Visionary mystic. Iconoclast. Avant-garde artist.
I’m already all of those things, I’ve realized. Maybe I was waiting for someone to bestow those labels upon me? Or maybe I just assumed, since labels weren’t forthcoming, that I was doing something incorrectly. Which is ironic because when you’re out at the edges of what’s acceptable, how can there be rules for breaking the rules? Or rules for finding another game entirely? Why such an emphasis on rules anyway? I can understand guidelines, or organizing principles. I can understand waiting for a feeling or sense about how things might unfold, and how what I want fits into that. But I don’t really understand rules for your life.
I’ve been identifying myself as a nonconformist since I was a child, but I was never doing it to ‘be a rebel’, which held no appeal for me. I was just trying to figure out Life as I went along. And most of the time, what made the most sense to me — and therefore what I pursued — did not fit conventional molds.
I read two books on nonconformity yesterday. The first one had a very strange title (and was not at all what I expected from the subtitle) — The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, by Chris Guillebeau. It was interesting, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t have much to do with what I was looking for.
The Art of Nonconformity was mostly about how to live your life without working a ‘regular job’. And it relied upon the reader knowing exactly what they want (or being able to figure that out, often before acting), and then pursuing those goals whatever comes. ‘Gatekeepers won’t approve, but you should do it anyway’, kind of stuff.
The stuff I’m doing right now, and the stuff I feel the most passionate about? Nobody is going to pay me to do it, which is what all Guillebeau’s advice seems predicated on. The people I want to help the most are mostly nonhuman. So they don’t participate in human economies. They can’t “buy my product” (assuming I had products). And anyway, I’m heartily resisting this pernicious idea — currently everywhere I look — that things you feel passionately about should be turned into moneymaking schemes. Which will, somehow — against all odds and common sense — make everyone rich.
The second book was much better, and much more what I was hoping to learn about — how to dissent. Why people dissent. What fallout happens when they do, and how do they cope with it?
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press.
I was actually hoping for something of a light read — how to raise children that think for themselves, kind of thing. Press’s book was much heavier and darker. Most of his examples were drawn from wars and/or the military, but there was also a chapter on corporate whistleblowers.
I’ve never been in the military, I’ve never lived through a war or genocide, and I was never a formal whistleblower at a job. And yet, these people profiled were my tribe, if I can be said to have a tribe, in a way that Guillebeau’s people weren’t.
In a section that talked about Solomon Asch’s experiments:
“What mattered instead was a willingness to tolerate a certain kind of social discomfort, ‘the painfulness of standing alone’, which was by far the most common reason individuals gave for submitting to the group.” (p. 70)
And Claude Fischer’s International Social Survey Programme, 2006:
“Forty-five percent of Americans said people should on occasion follow their consciences, which thus ranked the United States last on the list, below [8 other] countries such as Sweden and France.” (p. 150)
‘Community’ is one of those concepts, like ‘social hierarchies’, that other people seem to grasp instinctively, but I have to read hundreds of books about, only to realize I still don’t really understand it. What would it mean to have other people stand with you, ‘have your back’? I mostly don’t know, because it has rarely happened for me. When I stand up for what I believe in, which has often been defending someone else worse off, I stand alone. Am shamed by the community. And often, am scapegoated and driven out.
Spouse has been a friend and ally while I dealt with my parents. But as far as I can tell, he’s never stood up to his own parents. And I have not confronted them about things that I would’ve liked to precisely because I expected he would take their side. Since he has no history of dissent with them. Whereas my history with my own parents is almost an unbroken line of dissent.
With repetition, it gets easier in that, if no one physically attacks you, you’re probably not going to die from the pain of ‘standing alone’. But it never gets easier in the sense of wondering what everyone else is thinking, and why they refuse to do what you think is obviously the best course of action.
Press closes his books with:
“It is never easy to incur the wrath of an offended majority…. But it’s considerably harder for insiders who’ve spent their lives fiercely identifying with the values of the majority than for the dissenters accustomed to being on the margins, with their like-minded comrades by their side.” (p. 182)
I think there’s a third group he’s missing: ‘dissenters accustomed to being on the margins’ who don’t have ‘like-minded comrades by their side’. The closest I’ve usually come to ‘like-minded comrades’ is books that inspired me. Written by authors who have never met me, and are therefore not ‘standing with me’. Spouse has ‘stood with me’, occasionally, but by no means is he ‘like-minded’.
If emotional pain hurts you the way physical pain does (and apparently, it does), and being snubbed or otherwise made a social outcast is one of the most emotionally damaging things that can happen to a person, it seems to me that a lifetime of being repeatedly ostracized, scapegoated, etc., would be highly traumatic. Even if sometimes other people stand with you, those events don’t repair the damage from the others. Especially if you can’t count on having allies.
The labels I claimed at the beginning — visionary mystic, avant-garde artist, iconoclast — none of them are labels for someone embedded in a community. They all say, “I’m an Outsider!” To me, they are positive and hopeful ways to characterize the reality of my life. But if I wait for more-socially-connected people to give those labels to me, they might sneer them at me. They wouldn’t see those labels as positive and hopeful. Other people want to belong; they want to be similar to other people.
I feel similar to other outcasts, not to people who belong. I feel similar to people who wander between groups. I feel similar to . . . ambassadors? Diplomats? People who look for friends and allies amongst those who don’t look like or act like them.
Nobody is going to get rich following me. Nobody is going to follow me. I don’t want anybody to ‘follow’ me. I don’t understand wanting to ‘follow’.
I’m trying to figure out what I can do in this world that’s worth doing. But it won’t have anything to do with getting rich, which will never happen for me. (But even if it did, my life wouldn’t be very different.) It won’t have anything to do with becoming popular, which is even more impossible than getting rich.
It won’t be telling other people what to do. I want other people to do what’s best for them. How would I know what that is?
I’ve been trying figure out how to bend social media to my own ends. Maybe social media is fundamentally incompatible with what I’m trying to do.
Maybe thinking I have anything to say that anybody else would or could care about is misguided. Spouse stopped reading my blog months ago, maybe a year ago. I have no friends. Whenever someone asks what I do and I say I’m a blogger, as soon as they learn I don’t make any money at it, the conversation screeches to a halt. It just happened again this past weekend.
When I first started blogging, I deliberately conceived of my writing as a conversation with the universe, not a conversation with human readers. I didn’t expect I would have many (any?) human readers, and I didn’t want to feel constrained by what they might want to read about. Or, more importantly, what they’ve might not want to read about. Because most of the things I like to think about (and talk about, if I get the chance, which mostly I don’t) are things that other people don’t care about. Even Spouse. Even friends, back when I had friends. So if I thought of my audience as being other human beings, it would be just like any other conversation that rapidly turns into what they want to talk about, because they just won’t engage with what I want to talk about.
Spouse says it’s not because I’m boring. But functionally, I think I must be. That doesn’t bother me particularly. What bothers me is trying to figure out where and how I can do what I need to do.
All this entrepreneurship-corporate-speak assures all of us that we have a tribe somewhere, our very own ‘right people’ who want what we’re selling. I don’t want to sell anything. I just want to talk to people who want to talk to me. But I can’t find those people. Maybe those people don’t exist. Maybe the universe is the only listener I can hope for. And that’s not really a conversation, because the universe doesn’t comment, send postcards or letters, email, etc.
Maybe I’m just talking to myself. Maybe that’s the best I can hope for.
The human world these days seems like one big community, all interconnected. But I’m more-than-human in the sense that most of my friends are nonhumans, and I relate to nonhumans much better than humans. But nonhumans aren’t on the Internet.
And, anyway, the human world being one big community means there’s nowhere to wander. All the groups have joined up. That’s my worst nightmare. That makes the whole social world about humans.
That doesn’t work for me at all.
I don’t know how to move forward. Do I pursue my arts off-line, completely isolated from other human beings? Talking to Spouse only about what Spouse wants to talk about, which rarely overlaps my interests. Do I keep writing my blog, to the universe, as a record of my thoughts, and actions? Are there other options that I’m not perceiving?
Why do I get out of bed every day, if no one (but me) gives a shit about anything I do or say? If I have nothing to share that anyone wants? Why bother? I don’t know.