I couldn’t help but feel a sense of anxiety as I sat across from my mission president for my departing interview. I’d sat in that chair several times before, but this time was different. This would be the last time I’d meet with him in this capacity, and we weren’t exactly parting on the best of terms — I was leaving my mission early, and neither of us were happy about it.
Without going into detail, I was in a bad place emotionally. In my mind I retraced every step I’d taken during the last 19 months — there were a lot of them — trying to figure out how I had gotten there. The first year was so fun. I had success, and I got along with most of my companions, but now, for some reason, I was depressed. So after 19 months of service I was released honorably and sent home to get healthy.
As hard as leaving the mission was, going home was harder. There’s a stigma in our culture that those who don’t serve missions and those who return home early, for whatever reason, are somehow less than other full-time missionaries. Every year several missionaries return home prematurely, and because of this stigma many of them lose their way.
It’s not easy to face family, friends, ward members, and mentors — all the people who were so proud to see you off — and tell them you failed to meet their expectations. It’s incredibly difficult to see the looks of pity in the eyes of people whose respect you hold dear and to feel like you’re no longer good enough to be in their midst. So naturally, some people quit.
When I got to BYU after my mission I found it so hard to go to church every Sunday and listen to people talk about nothing but the mission. I wanted to be uplifted, and I wanted to be fed spiritually, but talking about being a missionary was hard. Often times I would duck out after sacrament meeting to avoid having to talk to people. I know I wasn’t helping the problem, but it was the easiest solution. It was a vicious cycle. I felt like an outsider so I didn’t attend my meetings, in turn making myself an outsider.
The sad part to me is that often people don’t even know that they are ostracizing these people who desperately need help.
I’ve experienced it in dating, I’ve seen it in elder’s quorums, and I’ve even come across it in religion classes. The girl you’ve been dating wants a cookie cutter R.M. with no baggage, so she tells you she understands, but she just wants to be friends from then on. Every example given in a priesthood lesson is a mission experience. To make a point your professor asks all of those who have served missions to raise their hands.
While missions are extremely important and necessary to God’s plan, we have to remember that they don’t necessarily define the heart of the man or woman.
I have two great friends who were released honorably for various reasons, and I know they have both struggled to find their places again. One of them had an especially hard time with his testimony because he’d been taught his whole life that serving a mission is the mark of a good LDS guy. After a few wayward months, my friend found his way back to the path, but how many early returing R.M.s never do? How many guys who never serve missions feel that they aren’t as good as their friends?
One of my greatest fears was telling my wife, then girlfriend, that I had come home early from my mission. Not because of the emotional issues I had had to work through, but because I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t a worthy priesthood holder. Luckily for me, my wife had taken the time to get to know me and to learn what kind of man I was — and still am. She understood that despite my shortcomings and the circumstances surrounding my release, I was still a good guy. She understood the Atonement and that all God expected of me was to do my best.
To this day I find it hard to talk to people about my mission experience because I don’t want people to judge me. I love my mission. I learned a lot from it, and I genuinely loved the people I served. I just don’t want people to think of me as different because of when I came home.
We never know what is going on in a person’s life. Let’s not be so quick to judge. Let’s not be so fast to exclude. Let’s all make more of an effort to understand. Let’s remember that missions are all about serving people and bringing them into the gospel.