October 11, 2018
Back in February, Todd and I traveled to Cancun, Mexico for a vacation with two of our closest friends, Nate and Erin. That trip boasted many a lively conversation, but perhaps one of the liveliest had to do with the topic of personal mission statements. Why such a conversation should become heated may seem strange, since mission statements are nearly ubiquitously considered to be helpful, beneficial things. Well, enter Elisa, touting the opinion that personal mission statements are actually kind of lame.
We were eating a meal during this debate, and our waiter kept coming and pouring more wine, which probably (definitely) loosened my tongue a bit. Erin may or may not have referred to me as “feisty.” And in my feistiness, I felt free to finally say (more or less) “I hate personal mission statements!” And they said “Why in the world?!” and then we duked it out. It was fun.
I don’t really hate mission statements. Anyway, I don’t hate the idea behind mission statements. I think that behaving with purpose is vital to a life well lived. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I have no intention of going through this life willy-nilly, shrugging my shoulders at whatever hand life deals me. But I also think that humans are extraordinarily complicated creatures, and to take the whole scope of our life on this planet and boil it down to a single-sentence personal mission statement seems small and futile, for reasons I can go into some other time.
I’m far too aware of my own shortcomings to believe that I’m not possibly wrong on this point. I can be persuaded. In fact, I was very nearly persuaded by Todd, Nate, and Erin that rainy afternoon in Cancun. They are all wise, intelligent, sensible people, and they like mission statements. If I’m going to have my opinion changed about something, chances are it’s going to happen when wise, intelligent, sensible people I love all feel a certain way about something.
So it’s possible that I’m learning to like mission statements. I haven’t sat down and crafted one for myself or our family — I’m not quite there yet — but at least when it comes to smaller spheres of life, I think I’m a fan. One of the spheres in which I’m a fan of mission statements is six week family RV trips around the country. When one of THOSE comes along, I think a mission statement is very much in order.
Before our trip, Todd and I talked about mission statements, and after my initial bristling, we formulated something we liked. We shared it with the boys, and after we all talked about it a bit, the mission statement that we landed on for this RV trip goes as follows:
Cultivate a deeper understanding and love of the people, places, and history of our country.
Simple. All-encompassing. Directive. I like it. It means that when we get into a town and have the choice between a video game arcade or a museum, we’re going to choose the museum. If we’re choosing between Starbuck’s or a local coffee shop, we’re going to go local. It also means that if there’s no other option besides the Starbuck’s or the video game arcade (that one’s….not really a thing that happens), we can still keep our mission statement in mind by paying attention to the people working at those places, the terminology used in their signage, the clientele we see in such a place. We may not learn much history at a chain store in another city, but we can still learn about the people who live there. We can see what’s similar and what’s different about a Starbuck’s in Washington DC as compared to a Starbuck’s in Gilbert, AZ. Having a mission statement means (or should mean) that we’re always paying attention.
It’s also helping us to prioritize. Whenever we’re plotting our course, we make sure that people are the guideposts. Sometimes we go somewhere as just the six of us (our Niagara adventure, for instance), but more often than not, we plan around people, and on more than one occasion we have altered our route in order to meet up with friends who reached out to us. “Growing in our understanding and love” of the people around our country means learning about how others live life, and we can do that through what we observe in strangers or we can do that through what we observe in friends. Both are helpful, but there is something special about entering into the lives of friends in every corner of this country to experience life with them, however brief our time with them may be.
When we were having lunch in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, our oldest son Kiefer commented that we’ve traveled so far, he sometimes feels like we’ve actually left the country. It was a fitting place to have such a conversation, because just outside the restaurant there were horse-drawn buggies, and nearby there were horses pulling farm equipment, and Amish folks dressed in their traditional attire pushing lawn mowers and carrying hay bales. It really did feel like another world, and it was fun to talk about the fact that as Americans, there are so many things that bind us all together, and yet there are also cultural differences around the country that are significant and often lovely. The people, the places, and the history. All of it.
I like our mission statement because we keep coming back to it. In places like Williamsburg, VA, seeing things like the church George Washington and Thomas Jefferson attended, it’s the history that we learn to appreciate. In the rolling mountains of Vermont, driving beautiful roads and buying maple syrup, it’s the place we appreciate. In Lancaster County, watching the Amish at work, it’s the people. In some places, it’s all three. In Boston, for instance, we walked the Freedom Trail (history), admired the buildings (place), and interacted with local street performers who love their city (people). And any time we’re with friends, we’re also cultivating a love for all three — their place, their history, their people.
I also like our mission statement because without it, what on earth are we even doing?? Why bother taking a semester off of school to travel thousands of miles and spend ??? of dollars in a 300 square foot house on wheels if we’re not going to come home having accomplished something? If the kids come home and all they can say is “yeah, it was kinda fun,” then what was the point? How much better for them to say, “well, I grew in my love and understanding of the people, places, and history of our country,” and then give examples of how that happened?
I can’t promise that my kids will articulately be able to explain all of these things when we get home. I hope they can! But they are young, and they’ll probably take awhile to process all of these experiences they’re having. Heck, I’M going to take awhile to process all of these experiences. But at least there’s a framework for processing. It’s directive as we move forward, and instructive as we look back.
That sounds pretty great to me. In fact, it sounds SO great, I may just end up writing myself a personal mission statement after all.