As the chaos of the remodel drew to a close and the last of the carpet was laid, our two oldest children settled into their new basement bedrooms. We soon noticed, however, that the new screen on our son’s window was missing. Turns out he wasn’t up to anything sinister; it was just easier for him to get out of the house by climbing through the window than by winding his way through the hallways and stairs to the distant front door. But we still ordered a large, noisy metal grating. When it arrived and we slipped it over the top of the window well, his temptation to use the “bat cave exit” dissipated. There were too many things to slide, lift, and replace. Besides, it wasn’t worth losing his phone over. After all, his cell phone was his true gateway to the world, giving him unfettered access to friends and the occasional girl.
The oldest of five, our son is almost eighteen, and he is really a good kid despite being the son we continue to make our mistakes on. He’s also at a significant crossroad—he still wants us to solve his problems, but he has had a brief, alluring taste of freedom and I can hear it calling to him. It is healthy for young people to eventually break free of their parents, to make their own mistakes, and to enjoy the successes they build for themselves. And at some point soon, I do want him to be autonomous. I want him to exit that window. My hope is that he will take advantage of his opportunities and find something really extraordinary out there. I want him to wrap his life up with something meaningful and fulfilling—or if not that, at least something that pays well enough to keep him out of the basement.
He has recently been talking about serving an LDS mission. This is something that I know many fathers would rejoice to hear, but I’m not one of those fathers. I’m not sure I want him to climb through that particular window. I remember my mission to the Deep South as a tangle of weird rules and disjointed values, a frustrating period of number games, and thousands of hours spent in humiliating, mind-numbing door- knocking and people-annoying. But when I stop to really consider that time, I realize that my experience was mixed. I’m fairly sure I had an undiagnosed form of depression that was exacerbated by my conviction that I could never really be successful as a missionary. This is how I understood missionary work: If you obey all the rules to the letter and still don’t baptize anyone, you have failed. If you screw around like crazy but have lots of converts, again, you have failed. If you obey every rule and baptize a lot of people, you really could have done more. If you make peace with failure, you’re going to hell.
I spent two decades making sense of my mission experience, telling people about my adventures of teaching Klan members, working in the projects, witnessing the poverty, unkindness, human suffering, funerals, converts, and odd southern food and customs. People seemed to enjoy my stories, and by telling them, I managed to make peace with my mission (and yes, I am going to hell).
My son wants to go on a mission? Really?! I’m not sure what to do. Should I discourage him? Should I encourage him? Or should I step back and let him make his own decision?
In an attempt to figure out a healthy approach to this dilemma, I began questioning my assortment of friends who, like me, are all returned missionaries but who also have complex views of Mormonism.
Knowing what you know now, would you still have gone on a mission? “Of course,” comes the chorus. I ask further: Despite the fact that you are no longer a believer, would you still have gone on a mission? “Yes, I would still have gone.” Despite the fact that you are now a happy, successful, and openly gay man, do you wish you would have pushed on with college rather than serve a mission? “I learned another language on my mission, and my experience there is a large part of who I am. I’m glad I went.” Despite the fact that you are presently an atheist, would you go back and change your mission experience? “No, it was an important part of my personal development.” Despite the fact that you are bitter toward the Church now, do you wish you had done something else? “No, I don’t suppose I’d change that experience.”
My son will soon be his own man. Regardless of my feelings or arguments, he may well choose to climb through that mission window. I guess what worries me is that on a mission, he may find the God I once believed in. If he does, will it change his view of me? Will I become less ‘Dad’ and more ‘apostate’? Will he pity me instead of love me? Will the Church gain a son while I lose mine?
American Fork, Utah