Individuality and Conformity


Follow the crowd and you will never be followed by a crowd

Which of these two sayings is true? "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." or "Out of sight, out of mind." The answer is that both are true. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is true over the short term and "Out of sight, out of mind" is true over the long term. For example, when Charlie's girlfriend, Betty, is gone for two or three weeks, he misses her, or his heart grows fonder. Yet, if Betty were to leave for two or three years, Charlie could very well forget her and get a new girlfriend ("Out of sight, out of mind.").

The purpose of the example is to show that contradictions, inconsistencies, and paradoxes are perfectly acceptable. In fact, without them we could never understand the full measure of life. For life is complex. It can never be reduced to a simple statement. It cannot be described in black and white terms. When we grasp this truth, it helps us to see things differently. We learn to question, probe, and search for the bigger picture. Even the greatest of minds will occasionally slip and fail to see the big picture because they mistakenly believe that contradictions are irreconcilable.

Take Euripides (485? ~ 406 BC), for example, he said, "No man on earth is truly free. All are slaves of money or necessity. Public opinion or fear of prosecution forces each one, against his conscience, to conform." What Euripides was writing about is today's topic, which is individuality versus conformity. Is it true, as he says, that we are not free to be ourselves because we are constrained by the times and culture we live in? True, we have to work, but aren't we free to love our jobs? Yes, society insists that we behave in a particular manner, but aren't we free to choose to conform when it is in our best interest to do so?

The truth is individuality and conformity are merely different sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have conformity unless there are individuals to conform. And we cannot have individuality unless there is conformity to break free of. Although conformity can be interpreted as a loss of freedom, without it society would be reduced to chaos. Look at present-day Iraq. Citizens are pleading with the coalition forces to restore law and order. They are begging to be restrained by laws, for once they are, they will be FREE to wander in the streets without fear.

Are you fed up with the many laws and rules you have to put up with? At times, you have a right to be, for the laws may well need changing. However, many times our dissatisfaction with the demands of society is because we have forgotten the benefits of conformity. Whenever we join a group, we share in the benefits, advantages, and power. And conformity is the price we pay to gain admission to that group. How can I have one without the other?

Imagine how the lives of Jews and Palestinians will improve when they agree to live in peace, harmony, and cooperation. By conforming to mutual expectations, they can transform a living hell to an earthly paradise. Such is the power and freedom we can gain by conforming to the greater good. When we learn to do so because of our concern for the rights of others, we grow in spiritual awareness and help to make the world a better place.

What should the goal of our lives be other than being ourselves? Although we were all born equal, we were all born different. Although we all share the same fears, feelings, and fancies, we express them differently. Although there may be little difference between one person and another, that little difference is VERY important. For as Hermann Hesse (1877 ~ 1895) wrote, "Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again." So, to relinquish our identity by following the crowd is to deny the world of our potentially unique contribution.

And how must we express our uniqueness? Isn't it by conforming to our conscience, conforming to our higher selves, conforming to the person we wish to become, conforming to our dreams, and conforming to our principles? How can we become better than we are until we first become what we are? The key to a successful life is always one of balance. It is no different here. We need to balance conformity with individuality. Both are necessary.

A word of warning: we have been socialized to conform to the wishes of authority figures. Too often we act out of habit. Yes, we need to cooperate and conform whenever it is fitting, but we need to question as well. Failure to question unscrupulous business accounting practices led to many people in the U.S. losing their retirement plans. Failure to question the government led to the loss of 58,000 American lives and perhaps 1,750,000 Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. Regardless of the authority figure, we need to question it. A quote attributed by Robert Green Ingersoll to Ferdinand Magellan (1480 ~ 1521) is a example, which writes, "The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the Church." [Yes, we need to conform, but not at the price of abandoning reason and common sense.

Not only do we need to question others, we need to question our own actions. Are we living with integrity and practicing individuality by being true to ourselves? If we stop and question ourselves, we may be surprised by the answer. When Emile Henry Gauvreau (1891 ~ 1956) stopped and questioned himself, he discovered, "I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest to make money they don't want to buy things they don't need to impress people they dislike." Don't let that happen to you.

When you dare to be different, expect to be assailed. You may be labeled a misfit. But why worry about what others think, when as soon as you leave their company, they'll stop thinking about you anyway? Besides, it is as Mignon Mclaughlin (b. 1915) said, "Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers." We owe all progress, discoveries, and breakthroughs to those few men and women who had the courage to be different. Their differences made all the difference to the world. Our responsibility is no less than to follow their example.

Also part of our responsibility is to educate our children properly. When doing so, keep in mind the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 ~ 1900): "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." I'll end with another Nietzsche quote, "You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist." So, dare to be yourself!

© Chuck Gallozzi
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