Several years ago I learned the importance of difference m our lives. Frequently, a short, middle-aged man passed by on the street near my office. He wore extra-thick glasses, had a withered arm and leg, and carried a sack of newspapers slung over his shoulder. I casually assumed he was a newspaper dealer, a handicapped person who struggled through each day as best he could. I also assumed that his imprint on the world was negligible.
Later I was invited to offer the dedicatory prayer at a school for vocational training of the physically and mentally handicapped. The evening of the dedication I learned about the greatness of this man, for he was the Scoutmaster of the Scout troop at this vocational school. I sat on the stand and observed his patience, kindness, and leadership with his “boys,” some of whom were in their thirties. He was performing Christlike service in ways that I probably could not.
If we are candid with ourselves, most of us admit that difference is often troublesome. We are naturally most comfortable with familiar, similar ideas, behavior, and people. And certain regularities are important. We expect all bishops to be kind, patient, and busy. We expect all temple recommend users to obey the Word of Wisdom and to be honest. We expect all returned missionaries to be neat, clean, and decent. These similarities are reassuring.
Sometimes, however, in our desire for people to be predictable, we worry about, and even resent, difference. We confuse healthy, normal uniqueness with rebellion or apostasy. Being one with the Saints is not always simply a matter of learning our doctrine; it can also require knowing subtle folkways and habits.
Several recently activated brothers and sisters were asked to share their major problems regarding Church attendance. They all lived very close to the ward building. Among the fears that had kept them from attending were not knowing the right meeting time in the multi-ward building, where to send the children, correct dress, and the layout of the building. They feared the embarrassment of being obviously different.
Think about the chapels you have seen. A characteristic of many Latter-day Saint buildings seems to be disguising the real entrance. A building may have an ornamental entrance and another one that nearly everyone uses. I recall that when we lived in Colorado, our stakehouse was this way. A lovely curved walk with attractive hedges led up to an imposing door which, embarrassed newcomers found out, opened into the back of the organ loft and storage room. “Veterans” used the little door back by the parking lot.
Some will say that these are merely excuses to avoid activity? Perhaps they are, to a degree. But anyone who has been in a busy meetinghouse with several wards knows that finding the right room can be quite discouraging. This accentuates the newcomer’s sense of being different.
There are other things that make some members feel different. And we must be careful that we don’t let those differences become wedges between us. Whenever we exclude those who do not completely conform, we increase their sense of negative difference and our own sense of isolation. Too often we test or even reject each other. My heart still aches each time I think of my friends Fred and Taicho. He is Caucasian, and she is Asian. Both are converts. They moved to her homeland shortly after they had received their endowments in the Salt Lake Temple. I did not see them again until they returned to the U.S. many years later. I knew as soon as I saw them that they had lost much of the influence of the Church from their lives. Later I found out that their inactivity began when they were rejected in Taicho’s homeland by Caucasian Church members. This does not justify their inactivity, but it does explain part of it.
Acting for a landlord in a large city, my wife and I once rented a home to a nonmember family of a different race. This family was industrious, well-employed, refined, and responsible. Neither were they the first non-Caucasians in the area. As soon as our decision was known, we received several visits from concerned neighbors. One fellow called on my wife when I was away. He challenged our standing in the Church and suggested, “We Mormons have to stick together.” We were interested to learn of our common religious affiliation with him, because until then our neighbor had neither spoken to us nor attended Church meetings.
As the wife in the nonmember family left our house the day we settled the rental agreement, she asked me a question that still burns in my heart. She turned, hesitated, and asked, “Do you think the landlord will really agree to rent to … someone like us?” I have never been so ill at ease as I was at that moment. It hurt that such a person should have to ask that question just because she and her family were different. How grateful I was that the landlord rented the house to that fine family!
Our differences are not always apparent. Recently a diligent Church worker reported to one of his leaders that for the past several months he had been struggling with depression and discouragement. The leader responded, “If you can’t handle the pressure, perhaps we ought to find someone who can.” This leader is an extremely patient and kind father, but he is also a very confident man. He missed the real need of his brother.
This episode exemplifies a difference among us that discourages many wonderful people. The difference is the distinction between the people who do not seem to be worried and the rest of us. While many apparently confident persons hide their anxieties, some do genuinely seem to have fewer doubts about who they are and where they are headed. Perhaps some of them have forgotten what it was like before they achieved some success and a sure sense of direction. We must not begrudge them their security. But we should remember that the kingdom includes those who are sure, those who hope, and even those who only want to hope. (See Alma 32:26–28.)
On the other hand, many members question everything from their own ability to their qualifications for eternal life. For many people, life seems overwhelming, and depression is an everyday companion. They need to be able to tell a trusted leader about their feelings. If we cannot express our unique feelings, we tend to either hide them or to turn away. The church of Jesus Christ must be the place where aching hearts are soothed, where frightened children—of all ages—are comforted. We sometimes desperately need to allow each other to be different within the fellowship of the Saints.
Once a self-administered worthiness test was given to a group of Church workers, both men and women. While no one learned the others’ scores, the range of scores was given afterward. One score was considerably lower than all the rest. The general reaction of all but one person was that no one in that select group could possibly feel so different. But in truth, one woman did feel quite drastically different. From the others’ reactions, she learned that the group had not been sensitive to her strong feeling of isolation. They did not even notice that she was quiet as they expressed their surprise.
Quite the opposite reaction to difference occurred within a Melchizedek Priesthood quorum presidency. Discussing the problem of a quorum member, one leader expressed a sense of inadequacy. Gradually the rest of the presidency expressed similar feelings. Together, their assumed differences became a unifying bond, because they were sensitive to each others’ emotions and circumstances.
Alma’s explanation of the baptismal covenant clearly seems to indicate that we should unite in our differences. We should, he said, be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; [and be] willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:8–9.)
All too frequently we see examples of depressing feelings of difference being accentuated. A sister came up after a fireside. The speaker had just spoken about the struggles that all parents seem to face. She was sobbing loudly. Her story was simple and far too common. That week she had read a story about a family within the Church. The author said that no cross word had ever been expressed in the home. Her self-esteem was nearly demolished by the apparent contrast between her family and the model family in the article. She felt a painful difference between herself and what she thought was the ideal, successful Latter-day Saint mother.
This is perhaps the most unfortunate negative aspect of differences among people—that terribly lonely feeling of being isolated or being odd. It goes both ways, though. Several brothers and sisters with whom I work helped me draw up a homey little list of some of the mechanisms which too many of us develop to either judge or exclude or simply take unnecessary notice of difference among us. You might add your own items to the list.
(Applies to all ages and prejudices)
1. Notice the brand or quality of clothing of others?
2. Assume that inactive members are weak in all aspects of their lives?
3. Assume that active members are rigid and do not enjoy life?
4. Joke about others’ grammatical errors?
5. Speak only with those who share my interests?
6. Keep track of those who bring their scriptures each Sunday?
7. Expect converts to adopt my ideas and ways of life?
8. Assume that lifelong members are less committed to the gospel than are converts?
9. Remember past sins and errors of members and their relatives?
10. Gossip about others?
11. Regularly ask, “What Church jobs do you have now?”
12. Lean up close to a blind person and speak loudly and slowly?
13. Comment on others’ differences with remarks like, “Oh, what a cute accent,” or “What lovely dark skin!”
14. Only have friends who are from my social or economic group?
15. Forbid my children to play with children of families who are inactive but quite decent and honorable?
16. Avoid and criticize those with more money, better looks, and nicer clothes?
17. Treat people warmly until they begin to share their burdens, and then withdraw?
18. Avoid single, especially divorced, people?
19. Probe with questions like “What mission did you go to?” or “Why haven’t you gone on a mission?” or “How many baptisms did you have?”
20. Probe with questions like “Why aren’t you married yet?” or “Why haven’t you had a baby yet?”
21. Fail to invite less active members to help the Church financially because I know they will be offended?
22. Hope Brother Jones heard the talk just given on humility because he surely needed it?
23. Judge other people by their children’s behavior?
24. Know what the Lord means in D&C 64:8–11
25. Sniff subtly and move away from the obvious smoker next to me in Church?
26. Become impatient with older people?
27. Become impatient with younger people?
28. Spend a whole temple session wondering why a bishop gave a recommend to some shaggy-haired man?
29. Have a stereotyped image of lady missionaries?
30. Take it upon myself to warn newcomers about problem people in our ward?
31. Let my children play on Sunday so they will not be different from their friends on the street?
Fortunately, we have rejected many artificial, demeaning ways of defining distinctions. But, some distinctions should be retained or reestablished. Among them are differences between young and old, men and women, parents and children, of accomplishment and mediocrity. For example, many social scientists are recognizing the high price we are paying for loss of parent-child distinctions. We suffer because parental or adult authority is diminished, leaving little respect for experience, reliability, and rights. Why not expect children to honor and obey parents? Why not urge parents to give children, even adult children, ongoing counsel, not by usurping free agency but by sharing experience and wisdom?
One of the more sensitive questions of difference among us today is that of accomplishment or achievement. Many schools and parents have wisely moved away from the old and often devastating practice of unrestricted competition, but they have often replaced it with systems of no evaluation at all. But progress and self-evaluation are necessary to this life.
Being different can be one of life’s sweetest spices. How dull things would be if we all looked, thought, and acted alike. We all respond to the uniqueness of others. These differences, like pieces of an intricate puzzle, create patterns to which we give many names: families, friends, neighborhoods, wards, quorums.
We need to appreciate healthy differences, to lovingly strive to change unhealthy differences. We need to yearn with all our hearts and work with all our might for that day of perfect unity when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ.
I never fail to be deeply moved by the vision of the diverse family of man finally coming together as portrayed by the hymn “The Holy City.” The last verse promises a hope to salve the loneliest of hearts:
I saw the Holy City beside the tideless sea.
The light of God was on the streets, the gates were opened wide;
And all who would, might enter in, and no one was denied.