I am often amazed at the outfits my teenage son wears because “it’s what everyone is wearing.” Just the other day I said, “Son, why are you wearing those clothes?” He was wearing all black. He looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with this outfit, you’re an Episcopal priest and you wear all black every day…” I think I responded with something less than parent-like.
Later, after thinking about our talk I sat him down and asked him if he dressed himself in the morning, or did he allow others to dress him? Was it more important to fit in, or be yourself — “The way you dress is a reflection of what you think of yourself.” He answered, “Dad, it’s not what I think about me that is important, but what other people think of me. Other guys are mean when you are different, they call you names, tease you, maybe even want to fight you…”
The sad thing was, I couldn’t tell him it would be different as he matured. People will still attempt to make him conform to their expectations, their comfort zone, whatever the societal norm (local, national, or even international) as they define it… For some, their way of life, dress, actions, politics, even religion, are based on “fitting in.” We want to “belong.” As a result we give power to others over us. It may start with smaller things like clothing fads, how we spend our recreation time, or the “things” we desire; but it can end up with the people around us defining who we are, even the people we can interact with — as we live into their expectations, their assumptions. Some people may never live a life free of being “conformists.”
There is also the problem of guilt when we feel trapped by unrealistic expectations which we cannot hope to fulfill, and when we fall flat or fail; when we wear a mask, or fake it, even lie, to ourselves and others, rather than admit that we are just not that person others see us as or have deluded ourselves into believing we may be. When we accept the assumptions of other people about ourselves, it is all too easy to become a victim of unrealistic expectations, of self-fulfilling prophesy of failure or of self-worship, maybe even becoming the idol of other’s eyes, and losing our true selves in the mix — giving up on the person God is calling us to be…
God loves us as we are, where we are, there is no need for pretense. We are told by St. Paul, ” Do not conform” to the pattern of this world,” but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”—his good, pleasing” and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2). Such a mindset may not make us popular, or part of the “in crowd,” I admit it. The world could ultimately care less about us, we can only please its adherents by being someone they can use for their own selfish purposes. However, to follow St. Paul’s advice will make us better individuals, better able to serve God, and those around us. Conformity is not always bad, but the focus of our conformity, the authority we hand ourselves over to, must be one we know and can trust — Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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