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I love thunderous discoveries. You may have already made this one, but I just learned that agency is far more than freedom to act. It includes the freedom– in fact the commandment– to think for ourselves.
The war in heaven required not only action on our part, but true introspection, individual analysis of the options before us. And while the freedom to choose was essential, the freedom to act and think is actually holy.
In his talk, O Be Wise, Elder M. Russell Ballard said, “the eternal principle of agency gives us the freedom to choose and think for ourselves” (emphasis added). He directed us to innovate. “Think… be creative …make use of individual talents.” (General Conference, 2006)
This gift is monumental. Joseph Smith described agency as “that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.”
Independence of mind sounds sacred, doesn’t it? This means no one should force our brain to believe something that rings untrue to us. Force is Satan’s way. Freedom of choice is God’s way.
When newcomers investigate our church, what’s one of the first things they’re told? Don’t just take my word for it; pray about this and get your own answer. Even missionary work values the God-given right to choose freely for oneself.
When we willingly follow the crowd just to gain approval or out of laziness, we are relinquishing that choice gift of agency. We are forgoing our individuality, our uniqueness. One need only glance at the teenagers in the nearest shopping mall to see the sameness of dress, the identical hair, the same cell phones, or to hear them utter the same phrases as one another.
This is a risk in any organization, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While our doctrine itself has never dictated the kind of sameness and conformity we observe in LDS culture, fear of uniqueness flourishes among Mormons who don’t want to stick out and be different.
We fear being the oddball, the weirdo, the most this or the least that. Despite no scriptural directives to sacrifice our uniqueness just to fit in, many of us do it anyway. No apostle or prophet, anciently or in modern times, has told us to use the trite phrases we hear in prayers, to dress like everybody else, to cook the standard recipes, or to bear the same testimonies. And yet we see a sameness that puzzles new converts, and would easily fill the notebooks of a visiting anthropologist.
People who fail to see—and celebrate—their uniqueness often fail to fully grow up. Teenagers need to identify themselves as different from their parents (what psychologists call “individuation”) because God made each of us distinct and different. On purpose. That’s a good thing. Your traits mean you are the only you there is. So yes, you will differ from your parents. I’m not talking about wild rebellion. As we search for our individuality we can still believe in the gospel, we can still obey the laws of the land, we can still have a ton in common. But our own divine nature is different than our parents’ divine natures. We must find those parts of ourselves that are truly wonderful and unique, and embrace them.
Young children have this down. Maybe this is another reason we’ve been told to become as a little child, because they believe in themselves and have no quarrel with being unique. They haven’t yet been made fun of or told they’re wrong to dress/act/speak a certain way. If you ask a group of kindergartners which ones can draw well, sing well, run fast, or imitate birds, a sea of hands will go up. Every one of them believes in his innate worth and even style.
Now ask that question to high-schoolers and they’ll fidget in their seats. They’ve already been pressed into the cookie mold, and the result is lack of individuality.
Perhaps we forget our value in the grand scheme of things. We look at others who are more accomplished and we assume we have less worth. Rosemary M. Wixom said, “Our divine nature has nothing to do with our personal accomplishments, the status we achieve, the number of marathons we run, or our popularity and self-esteem. Our divine nature comes from God. It was established in an existence that preceded our birth and will continue on into eternity.” (Discovering the Divinity Within, October 2015 General Conference)
And Brigham Young said, “The least most inferior spirit upon the earth right now is worth worlds.” Certainly he or she was worth dying for, in the Savior’s estimation. “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).
When we see others who are vastly different from us, do we react with acceptance or rejection? Is our Sacrament meeting a place that welcomes all, or just those who conform? Do we say “come as you are,” but hope our friends won’t actually stay as they are? Does our circle of friends show that we admire those with different tastes and appearances, or are we living in a house of mirrors? Not only should we allow ourselves to be unique, but grant others the same generosity of spirit.
As parents we can fall prey to the temptation to rob our children of their own uniqueness, discounting their out-of-the-box ideas, pushing them to copy the way we do things to the letter. Do we listen to the interests of our children, or become frustrated when they show signs that they are not exact copies of who we are? Imagine if God interrupted our prayers and shamed us into “liking” certain school subjects and extracurricular activities. Imagine if he dismissed or belittled your interests, questions, dreams, and stories. Are you quick to shut your children down, or eager to help them see how special they are? Think of little things– who really cares if your child has his own way of drying off after a shower? Does it really matter if children do things in their own way? Might God rejoice at the same time we sigh?
Let’s stop being the person who says, “Eww” when someone dips their French fries in salad dressing. Let’s stop criticizing those who liked a book or movie or sport that we didn’t. Let’s allow for a wide array of choices when it has nothing to do with the commandments.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Well, I don’t know if it’s the absolute greatest accomplishment, but it’s certainly a victory angels would celebrate, and a worthy goal for each of us.
A good exercise would be to look at your day, how you dress, how you groom, what you eat, where you go, how you speak—and really see if you have room to express your uniqueness, or if you are just conforming to someone else’s standards all the time. Chances are you’ll feel more authentic and be happier if you squeeze in a little uniqueness and enjoy being the particular person God designed you to be.
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.