Last weekend my husband Thom and I attended the Joshua Tree Music Festival. It wasn’t our first. We’ve attended several others in the past, including two of the biggest music festivals in the country—The Coachella and Stagecoach. Why? We’re drawn to the music, the energy, the art and the people watching. While every event is unique, the Joshua Tree Music Festival promotes itself as a family friendly global music festival, so people of all ages and backgrounds attend. But just like with other music festivals, Thom and I sort of stand out—not because we have the best costumes, makeup, tattoos or hair. We stand out because we look pretty much the way we look each and every day. And sometimes accepting yourself just the way you are, takes more courage than trying to be someone else—no matter how cool that someone else might be.
Now don’t get me wrong. I admired most of the people who made a special effort to find unique, colorful and sometimes outrageous outfits for themselves and their families. When done in the spirit of fun and artistic expression it can be joyful and entertaining for everyone. But what occurred to me was how easy it is to want to conform just to follow the crowd. And isn’t that the case whether you are heading to the grocery store, attending a PTA meeting or in the audience at a music festival? Standing out when the majority of people around you look different is not easy. In some ways, it is the most courageous thing any of us can do.
Along these same lines, I remember attending The Esalen Institute in Big Sur along the coast of California a couple of years ago. For those who might not be familiar with it, Esalen is a world-renowned retreat center and community that offers nearly 500 workshops a year. Founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price back in the 1960s, it remains a haven for Eastern spirituality, New Age practices, alternative and mind-body therapies and Gestalt Practice.
Besides the incredible array of workshops and the breathtaking landscape, Esalen is also known for its natural sulfur hot springs. World famous teachers, authors, and musicians have walked the grounds and enjoyed the healing water on this special property throughout the years. Perched on the cliff overlooking the ocean, the “baths” as they are frequently called, are exceptional and big part of the Esalen experience.
The thing is—the hot springs are clothing optional. And when I say clothing optional, only a very, very few wear a swimming suit to partake of the waters. In fact, I was the one and only person who wore a suit on our first day at Esalen. And yes, it would have been far easier to go with the crowd than to stand out as the only person doing something different. Because I so clearly bucked the system, it’s likely that others had an opinion of who I was and why I refused to go naked. And it’s possible that instead of being cheered on for my courage to be me—some might have offered judgment that was less than flattering. But whether you stand out for being outrageous, or stand out for being humdrum, it always takes courage to be yourself.
There has been some discussion by some of the other bloggers I follow here on the Internet that don’t feel they belong in any group. And that got me thinking about the desire I think most of us have—to “belong.” Belonging is a powerful and fundamental human need according to studies done by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary. Both Baumeister and Leary report that we all need to feel we belong to a group in order to experience good mental and physical health, and happiness. This need is so strong that some people will often put up with destructive relationships rather than break the bond of belonging. But how often do we end up conforming just to fit into the crowd, whatever that crowd may be? And is that worth the price to belong?
On the flip side, even though we all want to belong, many others crave feeling unique and special. Unfortunately, the harder we try to avoid being seen as average or boring, we often end up being exactly like everyone else trying really hard not to be average or boring. Seen a group of teenagers lately? Like it or not, most of us look like the tribe we say we belong to. Yet as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Instead, what I think we all crave is the need to feel significant and worthy. We all want to believe our lives have meaning and value and often that comes when others pay attention to us and to what we are doing, wearing or in my case, not wearing. However, it only becomes a problem when we need that attention from others to tell us whether we really have value or worth. Ultimately it comes down to our personal sense of self-esteem and self-awareness. Anytime we need anyone else to tell us that we are significant, we can be abused or forced to conform.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“There is a time in every woman’s education when she arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that she must take for herself for better or worse as her portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to her but through her toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to her to till.”
But even Emerson admits that it is not easy to be a non-conformist. As he says, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” To counter-act that displeasure, Emerson encourages us to trust our emotions and ourselves, and to avoid consistency. Emerson reminds us, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Even better is his statement, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” He continues with….
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great woman is she who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Having the courage to be yourself in the midst of the crowd is not easy. Whether you are going to a mom’s meet-up group, a music festival in Joshua Tree, the baths at Esalen, or writing a blog post for others to read, the SMART goal is to keep “with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Ultimately as Emerson writes, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”