I started roaming the vast expanse of American culture as a wolfpack of one. I was hurt when young, by people who perceived me as “different.” Some kicked my body. Others attacked my identity. I felt hurt and alone. I was angry, and I used contempt to protect myself from others.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” – Kurt Vonnegut – 1996 A.D.
“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.” – Thales of Miletus – 500 B.C.
I told myself for years that I didn’t need any social permission to be myself.
That wasn’t true. I was just afraid I could never get permission. It turns out I was born needing it just like anybody else.
Some of us are born “different.” We look different from the small group of people who see our faces. Some of us see things and feel things in ways that our family and neighbors do not understand. Some of us are born “normal” for a specific time and place. For those of us who are born into the fat part of the bell curve, a need for social permission may be filled early and easy.
If “who you are” looks like people around you, and your quintessence doesn’t tend to surprise anyone, you’ll have an easier time “being yourself.” The permission to express what you are might come your way during those nifty 0-19 “psychosocial development” years.
When we’re little, we see the message “be yourself” over and over. We soon learn that what people are really saying is: “Be just like us, then express yourself.” We all look out into a world, and face a group that may or may not let us in. The conditions for entry can be many things. It can be skin color, it can be religion. It can be politics or any sort of attribute or belief. That’s why people tell you not to to discuss politics or religion. Be yourself as long as you’re like others – otherwise shut up.
The popular message of “be yourself” is as thin as the Hallmark card it’s printed on. If human being were aware and honest about their humanity, inside the card would be written:
“Dear new human,
Be yourself, as long as whatever you are does not challenge how we view ourselves or our place in the universe. Do not ask us to relate to any reality that is unfamiliar or complex. Welcome to society!” – Signed, Culture
We are each unique in our being. We are each snowflake-souls that have never before crystallized in this exact pattern, and the universe will never again find itself in the pattern we are now.
Few people take the time to examine snowflakes one-by-one. Most use a large shovel to get others out of the way.
For most-people-who-seem-like-most-people, permission grows on trees. It grows on school chalkboards, in supportive homes, and on the smiling faces of similar peers. The permission to be accepted and loved, to the extent that you seem “normal,” plays across 200 channels of television 24-hours-a-day.
Here is the only problem with that: No individual is normal.
No matter how common we may appear to be, some part of our being will distinguish us. That same part will challenge others. A passion will flare up in our hearts, no matter what outside forces try to extinguish it. We love something different. We see something different. We are something different. Some facet of us burns bright, and others will squint their eyes or turn their heads from the light.
The parent who can easily wrap their head around “what you are” will more easily wrap their arms around you. This is a natural tendency of humanity. The teacher who sees you as similar to other children will offer their best to you.
If you are not understood, or not similar, you better watch out.
“People watch for the mutant.” – Stephen King
Not all of us will get “social permission to be ourselves” from parents and peers. Maybe we won’t get the permission we need from religion, from a mama or a Papal source. Maybe we’ll never find ideological arms wrapped around us in our culture and our time. Maybe we won’t get acceptance from people we meet as children, or as young adults. Or not-so-young-adults.
But whatever we may be, we do need the permission to be it.
We do need to see someone, somewhere, sometime, who reminds us of our deepest selves and yet – was appreciated by others. We need someone, who by being themselves, says “yes” to who we are and what we want in life.
I tried denying this truth for decades. It hurt.
At a young age, I looked up at where the grapes of community were hanging, and I thought I would never reach them. So I told myself they were sour, and that I did not want them.
I walked around empty and aching, full of a hunger I would not admit. I would not accept my social vulnerability. I would not accept myself as a social animal. I denied the hunger, and constricted against it as it gnawed on me from the inside.
Nobody is truly alone. But we can all make ourselves feel that way. Everybody has the ability to choose emotional and psychological isolation. We can breathe and talk and walk around on two legs without feeling community. And as long as we choose to do so, we are not living.
Joseph Campbell spent his life studying and sharing. He studied not one culture or one time, but culture and humanity across time and territory. I heard his message as this:
“Yes, go ahead and be human. You might be different from your culture, but you’re the same as humanity is.”
We are each renegade mavericks who need social permission to be ourselves.
Here is my thank-you to many humans who have given me the permission to be human. They placed it deep in books and scattered it wide across cultures.
You are my community, a community of thriving ideas, expanding worldviews and exponentially growing human possibilities. Without such community I would not be living now:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson