[Religion News Service, December 24, 1996]
This season of togetherness pushes people together, and in the process they find sometimes that the fit isn’t so easy. Family members who see each other once a year do so now, over the turkey or New Year’s Day ham; co‑workers from other departments share cookies and a paper cup of soda (or something stronger) and try to make conversation. In this season more than ever we are being appraised and often find ourselves fretting about how to dress or behave to suit different occasions. It’s a tense and giddy time, so full of fun that we’re quite relieved when it’s over.
A life‑long quest for each individual is finding the balance between "We Are the World" and "I Gotta Be Me." How many of my rough edges should I sand off to be compatible with others ‑‑ to be a go‑along, comfortable, agreeable person? When do I become a cypher, a round peg in a round hole with no distinguishing characteristics?
It’s a question we as a culture have been at a loss to resolve for more than 30 years. Even before the hippie era, there were disparaging remarks about conformists, particularly those compelled by the corporate rat race to live lives of quiet desperation. The many sacrifices made to the workplace were seen as potentially deadly, a gradual disintegration of individuality and submersion in the tide of uniformity. We lived in little boxes on the hillside, and we all looked just the same.
The rebellion against this took the form of a drive to "do your own thing," to drop out of society in a quest for authentic individualism. In fits and starts, that desire has continued to this day (sometimes waylaid by a desire to partake of the regular paychecks awarded those who show up for regular work hours.) A recent issue of the Utne Reader recounted stories of people who had broken free of conformity, who left successful careers to pursue more quirky vocational dreams. The magazine termed those following this idealistic path "quitters."
A letter in a subsequent issue called them pikers. Michael Stasko of Columbus, Ohio, wrote: "Your quitters haven’t quit; they’ve just exchanged one driven, bill‑paying activity they hated with another driven, bill‑paying activity they hate less." Stasko went on to describe a more authentic form of individualism. "Society and I truly quit each other years ago, but my form of quitting was in a series of refusals: I refuse to wear suits and ties and dress shoes. I refuse to believe in God. I refuse to accept the good parts of organized religion because the bad parts are so bad. I refuse to take drug tests. I refuse to lose weight. I refuse to work in an office and deal with all of the nasty office politics. I refuse to stop being a loud liberal smart‑ ass. I refuse to have hope for the world."
I have to admit that about this time I was picturing Bennett Brauer, the repellent TV news anchor played by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live.
"Bennett Brauer ‑‑ not what you’re used to perhaps," he would snarl, looking as immense, sweaty, and unpleasant as only Farley can. He’d go on to delineate just how he didn’t fulfill viewers’ too‑precious expectations. "Maybe I don’t (fingers making quote marks in the air) ‘smell good.’ Maybe I don’t ‘shower daily.’ Or ‘ever.’ Maybe I do ‘frighten small children.’"
Maybe there’s a reason why aggressively self‑centered, unreasonably rigid personalities don’t usually wind up as "news anchors" ‑‑ or in any other well‑paying job. The more you insist on pleasing only yourself, the more others are glad to give you as much space as you need to do exactly that.
Impress them enough, and you won’t be invited back to the New Year’s party next year ‑‑ or any other occasions, for that matter. When do the pleasures of individualism slip over the brink into loneliness? Stasko’s letter takes a startling turn here, and describes the end product of a life lived with no compromises to the cult of self. "As you no doubt can surmise, my refusals have left me jobless, loveless, lifeless, and alone."
And what lies ahead? Stasko concludes with a brutality that leaves the reader stunned. "I cared for my mom while she was dying, and I’m caring for my dad while he is dying. After that, I’ll no longer have any obligations and I can proceed with the ultimate act of quitting ‑‑ blowing my brains out."
The strain of too many expectations this season can leave us feeling testy and stubborn, resisting the pressure to please. But it is by just such subtle and quibbling tradeoffs that we manage to live together at all. That’s the price of community. The high price delivers goods unattainable otherwise: a shield against loneliness and despair; the knowledge that others may love you; and a sense of meaning in life. The alternative, as Michael Stasko’s sad letter indicates, is too horrible.
So resist that urge to tell off your brother‑in‑law once and for all; you want to be sitting across the table from him this time next year. You’re just going to have to trust me on that.