My decision not to go on a mission for the church was probably the first big decision I ever made for myself. I felt predestined to go to BYU--that's where every other member of my immediate family had gone and I'd grown up expecting to attend. I chose computer science as a major because my friends in high school were all into computers and that's why I'd become interested. (Notably, the first tech-savvy friend I ever had was Mormon.) But when I decided not to go on a mission, it was a huge, life-altering decision--and I made it myself.
It sucked. At the time I felt like I was simply taking the easy way out, just like always. In retrospect, though, I have come to feel a level of pride from the courage it took. It wasn't easy and it went against the grain in a way that broke new ground for me.
I'd always expected to serve a mission, but I never really wanted to. As I understood it, missionary service was an expectation and a requirement for young men. When I was growing up, I just figured it would happen. I'd probably go somewhere foreign and Spanish-speaking, just like my dad and my sisters. That's just how it was. That was the reality. I'd never thought to fight it, but it was easy to accept the eventuality when I was fourteen and five years in the future seemed like a lifetime away.
When I was the first assistant to the bishop in the priests quorum, the bishop introduced an initiative created by the stake president (who was my father) intended to remind the young men of their duty to become missionaries. Each of the young man was asked to sign a sheet that stated that the undersigned understood their responsibilities to share the gospel with the world and would commit to serve an honorable, full-time mission when the appropriate time came. I remember not really wanting to sign it. It felt weird to sign my name to say that I promised to do something that I had so little interest in. However, I also knew that I was in a leadership position in the highest quorum of the Aaronic Priesthood and that I needed to set an example for the younger boys. So I signed it.
It didn't seem dishonest to sign it. Somehow, I'd always assumed that I'd have the desire to serve a mission by the time I turned nineteen. I figured that no kid wants to go far away from home, living an austere, monastic lifestyle and keeping limited contact with friends and family for two whole years. But, maybe as part of growing up, eventually my eyes would be opened to the importance of my duty and I would be filled with a desire to share the truth with the world.
Shockingly, this never happened. At BYU, as an eighteen-and-a-half-year-old, I suddenly realized how screwed I was. Here I was in the eleventh hour and when I thought about serving a mission the only things I could think about were still the rigidity, the possibly horrible living conditions, the strange food, the huge foreign insects, the separation from people I knew and the inability to use a computer. I had no desire to put my papers in other than to avoid disappointing my parents and bringing a very public shame upon myself.
And that's when I started thinking--if I'm going to spend two years of my life doing this thing that I so desperately dread, maybe I should make sure the church I'm doing it for is true. So I prayed about the Book of Mormon just as Moroni instructed me to and received no answer, even through countless iterations. That initiated the process of first seeing the church in a different light, beginning to disagree with various doctrines, and then uncovering real truth with the help of the internet and a little logic-based introspection. Three years later, I was inactive with no intent to return.
I wonder what would have happened if I'd caved to societal and familial pressures and gone on a mission. I think there could have been two likely outcomes. First, the brainwashing of my youth may have been solidified. I could have emerged from my mission more indoctrinated than before, just like my sisters. I could have returned to BYU, married a Mormon, and started a family to become an upstanding example of LDS success while not-so-secretly criticizing every aspect of Mormon culture and never connecting the dots to discover the truth--much like my sisters.
Or I could have been so utterly destroyed by an extended experience that I'm about 96% sure I would have loathed every minute of that I might have found my way out of the church anyway. After two years of living in a place I wouldn't like, working with companions I wouldn't like, teaching people who probably wouldn't like me about doctrines I was ambivalent about, being denied the stress relief of my hobbies and being cut off from my family, I might have been just precisely miserable enough to decide that nothing this church offered me was worth what it had done to me. At least, I hope that's the conclusion I would have drawn.
Although I too frequently blame some of my shortcomings and many of the flaws in my development on the church and its programming, I think opting out of a mission may have saved me from the worst of it. I feel like missionary service is the kill shot of the church's brainwashing system. They get them while they're young, pump them full of propaganda in primary, nurture that foundation through adolescence, and then get them to go spend two years living, eating and breathing all that crap so that by the time they're done, those poor suckers can either continue the cycle with their own families or admit the colossal amount of time they've wasted. I'm glad I escaped that. The cement of my indoctrination wasn't permitted to set, and that made it easier to tear up the tiles of deception and expose the floor of truth...okay, so that analogy is kind of getting away from me, but I think I've made my point.
I guess I'm lucky that the Mormon home I was raised in was a middle-class home in a first world country, because it was my attachment to the comforts and conveniences of modern life that made me hesitant to serve a mission. And being hesitant to serve a mission is what led me to leave the church.
Maybe if I'd grown up poor I'd have been more likely to serve.
I shudder to think.