“The opposite of courage is not cowardice; it is conformity.” Jim Hightower
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” John F. Kennedy
When did you last have the courage to make the choice to be different from those around you? You might have stood up for someone when everyone around you was putting them down. You might have chosen to go, or not to go, to university when everyone else in your family or friendship group chose the opposite. You might have chosen to be open about being non-heterosexual or non-binary in a conservative society. Or you might even have chosen to enter a religious order, with all of its rigours, when you live in a largely secular community.
Recently, I had the extraordinary experience of witnessing the ordination of a good friend into the Catholic priesthood.
In a speech welcoming the new priest, the Bishop thanked him for his “yes” to all the questions encountered along the path to priesthood. I don’t pretend to know what all those questions would have been but the Bishop did praise Father Anthony for having the courage to be different.
It struck me that, despite the push for diversity in our workplaces, it is unusual for any of us to be praised for choosing to be different. I am sure I’m not alone in remembering the pressure to conform when I was growing up, even though I sometimes responded to that pressure by deliberately choosing the exact opposite of what everyone expected of me. Yes, I may have been dux of my senior class but I am ashamed to say I was sometimes the clichéd teen conforming to non-conformity. I smoked, I drank under-age, I kissed too many boys (shhh… don’t tell my parents. Or my kids…!)
Even after we’re all grown up, many of us figure that, by blending in with the crowd, or a part of it, we are more likely to be happy and less likely to be singled out for criticism. As understandable as this is, is, the sense of invulnerability that comes from being the same as everyone else comes at a price: your authenticity, your individuality, the freedom to chart your own course and to find your place and purpose in life.
I have been pondering what choosing to be different has to do with courage. Do you need to be a courageous person to choose to be different to the majority or, having made the difficult choice to go your own way, are you more likely to make the other tough choices involved in being true to yourself?
I know for sure that there can be an unwarranted escalation of commitment to decisions we make about professions, partners AND pals in an effort to prove that we do or do not, belong to a group whose opinion matters to us.
We don’t live our best lives in those spaces, and we end up feeling trapped and unhappy in situations that we never actually chose – we just drifted into them on the current of other people’s opinions.
If, however, we resist the siren song of sameness and make our own choices, we are not guaranteed to have everything precisely to our liking, but we will have the satisfaction of knowing that we have acted with courage to live a life that is our very own.
Leave your own thoughts on conformity and courage in the comments below, or just like what I have written (if you do).