Tag Archives: individuality

Into the Wild

“We’re supposed to be different. Thank goodness.”

I posted these words on my Facebook page yesterday evening along with a quote from Susan Cain’s insightful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

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In Quiet, Cain explores the differences between introverts and extroverts. In a society that seems to reward the confidence, charm and exuberant energy of extroversion, introverts often feel the need to step up, speak out and pick up the pace just so they too can succeed at life.

In the questionnaire at the beginning of the book, I scored a whopping 18 out of 20. This signifies that I’m more of an introvert. It means that I enjoy my own company. I need space and time alone. I recharge by spending evenings in with a book or a movie. I get energy from walks in nature and lying in the sun. And I like to sit in stillness and reflect on my feelings and the meaning of life.

I’m a thinker and a writer. And I’m sensitive. Sensitive to beauty, music and wonderfully worded pieces of prose. I’m sensitive to energy, people’s moods and violence on the television.

I feel deeply. I get depressed. An act of kindness can bring me to tears. I marvel at the many miracles of the universe. Spirituality is more important to me than material things. I’m passionate about life. But at times I feel like I’m drowning in it.

When I feel intimidated, I shut up. It can take me a while to feel comfortable around new people. On nights out, I’d rather not compete with the loud music and the din of chatty pub-goers. So I don’t. My voice just doesn’t seem to carry. If someone really wants to hear what I have to say, we have to lean in to one another.

However, when I’ve had a drink, none of that matters. Cain likens an alcoholic beverage to a glass of extroversion.

Most people aren’t exclusively introverts or extroverts. I love being around people and I lead a fairly busy social life. I enjoy meeting friends and trying out new hobbies but I much prefer participating in deep conversations with one or two people rather than chatting in large groups.

I recognise the benefits of team playing and brainstorming but I work best alone in a quiet room where I can retreat, silence my phone, and concentrate.

When something is bothering me, I tend to write, meditate, read and think. Then I discuss my problems, one-to-one, with someone I trust.

I end romantic relationships if they’re not right. I’d rather be alone than with someone who doesn’t help me flourish.

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Last night, I watched Into the Wild for the second time. This true story is based on American adventurer Christopher McCandless. At twenty-four, Chris has fulfilled his parents’ dream of getting good grades and going to college. Then, instead of attending Harvard, he burns the remainder of his college fund, cuts up his social security and credit cards, and disappears, without a word, into the wild.

One of the reasons I love this film is because I feel it’s quite balanced in its storytelling. The different characters have different viewpoints, personalities and lifestyles.

We learn of Chris’ perspective on life. He resents the control and expectations of society and his parents. He wants to roam free. He needs to be independent and true to himself. He’s happiest when he’s diving into lakes, climbing mountains, and living off the land.

When he enters Los Angeles, he regards the skyscrapers and city-dwellers with an expression of disappointment and despair. We can almost see his soul dimming as he trudges through the metropolis. He imagines how his life could have been and he doesn’t regret his decision to break away. He can’t even stay one night there.

We also hear his sister’s version of events. She understands Chris’ reasons for abandoning the family. Her parents desperately desire a particular way of life for their son. Their intentions are good. This is the only way they know how to guide and protect him. But they’ve also caused their children a lot of pain. Ultimately, we watch them suffer too.

This movie really got me thinking. Was Chris acting selfishly? Was he foolish and naive? Or was he right to go on his own journey, to figure out his meaning of life, to really live and experience and come to his own conclusions?

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I’ve often felt different. I’ve struggled to fit in. I’ve felt stifled by society and I’ve agonised over the following:

What is being true to yourself? And what is running away? When do you stop living in the clouds and finally conform? When do you “settle down”?

Then there are the shoulds and norms of society. You should be responsible. That’s what being an adult is all about. You need a good job. You can’t live without money. You need your own home. When are you going to find a husband? Will you have enough time for children? For goodness’ sake, you won’t survive without a pension.

I got 525 points in my Leaving Certificate but secondary school may as well have been a battlefield for all the anxiety I experienced. I did well at swimming and athletics but competition didn’t sit well with me. I dropped out of college twice.

Truthfully, the only reason I went back to college as a mature student was because I felt I had to. How else would I become a functioning member of society?

I obtained a First Class Honours degree and received the Sunday World Cup for Best Student of Journalism with a Language. Though proud of my achievements and happy to gain approval from the people I care about, it added to the pressure I felt to do more with my life, to live up to my potential and to succeed.

And I don’t do well under pressure. So instead of applying for jobs in journalism, I threw myself into an alternative world of acupuncture, homeopathy, personal development and spirituality. And I’ve never been happier.

Of course, I still experience paralysing moments of fear. The voices in my head go something like this: What are you doing with your life? Grow up. Be normal.

So I tentatively move forwards with one eye clamped on everybody else in the world who’s doing things the “right” way. I compare, criticise and compete. I alter my behaviour and try to change who I am in the hope that I will prosper. I worry that I’m not adult enough for this big bad world of business and mortgages.

But what does “adult” mean? How “should” a 34-year-old woman live? Why must we all melt into one right way of doing things? We’re not all the same. That much is very clear.

Yes, there’s a reason why most of us follow the well-trodden path in life. There’s safety and security in the tried and tested route. Most people want to see life’s landmarks so they know where they are and what to expect around the corner.

But some of us thrive on change. The unknown excites us. Newness is revitalising. It’s what keeps that spark inside of us alight.

It’s a relief to realise that we don’t have to be the same as one another. We don’t have to compete because we each have unique gifts to bring to the world.

There’s no point trying to do things his way or attempting to be as good as her because you’re not them. You’re you.

Some of us want to climb the career and property ladders all the way to the top. And some of us are quite happy to keep our feet on the ground.

Whether we’re commuting to our permanent jobs, bringing our children to school or backpacking across the globe, we can be fully alive and true to the essence of who we really are.

Whether we’re writing fantasy novels, saving lives, cleaning the streets or designing websites, we can be the people we’re meant to be.

Whether we’re introverted or extroverted or a dollop of one and two tablespoons of the other, we are unique and perfect just as we are.

We’re different and brilliant in our all of our shade and all of our colour. We blend and we clash and we all come together in this stunning masterpiece of humanity.

We may think we know who we are. We stamp ourselves with neat and convenient labels so we can understand and make sense of the world around us. But life changes. We change. We grow and develop and we dip in and out of lots of different attributes and characteristics. Every colour of the rainbow is available to us to try on and see what suits us best.

And whether we’re paying into our pensions or collecting the dole, none of us can really know what to expect next. Nothing is certain.

The weather is unpredictable. And the terrain is constantly changing. We may want to know the exact directions to a predetermined destination. But we are all, in fact, walking into the unknown. We are all on a journey into the wild.

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Let’s Agree to Disagree

It has just struck me how I’ve been struggling for as long as I can remember to be perfect. I want to look perfect. I have to do everything perfectly. I’d love to be in the perfect relationship. I need to feel perfect.

But what is perfect? Who decides what perfect looks like? What’s perfect to me might not be perfect to you and vice versa.

As Don Miguel Ruiz demonstrates in his brilliant book The Four Agreementswe, as a society, have made certain agreements. Agreements on how things should be. And if any of us stray away from these agreements, if one of us dares to be different, there are consequences.

We fear being ostracised, disapproved of, and rejected. So we attempt to bundle the enormity of our spirit into a perfectly suffocating box.

And the most unbelievable part is that these agreements were probably decided before we were even born or at least before we had the sense and intelligence to realise what we were signing up for.

We were given a name and instructed how to behave, how to look, what to do, and how to be. And if we moved away from any of those specifications, we were shown, directly, or worse, indirectly – through withdrawal of love and affection – that to be unique was not okay.

Well hey, I’ve got some liberating news to share. It is okay to be yourself. It’s more than okay. The world needs free spirits, different thinkers and adventurous trailblazers. Let’s tear up those obsolete agreements and allow our individual lights to shine.

I am no longer going to strive for perfection because it doesn’t exist. Perfection is an illusion that I blindly agreed to pursue. But now that I can see clearly, I am choosing to disagree. Who’s with me?

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The Way

The other day, someone generously sent me an audiobook of The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, which is an introduction to Taoism using the characters of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Tao literally means “way” and Taoism emphasises simplicity, compassion, moderation, humility and spontaneity. This book describes the virtues of Taoism with wit and ease.

Once I finished the book, I put my iTunes into shuffle mode. Curiously, one chapter of The Tao of Pooh came on a number of times. I listened with interest as the narrator spoke about “inner nature” and how we try to put square pegs into round holes by trying to be something we are not.

How often we try to fit in with what our society dictates to us, with what we are told is desirable and what we feel is expected of us by parents, teachers and politicians. How we do do do, rush, worry and stress instead of simply being. We are all different. We each have different interests and talents. We should not all attempt to fit into the same “perfect” mould of what we think is appropriate. We worry that others will not approve of us if we veer off the well-trodden path. But isn’t that boring? And unrealistic? We could always find our own way. A way of really living. A way of seeing the beauty of life instead of the monotony of what’s deemed to be “normal”. A way of not always trying so hard. Because if we honour our true inner nature, living becomes effortless.

I recall a college student telling me: “Growing up is horrible. I used to wish I was older. But there’s so much stress and responsibility. I hate college. Why does it have to be like this? I wish I could just run away.” Is this how our youth should feel about life and their future? This young adult was already deadening her spirit in order to “survive”. But as it says on this blog’s tagline, “life is about more than just surviving”.

In society today, during their most creative and energetic years, children are locked into schools where they are force-fed material in order to pass the exams that will enable them to spend most of the rest of their lives in jobs that they probably won’t enjoy. And the “underclass” of society on welfare have to wait in demeaning queues for handouts and are made to feel that they are a drain on the country’s wealth.

I’m currently reading Gerard Leahy’s Towards a Jobless Society. This book really peaked my interest as it got me thinking about society in a way that I never even dreamed possible. While it’s tempting to tell you every single thing Leahy suggests, I’ll try to summarise his views succinctly.

Leahy believes that the job-oriented society we are living in is depressing and unsustainable. With the advances in technology, a lot of jobs have become redundant. We have the means to produce goods extremely cost-effectively. However, governments are insistent on giving grants and subsidies to keep other companies in business to compete with the companies that are offering cheaper products. Despite these technological advancements, the economy is not any wealthier because consumers have to pay increased taxation to artificially sustain the levels of employment. Governments are also spending money on unnecessary administration and on “job creation”, forcing the unemployed into training for jobs that do not exist. Creating jobs is not the same as creating wealth, which is where the focus should really be.

We are human beings born onto this planet so we all deserve a place here and our basic needs should be met. Using an “island model” approach to get his point across, Leahy proposes that all people over 16 years of age receive a basic income. Nobody will “have” to work in order to survive. Without this pressure, people will be able to express their individuality and creative genius. Some will offer their services such as teaching, counselling, policing and healing on a voluntary basis or for a small fee. Others will write, sculpt, act and meditate. People will have time to spend with family and on personal development.

Leahy also suggests that all products and services be subject to a taxation of 50 per cent, which will be divided equally amongst the population. So those who wish to work will have incentive to do so. And those who don’t want to will not feel pressurised.

Imagine a world where the pressure is off, where we can be ourselves, where we have the opportunity to explore our creativity and talents, and time to work on our personal and spiritual development. Where it is okay to simply be. Where we have the license to share our unique selves with one another. This way of simplicity, spontaneity, compassion, moderation and humility is the way of this wonderful world. It certainly sounds good to me.

After writing this post, someone showed me the following video narrated by the great Alan Watts…

Dreaded Drug of Approval

I was out for dinner the other night when I spotted the waitress approaching a family at the next table. She asked one of the children, “Have you made your Santa list yet?” The little girl responded in a giggling baby voice, “I want a supwise.” Her mother patted her on the head approvingly. I had heard the child speak earlier and she hadn’t sounded like that. Already, at such a young age, this girl was changing herself and the way she behaved in order to gain approval.

This simple scenario reminded me of a number of similar moments throughout my life…

At five years of age, talking to the insects in the back garden, then hearing my parents say: “Wow, look at her! She’s so into nature!” I stayed out there for much longer than I wanted to because I was sure my parents would like me more if I did… Pretending to be into a certain genre of music as a teenager just so I’d fit in… Pushing myself in school and college so I could be the perfect student and daughter… Hanging around a guy I liked and hiding parts of myself because I thought it would make me more desirable… Losing weight because that’s how “beautiful” was sold to me… Pretending to know the politician/author/website my co-workers were talking about so they wouldn’t think I was stupid… Feeling I didn’t belong in an expensive boutique because surely the sales assistants would stare at me for not being skinny/fashionable/rich enough… Marrying a Muslim, changing pretty much everything about myself, and still feeling crushed every time he criticised me… Only enjoying the hobbies I was good at because I couldn’t stand being anything less than perfect…

Most of us are unfortunate enough to care about what others think. Add that on top of a cruel addiction to the drug of approval and you’re guaranteed a hellish existence. How many of you have turned vegetarian just because your boyfriend turned up his nose every time you scoffed a burger? Would you be brave enough to leave your iPod playing in shuffle mode when other people are around even though you have a seriously embarrassing secret penchant for The Backstreet Boys? Do you squeeze yourself into skinny jeans because that’s what all your style crushes/college friends are wearing? Do you observe yourself behaving differently around different sets of people? You don’t curse and you use words like “potentially” and “ostentatious” when you’re around Group A. You laugh uproariously at dirty jokes and innuendo (“In YOUR endo!”) when you’re with Group B. You discuss politics and current affairs/spirituality and health/psychology and literature/celebrity gossip and makeup tips with Group C, D, E and F, while sipping on a skinny latte/shot of wheatgrass/large glass of merlot/Flaming Sambuca.

"Lean too much on the approval of people, and it becomes a bed of thorns." Teysi Hsieh

These days, I kind of hope I’m not good at stuff because maintaining perfection is a lot of pressure. It’s exhausting trying to keep up the facade. I just want to do things because they’re fun and I enjoy them. From now on, I’m going to leave excellence to the experts. I’m delighted that I’m not going to live like that any more. It’s a relief to finally let go and just be. Yes, sometimes my reactions are automatic (it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime) but when I stop and ask myself, Do you really care what they think?, the answer is a resounding NO!

It’s about time you found out who the real you really is. Get to know yourself and discover what it is that you want and like and need. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding process. However, I’ll bet that most people are too afraid to even ask themselves the question Am I being true to myself? because they’re terrified of the answer. Change is scary and a hell of a lot of hard work.

I don’t know about you but I don’t want to waste my life pretending to be somebody else, putting myself under constant pressure, striving for perfection, caring what others think, and giving my power away to everybody else. This drug of approval has lost its appeal. Yes, it will try to claw its way back in. And I will be sorely tempted to give in, just to avoid the crippling withdrawal symptoms. But I am determined to finally kick the habit.

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