I've been thinking a lot lately about conformity and choices in our lives. It's been a topic that's on my mind because my children are now back in school. I'm amazed to hear of the stories of how children pick on each other for not being like them. It's an interesting defense mechanism to make them feel powerful: "Hey, he looks weird so let's pick on him and no one will pick on me."
As a parent, it's a challenge to make certain that your children aren't picking on other kids or being picked on. But what I wanted to focus on today is thinking more about what we want in life, how to follow that, remain consistent and to embrace our uniqueness.
Individualism Is the American Way
Back in my university days, I studied English literature and remember one of my professors teaching us that the tell-tale sign of an American writer was the thread of individualism in their (I mean his/her but that's bulky) work. We Americans are all about "what's in it for me?" Sometimes our individualism is seen or morphs into selfishness so there can be a fine line to walk there.
There are also social norms that we tend to follow and adapt to because otherwise we'd be ridiculed. Depending on where you live, who your friends are, the following might cause different reactions to those around you:
- Dye your hair blue
- Get a tattoo
- Date someone of a different race
- Identify as a different sex
If we look at the examples above, I'll address them from my own perspective. In growing up, my grandfather was conservative in thought and he thought it unusual and weird if someone were to die their hair blue, get a tattoo, date a black person, crossdress or be a man but identify with being a woman. He grew up in an era in which all of the items I listed would be considered odd up to unacceptable.
There are thousands of other examples that I could have picked, but I wanted to focus on a general range that went from a harmless hair color up to other actions that might cause discomfort to those around you. What I like about America is that we are a melting pot. The honest truth (well, the truth from my limited perspective) is that we all have our own preconceived notions of what "normal" or "acceptable" is. What I believe is important is for each of us to exercise our own attitudes and to be truthful to who we are.
Problems in Paradise
But here is where such a great idea causes some problems. Let's take two opposite examples: One person is a member of the KKK and the other hates all white people. I picked these explosive beliefs on purpose to demonstrate a point. At the core of my beliefs is the Golden Rule ("Treat others the way you'd like to be treated") or the slightly modified version: The Platinum Rule:
"Treat others the way they want to be treated."
No matter how we move forward in our beliefs, what we like to do and how we act, I believe it's essential that we have a value based system base of acceptance and empathy. I know this is a lot of setup before I get into what I really wanted to write about, but I think it's important that I explain where I'm coming from. I don't believe that anyone should do whatever the hell they want. Some people like to rape others or steal or murder. Again, these are extreme examples, but I want to paint the picture that, as a society, we need to agree on certain rules (laws) to ensure that we are not hurting others (or ourselves).
Make Our Own Kind of Music
Several years ago I was watching the show Lost and the episode began with a record (remember them?) playing Mama Cass Elliott's "Make Your Own Kind of Music." If you haven't ever heard the song before, take a few minutes to check it out. It's dated, corny but I love it. I want to dance around and sing it at the top of my lungs. I think one day in the future, if anyone goes to study my writing, they'll see a thread in my works. I believe in standing up for the little guy (or gal), believing in one's self, getting up and making a difference by following what one believes--no matter if it's different or strange (now you see why I have that whole first section?)
Each of us go about our day and we're in our own tiny, little bubbles. We go about doing our jobs, going to school, interacting with people and we can make a difference in what we do. We can follow or lead. We can reach for the stars or put our heads in the sand. We can be conformists or iconoclasts. It's all up to each of us.
A friend of mine on Facebook posted a German commercial that really touched me. It's a 45 second clip of a girl dressed like a "Goth" and how people treat her. I beg you to watch the clip. When I saw the ending, I smiled. That would be me. I would do that. Why? Because I believe it's important that we listen to our own distinct voice. I don't want to blend in and I sure as hell don't want to stand out as an introvert, but I want to be me. And being "me," means being different.
I like things that are different from other people and from other men. I sure as hell don't know many men who like "Anne of Green Gables." If I were in school and I admitted to that, all the boys would pick on me. I would be laughed at, but I believe that it's important to embrace and be true to our inner selves. Again, I understand that I'm taking a very simplistic approach to this topic. My liking Lucy Maud Montgomery's books pales in comparison to a man admitting that he's gay. Or a woman who chooses to live as gender neutral or a transgendered person. I believe in acceptance and to not make judgements of another person's choices in life.
The reason why I'm writing this here is to focus on the acceptance part for each of us:
The only way to live full life is to accept and share who we truly are.
Quirks, warts and all. For me, that means writing or singing (really badly and really loud), being goofy and charming and messed up and happy in a way that allows me to shine a light on those around me to help others. When I work, when I write, when I do much in my life, it's because I want to live my life in a way that's full. I choose to shine. I stumbled across this Picasso quote and thought it relevant:
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Everyday we have a choice to make. We can bottle up inside who we are or we can live loud and be free. Some of what we like to do will not be accepted, not everything will be awesome, but, in the end, I believe it's important to be true to yourself and to make your own music. I think it will be interesting to see how I take to this as my children grow up. I expect they will want to rebel against their father at some point and that they will make choices that I will cringe at, but I hope I am strong enough to remember what I felt like in growing up and how alone I was in not knowing how to get along in life and how it was okay to be different. I wasn't a jock, I was a bookworm, I loved to read, make up stories, movies and to dream up new places and people. Heck, I played Dungeons & Dragons and had braces for years. I fit your typical nerd/geek stereotype, but I was me. This theme of individuality is present in my books and in the characters I've created. They struggle, but eventually find the path toward self-acceptance. That means a lot to me.
The labels were what people put on me, only I had the power to shake them off. I hope I remember that as my children get older. Maybe one day they'll read this post and we will have a better understanding of each other. Until the future is here, we have today. Are you dancing to the beat of your own drum? Maybe it's worth taking the time to think on that and see what answer you come up with. Might open new doors to you that you hadn't seen before.
Like what you've read? Please sign up and join my email list. Thank you!
Ron Vitale is the author of the Cinderella's Secret Diaries series who hopes that his own children will overcome any obstacles in their way and find their own happily ever after.