Recently I read an account in the New York Times of some LDS missionaries in Uganda, a location chosen, no doubt, because that country is the setting for the fictional The Book of Mormon: The Musical. The article dutifully explained the basics of the missionary program, describing it as a “well-oiled operation” that sends young men and women in pairs out into the world to share the Mormon gospel. What followed was a predictable story arc involving the sacrifices young missionaries make, their daily schedule, the “temptations” they face, and their simple faith. One missionary said, “I have learned more about myself in the last 20 months than I could if I was back home. You begin to understand what really matters in your life” (Kron, Josh, “At Age 19, From Utah to Uganda,” New York Times, 12 April 2012).
Many other similar articles about missionaries have appeared in local papers in the United States and elsewhere, thanks to the efforts of LDS regional and stake public-affairs representatives.
The Times article reminded me of a similar article that appeared in Sports Illustrated nearly thirty years ago, when a reporter interviewed three Brigham Young University football players who were serving as missionaries in very different places. Two of the missionaries provided the same story arc that their successors would do in Uganda. One missionary in Brazil explained that, although he had lost weight physically, he had grown spiritually and emotionally: “Everybody has a bubble around them that makes them feel comfortable,” he says. “By coming here, I’ve reached beyond my bubble. I feel more competent.” Another missionary, in South Africa, agreed, “I was pampered all my life. The mission is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But getting rejected constantly makes you stronger. All great things are hard. This is a great life.”
But the third missionary gave anything but the standard story. “This country [Bolivia] basically hates me,” he said, describing Bolivia as a place where children throw rocks at missionaries and people call the elders “huevos” (slang for “testicles”): “If I’d stayed in America, I wouldn’t have played pro football. Before, I just did it because I was good at it. Now I know I love football. Now I know what’s important. Before, I had trouble tackling; that was my only real weakness. Now I’ll just go home and pretend every offensive player is a Bolivian calling me a huevo” (Smith, Gary, “A Season For Spreading The Faith,” Sports Illustrated, 4 Sept. 1985).
This elder was in my mission, and he told me a month or so after the article was published that, because no one had told him what he should or should not say, he had decided to be honest and had said what he felt and thought. After I returned to BYU after my mission, I worked on campus with the elder they had interviewed in South Africa. When I asked him why he had said so little about missionary life, he said, “It’s kind of hard to give an honest account when you have an apostle sitting next to you the whole time.”
I didn’t have an apostle with me during or after my mission, but I always took pains to emphasize the positive and faith-promoting, and downplay or ignore the negative. My letters home were filled with stories of people we were teaching, what I was learning about a new culture, and most of all how much I loved being a missionary. My journal entries from the same time period almost always started with a variation on “Today sucked.”
But it was easy to keep spinning mission accounts into uplifting stories of faith and overcoming trials, whether in my “homecoming” talk or when people asked me about what Bolivia had been like. I began to see my mission wholly through my rose-colored rear-view mirror. And then some three years after my return, my new bride and I were sitting in a restaurant when we heard over the radio that two LDS missionaries had been murdered in Bolivia. I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room, and I couldn’t speak. Over the following three days I couldn’t sleep or eat, as feelings and memories I had not allowed myself to think about came flooding out of me. I was alternatively heartbroken and enraged, as I remembered every hurt, every blow to my soul, from my mission. And then it was gone again, and life went on as before.
Nearly twenty years later, I told a friend about a strange experience I’d had on a bridge late one night in La Paz, and he suggested that I write it down. I did, and then I couldn’t stop writing for another five weeks or so, until I had written out everything that happened to me in Bolivia, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Eventually a friend convinced me to try and publish it as a book, but I held back for three years because of family pressure; despite my efforts to stick to what actually happened on my mission, I was told the book was “too negative” and was “airing the church’s dirty laundry.” For reasons I don’t quite understand, I finally published the book in 2011.
Immediately after the book went out, several friends from my mission told me how much the book had shaken them. One said he had cried all the way through it because it had brought out emotions and feelings he had long since suppressed (I wasn’t going for crying). Other readers said that the book had affected them profoundly as well, as they had never been able to talk about their missions as they experienced them.
But how could this be? Everyone talks about their mission. It’s the “best two years” of our lives, we say, and we give homecoming talks and pep talks to the Aaronic Priesthood, speak with high council members around our stakes, and wax nostalgic when telling our kids about our days spent in the Lord’s service. But then most of us have had dreams in which we are back in our missions—and these are never pleasant dreams; and in my mission, we used to say, “If these are the best two years of our lives, we’re in trouble.”
Does this mean that missions are terrible, traumatic experiences? No, of course not, but it may suggest that many of us are filtering out and suppressing everything except the positive and faith-promoting in what might be called a sin of omission. The experiences we filter out may be mundane and totally innocuous, but if they do not fit the standard narrative or cannot be spun into it, they are ignored and even forgotten.
Why We Shade the Truth
There are two primary reasons missionaries are less than candid about their experiences: first, many missionaries are explicitly told to do so; and second, missionaries self-censor for a number of reasons.
Between November 2011 and April 2012 I interviewed more than thirty former missionaries, including active members of the LDS church, less-active members, and former members. Although the information they gave me is purely anecdotal, they articulated many common themes (from this point, all quotes will be from those personal interviews, except where noted). Many former missionaries I spoke with said they had been told by church leaders to avoid saying anything negative about their missions, either while they were out in the mission field or after they returned home. One missionary reported:
This was the rule in my mission: Should you write home about any negative experience and have a family member call the office to check up on you, you would find yourself in the [mission] president’s office real fast. Every letter home was to be a faith-promoting letter. The reasoning was [that] your family wouldn’t worry about you and flood the office with phone calls about your well-being, wasting the president’s valuable time.
I remember receiving the same instructions in the Missionary Training Center, and from my interviews of other former missionaries, my experience is fairly common. Here’s another report from a missionary:
When I entered the MTC in January 1994, the MTC president and his spouse told us during the orientation meeting that we should never write home about negative aspects of our mission–we should always keep it positive. I still remember her saying, “The bad experiences will outnumber the good, but the good will outweigh the bad.” My mission president in France provided similar instruction.
These instructions to missionaries, though common, seem to come often from leaders’ personal opinions, although occasionally the LDS church makes clear that missions are to be discussed within certain boundaries. In 1989, after the murders in Bolivia, BYU anthropology professor David Knowlton presented a paper at Sunstone outlining the dangers missionaries in Latin America may face and what the church can do to improve their safety. The church responded with this announcement:
Some of the [symposium] presentations by persons whom we believe to be faithful members of the Church have included matters that were seized upon and publicized in such a way as to injure the Church or its members or to jeopardize the effectiveness or safety of our missionaries. We appreciate the search for knowledge and the discussion of gospel subjects. However, we believe that Latter-day Saints who are committed to the mission of their church and the well-being of their fellow members will strive to be sensitive to those matters that are more appropriate for private conferring and correction than for public debate. (“News of the Church,” Ensign, Nov. 1991.)
Knowlton’s candor was apparently not appreciated in Salt Lake, as it eventually cost him his position at BYU. Most missionaries will never face that kind of pressure, but stronger push for censorship seems to come from within the missionaries themselves.
One reason for self-censoring is obvious. Most people want to avoid negative or hostile reactions from church leaders, ward members, and family. A friend who was in my mission shared with me what happened when he returned home from Bolivia. He said
[Our mission president] told me to please not say negative things about Bolivia when I got home because he kept getting panicked calls from parents when their kids would get their calls to Bolivia. I was kind of embarrassed by the request because he was basically asking me to lie.
After his return home, he was asked to give a presentation about his mission to the Aaronic Priesthood in his ward. He said he gave them the “standard pep talk,” showed slides and souvenirs, and shared his testimony. He mentioned to the young men that they needed to be prepared for the realities of missionary life. They might get called, for example, to a place where living conditions are poor and missionaries are often sick; or they might end up where Americans or Mormons are disliked. He didn’t go into detail, but he thought the boys should know his mission wasn’t easy. After the meeting, a red-faced bishop took him aside and reprimanded him for sharing the “negative” aspects of his mission: “We are trying to encourage these young men to serve missions, and after listening to you they may not be as eager to go.” My friend was shocked by the bishop’s reaction, and he said he was consciously much less candid afterwards. He began to self-censor.
Another missionary reported, “I learned quickly that being candid about my mission only got me scorned.” When I published my book, several family members expressed concern that it was “too negative” despite my best efforts to present what happened without comment and in a balanced, honest way. One reviewer reacted angrily to my book, saying that I was attacking the LDS church and setting myself up as the hero against the cold, uncaring church. He also said that his mission (also to Bolivia) was nothing like what I described in the book. I asked him if he had read the book; he hadn’t (Personal correspondence, Dec. 2011). My guess is that the hostility comes because, by speaking openly about missionary life, we are violating a social taboo and running counter to cultural expectations.
Missions are rites of passage for young Mormons, particularly young male Mormons. Parents tell themselves that if they can just get their sons on missions they will stop worrying about when—or whether—their boys will grow up. Missionaries are supposed to learn how to become men on their missions and return home wiser, more focused, and far more mature. But is that necessarily true?
Once I stood in a Bolivian airport watching a large group of American missionaries board the plane for home. Getting all of them to the airport and on the plane had been a nightmare for me, the travel secretary, because several of them had left their companions a couple of weeks early and were doing “road trips” to visit girlfriends and participate in other activities not normally associated with missionaries. Watching them cross the tarmac, I realized that they would all go home and give the same general homecoming talk and impress everyone with their maturity and spirituality. Their families and wards would not have any idea which missionaries had been hard-working and faithful, and which had not, as long as they met expectations.
Many missionaries tailor their accounts of their missions to meet these expectations. One former missionary wrote:
The problem is, not only is the mission experience whitewashed, [but] missionaries are a significant part of the problem and are unaware that they are doing the whitewashing. I think a good share of this is sub-conscious; since it is supposed to be “the best two years” of your life, then that’s the way you play it. Your parents, family, ward, and everybody back home are expecting it, so you give them what they want.
It’s not just other people’s expectations that we are fulfilling; we also expect certain things of ourselves. One young man noted, “All you ever hear is that it’s the best 2 years of your life – so when it’s not, you still feel like you need to keep up the charade.” Another spoke of expending “a lot of energy aimed at keeping an illusion alive in your mind and in the minds of others [who] want to believe it as bad as you do.” We may convince ourselves that our mission really was the way we described it and we really have grown up.
Closely related to the need to meet expectations is the need not to cause disappointment or embarrassment to your family and friends. When missionaries come home early for reasons other than health, often they and their families feel a lot of shame that their son or daughter has not “returned with honor.” No one wants to bring shame to themselves and their families, and keeping up appearances ensures that won’t happen. I corresponded for quite some time with a young elder who had decided that, even though he was miserable and was pretty sure he didn’t believe in the church, he would rather spend another year in South America faking his way through a mission than let his family down. When I asked him what he would do when he got home, he said he would go off to college and quietly fade into inactivity because that would be easier on his family.
Missionary letters home reflect our desire not to disappoint. While I was still in the MTC, my mother informed me that she was keeping all my letters home in a box for posterity; needless to say, I made sure my letters were positive, spiritually uplifting, and worthy to be read by my grandchildren. Others did the same:
I think that we were implicitly encouraged to be positive in our letters home to our families, so as not to worry them, and to provide a positive image of striving to do our best to serve the Lord. On the mission, all of us from the same MTC district kept in fairly close touch. It seemed like there was an unspoken rule that it was OK to discuss the negatives with your buddies because they were going through the same thing. So we did talk about lame companions, blessings that didn’t work, lame membership, bad missionaries, missionaries getting sent home, hot sister missionaries, hot investigators in cities we were in, egotistical missionary leaders, etc., amongst ourselves, but none of this information ever made it in letters home, nor was it discussed post-mission.
As I mentioned, my journal entries are pretty blunt, but several respondents mentioned censoring their journals so as not to disappoint those who might read their words later.
I kept a journal on my mission, and even though I was miserable most of the time, I still only wrote positive experiences in it. I was afraid someone else would read it and be disappointed in me. … I gave my return talk then rarely spoke about it again.
I also remember being told to put only positive things in our journals, because one day our progeny would read them. I actually tore pages out of my journal because although they were true, they weren’t useful or faith-promoting.
Somehow we forced our experiences into the faith-promoting template and left everything else out, almost as a way to protect ourselves from the disappointment and disapproval of others.
My interviews also showed that young Mormon men feel a strong responsibility to set a good example for younger men and boys, in part because they want to encourage others to serve missions. As young men, many of us looked up to missionaries serving in our wards and stakes, so we knew that the younger boys looked up to us. One missionary reported, “When I got home, if I couldn’t think of something faith-promoting or at least harmlessly funny to say about my mission, I was quiet on the subject. I don’t think anyone actually told me to do that. I just felt like I needed to be a faith-promoting example.” Others were explicitly told: “I recall the mission president and stake president both admonishing us to keep the mission talk on the positive side so that younger members would want to serve.” Another missionary humorously reported his older brother’s advice:
My older brother once cautioned me not to grow a goatee too quickly after my mission because apparently it gave younger prospective missionaries the impression that “the mission was like prison, but now I’m free.”
My response, “When it comes to goatees, isn’t that how it is?”
Sister missionaries also feel the same kind of need to set an example. A husband reports:
My wife was talking the other day about what she might have done to help our kids keep their testimonies. She wondered if maybe she should have talked more about her mission. I had to remind her that the reason she never tells them anything about her mission is because it was a horrible experience. She agreed.
Again, it’s not that all missions are “horrible” but that they are seen as tools for strengthening others’ testimonies and encouraging them to serve on missions. For this sister, it seems that remaining silent was the best way for her to set an example.
Last, the need to conform and fit in may drive some of our self-censoring. President Gordon B. Hinckley said on one occasion, “When [people] come into this Church they’re expected to conform. And they find happiness in that conformity” (“Interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley,” Compass, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 9 Nov. 1997). Numerous studies have shown that pressure to conform affects all human beings, and missionaries are no different. Because everyone else is reporting that the mission is the best two years of their lives, missionaries worry that they did something wrong if they didn’t feel that way:
I also think it’s an extension of a problem with the church in general –if there’s something wrong with your church experience, the problem is with you, not the church.
In the same vein, another reported:
I saw that others who had returned from their missions had had “amazing” experiences. It never occurred to me that they might be lying, exaggerating, or leaving out the naughty or bad bits. So, I kept wondering when I was going to have these amazing experiences. I think I kept trying to transform my explanations of the experiences I did have into something more amazing than they really were. I was trying to transfigure simple stories post hoc into mythic stories.
So, censoring the negative can be a way to prove that the mission experience was positive, after all, and the missionary doesn’t have to feel like a failure. One missionary describes forcing himself to put a positive spin on his mission:
In addition to the explicit instruction, I think there is social/cultural pressure to keep it positive. The first half of my mission was terrible. … I put myself in a continual state of punishment [and] guilt for minor indiscretions (i.e., microscopic) I had done years ago. … I couldn’t forgive myself and move on because the MTC was just a pressure-cooker for guilt. It was like 12 months of psychological warfare on myself.
But once I finally moved past it and got home, I felt the need to always spin the mission in a positive light. Maybe part of it is subconscious because you want to validate the experience in your own eyes and not see it as a waste.
One sister explained how she stayed positive as a way of validating herself as a good and valuable missionary:
I felt pressure as a sister missionary to stay positive and show that I could be just as good a missionary as the boys were. I heard so many negative stories about sister missionaries, how they never got along with each other, how they were only there because no one would marry them (only in Mormondom is a girl an old maid at 21!). So I never, ever wrote home about any of my companions’ craziness, and I really talked up the ones I actually felt close to. I didn’t tell my parents about some serious health problems I was having because I didn’t want to seem weak. I constantly talked about how much I loved the work and the amazing experiences I was having, even though a lot of the time I was questioning the tactics and feeling discouraged about the lack of success. When I got home, I perfected the art of creating inspiring stories and object lessons out of rather mundane experiences.
Perhaps creating inspiration from the mundane is a way to reassure ourselves that we were part of something bigger and grander than ourselves. I’m pretty sure that’s how I spoke of my mission: as a tough, grueling experience that brought great blessings and helped me learn to overcome adversity. That is probably true in many respects, and I would imagine it is for most missionaries. But somehow, I never felt like what really happened was a good enough story to tell.
What is the price we pay for shading the truth and discarding the unpleasant or difficult? Many respondents said that they had sugarcoated their missions so much that they had lost sight of what had really happened. For some, the stories they told and they records they kept were “twisted [so] positively” that they felt their journals had crossed into fiction: “If people were to read my journal they wouldn’t have a clue about how tough it really was. … Basically my history as recorded in my journals is completely biased. I should probably go out and destroy them for this very reason.” Several respondents mentioned that rereading their missionary journals gave them a sense of loss, that they had lost memories of their past in favor of the sanitized history they put in writing. The drive not to disappoint ironically had defeated the purpose of keeping a journal in the first place.
One creative soul found a novel way to keep track of his “negative” experiences : “For those things that I felt I should remember later, but others should not know about, I wrote in a ‘reformed Greek’ alphabet. “
Too often missionaries cope by keeping silent. One of my coworkers, who served his mission some 25 years ago, told me that he has never spoken about his mission to anyone, ever, not even to his therapist. When he returned home, he refused to give a homecoming address and would not answer questions from anyone. I asked him what was so traumatic about his mission, and he replied, “No, you don’t understand. I do not want to talk about it.”
Many respondents talked about holding their feelings and memories inside without being able to discuss them:
I don’t want to rehash the bad experiences, but I told a friend of mine about [a less-than inspiring incident] after my mission. He nearly started to cry, because he had been home over a year and had been holding in all the negative feelings he’d had. The trauma of the mission had been compounded by the compulsion to keep silent and pretend that not only did it not happen, but that it was an unmitigated positive experience. The inability of RMs to work through the crap they put up with makes them mission an even more damaging experience.
It’s never a good idea to keep your feelings inside, and yet that is the situation we put our missionaries in because of explicit and implicit rules against candidness.
What can we do to change this situation? Realistically, the church is not going to change its approach to missions, and it is not up to me to tell them what I think they should do. So, I’m going to limit my suggestions to things that parents and families can do.
- Talk to your children about what to expect realistically from a mission. Yes, you can tell them what a great experience it can be and encourage them to go, but they need to know what to expect. At this point in the church’s history, the vast majority of young men and women serving missions will have at least one parent who served a mission (in my family it’s both parents). I am certain that there are things you wish you had known before your mission that you could share with your kids.
- Encourage them to communicate in their letters home. Ask specific questions, and let them know that it’s OK to be brutally honest. If my parents had been there for me to talk to—honestly and nonjudgmentally—they would have been much more of a support to me. They sent me encouragement and care packages, but I never really shared my mission with them, and we all lost out.
- Have them spend an hour with a counselor or therapist as part of their re-entry into normal life. Every missionary is required to have a physical exam by a doctor when they get home, but no one thinks to ask about their emotional or mental health. Most missionaries will come home just fine, but having a safe place to talk about things, even for just an hour, could do wonders. And of course, such an exit exam might help families spot problems before they get serious.
I believe that a mission can and should be a wonderful, life-changing experience for young LDS men and women, but we must approach missions with honesty and candor. Our children deserve at least that from us.