I started out this post by looking for a good quote to expand on, but what I found was that many of the quotes I’ve collected through the years seem to be interrelated. This makes sense, if you think about it, since I am of course attracted to quotes which reflect my own outlook on life; thus, many of the quotes touch on various aspects of that. In fact, insofar as we do trust quotes to illuminate Truth for us (and I’ve also talked about why we shouldn’t), we must be cautious in trusting overmuch the quotes of any one individual, for there’s a certain amount of editorial censorship going on.
But when several quotes from disparate sources start to form a pattern, supporting each other and giving credence to the idea that a deeper Truth is here embedded, you may want to take notice.
Let’s start simply. Here’s my favorite line from Men in Black—
J: People are smart. They can handle it.
K: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.
Here K (played by Tommy Lee Jones) makes a crucial distinction between a person as an individual, and people as herd animals, prone to mob mentality. J (played by Will Smith) is a New York City cop: he does know it, and has no answer to this.
I like this quote because it’s a bit of a meditation on individuality. As primates, we’re not exactly herd animals, and we’re not exactly pack animals, but we’re definitely not loners. If you have cats (or have ever interacted with them in more than superficial ways), you know that cats are, by nature, solitary. They tolerate other cats, sometimes, like they tolerate you ... sometimes. I am one of those rare people who is perfectly balanced between loving dogs and cats, so I’ve had my share of both, and had the opportunity to observe them in domestic situations. Every cat is different, as every dog is different, as every human is different, but there are fundamental natures of each. My favorite Just So Story is “The Cat That Walked by Himself”, and whenever I interact with cats I hear my grandfather intoning that excellent Kipling line: “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come.”
But humans are not like this. Humans have an instinctive need to belong, to cluster together against the dangers of the big, bad world. Sometimes this goes too far, and we develop an us-against-them mindset that becomes toxic. But, in measured doses, this instinct of ours can produce loyalty, self-sacrifice, and a fierce protectiveness of our friends and family—
Of course, there are exceptions. One of the great things of being a firm believer in balance and paradox is that I can tell you in all seriousness that people are all the same and that all of us are different. Depeche Mode tells us that people are people, and they’re not wrong. And Ray Stevens tells us that everyone is beautiful in their own way, and he’s not wrong either. Indeed, it is the very paradoxical nature of humans that makes them simultaneously capable of such togetherness and such individuality.
Or I could say that it makes them simultaneously capable of conformity and disruptiveness.
There’s no doubt that some value conventionality and orthodoxy, while others value individualism and originality. Actually, it’s probabaly more accurate to say that most of us value both, just in differing proportions. I of course favor a position somewhere between the two, and also I value both at once. But I doubt anyone who’s met me would fail to agree that I come down more on the side of individuality. If I were a role-playing geek (which, you know, I am), I would tell you that my alignment is Chaotic Good (with leanings towards Chaotic Neutral).
If you find it too difficult to draw deep philosophical meaning from a science fiction movie which was (let’s face it) a bit silly (even though it was lots of fun), how about we look to something Steve Jobs said (this is from a Wired article in 1996):
I’m an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic view of individuals. As individuals, people are inherently good. I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.
Notice that while this is slightly more learned-sounding, it’s exactly the same sentiment. Now, I’m cheating a bit here, because I’m reusing both these quotes: I used them in my explanation of Cynical Romanticism. But there I was concentrating on the downside of people. Here I want to take the opposite approach: the upside of person.
E. E. Cummings once said (in his Advice to Students, 1958):
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.
and I think this sums up my attitude towards conformity in as concise and complete a manner as possible. Being different is hard ... this is why we end up with cultures like goths or punks, with gangs of people trying so hard to look different that they all end up looking alike. Being different requires figuring out what “different” means: for you, in your family, in your town, in your society. “Different” is different for everybody.
In fact, probably the biggest obstacle to people being themselves is not knowing who “themselves” is. Before you can shine as a unique individual, you’re going to have to figure out who you actually are. “Know thyself” advises the inscription at Delphi, but it’s a terribly difficult task. We humans have a tendency to think we understand our own minds, but it turns out we’re pretty terrible at it, in general. We lie to ourselves, we exaggerate our strengths and downplay our weaknesses, we avoid the darker corners of our psyches because we’re afraid to find out what’s in them. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can come to understand yourself reasonably well, and then you can start truly becoming who you were all along.
And then it gets really hard.
Because, no matter how much we claim to celebrate individuality, we do a damn fine job of ostracizing anyone who doesn’t fit our definition of “normal.” And “normal” is boring. In fact, it’s a bit scary. Jodie Foster once said:
Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from.
But of course the farther you get away from it, the more dirty looks and eye rolls and disapproving sniffs you get. This is why Cummings describes it as a battle. And all he did was throw the rules of grammar out the window and decapitalize his name every now and again.
So I’ve fought the good fight for much of my life. I’ve stood out even when it meant sticking out, and I’ve gone my own way when going along would have been much easier (and safer). Mostly I haven’t done this out of any particular moral imperative, or pride, or anything of that sort. Mostly I was just too stubborn to conform when I probably should have. But I’m not unhappy with how it’s all turned out. I don’t have too many regrets, at least not on that score.
Being yourself is a worthwhile endeavor. You will stand out in people’s minds, and make an impact on them even when you can’t remember ever having met them. You will occasionally annoy, and occasionally frustrate, but you will also occasionally delight, and occasionally inspire. That makes it all worthwhile, in the end. At least it has to me.
Another quote I’ve always found thought-provoking, even though it’s somewhat trite, is often attributed to Confucius (which, like most things attributed to Confucius, is beyond unlikely and into ludicrous), and sometimes attributed to someone named Patrick Bryson (whoever that is). But I’ve often thought its pithy simplicity held the promise of something more.
Always be yourself. Otherwise, who are you?
Good advice indeed. Along with the advice in the title of today’s post, which comes from The Iron Giant, which is an excellent film about being yourself. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should seek it out. Some things are worth the effort.