Embracing Your Uniqueness (But Still Fitting In)
July 22, 2013
The banquet hall was spacious with high ceilings. Round, white-clad tables were scattered across the dark floor like dappled pools of sunlight. A glittery gaggle of youths gyrated to bhangra beats on the dance floor, their jeweled and embroidered outfits shimmered with the strobe lights. This was an Indo-Canadian wedding as lavish as any in India. I was overcome by feelings of detachment, even isolation. They were first generation from India whereas I am fourth. While they looked like me, they spoke differently, moved differently, and had somewhat different cultural values than I was raised with.
It turned out I was not alone in feeling alone. Others there felt equally disconnected. Some were less wealthy, others felt self-conscious about their age and disability, and a few kept to themselves because either they had married into this ethnicity, or they were of mixed raced.
As I sat in that surreal surrounding it occurred to me that I had lived most of life with this type of conflict. It is a basic human paradox that we need to fit in socially but simultaneously we want to be authentic to our uniqueness. We value our individuality (because that is what makes us human) but we also require that our uniqueness be validated by the others.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too! But we try. One common way we resolve this conflict is by seeking out others who are similarly unique. We form sub-cultures, little brotherhoods of uniform quirkiness. We show allegiance to our brotherhood by adopting a similar style of clothing, gestures and lingo. In my distant youth we youngsters expressed our individuality by streaking our mullets with fuchsia, back then even the boys wore eyeliner. Hey, it was the Eighties. Frankie Says…. Well, we did whatever Frankie told us to. But of course our expressions of individuality were actually submitting to the uniform of fashion.
This kind of seeking out ‘oddballs like me’ never quiet satisfies because our individual differences arise no matter who we team up with. Take any sub-culture, such as gay men, while they find validation for their sexuality within the gay community, there is little room for validation of diversity of race, of religion. I know one very political gay man (now in his sixties) who fought fiercely for gay rights back in the Seventies and Eighties. He now feels invisible within the very community he helped to create. This is because the reasons we feel like outsiders is always in a flux. Our uniqueness changes with our age and the situations we find ourselves in.
At this stage in my life, when I think I am personally at peace with my uniqueness, I still find myself resisting outside pressure to conform. As a visible minority, almost every stranger I meet seems to require some kind of narrative from me about my skin tone. They require a label, some group they can equate me to. If, out of politeness, I tell them my heritage is Indian, I usually get small talk centered around that and nothing else. They tell me about that nice Indian restaurant they ate at last week. Or they chat about some headline from the news about India: Wasn’t it terrible about that flooding? they might ask, as though I must have some personal connection to the event.
People do the same with my disability. They want to understand my confidential medical history, some quick and easy story they can understand. I have now learned how to deflect the attention back to the person making that unwelcome inquiry. I deftly shift the attention back to them. People love talking about themselves and all it takes is a small nudge to get them speaking. They soon forget about you and their intrusive query.
As I sat in that banquet hall with this uncomfortable but familiar conflict it occurred to me that perhaps my approach was all wrong. Embracing our uniqueness, I gotta be me, being true to myself, etc. aren’t all these just assertions of the the ego? When you think about it, isn’t the urge to blend in, to conform to the dress, the language and the lifestyles of the majority also artificial and acquired?
What if I was to give attention to the more authentic commonalities I had with the five hundred or so people in the room? All of them: men, women, youths, babies, shared the same air as me. Each of us was united in time and space, we shared common sounds, sights, tastes and smells. Most wonderfully, each of us was alive with the same light of consciousness. To give attention to that was wholly satisfying, completely unifying. And it did not disrespect my authentic self.