conformity, complexity, creativity, and growth
years ago, before blogs were on my radar, i frequently wrote rants. i was a part time psychologist and a full time mom. i had a boatload of opinions, boundless intensity, and a serious desire to have a voice in the world. the only reality greater than these was my need (for me it was a need) to be a mostly at-home mom. mothering young children didn’t make the best context within which to rant so i wrote. after a day of insights and experiences i would sit down at my computer and type strongly opinionated essays on all manner of topics. knowing no one would ever see them, i let the full weight of my opinions and emotions flow. these were not papers for the faint of heart. they were strong. ridiculously so. a favorite of mine from that time is a four page piece i wrote after my first real clothes shopping experience with my daughter.
a little background is in order here: i have never been a shopper. not only have i long abhorred our consumer culture, but i also wanted to raise children who wouldn’t fall prey to peer pressure about how they dressed and thought. malls have always felt like hotbeds of peer pressure to me with store fronts screaming what should be worn, given, and received to be cool/beautiful/smart/hip. when my kids were in 3rd and 5th grades, they asked me what a mall was. they kept hearing their friends talk about them and had no idea what they were referring to. in 4th grade my daughter suggested that she might like “one of those sweatshirts that everyone has that has a hood and has the letters ‘g’ ‘a’ ‘p’ on it...whatever that means.” a gap was a space, not a store, at our house.
with this in mind, you can imagine that i had a lot of self talk to do before kaija and i embarked on our first real mall outing. i wanted it to be wonderful. i wanted to have the dreamy kind of experience other moms described where we’d try on clothes, stop at the food court for hot chocolate, and leave, hours later, giddy with excitement over shared time and a new outfit or two. kaija was in middle school and there was a new (at the time) store that she really wanted to visit. we made our way there and i smiled and interacted positively with the sales staff and kaija. i feigned interest. i chose a few things to try on in an attempt to show my solidarity. i “oohed and aahed” over all manner of clothing and accessories, seething inside about oh-so-many things. that night, i unloaded into my computer. my rant flowed forth without thought or effort. at the end of four typed pages i went back to the top of the first page to add a title. there, in a caps, i typed, “I’VE BEEN TO HELL AND IT’S CALLED HOLISTER.”
now that i look back on both the experience and the essay i can laugh. a store cannot truly represent the pain that has been associated with hell and much of my response was overly emotional and simplistic. even still, much of what i wrote that night rings more and more true to me with time. let me explain.
the retail establishment of which i speak is one that screams “conformity!” upon entrance, a person’s entire sensual experience is controlled. the entry is small and windowless and looks like the front porch of a beach house. when entering there is the distinct feeling that you’ve entered an environment rather than a mere store. the sales staff is young, visually attractive, and perky (and unhealthily thin). the music is pumping, the lighting is low, and there are large overstuffed chairs scattered at just the right spots. the walls are covered with ever changing digital images of sand and waves and surfing. magazines, placed strategically near those big, comfy chairs, advertise the clothing on the shelves and the air is constantly infused with the company’s signature fragrance. the clothing items intended to look “worn” (think well washed, slightly torn jeans) are made to look so in the exact same way on every single item in the perfectly folded pile. each garment is emblazoned with the corporate logo and, for the right price, you can take every part of the experience home with you (dvds, music, fragrance, etc are all displayed at the registers for you to notice as you’re making your clothing purchases). it’s all so “nice.” so nice and so neutral. so contrived and so controlled and so loud with the message, “conform! be just like us. wear our clothes, listen to our music, hang out for a while. look like us. be like us. smell like us. we have your ticket to cool.”
let me be clear, i don’t think that holister’s executives or staff are malicious nor are their shoppers necessarily immature or followers. the words hell or evil don’t actually apply here at all. my point, however, is that experiences in places such as the one i describe illuminate that we live in a world that values conformity to a norm over celebrating differences, uniqueness, complexity, and growth.
this all came back to me tonight as i read sir ken robinson’s the element: how finding your passion changes everything. a brilliant advocate for people discovering, and then living into, their own unique way of learning, robinson asserts that the most creative and well functioning groups are those who have people of different interests, learning styles, and giftings. these groups have members who challenge and stretch each other and who capitalize on each other’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. groups composed of homogenous members, he has found, tend to be less dynamic, creative, and generative. members of these groups tend to fall prey to group think and are prone to have limited impact. this got me thinking of the intersection of conformity, creativity, and personal growth.
not long ago someone asked me how i might discuss the topic of prejudice with high schoolers. as i pondered this question i kept coming to the realization that our prejudices hinder our personal growth and cause us to associate with homogenous groups. this lead me to think that we might all expose our prejudices as well as our creative stuck places simply by considering the groups with which we associate. just as frequenters of certain stores recognize each other by the tell tale logos they wear, we often identify (and associate ourselves with) members of our “tribes” by the ways in which we are similar. when this is true, our individual and communal lives become more about conformity than creativity and growth.
how many friends do you have who hold dissimilar political opinions from your own? when you are “choosing your teams,” do you consider ease of fit over dynamic (sometimes difficult) or growth inducing interchange? shared life styles over different ones? those who look (and dress and smell and shop) like you over those who look (and dress and smell and shop) like you never have before? do you lean toward the conforming or stretching side of the affiliative continuum? is your contact list diverse? have you ever considered this?
to see where you fall, take out your cell phone and a piece of paper. on the paper make columns for as many categories as your contact list might have dimensions. title the columns with the categories your friends are likely to fall into. these could be anything from more obvious traits like “gender,” “hair and skin color,” “age,” “partnered/single,” and “likes the same kind of music as i do” to more complex categories such as “shares a basic world view,” “ascribes to a similar theology,” “had a similar up bringing,” or “agrees with me politically.”
now go through the contacts stored on your phone, making a mark in every column that each person fits within. if you are like a majority of people, you will begin to notice some major tally-heavy columns. take a look at these and see what you learn. if nearly all of your friends share your relationship status what might you be missing out on in the way of understanding and relating to those in different relational spaces? what might the consequences be if everyone you’re connected to shares your world view, politics, or theology? if the bulk of your community grew up in the same kinds of situations or places or homes that you did, what are you doing to make sure you don’t assume that everyone comes from the same place?
while it is comfortable to blend in to the crowd or to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, it is also stifling to our growth. putting aside our feelings of needing to be right in the eyes of others in deference to encountering others authentically, causes us to examine our own choices and affirm them or alter them accordingly. reaching out to another’s shared humanity rather than reacting to the ways in which they are different causes richness in our relational lives and expands our ability to live empathically. having respectful interchanges with people who disagree grows us. having a diverse community of contacts boosts our creativity. ensuring we are, at times, uncomfortable and stretching, seems to mature us. sure, living this way is no trip to the mall but, it just might get us closer to heaven.