Recently, a story has been going around social media about a family who left their son out in Bryce Canyon so he could rethink his hesitation to go on his mission (EDIT: Original article taken down, but cached version is here). The story is intended to be faith promotional (since the son did come around and decide to go on a mission, and he is currently serving, still alive). but from my progressive-to-disaffected Mormon following, it has garnered almost complete outrage and disapproval.
When I first read the story, I had little reaction — I dismissed it as obviously fake. But then it struck me that there were videos and pictures of those involved, including of now Elder Alabbas.
But even on this realization, I didn’t quite feel outrage or disapproval. Instead, I thought about how I would have reacted had this happened to me.
My first post at Mormon Matters blog (if you will recall, Wheat & Tares used to be Mormon Matters, and Mormon Matters used to be a blog, rather than a podcast, and our old posts remain almost perfectly preserved as archeological artifacts) was entitled: “Why I Almost Went on a Mission.” And without even getting into the post, you can obviously surmise that a mission is something that coiuld have happened, but which didn’t.
But I’ll go back into detail.
When I was growing up in the church, I never had a testimony. I had good behavior, and I knew the trivia that I was supposed to know, but when it came to what I believed was actually true, I regretted the arguments I would get into my Bible Belt classmates — because I wanted to admit to them that I found the Book of Mormon just as dubious as they did. But I did not and could not, because they were attacking my team, so I would present my team’s best counter-arguments even if I didn’t accept them.
For most of my childhood, I didn’t realize that I didn’t have a testimony. After all, I would often bear a testimony (as I said before, I had good behavior, and bearing testimony was just one good thing that Mormons do). I had no qualms about lying, because for the longest time, I never consciously considered my performance to be a lie.
But it was my senior year, when I started taking a mission seriously that I began to think more seriously about why other young men — who I knew to not be the best in terms of their behavior — were so excited about repenting of whatever follies they had committed in their teenage years. I thought more seriously about why all the other young men were so excited to go on missions.
At the time, I reasoned that I had lived such a comfortable life that I needed to be shocked out of security. And so, as I wrote in my first Mormon Matters blog post (which would have just been a couple years after the experience):
I remember…it was around Easter a few years ago…it had to be before Easter, because I remember Easter was the day of my epiphany. Anyway, some time before Easter a few years ago, my father had been my young men’s adviser, and I remember asking him about how people get testimonies. I remember arguing something to the effect that I couldn’t have a testimony being raised in such comfort. I’d need to be subjected to all of the worst things in the world and then be forcibly humbled. It was pretty deep, I thought. My father didn’t agree. He said something about how Christ suffered for us so that we didn’t necessarily have to suffer all that stuff if we’d follow by faith. Why stick your finger into an electrical socket when you can just accept by faith that it’s not a good idea? Sure, the former will give you a physical experience that you won’t soon forget…but it could destroy you first.
Still, I thought I needed some thing that would shake my foundation so hard that it forced me to need Christ.
Then came Easter. I don’t think there was anything in any particular lessons about it (so I guess this is the point where I’m supposed to say the Lord has great sense of timing for personal revelation — yeah, right), but I came to realize that all a mission was is a controlled way for people to reach the humble rock bottoms of their lives.
When I read about missionary experiences, they don’t sound particularly enjoyable. Or rather, the enjoyable ones are rare. But it seems that most missionaries either don’t focus on the unenjoyable aspects, or when they do, they miss the point. However, I was looking for a fiery field to walk in, and a white (hot) field was ready to harvest.
Back then, I thought that even though I’d hate the experience and I’d hate myself for it, in the end, I’d have a thicker testimony. So, it was with that that I had that kind of LDS-ism…if you can only desire to believe, after all…
So, I have a period of time in my journal where I tell myself that I must tell the Bishop, my father, etc., to make me go on a mission no matter what. That I cannot be allowed to back out of this.
…As you can see, I haven’t gone on my mission, and even though I have a few years, I don’t see it in my future. In the end, I have to accept that even though I recognize such an experience would change me, I would hate such a change. Perhaps it’s pride or whatever, but I don’t want to come to look at my life as something I despise. Yet that’s what I feel the mission experience, and a full-out commitment to the church would bring.
My father didn’t force me to go on a mission no matter what. As I alluded to gently, he thought the idea of the mission as a crucible was dumb as heck. This later led to my lack of faith crisis, where I had to get used to the idea that there were people who sincerely believed in Mormonism, and did not just perform testimony, as I did.
…but what if he had?
If I had been abandoned in a campsite hundreds of miles from home, I doubt I would have had the independence not to give in to my parents’ demands and wishes. I would do whatever it would take to get back into their good graces (which, in Alabbas’s case obviously included a mission.)
What strikes me is that even though many of the commenters to my article (as well as other people I’ve discussed this with) have emphasized that a mission should not be a crucible experience, and that a mission is for the converted, not as place to be converted…I cannot say for sure that it would not have forged a testimony in me. (And yet, I also cannot say for sure that it would not have been a traumatic experience, or led me down a road of future traumatic experiences. If I could be pressured into a mission, then what? A mixed-orientation marriage?)
Nevertheless, to the extent that Kaydin’s family cares about forging testimonies in their children or seeing their children live a normative Mormon life regardless of how it might affect those children (and why wouldn’t they? I can’t even say it’s a bad thing for them to want that), I’m not so entirely sure that I can unreservedly criticize them.
What strikes me is that — even though I am extremely confident about the immutability of certain traits (such as sexual orientation), which makes efforts to change them almost always disastrous or traumatic…I cannot quite say the same thing about one’s theological beliefs. The present (and past) non-believer me feels like a mission experience would feel as immensely fraudulent as a mixed orientation marriage would, but even past me recognizes that difficult experiences can create profound changes in an individual, and perhaps to survive, I would have figured a way to make Mormon belief work for me?