Socrates taught me at a very young age, “Know thyself,” but he gave me no hint of a warning for the consequences of such a creed of nonconformity both in my personal life and in my career. For the record, I don’t mean to make myself sound more well-read than I was in my youth: I was a poor student precisely because I valued my own mind’s potential over the minds of others. Had I read a little more Socrates at the time, I might have known that a sharp intellect of any measure is nothing to write home about. Unless, of course, one finds oneself in the odd habit of writing home about nothing and boasting in one’s foolishness, something that both Socrates and Saint Paul shared in common. Coincidentally, both men died lonely for the creed of nonconformity.
Unlike them, I was foolish enough to brag about what little wisdom I did have.
I knew early on that I am built for making rash vows and then keeping them, I am built for the creed of nonconformity, I am built for connecting communities connected to my own individuality, I am built for prophesying against the nonprofit industrial complex and corrupt churches and Injustices of the Peace who use the law and the rules and the customs as a way to distort the spirit of the law. And I’ve always done that by occupying unique space in between very different social groups and sectors of society. Nonconformity as a way of life — a simple refusal to accept status quo — makes it hard to be considered a close friend to any given person, a close partner to any given businessman, or a close advocate for any given NGO or NPO.
Even at my eighth birthday party, I remember inviting everyone I knew (I wanted everyone to feel welcome) and spending the party identifying with no one in particular because I tried so hard to identify with everyone in general. I wanted to be a bridge of sympathy from one person to another, which explains my drift toward becoming first a thespian and then a fiction author. I fluttered from one clique to the next, from inside to outdoors, from kitchen to living room, from my mother’s bedroom where a sick boy ached for attention to the bathroom where others blowed bubbles to my room where future imagineers analyzed the booty in my modest toy box. I never settled in any group for long and though this made me quite capable of knowing myself, finding myself, being myself, it made it nearly impossible for me to ever feel welcome anywhere for long. The creed of nonconformity is the creed of constant transformity and those in stasis have a hard time latching onto those who constantly strive to change for the better.
I’ll say it again: Socrates taught me at a very young age, “Know thyself,” but he gave me no hint of a warning for the consequences of such a creed of nonconformity both in my personal life and in my career.
Oh I’m sure if a close friend or two stumble on this article and see that I’ve written such a thing, they’d object. They’d say I was cool because I fit in with one group or smart because I fit in with another or uncool because I fit in with a third or ignorant because I fit in with a fourth and so on through the list of the paradoxes of virtues and vices we all share. The reality is regardless of how my life is perceived by some, I have lived lonely for a long, long time. I have a handful of close friends and allies, this is true, but they’re scattered — here a practitioner in Joplin, there an academic in St. Louis, here a government employee in the Ozarks, there a cleric in Los Angeles, here a teacher in Portland, there a fellow scrivener in Massachusetts, here a fashion designer in NYC, there a nonviolent peacemaker in Afghanistan. If such men and women were members of a single family, that family would be one sold into the slavery of utilitarian capitalism or alt-fact postmodernism and then doled out into whatever fields needed their handiwork most in the moment rather than a unified whole that shares a meal at the same table. They are, in short, connected through me, not connected to me and one another.
Ultimately, this American life compounds the problem — we follow the job. We have no villas. We have no kibbutz. We have no troupe or commune or caravan or what have you. We follow the job. My job — even the writing, speaking, performing end of my job — always revolves around the creed of nonconformity. And in general, it’s a lonely lot. The American response to the question, “If everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you?” is often “Yes, if the alternative was dying alone.” The courage to be and face one’s death when all the crowds of mankind choose corporate suicide and species-wide extension… this kind of courage unmakes the best of men. There are many crowds to whom we may capitulate our courage, an endless conveyor belt squeaking out the sounds of their various automated siren calls, but none of them will make us into who we were made to be. There’s settling and then there’s settling, if you catch my meaning.
I am a lonely man. But I embrace that loneliness because I am a man who knows this world isn’t my home. I shroud myself in Sehnsucht, I dream of the desire behind all of my desires, I rebuke the keepers of the law for planting hedges around it and happily paint the emperor naked when others praise his “new clothes.” The creed of nonconformity is the creed of individuality because to be oneself in a world gone mad is to choose sanity in the center of an asylum.
And to choose asylum rather than be exiled to an asylum is to choose the root of the word: sanctuary. The safety of a courageous sanity dwarfs the so-called comfort of an insane security state. In such a place you’ll find yourself not along but in the great company of martyrs and minds who have taken comfort in letting the world do all of the work and pave out the way that they might go.
To be as specific as yourself is to be as broad as the universe, for the reality of my particulars give birth to a sea of sages who kept to the creed of nonconformity. And in this we find comfort: to stand in league with loners.