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  • Stephen Scott Johnson

The gift of non-conformity

Last night I had an unexpected and eye-opening conversation with my partner about god and politics, two potential high-risk topics for couples, and especially given lockdowns, elections, social and economic crises, and the general state of the world. The context of our discussion was what it was like growing up in a culture defined by its religion, which in my partners instance is Islam, and how conforming to the beliefs and practices of one’s culture and exposure to faith and spirituality as children has a significant influence on our worldview as adults.

Unlike my partner, I grew up in a largely atheist context albeit I do have my own experience with faith and immersion into the world of evangelical Christianity. At the tender age of seventeen life dealt me a curveball and following a close call with my guardian angels, I found myself in a church youth group and stayed in that community for the better part of my late teens and early twenties. Some of my most joy-filled and traumatising life moments were experienced in that context. Whilst I often blindly adhered to whatever doctrine or pseudo-psychology was touted from the pulpit, eventually I found the strength to challenge dogma and resist the institution. Looking back, it had little to do with faith and more to do with survival and acceptance. In fact, what I believed and tolerated then seems incredulous to the awakened, free-thinking man I am today.

In contrast to my own experience, my partner grew up in a devout Muslim family in an affluent Middle Eastern community whereby culture is defined by religion, and whilst seemingly progressive, is vastly polarised from the freedoms of democratic Western society. Needless to say, we have both had to fight for our respective freedoms and recalibrate life and identity in order to live on our own terms. Like many in similar situations, for years we believed we were the aberrations of society – that something about our nature was inherently flawed and the result of bad karma or sin. Notwithstanding, we are hardwired as humans for survival and do seemingly impossible things to fit in, suppressing vital parts of who we are – those deemed dangerous or that go against the grain of what society says is normal, acceptable, and good.

The ultimate misery is living a life that is not your own.

In the Motivation Manifesto, Brendan Burchard describes “the sense of freedom people gain from conformity – the structures and rewards of society that give order to an individual – and that they can indeed make it easier to be confident in our action. However, notable position, status in community, and public acclaim rarely satiate our quest for meaning. Following in the preordained paths of what others are doing can give us signals that we are on track and that we will likely be accepted. But what if we chase all that and believe in all that and then one day wake up to find those things aren’t what matter the most? To ask such a question – to challenge the status quo and “rattle the cage of conformity” as Burchard puts it – is to invite real risk into our lives. It’s like a domesticated animal released from its cage into the wild – it finds itself alone and unsure what to do – separated from a life and things it understands. The sudden uncertainty is paralysing.

Here’s the thing: it’s easy to conform – to deny ourselves that which we desire most – to not ask questions or turn a blind eye to things we don’t agree with for fear it will destabilise our social constructs, comfort, and security. But what if we didn’t conform? Irrespective of one’s faith or belief system, the most powerful and liberating lesson you can learn from social and self-oppression is the truth that you are enough – to be able to stare in the mirror and say, “I love you” – and trust that everything will be alright and that everything you will ever need is already inside you – that you are the one you’ve been searching for.

Always, always, choose curiosity over conformity. Take risks, be vulnerable, and live the life that makes you happy. Ask yourself: if you had total freedom in life, what would you do, where would you go, how would you behave on a daily basis, and what would give you meaning?

Until next time...

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