In Pursuit of Mindful Nonconformity

Before we begin, I’m going to prologue this post so readers don’t assume I’m a thoughtless cow for not addressing COVID-19. At this point, my general feeling is that the internet has had about all it can take of lay contribution to infectious disease research and that any new information is likely going to come from higher up. This being the case, I’ve decided to spare you my opinion entirely.

What I wanted to briefly discuss was a subject based on a comment recently made by London Mail on Sunday contributor Peter Hitchens. He states, rather humbly:

I have tried, more than once, to swim with the stream. I could see that it had its rewards. I swallowed my inhibitions and my dissenting thoughts, and joined gangs of various kinds. But I couldn’t keep it up. There was always the point where I found conformism impossible, and also where my would-be pals spotted that I wasn’t really one of them. After quite a bit of that I decided to skip both stages and begin as I meant to go on. I also decided to enjoy being an outsider.

Now, it is usually unfair to ascribe a motive to someone based on a single article, and I will not do so here. But it did get me thinking about “nonconformists” in general, and specifically the lack of self-awareness those in this camp frequently exhibit.

Before the 1960’s, nonconformity was viewed not so much as an asset but a handicap; a bent of nature to be punished or suppressed. We have “evolved” since those dark days, however, to the point where nonconformism (in the west) is almost uniformly approved as an edgy and liberating way to live. But though it often poses as such, nonconformity, in itself, is not a virtue. Those who do view it this way (as inherently virtuous) also tend to be those who pursue it not so much as an inevitable course of life based on sincerely held convictions, but as a fierce effort to maintain one’s supposed individuality. 

This determination isn’t all anarchy and Rise Against. It plays out in ordinary lives as we latch onto those things that we perceive might assist in bolstering our perceived uniqueness. After all, who wants to be seen with those lemmings who just go along with the crowd? We want to be known as our “own” people. We want to be recognized as bold and brave individuals. So we wax on about the particular brand of coffee we drink, or the indie bands we listen to, or the obscure Russian poets we keep in our stack of bathroom readers, or the peripheral point of theology we refuse to give ground on. The especially dedicated might start wearing ermine pants, adopting bizarre mannerisms, and exaggerating eccentricities—anything that will give them a leg up on the drones around them. 

In all of this, however, we betray the secret longing of the despised conformist: approval. The reality is that if you actually want to discover a true nonconformist, you likely won’t find him on twitter, or writing popular books, or Instagraming his hempen oatmeal. No. You’ll probably find him sitting, hairy and bored, in a forest somewhere measuring snowfall. Like this truly pioneering soul.

Okay, so maybe there are some true sons and daughters of the nonconforming spirit walking among us. My point is that the most compelling (and legitimate) nonconformists rarely feel the need to bring it up. In fact the ones who insist on doing so (I’m not necessarily assuming this of Hitchens) often end up being nearly as insufferable as their claims of inscrutability; their tastes—as proved beyond a doubt by the ridicule of their peers—almost certainly indicating a rare and superior genius.

But you know what would be really unique to see? A humble nonconformist. One defined not so much by their suspicion of authority but by their suspicion of self; even better, who are able to live almost entirely forgetful of self. The kind who don’t automatically assume rejection by a community as an indication of vice in his detractors but as an opportunity for self-examination and, possibly, repentance. 

I should probably clarify that by “humility” I am not here advocating capitulation to the masses—the bogey I assume Hitchens has in view here. In fact in the upcoming days, especially as the sexual revolutionaries continue to form ranks, we will be in need of nonconformists; but probably not the sexy kind that get featured in Pepsi commercials. 

If I can risk a plug here, our hope in the formation of a school was to train exactly such people. If we do it right, our students should graduate without even realizing they’re nonconformists. Rather, it is our hope that through training our students in history, exposing them to great books, and honing their logic, a cohort of legitimate nonconformists will be unleashed. Furthermore, it is our hope that the subjects being taught, immersed as they are in an exhaustive Christocentricity, will enable our students to wield their nonconformity in a humble way. The uniforms, the “Good morning Mrs. Kloostermans,” and the chapel times are not meant to foster a school-wide elitism, but rather a respect and appreciation for proper authority. Something blind nonconformity is notoriously uncomfortable with.

I am not advocating for a mindless homogeneity. I am (perhaps overly) reacting to an equally mindless nonconformity which is more about posturing than the formation of sincere conviction.

Very soon, these may be the edgiest souls around.


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