Virtually all returned missionaries come home to confront a brand-new kind of adversity: the struggle to establish normality in a social and spiritual environment that no zone conference or planning session can prepare them for.
When a missionary returns earlier than anticipated, that pressure can be intensified.
“Whether you served only a few months or the full two years, you deal with the same pressure,” said Anthony Asplund, a senior majoring in university studies. “You have a lot of time on your hands all of a sudden, and there’s nothing to do but think.”
Asplund returned home after six months of missionary service to have a bone replaced in his ankle.
He said coming to terms with the time he knew he’d lost complicated his fight to get life going again.
“The social part of it, with people looking in, is a constant thing,” Asplund said. “It’s going to be a mystery for the rest of my life. I mean, that’s 18 months. What did I miss out on?”
According to www.earlyreturnmissionary.wordpress.com, an estimated 10 percent of men and women who volunteer for missionary service will return home early because of unworthiness, injury or other issues.
Travis Kienholz, a senior studying chemistry, came back from his mission after two months. His mother was waiting at the airport to give him a hug and welcome him home, but he said he could tell she was trying to hide her disappointment.
“You start to mirror the disappointment that you see others showing to you,” Kienholz said. “It’s still difficult for me when we have a priesthood lesson and start talking about missionary work. I can’t sing ‘Called to Serve’ without getting choked .”
Missionaries may return home early for any number of reasons. The high priority some place on full-time service can unintentionally encourage a culture in which these men and women are seen as inadequate.
“We need to be tolerant,” said Richard Pieper, bishop of the BYU-Idaho Young Single Adult 6th Ward. “Even in medical-related circumstances, we never know the whole story. It takes an immense amount of courage for missionaries to come home.”
Bruce Cook, a former BYU-I student ward bishop, and his wife, Wendy Cook, are long-time Rexburg residents who have had close friends — people they grew with — come home early from missions. They have witnessed firsthand how a focus on true principles like repentance and forgiveness can change what the experience means to a young man or woman.
“The Atonement is real,” Wendy Cook said. “The tendency to cling onto past sins and not let them go — that’s a mortal weakness, one we have to learn to let go of for ourselves as well as others.”
The biblical account of a woman caught in adultery taught Bruce Cook a valuable lesson about how Christ handled a situation in which someone didn’t measure to her society’s norms.
“Jesus protected that woman,” he said. “He didn’t condemn her or shame her. He sent her accusers away and told her, ‘Go your way, and sin no more.’ In other words, let go. Move on. Get back to normal. Repent, and don’t ever go back. My friend who came home early — he’s now a bishop.”
Asplund said he understands that, because people are human, he understands that they naturally don’t comprehend what others are going through. But with his understanding comes a caveat.
“No matter what, whether you come home honorably or dishonorably, I feel like everyone is human,” Asplund said. “When [missionaries] come home, they deserved to be welcomed with open, loving arms.”
Robert Douglas (name has been changed), a former BYU-I student, said coming home after only four months was embarrassing, but that in the end, how he would react was his choice.
“I keep telling myself there’s a reason for all of it,” Douglas said. “No matter what happens in life, you can be completely miserable, or you can choose to be OK. I want to figure all this out and move on.”
Bruce Cook said the focus for everyone who comes back from a mission should be the same.
“Missions are so important,” he said. “They’re what we raise our [children] to do. But I’ve come to realize that the temple is the culminating experience. That’s where we make our covenants. It’s how we keep our promises. It’s where our families are sealed.”
The apostle Paul offered ancient validation for the Cooks’ modern perspectives in a letter to the Phillipians.
“This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,” Paul wrote. “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
In a January 2009 BYU devotional address, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said when the Savior warned his apostles to “remember Lot’s wife,” it was an admonition to all of us to resist dwelling in the past and cling to the belief that people — and circumstances — can and do change.
“When something is over and done with, when it has been repented of as fully as it can be repented of, when life has moved on as it should and a lot of other wonderfully good things have happened since then, it is not right to go back and open some ancient wound that the Son of God Himself died trying to heal,” Holland said.
Kienholz said his relationship with the Savior is what has defined his life since he came home.
“You can’t keep dwelling on mistakes, and that’s where I needed Him,” Kienholz said. “I fall short every day, but He taught me that it really doesn’t matter what other people think. The only One I’m trying to impress is Him.”