Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Expectations Game

In his office, my dad has a frame on the wall containing a picture of each of my sisters.  My picture is not in this frame.

When my second oldest sister went on her mission, she happened to send home a picture of herself standing on a street with her bag slung over one shoulder.  Someone in the family realized that this photo had striking similarities with a picture my oldest sister had taken on her mission.  The background was from a different country and the outfits were slightly different, but the poses and the facial expressions were nearly identical.  A plan was quickly hatched for my youngest sister to pose the same way at some point during her mission and for me to follow suit a few years later, completing an amusing but meaningful set for my parents to frame.  My dad went so far as to get the frame and arrange the portraits so that there were two empty spaces.  It wasn't long until the third space was filled.  And I knew that the bottom right-hand corner was reserved for me.  It was always assumed that I would serve a mission.  Nobody, including me, ever seemed to have entertained the notion that I would not.

Obviously, I did not follow suit.  My corner of the picture frame is occupied by a shot of my dad's favorite temple.  The picture is a vivid reminder of the expectations which I chose not to fulfill.  Those expectations were intense, though.  Missionary service is just about fetishized in Mormon culture and Mormon teachings.  

When I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, before I got my first job, my dad showed me a spreadsheet he'd been working on.  He had the projected cost of my mission entered into it and guidelines for me to make sure I'd saved up for it by the time I'd need to put my mission papers in.  There were other things in the document, as well—tithing, of course, and college savings.  But the way he explained it to me, the most important purpose of the spreadsheet was so that we could plan carefully for me to serve a two-year mission at age nineteen.

When I was a priest, my bishop had all the young men sign a pledge to serve a full-time mission.  I wasn't crazy about the idea at the time, because I was terrified to spend two years thousands of miles from home with no semblance of leisure time.  But I still fully expected to serve, because I'd always known it would happen.  I also considered that, as the first assistant in the priests quorum, I needed to set a good example for the rest of the young men.  So I masked my concerns and signed the pledge.  So did every other active young man in the ward.  Because we all knew that it was expected of us and there was no reason to think it wouldn't happen.

When I eventually decided not to serve a mission, the members of my family—and especially my mother—were confused and devastated.  When I returned to BYU, a lot of people didn't know how to react after learning that I was nineteen years old and had decided not to be a missionary.  The concept was so perplexing to them that they didn't know how to respond appropriately.  Thankfully, most people would, after an initial question, sidestep the issue to avoid awkwardness.  Others were not quite so polite.  One of my roommate's friends once asked why I wasn't on a mission.  I don't remember what abbreviated, glossed-over explanation I offered, but I clearly recollect the way she immediately dismissed it with a blunt reply of, " should do it anyway."

Because that's just how it works.  You serve a mission if you're a Mormon male.

I think my dad's picture is a pretty apt illustration for how missions are treated in the church.  He knew my third sister would be going on a mission because she'd expressed interest in it, so he expected the third box to be filled shortly.  And the fourth box was expected to have my picture someday, too, even though that was a few years away at the time.  There was never any thought that I wouldn't serve a mission.  Buying his picture frame without the fourth spot would have made as much sense as buying a car without wheels.  When you purchase a car, it comes with wheels.  When you have a son, he'll serve a mission.  To expect otherwise would be crazy.

And I think that's part of what keeps the church going.  Because when it comes to events in our lives over which we have a degree of control, if an expectation is strong enough, it too easily becomes reality.  If you're introduced to someone you've heard a lot of bad things about and expect to dislike the person, odds are that you'll wind up disliking him whether it's deserved or not.  If you fully expect to enjoy a show or a concert or a movie you can get yourself so hyped up that you'll think it's terrific even if you'd have disliked it going in with a neutral opinion.  And if everyone around you expects you to become a missionary and you've been aware of this expectation ever since they taught you to sing "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission," you'll probably wind up serving a mission whether or not it's something you'd normally want to do.  And since missions can really hammer in the brainwashing firmly established in the first couple of decades of life, by setting and maintaining this expectation, the church can turn children into lifelong devotees.

Everyone still has free agency, as I demonstrated, I suppose.  But when you're taught that men are free according to the flesh to choose liberty and life or captivity and death (2 Nephi 2:27 for the curious or the rusty) it's not so simple as deciding to casually opt out.  Opting out sets a dark precedent for your life and your eternal prospects and may carry some very grave consequences.  It is, however, totally optional to serve a mission.  Except that God's prophet says all young men must do it.  But you don't have to.

The way Mormon scripture, modern Mormon leadership, and Mormon culture conspire to manipulate the directions people's lives take is disgusting to me—if for no other reason than my absence in a four-part picture frame reminds me of what a colossal disappointment I am because I didn't allow myself to be directed down one particular avenue, regardless of any other positive attributes I may have developed since making that decision.


  1. Wow! It's like not even acknowledging that you exist. That's what the church does to good men and women. I don't think they even realize what they're doing. The sad thing is that it's a symbol for what the "plan of happiness" teaches the family will be like in the next life. You're not in it, and regardless of if he intends it to send that message, it does.

    You've mentioned many time how your dad disagrees with you about how parents in the church indoctrinate their children. There's a perfect example.

    I think you should find a good location and have a picture taken of yourself in that same pose. Then print it up the same size as that 4th frame and give it to him. I'm sure you can think of something thoughtful and appropriate to write in a note to include with it. I wonder what he would think and if he would even consider replacing the temple with you.

    I know a woman who has a relative that teaches missionary prep for the church at the university level. A couple of years ago, her husband asked the guy his thoughts on why the number of baptisms didn't go up even though the number of missionaries dramatically increased after the mission ages were lowered. His response was basically, maybe they're only going out to convert themselves.

    I served a mission, and the thought NEVER ONCE crossed my mind that I even had the choice to NOT go. I worked really hard for years to pay for it, basically sacrifice many of my teen years. I took early morning missionary prep classes, served several years on seminary council and in quorum presidencies. Looking back now, it was all an incredible waste of time.

    1. I completely agree that they don't realize what they're doing. My dad didn't put the temple in my spot because he was trying to be mean or anything. And he expected me to serve a mission because he thought it was right and he thought it was part of being a good father. It's not done maliciously. It's imposed on the members with malice, perhaps, but they pass it on to their children with good intentions, I think.

      I'm so sorry your mission was a waste of time. I'm sure in a lot of cases it can still have positive aspects to it. Seeing another part of the world/country, learning work ethic or self-motivation, learning a language or a culture, making lifelong friends with companions...but depending on the specifics of your mission, of course, none of that is guaranteed. I hope there was something good in there, though. I think the 21 years I spent attending church wasted a lot of time, too, but I got some good things from it.

      Missionaries ARE going out to convert themselves. I think most of them don't know it, but that's one of the church's biggest purposes in emphasizing the missionary program.

  2. That's what I thought. I hope I didn't appear to even imply he did it with malice. My good parents would've done the same thing without realizing. It's just following the teachings.

    You're right, serving a mission wasn't a total and complete waste of time, but it also wasn't the "best two years" of my life either. I did see other parts of the world, made good friends, saw the devastating affects of communism and socialism on people and countries, gained an even greater love for this country, learned to speak a foreign language, etc. I think doing some kind of service mission where I could've worked to help people get out of poverty would've been a much better use of my time. I think the church should do way more of that. In addition, despite serving an honorable mission and baptizing quite a few people, which in Europe is a big deal, the mission and church had too great of an impact on my future choices of where to go to college, what I decided to study, my future career, etc. I'm just so glad I took my time to find my wife who is wonderful and was my choice. The thing is, so much of my life before my mission and after it were influenced by it. It's like the mission is the pinnacle of a man's life even though it happens so young with so many, better, greater things to come after. The church promotes that. It reminds me of Al Bundy. The only thing "good" in his life was high school football.

    1. Haha, no, no, you didn't imply any malice!

      The church culture definitely does put forward that "best two years" mentality, which I don't think is particularly healthy. I think a mission may have been good for me in some ways if I'd gone. I think it would have helped me be less sheltered, understand the world better, and understand people better. I haven't seen the devastating effects of socialism and communism myself, and I think that could have been useful. Although I also would have been absolutely miserable, so I may not have been in a position to absorb any useful information about the world.

      The best two years of your life shouldn't necessarily be in the past or necessarily fall in a specific time frame. I think the people you choose to surround yourself with will have a lot more influence over your happiness than the day-to-day events of your life will, and that means that any two years of your life could be the best. And it sounds like, in your case, your best years are the ones after your mission because it was only then that you married your wife!