Becoming an Individual
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
I admit it. I am a conformist. I let the world around me squeeze a little bit. I eat fish and chicken and drink Chardonnay. I root for the White Sox now that they are winning, and of course, for the Bears and the Cubs even when they are not. I drive one of the more acceptable brands of automobile, at least on the North Shore, and my wife an SUV. When I go to the loop I get out my blue pin-stripe.
I’ve traveled to most of the “in” places, Turkey, Africa, China. Vietnam is on the list. I read of a woman who had not made it, but couldn’t bear to let her friends know. “Asia was by far my favorite trip,” she said at the party, enigmatic and magical, beautiful beyond belief, especially China, a real pearl. “What about the pagodas?” her dinner partner asked, “did you see the pagodas?” “Did I see them? My dear, we had dinner with them.”
We are all conformists. We have all known that embarrassing day when our parents, or we, didn’t get the signals straight, the demands of fashion or custom or fad. And we wound up a tad embarrassed. So conformity in fashion, in manners, in style is an understandable concession to life together, a source of esthetic pleasure, a boon to industry. There is nothing wrong with wearing Gap, but is it still in? I notice the alligator is back.
Even the Apostle Paul could say, “I have been all things to all sorts of people so that by every possible means I might win some.” He was willing to eat bagels and gefilte fish with the Jews and barbecued spare ribs with the Goyim. He could readily put on the Kippe when the occasion called for it, or go bare-headed with the Greeks, talk philosophy with the Athenians, discuss the price of beef with the peasants.
The problem comes when our very person begins to be shaped by the fads and fancies of the time, by the pressures and prejudices of the crowd, when our most fundamental attitudes are dictated by the press and our values by the polls. “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mold,” is a warning against letting yourself be so influenced, formed, by outside faces and forces, that you no longer have any inner integrity and individuality. You become simply a reflection of the cultural landscape, a chameleon who passes into the color of the surroundings.
Isn’t this a real danger in our time, this day of political correctness and pressure to conform, in a world whose motto seems to be “find out what they are eating and eat it, what they are drinking and drink it, what they are believing and believe it?” A world where we are told what to like in books, plays, ideas by the Sunday Times, and where multitudes accept the commands of these arbiters of culture with docility. A world where fitting in, not making waves, going along in order to get along, are the orders of the day. Our country is overcrowded with people obsessed with social acceptance, with making it with the right people, with reflecting the proper image, with saying the right thing.
The result can be a loss of inner substance and strength, no internalized values to steady us on course no matter the shifting landscape, no sense of ourselves apart from the applause or approbation of those around them. That is what bothers me about the bare midriffs and the pants that drag in the mud that we see at the high school. Not so much the bad taste which is no new development with adolescents, but the willingness to go any lengths to fit in.
But it is not just the young. They learn from us how important are the opinions, the applause, the acceptance of the society around us. They learn from us how important it is not to embarrass, disagree, invite rejection. They learn from us how important the contemporary intellectual styles and political prejudices are. They watch the world around us squeeze us hard.
Peter Sellers. I remember him with affection and sadness. But this incomparable actor, this prime minister of mirth, as Time magazine dubbed him at his death, was alive only when he was impersonating someone else, a German scientist, or a RAF officer, president of the United States, or a Cockney Marxist, an Indian doctor or bumbling detective. Off screen he was miserable. Rootless, changing residences like clothes, seventy autos in six years, four marriages, few friendships that were lasting or intimate, he had no notion of himself apart from his roles. He was but an exaggeration of many in our time.
What’s the answer? How does one become a real individual with substance and identity that transcends family and friends, culture and crowd? How do we discover who we are and what we have to give beyond just responding to and reflecting the opinions and prejudices of others?
The Apostle Paul suggests at least three dimensions of true individuality. The first is a sense of worth that transcends human relationships and social assessment. “I urge you, my friends on the basis of God’s love for each one of you…” It is fair to say that individuality began, historically, with the Christian Gospel. Here was the first word which said, “You count. You are important. You have worth quite apart from your achievements and failings, quite apart from your pedigree and parentage, quite apart from your culture and tribe.” To realize true individuality, each one of us must become convinced of this, of our essential importance and worth, no matter what the world around us seems to signal.
Not easy to hang on to in a world which constantly assesses us on the basis of IQ and SAT, on the basis of political power or celebrity status (which today are almost the same thing), on the basis of productivity or the ability to aid others along, on the basis of who we know and how “in” we are. But essential. You matter, no matter what the crowd thinks. This is the only explanation for a Luther, or a Lincoln, a Thoreau who went to the pond, or a little Ruby who walked to school through a hail of hate. They knew who they were.
One man tells eloquently how he came to realize this fundamental word. “Nearly a year ago Peg and I had a very hard week. Wednesday — Mike slept downstairs in his room, where children belong and we slept upstairs in ours where moms and dads belong. Thursday night— we were 350 miles away and he was in Ramada 325 and we were in 323 —connecting rooms and we left the door open and talked and laughed together. Friday night —700 miles form home and he was in 247 and we were in 239 but it was just down the balcony and somehow we seemed together. Saturday night —he was in the freshman dorm and we were still in 239. Sunday night — we were home and he was 700 miles away in Chapman 309. Now we have been through this before. Bob, Jr. had gone away to college and we had gathered ourselves together until we had gotten over it— mainly because he’s married now and he only lives ten miles away and comes to visit often with Deb and Robert III.
So we thought we knew how to handle separation pretty well, but we came away lonely and blue. Oh, our hearts were filled with pride at a fine young man and our minds were filled with memories from tricycles to commencements, but deep down inside somewhere we just ached with loneliness and pain. Somebody said, you still have three at home— three find kids and there is still plenty of noise —plenty of ball games to go to—plenty of responsibilities —plenty of laughter — plenty of everything except Mike. And in parental math, five minus one just doesn’t equal plenty. And I was thinking about God. He sure has plenty of children — plenty of artists, plenty of singers, plenty of everybody except you— and all of them together can never take your place. And there will always be an empty spot in his heart —and a vacant chair at his table when you are not home.” And where is home. It is to know you are special, no matter what anyone says, no matter whether the world lets you in or shuts you out, no matter the stares or applause, you are special. When you know that deep in the marrow of your soul, you are on the way to becoming an individual, you are real. “I urge you on the basis of God’s love for you…” A sense of unconditional self-worth. And then the willingness to think for yourself. “As an act of intelligent worship, don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let the renewing of your mind transform you.” One of the neat things about Jesus and Paul is that they do not hand out a nice neat tidy package for us to swallow naively and unthinkingly. They urge us to think, to use our own minds.
Would that some of their followers had remembered this. I dare say if we could interview the followers of Osama Ben Laden, we would find their minds to be carbon copies of the mind of the leader. The problem with all fundamentalisms is that they offer the security of not having to think for ourselves, they deliver from the struggle of making up our own minds. They offer a certainty beyond the risk of human thought and struggle, mistake and failure.
We can be clear about the will of God for us as individuals, we can be clear about the values and ends worth living for, only as we are able to think critically, only as we give effort to discern a way of integrity and purpose for us in the midst of a world which presses us to pursue other ends, to buy into lesser dreams. God’s will for us does not drop from the sky, nor is it liable to show up on MTV. It is something we decide upon, trusting his love, letting ourselves be shaped by his spirit, seeking to be faithful to his overarching purposes for the human story.
I was re-reading Victor Frankl and his little volume, “Search for Meaning,” the other day, about to recommend it to a grandson. It is a memoir in which he recounts his experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. At one point he writes, “there are always choices to be made. Every day, every hour, you are offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded… Fundamentally, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him, mentally and spiritually. After all, man is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips.”
“Don’t let the world squeeze … let the renewing of your mind transform.”
Arthur Gordon tells of his visit to Rudyard Kipling. “He was so small. The crown of the floppy hat he wore was not much higher than my shoulder and I doubt if he weighed 120 pounds. His skin was dark for an Englishman’s, his mustache was almost white. His eyebrows were thick and tangled as marsh grass, but behind the gold-rimmed glasses his eyes were as bright as a terrier’s. He was sixty-nine years old. Looking back, I think he knew that in my innocence I was eager to love everything and to please everyone, and he was trying to warn me not to lose my own identity in the process. Time after time he came back to this theme. “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own person is a hard business. If you try it, you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
A transcendent sense of worth, a willingness to think your way through the cultural thickets to a sense of purpose, and finally commitment to mission. “ Present yourself a living sacrifice, prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good.”
We become individuals as, having struggled our way as best we can to a sense of what God wants for us, we set sail on our own journey and stick with it whatever winds may blow. Individuals operate with a kind of inner gyroscope which keeps them on a course, no matter the calms or storms.
If you go on line and type in Dr. Larry Baker, you will find a website under his name that describes a remarkable career as an internationally known speaker, consultant, author, President of the Dr. Larry Management Center, St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Baker has made over 1600 presentations to firms such as 3M, ARCO, McDonnell Douglas, Monsanto, Motorola, Paine Webber. Dr. Baker has more than 120 professional publications to his credit, has been cited in Business Week, Fortune, Time, Wall Street Journal. Prior to creating the Management Center he was professor at the University of Missouri where he earned his Doctor of Business Administration. He received his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, graduating 5th in a class of 780. He was honored with a special achievement award at the White House by the President. An incredibly successful and effective career of service.
What you will not read on the web sight is the fact that Larry Baker accomplished all this after he became totally blind by virtue of a viral infection when he was age twenty-five. Baker, married with three children and working for a family dairy delivering milk when he lost his sight, describes himself in high school as a member of that one third of the class that made the top two thirds look good.
But that was the challenge that changed the course of his life and led him to such accomplishment. When his physician told him, “I’m afraid that I have to tell you something that will affect the rest of your life – you will never see again,” Baker says he replied from some unexpected place deep inside him, “Doctor, I understand what you are saying, but I will determine the effect.” Baker believes now that everyone has some disability, some lack of ability to do what they need to do. But he adds, “The most severe disability I ever encounter involves people who are paralyzed from the neck up. Nobody has ever gone broke giving more than they receive in life. Have faith in God, and so no less have faith in yourself and in your mission in life. Set your goals and pay the price.”
“…that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you moves toward the goal of true maturity.” Which is a lot more than just old age.
Copyright 2005 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.