*7-8 min. read*
Brief background: In the LDS (that’s lingo for “Latter Day Saint” aka Mormon) church, young adults are given the opportunity to serve missions starting from age 18 (boys) and age 19 (girls). Young men are told that it is their “priesthood duty” to serve an LDS mission. While the church does not force its members to serve, this social pressure has pushed many people I know into serving. Guys serve for 2 years and girls serve for 18 months. The church chooses where each individual serves.
Less brief background: The question “where did you serve your mission?” used to makes me cringe more than any other question. I didn’t serve an LDS mission, and that’s how I am forced to reply: “I didn’t.”
This situation is amplified living in Salt Lake City, home of the LDS church. The reactions I have received range from looks of surprise coupled with poorly masked disapproval, to being scolded at my job by a middle aged Latina client for not “having enough faith,” to reminders of my “priesthood duty” by random strangers asking me in public if I was planning to serve a mission because I looked of age and they just wanted to “double check.”
I’ve had relatives discuss with my parents that they don’t understand what was keeping me back, as if I couldn’t possibly not have a reason to go! Among my peers, everyone assumes that everyone else is also going to serve an LDS mission (I was guilty of this as well). Whenever I try to explain what I did instead of serving an LDS mission, I’m often cut off, and excessively reassured that “it’s not for everyone.”
That’s right. In the end, I chose not to serve a mission. I saw that it wasn’t for me.
Not serving an LDS mission was the best thing I ever did for myself.
I didn’t feel so at the time. To be honest, I was horrified with the anticipated social repercussions of my decision. I had a flash back to when, as an 18 year old freshman at an LDS university, I was attending a social gathering with an older roommate who had not served a mission. I watched person after person ask him about his mission. When he replied that he did not serve, they would pull the same “it’s not for everyone” response and then turn around and start talking to someone else. As if they had nothing else in common to talk about! I feared that I would be treated likewise for my decision.
But by not serving a mission, I was presented with experiences that exceeded my imagination’s wildest expectations. This started with 4 months teaching English abroad because I was too scared to return from college to my hometown and admit to everyone that I wouldn’t be leaving on a mission. I struggled to explain to relatives that I had found something else to fill my time. But mostly, I was ashamed of myself each time I had to confess to my peers that I wouldn’t be joining them. I wasn’t going to band-wagon with them all in the great “wave” of missionary work. It hurt to be so vulnerable. So I left and immersed myself in the sensational metropolis of Moscow, Russia.
Not only did Moscow present me with new experiences, but it allowed me to let go of social pressures and feel free at last in my own skin. No one there cared if I had served a mission (albeit it’s not a common concept). Thus, the people there didn’t use it as a social tool to gauge who I was, or wasn’t, as a person. Who I was as person took on a new valor, and I started to value myself more as a person because of it.
Fast forward to my return from Russia:
“Wait, I thought you were serving a mission?”
Again, I would cringe. This time I’m honest with them. I was going to serve a mission.
You see, I’m a people pleaser. Or rather, I was at the time. So I wouldn’t let go of the idea just yet, even though I already knew the outcome. Being re-immersed in that social pressure, I could feel an almost toxic negativity seeping back into my life and that scared me. I didn’t want to go back to the same place emotionally that I was before Russia. After 9 months of being home, I left again.
This time I aimed high: Paris.
I signed a year long contract to live and work as an au pair in the suburbs of Paris with a French family who quickly became my second family. Like in Moscow, living in Paris released all the tensions around my mission as I acclimated to another lifestyle where a mission didn’t factor in. That year in Paris was crucial as it gave me time to come to terms with myself that it was okay if I didn’t serve an LDS mission. That I wasn’t less of a person and that I could still live a fulfilling live.
My two (-ish) years abroad allowed me to cultivate myself as a person: someone powerful enough in my own right that I no longer felt the need to be validated by other people. I share my experiences to inspire, to educate and to empower. I want my blog to remind others that we were put on Earth by God to learn, to love, and to live. And that’s the beauty of being human — there’s never an end to learning, the giving of love, or living life to its fullest potential.
So here’s what is find wrong with people’s negative reaction to my decision to not serve an LDS mission:
It implies that I don’t have enough faith.
I’d say the contrary: I believe even more so that God has a plan for me. I knew that a mission wasn’t for me, so there must be something that is! And Be. Still. My. Heart. Did He come through with a plan; a plan far more beautiful than I could have ever dreamed for myself.
It implies that I wasn’t doing what I believed was best for myself.
Subtle side remarks echoed this feeling throughout my conversations. It’s almost as if some people couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea of an alternative life plan. Trust me, I considered all my options. And trust me, I prayed about it. In the end, I felt like my two years abroad is where I was supposed to go.
It implies that I would have gained more life experience if I had spent those two years on a mission.
I wouldn’t trade those two years for the world (no pun intended). My two years of traveling taught me to put my trust in God and in humanity. I learned empathy. I learned to be persistent and work hard. And I started the lifelong learning of being and staying humble.
It implies that I’m serving other people less when doing so through other means.
In Moscow I taught English; a skill that will open doors for those kids their entire lives. In Paris I cared for two kids in every sense of the word: physically, emotionally, mentally. All throughout my travels I’ve helped people through rough patches (dealing with mental illness, divorce, coming out to their family). By giving my all each day, I put in the same amount of effort as a missionary, please don’t diminish the value of that.
It implies that what I did instead was somehow less of a life.
This ties into social expectations. Society expected me to graduate high school, serve a 2 year mission, come back home and go to school, get married in the temple, graduate and start a family. Boom. That’s the formula for a happily ever after. Some of you might scoff at that, but that’s really the impression my generation has been given by church leaders. I believed this was the only way to find happiness until I had a life-changing epiphany: for me, no 5 year plan is the best 5 year plan.
As a travel blogger, I’m often put on a pedestal by my peers. Because of what I’ve seen or what I’ve done, I live a coveted lifestyle. Yet I still fall below the expectations of my elders, because it’s not what they would have wanted for me. It’s assumed that my life is perfect because my Instagram is full of weekend getaways and local brunch spots, not somber moments or pity parties. But my life is not perfect. I struggle with the same things as every one else. Heck, I had to write an article on how I afford to travel because people just assumed my parents paid for everything (as if!). Maybe my life was a little more turbulent by moving abroad twice and traveling through 22 countries in 24 months. But it was by no means less of a life.
And while this article is going to garner a lot of disapproval, it needed to be said. It needs to be known that you are not failing if you choose to forge your own path. Someone should not treat you differently because you did not serve an LDS mission. And if someone does, remove them from your life. I started living a better life the day I began surrounding myself with people as passionate, ambitious, and open-minded as I am.
With such a large audience, I know there will be exceptions out there. But this post wasn’t written for the exceptions. It was written for the hundreds of people who question or have questioned their self worth because they felt treated differently for not having served an LDS mission. And thousands more return home early for the same or various reasons. I have no intention to diminish the value of those who have served mission. I am not looking to bash the LDS church. This is just an honest account of how I’ve come to terms with myself on something that so many people go through, but no one talks about.