We all have this need to fit in. It’s natural and it’s a good thing. We’re encouraged to do it from the year dot. Nobody wants the “doesn’t play well with other kids” label, so you sort of go along with the thing and anyway, you get to play a few games of football if you muck in. That’s okay when you’re a child.
Then you hit the teens. Show me someone who didn’t have difficulties there and I’ll show you a world-class bore or someone who’s definitely headed for the mega mid-life crisis, because they’ve never kicked out. Your teens are the transition part of your life, where dependant on the phases of the moon, which way the wind is blowing, how big your latest acne spot is, how short you are, how tall you want to be, how fat you think you are, how thin you are, how big or how small your tits are – you’re a stick of sweating dynamite nobody wants to be near for too long. The whole thing varies from day-to-day and even from minute to minute.
I suppose a lot of that teenage angst comes from a subconscious realisation that you’re inescapably leaving that comfort zone of a protected childhood and having to strike out on your own into that big frightening world of the grownups. It’s a sort of second birth into the real world, so a bit of kicking and screaming is to be expected.
You get through your teens somehow but looking back on it, it was always a bit touch and go. You survived some serious scrapes, some only you knew about and some which were painfully public. Your Pa and Ma knew when to diplomatically not notice when you were totally being a transparent embarrassment to yourself and everyone in a five-mile radius, although you didn’t even know it at the time. With apologies to John Osborne, you do look back and cringe.
When you get out of the teens and leave home, that imperative to “fit in” is still there but you start questioning what exactly it is you want to fit into. The easy reflex, that everyone else is doing, is to somehow condemn everything of their parent’s generation and most especially them. Whatever sort of mixed-up dork you are, it’s all their fault somehow. The problem is, you actually have a regard for your parents and are beginning to have some inkling of how hard their lives were and latterly, how easier it might have been if they hadn’t had you or had to put up with the likes of you. It’s the beginning of a wider understanding of what love actually is.
You look around your peers and realise you all come from different places. I did come from a different country but over and above that, I came from a different level of prosperity and expectation. I finally came to recognise that compared to them, my family was poor. There was a boy’s room and a girl’s room and if it was a particularly cold night, the girls got my Dad’s heavy overcoat as an extra blanket. I’d never realised that didn’t happen with everyone’s family.
In some other ways though, I came from a much richer background than they did. I grew up in a big family, surrounded and immersed in books, ideas, art and music, all of which were discussed passionately, because we were all finding out about them for the first time. The new world, novy mir, terra nova. Any book that came into the house went through the harrowing experience of being read and pulled apart by nearly everyone in it. I lost count of the number of times I sat in a lecture hall listening to someone expounding on some brilliant and supposedly novel idea that I’d first heard punted around the dinner table by a family member years ago. The discussion of the idea was usually a lot more robust too.
Don’t get the wrong impression here, we were not a family of Einsteins. A quirky but enthusiastic lot would be a better description. Gregarious, a bit sports mad but a bit bookish too or maybe a bit too bookish. We’d absorbed the value systems of our parents, together with their interests, while developing our own ones. More importantly, we’d also absorbed their independent approach to life.
My father had played many roles on life’s stage but he was essentially a car mechanic. He did his apprenticeship so long ago, it was on steam engines. He taught me stuff like how to hold a screwdriver in your teeth against the rocker cover of an engine, blipping the revs of the carburetor so you could pick out which tappets needed adjusting, just from the “off” vibrations. He also taught me why the FitzGerald translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was the best one; which it certainly is.
I was a grown man, whatever that is, before I recognised they really weren’t too concerned about fitting in, so it helped me to relax about not being a great fitter inner as well. You can be a car mechanic who also has an intimate knowledge and love of the poetry of William Blake or a canteen worker, like my mother, who knew exactly how to cross over if you’re going to play the piano seriously and could impart that knowledge to her grandchild. No messing around either; she kept at it with him until he got it right. With that dame, nobody got a free pass. If you were gonna do it, you had to do it right.
It’s actually okay to be you because while everyone else is rushing to conform to something called normality, there is of course, no such thing. There is no spoon. Sure, that isn’t to say it’s okay to be the local axe murderer or something but you can be yourself. All that’s required is that you pursue whatever things catch your interest, which are perhaps outside the parameters of your nominal class or socio-economic catchment area, but you should never let that stop you.
The thing about being you is you’ll never have some consensus of people around you saying you were right all along. That’s never going to happen, I’m afraid. You’ve just got to get on with your life as you see fit and let the chips fall where they may. Take the less travelled road, if that’s what you honestly believe and you’re strong enough.
This is not some argument to be automatically contrarian. It’s more an argument to take a course through life that feels better to you. I’m not talking some childish “I can prove I’m right and you’re all wrong” thing, which nobody can do, but about feeling free to select a way that more closely matches who you are.
There are a few benefits to being a free range person. Because you don’t automatically do the groupthink thing, you’ll usually be the one able to look at problems from a different perspective and more often than not, be the one to suggest a way around it, under it, over it or through it. You’re not quite in the same groove that everyone else is in, so you’ll tend to look at things with new eyes and in a slightly different way.
In the areas where your thoughts and opinions differ from those commonly held, you’ll have been obliged to think through why that is, because inevitably you’ll have been asked that question. You can supply reasons for your opinions, rather than just falling back on the lazy excuse of some unthinking consensus or simply believing authority figures.
None of this means you’ll necessarily be a better person but you’ll probably be a happier one and dare I say it, more interesting company. You’ll be a break from that boring predictable uniformity of viewpoint which plagues most social groupings. It actually doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks; mostly, they’re just saying you shouldn’t be as you are because it’d be a bit too chancy for their own liking.
Just be you.