Monday, December 3, 2012

First Night at the MTC

I'll never forget what my oldest son told us about his first night in the MTC (good thing he was home when he shared this with us or it would have made me cry buckets of tears.) As he lay in his little twin bed on that very first night surrounded by 5 other missionaries who he didn't know from Adam, he could hear them all...sniffling. Yes sniffling. As in...crying. And yes, he was sniffling right along with them which made him keenly aware of the fact that this mission experience was going to be tough. It was definitely not all fun and games (at least not so far!) He told me that he thought many times during the next weeks and months about that night and just how much it felt like a great big orphanage. We have laughed over and over about that since the day he returned home and have shared the experience with our other sons as they prepared to enter the MTC. Why would we have him tell them about how said their first night would be, you might wonder? Wouldn't that just make them more nervous? Afraid? Discouraged? Interestingly enough, we have found that it has helped them so much as they prepared to face that first night alone. Even though many new missionaries have had experiences away from home for college, jobs, etc., being in the MTC is very different. You can't pick up the phone and call home. You aren't going home for Christmas. You. Are. Gone. And that realization can sometimes be shocking if they aren't aware of it ahead of time and prepared for it when it comes. I'm convinced that the things that can most easily derail a new missionary are the unexpected things--the things they didn't plan for and those that catch them off guard. Understanding just what they are about to experience is always the best way to prepare for what they are about to do.

Because I know now how tough that first night is, we have always written a letter or two (I usually write one and my husband writes one) to our departing missionary son and tuck them into his pocket as we say goodbye to him at the MTC. We were sending missionary sons off way back in the day when we all sat in a big room, watching Mormon Ads on the big screen in the front of us until the MTC President nonchalantly announced it was time for all the parents to leave. Our Stake President at the time called it the room "designed to tear your heart out." And that it was. Nowadays we simply pull up to the curb, let our child out of the car and with an extremely quick hug...say goodbye (faster but not necessarily less painful.) Just before my husband and I get back in the car, we tuck our letters in our son's shirt pocket, telling him to read them that night when he goes to bed. This is purposefully timed...that moment they are lying in bed seems to be the first moment that day that they have really had a chance to catch their breath and realize where they are. That is the time when our boys have usually been asking themselves, "What in the world am I doing here?" It has been a lonely moment for them--realizing that life is about to change drastically and not knowing exactly what to expect. We want the words in our letters to answer the questions we know they are asking ("You are serving the Lord...") and reassure him ("We are so proud of you...") and quiet his rapidly beating heart ("Every day will feel a little better...just hang on.") We never know at the time if reading our letters is making a difference or not. But when our boys return home to us two years later, they always mention those letters and how much they helped them through the feelings of homesickness that filled their eyes with tears that very first night.

I have had a lot of mothers say to me, "Oh my son won't be homesick...he is SO excited to leave." I am always tempted (yet somewhat reluctant) to tell those mothers the truth: everyone gets homesick! Everyone. Granted, there are those very few who don't notice their homesickness as much as others. And those who react to it differently. But in my experience--having sent 7 sons on missions, watching most of their friends serve, and being a mission mom to 700+ missionaries over a 3 year period of time--I can tell you without exception that I have never seen a missionary who does at some point feel homesick. They may express it in different ways, feel it at different times and admit it to differing degrees. But they are all the same in this department. And because of that, I want my boys to feel our love and support from the minute they walk into the MTC. Thus, the letters.

So what do we write in these letters? Encouragement. Support. Love. Think of all the possible things your child could be saying to himself that first night and write things in the letter that will combat them. A common theme seems to be, "What in the world was I thinking? Why am I even here?" We write things that will empower them and remind them exactly why they decided to serve a mission and how proud we are of them for that decision. We try to help them see the big picture ("You are going to change people's lives for good with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ--what an awesome feeling that is going to be!") Another thing that might come to their minds is: "This is going to be SO long...a year from today I will still be on my mission. YIKES!" So we write some practical advice like:"Just take one day at a time. Don't look too far ahead. Just look at the end of this week and say to yourself, 'I can do one week.' Or look just as far as tomorrow if you have to and say, 'I can do one day.'" This will help them see their mission in bite-sized pieces so they know they can handle this. It gives them confidence that they really can do this. Another thought that many of my boys have had is, "Everyone here is so much more prepared than I am. I can never be as good of a missionary as all of them will be!" I always mention in the letter that, yes, they might feel overwhelmed--and that is normal--but to not despair! They know more than they think they know and are more prepared than they give themselves credit for. (Send them the talk by Elder Uchtdorf called "You Know Enough" and the talk by Elder Maxwell entitled "Notwithstanding My Weakness." Both talks are really reassuring for those times when they are feeling inadequate.) When you write your letter to your missionary son, just think and pray about the things you need to say that will send him (or her) the message that every little thing is going to be alright. Because it is! They will get through that first night and all the rest to follow. They will serve wonderful missions. Tell them that YOU know that. It will give them the strength they need when they may not know that for themselves.

2 comments:

  1. I am about to send two daughters off on their missions - this is wonderful advice. Thank you!!

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  2. I am preparing for my second son to go on a mission at the end of this year, and this advice is very much appreciated. I am grateful for the positive and practical ideas. Thank you. x

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