Spinning the Mission Experience

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.

Self-censoring

Hostility

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.

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.

Disappointment

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.

Another wrote:

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.

Example

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.

Conformity

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.

Aftermath

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.

Opening Up

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

John K. Williams’s mission memoir, Heaven Up Here, may be purchased in paperback or Kindle format from Amazon.com.

Comments

Spinning the Mission Experience — 24 Comments

  1. I was one who came home early (after 21 months) for health-related issues. My parents simply weren’t ready for me to come home. I came home to family that was emotionally divorced, and I found myself believing I would be better off had I somehow found a way to stay in the mission field. There was no question that my family was disappointed, especially my father, who was particularly skeptical of the reasons I came home. I can also very much relate to the pressure to self-censor. After 18 months in the mission field, I purchased a new journal, copied down the entries I liked from my old journal, eliminated most of the bad stuff, and proceeded to throw away my old journal. For three months, I had lamented how much I hated one of my companions. I turned out to be the most miserable time of my mission. The only remnants of those feelings I once had are preserved in my weekly letters to the mission president, which were shipped to me six months after coming home.

  2. When I was barely a teenager, I received the advice to keep a journal and write in it feelings that were good – OR bad. Moreover, I was told that good and bad would be of benefit to my posterity; it was a real trial of faith to believe that. But it meant that when it came to my mission, I wrote down everything, sometimes stuff so painful and confusing that I don’t want to revisit it yet. Sometime, though, I think I will.

    I can certainly relate to the radical self-punishment for relatively minor guilts, however. (Having a first companion tell me I wasn’t obedient if I left the door one second after the appointed time didn’t help.) Perhaps my greatest regret from my mission comes from realizing how much of my guilt I took out on others around me, especially some of my companions.

  3. Great job. Tallies closely with my experience. Amazing how little has changed in 50 years.

  4. Excellent article, John. Good to see you again at Sunstone last week. I agree that we should share what happened in our missions truthfully.

    You make a really good point about how we relate missionary experiences, both good and bad. I am grateful that I have never felt I needed to hold anything back from freely sharing, whether in public or in private.

    Sadly, I feel that my treasured missionary experiences, especially the wonderful ones where God’s hand was clearly seen, are now automatically going to be questioned and doubted and thought of by some as a theatrical sham. How sad. I had not even considered that some might doubt my honesty. I guess I’m naive.

  5. Thanks for the kind words. Cliff, I don’t think people need to view our experiences with suspicion if we are just honest about the good, the bad, and the in-between. I feel like I lost out on sharing my mission with my family because I was so focused on presenting a good face. I told my mom that the other night, and she agreed.

  6. Thank you for this great article, John. I also tore pages out of my journal because the stories weren’t faith-promoting, and I really regret it now, even 30+ years after it happened. As a matter of fact, once I tore the pages out I stopped keeping a journal altogether because I couldn’t take compromising my integrity. I figured better nothing at all than something bogus I would regret later.

    It was very hard to come up with good things to say about my mission. It was a low baptizing mission and the people were unfriendly. Most converts were inactive within a month, although there were a few exceptions. I had a couple of OK stories, and a couple which I embellished (to be more faith-promoting), and more than a few from which I omitted some salient details (just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s useful).

    I’ve found that as the years go by, I talk less and less about it, and I generally defer to the younger crowd for their faith promoting stories. After all, nobody wants to hear from an old cuss!

    I’d still say my mission was a net positive experience for me, but I have to wonder just how much of the good I’ve made myself believe with 30+ years of positive spin.

    Again, thanks for this excellent article.

  7. I’m fascinated by this censoring of mission journals. Selective forgetting is a normal human trait, and I’m sure we all rearrange or embellish our life stories a bit for rhetorical purposes, but usually that’s a subconscious process. The editing of journals is a really striking (and slightly disturbing) example of this process occurring on a conscious level after reflection and perhaps with institutional endorsement.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I’m realizing that I censored a portion of my journal, once, for similar reasons. This was back in my evangelical days. There was a journal entry where I’d declared myself an atheist in very strong terms. Later I changed my mind, and went back and softened the language of this entry. I almost immediately regretted censoring a part of my personal history, but the damage was done and it was too late to recover the deleted material. (I keep my journals electronically.)

  8. I recall our mission president told us to write two letters minimum each week — one to him, and one to our parents. We were instructed to always include a spiritual experience in those letters.

    I suppose that requirement made our letters sound more uplifting and faith-inspiring than our actual mission experience. And we too were given those letters after our missions.

    FWIW, I am one of those who enjoyed their mission overall, particularly after the first few months. Perhaps I was kind of strange — I even had nightmares about my mission ending. But I knew other Sisters and Elders who were miserable.

    John, do you have a sense of the ratio of “enjoyers” vs “non-enjoyers” from the interviews you conducted?

  9. This was a fascinating article. When I was on a mission (1981-82) I included the good and the bad in my letters home to my non-member parents. When my oldest daughter served a few years ago, I thought from her letters that she was having a wonderful, spiritual adventure in Korea. She returned home very conflicted, and had experienced many difficult times. But her mission president had instructed her only to share the faith-promoting things with her family. I felt horrified and saddened that she hadn’t been able to tell us about her trials and receive moral support from us.

    Thank you for your final advice to consider some counseling upon returning home from a mission. I hadn’t thought of that, and I can see that it could be of real value.

  10. I didn’t have much respect for the missionaries who were obviously desperately trying to put a cheerful face on stuff that didn’t really deserve being cheerful about. I really disliked the kiss-ups, those who would manufacture happiness and spirituality in order to impress the artificial expectations put on them.

    But I also didn’t appreciate the negative missionaries either. People who griped about everything, people who were obviously pissed off at being in the mission, and trying to avoid engaging in the work we were there for. I had zero respect for those guys as well. They weren’t helping anything, and their constant sense of victimization had absolutely nothing of value in it.

    I wished they’d shut up already and get out of the way of the missionaries I did respect. Missionaries who didn’t sugar-coat things, didn’t try to manufacture spirituality, didn’t lose sight of who they were – but rather were there to act like adults and get a very worthwhile and important job done.

    I still feel immense pride in what we were doing in Japan. I think it was incredibly important, and incredibly hard. But I don’t think I could have spent that period of my life in any better way.

    Full disclosure – I was one of the more negative missionaries myself – and I know full well what a pointless, defeatist, vicious little paradigm it could be at times. Which is probably why other negative missionaries rubbed me the wrong way. I was trying to kick this mentally deficient paradigm and get work done – and the negative reinforcement wasn’t helping matters.

  11. I don’t recall ever having been counseled by a mission president to record only the positive. In fact, one of my senior campanions (yes, it was that long ago) made it a point to tell me that he only ever wrote in his journal when he wasn’t getting along with his companion. I’m sure he told me this so that I’d know what I needed to do if ever I should see him writing in his journal.

    Regarding the explict self-censoring of one’s journal, my mother for a time maintained two journals–one that was pretty much a standard chronological narrative of her activities; the other more of a vehicle for therapy and release. She’d occasionally transfer some material from the second to the first, then destroy that portion of the second. Also, when she prepared her mother’s journals for photocopying and distribution, she excised some entries convinced that her mother never intended these for other eyes (even though her mother never deleted this material herself). Do you think this is common, or not? (If this is too off topic, please don’t hesitate to ignore it.)

  12. I never served a mission, although 5 of my brothers did. There was much that they didn’t want to talk about. It makes me very curious now, many years later, about what they are thinking and feeling.
    Reading this excellent post, I wondered if some of the dynamics of self-censoring are similar to what soldiers go through when they return from serving in war. In a similarly tight-knit community, there seems to be some pressure not to cast negative shadows on the military or the nation.
    This also made we wonder how much dynamics like conformity, hostility, and expectations come into play when it comes to members’ expression of their testimony of the Church.

  13. Clair,

    My intent is not to say that there are enjoyers and non-enjoyers. I enjoyed my mission in many ways, and I was not negative or complaining, though I recognize I went through some very traumatic experiences. My wife, on the other hand, was in the same mission at the same time and has nothing but good memories. That doesn’t mean she enjoyed her mission and I didn’t.

    I was hoping for a dialogue about why we only share a small portion of our missions with others. And it should be clear that I am not saying that this is something all missionaries do; I just thought it was an interesting common thread in the responses I received to my book.

  14. John — you’re right, how one feels about their mission can be complex, and not so simply summed up.

    As the supposed capstone of the lives of LDS men and some women in their early 20s, it is hard for them not to answer in any other terms than in an affirmative manner. In my experience, it has been only after a long discussion about the mission experience that some have shared difficult aspects of their mission.

    Descriptions of the missionary experience are expected to fit into the larger presumed church narrative of faith promotion and divine purpose.

  15. Christopher Smith raises some importact social tensions and dynamics in relation to emotion and behavior, which I have also been grappling with in my article about the role of emotions in people leaving Mormonism. Christopher (I hope first names are okay) talked about selective memory, which is indeed a common mental move among all humans (excuse the sweeping generalization). The problem comes, however, in the way that behavior interacts with a specific cultural context.

    Culture lends to us the meaning of our emotional states and our experiences, and tells us what is salient and what isn’t. In other words, we go through as humans a process of evaluating or judging our own affect at any given moment, and we respond to our affect based on cultural scripts, social conventions, and social interactive needs (that is, in order to mediate and navigate our relationships “correctly” given the context).

    So the issue here, for me, isn’t that everyone has selective memory, but that Mormon mission experiences commonly demand self-censorship (not universally, but I would argue this is true of a preponderance of mission cultures within Mormonism). Indeed, I would argue that the meanings ascribed to various human affects by Mormonism generally place a huge pressure for the self to become delusional about its own experiences. Further, I would argue that Mormonism has a sort of “system-wide” schema of emotions that leads adherents to see themselves as either “righteous” or “wicked” based on their emotional states. This in turn leads to an intense social pressure to correctly express and display emotions (or hide them) and experiences in order to appear to be “righteous” within the social group.

    So what John’s paper suggests is that the self-censorship arises not from mere selective memory, but from an entire social system of relationships, checks and balances, rewards and punishments: In sociological terms, this is the internalization of social control.

    I think one of the difficulties is seeing the relationship between a somewhat universal human behavior of selective memory and a socially enforced norm that asks individuals to consciously reshape themselves to meet social expectations.

    [I apologize if I'm meandering here, I'm sort of giving birth to this idea on the fly. I'm also kinda being sociology jargony, for which I apologize; I can clarify later if necessary.]

  16. Todd, what an interesting comment! I think the idea of social pressure to be seen as “righteous,” (and indeed, internal pressure as well) is a productive way to see this. At least in my experience it is prevalent. I tend to think this becomes less of a pressure as one ages, but certainly at missionary age, and in the mission environment, it is common.

  17. I had nightmares for 20 years after. I haven’t had a mission-related nightmare in 10+ years now and I take that as a positive sign.

    I kept a journal throughout my mission, aiming for truth. In retrospect my bias was trying to be smarter and more sophisticated than I really was. Four months ago, at 54 years old, I finally opened one of those journals. Sadly, I flipped through only 10 pages or so. It was just too painful, so I closed my journal and put it on my desk, promising to get back to it soon.

    I hope to type up my journal, redacting as I go. It turns out I’m still ashamed and hiding, although now I’m ashamed for having been so crippled by turmoil, insecurity, and questions I couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. It’s like I’m still a missionary, still lying, still burning in my own private hell while teaching about the Plan of Happiness.

  18. Thanks John, I just wrote a long post… but when I clicked to post it said there was something wrong with the password, and when I clicked back the text was gone. Darn. Anyway, I was just saying that I read and enjoyed your book this past weekend. I have lots more to say, but don’t know when I’ll have the time to rewrite it. :(

  19. I agree that social control–the tacit understanding that a missionary is supposed to be positive–may be a factor, here. I also think that people sometimes redact things or self-censor out of a sense of privacy. I have three pencil-written pages from my mother’s teenaged-diary–that was all she kept, she threw away the rest; I also found a letter she wrote to herself at the age of 25, with tear-stains on it. These are treasured things for me. I once asked her why she didn’t keep a journal, (since I received a journal when I was baptized at age 8), and she told me that she didn’t want just anyone being able to read things she felt were very personal. I see this as a personality trait–some of us are more private than others, and this can change over time as well, if we become more comfortable with ourselves, and better able to identify people we can trust.

    I have kept a journal since I was 8. I actually wrote less on my mission because I was always so tired at the end of the day, I just wanted to go to sleep. But my journals are the most candid and private records I have. As an angst-ridden teenager, I was afraid of not having a chance to decide what my posterity could read; “should I tear out pages now?” I wondered. I’m glad now that I never did. Because now I can see that things that were really hard for me when I was younger are much easier for me now. And I find that encouraging. In Speaking Into the Air, a communications philosopher (I forget his name) talks about this problem–how you can’t ever take words back. And you can’t even talk back to your own words if they live on after your death. Future people who encounter them are left to wonder if they really understand what you meant. Your words are like ghosts. We can ask a text questions, but receive no answer from the original author. This intersubjectivity of language creates a real quandary.

    As for what I’ve shared about my mission experience–I never censored what I wrote in my journal, or in my weekly letters to my mission president, and man, I was a depressed missionary for the first six months. I don’t have my mission journal with me here in CA right now (it is at my AZ home), so I can’t quote it. But I can tell you what I do have written in my journal entry for July 14, 2000–my 8th day in the mission field of Chicago–a brief paragraph I scribbled down before I rolled into bed: I wrote that when I was praying before going to sleep that the thought occurred to me to pray for my father–not my mother, not my siblings, not anyone else in my family. Just my father. Strange–because I never in my life had worried about my father. So I did. I prayed for my father. And I wrote down that I did.

    The next afternoon at lunch time, the zone leaders tracked me and Sister Pearson (my trainer) down, and told us to head back to our apartment and that the mission president and his wife would be meeting us there. Also strange. An hour later, in that apartment with these three virtual strangers 3000 miles from home, I heard my father tell me over the phone in a broken voice that my mother had died. Her death was completely unexpected.

    So yeah. My mission was hard.

    And for what it’s worth, my mission president told me in my exit interview that when I got home to be honest and let people know that it was hard.

  20. I did practice self-selection on my mission. But oddly, it was the opposite way from how some of you have been describing it.

    I had a rather cynical personality as a missionary. And I also delighted in getting people riled up and defying conventional expectations. I liked shock value, playing devil’s advocate.

    Hmmm… I wonder if I should be saying all this in past tense…

    Anyway, my letters home to my parents were full of the controversial, stuff designed to shock or defy the goody-goody expectations I was sure they were all expecting of me.

    As a result, I think my dad still thinks to this day that I was borderline apostate on my mission. Getting a box full of used Dragonball comics (in the original Japanese of course – for “language study”) in the mail that I’d been accumulating for my first year in Japan didn’t help his opinion much.

    Looking back on it, I realize now that I was being dishonest with my parents. I was focusing only on the negative and controversial. I rarely sent them my positive experiences – though I was having them. I never shared my positive beliefs with them – though I certainly had those too.

    It wasn’t really fair to them – or to myself.

  21. I never self-censored in the pages of my missionary journal. I was always brutally honest about both the positive AND the negative–perhaps too much so at times. I also wrote in it every day. I’m VERY glad about both of those things now, because I ended up transcribing the entire thing and uploading it to the Internet for everyone to read.

    If you’re interested, it’s at: http://www.mormoninformation.com/Missionary_Journal.pdf

  22. Let’s be homest. My mission president was a dick. I wish there was some way that Salt Lake could homestly know what was going on. The Area Authority visited often to call the MP on the carpet, but even then, I know he sisn’t really know what was going on behind the scenes. I’m sure that much of the reason that my MP got away with what he did was because he was a native.

    Only jocks and Elders with highly placed families were allowed to serve in the mission home. The MP had his own football team complete with uniforms. I saw my MP throw an Elder to the floor. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I was not one of the suck up Elders.