by Nan

I spent nearly half of my mission service training new missionaries. This allowed time for a lot of extra study. I enjoyed this extra study so much that I convinced a couple of my more willing companions to get up early with me even when we weren’t training. Missionaries are fond of bearing comp-a-monies and will often get emotional about what they learned from one another. “Sister So-and-So taught me about charity.” “Sister Thingy taught me about prayer.” You get the drill. When it came to others reflecting on me, it was always, “Sister Lindley taught me how to work.” I was never quite sure how I felt about that. My new comps would invariably tell me after about three weeks how terrified they had been to serve with me due to the taskmaster reputation I had unwittingly earned. They would say, “I’m so surprised that that you are nice, too!” I was never quite sure how I felt about that, either.

My point in sharing this is to illustrate that for all the things I did wrong on my mission, my level of diligence was not something I ever regretted. My last companion was a fantastic sister I had often served near on my mission, but never with. I got a surprise transfer with her for the last 3 1/2 weeks of my mission. The weather was beastly hot that Australian December, but we got a reprieve when we were sent to serve in the beautiful Blue Mountains. With both of us so close to going home, we decided to get serious about the exercise we had always intended to do. We woke up each morning and ran down the hill toward the national park, scaring the sulfur-crested cockatoos and galas from the same trees each morning, watching the sun kiss the craggy tops of the Three Sisters, the iconic landmark of the Blue Mountains. We worked very hard on our mission work as well, sometimes knocking on doors for up to ten hours a day.

We traveled into the city for my last zone conference, and our cheeky district leader called on various elders and sisters to spontaneously teach selected principles from the discussions—–without any aid except the scriptures. There had been a big push in the mission for us to memorize the six discussions that were then used to teach the gospel to prospective members. Elder Teenager asked my companion and me to teach the sixth principle of the sixth discussion. In other words, he had given us the very most difficult one: I’d only taught the sixth discussion a handful of times during my whole mission.

After we finished teaching, as I noted the extreme gratitude I felt for having just reviewed that lesson the day before, a sister who had been in the mission, to the day, as long as I had, said to me with thinly disguised envy, “You are really lucky that you have the discussions memorized.”

I suppose she meant this to be a compliment, and though I smiled with gritted teeth, I felt a rather bitter taste in my mouth. I wanted to stop smiling so stupidly and inform her that “luck” had nothing to do with it.

Was I blessed? You bet—blessed with time to study because of all the training I was asked to do, blessed with a first-rate education from age 4 to 21, blessed with parents who taught me to work hard, blessed with a mind that does what I want it to, blessed with a love to read and learn.

But lucky?

Was it luck that set the alarm for 5:30 all those mornings? Was it luck that my companions and I followed the schedule and rules in the handbook? Was it luck that kept me awake over the scriptures each morning? Was it luck that copied passages of scripture to be memorized during the horrifically long and often boring hours of knocking on doors?

I don’t think so.

We use the word “luck” a lot. You are so lucky. Good luck. Today is your lucky day. That was a lucky break. Third time lucky. Thank your lucky stars. I’m just having a string of bad luck.

But what does it mean? Is there really any such thing as luck?

Though a science teacher, I currently teach a class on personal finance (don’t ask), and something that I try to emphasize with these near-adults is that the very worst thing they can do is approach life without a plan or goals and to instead just let life happen to them. In other words, the worst choice is the non-choice. Too many young people view success as something that happens to other, luckier people. Or they believe that luck is the only path to success.

Some writings here of late have made me think that in LDS culture, we have our own version of the luck myth. Too often, we tell our young women that if they are really righteous then they will be blessed with a good (read: rich and handsome) husband who will take care of them. Don’t misunderstand; keeping the commandments is their surest path to peace and confidence and happiness. But no amount of righteous living will guarantee them a husband, or children, or any of the things we are fond of tying to righteousness. When marriage and family don’t happen for them right away, or ever, our narrative may cause them to mistakenly doubt their standing with God; or worse yet, His very existence. In truth, the scenario where a rich, handsome young man will sweep them off their feet and thereby solve all their woes, financial or otherwise, is exceedingly rare—if it every existed outside Disney movies at all. In my mind, this oft-heard narrative is as irresponsible as me teaching my personal finance students that the key to a comfortable and fulfilling life is winning the lottery.

I would not claim to know that God is involved in every detail of our lives; a large part of our purpose is to choose our lives for ourselves. I have felt clear guidance when I have made some big decisions, and I have made other big decisions without that still, small voice of guidance. What I do know is that when I work hard, more opportunities come my way, more good choices are open to me and my family, more avenues for inspiration and revelation are open.

The lives we make for ourselves should be the ones that we seize joyfully out of the difficulties and circumstances we’re presented with. Compared to this dynamic and fulfilling truth, luck is merely a counterfeit for real living.

10 Comments on “Luck

  1. What a great teaching moment you have given to all of us. Thank you, Nan, for sharing.

  2. Nan — You are a beautiful writer! I loved reading your narrative of the last three weeks of your mission (hooray for hard-working sister missionaries!). I agree with you about the LDS luck myth. I have served in the Young Women organization for the past nine months and my biggest goal is to NOT perpetuate the luck myth. People who are blessed with the life that they planned for themselves at the age of 12 tend to attribute it to their righteousness. But I know plenty of righteous, faithful LDS women whose life has not followed that plan (myself included). Let’s keep raising this conversation so that we do not perpetuate the luck myth for yet another generation.

  3. I have the exact same feelings about how my companions would describe me. I was the sister who taught her companions to be organized.

    I definitely agree with you, but I think that is an idea that needs balance. On the one hand, we need to teach and learn to “make our own luck” with hard work. On the other hand, even the most diligent work and strongest faith don’t always bring about the desired result.

  4. Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    I see how the luck myth plays out with incest and sexual assault victims and church members who say victims are unlucky, and ignore the very real fact that abuse and terrible things happen to good people because other people chose to hurt them. It allows people to ignore how much standing by while someone is being hurt or abused, because they want to keep their own “luckiness” as clean and pure as possible, contributes to abusers feeling free to continue hurting those who are less lucky/blessed.

  5. Hi nan, your story made me wonder if I knew you as I also served in Sydney North – I stalked your Blogs and found out you were a few years after me. I remember finding it funny when I would get a new companion and they were shocked I wanted to get married and have kids – they thought I was career woman (which I actually wasn’t – but I worked in finance and was not at BYU studying teaching so must be a career woman).

    I understand the luck sentiment. I hardly baptised on my mission – while everybody around me did. Was it luck – no, was I a bad missionary – no – but I had a different thing to learn on my mission. It is learning to do your best and relying on Heavenly Father.

    I get called to YW’s tomorrow – looking forward to trying to teach the YW to rely more on Heavenly Father and His plan for them (and try and get a few on missions as well).

  6. Elissa! How fun! My trainer was Sister Mahon from New Zealand. She left with about 8 sisters all at once who’d all been green together. Sister Mann. Sister Vaka. Sister Penrose. Sister Smoot. They were all a “generation” ahead of me. Maybe you know some of them? Were you in ASNM when it split? Was Pace your president?

    Also, Elissa, I am hoping this change in mission age will erase that horrible either/or culture (Either you get married, OR you go on a mission.) I was in YW a few years ago and I would talk to girls about missions and they would say, “I don’t know; I’d really rather get married.” I would patiently remind them that I had a husband and three children.

  7. I don’t think I ever got fed the assumption that if I was righteous I’d marry someone rich and/or handsome, but I did assume I’d marry someone righteous (who would work hard and meet our family’s financial needs). While that did work out for me, it didn’t happen as soon as I expected, and it isn’t the case for every good woman.

    A few years ago I served in Young Women with a divorced woman who thought she’d married a “junior general authority” (her phrase), only to have him go way off in left field a few years and two children later. She consistently bore testimony to our girls that temple marriage is important, but she always emphasized that it doesn’t guarantee a fairy tale ending in this life. She encouraged them to take the long view and live for eternal blessings, rather than assume life was a Disney movie.

  8. I really liked this post, I often think the same way when people hear my son play the piano saying ” I wish I could play like that” knowing that there is no WISHING about learning the piano! But I do however know that sometimes, people use this figure of speech in a complimentary way and they mean well. Often I think sayings like that and indeed some words can take on different meanings or sentiments especially if they are used prolifically by people in your immediate environment. And then again, sometimes we say things without really thinking about them! (Guilty). Nice to hear you served you mission in Australia……or as we like to call it “The Lucky Country” 🙂

  9. I really appreciate this post, I think many of the things we work hard at are often ascribed to luck or chance or whatever. And that’s too bad. I don’t think it’s prideful to say “yes, I play the piano well because I’ve practiced every day for years” or “yes, I can design a costume for that high school play because I’ve been doing it for almost a decade” or “yes, I can run a mile in 7 minutes because I spend time running every week” or whatever it is. It’s not luck, it’s a lot of hard work.

    Excellent post, thank you for sharing!

  10. Hi Nan,

    I went in a few months after the split and I was under Pres Pace (love him so much). Those names don’t sound familiar as we came in in bulk we also went out in bulk – with the greenie sisters coming in at the airport as we were leaving (I meet one a few years ago who remembered both me and my old companion crying at the airport as they came in).

    The sisters that were left when I left (that I had served with) were Sister Prior, Jackson and Hansen – I was in a 3 way with Jackson & Hansen in Orange for my last two weeks.

    They joined the missions back together a few years ago and with the recent influx of missionaries have resplit again. I actually live in the Sydney South (Canberra) area now.

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