A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I was a young man with a spark of faith who determined that the best course of action for my life was to serve an LDS mission. Okay, I’m being hyperbolic about it being that long ago and that far away in a literal sense, but in a figurative sense, that is now the perception I have of the time that has since passed.
I remember the night I opened my mission call intending to trick my mother by saying that I was going to Hawai’i and my sheer surprise when the joke was on me when I read that I would actually be serving in the Honolulu Hawai’i mission. Considering that my desire was actually to serve somewhere in Polynesia, I had no reason to be anything but happy about my assigned field of labor.
Amazement flowed through me when I was asked to serve as the district leader while I was in the Missionary Training Center in Provo. Two of the other young men in my ‘district’ were actually guys that I went to high school with and practically grew up next door to. I had no reason to think that I was any better than they were, no more worthy than they were, nor more qualified for any kind of leadership position. I remember one of the greatest challenges being faced was the effect of the MTC food on myself and the other missionaries in my district and the distraction it was when we were supposed to be studying our scriptures.
Then I got to Hawai’i and the real challenges began to set in. I remember feeling like I didn’t get along particularly well with my trainer, who was simply another missionary who had been out for just a little less than a year when I arrived. Little did I realize that he would be the most motivated of my companions, guys that I spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with.
A couple months into my mission, I had the happy experience of getting sick with the last possible disease I ever thought I could get on a tropical island, pneumonia. I wheezed just trying to walk up the flights of stairs to our apartment. I couldn’t sleep on my back without being overcome with fits of coughing. My trainer thought I was faking being sick in order to get out of working. It wasn’t until about the fourth night of my excessive coughing and having to sleep in the reclining chairs in our apartment that he finally gave in and thought that I should see a doctor.
Prior to my mission I could run almost indefinitely without getting tired or short of breath. Following my mission, working out and trying to be active has been much more of a chore. My trainer thought it would be a funny joke to make me fat and would double book dinner appointments. Anybody who knows anything about Polynesian culture knows that many of them don’t eat to live, they live to eat. Another of my companions had a goal to become as massive as possible. He talked of wanting to weigh 300 pounds.
During the 13 months I was in Hawai’i, I gained a good 30 pounds and had the stretch marks to prove it. It’s no easy task to turn down food when the people declare, “Elder, you’re not fat enough, eat more!” There were times that I attempted to turn down food and was later told by my companions that I had offended those who had offered it. It wasn’t uncommon for meals to consist of two rotisserie chickens, one for me and the other for my companion along with plates of lau lau and more-than-generous pots of rice.
Most missionaries are assigned areas that can be commuted by bicycle. I was assigned to larger areas that necessitated the use of a car. The only problem there is that eating all that food had little chance to be burned off by the reduced amount of activity when one is confined to walking as their primary mode of exercise. Pneumonia ravaged my lung capacity and excessive food and reduced physical activity wreaked havoc on my physical health. My weight has continued to be a major source of difficulty for me ever since that time, and moving back to higher altitudes does nothing to help my lung capacity.
Today, I came across a snippet from a General Conference talk given by W. Christopher Waddell called “The Opportunity of a Lifetime.”
As a result of that sacrifice, we return from our missions with our own gifts: The gift of faith. The gift of testimony. The gift of understanding the role of the Spirit. The gift of daily gospel study. The gift of having served our Savior. Gifts carefully packaged in worn scriptures, tattered copies of Preach My Gospel, missionary journals, and grateful hearts.
I read this article and was overwhelmed with feelings of grief, for it seemed that my list of gifts was very different:
I returned from my mission 11 months early due to depression not just from the typical rejection that is typically associated with missionary service, but from also having had unmotivated companions. I returned from my mission without several of my missionary journals because, due to weight restrictions on luggage, I mailed home several of my journals that never made it to their intended destination. I returned home with a decreased health capacity that continues to be a struggle today. I returned home with feelings of uncertainty as to how people would react when they found out that I hadn’t served the typical 24 months. I returned home wondering if my mission had done anybody any good, because it certainly has seldom felt that it did me much good.
Fortunately, the most important people in my life, my family and closest friends, showed no sign of rejection for having returned early. However, my mission has never been and likely never will be something that I would declare as the “The best experience of my life.”
Rather my mission was something that I only look back on as the beginning of a walk down a path that has left me confused, lost, and seemingly unfit for the blessings that I thought were supposed to be a result of walking the “gospel path.”