I salute you young people as chosen, special spirits who have been reserved to come forth in this generation. You are beginning the struggle to discover who you are and to find your place in life. You have new, strong feelings. You have great challenges. I hope you are beginning to achieve and excel in some special way. Perhaps it is your smile, your personality, or your ability to lift others. Perhaps you are discovering your talent as an athlete, scholar, computer specialist, musician, builder, artist, or in a hundred different areas. This might give you some personal recognition. These accomplishments may cause you to think about who you really are.
Dr. Fred Riley, a prominent social worker, has treated many athletes who identify themselves as athletes rather than as children of God. He relates: “What happens when they can’t play basketball? Their identity is shot.”1 Their self-worth is related to their physical skills rather than their character. Many who achieve world-class recognition may not like themselves. Some of the rich and famous, even though they have great talent and ability, are insecure and succumb to drugs, alcohol, or immorality, and their lives become shattered. Instead of being happy with who they are, they become dissatisfied and discontent. They measure their self-worth solely in terms of their talent and accomplishments instead of who they really are inside. It is not always true that the more you achieve, the happier you will be or that you will like yourself more.
As sons and daughters of God, we are obligated to develop as many of our divinely given talents as we can. All of us should work to achieve worthwhile objectives. We should learn skills and get an education. You will be happier if you know who you are and feel good about yourself.
So who do you think you are? Who you think you are and who you really are can be two different versions of yourself. From an eternal perspective, these two versions need to come together. God knows you and what you can become because He has known you from the beginning when you were His spirit sons and daughters. What you become will depend in large measure upon how you follow righteous principles and do good works.
You may ask, “How do I learn to like myself?” I suggest five ideas that may be helpful.
We need to change our bad behavior. We need to repent. As Alma said to his son Corianton, “Wickedness never was happiness.”2 It’s hard to like ourselves if we are doing things that we know to be wrong. Most of you have been taught about good behavior by your parents and youth leaders. You also have the scriptures and the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth to guide you.
In your quest to define yourselves, do not get caught up in comparisons with role models or body types that may seem to be macho or chic but in reality are not becoming to you as sons and daughters of our loving Heavenly Father. One 17-year-old girl became so obsessed about her figure that she began to skip meals and ended up with an eating disorder. When it became apparent to her father, he insisted that she eat a substantial meal. This confrontation ultimately brought her to her senses, and she wrote:
“All my life I had done things for everyone else. The grades, the manners, the awards—everything for them, nothing for me. This eating thing, this losing weight had become mine. It represented me and my choices, and now my dad was trying to take that away from me, too!
“As I lay in bed that night crying and feeling fat, I knew I needed help. I knew I was hurting people I loved.
“After staying up all night, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t my dad I hated. I hated ME! I realized that I wasn’t in control. For the first time in my life, I understood that this was my problem. I needed to take control of my life—not let the disease control it.
“Things didn’t change overnight. In fact, it was one long road to recovery. But slowly, with the help of friends and family, I began to heal. Now that I’m at my ideal weight, I have stopped weighing myself altogether. I no longer peruse fashion magazines, either—I may not be ‘in style,’ but I feel just right!”3
Feeling “just right” about ourselves contributes to our happiness and our sense of identity.
As we change our bad behavior and turn to the Lord, we qualify for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, which has a profound effect upon our well-being. This great gift comes through righteous living, obedience to the commandments of God, and service to others. Parley P. Pratt had this insight concerning the gift of the Holy Ghost:
“It quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections. … It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. … It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man.”4
Forgiveness is an important part of putting bad behavior behind us. As we make the necessary changes, we need to forgive ourselves. But we may also need to forgive others who have been traveling with us on the wrong path. Forgiveness will help us to let go of the bad behavior we are forsaking. The Book of Mormon tells us how we can know that we have made the turn from bad to good. After King Benjamin had delivered his masterful discourse about Christ, the Nephites all cried with one voice:
“The Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent … has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. …
“And it is the faith which we have had on the things which our king has spoken unto us that has brought us to this great knowledge, whereby we do rejoice with such exceedingly great joy.”5
Feeling joy and peace, we will know who we are and act accordingly.
You are now beginning to make important choices. Choices have consequences. In some measure these choices will affect not only the rest of your life but all eternity. Remember, my young friends, fame and fortune do not necessarily mean happiness. It is far better to have confidence in yourself and to be comfortable in your own skin. This depends upon your ability to choose what is right. It is also important to be able to excel in some field.
Last summer, the Olympic Games were held in Sydney, Australia. Certain rules and disciplines were attached to the various Olympic events: runners and swimmers had to stay in their lanes, shot-putters had to stay within the circle marked on the playing field, wrestlers had to stay on the mat—or the athletes would be disqualified. In addition, the use of performance-enhancing drugs was forbidden.
One young man from Denver, Colorado, who won an Olympic silver medal later was awarded the gold because the gold-medalist in his event was disqualified for using a banned steroid. In his response, he referred to his unfortunate competitor’s loss of the medal:
“I do feel sorry for him. But we all have choices. … He made his choice, and I made my choice. …
“I believe God was watching out for me. I believe he watches out for all of us. I’ve learned so many lessons from how this has taken place. I experienced the agony of defeat before the thrill of victory. That made me so much more of a stronger person, mentally and spiritually.”6
We grow and develop by making good choices. Confidence comes as we decide to pray daily, attend sacrament meetings, keep the Word of Wisdom, obey our parents and priesthood leaders, read the scriptures, and control our bodily appetites.
If we really want to feel better about ourselves, we should do deeds of kindness. Kindness shapes our character and makes us more like our Father in Heaven. The Savior taught us, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”7 As we demonstrate our love for others, in turn we will understand better the love our Savior has for each of us and that we are children of a loving Heavenly Father. Occasionally we should look for public service opportunities. Indeed, as a prominent psychiatrist once wrote: “We feel pleasure when we are involved with other people, and they are involved with us, but we feel pain when we are uninvolved and lonely. The path to an acceptable identity in any society is involvement.”8 Great satisfaction can come in helping the poor, the sick, the elderly, or others who have special needs. Look around you; there are all kinds of opportunities.
The most fundamental of all human searches is for happiness. We each choose our own happiness. As President Harold B. Lee once said: “Happiness does not depend on what happens outside of you but on what happens inside of you. It is measured by the spirit with which you meet the problems of life.”9 It will often be necessary for all of us to choose between having a good time and leading a good life.
Each of us is born with natural “happiness” hormones. When stimulated, they secrete powerful chemical substances into our bodies. There are many kinds. Some are called endorphins. Generally when we are in pain or distress, endorphins give us a sense of well-being. Medical science has long known that our mental outlook and well-being affect our physical health. A sign in a large hospital says, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Smiling is good for the soul.
Smiling brings a glow to our countenances that radiates to others. Being friendly to our neighbors, to people at school, at church, or at work is a great way to show the Lord that we want to keep the covenant we made at baptism “to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light.”10 I recommend friendliness because so many people are shy or lonely and need a kind word or smile. Lifting others expands our inner selves. It is also the way of the Master.11 Like Anna in The King and I, I find whistling “a happy tune” and singing (especially when I am alone!) can also lighten my spirits.
Many years ago my father told us about going for a walk through the woods with an old friend, Judge Bringhurst. The judge sang so loudly along the way that he frightened all the wildlife. But my father said he enjoyed the judge’s singing so much that he didn’t mind not seeing any animals or birds. So when we laugh, smile, sing, whistle, or exercise, we seem to feel better. We either forget our concerns or they are put in better perspective. As we reach out to others, our happiness hormones are stimulated and we find our true selves.
I recall a study some years ago that was made to determine what influences keep young people moving on the straight and narrow track. Of course there were several critical influences. All were important. They included the influence of parents, priesthood advisers, Young Women advisers, Scoutmasters, and peer association. But I was surprised to find that one golden thread of singular importance ran through this study. It was the belief that one day each of us would have to account for our actions to the Lord. Many believed that “the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.”12 Those who had an eternal perspective had an extra amount of spiritual strength and resolve. Feeling a personal accountability to the Savior for our actions and stewardships and responding to it provide a profound spiritual protection.
Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a yardstick by which to measure our personal success. He wrote:
What is success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.13
So who do you think you are? The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”14 Knowing who you are—who you really are—is closely tied to knowing God, for you are His children. Following the simple suggestions I have outlined will help you know God and hence yourself. I believe in you, that you will be obedient and valiant and that you will receive the blessings of the Lord in your quest to establish your identity as His choice sons and daughters.