Why is it so common for us to be encouraged either directly or in very subtle ways to fit in with our peers? We can be made to feel bad for standing out in a crowd, whether it is how our bodies look, how we dress, or what we believe. We can also feel uncomfortable if there is someone in the crowd very different from ourselves and others standing around. Sometimes these feelings even lead us to do or say mean things that condemn or alienate that person. Why is that?
I feel that this aversion to difference is a common human experience and is also the source of much suffering and conflict. One could say that it is a root cause of bullying, wars, family conflict, and hiding our true selves. I think it is as simple as a mindset that is fueled by fear originating in the human ego, which is dominated by rational thinking. The analytical part of our brain picks out a difference and then finds a reason (however irrational) to be afraid of that difference. When we come across someone who is different from the group, it can trigger a fear that we could become that different person. An unstable person will then react to the fear and judge the person or act out in anger. We condemn the person because we believe it sends the signal that we are part of the group. We cause pain to avoid pain. Perhaps it is a survival instinct to blend in as a form of protection from predatory attack. It is a very irrational and disruptive human survival instinct.
The fear of standing out is common and yet our society is evolving quickly to accommodate and embrace human diversity. Is the human psyche evolving and growing at the same pace? In North America, we are now celebrating unique and different gender and sexual identities along the LGBTQ spectrum. We are promoting the representation of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds in our organisations, workplaces, and communities. We are encouraging the immigration of people from countries with cultures vastly different from our home countries. There is a general acceptance of diverse faiths and religious beliefs. And yet…we see evidence of much racism, sexism, anti-semitism and anti-islamicism on the internet, in our schools, our workplaces, and our communities. We are promoting increased acceptance without addressing the root causes of fear and discomfort with difference that all humans experience. The greater the apparent diversity of people around us, the greater potential for resistance to diversity from the human ego.
What happens to our tolerance of difference when we live in a society where fear is fueled by the daily news, where individualism and competition are encouraged, and where greed is promoted as a means of survival? We have collectively built the conditions for a very low tolerance of difference in society because the human ego is highly active and leads our daily lives. We tend to forget our loving origins and the commonalities that bind us. The consequences of an ego-run society are vast and include the polarization of beliefs, division in our communities, obsession with outward appearance, and children that grow up being afraid to be themselves and speak out against injustice.
What can we do to help reverse these trends of fear-based living when everyone around us seems to subscribe to these social norms? We can DARE TO BE DIFFERENT! I struggle daily with the question of how to be true to myself, let my uniqueness shine brightly, and live my Faith without caring about what other people think of me. I have found help through books such as “You do You” by Sarah Knight and “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. It is HARD going against the survival instinct of wanting to blend in but it is necessary if we want to build hope for more loving and cooperative communities. We need a culture shift. We need to embrace and show our differences if we want others to feel free to be different as well. We need to speak out about what we stand for if we want others to have the courage to stand up for what they believe in too. Cultivating a more just, kind, and tolerant society starts with ourselves.
What can we do to cultivate a culture that embraces and celebrates difference? How can we dare to be different? Here are some ideas:
- Accept and embrace all of our physical quirks and let our inner beauty shine brightly. E.g. Forego the toupee, forget plastic surgery, let the belly hang out, and stop plastering our faces with petro-chemical-based make-up.
- Celebrate our ancestral cultures in our homes and in the public eye with a mind of sharing in humility. E.g. Host public feasts, drum and dance in public places, and stop celebrating dominant traditions that we don’t believe in.
- Share what we really think in group discussions about spirituality, politics, sexuality, racism, immigration, health, etc. Sharing for the sake of knowing diverse views without trying to convince others. E.g. Expressing views as equals around a sharing circle.
- Be honest with ourselves about activities that we like and don’t like. Do the activities that we truly enjoy and that are consistent with our beliefs. E.g. Stop binge drinking with friends just to fit in and join a meditation group even if we don’t know anyone going.
- Live our values even if it is difficult. E.g. Give up the job that makes our skin crawl, help our neighbor at our own inconvenience, and let go of unnecessary belongings.
- Build our resilience to judgement by practicing affirmations and cultivating a strong love through spiritual belief and self-care. E.g. Write down the reasons why we want to be true to ourselves, take time in nature and on retreat, find a spirituality that calls us and that gives a greater purpose to life than what dominant capitalist society provides.
Imagine a world where everyone feels the freedom to truly be themselves and trusts in their inherent goodness. Imagine a world where no one judges each other for how they look or what they believe. Imagine a world where everyone is living their values, following their dreams, and helping one another to get there. That is a world that I want to live in.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world”- M. Ghandi