Lately, I’ve noticed how tempting it is to conform. When young and I had nothing to lose, it’s seemed easier to jump into new ideas feet first without thinking. Then supposedly, at the other end of life when our days are numbered, some people find the courage to live as outrageously as they’ve always wanted. But there, wedged in the middle, the unconscious agreement is often the willingness to stay stuck in a space you could call “comfortably numb.” There, cautiously hesitant to rock the boat for fear of uncertainty, many of us merely maintain the status quo. But is that living? Is living comfortably numb the best payoff for the gift of your life? While we obviously can’t return to our youth, we can and maybe should, seek ways to free our inner nonconformist in the days that lie ahead.
One of my favorite writers about nonconformity was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Remember his books from our college days? In the past, his words from the essay “Self-Reliance” inspired me to action and possibility. He said, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
Not only does Emerson challenge us to be nonconformists, but he also reminds us that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Even better, he says, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” But again, when young, those words have the power to inspire us to revolution. Dwelling in middle-aged comfort, nonconformity asks us to wake up, become more conscious, and be willing to sacrifice all our preconceived certainties for the potential of what lies out of sight.
Another famous nonconformist I’ve always admired is Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Remember that story? Jonathan Seagull was a rebel bird that dreamed of flying and soaring above and beyond the path of the average seagull destined to merely eat and survive. When Jonathan insisted on practicing day after day in pursuit of flight, his flock banned him and as an outcast he was forced to fly alone. From there he began to practice flight in amazing ways until at the top of his game, he realized that his true course of action was to return to his flock and teach anyone who was willing to listen that they too, were born to fly. As Jonathan says in the end, “Why is it the hardest thing in the world to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it to himself if he’d just spend a little time practicing? Why should that be so hard?”
On the other end of the spectrum exists plenty of evidence that some people near the end of their lives tend to stop caring what anyone else thinks and start doing the things they have always dreamed of doing. Of course, not everyone gets there. Author and palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware shares the #1 regret in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” But those that do are like poet Jenny Joseph who wrote in her poem, “Warning,” “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves.” Far advanced age can make us more fearless. At that stage, we hopefully realize we have little to lose.
But what about all of us in the middle? Adam Grant, Wharton Professor and author of Originals—How Non-conformists Move the World explains what it means in the business world. He says, “…I think conformity is dangerous because it means following other people not because you believe in their ideas or agree with them, but because you want to fit in instead of standing out. And look, every pioneer needs settlers. Every leader needs followers. But I want people, when they choose to march in line with someone else, to do it because they actually feel that the idea makes sense, not because they’re afraid of rocking the boat.”
Grant goes on to confirm how tempting it is to conform when in the middle—middle age or middle position. He says, “…middle status conformity effect is pretty widely demonstrated. So the idea is that if you’re at the very bottom of a hierarchy, then you have nothing to lose by speaking up or bringing new ideas to the table, because there’s nowhere to fall from the bottom. If you’re at the top, if you’re a leader, you’ve actually earned the license to think differently.” So what exactly are we so afraid of losing when we are at middle-life that causes us to shrink down and refuse to risk being different?
After giving it some thought I don’t think that we are afraid that we aren’t living our dreams. Instead, I think most of us are afraid of risking our comfort. For most of my life I have been a nonconformist. I traveled quite a bit on my own, I became a self-employed small business owner at a young age, never finished my college degree, I chose (along with my husband) to remain childfree at a time when that was clearly unusual, and I became a writer without any formal training. I’ve skydived, scuba dived at night, and skinny-dipped in a crowd in the hot tubs at Esalen Institute (it was nighttime!). Still, even then, I recognize the occasional pull to conform so that I don’t disturb my comfortable life.
I think the question that we are all called to ask ourselves (so we don’t end up as one of those people at the end of our lives with regrets) is, does it matter? The reason it might be very important at this particular time in history is because there is a lot of challenging issues that we face and it is very tempting just to stick with the status quo, stay silent, self-medicate, and protect our comforts. Sure you might end up being thought of by others as a sweet or nice person, but chances are good you might end up like Rita Mae Brown who said, “The reward for conformity was that everyone liked you except yourself.” Or, as Mary Oliver says in her poem that I quoted a couple of weeks ago, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
I realize, like so many other things I write about here on SMART Living 365 that this is not a one-size fits all issue. We are all different. But for those of us that suspect that our purpose as conscious beings is to continually grow, expand and serve others while here on Earth, then we might want to resist the urge to conform or go numb and reach further than we have in the past. Plus, I believe most of us like to think we act independently and seldom follow the crowd. But do we? So I came up with a few questions to ask myself to see how often I chose comfort over adventure, or safety over possibility. How would you answer these?
- When was the last time you did something that felt scary or pushed your limits beyond what you routinely do most days of your life?
- Do you constantly make choices that support comfort in your experiences or do you try to mix that up with challenges?
- Do you ignore the pain and plight of anyone outside of you family and friends out of a need to “keep what’s yours safe?”
- Do you routinely self-medicate and go numb in order to deal with what’s going on in the world?
- Do you avoid all risk even when things aren’t that great because, “The devil you know is better than the one you don’t?”
- Do you secretly crave to do/be/try something new and different but don’t want to rock the boat?
I agree that it can be scary to think of stirring up a comfortable life. But again, is that really the purpose of our one and crazy life? As Henry David Thoreau said so long ago, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with their song still in them.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go quietly to my grave because it was so comfortable snoozing in my recliner. Instead, it’s possible that the SMART approach is as author Hunter S. Thompson said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”