“And we thought, why out of all the options out there, would anyone chose conformity?” So asked one of my wonderful friends, reporting a dinner conversation with her equally amazing husband.
It’s a great question. The answer, I think, is that many people don’t know what else is out there. The power of “should” is enormous in our cultural bathwater. We should be early to bed, early to rise, should study hard and get good grades, should go to the best schools we can, should get reliable jobs with increasing levels of responsibility and salary, in the fields we studied in school, should buy a house not too far from our jobs, should get married, should have children, should own a certain amount of stuff and live within the bounds of a certain way, and should and supposed to from cradle to grave.
I take no issue with any of those actions as long as they are the heartfelt choice and decision of any person or people. The friends who had this dinner conversation about conformity, for example, got married because it was the most interesting way they could imagine their lives to be—hitched with some idea of dynamic permanence to the wonderful creative uncertainty of their now spouse. It was their very intentional and considered choice, not a rote filling in of anyone’s expectation.
But, I work daily with high school students who seem disturbingly brainwashed to believe that conforming and giving the “right” answer is the only way that life can ever be. And, outside of work, I live in this world where the shoulds and supposed-tos, seem to cause a great deal of emotional turmoil and foment a great deal of over-consumption that is causing the landscapes of our worlds equal upheaval.
I live sort tucked by ethics and education and choice and belief into a certain niche. Marketing, would probably label me “alternative” because I don’t buy most of the bullshit that I believe mainstream culture is selling. My dream house is a small cabin, my ideal paid work at the moment would to be a part-time small town librarian and part-time farmer, the beauty industry has yet to make me hate and “need to fix” my face or body, I’d rather live where I don’t need one than have a fancy car, and so on.
And yet, even within “alternative” subcultures, there is a certain amount of conformity. Try telling the hippies you shave your legs and adore bacon. Or the hipster intellectuals that you love musicals, non-ironically. Or telling pro-choice people that you might choose to have a baby. Or telling an intentionally open-minded globally, racially, and culturally diverse community that you’d like to pray a specifically Christian prayer. Knowing folks who have done most of those things, it seems about as strained to break from community expectations as to cross to another community.
We need to broaden all understandings of normal in all corners. It’ll makes things less predictable, but also much more exciting. There are such possibilities in living more fully as the complex paradoxes we all are.
I’d like to get further and further from all our even vague definitions and sub-cultural norms. Or not further away—that implies distance when what we need is depth and variety within the words, the ways. I don’t want to do away with definitions, I want to multiply them, to have more people belonging to more communities, finding more and more common ground.
Plainly, it is just more fun to be surprising, to upend the expectations that are unconsciously put on all of us, that we put upon ourselves. I heard last week that Pandora is going to start selling political ad space, and that the ads will be based on the music you listen to. I find this disturbing, but also a delightful opportunity to broaden my musical selections so I can't be defined by advertisers. Or to just quit Pandora entirely and pick up the various instruments that gather dust around my house. Or to continue doing my own research about candidates for various offices.
I worry about how ubiquitous conformity is, how the slightly sickening lull of something agreed upon as normal is everywhere. Mostly, it seems like non-conformity is the choice, rather than conformity. There are some things I choose to do out of almost pure contrariness, just because I don’t like being told what to do. And then there are things that I do because they make me purely happy and choosing do anything else is just foolish. The difference isn’t really that important or decisive, as actively not conforming just for the hell of it makes me pretty happy anyway.
Subverting normal and just going towards what you choose is certainly not as secure as conforming. But, when I think of the allegedly secure systems of support that conformity requires—expensive education with loans “needed” to enter a craptastic job market, expectations that you can’t do what you love because you need to earn a certain amount of money, heartbreakingly false and limited ideas of what love is, destruction of ecosystems to fuel our lives, wars for oil, much of our “necessary” stuff made in unkind sweatshops—none of it seems either good or solid.
And so, in the acts of not conforming to that way to life, in making our own choices and living out what feels clean and true—regardless of who’s norms we’ve been conforming to—has a lot of freedom to offer. I’ll take creative possibility over destructive conformity any day, every day.
The trick, I think, is how to be a functioning society of shiny happy non-conformists following our hearts and happinesses all over the place in a potential fog of selfishness. It’s a possibility that we might all implode in pursuit of our individual ways. One of the biggest ideas of American-brand conformity that gets to me is that lie of being able to do anything and everything alone, that the individual is utterly free and independent. The truth, as I know it, is that we need each other. However, we can’t make anyone conform to our own choices and ideas of happiness. That’s the sort of selfishness that gets people in to lonesome trouble, I think. Our choices and actions have reactions and repercussions in those around us. To know that as deeply as we know our own choices, is the best way I can think to subvert the expectation, not conform to the idea that self-aware is the same as selfish.
At least, that’s what I’m trying to do. Feel free to find your own way. Or not. As you wish, please.