oh maaaaan. I can't believe this is finally happening. You're leaving in less than a week! As you requested, here are some of my insights and memories about entering the mission field.
First off, you gotta remember that before the mission, I was scared of EVERYTHING. I hated travelling, flying, and change (that part is still true, but I'm getting better at that). So as sick as I was of the MTC by the time nine weeks were up, I was FREAKING TERRIFIED of leaving the 13 people who had become my family in those two months. I burst into tears when we were supposed to get on the bus. And on the train to the airport. I was basically having an anxiety attack the moment we left the MTC gates. So embarrassing. I was under a lot of stress though. Also, I'd never left the country before and all I could think about was everything that could go wrong (my dad always liked to tell me about how Thailand was like the number one country for sex trafficking or something?? thanks, dad. Really reassuring).
ANYWAYS. What I knew in my head but didn't quite understand in my heart at that point was that EVERYTHING WORKS OUT and GOD TAKES CARE OF HIS MISSIONARIES. It's harder to see those things in the MTC because you're surrounded by missionaries in probably the safest environment in the world, but it's true. In a weird way, it's like when you put on the nametag, you become someone else. You and everything you have/are belong to the Lord. Sometimes, that can be kind of difficult to come to terms with, especially because you're still you, with all your individual preferences and goals and ideas, but at the same time you are 100% THE LORD'S servant. As such, nothing that happens to you REALLY happens to you, because you're under the mantle of your calling. Does that make sense?
Think of the worst thing that could happen to you while you're travelling. You could get your stuff stolen, get lost, miss a flight, lose your passport...any number of things, right? Well that and many more things have already happened to TONS of other missionaries, sometimes through no fault of their own. So relax, stay with your companion/district, and roll with whatever happens. Don't be stupid, though. (I don't feel like you have problems with that...but you can never be too careful with Elders ;))
I don't know if I told you or not, but my first three months in country were by far the worst months of my life. I've never felt more spiritually blocked or been angrier at God or cried more tears than I did in a city in the middle of the jungle in Thailand. Seriously. Still not 100% sure why that happened, however, I will say this; living in a different country can be a huge emotional and psychological shock. This probably seems obvious, like of course it's going to be different from America! But it actually goes a lot deeper than that. Sometimes you won't perceive all the stresses involved with living and working in a new country but they'll still be taking a huge toll on you. Here's a quote from a doctor about that:
If you have been treated for [or ever experienced any kind of] mood, anxiety, or other psychological disorders, including panic attacks, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. be prepared for a regression with many symptoms resurfacing after about a month in your host country.... This regression is due to the extra stress of living and working abroad.It impacts everyone differently (and from personal experiences, I'd say it can have a stronger negative impact on women), and it might not impact you much or at all, but keep that in mind that there might be things happening in your head that make it hard to cope, and that's okay (as a side note, you should also keep that in mind when you train a new missionary or even with people from your MTC district: some of your companions/friends may have a harder time than others).
It's totally okay if this happens to you, it just means you need to be aware of your personal warning signs and SLOW THE FRICK DOWN, BUDDY. GOD DOES NOT WANT YOU TO WORK YOURSELF TO DEATH OUT THERE.
Let me say it again in case you weren't listening. GOD. DOES. NOT. WANT. YOU. TO. KILL. YOURSELF. IN. THIS. WORK. The mission is important and everything, but you've got an eternity of being a husband and father and those are ultimately going to be the most important things you ever do. Don't forget it. If you need to stop and get off your bike for a 5-minute breather, do it. You're not slowing your companion down, you're actually helping him because what good are you going to be to him in a lesson if you pass out or fall asleep?
So here are some pointers about taking care of yourself. I don't know exactly what the climate/mission is like there but I think most of these things are universal:
- Some doctor person I think said that however many hours different your destination is from your origin, is how many days it will take your to get over jet-lag (I don't have a medical source on that, I've just heard it). You're looking at 10-11 hours of difference, right? So plan on being suuuper tired for the first couple weeks, and be patient. I remember we would finish daily planning at 930 and I'd be asleep minutes later. Sometimes we would go home for lunch break and I'd sleep for an hour. I'd also fall asleep in church and sometimes in lessons. I felt so bad, but looking back it was honestly just jet lag. It's okay.
- WATER WATER WATER. Make that the first response to any ailments you experience. Headache? drink water. Diarrhea? drink water. Joint pain? drink water. Sounds silly, but honestly you can get dehydrated so fast without even realizing it and the symptoms of dehydration are super broad. You'll need more water anyways just with the increased physical activity of being in the field, and it's easy to forget about it but it's honestly so, so important. I just got in the habit of sucking on my water bottle anytime I was stationary (on a bus, waiting for an investigator, eating, etc.).
- Take breaks. I mentioned this earlier, but it's totally okay to take breaks for snacks/water/breathing. Every missionary works at a different pace and it's okay if you work at a slower pace than your companion. This is also expected when you're a greenie. In the future, you may have a kid/companion who can't work at your pace. No matter how frustrating it may seem or how much faster it would be if you just did the work alone, slow down. Be patient, with others and with yourself when you can't quite work at the speed you feel you should be able to. Because that's literally the point of missionary work, is to invite EVERYONE to come unto Christ, and it starts with you and your companion.
Okay so I feel like the letter so far seems a little bit negative. I had a reallyyyyyy negative experience getting into the country and being a greenie. It's okay. I will say that my saving grace in the field were the members and the people we taught. I felt like they were truly my family. Even when I was super isolated from my trainer and having a hard time with EVERYTHING, the members loved me and as I searched for the little ways that I could serve them, they loved me even more. It definitely got me through that period.
So I really don't know how it will be in your mission, but there were a few big problems in my mission. One was that there was this conception that the more intense you could work, the better a missionary you were. NOT. TRUE. It's not about who can stand out in the sun contacting the longest or who can teach the most lessons after church. It's about doing YOUR BEST. And I know I've mentioned this before, but sometimes your best is not punching your companion in the face or not swearing out loud, haha. Seriously though. It's okay. There was another problem in my mission where everyone just took everything wayyyy too seriously. And certainly being serious is good, but my favorite missionaries were the ones who weren't stiff as a board and could crack a smile and laugh and have fun. Play games with the members. Get involved. Earning their trust is far more effective than contacting the streets for 8 hours a day. I think you have enough personal examples of that to understand how important that is (I'm thinking of that one Elder who served in our ward when we were younger...maybe he was a little too immature or goofy at inappropriate times, but he had my trust at a time that was crucial in my life and conversion and I think yours, too).
Now about your trainer: I don't know who will have the great pleasure of calling you their son out in your mission. I'm sure he will be wonderful and try his best to train you and do the work. But being a trainer is hard. Trainers feel a huge amount of responsibility towards their children and also to their area, and sometimes they feel like they have to do it alone. It's a balance trying to keep your kid involved but also do what needs to be done. Be open about what your needs are -- if you want him to translate certain conversations or maybe just when your investigators ask questions...and be willing to adjust that system as often as you need it. Be patient and loving, with yourself as well as your companion. You are your most important investigator, and are as deserving of God's love just as much as the people of Armenia!
Being a trainer is a lot like being a parent (hence all the slang with calling people family terms). Being a parent is really hard, and your trainer is gonna do some stupid things. Guaranteed. They might not even realize they’re doing stupid things. Somehow, the mission is intense enough that everyone suffers from memory loss and forgets how awful being a greenie can be (which is probably a blessing, frankly).
I hope this helps. It's actually been really healing for me to write you these letters and reflect on my mission experience, so I have to thank you for giving me the opportunity to get my thoughts out on paper. I hope this didn't come across as negative; I believe you will be a healthy, happy, successful missionary in every way and you will see and work miracles out there. Everyone's mission serves a different but vital purpose in God's plan -- it's possible that you might not fully know or understand what your mission's purpose is until much later, and that's okay. Patience in God's timing is really the key.
Best of luck, little bro. You're gonna rock it out there :)