In a psychology textbook from college, there is a picture of teenagers all dressed in various states of goth or other styles of dark clothing, the caption under it declaring this to be a form of social mimicry and conformism. I certainly had a good laugh then and I’d be lying if I said it still didn’t bring a smile to my face. I can guarantee that were you or I to ask any of those teens they’d swear up and down that they were solidly individual. Teen fashion is an easy example of behavior that is, conformity through individualism, but adults are just as susceptible, spouting the talking points heard from favorite politicians without an understanding of what they mean in a broader context, to getting caught sharing an article online as truth that ends up being satire. Much of what we do is simply regurgitated memes taken in by the influences of media and relational connections, funneled through a particular narrative, each example proving how pervasive conformity is, particularly when we think we’re not succumbing to it.
“I’m my own person” could be the siren call of modern America, the declaration of a people so utterly dependent on being separate from one another that they ignore the irony of ascribing to American exceptionalism and other forms of nationalistic pride. From politics to religion, this underlying selfish declaration beneath so much of conservative and liberal ideologies alike ends up being the rallying cry for every fad, declaration of the sanctity of a particular interpretation of a holy book, the belief that any personal difficulty is a testament to group persecution and the deep hope that an individual candidate for president will solve all our problems. We’re so busy wanting to just be us, wanting to be original, that the anxiety of being unnoticed and impotent undergirding all of this results in us becoming even more bound to our group identities.
In “Freedom From, Not Freedom To Do,” the mere ability to do something is seen as being opposite and ultimately more limiting than a form of freedom that removes us from daily constraints. For example, the freedom to choose one job among many in no way comes close to having a job that removes the constraint of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Freedom from a constraint like this resides in a community-acknowledging frame of reference. Without this understanding of an interrelated and interactive reality where no one person exists as an island no matter their magnificence, we become but disassociated flotsam floating in a sea of possibility without any purpose. So often in the expression of what we call our “self”, we are focused on simply doing something, anything, that we do no more than continue in bondage to old ideas given a shiny polish.
There is no inherent or necessary joy to be found in expressing ourselves if such occurs while running with chains dragging behind us. The similarity we all share by virtue of belonging to humanity is a profound ability to seek healing through expression while ignoring the why of our behavior. Caught up in the doing, our narratives are often poorly constructed rationalizations after-the-fact. While this behavior is often most easily seen in counter-culture movements, being “new” while ignoring that the ideas within are really quite old, it exists daily in many of the interactions we see and do. We all know the person who declares themselves “too honest,” when the reality is they just like spouting off their opinion no matter the emotional repercussions. We’ve seen the various iterations of “love the sinner, hate the sin” protests even as the behavior it inspires denies basic manifestations of civil rights on the basis of biological happenstance. For that matter, how many times have any of us said something only to be shocked at the hurt it led to for others? We lob our thoughts into the social sphere, believing ourselves separated from one another, even as we secretly hope to receive echoes of those very thoughts coming back from others.
Nothing of what we do resides in a space all its own. However much we like to declare our emotions and thoughts our own, every one of them arises out of the interactive cacophony of social-relational reality. When we seek to act, let us first ask ourselves what space we are operating out of, both in relation to our personal stories and those of whom we are about to share. If this blended space holds spots of uncertainty then let us first begin by addressing them, asking ourselves and others just how their perspective does and doesn’t match our own. When the similarities and disparities are further considered, within that enlightened space then there exists the potential of not only behavior that otherwise hadn’t been possible before, but actions that do more than express personal ego.
This process is not an easy one and certainly is not one that I find myself always following through on. I get angry and ignore that the other person, like myself, resides in a particular set of socio-historical contexts that is as constraining as the ones I find myself in. I get depressed and go on a caloric binge rather than addressing the nature of the depression, an expression of myself that brings momentary delight without a long-term solution. Asking critical questions of our own stories is just as important as being critical of the stories around us, in the end, all of them are both more connected and more similar than we at first are able to acknowledge. Behavior is not freedom. Life is an upward spiral of awakening, building upon practice, and knowing the dance is beautiful.