Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

Five years ago I was confronted with a difficult choice. After spending ten years of my life attending young single adult wards, I was asked to move on. My options were to attend a traditional family ward, "upgrade" to the mid-singles ward, or just stop going to church altogether.

Going inactive was never an option, so the choice came down to whether I wanted to continue the marital-status-segregated tradition in the mid-singles ward or take my chances with a traditional family ward (there was also a half-joking notion that I would start a geriatric biker gang, but sadly that never came to fruition). After mulling things over, I began attending the family ward at the end of my street, sucking in my gut and preparing for the crying-baby-chaos of Mainstream Mormondom. Out of obligation, I made a token visit to a mid-singles ward in Salt Lake, but quickly decided that I would rather feel out-of-place with the married people. At least at the family ward I still felt like I was in the game. Plus I actually liked having all the little kids around.

Throughout the transition, and even at times today, I felt resentment at an unspoken message I had been hearing ever since my old YSA bishop announced that they would be clearing the records of anyone over the age of 31. The message was that I didn't fit anymore, and needed to go off with my own kind.

Of course, no one ever said this, at least in those words. My YSA bishop initially invited all the old-timers to continue attending activities, and bristled at the notion that we were being "kicked out." But whenever I swallowed my pride and dropped by occasional YSA activity, it always felt like I was welcome, but out of place, like I was going back to prom after having graduated high school.

I said "no one ever said this, at least in those words." But they did say it in other words. One person responded to the blog post announcing my departure by saying guys in their '30s shouldn't be chasing 18-year-olds anyway. Months later, when I didn't quickly endorse a friend's regular get-together that featured guys and girls exclusively in their '30s, she remarked, "well, unless you would rather chase 18-year-olds." Both responses were understandable, but based in rhetorical fallacies. Just because I didn't feel like going cold turkey and dating women in their '30s exclusively didn't mean I wanted to chase 18-year-olds. I didn't even have a problem dating women in their '30s, anyway. I just wanted to make the decision on my own, not be pushed off into some social category by cultural mandate. As a grown man, I resented the idea that my social circles were being dictated to me.

My experience confirmed an idea I'd long suspected: that YSA culture is a simultaneous blessing and cursing. If you get into a good ward (as I had), your entire social life never need extend beyond the doors of your weekly sacrament meeting. There are more than enough activities and more than enough dating options to keep your social calendar active and vibrant throughout the year. This is great if your desires for marital success are fulfilled in a timely fashion. But if you put all your eggs in one social basket, then get too old to stay on the farm, well...

In the time since I left the YSA ward, I've seen my social life take a drastic turn. A routine of almost daily activities and weekly dating has become a lot of empty weekends and a dating pool that is shallow at best. People I thought were going to be lifelong friends have redefined the concept of "out of sight, out of mind." But while the frequency may have flatlined, the people I have maintained friendships with and the girls I have dated have been as high if not of higher caliber than the people I encountered during my YSA firehose years. At times I've wondered if passing on the overcrowded mid-singles scene was wise, if not an act of outright rebellion. But that wonder has never led to conviction.

Readers have debated the sentiment of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken*" for decades. Is Frost happy he chose the less-traveled path, or is his poem a statement of regret? Five years after getting off the LDS singles ward train, I'm inclined to say "both."

(Note (1/10/14): OK, it turns out I misquoted the name of that Frost poem when I first published this post. It's fixed now.)