thoughts on Mormon mission dreams
I’ve only read two Mormon missionary memoirs (plus one compilation of Mormon missionary comics), but both have been helpful for me in thinking about my own missionary experience. Brittany Long Olsen’s Dendo: One Year and One Half in Tokyo is a remarkable graphic novel memoir of her missionary service in Japan. The art is great, the ambition is fantastic, and it absolutely deserves the 2015 award it won from the Association of Mormon Letters. Although it’s a fantastic book, it was also a difficult read for me; I received it as a gift shortly before entering a period of faith crisis and as I later wrote in my journal:
it was really difficult to get through. I think it was the first time that I really came to terms with the anxiety and depression I felt on my mission—the need to be good enough and the deep fear that I never would be.
I remember tensing up every time I opened the book to read it. Yet, as difficult as the experience was, I’m grateful for the way that it made me face that part of my past in a new light. Olsen has also shared bits and pieces of her own faith transition in the years since publishing this book, and a couple of years ago, I was kind of grateful to see this comic:
Reading Olsen’s comment about having complicated feelings about her own memoir seemed like it gave me retroactive permission to feel so torn when I was reading it, and I appreciated that.
The other mission memoir I’ve read is Craig Harline’s Way Below the Angels, which I’d been hoping to read for years and finally found one day at McKay’s used bookstore in Knoxville, TN, on sale for $0.75. Harline (and his memoir) differ from Olsen (and hers) in a couple of important ways that made his easier to read. First, he’s a BYU professor, so he’s still an active Latter-day Saint and relatively constrained with the kind of story that he can tell. And yet, he wrote his memoir with the benefit of about four decades of hindsight, and he is remarkably frank with just how plain difficult the missionary experience can be. In fact, everything that I’ve written so far is a simple leadup to an extended passage I want to quote about a specific kind of dream that those who have served Mormon missions have:
… it’s the dream that doesn’t show up until a few years after you’reback from you rmission, but then has the nerve to hang on for about 30 years more.
It’s the dream so skin-touchingly real that even while you’re in the middle of it you actually tell yourself this is not a dream but the real genuine-article thing, so dont think you’regoing to get out of it by waking up or something.
It’s the dream so Madame-Tussaud’s lifelike that when you wake up anyway in the usual heart-racing panic you have to pinch yourself to make sure it didn’t really happen.
It’s the dream so epidemic among former Mormon missionaries that it makes you a big believer in Jung’s collective unconscious.
It’s the dream that says you have to go on another mission.
I thought about this passage today because I had a missionary dream last night. Not the one that Harline writes here (though I have had that one before), but the one where I’m back on my original mission, living out experiences I know I never had then. This dream was about knocking doors (a common experience for missionaries in France and Switzerland) and being let in to speak with one family (a very uncommon experiences for missionaries in France and Switzerland). I remember that the woman who let us in was smoking a cigarette while we talked to her son, who was convinced that the existence of God was mathematically provable, hence the family’s eagerness to talk with us. I remember that there seemed to be too many of us going from door to door, maybe two young men and two young women, a very non-standard proselyting arrangement.
This might have been in the closing moments of the dream or right after I woke up, but what struck me most about the dream was the weirdness of having this dream, not just as someone who is no longer a Latter-day Saint missionary but as someone who is no longer an active Latter-day Saint. My mission experience was an important one in my life, and I’ve long wanted to write something about it. Earlier in my life, the plan was to write the kind of straightforward memoir that Olsen or Harline wrote. Since my faith transition, though, I’ve held onto the idea of writing a mission memoir, but it necessarily means something different to me now.
I’ve wrestled a lot with the idea that the person I am today owes a lot to the Mormon I was for most of my life, even if I have considerable disagreements with my past self. Off and on over the past few years, I’ve toyed with the idea of a quasi-memoir tied up in a variation of the nightmare that Harline describes, mixed in with a little time loop tropery. If my consciousness went to sleep tonight and woke up in the body of my 19-year-old self at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, what would I do? How would I react? I like the life that I have now, and that life is built on the experiences of my past, however I feel about those experiences. Would I try to live through those experiences the way that I did the first time so that I could make my way back to the life that I have now? Or would I not be able to handle another two year mission, serving a church I’m critical of and teaching doctrines that I no longer believe?
This is a kind of silly, science fiction premise to write a blog post about, but it’s one that is on my mind fairly often. It’s a difficult process, reconciling my past selves with my current self, and dreams and memoirs seem like they could have a role to play there.
- Latter-day Saint missionaries
- Brittany Long Olsen
- faith crisis
- Craig Harline
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