Friday, February 4, 2011

Being free is being me

So many of us spend so much time trying to project an image of ourselves that isn’t a true reflection, just to impress or even repel people we shouldn’t be concerned with in the first place.

I had a friend who once referred to herself as ‘non-conformist’. Ok, at the time I was fairly smitten with this girl. She’s a headstrong woman and I tried to draw on that myself. At the time I was receptive to the idea, even seeing it as an attractive quality.

But it’s not; rather it’s a negative way to seek to label yourself I think. In her rebellious intent think she had idealised non-conformity when what she probably wanted was to express her individuality and self discovery. But when you have an intense desire to set yourself apart, for whatever reason, you can be lead astray.

I should really use the term ‘non-conformism’, so I can quote John Lennon/Ferris Bueller – “I don’t believe in ‘isms’, I just believe in me.’

I mean, really, non-conformity is a silly notion; the “refusal or failure to conform to accepted standards, conventions, rules or laws”. I’d go as far as to say it borders on childish narcissism, and it surely takes a truly dedicated, lonely person to pull it off properly.

American writer, Eric Hoffer put it neatly:

“Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity.”

We should question, or even reject if one so wishes, particular social norms. But to flatly reject some or all of them is different to questioning.

People demonstrate their non-conformity in various ways – clothing, make-up, music, art. Ironically it often creates sub-cultural communities with their own norms and identifying features, with brooding members who deride those who accept don’t share their contempt for the masses. Ok, I’m generalising a bit – but only because it’s generally true, right?

I came across the website, The Art of Non-Conformity, which promotes ‘unconventional strategies for life, work and travel. The secondary concept I take no issue with – we should explore and celebrate unconventional ways of thinking. And sometimes there is a case for being different just for the sake of it – proving that there are alternative ways of living that deserve consideration and acceptance. But there’s nothing ‘artistic’ about non-conformity. Again, maybe just a misuse of the phrase.

Non-conformity can even show up in small instances of taste. I’m a long-time fan of R.E.M. Big in their day, but pioneers of the indie rock scene, and now so uncool they are cool. Since the release of the album Reveal, I’ve shunned the song Imitation of Life, dismissing it as simplistic pop. For someone who likes to think of their music taste as mature and outside the mindless mainstream, it was a bit too catchy and glam. Recently I found myself enjoying it. I realised it wasn’t the song itself that made me uneasy, but the fact I could like something so simple and childish. Music doesn’t have to be serious to be enjoyable. And I don’t say childish in a derogatory way. When you go on about how crap pop and chart music is, it can be tough to admit – to yourself let alone others – that you like something everyone else likes. You want to assert your individuality.

Not that everyone liked Imitation of Life! But I do.

Whether other people tap into something you like, be it before or after you do, shouldn’t directly affect your experience. If it does you just limit your own opportunity for enjoyment, or even deeper experience.

Individuality, on the other hand is exploring, discovering and being yourself without desires to fit in OR be different. For all of us, that’s tough.

Non-conformity is a negative ideal; being against things. Belief in non-conformity isn’t a belief in anything. It informs what you reject, who you are not. But what do you want? Who are you? In essence non-conformity is refusing accepted standards, so by being non-conformist you’re still being defined by those very standards.

Conforming to some extent, or maybe social negotiation, is necessary to belong to a community, be it group of friends or the wider community.

We all need to belong, but there should be room for difference, and individuality within our communities, our family, our friends for unconventional thinking and behaviour – within reason of course – and celebration of our individuality.

My ‘non-conformist’ friend asked me, one of the first times we met, what my drug of choice was. When I responded that I didn’t use drugs and never had she was shocked. I didn’t fit her expectations of the kind of person she generally hung out with. I wasn’t conforming.

Maybe the non-conformists have unresolved tensions with elements of society that drives them to rebel. But there is no peace or real happiness in non-conformity.

I guess my point is this: seeking to be non-conformist is just as harmful to finding yourself as following the trends of wider society. Be yourself and find people who share your passions. Experience things, learn about, and express yourself.

Find the life you truly believe in and live it, regardless of how many others – genuine or phony – are living the same way. Focus on who you are, not who you are not. Then you’ll find happiness.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony” – Mahatma Ghandi

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