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 expression?
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 souls.
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 world?”…
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 emerge.
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.