A Letter to My Former Self as a Missionary

So yesterday I took my sister-in-law and daughter to see Venus at the art house theater in Highland Park. Afterwards, my daughter convinced her soft touch dad to stop at Anthropologie so I could buy her a dress. While I was standing around waiting for her, I noticed a book, entitled something like Letters to My Former Self. The idea was to try to convey what you wished you had known then but have since learned by dint of experience, education and maturity. I didn’t even browse the book, but I thought it was an intriguiging idea. (Sort of like future Hiro conveying a message for current Hiro on Heroes.) So I would like to write a letter to myself as a missionary. (My hope is that others in the comments will similarly write notes to some version of their former selves.)

Dear Elder Barney,

You don’t know me, but I am you, a little more than 25 years from now. I just thought I would drop you a few lines. Thanks for doing this, by the way. I know it’s hard, and you miss school and girls and all. Especially the girls–even if you are a terrible flirt with the locals. And having to be with another guy 24/7 is no picnic. Ugh. I understand completely. But trust me, this is going to be really good for you over the long haul. It will be over with before you know it. So suck it up and stick with it; one day soon enough you’ll be glad you did.

I know you’re not much of a stickler for the rules, and that’s ok. I think you were such a goody-two-shoes in high school that your subconscious sort of sees this as your chance to rebel, albeit in a safe way where you don’t do anything that is really wrong or destructive or dangerous. So don’t worry too much about that secret stash of Heart, Boston, Styx and Supertramp tapes–but also please continue to listen to plenty of Handel’s Messiah, as that is what is really going to get you through this thing. You’re never going to be made an ape, anyway, so I don’t begrudge you a few creature comforts. I won’t mention all of the other rules you broke, such as that time you and the other elders went skinny dipping in your apartment pool after hours, because, well, I’m copying this to some friends on something called a “blog,” and I wouldn’t want to shock anyone.

So let me get to the point. There are three things I would like for you to understand better than you do right now. First, please try not to worry so much about the numbers. I know you’ve been socialized–hard–to care only about the statistics, and in particular the almighty baptism statistic. I know it seems as though nothing else matters. But the stats are only important in that they represent real, actual people. You’ve got to keep your focus on the people themselves, all the time. Don’t just see them as a potential notch on your scripture case. You need to talk to them, listen to them, do what you can to help them. Some of them are going to choose not to be baptized, and that’s ok. Don’t take it personally. Don’t sweat it at all. You will reach people because of your laid back personality that the more aggressive elders could never reach (and vice versa). It’s ok to be yourself; you don’t have to try to mimic others or turn yourself into a high pressure tactics salesman to help people. Just be yourself, and you’ll do fine.

Second: The day will come when missionaries will be allowed to spend part of their time doing community service. So I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you just go ahead and start to do this on your own? It’s not like you’re overly concerned about breaking the rules, anyway (see above). And I know you have a lot of influence with your companions, and you could talk them into it. You know how you enjoy giving blessings at the hospitals in your area? Well, you can extend that. Find some good volunteer organizations and help out. A soup kitchen for the homeless would be nice. You’ll still have tons of time to proselyte, and you’ll feel better about yourself and what you’re doing.

Third. When you have some good investigators and are leading them to baptism, you really need to focus a lot more than you do on their social transition into the Church. You don’t really grasp this yet, but even if someone has a fledgling testimony in the Gospel of the Restoration, if they don’t know anybody at Church and don’t have friends who will survive the next transfers, there isn’t much chance that they will last as active, contributing members. So you really need to involve members at every step of the way. And besides, this will be fun for you, too. Figure out some members who you think will mesh well with your investigators/new members, and ask them to host a little dinner party, with several other couples and your peeps. You can go, too, at least for awhile. No lesson or anything, just good food (maybe barbecue) and conversation. Then next Sunday when your peeps come to Church, these other families are going to come up to them and engage them in a conversation, and really care about them and welcome them. This is way more important than you understand, right now, and you really ought to work a lot harder to make sure these kinds of interactions happen. Because they will make all the difference.

Well, sorry for taking so much of your time. Don’t worry about your future; it’s a good one, and you’ll be happy. I’d try to explain this whole “blog” business to you, but you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

Love,

Kevin

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    Awwwwww, this is so sweet. Thanks for posting it. It kind of also made me think about patriarchal blessings.

  2. Are you in the Dallas area?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    No, Chicago.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    If you meant Julie, she’s in Austin.

  5. Gavin Guillaume says:

    Steven’s question originates from the fact that there is a Highland Park area of Dallas (where SMU) is located that would have art house theaters and fancy stores…

  6. Ardis Parshall says:

    Dear Sister Parshall:

    Stick up for yourself a little. When you’re bathing or brushing your teeth and your comp flounces in to use the toilet, kick her out. Not only shouldn’t you have to be a captive audience to her sounds and smells, those few moments of alone time are precious. And when your mission president tells you that no, you may not see a doctor because mission insurance doesn’t cover it, call your parents immediately. If you don’t, the damage will be permanent and the entire course of your life will change. Remember, just because someone was called of God to be your mission president doesn’t mean that he will necessarily rise to the call.

    Mostly, don’t be so hard on yourself. Some things are not your fault. You’re doing your best. And 25 or so years from now, when you check the patriarchal blessing index and discover that the children in that family from Madagascar have all received their blessings in the last few years, you’ll know that maybe serving a mission wasn’t a mistake after all — or at least that it wasn’t the worst mistake you could have made.

    Hang in there, and remember that every saint in every session in every temple throughout the world is praying for you. With that added to your parents’ prayers, how can things go irretrievably wrong?

    /s/ Your future self

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, I see about the location question. The Highland Park I was referring to is a north suburb of Chicago, next to Deerfield. It is an hour’s drive from my house, but I love going there when I can. I’m always more or less the youngest person there, by far. Their clientele are mostly these really cute, older Jewish couples. It is very sweet.

    And for refreshments you can get a Toblerone and Italian soda if you want.

  8. Dear Tatiana,

    It’s wrong for your big brother to hurt your little brother and you for fun all the time. You’re not stupid, or ugly, or disgusting, and you don’t deserve to be burned, hit, cut, shoved, kicked, shocked with electricity, and constantly humiliated day after day. It’s not right for him to pick your brother up by his ankles and slam his head against the floor. Even though your parents are agreeing that you’re stupid and it’s your fault that he hurts you, you aren’t and it’s not. Just try to avoid him as much as you can and refuse to play with him.

    Even though you’re only five, you should stand up for yourself and make him stop. Next time he hurts you or your little brother, hurt him back. Don’t wait until you’re 36 years old to do that. He will stop forever after the first time you make him feel real pain. Your mom will get mad and call you crazy when you do it, but it’s what you’ll have to do. Do it now, before your little brother suffers any more damage.

    Oh, and be good to your little brother, respect him and love him and teach him his true worth. You are worthy, too. You’re both children of God and have divine natures and unlimited potential. Pray every day to be guided by His spirit. and you won’t ever go too badly wrong. Learn to be good to yourself, too, and not to loathe yourself so much.

    I wish I could be there with you to stand up for you and protect you. I wish you didn’t have to go through this alone. But when you grow up, you’ll understand some things because of all this that you would never realize otherwise. And you’ll know how to help some people that maybe only you can help. So it isn’t all bad. Nothing is.

  9. Dear Elder:

    Life isn’t as easy as you think it is and compassion is a Godly trait. You do love the Gospel and these people, but you will at some point realize the price that they pay. It is the right thing, but know that what you are giving is incomparable to what they are giving.

  10. If there’s one rule to break, break this:

    Do all your shopping, washing, hud, etc., on any day BUT P-day. On P-day, sleep, sight-see, play.

    Otherwise, you’re doing a great job.

  11. Excellent idea. For those of us who probably could have used therapy to recover from the mission, this is a useful exercise.

    1. Despite the bullying, unkindness and lack of sensitivity you see from priesthood leaders, the church is still true.

    2. Of all the ‘sins’ of your mission (unauthorized travel, reading novels, the mix tapes cunningly disguised as MoTab, playing in a volleyball league), the one thing you’ll feel guilty about later is not standing up for your companions to mission leaders.

    3. Don’t look down on the members there. They’re mostly new and doing the best they can, and in their fumbling way come closer to what Christ intended than you’ll see again for many years. Learn from them.

  12. Do all your shopping, washing, hud, etc., on any day BUT P-day. On P-day, sleep, sight-see, play.

    That word is sweet as heck.

    Dear Me,

    Take your AP’s post-mission advice. Always plan ahead and don’t wait for P-day morning to start thinking about what to do that day, for you will have already wasted precious hours!

  13. hud?

  14. hud?

    The linguists can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s a Utah word. At least I learned it from the Pleasant Grove/American Fork faction on the mish. It means crap, as in “piece of hud”

  15. A word I acquired from Elder A. Storheim from SLC. It meant, in this context, all the rubbish like running to the post office, cleaning the apartment, washing clothes, etc.

  16. Dear Me,
    Don’t expect the mission prez to be a mix of yoda and an apostle. You’re gonna get a recenlty converted mafia lord and then get a male autocrat who has severe mental problems. Neither of the mission moms will go on splits with the sisters or participate in anything but homemaking in the mission home and cooking for the elders. You can’t rely on anyone at mission HQ, imature elders, or most of your sister companions, who will have major emotional/mental baggage. It’s just you kid.

    That being said, your family and friends back home are one of the only support systems you have this side of the veil. Break the e-mail rules. E-mail your family AND friends back home. Call ‘em on the phone occasionally too. Break the service-hours rule and spend more time in orphanages, develop a vocational training program and fund it with your leftover monthly stipend. Study the Maltese Nights and their charity work before you leave the U.S. Lastly, be nice to yourself as well and give yourself pats on the back more frequently. Don’t wait for the eternities to start noticing the good work.

  17. Dear Sister B.,
    Teach the people about the joy of the gospel instead of always focusing on the do’s and don’t’s.
    Give the Elders who don’t look like they have a testimony the benefit of the doubt. (You will be surprised at who grows up to be Stake President.)
    And know that at the end of your mission when your SP releases you he will tell you that the Lord has accepted your sacrifice.

  18. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Dear Melissa,

    It gets easier! Your family still loves you and you are not as alone as you felt right after your baptism. People in your new ward want to help you, let them in.

    Pay attention to your friends. When tragedy strikes, don’t be practical. Drop everything and be there for them. Get on that airplane or you will regret it the rest of your life!

    I know you feel like your life direction has totally changed. It has, but it’s a good thing. Don’t be so scared. In a few years you are going to be so happy. Despite the bad hair decisions you’re going to make.

    And don’t turn that peacenik guy down when he asks you out on Halloween. It may not look like an invitation to go out (it’s hidden in a mass e-mail, after all) but it is and if you ignore it you will NEVER hear the end of it!

    I’m sending you a hug.

  19. I love that letter Melissa!

  20. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Thanks MCQ. If only our former selves would listen…

  21. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Mack-
    Now that you’re newly married, take this advice: DON’T MAKE ANY PLANS FOR THE FUTURE! Everything you or your fine wife have planned will turn out to be wrong, few of the things you think you want will actually happen, and you’ll be eternally grateful that they didn’t. Save yourself a decade of mental, spiritual, and physical anxiety and learn to roll with things as they come. You have no idea the possibilities that lay ahead, and whatever plans you make now will only serve to limit those possibilities later. I’d tell you how things have worked out but you wouldn’t believe me, and you would run, screaming, the other direction anyway. That’s because you’re young, you’re stupid, and you’re short-sighted. Things won’t work out how you had hoped, and that’s a good thing. Relax, settle down, and enjoy what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

    Oh, and don’t waste your time contemplating moving to Alaska to work in a fish processing plant so you can make some quick cash. You won’t go, because you’re not that stupid. Just relax, and don’t worry about not having any money – because you’ll never have any money.

    -The Future Mack

    (wow, it’s hard writing in the present tense, in the past)

  22. Dear Ann,

    You are making choices now that are going to limit your choices in the future. You’re not a stupid girl. For Pete’s sake, stop and THINK for a minute. Just follow the rules! They really aren’t that stringent (it’s not like you’re a Mormon missionary or something) and it’s EASIER that way. Listen to your parents. They aren’t stupid, and they want what’s best for you.

    I’m not sure what you’re so angry about. Maybe you need to get more exercise, or talk to a therapist.

    It’ll be OK in the end, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as you’re making it.

  23. Dear john at beginning of the mission:

    What you did was right. So follow your instincts and I’ll still be able to say that 12 years after you read this, assuming that by writing you I am risking causing you to change your behavior and alter the choices you will make and the ultimate outcome of your mission. Anyway, just act like you never read this and you will be happy about your missionary experience and service in a decade.

    Have fun (which I guarantee you is what happens — how can you not in East Germany?)

    /s/

    #############

    Dear john nearing the end of the mission:

    Stay focused. Do more service; make service at different charities, institutions, and projects a characteristic of daily missionary work, not just once a week.

    Go ahead, read the newspapers every day, unless it makes your companion really uncomfortable in which case just stop to be considerate (which you would do anyway).

    Don’t be discouraged in your final weeks; sprint all the way to the end — in 12 years when you’re writing this, you will think it was short-sighted to ease up in the last few weeks.

    Keep having fun with it.

    /s/

  24. What a wonderful idea. I’m going to write one and save it and then give it to my sons when they each enter the mission field. Thanks Kevin!

  25. Mike Parker says:

    Elder,

    You may think your mission president is a terrifying bully, but for heaven’s sake, don’t call your parents to complain about him, because they’re only going to call your stake president, and your stake president is going to call your mission president, and then you’ll really be on the mission president’s Super-High Intensity Training list.

    Oh, and shut up and try to listen to investigators’ questions before you try to answer them. You put your foot in your mouth all the time and you don’t even realize it.

    In the next letter I’ll warn you about a certain girl you shouldn’t date after you get back because she’s going to scar you emotionally for years. You’ll just have to trust me on that one.

    —You, 18 years from now

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