Everybody rushes to the stores to get the latest iPhone or to the theater to see the newest movie. We often feel left out if we are not in on the newest technology or TV season. Ads lining website sidebars and emails assail us with images of the newest trends in fashion. All these things tempt us to conform to rapidly changing social norms.
All these fads are like kindling a fire — the fire of our happiness — to which we continually add clothes, technology and money to keep it aflame. In the end, we are being led toward this ideal image of a happy person who has the best clothing, technology, fitness, job, etc.
Conformity is an interesting thing. Solomon Asch, a 20th- century psychologist, crafted a famous experiment called the Asch line test. People in a group were asked to identify the shortest of a set of three lines. One person would knowingly answer incorrectly. Many participants subsequently questioned their answers and chose the wrong answer because the one person who answered incorrectly influenced their decision-making.
In the end, Asch discovered that 3/4 of the people tested conformed to the incorrect answer. In other tests, Asch found that if the participants wrote the answer down or if just one person said the correct answer, the participants were less likely to give the incorrect answer. These results reveal the power that societal norms have on us. We do not want to look stupid or different; rather, we want to belong to a community. We therefore forfeit who we are to conform to the homogeneous worldly image.
Some saints discourage such behavior. For example, St. Paul exclaims, “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
He believed that we need to transform ourselves from the way of the world to the way of God, so that we may find joy. He is very clear that this joy cannot be found in the world.
Instead of viewing this new way of life as a rejection of the world, St. Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” From her perspective, if one more fully embraces who he is, the world will become more alive. Who doesn’t want that?
One exaggerated image of conformity that comes to mind is George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell goes to extremes to show how disastrous societal homogeneity can be. Society punishes the main character, Winston Smith, for not conforming to its groupthink. This groupthink infiltrates every part of his society; there are even TV interruptions of propaganda to brainwash the citizens with this groupthink. Now, this isn’t to say that all ads and commercials are propaganda. It is important, however, to be aware of their influence on us.
Contrarily, an example of someone who embraces her uniqueness is Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. Most of Luna’s peers view her as an oddball. She nonetheless goes about life the way she is. She even ends up being an important part in Harry Potter’s journey to defeat Voldemort by giving him information about the Deathly Hallows and the diadem of Ravenclaw that nobody else knows about.
“Be thus in the world, but not of it,” (John 15:19). We humans live in this world, yet we are called beyond. We have an eternal purpose. Not made to remain in the temporal and superficial, we are, in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, destined for greatness. By moving inward toward our soul, we can realize our purpose and potential. We need to be who we were made to be, not who the world tells us to be.
Do not be afraid to be who you are. You were given certain skills and interests to make a constructive impact on the world. Do not allow your disparities to isolate or devalue you. Your differences may seem negative or limiting at times, but by embracing them, you distinguish yourself from others. In the wise words of Marcus Mumford, “this weakness I feel, I must finally show,” and “your soul you must keep, totally free.”