In my last interview I promised my mission president that I would write out a letter explaining why I’m glad I served a mission. I never did because the thought of explaining it was overwhelming. However, five years ago today I entered the MTC and therefore embarked on this most wild of adventures. In honor of this anniversary I thought I’d finally fulfill my promise.
I never wanted to serve a mission. I knew it would be hard work. I knew I’d have to give up naps and spontaneous shopping trips, my computer, my roommates, my car, and a lifestyle I liked. I knew I’d have to talk to every random stranger in my path about church, whether they wanted to hear me or not. I knew I’d get doors slammed in my face and cold-shoulders. I knew I’d have no time to do my hair and no chance to wear cute clothes for 18 months, and if I tried they would be ruined by weather and biking as soon as I stepped out the door. All in all, I knew I’d have to trade in everything I liked about my life to walk around looking like an idiot. I was not interested.
Luckily I didn’t let my lack of interest stop me.
Lucky because I would have never known what I’d missed.
The first hint that there was something to miss struck me while speaking to one of my roommates. Her name was Carolina and she had served on Temple Square. She was the first person I told I was thinking about a mission. I expected her to get all excited and try to talk me into it. To my surprise she started to cry. “I wish I could go with you” she said. And from that moment on I knew I had to go. I had to know, despite all the unappealing aspects of a mission, why she felt that way.
So here it is… why it’s worth it:
1. THE THINGS I LEARNED:
There are a whole list of basic things I learned, like how to mount a bike in motion, how to speak Chinese, and how to really study and teach the gospel. Those are valuable things to me, but they are also things I expected to learn. The more valuable things I learned on my mission are the things I never anticipated:
I learned the joy of setting goals. I’ve always been a goal-oriented kind of girl, but serving a mission brought this to a whole new level. I had an awesome second companion to help me learn this. When she moved into the area our pool of investigators was stagnant. We had nobody to teach and people were relatively scarce in general due to the rural nature of our area. Despite this Sister McKinley was determined to break every personal record she had set on her mission so far. We probably only hit one or two of those goals, but we worked incredibly hard for two transfers and we had a lot of fun! By the time Sister McKinley left that area I believe she had successfully smashed all her previous records. I finally understood that good goals can make tasks you don’t care for much more enjoyable.
I learned the freedom of having nothing to loss. In my first transfer my apartment was ransacked. I remember walking through the door and my first reaction was to look for my computer. Then suddenly I realized, “I don’t have a computer.” It was surprisingly liberating to realize I had nothing anyone would want to take. I was free from stuff. I had nothing to loss. It may seem silly, but this significantly changed the way I see the things I own. I realized that virtually everything dies or gets lost at some point, but that’s okay. I don’t need it. And before I buy something I subconsciously consider, “is this worth the stress of taking care of it?”
I learned how to talk to strangers. There is no better way to learn this than on a mission, because you talk to strangers every chance you get and half the time they don’t want to be talking to you. Before my mission simple things like setting doctors appointments and asking for help when I needed it really stressed me out. By the time I came home I felt confident approaching almost any topic, and I’d also learned how to provide a safe way out for myself and the person I’d approached, so that the conversation ended well, no matter what the outcome. This is a priceless skill.
I learned how much can actually get done when I don’t put anything off. I’m not a procrastinator, but I went on exchanges once with a sister that put me to shame. She literally did everything the second she thought about it, no excuses. The whole time we were together I’d go to do a task and find she’d already done it… I am still amazed just thinking about it. We were together all day long and somehow she managed to get everything done without me even knowing it half the time. By the end of the day we wrapped things up so quickly I didn’t know what to do with all my extra time. I realized that putting things off creates totally unnecessary stress in my life.
I learned that the world is really messed up, and the only way to fix it all is through the gospel. Before my mission I was a pretty adamant political debater among my friends. I often got really discouraged about how rude and unwieldy people get about politics… Unwilling to compromise to find a working solution because neither side wants to admit they are doing anything wrong, or even that there is a better way. One day on my mission it hit me, the gospel solves all these problems! If people truly become converted to the gospel the poor are cared for, families are strengthened and protected, and individuals learn to value independence and care for themselves as much as possible. I realized I don’t have to pull anyone out of idealogical ruts in order to get our country and the world to a better place, just live and preach the gospel the best I can.
2. THE THINGS I LOST:
I expected to lose a lot of things on my mission. Mostly, I was reluctant to put aside a lifestyle I enjoyed in order to do something I knew wouldn’t be so fun. What I didn’t realize is that I’d be getting an 18 month adventure in exchange for 18 months of the same old blah. That stuff I loved to do was still around when I got home, but the by-the-book missionary lifestyle I lived, with it’s 87-hour work week, riding my bike to kingdom come, and seeing miracles at every turn of the road, can only come once. Nothing else I will ever do could be like that.
I also lost 20 pounds. I’d heard that missionaries tend to gain lots of weight, but in my mission that simply wasn’t true. An elder who served in most of the same areas I did had an odometer on his bike to keep track of how many miles he’d ridden… By the end of his mission he’d pedaled almost far enough to circle the globe. Riding so much so often made my thighs enormous but my waist line went down to nothing. I lost weight even while eating out 2 meals a day for a year.
I lost a lot of my biggest fears. Let’s face it, there are few people on earth who don’t fear rejection and looking totally foolish in public. Serving a mission comes with a double side of both. The funny thing is that looking foolish and being rejected are really easy to get used to. After a while its easy to get over them. I have also always had a fear of failure. That might be one reason why a mission didn’t appeal to me. I’d never done anything before that I didn’t already know I was good at. I knew I wouldn’t be the world’s most natural missionary. I faced a lot of embarrassing and disappointing failures, but I learned how to start as a failure and become a success. I remember thinking to myself “If I can do this, I can do anything.” Now I think to myself, “Hey, I did that, so I can do anything.”
3. THE THINGS I GAINED:
There are a whole list of superficial things I gained on my mission that seemed like incredible bonuses. For example, I got an awesome tan. I got to see some pretty remarkable sights. I made some life-long friends.
There are a long list of non-superficials too, mainly happiness. I remember wondering after I came home, “Why didn’t anybody tell me a mission would make me so happy?” It seemed like every time I had a bad day I’d get a letter, a Facebook post or a phone call from someone on my mission. But it was more than that. Before my mission I lived under the assumption that it’s what you do in your life that determines whether or not you’re happy. I believed that in order to be happy I needed to be doing things that made me happy. Oddly enough, that is a lie. So long as I am happy with what I’m doing I can feel happy, even if I don’t really enjoy the tasks themselves. I figured out what things in my life REALLY made me unhappy and I learned the self-discipline I needed to get rid of them.
I gained an enormous amount of faith. I thought I had faith before I left. I mean, I had enough faith to leave behind everything I loved to travel to the other side of the world and preach the gospel in broken Chinese on a street corner. That seemed like a lot of faith at the time. But on my mission I gained a deeper level of faith, the kind that makes you confident that everything will be alright. Ever since my return I’ve felt the power of that kind of faith in my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Because no matter what you do, stressful and frightening things will find you. Being able to dig down in the midst of those dark situations and remember, “No matter what happens this will all work out alright” and really believe it enough to find relief … well, you just can’t deny the importance of that.
The most valuable thing I gained was a deeper understanding of the Savior and the Atonement. Every once in a while, when I felt like I was really sacrificing something or doing something hard, or when I really felt I’d finally done something well, I would have these thoughts come to my mind about the Savior. And suddenly I’d see very clearly the vast gulf between my little sacrifices and the splendid grandeur of the atonement. And I’d realize just how incredible His sacrifice was in my behalf. I’d realize all the things I was doing for someone else, He had done things like that for me, and more, and perfectly. And I learned about the love he must feel, and the disappointment when I make mistakes. I gave up 18 months of Sunday naps, but He gave up his life. And He did it because He wants me to have the chance to be with Him and be like Him. I saw miracles roll out right and left, not just for the golden people, but for everyone I taught and some people I only met briefly. I saw the amazing signs and the wonders of heaven and I saw people change everything because of them. Who would have ever chosen to miss that?