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Do you ever feel vastly different? Here’s why that’s a good thing.

When I was in the 9th grade one teacher had us all write an interesting paper. We simply had to answer the question, “How are you weird?” To ensure anonymity and thus honest answers, none of our names were to appear on our papers.

What an eye-opener!  So many of us opened up about things big and small that made us different from the crowd. One classmate loved classical music. Another one had a difficult home life.  One felt destined for greatness.  Another was discouraged about his or her disabilities. Some of the papers he read aloud brought us to tears.

So many lessons emerged from this exercise. For one, we realized we were not alone. Lots of people like classical music. Lots of people have troubled home lives. And so on. What we think makes us completely mismatched, as if we were sent to the wrong planet, were misconceptions. We weren’t so weird after all. But when you’re 14 years old, you think everyone else fits the cookie cutter mold, and you alone are the square peg.

What I loved most was discovering that weird can be wonderful and even essential. How awful it would be if we really were homogenized into a boring sameness with identical interests, personalities, abilities, and challenges. Our differences make us richer, more interesting, more blessed.

In the Doctrine and Covenants 16: 11-12 it says, “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” That all may be profited thereby. It’s by design that we are unique. These nuances and peculiarities are a good thing. Without them, how would humanity be able to meet any crisis, to reach any soul, to teach and comfort and invent and create and improve the world we live in?

When we allow for others to be open about the ways in which they are different the entire group benefits. And the converse is true: If peer pressure makes us feel we have to conform to a set way of presenting ourselves, the entire group suffers. Those who feel they must live falsely can feel unworthy, unwelcome, even ashamed. Some buckle under this pressure to conform, and emotional problems can result.

Time and again, we’ve seen young people who feel shut out of the group for being different, take out their rage on those who have bullied them or neglected them. What a difference acceptance and inclusion could make.

Unfortunately, we sometimes see this at church. Yes, we should strive to be kind, modest, obedient, and embrace many other virtues. I’m not saying we should abandon all the commandments and write our own rules for happy living. But must we hold everyone to our outward manifestation of “right”? What if we rejoice in seeing those who are decidedly atypical? Why can’t someone with odd mannerisms or dress be given just as hearty a hug as the people who look just like us?

I’ve watched sisters wither when they’ve shared something in class that others chose to snicker at. I’ve been that person as well, said the wrong thing, stumbled during a presentation, been the target of criticism. Yes, we should only care what God thinks, but it’s awfully hard to bear the brunt of rejection from people you wish would accept you.

Missionaries sent to labor in other cultures of the world make a fast discovery: They are not there to dictate their own way of doing everything, but can learn to love a completely different style and approach to daily living. There are as many ways to operate in this world as there are languages, and ways to say hello.

When someone comes to church who doesn’t look like the average LDS person (and who wants to be average, anyway?) I think we should offer an even more enthusiastic welcome.  It’s likely this person was apprehensive about coming. Maybe they already know some will see them as not “fitting in” and it took great courage just to walk through the doors. This is the moment when we get to shine, when we get to show that person this is Christ’s church, and he’s the one whose example we follow.

In my interfaith calling I recently met with the pastor of another local church to see if he’d like to join with community members of other faiths to help and support one another. He confided in me that he didn’t really want to meet with people who didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. So no Jews, no Muslims, no Buddhists, etc.  I couldn’t help but see the irony. His stance was exactly the opposite of the one Jesus himself took. Jesus not only met with “nonmembers,” but with social outcasts all the time! In fact, he was persecuted for it. But he always saw every human being as a child of God. To refuse to mingle with those outside your own tight circle is, well, not very Christ-like.

When we insist upon mirror-image appearances, we reveal our insecurities. If someone “different” comes to church, this should not threaten us but should delight us. It’s a chance to learn something new, expand our horizons, widen our embrace. And very often I’ve watched this wonderful reaction as I’ve seen my own ward members reach beyond the “norm” to ensure that love is felt by all. It makes me proud to associate with people that caring, that secure, that determined to live Christ’s gospel of love.

It can happen in every ward and every branch of the world. It just takes awareness and the realization that weird is not only fine, it’s fantastic.

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.