[Sorry if this is a bit rough. I accidentally published it before I’d finished editing it. Still, I guess that’s what the universe intended. cjc]
“Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another.” — Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The truth of Mrs Stanton’s words is self-evident. And yet:
- all education systems are designed to foster conformity;
- all governments seek to regiment all lives into a single, multiply-cloned, life;
- the ‘tribe’ demands compliance with its ethics and at least a pretended respect for its rituals.
In other words, the fear of the qualities that make us unique as individual humans constantly overrides our most valuable asset:
- Our variety and uniqueness in relation to each other.
What’s to fear?
Are you afraid to be different? Or more accurately, are you afraid to reveal your inevitable difference?
In a world where children can be scorned for wearing the ‘wrong’ brand of jeans no-one can be blamed for putting on the cloak of conformity.
Many find it very comforting. Being a willing and obedient member of the group carries tremendous rewards, especially if the requirements of the group aren’t seriously at odds with one’s own uniqueness.
However, this is often not the case, especially for those blessed with gifted integrity. We frequently find our needs at odds with the needs of those around us.
If we try to dismiss our needs in the cause of conformity, then inner conflict gives rise to ‘sickness’. This manifests as unfulfilled potential, actual physical ailments, and psychological distortions such as addictions and compulsions.
All in the interest of avoiding being who and what we really are.
It’s not just accounting
We tend to think of conformity as an establishment thing: accountants are conformists but artists aren’t. Yet that is not a true picture.
Any group that can be described as “a segment of society” comes with its own set of expections and societal assumptions.
Artists aren’t expected (or allowed?) to put on suits and neckties before approaching their easels. (Though Matisse got pretty close.)
It’s less prevalent now, but at one time any group photograph of psychotherapists showed a disproportionate number of beards, Freudian and otherwise.
The rules of clan membership have always included wearing the requisite tartan.
The penalty for difference is harsh
On the CNN news this morning there was a brief story about a young man who’d been forced to stand out in the street with a large sign around his neck reading:
“I don’t behave well in school. If I continue I’ll end up working hard for little money.”
There is a major warning here for gifted children, a huge number of whom end up in special classes because of their ‘bad’ behavior.
Setting aside the abusive nature of this humiliating treatment, the sign exemplifies a great deal of society’s beliefs around conformity:
It’s the pupil’s fault (not a failure of parenting or schooling) if s/he doesn’t conform to the required form of behavior;
It’s the people in power who define ‘good’ behavior (“The golden rule is: it’s the ones who have the gold who make the rules.”);
The pupil will ultimately be punished by having to work hard in unrewarding labor;
S/he will be rewarded for conforming (the implication is) by being well paid without working hard.
Which exactly explains what’s wrong with the economy today!
The well-off, by and large, tend to come from the ‘going along to get along’ brigade rather than from those who challenge the status quo and produce creative breakthroughs that change the world.
When everybody’s busy scratching everybody else’s back, who’s going to create the wealth?
However, the reality is that difference of a certain kind is a punishable offence. So maybe we should fear our uniqueness.
Even though the fear is justified
As spiritual teacher Andrew Schneider says: “We are afraid of being ourselves. We are afraid of being unique and different. We are afraid of being individually powerful, and even successful. “
“We want approval from others. We want to be accepted and popular. We seek this comfort to overcome our fear and feel more secure. …So, at times when we conform, we don’t feel the fear of living.”
Schneider accurately summarizes the feeling. Yet I’d suggest that it’s just at this moment – when we are ‘securely’ and fearlessly conforming to a societal blueprint – that we are at greatest risk. Why? Because we’re walking an inauthentic path.
If we should take one step off that path – or get pushed by circumstance – we’ll find ourselves mired and maybe drowned in an environment so alien that our very survival will be threatened.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the hordes of celebrities and other rich and famous people who die before their time in a morass of drugs, debaucheries and other actings out.
They paid the price of trying to be too pleasing to too many.
It’s weird to think of James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and all the other dead rock and movie stars as the ultimate conformists but that’s exactly what they were.
Perhaps Rolling Stone Keith Richards put it most succinctly when he said: “I’m like this so you don’t have to be.”
Thanks Keith, for doing it to please all of us. You are the ultimate conformist to society’s requirement for the archetypal rock musician. I wonder who you really are?
Overcoming the fear of being ourselves
Some of us live a compromise for a long time. We try to combine a dependent societal life – be a good employee, for example – with an independent personal life. This ‘independence’ might show in the form of dangerous sporting activities, weekend role-playing or unusual modes of sexual behavior.
However, splitting our lives into parts rather than integrating them is not going to lead to success. We can’t have a sense of adventure, discovery, and enthusiasm for life – but only at weekends.
So how do we overcome the fear of our own difference?
Happily, by recognizing that if success is going to be ours, it will only be through being ourselves.
This may seen counter-intuitive. After all, one oft-recommended technique for achieving success is to copy the behavior of successful people.
Unfortunately, that technique usually doesn’t work.
Successful people are successful because of who they are, not because of what they do. They do not follow a set of “rules for success.”.
Rather, they trust themselves and do what they are compelled to do at the moment they are compelled to act.
This does mean that success can look like a bit of a moving target. After all,
There’s no single “right” way to accomplish anything.
What works for some people, won’t necessarily work for others.
And what is effective today, won’t necessarily be effective tomorrow.
But that’s OK because one person’s idea of success is different from another’s. So if we each follow our own unique success path, we’re sure to arrive there.
Personal differences determine success
We all know successful people. Some are entrepreneurs, some are schoolteachers, some are writers, some are soldiers.
If they exhibit one quality in common it is that they reserve some part of themselves to themselves. It’s a subtle form of asserting: “I’m OK. I’m as I should be.”
It doesn’t mean they don’t have moments of yearning for someone else’s life.
It does mean that they won’t bend themselves out of shape in order to be acceptable to you or me.
If they get on with us, that’s great. If not, they say: “It’s been a pleasure, goodbye.”
This is not dismissal but a respecting of difference that is free both of craving and contempt.
I may not want to be a Miles Gloriosus, proclaiming: “I . . . am a parade!” but neither do I begrudge him the rewards of his calling.
If I were to respond in any other way I would be asserting – implicitly or explicitly – that “the only way to live and be successful is the way I’ve lived and have become successful.”
In fact, it’s highly likely that that would be a recipe for disaster for everybody but me.
Learn from triumph in battle
Military history is a great teacher because the results of acting out human dynamics on this scale are so clear cut.
Sadly, the military and the people they advise seem to be the last to discover this!
However, war teaches us to a greater extent than anything else that the cost of unthinkingly following someone else’s ideas leads straight to defeat.
Thus the WWI followers of Napoleonic “go for it” strategy threw hundreds of thousands of men to death in battle against the trench, the barbed wire and the machine guns that Napoleon never had to face.
Then in WWII the French, having learnt the power of the trench, followed that idea and put their faith in the defensive Maginot line. So all the Germans had to do was fly above and walk right round it.
Please take heed: what worked for your grandma, your grandpa and your parents is not going to work for you.
You have to do it differently even if it annoys them beyond distraction.
Even if it costs you your inheritance.
Your own path is your only path
So now life is easy.
If you’re a business person, don’t copy Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. Do it your way.
If you’re a homemaker, don’t copy Nigella Lawson or her male equivalent. Do it your way.
If you’re a sinner or a saint, an artist or a banker – do it your way.
Then you will always be a success. A triumphant you.
What do I do next?
The fundamental principle that underpins all of this is to trust yourself.
I don’t mean trust yourself because you’ve been a good student and thought a lot and never want to hurt anything, especially dolphins.
I mean trust whatever comes into your motivation.
Trust yourself to be the pure force of universal good that you were designed to be.
And don’t second-guess the universe. You can be a ‘bad’ person in society but a ‘good’ one in the universe. Don’t let ‘them’ tell you you should be other than you are.
I know gifted people who are destroying themselves as they seek to shine as protectors of society – lawyers, firefighters, doctors. It makes them feel good and they’re helping people but – they’re denying themselves.
I’m not convinced that healthy results can come from unhealthful motivation. Sooner or later, karma seems to come around and deposit her poisoned gems.
So I urge you, be self-directed.
Recognize that service to yourself is service to the world.
How do I know?
Because that’s what the universe put you here to do.
That’s the universe. The Universe. The 13 billion year-old behemoth that we don’t understand hardly at all.
Not your parents.
Not your schoolteachers.
Not your neighbors.
Not your spouse.
Not your friends.
Not your priest, vicar, mullah.
Not your therapist.
The Universe is the only one that knows what it needs and it created you exactly as you are. So it’s a shoe-in that you’re exactly what’s needed.
And, even more strangely (from where I sit) it means I’M exactly what’s needed.