I’ve been reflecting lately on an experience I had in NYC a few years ago, and a lesson I learned about isolation, and being an example to others. I was there for two weeks during the summer of 2009, at a People to People leadership summit at Columbia University. One lecture that we heard was about leadership by example and the strength of character it takes to be a leader. Though I don’t remember most of what the speaker said, his object lesson has stuck with me since then–
There were four chairs at the front of the room, as I recall. The speaker asked for four volunteers. He then instructed them each individually: to three of them he gave instruction to stand in front of their respective chairs until he said a key word (an ordinary word contained in the next part of his lecture), at which point they were to sit down. The fourth was instructed only to stand in front of his chair and not sit. With the four teenage volunteers now in place before their chairs, the speaker continued to address us, the audience. Upon hearing the key word, three of the volunteers sat down, as they had been instructed. The fourth, noting this, also sat down.
The lesson was about peer pressure and the desire we have to be connected with others. Even though he hadn’t been told the key word or the instructions associated with it, the fourth volunteer had followed the example of his peers (without them even inviting him to) and sat down (defying the instruction he had been given). The speaker talked about what it takes to stand up to peer pressure and how powerful of an influence it can be. The moral of the lesson and the principle that struck me the most from the lecture was this:
“It’s okay to be the only one standing.”
I think this statement shows what is necessary for a true strength of character. We must be confident enough in ourselves and our purpose that we are comfortable standing, even when our friends, and everyone else around us, are sitting down.
I read a story from the New Era last week while I was in the temple. It was from the September 2012 issue and was about a girl who made the cheerleading squad as a freshman in high school, but who decided to sit out their halftime performance because the music they were dancing to (though edited) was inappropriate. Consequently, she was faced with open persecution and betrayal by teammates who used to be her friends. She commented about the experience:
“In church when we talked about standing for truth and righteousness, I often pictured how glorious it would feel to make the right choice and have others happily follow. I thought of how wonderful it would feel to be a righteous leader. This experience helped me understand how difficult it truly is to stand up against your peers and those you respect—and how lonely it can be to stand alone.”
Despite the hurt and sorrow she felt having to endure this trial, she says she never doubted her decision, and she knew she “was a righteous leader, even if no one else followed.” This story made me think a lot about my own experiences, and how hard it can be to stand up to our friends.
Like most teenagers who hold themselves to a high moral standard, I had the opportunity to confront issues like this many times in my life. While I was growing up as a homeschooler, and while in high school, as well as college, I was surrounded by friends and acquaintances who did not share the same beliefs that I did. Though I may not have been faced with teasing and relentless invitations to lower my standards, I could have easily opted to do so in order to feel more “accepted” by my peers. Fortunately, I was blessed to somehow be firmly grounded, and that temptation never actually hit me. It was more the opposite for me, actually–I knew that I had made a commitment to be different, and I saw it as my purpose to be an example of what a “Mormon” really is, and what we truly believe. I knew that others were watching me, and having that knowledge gave me the courage to represent my faith in a way I could be proud of.
Since moving to Provo, my perspective on this has changed. I’ve learned how truly blessed I was to grow up in a place where I was one of few LDS teens, and where I felt such a responsibility to be an example. I’ve learned that the hardest thing is not standing up to peers who have different beliefs than you do–sometimes the hardest thing is standing up to those who have the SAME beliefs, but who live them differently. Religion, or a specified moral code beyond your control, is no longer a valid scapegoat. Suddenly, it comes down to character, and whether you have the strength to stand up for and defend what you really feel is right, while still showing love and respect to your friends and acquaintances who are trying to do what they feel is right.
I can’t say that I have an answer to this, or that I’ve figured out quite how to handle this delicate situation. In fact, I’ve metaphorically “sat down” many times when I wanted to be standing up, because I dislike confrontation and I don’t want to hurt or offend others. The more I ponder it, though, the more firmly I believe that we might all be better off if we worry less about what our neighbors think of us, and more about what our Heavenly Father thinks. And maybe, just maybe, if we handle it with enough love and respect, we can be an example and help others to stand up for and do what they feel is right, too.
It’s not easy, and it may be lonely and discouraging, but if you have purpose and conviction you can rely on those (along with prayer) to help you gain strength to persevere.
It’s not easy, but remember: It’s okay to be the only one standing.