Chapter 12 — Shall We Be Different?
The poorest reason in the world for doing anything is that somebody else is doing it.
Children have a name for the imitator; they call him a “copy cat.” But isn’t it a curious thing that the “copy cat” habit is almost universal among human beings? What? Do I think I am not a slave to it? Don’t I wear that monstrosity known as the derby hat, when it is “in,” and don’t I laugh at it when it is “out”? Don’t I fence my lawn when my neighbor does—and take the fence away when he razes his? Don’t I say the same things about newspapers, relatives, and sunsets that the leaders in my particular club, set, or party say? Don’t I rise, sit, sleep, and eat as others do? Isn’t it one of my aims in life not to be queer—that is, unlike others?
Isn’t it pitiful! I conform. I conform to style, to custom, to mode, to trend!
As I think about it I come upon a curious anomaly. The world cries out for originality—for something new under the sun—yet slaps at it instantly when it raises its head. No one is so unpopular as he who begins to be unlike the rest. But no one receives such rewards as he who persists in it! Strange! All men seem to be in a conspiracy to curb originality, yet all men laud and reward it. And then when the applause begins, they all begin trying to ape the originator.
An old song, attributed to New York dwellers, carried these lines:
“Of course you may never be like us,
But be as like us as you possibly can!”
People laughed at it, but they obeyed its behest. In America there is a strange worship for what is done and said and approved and successful in New York. Nothing else will make success for a drama, or a fashion, or a slang phrase, or a salad, or a trick doll, or a pipe, or a fad of any sort, like a widespread report that it is a success or a fad in New York. And New York imitates Paris, and Paris imitates Vienna—or did—and styles run in cycles when there is nothing left for style to imitate but itself; and we idolize antiques, and history repeats itself, all for the same reason. And then, along comes a man or a woman who thinks, sees an inward vision, departs from custom, manner, and convention, and is first persecuted, then hailed as a new leader for a new epoch—and becomes something to imitate again.
It has been said that genius is “smashing the rules.” That may be an inadequate definition; most definitions are inadequate. But it is a fact that no genius ever observes the rules. The rules? What are they? Summed up, they would read: “Do as I do, and depart not, lest you become conspicuous.”
And herein is another marvel. Most of us seek fame, reputation, the limelight, notoriety; yet we fear to become conspicuous because of a difference in our neckties or in the cut of our evening clothes. Constantly we strive to lead, yet forever we trail. We dream of the world’s eyes turning our way, yet we strive to remove every reason why they should. We are as like as the successive impressions of the proverbial rubber stamp, which differ only as they grow paler after the inking!
What does it all mean? It means not only that we are following a method that is wholly wrong, but it means also that we are flinging away our birthright, the one thing that makes us worth while, the one thing that makes us men, the one thing that proves us to be sons of God! We are flinging away the inner leading and looking outside for everything, from the shapes of our forks to our moral standards.
Least of all do we dare to be different in our religion!
But let us not fall into an obvious error. Being different for the sake of being different is the height of folly—though one almost wishes to follow such a course when he grows suddenly soulweary of conformity. The fact that most men drive on roads is no reason why I should drive in the fields. That most men live in houses should hardly suggest to me the advisability of living in a eave. Men have tried such methods in their search for originality. You see them doing it every day. People neither hate nor applaud that sort of being different; it is merely ridiculous. But these are the very ones who bring discredit upon the whole idea of being different. Their idiosyncrasies and excesses cause us to shy away from all their ways.
However, the conclusion is obvious and inescapable. What other people do should set no standards for me. Therein lies one of the hardest of all lessons to learn. “For ye . . . like sheep” was no chance expression. Salvation itself lies in being different.
But how am I to take thought and be different, without being different for the mere sake of difference? I am between Scylla and Charybdis; how can I escape? There is but one way. I shall escape by turning from a wholly false standard to the true one. I shall find the true standard just where I find everything else that is true—in my own mind, if I will only look there, look steadily, and be willing to see.
It is said of Emerson that no matter what subject he started to speak or write upon, it always led presently to the presentation of his one great theme. The same is true of all of us. No matter where we start or which way we work with any given question, if we are honest it will always lead us to our great theme—consciousness of the omnipresence of God.
Do we need argument to convince us that God is everywhere and in everything? No; all we need is to look and see. He is here in this question of conformity compared to originality. And when I begin to see Him in the question, the question is settled! No question can exist when I see it clearly; it becomes its own answer. When we all shall have clear vision of God, interrogation points will disappear from our type cases and from our language. So will periods. We shall have no doubts—and no finalities. If we still shall need printed signs, the only one that will have significance will be ∞ , the sign of infinity!
It is characteristic of many wild animals that they rarely raise their gaze above the level of their own eyes. To be safe from attack by one of them a man has only to climb a tree, and watch the beast that stalks him pass blindly underneath. Isn’t it a curious thing that man, observing and knowing such a thing, doesn’t see the object lesson in it? Let us raise our eyes! I raise my gaze above the level of my eyes, and what do I see? Everything worth while. Am I a creature of a two-dimensional world that I should see nothing that has height? No; nor do three dimensions bound my vision. I see within. And there is where I find every true standard of life awaiting my discovery. What has “what others are doing” to do with me?