In two days, I will have hit my 20-month mark. By missionary reckoning, that means only three more transfers. Odds are I will have one more experience with a new area before I depart home. Out here in the field, such a departure is termed “death.” Such a harsh term was likely selected as a sort of mental safeguard against “trunkiness”—a word which here means “feelings of homesickness and distraction thereof.” I’ve felt stir-crazy before, but actually preparing to move on with life is another thing entirely. It is at once exhilarating and terrifying.
The real trick here is remembering just how much work there is left to do. One can’t afford to slow down; this work is far too important, and it doesn’t stop with just one person. There are future missionaries who will need an area that was stronger than it was before.
Unfortunately, I’ve felt myself slowing down, and I reckon it has something to do with lack of courage. Early on in my mission, I think I pushed myself a lot harder according to where I was at that time. Perhaps to the average new missionary it would not have been quite as big a deal, but by my personal standard, I was often near the breaking point. I did grow, but there were times I felt I was standing too close to the edge, and I came to fear it somewhat.
There’s a point in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit that illustrates the sort of thing that I think must happen. It’s the story of Bilbo, a neurotic, anxiety-prone halfling who decides to undertake an adventure to a strange land with a bunch of people he doesn’t know, in order to help reclaim that which was lost. He was not noted for his strength, or guts, or willpower, or even wits (with a couple of exceptions). Nonetheless, he trusted that he must have something to contribute, or else he would not have been “called to the work.” (D&C 4) Sound like a mission yet?
Over the course of many months, Bilbo is tested and tried both mentally and physically, finding himself in unwanted battles, discomforting encounters, and frightful situations. Time and time again he is forced to be decisive, and to learn to function without his leaders constantly present. He grows a lot during that time, mostly without noticing it.
At length he and his companions make it to their destination, only to find their long-sought kingdom and treasure guarded by a fearsome and deadly dragon. And here’s where we get to what I mentioned earlier—Bilbo, despite his lackluster constitution, is selected to slip into the dragon’s cavern, alone, and risk his life against an ancient beast who could turn him into a pile of ash in about a second.
Tolkien describes this experience as being the most difficult of Bilbo’s life—not the event as a whole, but the long steps Bilbo is forced to make to approach the dragon. The real opponent here is not the building-sized monster up ahead, but Bilbo himself. Will he advance into the treasure room, or will he turn tail and head home? Then he realizes that he hadn’t come that far just to stop trying. And soon, having overcome his personal fears and inhibitions, he returns, having successfully carried out his mission.
The one part of this story that I hope doesn’t carry over to real life is when Bilbo returns home and discovers that everyone thought he was dead… But that comes later. Point is, missions are like stepping toward that dragon every single day. For me, at least, that’s still every single door, and I’ve been out here for 20 months.
Regardless of personal challenges, I think the principle is generally the same. Now understand, going overboard—recklessly charging into the dragon’s cavern unarmed and shouting reptilian slurs—that’s not a good idea. At all. But if we are to truly lose ourselves in the service of others, it will certainly take facing up to some of our fears.
“And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson talked a lot about “saving your life” during a YSA devotional a few years ago. I’m still struggling to understand it myself, but I think that more often than not, it means a desire to put God’s will ahead of your own.
Well, I’m tired of writing now, so I think I’ll cut it off there. Everyone have a great day!