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October 18, 2012
In The Village
by Orson Scott Card

When I was 19, I was not ready to go on a mission. I had all sorts of reasons that I told myself -- I was only a year or so from college graduation, I had projects I wanted to complete.

I was also honest enough to admit to myself that I was terrified of a mission. I'm an introvert, and talking one-on-one with strangers has always been agonizing, both in anticipation and in fact.

I also had food issues, and I imagined I would be sent to some exotic place like Korea or Hong Kong, where I would find nothing edible and quickly starve to death. For that matter, even German and Latin American cuisines sounded appalling to me, and I had my doubts about French food, too.

Then, at age twenty, all my plans suddenly seemed pointless and stupid to me, as did all my fears. Nothing sounded right to me except the thought of going on a mission. So I went to see the bishop.

In retrospect, I can see now that the ambitious, egocentric boy I was at age 19 was not ready to subsume himself in the Lord's service. Even at 20, I was barely ready and had much to learn.

Only in later years have I come to see how often the Lord has spoken to me through one of the least-sung gifts of the Spirit: "stupor of thought." Instead of getting the "burning in the bosom" when my course is right, I get a stupor of thought about pursuing a wrong course.

Maybe stupor is the natural language of my own spirit. I'm just glad to get the guidance, however it comes.

Part of my lack of desire to serve a mission at 19 was precisely the fact that it was absolutely expected that 19-year-old boys would go on missions. I didn't want to become a missionary with the mechanical certainty of numbers rolling over on an odometer. If I went, I wanted to go of my own free will.

Naturally, that stubborn spirit was actually a very good reason for me not to go. Missions are extended experiments in obedience. Obedience may be the first law of heaven, but at times it's a foreign language to me, and with a grammar almost too simple for me to master.

These are personal memories and observations, but I've discovered over the years that almost all the human impulses, good and bad, reside in me somewhere; when I'm writing stories or directing plays, I haven't very far to search inside myself to find whatever motivation I need to understand.

In other words, I'm not all that different from other people. The things I feel, other people feel. What other people feel, I'm at least capable of imagining. So maybe my experience isn't that different from feelings, fears, and desires that others felt and feel.

My memory of forty years ago has triggered in me some concerns about the new policy of allowing boys to begin their missions at age 18, and girls at 19.

But first, let me say assure you: My first response to the announcement was joy. I rejoiced for the young men I know who are absolutely ready for missions at 18. To them, the year of waiting was simply a holding pattern, and now they won't have to go through it.

Besides, to be candid, the Church has never quite solved the problem of what to do with these 18-year-old elders. They get booted out of Young Men, but what then?

Elders quorum meetings are, or should be, geared to helping young married men learn how to be husbands and fathers. For young men who have not yet served a mission, these concerns can seem quite remote. They may fit in on the elders' basketball team or helping somebody move, but not in the gospel discussions in priesthood meeting.

Another common phenomenon for the past forty years is the "screw-up year" -- that freshman year of college before the mission. Fresh from high school, college freshmen often have a hard time adapting to the independence of college.

Without someone to make them do their homework, these pre-mission freshmen earn terrible grades and live miserable lives. It's a time when some of them, on their own for the first time, make bad decisions that damage the rest of their lives.

So there's much to be said for sending both the ready and the unready on missions at 18. The ready ones won't waste time doing nothing much for a year; the unready ones will go straight from their parents' home and the outside management of high school into the rigid discipline of the mission.

But that's too simple, I'm afraid. It may look as if the mission were the cure for the immaturity that results in that "screw-up year." But what if it's the screw-up year that wakes up a young man and prepares him to serve a mission?

Young men who can't get themselves to class during their freshman year aren't necessarily going to be any better, at the same age and stage of life, to handle the discipline of a mission -- where, after all, their only supervision comes from other boys scarcely older than themselves.

There are also plenty of families for whom even the equalized monthly payments of our enlightened system of missionary finance is too much. Many young men have used that year before the mission to earn and save money to pay for their own missions.

Even if we could guarantee that contributions from other Church members could make up for what the missionary might have earned, aren't we still missing something?

Working at a job is excellent preparation for the self-discipline of a mission; and earning the money that pays for your own mission, though I certainly did nothing of the kind, seems to me to be a source of great honor and satisfaction for the would-be missionaries who do it.

And do we really want to divide the Church rigidly into two classes, one with the money to send off their missionaries at 18, and the other, of lesser means, whose sons have go a year later, because they needed to earn the money?

This becomes a problem only if we allow ourselves to regard 18 as the absolutely required age for a missionary to leave.

The Brethren worded the announcement very carefully, it seems to me. Young men are given the option to go at 18.

In my opinion, it seems to me that the Church will be blessed greatly if we continue to regard that age as an option and not a requirement. The mission is required; the age is a matter of choice and judgment.

Not every 18-year-old male is mature enough for mission service -- I certainly wasn't. Though I didn't have a "screw-up year" academically -- in fact, I had nearly completed the requirements to graduate from college before I left -- I still had some learning experiences during that time.

I had the experience of taking a job with a ward member who ran a hardware store in downtown Provo. I knew hardware; I could sell that. But to my horror, I showed up at work the first day and learned that almost all of the store's profits came from selling skis and ski equipment.

I had never skied. I had no desire to ski. I didn't even know how bindings worked. And my boss didn't have the time to teach me -- he assumed that any ordinary male in Utah knew all about skis.

It was the first time in my life that I was faced with complete helplessness. I had no idea how to do the job, and no idea how to learn. I filled my hours on that first day, humiliating myself any time I tried to talk about skis with customers. And I never went back.

Complete failure. I had never experienced it, outside of athletics, and I had no idea how to deal with it. That experience taught me a lot about myself -- that my natural response to helplessness was flight. I had to grow up a lot before I was ready to deal with the helplessness I knew I would feel if I became a missionary.

And believe me, I did face it again and again on my mission, as I think most missionaries do -- that sense that the task is far beyond our abilities. But instead of running away, as I had from the hardware store job, I realized I had to get help, to learn, to humble myself and accomplish it anyway. At 18 I couldn't imagine it; at 20, I did it.

Another experience was working at the scenery shop in the theatre department at BYU. Drama was my major; being my father's son, I had grown up with a hammer and other tools in my hands. I could drive a nail, drill a hole, set a screw, saw wood with hand and power tools. What I didn't already know, I learned quickly. I was good at it, or at least good enough.

But I was also busy with a lot of different projects, every one of which was more interesting than the grind of my four-hour shifts. Most of them were projects within the theatre department, so surely my boss would understand when I was late. Or didn't show up at all.

Then one day my time card wasn't in the slot. My ex-boss explained to me, not unkindly, that when you don't show up for work, without notice or excuse, you have quit your job.

Oh. Well, that was useful information. I learned a tough lesson about commitment, about keeping my word, about following through. I was glad I learned that lesson before my mission.

My point is this: There's more going on during that year -- or two -- between high school and mission than just "marking time." Maybe some young men need that "screw-up year" to get the life lessons that will make them far more effective, and therefore happy, missionaries.

Do we send boys on missions in order to turn them into men? Or do we send men on missions in order to build the Church?

A little of both, I think. But the Church-building doesn't really start until the man-becoming is well under way.

I've run into some of those not-ready-for-primetime missionaries over the years. The missionary whose ambition leads him to take actions that don't comply with minimal standards of integrity. The missionary who gets bored and doesn't know that every job worth doing is boring sometimes. The missionary who thinks that as long as his companion doesn't report him, it's ok to "get away" with time-wasting behavior -- or worse.

There are two philosophies one can have about the age-of-mission question. One is: Let's get them out on their missions before they can make some of the really awful mistakes that will make them ineligible for missionary service!

The other is: Let's help them grow up before we put the Lord's missionary work in their hands.

The fact is, both philosophies are sensible and both are incomplete at best.

A young man whose self-discipline and judgment are so weak that he would commit spectacular sins during the year before his mission won't necessarily be prevented from committing them during his mission. And if he does them on his mission, he has the stigma of not having completed his mission honorably.

On the other hand, waiting a year or two still won't bring a young man to complete maturity. I'm 61 years old now, and I'm still working on growing up enough to be useful in the Lord's service. Just because I was readier at 20 than at 19 doesn't mean that I was completely ready.

So where's the dividing line? When is a young man ready for his mission? When should he go?

There are so many things to consider.

1. Family finances. If he has to work a year or so in order to pay for his mission, so be it. Let there never be the slightest shame in a missionary's decision to earn his own mission expenses. It becomes a part of his sacrifice, his consecration, and when he does go, he will certainly be ready.

At the same time, let there also be no shame in having the means, as a family, to pay for a mission without the missionary having to spend a year of his life in the kind of job you can get with only a high school diploma.

2. Desire. Going on a mission isn't a matter of doing something fun or cool. You don't "want" to go the way you want to visit an amusement park or hang out with your friends or plunge into a cool videogame or play a competitive game of ball.

There's definitely an element of duty to it. You do, in fact, go on a mission because you're expected to. Because the Lord expects you to.

But not because your family and ward members just assume you'll go, and you find it easier and less embarrassing just to go along. You really should want to do your duty and embrace it, not just figure it's easier to go than face the problems that will come if you don't fulfil expectations.

However, if your "not wanting to go" has to do with fears, then swallow hard and go anyway. Yes, you can talk to strangers; yes, you can learn the language you'll need, or if you can't, they'll reassign you; yes, you can eat the food.

Even shy people can serve missions. In fact, there are millions of potential converts out there who will only be able to hear the gospel when a naturally quiet, self-contained person explains it to them.

3. Testimony. Contrary to rumor, a testimony is rarely a blinding flash of inspiration. We hear about Alma and Paul and Enos precisely because their experiences were extremely unusual.

Too often we talk about testimony as if it were something we get. Something given to us. But that's an obvious misunderstanding, it seems to me. There are powerful revelatory experiences -- I've had them myself. But they all came after I had faith, and because I had faith.

Here's a good, solid, useful definition of a testimony: If you believe in the gospel enough to say so, and to live as if it is true, then that is your testimony.

That's what testimony is -- swearing in front of witnesses that, to the best of your knowledge, what you say is true.

The mere fact of going on a mission is a testimony, and a very strong one. It is a leap of faith. Once you plunge into missionary work, chances are very good that you will also have some of those powerful revelatory experiences -- because they most often come in service of others.

4. Personal Maturity. Here's the tough one, guys. (Young women also need to be mature, but given the workings of the human organism, 19-year-old girls are usually far more mature than 18-year-old boys, so it's much less of an issue.)

How do you judge yourself? I mean, at every age we feel like a regular person to ourselves. Nobody says, "Wow, I'm so immature."

So here's a pretty good test. Do you fulfil your responsibilities without being nagged? Anybody can forget; I'm not talking about remembering. I'm talking about deciding to act. You remember perfectly well that you're supposed to take out the garbage/mow the lawn/work on your school project. You just decide not to, because you don't feel like it.

That's what immaturity looks like. On your mission, when you just don't feel like doing your duty, you do it anyway. If you haven't learned how to do it anyway, maybe you're not ready to go.

Here's another test. Do you scam your parents? Do you conceal things from them, just to avoid facing consequences, or just to get away with stuff that you know they wouldn't want you to do?

If you are still "getting away with" stuff, you are absolutely not ready to go on a mission. Because if you take that spirit of "what they don't know won't hurt me" on your mission, it will only be pure luck if you don't end up coming home early. And even if you finish your time, you'll be a burden on some companions, a trial to others, and potentially the downfall of some who are as weak and immature as you.

And a third test: Do you accept the decisions of those in authority over you, even if they don't give you the answer you want? Or do you whine, nag, and wheedle like that bratty three-year-old in the grocery store?

Worse, do you seethe with resentment and complain about your horrible parents to all your friends? Or do you recognize their reasons for denying your request and respect them?

If you take an honest look at yourself and realize, Wow, I'm not mature enough to go on a mission, then what?

Here's what you do: Don't turn in your papers yet. Tell your bishop exactly why you think you aren't ready. And then spend six months growing up.

How do you grow up?

Make a catalogue of your duties, especially the ones you habitually avoid or put off, and do them anyway.

Never conceal anything from your parents. Never try to "get away with" stuff. If you know your parents wouldn't approve, then don't do it until you have persuaded them.

If you can't persuade them, drop it. Don't complain to your friends -- be loyal and supportive.

And if you do defy them, if you do screw up, admit it and face the music.

That's what maturity looks like. Act like that for six months, and you're ready for a mission.

And if you're 15 or 16 or 17 right now, and you want to be ready for your mission at 18, then look at the list I've just given and start working on it. There's no reason you can't learn these skills and make them into habits.

Then you'll be ready, at 18 or 19 or 20, to go on your mission and truly serve the Lord, build the Church, and transform the lives of the people who listen to and accept the message of Christ that you will carry to them.

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