Monday, January 30, 2012

Struggles of a returned missionary, part III

This is more backstory -- I'm trying to take you up from January to where the story actually starts, in maybe June or July. Because the fact that it didn't happen in January or March or May is also a story

Luckily in the days and weeks after my mission I was very good about my journal-keeping, which helps me to tell a tale broader than memory.

I carried my journal - one of those 80-page spiral-bound college-ruled notebooks, with me everywhere – almost lost it twice, too. Filled two of them up between January and June. A lot more than I filled up in subsequent weeks.

Reading it today is interesting. It was only a year ago, and looking back on it, I often shake my head. My otherself seems impossibly eager and excited – I’ve become more burned-out and cynical, segmented between a Sunday Christian and a work persona in whose day-to-day life the gospel lacks relevance.

I shake my head.

I feel like I made some mini-Faustian bargain.

On the one hand, I get the “management consulting experience” with technical skill development. On the other, I accept negative job-related factors (being at the bottom of the totem pole with no one watching out for me, a stress-filled work environment, long hours), that seem to bleed over into my spiritual life.

Of course, some of these are just general first-job-out-of-college problems – I remember my friend Marisa recounting them to me.

I made an equation – Potential for Good = Desire x Skills. The second part of the equation is increasing while the first decreases.

Some of the differences I see in my old self:

The successes he notes in his journal, the things he’s excited about, are related to the duties he’s performing: home teaching, his calling. He brought Jenn to a home teaching visit with a sister and she really helped to break the ice. He is taking the authority he has in his FHE co-chair calling seriously and trying to be a gracious host and delegate tasks for people’s personal development.

He seems to have lots of free time – how did he keep up this journal? He is often pondering and meditating.

Meanwhile, I can see some crucial events in fast-forward, as January turns to February to March, April, May.

A job fair, followed by lots of practice consulting questions, following by descriptions of the people I met and my interviews at Mars & Co, followed by my offer and acceptance. I was pretty stressed and worried about it at the time, though of course reading it at the time it seems like “of course it happened this way.”

Scripture study, of course – Institute was going through the Doctrine and Covenants. While I often take notes on scripture study in classes, I rarely if ever find anything useful in my notes when I review them. Maybe just by writing it down, I helped get it into memory, but maybe I need to take more complete notes of fewer points.

I describe wonderful and happy times with Jenn. Then these start to be interspersed with doubts and worries about our communication and whether we’re right for each other. Finally, the last predominate, and by May we break up. That happens, and I come up to San Francisco to scout out a new place to live after graduation. I find the place where I’m living now, the room with the bed on which I’m laying now.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Struggles of a returned missionary, part II

December 16, 2010. -- I get the typical farewell interview. Thank you for your service, bearing of testimony, and of course, the mention of what my next goal should be. But take the time and find the right girl, my mission president told me in the soft-spoken way he has.

December 22 -- I arrive back home -- long story. I hit the ground running.

December 28 -- breakfast date with my friend Beth. I’d corresponded regularly, if platonically, with her over the last two years.

My parents, who hadn’t been happy with my choice to go on a mission, welcomed me back with love and joy. My mom said that I seemed like a calmer, more mature person than when I left two years ago.

December 30 -- flew back to Stanford.

First week back: met the elders’ quorum president in the Stanford ward, who had already Facebook friended me. Was called in by the bishop and extended a calling as the FHE co-chair. Wrote up a set of goals – reading my scriptures, going to church, doing my home teaching. “KIPs for a Post-Mission Life,” I called it. Stuck it up right next to my bed. (Yeah, a bit full of myself.)

A bunk bed, in an apartment I shared with two other members of my posse from my pre-mission days.

Life wasn’t perfect, but it was familiar. Date, check. KIPs, check. Friends and familiar faces, check. I even went “finding” at a multi-stake New Years’ Eve party. (successfully -- met a girl there who I went on a couple dates later)

Kept rolling.

Next week, Friday. January 7, 2011.

Normally on Stanford campus, we have Friday Forum, kind of a social hour with lunch for the LDS students on campus. My first Friday back, I wasn’t sure where it was, so I called my friend Jenn who I had known before leaving. “It’s cancelled this week,” Jenn told me. “Oh,” I replied. “Umm…want to grab lunch then?”

Two Fridays later, we at one of those artsy place where you paint glaze on ceramics, and then they fire them up for you. I had carefully selected the location for a fun, joint activity. In her car on the way home, I asked her nervously if she wanted to be boyfriend/girlfriend, in something like those terms.

“I would like that,” she said, slowly, thoughtfully.

I wasn’t sure how to ask her, and I don’t think she was quite sure how to respond, but it still seemed to work out reasonably well.

It was Jan 21 - a month, minus a day, since I had gotten back.

Not even a whole transfer.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Struggles of a returned missionary, part I

This is a new series I'm starting on. Don't expect to see things neatly wrapped in a bow here. They're messy and untidy and complicated. Kind of like life. Hope you can relate to it.

“As we begin to understand that the first principles and ordinances of the gospel are the way to the abundant life,” reads a well-highlighted part in my Preach My Gospel missionary manual, “we will appreciate that these principles help answer any question and fill any need.”

The statement is repeated a couple of sentences later: “The gospel can resolve almost any question or need.”

When I was a missionary I made an activity based on this idea for when we visited members: I would write out a few pieces of paper with situations or needs, have them draw one, and have them list a couple of gospel principles that would apply to it.

“Building a strong family,” read one slip. “Eternal marriage,” the chorus would go, along with “law of chastity" and a more occasional “repentance” or “forgiveness.”

I’m not so sure that the gospel can resolve any question or need anymore. At the very least, it's more complicated. Let me explain.

The gospel definitely solves some problems pretty well.

I mean, think about those people you know, who lost a brother, sister, husband, wife. If you were a missionary, maybe you looked into their eyes and told them “I know you will see your son again.”

Or they had a physical handicap. And you read Alma 40:23 with them: "the body shall its perfect form" “not a hair of the head shall be lost” and all that.

Or sin and forgiveness, or addiction recovery.

One of my investigators, we’ll call him Justin, wrestled with the question of forgiveness for his substance addiction. He knew it was wrong, so he got depressed, so he took more. So he got depressed again. His father relapsed into his alcoholism as a result of Justin’s behavior – at least according to Justin – which compounded the situation. My companion and I isolated this problem and followed up with him every day. To make a long story very short, it worked.

In econ-speak, we might call these low-hanging fruit. They are questions which the gospel paradigm answers well.

Other questions, the gospel provides answers, but less well.

For example: how can teenagers navigate the perils of their age group?

We have “I am a child of God” and modesty as a response to body and self-image issues; the Word of Wisdom instructing us to abstain from drugs, and the law of chastity emphasizing no sex before marriage. We even have “For the Strength of Youth” standards for some of the other issues, like friends, appropriate media, dating, and so forth.

But (generally) what teenagers want isn’t really any of these things, except incidentally. They really want to have friends, to be accepted.

Sure, if they consciously follow these standards for a while (or violate them and feel really guilty) they will probably appreciate the benefits. Even so, it requires lots of small details that must be learned from others, or need social support. What do you do on Friday night? How do you nicely reject sexual advances? It’s really hard and lonely to figure out that stuff out by yourself.

Well, duh, you’re probably thinking. What’s your point?

My point is that the answer to the question “how can teens navigate the perils of their age group” is highly dependent on other people.

(This was something I learned in practice as a missionary when a couple of the teenage guys I brought to church stopped coming because they didn't make any friends)

And so, in an imperfect world, in an imperfect ward, imperfect people will get imperfect answers to this question.

And I’m just getting started here.

Other questions the gospel answers even less well.

For example, many of the questions I currently need answers to go something like this. “I am trying to sort this data in Excel, but it is in a table format with rows and columns and thus I can’t put it in a PivotTable. What should I do?”

Unsurprisingly, the gospel doesn’t provide a lot of guidance in answering that question.

Or consider this one:

“I often spend my days at work on the computer performing repetitive tasks and often get distracted. This results in me being less productive and happy. Also frustrated at myself. What should I do?”

What answers does the gospel have for that? Prayer didn’t really work. Neither did putting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on my headphones. But Katy Perry did work --

So when evening comes and I’m walking home from work, I’m humming “Teenage Dream” -- “We drove to Cali/And got drunk on the beach/Got a motel and/Built a fort out of sheets.”