One of my step-brothers just started his two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like many of us who served a mission, especially those who served in a foreign country, he’s struggling with a bit of homesickness.
Here’s a recent email I sent him. Feel free to send it along to anyone who might need it.
I feel your pain man. We’ve all been there. Here are a few thoughts:
• Confide in your trainer, other missionaries, mission leaders & mission president. They’ll have lots of experience and advice, especially because they have the authority to receive revelation on your behalf. Humbly seek them out, ask for help & guidance, and be willing to do what they say.
• Serve. Serve your companion. Serve people in your ward. Serve random people on the street. Want to know something interesting about charity? Read Moroni 7. You cannot have charity for yourself, it is only charity when it’s outward love and concern for the well being of others. (That’s the “forget yourself” part of the quote.)
• There are specific answers for you if you’ll seek them out. The scriptures talk about “diligently searching”. That signifies effort, that it may be hard. But, at least in my experience, it takes going through some tough, humbling times in order to get to a point where you’re willing to listen to those answers. They may be unexpected. They may be different than what you thought was possible. They may push you out of your comfort zone.
• Ponder what it would look like if you didn’t have homesickness. What would you do with the extra time and energy you currently spend being homesick? What does a version of Elder Nielson look like without the homesickness? How does he get up? What does he do in the mornings? How does he interact with his companion? How does he serve? How does he teach?
• There’s a line of thinking that says that everything comes down to two base emotions: pleasure and pain. Those two emotions are the reason we do anything, or don’t do anything. So, if you’re homesick, it stands to reason that it’s one of two things. Pleasure: the mission is hard, and so it’s more “pleasurable” to think back to your life before your mission in a “homesick” way. You’re homesick because it’s easier. That speaks to the pain as well – missions are hard. You feel incapable, slow, behind, like an outsider, or unwelcome. These are the emotions satan uses to reinforce the pain of becoming the missionary the Lord wants you to be. Missions are HARD. You’ve literally ripped yourself from your life that you’ve known forever and have been dropped into a new country, with a new language, new people, new cultures, etc. That’s HARD for ANYONE, especially an 18/19 year old kid who doesn’t speak the language and has nothing to hold onto that’s a constant thing.
Except that you do. You have the Lord. You have the scriptures. You have the Holy Ghost, that’s capable of teaching you all things, guiding you, etc. So you’ve got to rely on the things that remain constant.
• There’s another thought that comes from Stoicism, a fairly old philosophy that even pre-dates Christianity. One of the principles of Stoicism that I love says that “The Obstacle Is The Way”. What’s it mean? It means that whatever your biggest obstacle is – take the feeling of homesickness – rather than trying to ignore it, or forget it/not think about it, you actually turn and lean into it. You take homesickness and use it to make you a better missionary. One example of how to do that: you’re homesick because you miss your family. Your mom and your siblings. Imagine that feeling multiplied 100x – that’s probably what people who have lost a loved one to death or tragedy are feeling when they think about what happens after they die. You can use your experience of experiencing the emotions around homesickness to better connect with investigators and teach them about the plan of salvation. That’s just one idea.
You can use the feelings of homesickness to strengthen the relationship you have with your companion and other missionaries. Treat them like brothers. Learn about their lives, find commonalities, grow closer together. They become your surrogate family while you’re away, and those friendships last forever. As I type this I’m right in the middle of working on a project that my mission trainer sent me – we work together every few months on film projects even though we’ve been home for over 12 years.
See if there’s a way to use “the obstacle is the way” when it comes to this trial, because that practice you put in on dealing with this struggle will help you with the next, and the next, and the next.
• On my mission, about 6 or 8 months in, I got a call from the mission president. In the MTC I was the district leader, and we had 6 elders and 4 sisters. We all got really close, and I felt a great love for the sisters especially, because I knew how hard it was for some of them to leave on the mission.
On this call, I found out that one of the sisters, sister Dickens, had gone home early from depression. She had some heavy stuff she was dealing with, and over thanksgiving break in 2003, she committed suicide. She took her life because she couldn’t overcome the stuff in her head.
The reason I tell you this is not to scare you. It’s because going through that on the mission helped me tremendously when I returned home a few years later and found out my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I was there, five years and a few months after that, in the hospital when she took her last breath. I closed her eyes after her spirit had left her body, and felt peace. I knew where she had gone. I know that my experience would have been incredibly different if I had not had a personal experience with the death of a friend prior to that. Going through this hard time is going to make you stronger and better and a stronger instrument for the Lord – as long as you don’t give up and don’t let it get the best of you. It’s going to be hard. There will be harder things down the road. Decide now that when you have hard times that you are determined to figure it out, press on, endure, and make it through.
The Lord needs you, Elder. You specifically. You’ve been called and put in the mission and the area and companionship you have been put in because there’s no one else on earth that can do what you can do for the people you’re there to serve. So whenever you find yourself getting homesick, take a step back, try to see a broader perspective, and realize that you’re there to become the person the Lord needs you to be to help his work move forward, but also that there are people specifically praying for you, who need you to serve them, and they need every bit of you. So, in those immortal words, forget yourself, and go to work.