Individuality vs. Conformity
I just finished watching your mind-blowing class, Individuality vs. Conformity, and
I must say that I was pleasantly surprised and taken by
your refreshing approach to the entire issue. What struck
me most was your statement that our true individuality is
under assault and driven into “hiding” from
the moment we are born and our shaping influences and surrounding
environments compel us to conform and impose upon us their
own attitudes and standards.
I was hoping you can elaborate more on this in writing,
so that I can review it and share it with those that may
not have the opportunity to view your class.
Individuality is a noble aspiration. Who doesn't want
to be unique? But is individuality actually possible when
you have been and continue to be shaped by many forces –
your childhood, parents, social and peer pressures? How
can you express your individuality -- and even know who
you are as an individual -- when you are overstimulated
by today's endless flow of information and inundated by
millions of advertising messages and marketing pitches manipulating
your emotions and telling you what is good for you (even
if it is branded as selling you "your personal expression")?
And how can you ever discover what your true identity is
like when all these forces conspire to influence your choices?
How can you find the courage to be yourself, and not what
others want, demand and expect of you?
And what is the role of spirituality in the search of
one's self? Religion seems to demand conformity -- following
a certain code of behavior, being part of a community. Some
religionists even see individuality as a threat, a sin.
Is that what G-d wants: That people lose their identities
in the name of faith?
This week’s Torah reading provides us with a powerful
response to these questions, as well as the tools to actually
discover your own individuality.
We find an unusual repetition in this week’s Torah
portion, where the verse itemizes twelve times in succession
the detailed offerings that the tribe leaders brought to
dedicate the Temple. The Torah is usually known for its
concise descriptions. Many fundamental ideas in the Torah
are related in a just a few verses. Complex laws are derived
from an extra letter or a turn of phrase. Yet, when describing
these offerings, though the leaders each brought the exact
identical gifts each on a different day, the Torah finds
it necessary to repeat separately every detail of each tribe’s
gift, not twice, not three, but repeating the 35-item gift
list twelve times! The verse could have easily listed the
offerings and stated that each of the twelve leaders brought
these same gifts.
Individuality – the sacred voice and dignified exclusivity
of each person – lies at the heart of this so-called repetition.
Though each leader technically brought the same offerings,
each one did so with his unique personality, passion and
creativity. Think of it like twelve different master musicians
playing the same symphony, yet each is doing so with his
distinctive tone, inflections and spirit.
And to emphasize the sanctity of individuality –
how faith and religious observance is not about conformity,
but quite the contrary, about the tools that allow for each
soul’s unique expression – the Torah goes out
of its way to separately record every detail of each offering.
Though the offerings were physically the same, down to their
volume and weight, yet each one was completely different,
each with its own special flavor.
What does this teach us about our own search for individual
Besides for teaching us the necessity and magnitude that
our individuality carries – that if you do not live
up to your indispensable calling, you upset the entire balance
of existence – the Torah’s elaboration also
enlightens us as to how we discover our own individuality,
and repel the forces of conformity. We do so by bringing
a sacred “offering” (as did the tribal princes
in this week’s portion).
Your unique personality can only emerge when you become
a giver, rather than a taker. When your inimitable soul
begins to express itself in its own distinct voice. As long
as you remain dependent on those around you, you have no
choice but to conform to those that you rely upon. Parasites
are always shaped and influenced by their hosts. Only when
we take the initiative and create something new do we flex
the muscles and express the uniqueness of our exclusive
Taking does not make you unique; everyone knows how to
take, and we all take in, more or less, the same fashion.
What makes you unique is giving – what you give and
how you give: Every individual has something different to
give, and we all give in our own special way.
Our bodies and everything material in our lives are driven
by self-interest – always in the taking mode. Except
at times, in order to take we also have to give a bit. And
it is this corporeal part of our existence that is essentially
conformist by nature. It depends upon others and therefore
must accommodate them to get what it wants.
Our souls, however, are natural givers. They are not bound
by and dependent upon “needs” that others give
us. Every soul, from birth, is saturated with all the skills
and tools it needs to make its mark on the universe.
The only problem is that your indispensable soul is thrust
into a material world, clothed in a physical body, placed
in the custody of subjective parents and educators, affected
by their attitudes, fears and insecurities, vulnerable,
defenseless to the forces surrounding it – all taking
control of the formative child’s development, all
the while that your powerful soul recedes, with all its
intensity, into the background, silenced and not allowed
to express herself.
Imagine the pain of a unique and original soul, a creative
spirit, trapped in the stale monotony of mediocre conformity
– seen that, heard that, what else is new? –
waiting, waiting to be released from the prison of repetition,
the shackles of the “broken record.”
Of course, healthy nurturing parents and influences will
help the child build the confidence to allow his or her
soul to emerge. But even in the best scenario, our growth
process is filled with minefields, as a gentle soul has
to brave the untamed elements of an insensitive world.
The antidote to all these compromising forces is only by
going in the opposite direction. As long as we follow the
tides and succumb to the pressures that shape us, we will
be swept away by them into the oblivion of insignificance.
As long as we continue to take and depend on others for
our sustenance, we remain “victims.” By making
an “offering” and initiating a new effort –
by becoming a giver, instead of a taker – your exclusive
soul finds its creative expression, and your distinct voice
discovers its song.
How many of us are true free spirits?
People talk a big game about individuality, free expression,
originality and being “yourself.” But how many
actually have the ability and the courage to transcend the
forces that have shaped from our earliest formative years?
Most people will not acknowledge that they are conformists.
I have tried the experiment many times with different audiences,
asking them “how many here, by show of hand, are conformists?”
Rarely will someone raise his or her hand. “So if
no one in this group is a conformist,” I continue,
“and no one in all the other groups that I have polled
are conformists, where then are the conformists in this
Individuality and democracy should not be confused. Many
equate the basic freedoms we enjoy today with free-spiritedness.
Despots of old, the argument goes, did not allow people
to be free; but modern democracy has emancipated our souls.
This axiom, however, is absolutely false. We can have all
the basic freedoms, of speech, of religion, of expression,
and still be psychologically enslaved. Conversely, we can
be oppressed by tyrants and our souls remain free.
Freedom, true freedom, is not “doing anything you
want,” playing any games you enjoy, traveling anywhere
your heart desires, purchasing anything you wish. True freedom
is that your choices are not imposed upon you from any force
outside of you; that your behavior is driven by a free soul
within, and not by expectations, pressures, competition,
vanity, insecurities and all the other forces that compel
us to behave a certain way.
This week’s Torah reading provides us with an invaluable
lesson about the dignity of individuality and the indignity
of conformity, teaching us the tools how to discover and
embrace your true identity, which lies hidden beneath the
layers of attitudes, behaviors and habits that have been
superimposed upon you:
Bring an offering – commit to giving of yourself to others,
initiate a class, be charitable, use your skills to do something
fresh that will help others – and you allow your soul to
Become a giver, instead of a taker, and you will find the
courage to be yourself, to finally allow your unique voice
to play its own music.