Chasing the Light
Note: this post has been edited to protect some identities. It has also been formatted to fit your screen.
A few weeks ago I shared an article on Facebook titled “Sexuality and Singledom — Navigating with Clarity and Integrity” that dealt with the frustrations of single people in the LDS Church, especially relating to sexual matters (defined by the article as not just sex, but maturity and expressing romantic affection properly in general). A bunch of people commented on it with some great discussions, and I noted that I had a blog post percolating in my head about it about how much I related to various matters contained within, especially about how LDS singles were treated and how they, in turn, treat each other.
This is not that blog post.
At least, not the post I had originally intended when I shared the article.
When I go to a singles’ ward I see a bunch of people milling about, doing their best to play a game they don’t understand, with an end goal that nobody quite knows how to reach. Some do, and get married, but a lot simply just get old, then too old, then disappear. I’ve written extensively on that subject, and I’ve no wish to repeat myself, but I’ve been firmly in that latter camp for a while now. One of my problems is that normally the type of girl I’m actually interested in dating is not the typical LDS girl in the typical LDS atmosphere. You know the one, where everyone’s so concentrated on getting married that everything gets taken way too seriously, with people trying to figure out all the “rules” of dating and courtship as opposed to just getting to know each other and becoming close naturally. The one where, if a girl likes, say, video games, she has to keep it under her hat or risk becoming a pariah (this has gotten better with generations younger than mine). Sometimes I get on dating sites and I find plenty of attractive ladies who love all the same things I do and would be a great match…until I see the “Religion: Agnostic” or “Drinks Socially” or whatever attribute, and I have to say, “Well, so much for that.” If I hafta marry an LDS woman, then I’ve either got to settle or keep looking, apparently.
But, as I thought about it, I realized my frustrations lately have been more than simply related to dating and marriage within the Church.
Early this week I was talking with someone who let out more than a few disparaging remarks about my sister, who recently left the Church, including one pretty nasty one about my nieces (who, for the record, are eleven and twelve years old), and how they’re not turning out as well as other children because they don’t attend Church. (This despite the fact that they are the two best kids I know and are incredibly smart, well-behaved, talented, and all-around great, one of whom has won several academic awards to that effect.) I later relayed this to my sister, and eventually it made its way back to the originator, who was upset, as they didn’t even remember saying anything terrible; it was just a fact.
This type of attitude is fairly prevalent within the Church, of looking with disdain and/or pity to those who don’t fit in the mold. My sister suffers it because she left; I suffer it because I’m over 30 and single. However, that’s not all. I also came across a story of a bishop who told a mother of a twelve-year-old girl that she needed to go home and have the sex talk with her daughter ASAP so that he could ask her if she’d ever masturbated. Does that offend you? Because it does me. Especially since the parent isn’t present for the interview between the bishop and the daughter. And it made me realize that there was something wrong going on. Not just with individuals within the Church abusing their power, but with a system set up to force otherwise (supposedly) upstanding priesthood leaders to ask such personal questions to children clearly not ready for them.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it didn’t actually affect me. And it hadn’t for a long time. I no longer felt the need to decide one way or another, because the Church was no longer my home. You see, I actually probably left the Church probably about a year and a half to two years ago, about six months before my previous post on the subject of Mormonism, when I last attended church (or possibly August of 2013, which is when I stopped regularly attending). And since I did, I took such issues less and less personally, until they were virtually just another news item, like hearing about how those crazy Catholics did something or whatever.
During all this time, though, I still wore my temple garments, as all worthy Latter-Day Saints are commanded to do. After all that had happened earlier this week, however, I realized that, if I wasn’t actually going to Church and keeping those commandments, wearing the garments probably wasn’t a good idea, considering I wasn’t keeping the promises made when they were given to me. Not that I was going out sinning every day; mostly I was just committing all the sins of omission by not attending church, paying tithing, going home teaching, keeping the Sabbath Day holy, etc. I still was obeying the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity, and I was still doing my best to be a good person. But I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to as a faithful Latter-Day Saint, and didn’t have any plans to repent of that attitude. They now represented something I wasn’t doing, and wearing them would probably be a little hypocritical, even if I was the only one who knew what I was wearing underneath.
So I boxed them up and bought some new underwear. And some new undershirts. Really, they were covering roughly the same area that the garments do, minus maybe an inch or two above the knee. I also bought a few tank top undershirts when the other ones proved to be really hot in the middle of the summer.
This past Wednesday I wore an undershirt and a pair of boxer briefs instead of the temple garments. And you know what? It scared the hell out of me. I was so afraid that at some point someone would notice, and suddenly condemn me to hell, or at the very least stop valuing my opinion. The first night I had several nightmares to that effect.
Today (Friday), I decided to wear the tank top under my shirt instead of a full-blown white tee. It was super-uncomfortable, though it wasn’t just the fact that the two straps over my shoulders felt like I was wearing suspenders. It also began to be uncomfortable on an emotional and mental level. I mean, I made a promise to wear the garments. Was I doing wrong? Was I really turning my back on the faith? I started feeling terrible about the decision.
Then I saw Inside Out, the new Pixar movie (you know, the one that forces everyone in the audience to contemplate their feelings). And the entire time during the movie all I could think about was what the impetus behind my decision was. Was it an act of rebellion? Was it truly breaking through long-held chains to greater freedom? Was it letting go of a safety cord to go drown in the deep? Much like in the movie, was it just my feelings being out-of-whack that forced me to make a rash decision?
I was acutely aware of the small straps across my shoulders, as foreign to me as the temple garments had felt when I first put them on nearly fifteen years ago. I eventually got used to those, and I kept telling myself that I’d get used to these, too, but it was such a change. Not just physically, but symbolically. When the movie ended I went home, opened that box, took out a pair of garments, and re-put them on, hoping that in some way, that would quell the unease and all that had seemed wrong would be right again.
So I wept.
I wept because I could no longer go back. Not because I didn’t believe in repentance, but because I didn’t believe in what the garments represented anymore.
I had been sidelined by the Church. It didn’t have a place for me anymore, because I hadn’t accomplished everything I should have by this point in my life. In addition, there were a lot of things in the Church’s story that just didn’t hold up to scrutiny, and they had started to wear on me. But the Church was where the truth was, right? If I had a problem with the Church, wasn’t it actually me who had the problem?
I needed to get away, to think. I needed to go somewhere I’d never gone before. I needed to find my way in the darkness and chase the light.
So I did. Literally.
I changed back into a plain set of boxers and normal white undershirt. I put on some clothes over them, got in my car, grabbed a 64 oz. thing of Orange Crush and two bags of pork rinds from the gas station, and I drove west, my mind whirling with thoughts. The sun had barely set, and the light was still peeking over the horizon, bathing the western sky in a purple glow. Normally when I drive around to do some thinking I head into the mountains to the east, but this time I chased the light.
You’d be surprised how long a sunset lasts when you’re going 80 miles per hour toward it.
And as I drove, blasting remixes from Chrono Trigger, I pondered.
Today the Supreme Court decided to lift the ban on gay marriage all over the country. Millions of people, both gay and straight, rejoiced at this announcement. But the Church was disappointed. Disappointed that thousands, or even millions, of people could finally find their own happiness and live true to themselves.
The larger, non-tank top shirt felt comfortable. I wasn’t thinking the whole time about how weird the straps were. I wasn’t thinking the whole time about how it didn’t represent something that I hadn’t been following for at least two years, if not long before that.
The sky began to darken, though not as slowly as normal. I left Salt Lake County, driving past Tooele. I had never been out that far, at least not at the driver’s wheel. I seriously considered driving all the way to Wendover and spending the night in a motel room. I even momentarily considered finding some girl to hook up with out there. Why not? Certain things are legal in Nevada! If I’m no longer bound by the Church’s moral laws, can’t I just go crazy and try everything? Wasn’t it time I broke out of the adolescent mold of the LDS singles’ scene? My roommate Johnathan had previously mentioned that his YSA ward was doing an activity where you go to bishopric members’ houses with a date and have different parts of a three-course meal not only at different houses, but with different dates at each house! Is this how adults meet each other? Is this the way that people truly connect, through a weird activity hosted by men who had been single adults for two, maybe three years tops, and planned by an activities committee who were planning things like they were still in Young Men’s or Young Women’s?
The sky dimmed as I passed Grantsville and headed out into the unknown.
But, at the same time, I knew that hooking up with some random stranger wasn’t the answer. I never seriously considered that it was. Even putting aside the moral issues, I personally knew that making out with someone I didn’t love was boring and stupid, and sex would probably be similar. But just the fact that I had considered it at all showed that I needed something to change. Sex, sexual morality, and all related issues are entirely abstract concepts to me, since I have virtually no experience (nor have pretty much all the girls I’ve dated), and the way that singles’ wards ran had never been the way that I related to people.
But it’s not just an issue of morality. The history of the Church is full of skeletons in the closet. For the longest time I didn’t let any of it bug me, saying to myself that someday it will all make sense. Some day, perhaps after this life, all the weird and terrible things in the Church’s past would be satisfactorily explained, and I would say, “Oh, that’s why Joseph Smith married that 14-year-old without consent! That’s why the Church asks young 12-year-old girls incredibly personal questions about masturbation without their parents present! That’s why most of the members of the Church aren’t terribly accepting of outsiders (at least without trying to convert them) (and, before you get your hackles up, there are exceptions to the rule, though said exceptions usually have to stay quiet about it).” But things kept piling up. So I had to look at a different source in order to confirm that, yes, the Church is still true, regardless of all the earthly evidence that may point in the opposite direction.
Nearly all lights from civilization had vanished, with only a few pockets visible here and there to the south of the freeway. Only a few trucks and some large cars/SUVs hauling trailers were sharing the road with me.
“Wickedness never was happiness.” That’s what we have been taught in the Church. If that gets put to the test, that means that those who have left the Church and embraced values contrary to those it teaches are not happy. So what about all those gay couples celebrating today that they can finally, legally, be bound to their spouses who they love more than anything? Are they all secretly unhappy? Would they all be so much happier if they instead tried to go against their nature and submerge themselves into the Church, either marrying someone they’re not attracted to or staying single and alone? Does one lose the ability to feel joy the instant that coffee touches their tongue? Is looking down your nose at anyone in a strapless shirt/dress and forcing them to change so you can “avoid temptation” truly the pinnacle of joy?
But, on the other hand, there is good in the Church. So, so much good. People help each other. People teach and are taught so many beautiful principles, of service, of sacrifice, of love, and hope, and charity, and peace. Lots of Church members are truly striving to be the best people they can be. Sure, there are a few bad apples, but I think most are at least attempting to be good people. Could I truly turn my back on all that? Could I leave an organization that has the potential to do so much good? Does it matter what Joseph Smith’s wife count is when you’re carrying a pot of potatoes to a grieving widow, or whatever? I know that I’ve felt peace within its boundaries, at least on occasion, though it had been less and less as the years went on, and the occasions on which it manifested seemed somewhat random.
Can I find the Spirit elsewhere, or is it only in this organization that I slipped out of (and have felt like I’ve grown more tolerant and, dare I say, Christ-like by doing so)? Was it actually the Spirit, or just an emotional elation at belonging to a group and doing what I had been told God wanted me to do? Is “the Spirit” even a thing?
It was now past 10:00 PM, and as I came upon the extremely small town of Delle, Utah (which I didn’t even know existed until tonight) about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, I noticed that the sign said, “Next Services: 66 miles.” “Yikes!” I immediately thought, “I’d better turn around here, or I will be forced to get a room in Wendover!” So I exited the freeway, into a nearly-deserted truck stop with a giant sandy parking lot next to it, containing a few semis whose owners were undoubtedly catching a few hours of sleep before their next shift. I pulled into the lot, about a hundred feet or more away from any other vehicle, turned off the car, opened the sun roof, and sat on the raised compartment between the seats with my head sticking out of the roof. It was late June, and it had been an incredibly hot day, over 100 degrees, so even at night the temperature couldn’t have been lower than 80. The freeway was still relatively busy, and I could see at least five cars in either direction at any given time, but other than the lights from the passing cars and the gas station about 200 feet away, there were no lights other than the stars and moon. A gentle breeze was blowing through my hair. And, as I sat there, contemplating my future, I decided to pray.
I didn’t kneel down. I didn’t fold my arms, I didn’t even close my eyes. I didn’t start by saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I thank thee for [whatever], please bless me with [whatever],” etc. I simply laid out my thoughts to the heavens. I asked if there was a Father, and if He was listening. I voiced my concerns with the Church, and my fears of leaving the Church. I voiced the frustrations of being treated as a child by adults who, in many ways, were less mature than I, but since they were married they were put over me. I voiced how scared I was of leaving the Gospel safety net, afraid that once out there I would never be able to feel the Spirit, or even true joy, again. I voiced how, until now, I had been sitting on the fence so hard that I had chain-link marks in my posterior, but when it came to the garments-on-or-off decision, it had to be an active decision every single morning: am I in or am I out? Not just for appearances to others or outward actions, but personally, intimately, and spiritually. Where was my heart? Where was the truth?
It took half an hour. Countless cars whipped past. Whoever was running the truck stop locked it up and went home. Doubtless some groggy trucker looked out their windshield, wondering what some guy was doing in the parking lot with his head sticking out of the sunroof. Through it all, I kept searching, pondering, and praying.
And you know what? I got an answer/came to a conclusion, depending on how you look at it.
It wasn’t to stay in the Church.
It wasn’t to leave the Church forever.
It was to find out for myself, through experience, where the truth is. To separate myself from what I felt was wrong and find what was right. To be true to myself, undivided, whole. And if that meant leaving the Church, and taking those scary steps out west, into the unknown, then that’s what it will take.
I need to chase the light.
Does it mean dating those agnostic girls who love video games? You betcha. Does it means I’ll go off the deep end and get drunk every night, whoring it up? Not at all. I probably still won’t touch alcohol (if I can stubbornly refuse to eat mushrooms for 32 years for no good reason, alcohol should be simple to avoid even without a religious excuse), and promiscuity isn’t really my thing either. Really, as far as my daily life goes, it’ll mostly mean a change of underwear. I’ll still go to work. I’ll still have the same friends (I hope). I’ll still stream silly video games on my “The Player and the Doodler” page, and play Pathfinder, and have big Super Smash Bros. tournaments with my nieces. I’ll still not go to church every week, just like the past two years. I can still have spiritual discussions. Many of my friends and/or family may stop talking to me about a lot of topics, which is OK.
I don’t know where the road will take me. It may take me back to the Church in the end. It may take me somewhere else completely. Tonight the road took me to Delle, Utah: a place I didn’t know existed but am eternally grateful for. But I can’t grow if I’m stuck in the same place I’ve been for at least fifteen years, if not my whole life. I can’t keep living a life divided. One foot in Zion, the other in Babylon. One foot in an oppressive organization/religion/business, the other in the freedom to explore and learn.
As I lowered my head back into the car and began the drive home, the northern sky briefly lit up in a brilliant flash of color and light. It was like a gigantic lightning bolt, or rather, it was more the shape of a lightning bolt symbol you may see on signs and such, but instead of being white it was a deep reddish-green, if that’s even possible. It flitted across the sky and had disappeared almost before I could register that it was there. Apparently the Northern Lights were so active tonight that they could be seen much farther south than usual, and that’s what I had witnessed. And because I was out in the middle of nowhere, with barely any lights or pollution around, it was easy to see and absolutely beautiful. Had I stayed in Salt Lake, I would have missed it completely, even if I was outside looking up.
Beauty beyond anything I had ever seen. All because I decided to venture into the unknown and chase the light.