It’s easier to be ordinary. But in truth, none of us are. Every one of us is different, more different than perhaps we even know. So much of living in an organized society pushes us to conform, to comply, to disappear. Even in a country like the USA, which prides itself on its pioneering spirit and enablement of the individual, we are pushed into a comfortable kind of sameness, from which it becomes harder and harder to see ourselves clearly.
I’ve been reading Far from the Tree – Andrew Solomon’s tour de force that explores and celebrates difference, and it struck me how little awareness most of us have about the range of experiences there are in the world. We live in our small sphere, optimizing for our local needs, and can remain profoundly unaware of the extremely different worlds in which other people live. By telling the stories of people living very different lives, Solomon helps us see difference as diversity, and collectively different experience, as cultural diversity. He warns against a simplification and homogenization of the world that reduces that diversity.
But the part of this story that is most interesting to me, is the personal aspect of understanding our individual identities, and negotiating a place of freedom for ourselves in a world that militates for sameness. Sameness is about efficiency at its best, and fear at its worst. Efficiency, because we need to find patterns in people and life, in order to understand them and organize for them, and fear, in the xenophobia and bullying that we so quickly rain upon people who we perceive as dangerously different.
Odysseus had to navigate between Scylla, the many-headed monster, and Charybdis, the whirlpool from whose mouth no-one could escape. His solution was characteristic of heroic narratives – he saved himself by allowing Scylla to pick off less important people – members of his crew. Not really a sustainable or morally defensible strategy. As individuals, we face a similar challenge: how to navigate between a uniformity that sucks us all in, and a prioritization of one over another that denies our shared humanity.
At work, in our families, through our online communities, we curate ourselves, in order to be palatable to others. We develop tact, a self-deprecating sense of humor, a positive attitude. We learn not to rise to the bait, to keep our own counsel, that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, better to say nothing at all.” These are strategies that lubricate our path through the world, and they do have value. But somehow we must also know ourselves. We must understand our intentions, our values, our lines in the sand. And from this knowledge, learn to speak that which is true for us. Learn to bear witness, to carry our truth into the world.
As a young singer, I wanted desperately to sound like the great operatic basses of the past – Fyodor Chaliapin, Owen Brannigan, and Paul Robeson, to name a few. I tried so hard to imitate them, because I thought that their sound was the right sound for me. It took me forty years to learn that each of us is at our best when we sound like ourselves. When we maximize the joy and resonance and emotion that is built into our own body and mind. And still I don’t know how to express it consistently and faithfully, because I’ve spent so many years circling the whirlpool of sameness. In singing, in writing, as in life, we are on a journey from birth, when we are wholly ourselves, back to a place of self-knowing, or perhaps self-unknowing, in which we simply express that which is true to us, without censorship or premeditation.
In many ways I am afraid to be myself – afraid of the power and wildness and danger of it. I have been more fortunate than most in having – or taking – the opportunity to explore multiple dimensions of myself. There is no easy cure for sameness. The truth of self is hard to bear. But to speak truth is to be powerful and free.
Perhaps at the heart of the paradox is our social context. A good friend is one who supports you in being who you really are. It is a selfless gift to allow freedom to another. By encouraging each other to live with integrity, curiosity, and clarity, we build the muscles of tolerance, and become citizens of a richer world.