Refusing to conform will save your soul

I just want to share a quotation. I’m still reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald — and enjoying it more with each passing chapter. Part of the pleasure derives from the sense of time and place that Lee captures but it’s mostly to do with the story of Fitzgerald overcoming the trials of her personal life to become the novelist she was, perhaps, destined to be.

Quite why this quotation — used by Lee at the end of the book’s ninth chapter — resonates I’m not sure. Here it is:

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

When I first read it I thought immediately of those rites of selection I went through in playgrounds as a kid. You know, when teams are picked and captains get to choose a player each by turn. Nobody wanted to be picked last and the captains didn’t want to end up with the most useless player. Everyone knew who the useless players were.

Getting picked was validation. Like my classmates, I wanted to be picked early in the process. Even if I hated the game to be played or even the captain picking me, I wanted to be picked and picked early. This was an early lesson in conforming.

At the same time, those picked last were taught that they were not part of the elite.

It was a rare pupil who laughed at the process or refused to join in. I had a good friend who was useless at sport and showed only disdain for team games. He had confidence in his independence. I was less confident and needed the validation of my peers.

When we conform to other’s expectations, we start to die slowly inside. The expectations of others are, after all, the lowest of common denominators. To conform is to lower the average. Everywhere and across all measurements.

It starts at school. Among our fellow students and in response to the rules and the teaching of the institutions in which we are sent to learn. We start to die inside, albeit slowly at first.

It is only when we accept our own abilities and discover the unique way we want to use them and treasure them that we live fully. And when we live fully we add something to life.

It is how life gets better. For everyone.

And the last bit of the Fitzgerald quotation reminds us that we can’t wait for life to offer the opportunities we seek. Waiting is passive and by its very definition an act of conforming. We must seek out opportunities and make a difference by being different.

Being different. How scary. How liberating. How soul-saving.