A while ago, someone played for me Brad Paisley’s “Letter to Me” where he writes a letter to his 18 year old self. While I’m not that much of a Country music fan, I still found it very moving. It inspired me to write a letter to my own younger self.
For me, the time it felt like I needed to write to myself was right after I came home from my mission. It was a vulnerable time in my life, and I already carried many scars from a very difficult mission. I doubted my ability to contribute meaningfully to the building up the Kingdom. I doubted very seriously whether God even wanted me around.
What follows, then, is my letter to that burned-out, seriously questioning young man who is about to embark on the most defining period of his life. I reproduce it here in the hopes others will also find it helpful.
Dear Elder Bennion:
Welcome home! I know you feel overwhelmed by how different things feel being “home”. You weren’t expecting that. Home is supposed to be familiar, yet everything seems so unfamiliar. You were expecting rest, to have this exhausting, and (you feel) fruitless experience over with. You have some anger at the Church. You have some anger at God. You don’t have much interest in ministering to Church members at all.
You are sick of the questions people are asking you, an endless variation of “what are you going to do now?” You hate that because you don’t know what to do, and what spiritual direction you have received hasn’t made much sense. Here’s a little bit of mysterious foreshadowing: the parts of your career and education that made the most sense while you received that direction on your mission will, in time, become an abiding and troubling mystery.
But all that is in the future. You still don’t know why you were called to Belgium, Brussels French speaking. You still don’t know why your mission happened the way it did. You especially don’t understand why so many others in your mission had so much more success than you feel you did. You’ve heard the story about “One dirty Irish kid” a lot, and will many times more, and it’ll just piss you off, rather than provide any solace. The initial disappointment of being passed over for significant leadership has passed, or at least you think you’re past it, but in fact, this is adding to your sense of failure. Deep down, you still feel that if you had been more beloved/chosen of God, then you would have had more success on your mission, and then you would have been a leader. The lack of being a leader is the confirmation, not the cause, in your subconscious thinking, of your failure as a missionary.
You are hardly out of the woods yet, my dear self, as you look at the upcoming part of your life. Looking back from where I sit, I think how you dealt with all this trauma is you want to just set it aside, edit the two years of banging your head against a wall out of your life, and pretend it never happened. You want to regain the feeling of having the tiger by the tail that you had in your freshman year of college. The world was your oyster, and you had lots of sympathetic friends, great connections to your professors, lots of fun activities and strong feelings of the Spirit.
I don’t blame you, but it won’t work. Because this pattern of “failure” will repeat itself in your schoolwork. You won’t know why you felt directed to make this change in university and course of study. I still don’t know the answer to that (we’ll have to ask a self further in the future than me), but I sense that in trying to forget (you would call it “recover from”) your mission, you really just set it aside to fester, and therefore, doom yourself to repeating the experience, over and over. Feelings buried alive don’t die, they merely repeat themselves, over and over again, until we resolve them.
What you needed to learn from your mission experience, and what you can remember very well for yourself that the Spirit was trying to teach you for 2 years on your mission, was that your externally-measured performance does not dictate your value. That is not where you will find happiness or validation. Thank God you were saved from that trap by your so-called failure! I know, that kind of makes me angry too, but I have lived long enough to see the alternative… those who get so much success, so quickly, it goes to their head, or they feel listless, bored, lost, adrift–the more successful they are, the more contempt they have for themselves and the world. Because they aren’t grounded in a sense of purpose.
So you’re going to get to fail again, and repeatedly. You know on some level that performance, and status, do not dictate value. But when it comes to you, you think it does. You think if God loved you, He would just give you success. He would give you glory, in the time and manner that you think is best. Oh there are plenty of times, including now, when you are abjectly humble, begging for the Lord to tell you what to do. But the fact is, you don’t really want to do it. You want God to make stuff happen. But you really don’t want to put in the work yourself.
I know that sounds harsh. I’m sorry. But you know I owe it to you to give it to you straight.
Let’s turn to an example that I know you’ll relate to really well. Have you read the Book of Exodus lately? Particularly the time from when they are trying to leave Egypt until the end of the book? The thing you need to understand about this journey, and your own life by analogy, is something you haven’t even considered yet. It is this important principle: even though the Children of Israel had a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day to guide them, even though they were miraculously delivered from the Egyptians with the parting of the Red Sea, even though they got manna from heaven and water from a rock, there were still plenty of difficulties. In all that razzmataz and hocus pocus, did you notice how often Moses is frustrated? How he seemed to just plum want to quit? Have you noticed how often the Children of Israel are bored, hungry, thirsty, tired? How much they complain? Here’s a clue why: Have you looked at the map in the back of your Bible at the “journey” of the Children of Israel from Egypt to the promised land? If not, here’s one you can have a gander at (there’s this cool thing called the Internet at my fingertips where I can easily get stuff like this. You’ll sadly become all too familiar with the dark side of this tremendous resource):
Now, if we stipulate that God was with Moses and the Children of Israel (which we do believe), then why did they go on this very roundabout journey? This route is so circuitous it would better be called a wandering rather than a journey.
Now, I am not God, but even I can draw a straight line from Goshen to Jericho. So I have to assume that God could have planned a more direct route to the Promised Land than He actually took them on, and while scripture gives us a few reasons for this, those reasons do not include the idea that God doesn’t love the Children of Israel, or that He wasn’t guiding them. I also doubt, though you have reason right now (and later on) to question, that God was doing this out of pure spite.
Just looking at this map itself will not show you whether God was with the Israelites or not. And so it is with your life. It will be full of wanderings. So many that I would never want you to know about them, they would depress you too much. It may not strike you this way now, but it sure will in about ten years: to an almost comical degree this map is your life. Lots of false starts, backing up, going back the way you came, or flat out going in circles. I can tell you this, I look at the map of their journey, chuckle heartily, and say to myself with a broad grin, “Yep! Looks about right to me!”
But the point is, you get through these wanderings, circle turnings, about faces, and just plain lostness. And you do it with your sense of humor intact. Let me tell you a few other things you pick up along the way. You’ll be surprised by some of them. And I’ll just tell you that when you go through them, most of them will come so subtly that you won’t realize you have them for quite some time, and then you’ll thank God in tears for them.
The first, and perhaps most significant one for you at the time, is that your alienation from the Church, your feelings of being rejected by it, are right now at their lowest ebb. You’re going to serve in the single’s ward. You’re going to realize you can’t be mad at other people for not doing something you’re not willing to do, so you’re going to be friendly and outgoing and get to know others. This is going to serve you very well in the Church. Right now, you think you’re never going to hold any position of serious responsibility above Sunday School President. You couldn’t be more wrong! You’re going to serve in a lot of positions, and get to serve with some absolutely wonderful men, who will teach you a lot. The cavalcade of responsibility is quite a bit, there isn’t much respite from it. So much so that you will be prone to complain about all the work asked of you. In fact, it’ll be in one of those moments of complaint that you’ll realize how far you’ve come. Far from being on the outside, you’re almost uncomfortably on the inside.
You are going to find a career you get much success and recognition for, and you’ll be paid handsomely for it. It’s not what you expect, and in fact, much of the job will bore you though that’s because you take it so much for granted. But you will have professional success, and your rise will be very fast. (Before it falls again, and hard, but that’s another story, another “bend in the road” so to speak! It’s going to look a bit like those parts around Kadesh-Barnea for a good long while after this brief period of professional success).
You will find a wife and have offspring, though much later than you want. But you’ll be very lucky and have a wonderful wife! She’ll kind of sneak up on you too. It’s won’t be for quite a while until you realize she’s the one you want to marry. (After you give up constantly asking yourself that question.) And you’re going to like her, and she’s going to like you, and you’re both going to love being parents! Yes, lots of work too, but so much fun! You totally love being a dad! I can feel you rushing to ask me lots more questions about this part.
I can’t answer all the questions you have yet, and some of the questions I can answer, I don’t want to. (I know, it infuriates you when your Heavenly Father does the same thing with you.) The reason for this is, knowing these things won’t help you. They may not even provide comfort or resolve. Where they will, God will give you those in visions, dreams, and spiritual promptings. Knowing every turn on your path would take the fun out of it all! And the terror too. And both are vital parts of your journey!
You will have wonderful friends, in fact you will take that for granted too. It’s only when you see the profound loneliness of others that you’ll see how lucky you truly are. Until then, you in fact will take a lot of your friends, and the consolations they provide you, for granted. You will think you are lonely, but you are not. Since your mission, you’ve never been alone. You’ve been surrounded by visible love, if only you could pull your head out of your own selfishness long enough to notice.
Your love for God, even in the midst of great frustrations and trials of faith, has never failed you. It has not ebbed, though all the bitterness of pain, it still burns brightly.
And let’s do some comparing, since you do that so well! Elder _____, whom you idolized on your mission is gone, leaving a wife and children. Yes, I know you thought he was really attractive. That’s another thing: you can admit your attractions to yourself. It takes a real load off, and, believe it or not, it actually reduces the intensity of the attraction if you acknowledge it (as distinguished from wallowing or obsessing on it, which definitely doesn’t work). Elder _______, the legend of boldness and record-setting baptisms, goes inactive less than six months after he gets home. Elder _____, the one who seems so personable, so full of zeal, is now making anti-Mormon videos and broadcasting them to a worldwide audience on this same Internet I referred to earlier. Elder _____, the companion you disliked the most, is doing pretty well, and I know this will shock you, but he’s one of the companions you’ve stayed most in touch with.
And H_____, the guy you just met after coming home from your mission, who had the super-successful mission, the kind of mission that you envied? The kind of mission that you thought you needed to “fix” you from these homosexual feelings? A big part of the appeal of H____ to you is how good he is, how much his mission changed him. How much he grew, and how much he was able to leave his past behind him. You wish you could do that, and you don’t think it’s fair that even though he sowed a lot more wild oats than you did, he got a mission where it was all washed away, and you didn’t. Deep down, you think this is because God loves H____ more than you.
But shortly after your friendship ends (in fact, probably because your friendship ends) he goes inactive and as of this writing 20 years later, he’s still out of the Church. The point I want you to absorb right now about all this is, you are not only active in the Church, but happily so! Not just the Gospel, your personal relationship with God and the knowledge of spiritual things (you’ve always loved those), but your fellowship in the Church brings you great enjoyment as well. You fit in quite well! And H____, the person you envied, whom you thought got all this extravagantly on his mission, is out of the Church now, estranged from family and God both. (For now. I still hope that will change!)
I still can’t explain why most of your experiences, false starts, and so on were supposed to happen. I would like to know the ‘why’ of every bend in the route the Israelites took, every about face. But so far, I don’t have that level of detail explaining their route either, let alone for my own life.
And that makes you angry. It still does, in fact. What I can say is that the straightness of the path is not proof of divine guidance, and so neither is the lack of straightness proof of lack of this same divine direction. Or, to put it with a little more punch: do you think your life should be more straightforward than the Children of Israel’s search for their promised land?
We both know the answer to that question, and the answer is, sadly, yes! This will take you a long time to figure out, but you really do want, or that part of you that is lazy wants, to just have an uninterrupted string of successes and glory and pleasant experiences. You’ll actually have a fair number of those. But please show me in the scriptures where anyone favored of God had a life like that? Look at the map of the Saints going from Palymra to Salt Lake City. There’s a double-back, and some pauses. The Lord could have just sent Joseph Smith to the Rocky Mountains straightaway, shorter and faster. He probably wouldn’t have been killed that way. But God didn’t do it that way. Look at Jonah, Moses, Paul, Alma. They all had failures. They all had places they didn’t succeed. They all suffered terribly, even though they also performed miracles. And despite those times when they failed, and were rejected, they were still supposed to go there. Their “failure” wasn’t proof they were out of favor with God, or no longer guided by Him. You need to learn how to do what Paul did, which is his joy in being a servant of God overpowered all other earthly considerations, which counted as “dung” to him:
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;
Rather than ease, what you need to be looking for is to be deeply and securely rooted in the True Vine; to get strength and joy from that, rather than your external circumstances.
You’ve got to get past this idea that success proves correct inspiration. When the Lord tells Moses to leave Egypt or Joseph to leave Ohio, He doesn’t promise them that it’ll be easy, or even that they’ll succeed on their terms. He has His reasons for all of it.
Infuriating, I know. But the key here is that God didn’t put you on earth to be part of a cruise ship (you did go on a very enjoyable one though!). The Lord has something more like a boot camp in store for you. Not what you’re wanting, I know, but consider that the Lord is trying to make maximum use of the cosmically quite-limited time you have here on Earth. Do you really want to spend all that time sipping Mai Tais, and watching the sunset? You will have opportunities for that, in fact plenty of them (non alcoholic, of course), but no, you want your life to mean more than that it was just an easy one. And so the sooner you surrender that expectation, that your life should be easy, the better. Let go of that unconscious prayer you’ve been praying since you were 10 or so, which is “Dear God, take away all my trials right now and give me an easy time for the rest of my life!”
Instead, try this prayer on for size: “Dear God, consecrate my afflictions for my good, help me to learn what I am supposed to learn so I can get them over with as soon as possible, and then bless we with new exciting challenges that will help me best to grow while here on earth.”
And while we’re at it, how about you stop thinking back to Egypt and the carnal enjoyments available there? The Children of Egypt hungered for the fleshpots of Egypt, and so have you. You have this idea that somehow indulging in this “looking back” will make it easier, when in fact, it makes it harder. Much harder. Some dear friends of yours introduced you to a song by Sara Groves called “Painting Pictures of Egypt” that illustrates the perils of this very well:
I don’t want to leave here
I don’t want to stay
It feels like pinching to me either way
The places I long for the most
Are the places where I’ve been
They are calling after me like a long lost friend
It’s not about losing faith
It’s not about trust
It’s all about comfortable
When you move so much
The place I was wasn’t perfect
But I had found a way to live
It wasn’t milk or honey
But then neither is this
I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt
Leaving out what it lacked
The future seems so hard
And I want to go back
But the places that used to fit me
Cannot hold the things I”ve learned
And those roads closed off to me
While my back was turned
The past is so tangible
I know it by heart
Familiar things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom
But now I hesitate to go
Caught between the promise
And the things I know
If it comes too quick
I may not recognize it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?
If it comes too quick
I may not appreciate it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?
Yes, for you, some of the reason you had to spend all this time and sand is because you aren’t settled, you haven’t made up your mind that you really want to enter the Promised Land. You can’t live in both at the same time! And then (this would be comical if it wasn’t so harmful) you blame God for keeping you out, when it’s your own attraction to the siren song of Egypt that is keeping you from fully investing in the Promised Land! You forget all about the slavery and genocidal overseers there–all you can remember of Egypt is the yummy barbecues!
As your life proceeds, you’ll continue to be haunted as to whether you correctly perceive God’s will. But you must realize that the key to determining that isn’t the success of the path, and you have to be open to the idea that the right path for you could well look like that map. What you can’t see on that map, and what you can’t see in your own life, is how much joy there is in this wandering path. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s still true: rather than focusing on the destination, enjoy the journey, and don’t disparage, or try to skip over, the learning experiences that God sends your way. Some of the ones that may look like gifts, based on the pretty bows on the outside, end up being dangerous trials. And some of the ones that come covered in stinky fish wrappings end up being joy-filled blessings.
With much love,
Your older self