The second major step towards leaving mormonism behind came when I was 18 or so, and was really the combination of several events. One of the main things that happened then was that I had a girlfriend. My love life, up to that point, had been a story of Almosts and Near Misses. Part of this was because of my timid and naive nature, and part of it was because of my indoctrination; before 16 I was too young, and after 16 I was too different as a mormon to attract loads of interest (not every mormon is raised in Utah). There were a few girls I had fancied, and we had twirled around each other in our lives, but never quite managed to end up together in the traditional sense. This had largely culminated in an event just before my senior year (at a friend's birthday party) where a girl that I had circled around for years had shattered my fragile heart like it had never been broken before. This led to one of the only times in my life where I simply flirted with a girl just because, and not because I was crushing all over her; this, oddly enough, led me to Jen, the girl that I dated for several years after.
Jen was a nonmember. My parents probably disapproved of her precisely because she was not mormon. But they never seriously pressured me to dump her, probably because they knew that my most likely reaction to their interference would be to go in the opposite direction. Besides, my oldest brother had gotten a nonmember girlfriend in high school, and had managed to convert her; surely they would be able to do the same with mine. It probably also didn't help that there were virtually no prospects within the church; my ward literally had one female my age, compared to the 6-10 males of a similar age. Whatever the reason, my parents didn't object. So right at the age where young mormon males are supposed to be preparing to go on a mission, I suddenly had a non-mormon girlfriend. This naturally led to the usual girlfriend problems in regards to going on a mission; I didn't want to leave her behind. As a nonmember, her morals and standards were also a bit different than the mormon norm. She was willing to go much further in making out than the church would ever approve of, and I discovered that I really, really liked it. There was also a certain sense of acceptance that I had never really gotten on the church side of my life.
One example of this acceptance lies in the touchy realm (no pun intended) of masturbation (okay, slight pun was intended). This is something I sometimes engaged in, as most young men are wont to do. I was young, I was horny, and I was single; it happens, whether most of us admit to it or not. Since I slept through sacrament meeting most weeks I likely wasn't as indoctrinated as many children in the church. I knew that masturbation was considered to be wrong, but probably didn't understand just how evil the church considers it to be. I was more afraid of getting caught by my parents than I was of any….theological aspect. But nevertheless, I knew that it was considered to be wrong. And since I wasn't having any sex with my girlfriend (Jen was scared shit-less about the idea of getting pregnant, but knew nothing about contraception, so we didn't have sex), this meant that I would sometimes indulge in self-pleasure even as I dated Jen.
Since Jen was my first real girlfriend, I was very full-tilt about the whole relationship. I wanted to spend all of my time with Jen. I wanted to do everything together. I wanted her to know everything about me, and I wanted to know everything about her. Clearly this never really occurred, but whenever I was with her that was my focus. This caused some stress in my life, as I was certain that any girlfriend would be abhorred by the knowledge of her boyfriend masturbating. I felt a desire to be honest and tell her, but also a sense of dread as to what this revelation would result in.
As it turns out, it was mostly a non-event. When she was told, she was incredibly indifferent. She wasn't bothered at all by the knowledge that I would pleasure myself; as far as she was concerned, it was a perfectly normal thing for boys to do. Since I had been raised in the church my whole life, I had no idea that such a viewpoint even existed, so it was all rather shocking and eye-opening to me. And I was also somewhat struck by the warm feeling that this was a girl that accepted me for who I really was, without conditions. Even when in the middle of committing actions that my religion finds atrocious, she didn't flinch in the slightest, and still cared for me just as much. This was a powerful feeling. This was a level of acceptance that I had never found within the mormon church, as mormon acceptance is usually dependent upon the illusion of righteousness.
Combine that feeling of acceptance with the usual reasons for not wanting to leave a girl behind, and my girlfriend provided me with strong reasons not to want to go on a mission. On top of that, I had never really been much of a person to study the scriptures, or pay attention at church, so I didn't really desire a mission. There was still an intense social pressure to go on one; even for someone like me who isn't as socially integrated, the familial and peer pressure can be intense. So I was torn, and wasn't sure what decision to make.
The tipping point, interestingly enough, came from an active missionary. I did a year of college while contemplating my future, and at this college there were a pair of missionaries assigned to campus. Since my parents had updated my church records, they knew where I lived and would visit occasionally. They knew I was deciding whether or not to do the whole mission thing, and it culminated in a meeting one day with the missionaries. I admitted my hesitancy, and they responded in a most unusual manner.
The eldest missionary (I regret that I do not remember his name) started out by explaining that he knew exactly where I was coming from. He went on to explain that while he was a mere month away from returning home, this had actually been his second attempt at a mission. The first time around, he had committed transgressions that got him sent home early, and had to spend the requisite time repenting before going out again. During that year+ where he was officially a failed missionary, he was subject to the usual disdain and ostracizing that mormons tend to deliver to those that haven’t done a mission. He told me this so that I’d understand that he had been through both sides of the coin, and could understand both sides of the issue. After gaining my attention with this story, he then went on to tell me something that was definitely not the official church stance at the time.
The official stance of the church at the time was that Every Young Man go on a mission. Period. If you weren't worthy, then you needed to repent, and then go on a mission. The decree from the prophet was that every young man should serve, and that was the final word. What this elder said to me was somewhat different. He started by laying out the worthiness requirements to go on a mission, requirements that I naturally did not meet, but wasn't about to openly admit to. He then added another requirement, that you have to want to go on a mission. This desire shouldn't be to appease your parents, or to qualify as an RM for all those husband-seeking mormon girls, or to acquiesce to social pressure. You should desire to go for yourself, and for your own edification. And if you do not meet all of these requirements, for any reason at all, then you do not belong in the mission field. He had met some bad missionaries out in the field, and seen the harm they could do. If I wasn't sure, then the best thing I could do for the church was to not go. I muttered that I didn't really want to go, and he looked me in the eye and said, “Then you shouldn't go. You don’t belong out there.” (As a side note, I suspect that this missionary had done both missions just to appease his parents, and probably didn't fully believe anymore when he told me this. But this is mere speculation, and is not something that occurred to me at the time.)
What a powerful statement this was to me! While I technically knew that going on a mission was a choice, it had never really seemed like much of an optional thing before. Nobody had ever before told me that it was okay not to go on a mission, or that not serving could actually be the right choice to make. This was the first time that I had actually realized that serving a mission (and consequently, being a standard mormon) and being a good person were not in fact the same thing. That there were ways to be a good person, and make right choices, that didn't involve these things.
Not only did this knowledge brighten my horizons, but it also flew in the face of what the church taught. If I were to put it in standard mormon terms, then thoughts of serving a mission caused a stupor of thought, while this realization that I didn't have to serve a mission filled me with peace and content. By their own tests, this was something I shouldn't do. There was certainly more thought put into the matter, but the scales were already tipped; after being told that it was OK not to serve a mission, it was a foregone conclusion that I would never go on one. The thought of not having to do so felt so much brighter than anything else that serving a mission seemed inconceivable.
This decision provided some of the original foundations for my arguments against the religion of my parents. After all, in my own mind, this was not merely a selfish decision; it was the right decision. I didn't belong out there in any form, and by not going I was making the morally correct choice. This is likely why I was unwilling to back down with my family; no matter how badly I was treated, no matter how much they ostracized me, I didn't back down from my stance because I was right. If someone is going to treat me badly because I’m doing the right thing, then screw them; I’m not going to stop doing what I think is right.
Family members and other mormons didn't see it that way, of course. But if they are going to act in such a way over a morally correct decision, then what does that say about their religion? If I’m trying my best to be a good person and make good decisions, would a kind and loving god really condemn me? What does this say about such a god? My family members would try to talk me into coming back, but even at such an elementary stage my basic logic could still confound their efforts. They would try to convince me that they knew that the church was true, but this flew in the face of the basic definition of the word faith! It flew in the face of their religious teachings, where only the most holy and righteous people would even reach a point where they actually had a true knowledge of god, instead of just having faith. Every time a family member would try to convince me with a testimony, I'd stop them at the point where they said they know the church was true. I'd challenge them on that, and they never did give me a satisfactory answer.
So I didn't go on a mission, and I was treated quite poorly as a direct result. My parents' treatment of me included a confiscation of both my car keys and my house key, and instructions to my younger siblings never to let me inside the house without permission from a parent. And this was the place I was living at, mind you. Need to go to work? I had to walk; 40 minutes to get there, and 40 minutes to get back. Get home late and nobody will answer the door? Either sleep outside, or spend another 30 minutes walking to a friend's house. I quickly moved out of my parents’ home, and honestly believed that I had been disowned. Whatever religious and moral direction my life would take, it was up to me.