The Movement away from Conformity

I was once invited to an event a colleague was organizing to celebrate Pride. I knew I’d be a little bit out of my element, but figured it would be a good opportunity to get to know some new people. I got there early and chatted with a couple people around me. One was a banker, witty and articulate. Another was a teacher, soft-spoken and maybe a little anxious. A few seats over I saw another guest, taking a few minutes before the event started to catch up with his mom on the phone. But as the seats filled up, something shifted. Suddenly, everyone around me was speaking with the same affectations, laughing with the same forced laughter, making the same obvious and bland sexual jokes, and communicating through the same Drag Race references. Gone were the witty banker, soft-spoken teacher, and guy who took the time to call his mother, and in their place sat carbon copies of Generic Gay Male. The more people showed up, the fewer individual personalities seemed to be present.

That night stands out to me as a particularly striking example of the power of conformity. Of course this drive is not limited to gay or queer culture. I could have equally begun with the story of my fellow students at the evangelical seminary I attended who suddenly spoke with Southern American accents when they prayed; or by talking about the suburban Lawn Wars where neighbours spend years trying to have the best of the identical lawns on the block; or even with my own childhood pleading to my parents to have the same ‘must have’ toys as the kids at school.

The feeling that we have to change, to conform, in order to feel accepted is one of the most universal, powerful, and insidious of all the motivations which drive us to hind behind facades and cease to be our true self. If ‘shoulds‘ are about changing in order to be a ‘good’ boy or girl, the pull toward conformity is about fitting in to the group. And it is this tendency, and the movement away from it, that I’d like to look at today.

Humans are social creatures; we evolved to live, survive and thrive, in groups. And so the need to feel we belong is part of what makes us human. As someone who has moved around a lot and who has struggled to find ‘my people’, I deeply understand this drive and just how important it is to belong. At the same time, I also know that the times I’ve done the most to try to fit in are the times I’ve felt like I’ve betrayed myself the most. (I honestly can’t think of a single time when I, or someone I know, have done something to conform and it has turned out well.) So what gives?

As she so often does, American sociologist and vulnerability champion Brene Brown provides some needed clarity here. She writes:

One of the biggest surprises in this research [on belonging] was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. (Daring Greatly, 231f)

She goes on to provide some helpful definitions provided by eighth-graders:

  • Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”
  • “I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.”

Using some of the language we’ve been thinking through the past couple of months, we might say that we fit in where we are able to blend into the crowd; we belong where we are able to show up as ourselves.

Of course, the world wants us to blend in and be just like everyone else. And so, we might need to risk the rejection that comes from not fitting in in order to find a place where we truly belong.

This process, it would seem, is a natural part of adult human development. Developmental Psychologists have found that there are distinct patterns in how our thinking and relating changes and grows over time. The first big stage, which we associate mostly with childhood, but some adults never move beyond it, is centered on the self and its basic needs and wants. Then — most relevant to this discussion — comes the conformist or socialized self, which most of us transition into in adolescence. This way of thinking understands our place in the world to be determined by our social roles and fitting in with our peers. The third developmental stage is known as the self-authored stage. The difficult transition into this stage involves naming and embracing the unsatisfactoriness inherent in conforming, and developing a willingness to risk not fitting in in order to be more than our roles and become truly ourselves.

Three questions come to mind about all this.

First, we might ask why this natural part of human development would be included in a framework of spiritual growth. But, a major contention of an integral approach to spirituality is that spiritual growth and personal growth are interrelated. Our faith traditions, at their best, function like “conveyor belts,” as Ken Wilber put it, pushing us towards maturity in all spheres of life. A spiritually mature person looks a lot like a developmentally mature person: empathetic and gracious, neither ruled by nor suppressing the id, ego, and superego, and thereby able to enter into genuine relationships with self, others, and God. This isn’t a modern takeover of faith traditions. The New Testament echoes this sensibility, urging us to “come to … maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” and “no longer be children … but … grow up in every way” (Eph 4.13-15). True faith, true religion, has no interest in keeping us children, keeping us smaller than we were created to be. As the early Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons proclaimed, “The glory of God is a human person fully alive” (Adv. Haer. 4.34.7).

Returning again to the movement away from conformity, this represents a growth in spiritual maturity because it allows us to stop being who the world expects and wants us to be and to be instead who we were created to be.

The second question is: If this is the case, would this movement not create a world full of lonely individualists with nowhere to belong? This is an important question and problem. As I see it, being a person in community involves finding a sweet spot on the spectrum between individualism and conformity. St. Paul uses the helpful analogy of the body: it wouldn’t work for all the body parts to look the same (the paradigm of ‘fitting in’); then we’d just all be lifeless piles of skin, or stacks of kidneys. Neither would it do, though, for each body part to be off on its own apart from the others. Rather, each part needs to be and function healthily as itself (the paradigm of belonging) in order for the body to work. And the same is true of both genuine personhood — We need to be who we are for the life of the world — and genuine community — They need everyone to be fully and healthily present and themselves in order to function. This is to say that we as individual persons need to be willing to function within community — to be ourselves not for our own gain but for the good of the whole; but we also need to build new communities that are welcoming of everyone as they are, and receptive to their God-given gifts and perspectives.

And this touches on the third question: If communities are to welcome everyone, wouldn’t this prevent them from setting healthy boundaries around membership? Wouldn’t this render the idea of ‘belonging’ and community meaningless? G.K. Chesterton is not a thinker I particularly appreciate, however, he hit on just the right sentiment on this point. In Manalive he describes a character who confounds social expectations by being himself, and being good within that:

This man’s spiritual power has been precisely this, that he has distinguished between custom and creed. He has broken the conventions, but he has kept the commandments. … Everything is ugly and discreditable, except the facts; everything is wrong about him, except that he has done no wrong.

There is still a place, an important place, for ideas of holiness and truth. Remember, we aren’t talking about everyone being themselves in a haphazard, dramatic way, like children, but of building communities of mature persons who are continuing to grow — and grow up — in faith. And part of that maturity means separating the stuff from the Stuff: discerning what is essential and what is on the surface, sacrificing the external to embrace and express more fully the deeper truth, breaking the conventions in order to keep the commandments.

So then, conformity is a common way we seek belonging. But, it is immature and counter-productive, because it causes us to sacrifice our true self and live inauthentic, half lives. Instead, we need to take that hard step and move away from conformity and into our uniqueness, into the specific way God created us to manifest what it means to be human in and for the world.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom 12.2)

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