Returning Home: The Unexpected Road of Trials for Returned Missionaries
Returning home may be the hardest part of an LDS missionary’s experience. It can be more difficult than leaving.
AN LDS MISSION: THE LDS VERSION OF THE HERO’S JOURNEY
A divine call to adventure, a new world to explore, and a return home to tell the tale: There is no doubt that a full-time LDS mission classifies as a heroic adventure for young men and women. As renowned cultural and mythological expert Joseph Campbell astutely observed, all heroic journeys contain three essential parts: A Separation, An Initiation, and A Return. An LDS mission is a mirror of this three part Heroic Act: Separation (Receiving the Call and a Farewell), Initiation (The Serving of the Mission), and Return (Coming Home).
Culturally, there is great anticipation for serving a mission. Children sing about going on a mission from the age of three. Adolescents begin to save money early on and wear badges reading “future missionary” at church. In a way, it’s a part of their destiny. The expectation for a mission is felt from a very young age.
Missionaries receive an (often) exciting call to serve in an unfamiliar land. Upon arrival, they face trials, tests, and even enemies to their cause. So much light is shone on the anticipation, preparation, and experience of a mission, that we may have cast an unintentional shadow on the difficult experience of returning home. The return is a vital part of the journey. Oftentimes, missionaries return home emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. This is when trial and temptation enter into the hero’s life.
We rightfully pray for missionaries during their preparations and full-time service, but we may do well to focus just as intently on those who are returning (and those who have returned). Surprisingly, the return home may be the most difficult part of a mission.
REFUSAL OF THE RETURN
Not many missionaries refuse their actual mission call once it has been issued. However, there is a desire by some to want an extension to their mission. This may be due to current mission needs or the sincere desire to continue serving. However, there may be a resistance or reluctance to face upcoming changes. This “refusal to return home,” makes a lot of sense when examined. It has been more commonly recognized by missionaries who are returning home to poverty, or more dire circumstances than experienced in the mission field (thus the value of the perpetual education fund and other church funded programs).
When someone reaches a unique and accomplished point in their life, they often don’t want to return to normalcy—especially if those circumstances are “below” what they have been living. This reluctance to being “common” again pertains to missionaries from all economic situations and cultures. The refusal to return also contains a loss of current purpose and an uncertainty of future meaning.
When returning home, a missionary experiences significant loss in many meaningful relationships. I personally remember tears streaming down my face in the airplane after I had to say goodbye to my mission president and his wonderful wife. They had become family to me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I was facing the realization that I may never see them again.
Missionaries mourn the loss of hundreds of meaningful relationships: spiritual converts, investigators, local members, and the deeply-felt love for the people and culture that they have tirelessly served. Furthermore, mission companions and fellow missionaries develop significant friendships that could be equated to family—a band of brothers and sisters, so to speak. These are also people that may never be seen again. This loss may not be initially felt in the thrill of coming home, but can be a sadness experienced in the ensuing months. That this is a form of mourning is not hyperbole, but an accurate description, particularly given the perceived finality of the loss.
A missionary also experiences a loss of his or her core identity. Almost every interaction for a year and a half to two years starts with “I am a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ.” Or, put more succinctly “I am a Representative of Jesus Christ.” It becomes a core identity—and an incredibly meaningful one at that. There is a deep sense of spiritual purpose in everything that is done. It leads to confidence and a sense of divine direction and meaning. When that identity goes away, the confidence and the internal compass may go with it. We often see this when famous athletes retire from competition. Missionaries may associate their identity with their calling. Losing that core and then finding a new one can be excruciatingly difficult. One missionary described this experience as “coming home a shell of herself.” Her core was missing.
Even if a missionary is coming from the other side of the world, there is not a lot of time to process the events of their mission—or their emotions related to them. With modern transportation, transitions happen much quicker than they used to. I know many people have jested at the idea of an ‘RMTC’—A Returning Missionary Training Center—where missionaries could process their emotions, consolidate their mission experiences, learn about current events, obtain skills needed for study or work, and even basic “do’s and don’ts” for dating! The idea itself is usually brought up as a joke, but I actually see some therapeutic benefit in the concept.
Most, if not all missionaries, (even those who have served in the United States) come face-to-face with shockingly dire circumstances they may not have encountered before—poverty, illness, abuse, and even death. Returning to the comforts of one’s own home after knowing difficulties other people experience can be accompanied with immense guilt. Even experiencing hot water again can bring intense emotional reactions to a missionary who is very aware of entire villages and countries that don’t have it. One of my good friends described a break-down he observed in his older brother, cupping his hands to his face and sobbing when he turned on their bathroom faucet for the first time.
I recall my own mini-breakdown when I went to the mall for the first time to get some “normal clothes.” We were waiting in line and I saw someone in the line next to me purchasing a beautiful, intricate, glass dolphin. “What do you need a glass dolphin for when there are people who don’t have food to eat?” The thought was overwhelming and I had to get out of there as soon as I could.
We gratefully recognize the importance of helping our returned war veterans adjust back to their civilian lives. Although the transitions are not entirely the same, missionaries have a similar struggle in how to feel “normal again.” Maybe an ‘RMTC’ really isn’t such a bad idea to help returning missionaries adjust to their more conventional way of living?
There could be volumes of books and articles written on the awkwardness that missionaries display upon their return home! We poke fun at missionaries about their weird accents and way of speaking, their awkward haircuts and style, their physical changes, their nervousness about dating, and their struggles with new technology. We even wonder astoundingly about their disconnection about popular culture: “How have you not seen ‘What Did the Fox Say?’” In my case, nobody could believe that I hadn’t seen Napoleon Dynamite. I was wondering why everyone was talking like their I.Q. had dropped by fifty points! Even though it’s (sometimes) easy and fun to point out the obvious (funny) changes you see, there may be something more profound and needful underneath the perceived social clumsiness.
I remember a girl describing to me her first date with a newly returned missionary. She said they were having a wonderful time together. As they were walking and talking, her newly-returned-missionary-date paused, as if to say something meaningful to her. He continued to pause. He continued to pause. He finally put words to what he was thinking and quietly reflected “I wish I was back on my mission right now.”
We initially laughed at the unexpected turn in the conversation. She wisely decided not to take the comment personally. She understood that this was not a reflection on her not being a fun date, but a sincere sadness and loss (and that he yearned for someone to just understand). I was wowed by the depth of perception my friend showed. She sincerely said to me, “I feel so bad for these guys sometimes. They seem sort of torn up inside.”
In my meetings with returned missionaries, their experience of their first year home has been most commonly described as “aimless drifting.” Others have described their first several months home as “a summer from hell,” “a road of temptation,” and “a huge disappointment in themselves.” One said that he felt “the loss of a million prayers” and felt more alone than he had ever recalled feeling. This isn’t always the case—for many missionaries their return home is nothing but bliss! However, there is enough of a pattern to show that we need to pay attention and look into how we can be most helpful.
Missionaries often return back to their same environment (and even bedroom)—as if nothing had even happened. Parents may even have the same rules and may treat them the same as they did before they left.
The contrast of going from the extraordinary to the ordinary can be experienced as sadness, depression, or can even lead to a sense of panic in a returned missionary—sort of like being lost! Missionaries are used to having constant companionship. The freedom from a companion may be rejoiced on one hand, but a sense of isolation and fear may creep in.
THE ROAD OF TRIALS, TEMPTATION, AND THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
As in most heroic journeys, it is often after the great spiritual experience that the road of trials and temptation come (see Jesus after his baptism, Moses after his experience in the Pearl of Great Price, and Joseph Smith after his First Visitation). Temptation can come in many forms for returning missionaries: alcohol, drugs, gambling, gaming, or dealing with sexual desire. A client observed that a lot of returning missionaries have “extreme guilt complexes.” This can arise from current behavior, or a sense that they “could have or should have done more on their missions.”
More significant than any temptation or guilt that a missionary could feel, the true Devil is the feeling of shame—I am not enough or I am not worthy. Shame is feeling unworthy of love from God, others, or from one’s self. It is an intense feeling of worthlessness and leads to a disconnection from one’s self and God. Shame is both a reality and a myth. It is real, in that returning missionaries can intensely feel it about themselves. It is a myth in that it is never true! While returning missionaries can be incredibly hard on themselves, I have never met a returned missionary that I didn’t feel intense awe and admiration for. They are so incredible. It’s truly saddening that they are not feeling the deep sense of love and worth that they deserve.
An important thing to remember when someone is going through temptation and trial is not to judge them, but to support and understand them. This is easier said than done. I am not advocating for returned missionaries to purposefully put themselves in difficult situations—this will probably happen without seeking it out. However, dips in spirituality or even experiencing emotional darkness are part of the process of progression. I personally wish it weren’t so. However, we can often see the wisdom in struggle once the fog has cleared. The night is darkest just before dawn, so to speak.
I think of one returned missionary in particular, who seemed to have quite the streak of bad luck. After returning home from his mission, he broke his leg playing soccer, had a mishap during the medical procedure (which led to further set-backs and procedures), and was confined to a couch for months at a time. Upon reflection, he described that although this was an extremely trying time in his life, he was able to use those difficulties to reflect, re-group, and set his sights on what he truly wanted to accomplish. During this time, he met his now wonderful wife, and is well on his way to a successful career and has a beautiful family.
UNMET (POSSIBLY UNREALISTIC) EXPECTATIONS
Missionaries are used to setting goals throughout their missions. They also set goals for themselves upon their return home. They have high expectations of themselves. They tend to hold themselves to a very high standard. Alfred Adler, a founding father of psychology itself, suggested that people feel inferior or depressed when they don’t feel they are actualizing their potential—an apt description of returning missionaries.
In other words, all frustration comes from unmet expectation. One of my best friends recently told me of an experience he had when he encountered a recently returned missionary working at Best Buy. This hard-working young man confided in my friend that the transition home had been “rough.” My friend, with genuine empathy for this young man, spent over an hour with him, telling him his advice to all returned missionaries: “Be Easy On Yourself. You Are Going To Make Mistakes. Just Do Your Best and Be Patient With Yourself.” This is a truly therapeutic message for all returning missionaries.
Setbacks and unmet expectations will happen for missionaries. They may have a hard time finding a job, deciding if or where to go to school, disappointing heart-break, and even feeling the weight of broken promises they made to themselves and God. They need someone to help them understand that it is alright. They, just like when they leave, need a mentor and friend. Like my friend showed, they need someone to wrap their arm around them and tell them that they are doing great—that they are enough.
As Adler illustrated, feeling that you are not enough or not meeting what you expect of yourself leads to disappointment, a sense of failure, and even depression. These emotions can lead to a loss of desire for further meaningful church service, or more intensely, a disconnection or abandonment from God and loved ones. Our love and support can help them in this moment of transition.
Although I work in the mental health field, I am not a huge fan of labeling people with diagnoses. However, one of the most common and understandable diagnoses in the clinical handbook are what are called Adjustment Disorders. Basically, they are classified as individuals experiencing anxiety or depression (or both), as a direct result of adjusting to a new life circumstance or event.
Common examples are mourning the loss of a loved one, losing a job, obtaining new employment, moving to a new environment, or changing schools. It’s entirely normal to experience stress or sadness during change. Change affects all of us. An understandable amount of time to adapt to change and regain stability is between six and twelve months. This isn’t a hard, fast rule, but it can be a helpful guideline to know that there’s nothing wrong with you if you are not over a loss immediately. It just shows that what you lost is important to you and you hope for a meaningful future.
Missionaries are not magically excluded from the anxieties and sadness that can come during and after their transition home. One of the most helpful tools in moments of transition is a support group and trusted friends.
WHAT WE CAN DO: HONOR, EMPATHY, RESCUE FROM WITHOUT
I am not saying that banners of cups on the overpass, posters in front of the house, and fifteen minute summations of their mission experience in sacrament meeting are not meaningful, fun, and important. The excitement is real and memorable. Enjoy it! However, I am suggesting that it is in the quiet times of reflection and soul searching during the following year coming home from a mission that a missionary needs the most empathy, love, and support.
Like the grieving process, the primary way to heal is to allow people to feel what they need to feel and talk about their losses, stresses, new identity, and fears of the future. Empathy, understanding, and love truly are the greatest of healers. Just as divine intervention is accentuated at the start of a mission; divine blessings, friendships, and mentors are needed in the return. President Gordon B. Hinckley said all new converts need a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing. So do all returned missionaries. Our love and compassion may be a gift that they are not able to give to themselves.
FINAL THOUGHT: ALL MISSIONARIES HAVE RETURNED WITH HONOR
Regardless of where a missionary served or the amount of time and service given, ALL missionaries have learned valuable, courageous, and honorable life lessons that need to be told and shared with others. Even the selfless thought of desiring to serve and help others is honorable. ALL have returned with something to honor. It is up to us to truly honor them. We can do this by listening to them without judgment, supporting them in their difficult transition, and displaying genuine love and interest in their worth as incredibly strong individuals. This isn’t always easy, but it will always be worth it.
We have a great opportunity to honor missionaries, hear their powerful stories, show compassion, and help them find acceptance, meaning, and direction in their adjustment to the next phase in their life.