In my earlier years, I would have considered myself a thinker, as I’m sure most other young people do coming into this world.
I was intrigued by abstractions and insight, and, assuming I had a thing or two to share, I pursued creation: writing (blogging), composing, and opining when the time seemed right. I believed there were two types of people: creators and consumers. Consumers were the cogs of society and creators were those who turned them. It was my noble honor and duty to see myself as a creator, to perceive myself as somehow existing outside of the rotating gears that I sought to serve so derisively with whatever thoughts a twenty-something boy believes are valuable to others.
As someone who saw myself as being apart from the Machine, I embraced a sort of tabula rasa philosophy for my identity: we are blank slates, and any identifiers we latch onto limit the infinite possible identities we may enjoy. I tried to avoid being defined, as though definition would somehow threaten the potential of who I could become. I never joined clubs, I would never get tattoos or bumper stickers, and I avoided shirts with brands or ideas printed on them. If I had to say something about myself, I would give people some nonsense like, “I like ducks,” which is true, but hardly gives them a tool with which they could chisel away at my precious block of identity marble.
In high school, I was a member of the gamer crowd, but I refused to become a gamer. As a musician in college, I avoided socializing with other musicians. I most enjoyed the company of other outsiders — not non-conformists, mind you. After all, as deliberately lost as I was, I still continued to wear pants and keep my own hair color. Such is the depth of my denial about who I was(n’t): I didn’t even want to identify with those who refuse to conform.
I remained willfully oblivious to fashion and popular culture. When I was in high school, I once asked a group of people, “Who are the Lakers?” I legitimately did not know. It was 2002 and they had just won three straight NBA Titles.
It was lonely being obstinately removed. Even with good friends and kindred spirits.
Then after a series of unfortunate events, I had to find a career. The dream of composition wasn’t working, odd jobs weren’t paying the bills, idle thoughts seemed to lose their insight, and it was due time I work towards something tangible and sustainable.
I went into teaching. I haven’t had an abstract thought since.
There just simply isn’t time for thinking anymore. I’m a working man. Abstract thoughts don’t put grades in the gradebook. Abstract thoughts don’t show teenagers how to play scales on a trumpet. Abstract thoughts don’t write emails to parents about their kids not putting away their phones when I ask them to. They don’t buy groceries or cook dinner. There’s a job to be done, and if I do it well, I can leave the abstract thinking to my students.
At first I resisted, desperately trying to cling onto some sort of mental independence. I figured that society is designed to assimilate you, and if you resist, it has ways of making you submit to its will. It forces you to stay busy – too busy to question it. It gives you coffee to keep you working longer and gives you alcohol to accept the conditions of your labor. It provides for you enemies to waste your energy fighting, and simple distractions to keep your mind off the things that matter. And worst of all, it gives you descriptors and definitions so it can label you and more effectively market towards your assimilation.
If this sounds paranoid, it’s because it is. But that’s what happens when your identity is challenged. Perhaps it’s the futile struggle of an inflated ego against the dawning realization of it’s own insignificance in the face of something larger and more powerful than it. Regardless, to this day, I do continue to believe the conspiracy, but I’m trying to love it. Stockholm Syndrome, if you will.
Loving it begins with becoming resigned to accept identifiers. Or maybe it’s maturity. I don’t know anymore.
I am a teacher. I’ve accepted that definition. Put an apple on my desk. Shower me with platitudes about the value of the work we do. I’ll agree with you. I have to. It’s who I am now.
I am a man. I’m okay with this. I can talk sports. I can also talk about sports being dumb, if you’re the kind of guy who hangs his hat on not knowing who’s in the Super Bowl. Either way, we can shake hands, fist bump, high five, or whatever you’re into.
I am a musician. I’ll appreciate a good guitar riff. I’ll pretend to like jazz. I’ll watch that Youtube video of a four year-old playing Rachmaninoff better than I can play Mary Had a Little Lamb. I’ll try not to be jealous, but I will be.
Maybe being a consumer isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s okay to be a part of this world. Maybe it’s okay to love the Machine. It’s more comfortable than fighting for uniqueness. It’s definitely easier than creating, although, it’s still hard to accept myself slowly dissipating into the collective. Sometimes I envy those who have never had great ambition – who have never suffered the delusion of or yearning for being exceptional. Surely they are free from these growing pains.
I was never truly happy as a thinker anyway. Self-righteous, maybe. I felt good about my role and my perceived purpose, but I was lonely, and as time wore on, existential questions that seemed delightfully abstract in my early adulthood became uncomfortable and disheartening as I started to realize that my future was actually my present. Wide-eyed wonder at the world was replaced by melancholy. I’m sure many of us have gone through the same process.
Maybe the proverb, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” refers to the fact that those with the luxury of idly searching for meaning are inevitably going to stumble upon disillusionment and withdrawal, whereas those who keep their hands busy will be better equipped to participate healthily in their community. To think is to disturb one’s inner peace, perhaps.
I think about why I was so hell-bent on being unique or an outsider or a “creator” or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes in my more passive moments, I agree to watch movies or television or something of the sort that connects me to people I love or a society I’ve struggled against being a part of. I notice movies have a common value: to be exceptional is to be ideal. It’s not just superheroes and sports flicks. Romances exalt the exceptional courtship. Horrors exalt the exceptional demise. The protagonist is an outsider, a non-conformist. They always stands out, breaking the rules and all convention. They only fade back into society at their story’s conclusion, and only if they so choose. The moral of the story is: strive for greatness. Be unique. It’s never: be unremarkable. Assimilate. Conform.
But maybe it should be.
For years my ego has made me miserable. Fighting assimilation is exhausting. History and culture work together to form an expansive fabric, a vast tapestry on the wall of the time. I am thread in that tapestry. You are a thread in that tapestry. We should be so proud to be here to weave through our part in it.
Ah, but to be a loose thread. It’s hard to shake off old values.