Some missionaries believe they will never suffer from homesickness. Since it cannot be detected by a thermometer or a doctor, it may go undetected for some time. It is a potentially debilitating condition that should not be taken lightly. Fortunately, it is curable and never fatal.
As you are given opportunities to shoulder the added responsibility of leadership, this chapter may help you diagnose and treat this common ailment. How do you recognize the symptoms of homesickness? It can start in the MTC or may surface later, usually during the first three to five months in the mission field. You may wake up one morning, look at the ceiling, and say to yourself, "I am not cut out to be a missionary! I need to go home! I am wasting my time here!" Or you may occasionally catch yourself thinking about home—on holidays, for instance, and feel pangs of homesickness. Don't worry. Such feelings are a normal and healthy part of your mission.
It is common for an elder or sister who has never been away from family before to experience severe homesickness. Even if you went away to school before your mission, you probably will experience a degree of homesickness. It is comforting to know that almost every missionary experiences homesickness to some extent. Homesickness can drain your desire to get up, to study, to go out proselyting, to eat, or even to enjoy P-day activities. The sooner you recognize what is happening to you or a fellow missionary, the easier it is to put it in perspective and cure it.
Admitting that you are homesick does not make you a wimp or a baby; it is a normal reaction to change. You are closing the door on the only chapter of your life that you have known—your premission chapter. You have been separated from family, friends, and loved ones and have undergone a dramatic change in lifestyle. You were comfortable at home; even if conditions weren't perfect there, you were familiar with people, places, schedules, and activities. But, now you have begun a new chapter that will drastically change your life. You may be overhauling your priorities. Premission things like cars, ball games, goofing off, television, and hanging out may become less important.
Personal relationships, spiritual feelings, reading the scriptures, Church meetings, general conferences, families, eternal goals, and temple marriage will likely become primary goals in your life. No wonder there may be the last, longing look back at the old days that causes you to feel confused and homesick. You may be reluctant to let go of the familiar because the chapter you are opening, although exciting and new, is uncharted. Will you be able to survive and succeed? Will your friends back home still accept the new you? Will others view you as a goody-goody? The questions are endless, and the answers may not yet be clear to you.
When you realize what is happening, you will be at a crossroad in your life. You can call it quits or you can grit your teeth, redouble your efforts, and move on. The following chapter will sensitize you to the temptations and problems that the adversary may put in your way as the normal thoughts of going home early cross your mind. If you have firmly determined to serve your full mission whatever the problems, it will be much easier to look for options that will help you enjoy every day of your mission.
What can you do about homesickness? It is relatively simple. You just say to yourself, "This is exactly what I was warned about. Where do I go from here?" Then get out of bed and onto your knees and explain to your Heavenly Father how you feel. Tell Him how you want to succeed but need his help to keep things in an eternal perspective. Promise him that you'll do everything in your power if He will help you through this time. Then get up off your knees and go to work.
Start by serving your companion. Polish his shoes, wash the dishes, iron his shirt or her dress, make your companion's bed while he or she is in the shower. Put on a happy face and take control. As you leave the apartment, keep smiling (even though you may not want to). Find someone to serve: a member who needs yard work done, an investigator who is painting a fence, a stranger who needs help roofing, a teacher whose students could use your help in one-on-one tutoring, an older person who just needs someone to talk to, a doctor who could use help with therapy patients.
The list is endless. As you begin to lose your life in service, you will find that homesickness disappears and seldom returns. Instead of concentrating on yourself, focus on the needs of others. You will appreciate how many blessings you have and realize how much you can bless others by alleviating their suffering, worries, loneliness, or other challenges. As you forget yourself and remember others, the Lord will answer your humble prayer and help you overcome homesickness.
As you return home exhausted every evening, you will realize that you've never felt better in your life. As you read the scriptures with real intent, you will receive insight and knowledge like never before. As you lost yourself in the service of others, you will experience true feelings of charity and love. You will realize that many of your teenage activities were shallow and unrewarding compared to these new feelings. As you kneel before your Heavenly Father, your heart will feel full, and often tears of gratitude and love will accompany your realization of the value of your mission experiences.
Hopefully, you will not need the counsel given in this chapter, but if you do, it will be here for you. You may find that other activities help you beat the blues. The cure may be singing a song with your companion, memorizing and quoting scriptures or inspirational quotes or poetry, writing in your journal, or writing to a friend at home or another missionary in another part of the world. Don't be afraid to talk with other missionaries and ask how they overcame homesickness. Sharing ideas and experiences will help them remember how they did it, and this will prepare them to help other missionaries as well.
Does homesickness ever return? Sometimes it does if you have a couple of trying days, receive bad news from home, or serve with a particularly challenging companion. Be particularly mindful that the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year's is especially difficult. Other prominent holidays when your family gathers may prove challenging no matter how long you have served.
If homesickness comes back, the same prescription that cured you before will work again. I like President Ezra Taft Benson's statement to newly-called mission presidents in 1982: "One of the greatest secrets of missionary work is work! If a missionary works, he will get the Spirit; if he gets the Spirit, he will teach by the Spirit; and if he teaches by the Spirit, he will touch the hearts of the people and he will be happy. There will be no homesickness, no worrying about families, for all time and talents and interests are centered on the work of the ministry. Work, work, work—there is no satisfactory substitute, especially in missionary work" (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 200).
If you are blessed with no lasting feelings of homesickness, don't despair; you will definitely be tested in other areas. But please be sensitive and have Christ-like empathy for those challenged by homesickness.
Whether the homesickness lasts five minutes or five months depends on you. Once you have experienced homesickness yourself, your empathy for other missionaries who are struggling with it will be much greater. Share with them your technique for overcoming homesickness. You become a kind of savior on Mount Zion as you rescue a brother or sister from his or her dark and dreary mental wilderness. You become an instrument in the Lord's hands to guide others out of depression and back into the glorious light of the gospel.
Excerpt from the book: Serve With Honor, by Randy Bott, 1995