We celebrate the rugged individual, we fete the rebel, we praise the rule-breaker, and revere those who crash through the barriers. We celebrate those who defy the constraints of the boxes in which they find themselves, those who “think different …”
At least, in our dreams we do. But in reality?
Inspired by a link shared recently by a real-life friend I admire very much and the ensuing comments of her acquaintances, I would like to share links to two songs that tell us – and perhaps women and girls in particular – that it’s a good thing to break out, to defy convention, to take flight, and go your own way. One comes from the current hit movie, “Frozen,” and the other from the recent Broadway smash, “Wicked.”
Featured in both is Idina Menzel’s captivating voice, which, with it’s “knock-down-the-back-wall” power, creates a compelling emotional rush that makes anyone believe that, with a great tune and a hot new dress, the world is yours for the taking.
Both songs serve the same function in the stories they tell: of two heroines, one conventional and one not, and the unconventional one’s decision that the uniqueness that she has heretofore been taught to believe was a weakness, is, in fact, a great strength, and it’s time to escape the oppressive worlds that would contain the full expression of her power.
Personally, I love songs like this. I’m sure everyone has one in their personal soundtrack of life, ready to be used during the long days, the hard workouts, after the bad break-up.
But are we telling our kids they can do or be anything they want, then rushing them out into a world that forces them into conformity? Are we getting them ready to thrive in their own individuality, to survive on their uniqueness? Or are we setting them up for disappointment when their dreams of independence are smashed against the cement wall of intransient reality?
Schools are increasingly flooded in standardized tests, and filled with kids given prescription medication to ensure their behavior in class. Every school is being invited to glom onto a “common” core. Skills that show individuality and initiative – music, art, drama – are increasingly cut in favor of classes where success is measured by everybody getting the same answer. We want no child left behind, but no child to get too far outside the lines, either.
The ADHD kids have it worse. Not only do they have to fight their own impulses, but they have to face a world rigged for micromanagement, a uniform world set up to deal with unique individuals like antibodies in the bloodstream deal with an unrecognized organism. This is going to trigger the worst kinds of responses, such as increased rebellion, escapism, or simply checking out because of the boredom of it all.
Will their uniqueness become a scarlet letter, an albatross around their necks in a world that treasures its uniformity and group-think? Wether one sticks out on the high end, as too rich or powerful, or at the low, as poor and racked with instability, individualism is no longer trusted that easily. People on a mass scale are insulating themselves more and more from the challenge by burrowing deep within “The Group.” Nails that stick up get hammered down. Squeaky wheels used to get the grease. Now they just get replaced.
Maybe it’s our fault for being mean to each other, for making fun of one another on late night TV. Maybe it’s the greed, and the impossible task of having enough stuff to feel satisfied that we appear just as we should to our neighbors. Maybe, with the things that used to be considered long-run institutions failing ever more – employment and marriage, for example – we’re feeling the anxiety of not wanting to stick our necks out too far when there is the very real possibility that promises and your heart will get broken, anyway.
I don’t know. I’ve been shown, over and over, that not everyone thinks like I do, so that’s why I tell you this is how I feel. I just feel like it’s harder than ever to be an individual, to be who you really are.
My own life includes many examples of the rip current of conformity pulling at my feet: It’s crazy to expect to have a music career; going it alone is too risky, you tried that once, it’ll never work. That kind of thing. At sundry times I, too, have shouted, “No more! I just want to get a regular job, a mortgage and a car payment, and to live a normal life like everybody else!”
At one such time of rebellious conformity, I vowed that my next job would be of the Wall Street variety, for a large bank. That’s where all the money is after all, and that’s all I wanted to be interested in. I made some calls, polished the résumé. I soon found myself sitting across the desk from a man whose great great grandfather’s name, one of the most venerable names in investment banking, was on the building. And he liked me. He asked some pointed, very insightful questions. I must have answered satisfactorily. He asked his second in command to come in. Lots of handshakes, lots of looking one another up and down. I told them to set up a desk for me. I was ready to go to work.
But when I left to find my car again in their covered parking structure, I couldn’t shake the weird feeling that I just tried to sell my children to gypsies. I got in the car and drove, aimlessly. I called my then-wife, no answer. I called my best friend. No answer. My brother out of state, and my parents in state. I called a friend and leader from church. Radio silence. I was truly on my own.
I ended up driving way out by the airport, somewhat near an employment center where the year before I volunteered time as a résumé consultant. I went in. I spent some time chatting with a very nice old gent on a church mission with his wife of many years. We talked about nothing, really, but I felt better, decompressed, and soon made my way home. Since none of the people I tried to call answered their phones in that strange moment of desperation, I told no one about that feeling of almost succeeding at giving in to the pressure to conform, how near I came to fulfilling that wish to just be what everyone else expected of me. (It is unfortunate that I have to report that moments such as those are the most unhappy moments of my life.)
The fact the we realize we are different shows that we are, in fact, different from everybody else. We really shouldn’t expect to be anything else. Does anything else in nature bend to uniformity? Famously, snowflakes are unique, and so are leaves and the trees from which they fall. Neither are hills and mountains alike. Are we not also spiritual creations akin to all of Nature which surrounds us? Can we really expect our minds, or our personalities, to break with the pattern of every one of God’s creations, to be absolutely the same?
Embracing this fact of non-uniformity can be liberating, just as the voices of Elsa and Elphaba would have us believe. But this does imply, however, that uniqueness includes some “imperfections,” some inflection points when we feel that we don’t quite measure up next to whomever we are tempted to compare ourselves. But this should be accepted only as a matter of perspective, our own perspective. And it’s usually wrong to think of ourselves as insufficient (although it’s okay to be wrong, now the we understand that being “imperfect” is not what we thought it meant). Do not substitute “unique” or “special” with “flawed.” Consider the snowflakes. Which are “better?” Or two leaves; which is the “perfect” one? Or two flowers, and so on …
Confidence to be our unique, individual selves comes when we learn to accept our singular character, with all of its potential to be like absolutely no one else, AND with all of the things that we will be tempted to call “flaws.” We may not like those flaws, but we have to accept them. Then, like testing of a piece of material, such as metal or rock, we we might benefit from finding those weak spots so we can strengthen them, or work around them. That’s another place where the world fails us miserably, with the attitude that any flaw requires a scandalous response and complete rejection of the whole person. Let us remind ourselves of how many perfect people the demand for perfection has produced.
So what to do? Let’s take a moment to conjure up a world where being an individual is still rewarded, uniqueness is not punished, and where the individual is free to thrive. There’s no such thing as whole cloth. We are all strands in an enormous tapestry, but we are individual strands, nonetheless. Every individual has the capacity to contribute to the whole just the way they are. Everyone has a unique right to exist as the person they are.
in short, if everyone deserves a chance to fly, and if the cold doesn’t bother you anyway, this is the place we all should live.
Let It Go