What is Your Way?
I have always been drawn to eccentrics. I don't know why. Perhaps, because my own upbringing was so heavily tilted toward being nice and being neat, to fitting in, and not drawing too much attention to myself. So my closest friends have often delighted me precisely in the ways they don't fit in, giving my own walls a shake in the process.
Each of us has a unique, and therefore precious, way of being in the world. We might say--I say it, at least--that our individuality is the greatest gift of our Creator. We're not supposed to be like others, as much as we may admire them and even feel envious of them. We're supposed to be ourselves, with our own gifts to share, our own contributions to make.
The pull of the community toward conformity is strong, though we in the West are a long way from that ancient sense of loyalty that demanded that, when a ruler died, all their servants had to die along with them, sometimes buried alive. They had no life or identity apart from their place in the community. They also had no choice in the matter.
The pull, now, given the individualism of our age, which looks like freedom, is toward a conformity of choice--choosing clothing the community will accept, choosing views that fit within a recognizable template, and so on. We are free to choose who we want to be within our society, what image we want to project. But we find ourselves constantly weighing the consequences of being out of step with the group. Even our eccentricities can end up being calculated, knowing that outliers--the rebel, the contrarian, the tortured artist--enjoy their own place within the community.
E. E. Cummings described the difficulty of true individualism in "A Poet's Advice to Students," published in 1955:
To be nobody-but-yourself--in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else--means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
One of the essential tasks, leaving the safe confines of church land, which has been all too willing to tell you who you are, is to rise to the call of being "nobody-but-yourself." We will always be figuring out our offering to the community--when to speak out, when to be silent, when to comply, when to strike out. If we are not to lose ourselves in those choices, we must know, in the first place, who we are. So, the first question of the modern-day seeker is: What is your own unique Way in the world? And there is no one to supply the answer ... but you.
Next week: Naming Your Way