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A short time ago I was talking with a neighbor of mine about where to send my daughter to school. He was proud to tell me that he was sending his own daughter to a private school, and he said a lot of great things about the institution. Then he said something to me I will never forget:
“People say that the school turns out kids who are just like ‘robots’–each one is the same, but I like that. These kids all study hard and do not use drugs. I’ll take my kid the same as every other kid and serious, rather than the alternative. The kids that come out of there are all perfect.”
This statement disturbed me the more I thought about it. The school my neighbor was talking about requires all of the students to wear the same uniforms all day, and really emphasizes conformity. Based on what my neighbor was saying, he clearly believed it an absolute virtue for his daughter to be a carbon copy of other straight-laced kids.
Many schools and parents stress this idea to children in one form or another. Kids are rewarded in most schools for being consistent and like their peers. The more we are rewarded for certain behaviors, the more we feel loved, and the more we continue to reinforce our own behavior. Through schools, parents, and others around them, children learn what they need to do in order to receive approval and love.
Think about what happens in the typical elementary school when the bell rings. Kids are expected to rush to their desks and sit quietly at attention, with their hands on the desk, ready to work. The modern school bell came about at a time when kids were trained in schools for eventual work in factories. When the factory bell rang, workers were expected to be at attention in front of the machine they were going to operate. Not so incidentally, factory workers were required to namelessly operate machinery, and uniformity was something that the company valued. Today’s schools, in many respects, are a hold over to this time.
When we think of being different many of us think of freaks, punks, stoners, etc. The tension between conformity on the one hand and being different on the other is pervasive in society. In school, the kids who dress differently and look different isolate themselves and become pariahs in many respects. When I was in high school I remember girls who dyed their hair purple, men who pierced their whole face, and others who wore mohawks. The kids who knowingly chose to be different in their appearances did not assimilate well and ultimately found themselves isolated from the other students. Not fitting in, meant they could only associate with others who were like them as well.
But none of us are really just one person.
If you think about your life and who you are, chances are that you are consistently a different person several times throughout the average day, depending on the situations you face. Throughout the average week you are probably even more different people. Throughout a month, a year–even more different people. You are never really the same person. However, the message that society sends to us is that we need to constantly be the same person. If someone is too erratic, and seemingly not the same person consistently enough, we may send him or her to a psychiatrist or other doctor. The person is then prescribed drugs to insure a “level” and consistent personality. Have you ever seen a movie that showed people in a psychiatric hospital? The people are always walking around like zombies because they are drugged to be numb, and to consistently act like the same person.
Two of my favorite movies are One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Cool Hand Luke. Each of these stories is about the lengths that “the system” will go to in its attempt to make people the same. The first movie takes place in a mental institution and the latter occurs in a prison. Both stories involve men who are accused of relatively unserious crimes, but are put into environments that ultimately end up killing them when they fail to conform. In both cases, the protagonists are kept locked up for much longer than they normally would have been, due to acting out against superiors who are angry that they will not conform.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is the story of Randall Patrick Murphy (Jack Nicholson), who is sent to a mental institution after being convicted of statutory rape. The entire story deals with the conflict between Murphy and his ward of the institution. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) forces the patients of the mental institution into a mind numbing daily routine. McMurphy repeatedly baits Nurse Ratched, at first for amusement, and then later, to loosen her control. He makes numerous efforts to break the monotony in the mental institution and to make it more fun and interesting. For example, he organizes a pickup basketball game and argues with the staff to get the patients the right to watch the World Series on television. McMurphy also helps many of the patients escape the ward to go on a deep sea fishing trip. McMurphy’s antics are met with increasingly more punishment from Ratched, the purpose of which is to force McMurphy to conform. At first he is given shock treatments, and by the end of the movie he has been given a lobotomy, and is left completely comatose. When one of his friends in the hospital, affectionately known as Chief, sees McMurphy’s unresponsive face following the lobotomy, he decides that McMurphy would probably rather be dead than continue living in this state. Shortly thereafter Chief suffocates McMurphy.
In Cool Hand Luke, Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) plays a man in a Florida prison camp who refuses to submit to the system. He has been sent to prison for two years, after cutting the heads off of parking meters while drunk one evening. He is told when he arrives at prison:
You gonna fit in real good, of course, unless you get rabbit in your blood and you decide to take off for home. You give the bonus system time and a set of leg chains to keep you slowed down just a little bit, for your own good, you’ll learn the rules. Now, it’s all up to you. Now I can be a good guy, or I can be one real mean son-of-a-bitch. It’s all up to you.
The environment Luke is placed in, has numerous rules, which immediately clash with his sense of individuality. When he arrives in the bunk house Luke is given a list of rules by a guard named Carr (Clifton James) and he is told that each rule violation will result in a “night in the box”:
Them clothes got laundry numbers on ’em. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends the night in the box. These here spoons, you keep with ya’. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There’s no playin’ grab-ass or fightin’ in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playin’ grab-ass or fightin’ in the building spends a night in the box. First bell is at five minutes of eight…Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends a night in the box. There’s no smokin’ in the prone position in bed. If you smoke, you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smokin’ in the prone position in bed spends the night in the box. You’ll get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top and the top sheet on the bottom. The bottom sheet you turn into the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one will sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sittin’ on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don’t bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud-talkin’ spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me…Any man don’t keep order spends a night in the box.
Luke becomes idolized in the prison for sticking out, refusing to conform to the rules and for his eventual repeated attempts to escape the prison. The problem for Luke though is that he gets repeatedly caught. And each time he is caught, the prison orders him beaten. After one escape attempt the head of the prison chain gang (known at the Captain) tells the prisoners as he belittles Luke: “What we’ve got here is a “failure to communicate”. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. And I don’t like it any more than you men.”
After being brought back from his next to last escape attempt, Luke appears to have been broken by the guards, having been beaten and forced to dig a hole time and time again:
Luke: Don’t hit me anymore…Oh God, I pray to God you don’t hit me anymore. I’ll do anything you say, but I can’t take anymore.
Boss Paul: You got your mind right, Luke?
Luke: Yeah. I got it right. I got it right, boss. (He grips the ankles of the guard)
Boss Paul: Suppose you’s back-slide on us?
Luke: Oh no I won’t. I won’t, boss.
Boss Paul: Suppose you’s to back-sass?
Luke: No I won’t. I won’t. I got my mind right.
Boss Paul: You try to run again, we gonna kill ya.
Luke: I won’t, I won’t, boss.
After this episode Luke is returned to the other prisoners, who turn away from him. The prisoners ignore Luke now because the person that they loved and respected was the one who refused to submit to the system. After appearing to be someone who has completely conformed, Luke decides to make his final escape. He sits in a church and mumbles the following monologue to God, while looking up at the rafters:
Anybody here? Hey, Ol’ Man, You home tonight? Can you spare a minute? It’s about time we had a little talk. I know I’m a pretty evil fella. Killed people in the war and got drunk and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much but even so, you gotta admit, you ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all ’em rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do ya got in mind for me? What do I do now? All right. All right. (He kneels on his knees and cups his hands in prayer.) On my knees, askin’. (pause) Yeah, that’s what I thought. I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. I guess I gotta find my own way.
When Luke exits the church, he is shot down by the guards, who had had the church surrounded.
If you look outside at nature you will see no straight lines; they do not exist. Instead, everything curves. However, when it comes to our own lives and our expectations for ourselves and others–we often demand straight lines. Straight lines are also demanded of us by our employers and by the world. As One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke demonstrate, the failure of people to conform–to fit into the straight line of conformity, often results in the system attempting to conform them.
The concepts of conformity and the expectation of being “perfect” cause us much pain. Most of us beat ourselves up for not being perfect and, as such, continually do not feel as good about ourselves as we should. Perfect is really the lowest standard because it is the hardest to be. True perfection is nearly impossible to achieve. Society and our various institutions all have an “ideal” of what we should all strive to be. In most cases, society’s idea of perfection involves a certain amount of conformity, and it is impossible for most of us to ever completely conform in order to meet this ideal. This need to conform is a source of major problems in most of our lives.
When did you define yourself and decide the sort of person you needed to be? However you defined yourself, there is a good chance that this definition involved not all of your true wants, because you defined yourself in terms of what you believed others would want you to be–i.e., conforming to others expectations. You may be trapped in a need for consistency and an expectation to be a certain type of person.
We all have multiple personalities. However, many of us are extremely unhappy overall because we never allow ourselves to be all of our different personalities–to experience all the possibilities of who we are and how we feel. We are taught that we should be just one person, and we are led to believe that if we are different people then something is wrong with us. We are told that people with different personalities are crazy, so we often rein our personalities in, in order to fit someone else’s vision for how we should be. The problem is that we are all unique; if we try and rein ourselves in and to not be the people we want to be, these innermost feelings are going to manifest somewhere. These expressions of who we are will necessarily come out at one point or another.
Trying to be one personality all the time will make you unhappy. You need to appreciate all the multiple qualities of your personality. They are what make your being unique, and needed on this earth.
The strongest force in the human personality is the need to stay consistent with how we define and view ourselves. We call the people who are consistent reliable. If someone is inconsistent we call them things like scattered, without integrity and unreliable. In order to survive and to be loved and appreciated, we believe that we need to stay the same at all times.
The wonderful thing about babies is that they exhibit all these multiple facets of personality and are always loved. They are angry, sad, hungry, tired and all sorts of emotions throughout a typical day, yet they remain loved. If a baby is not loved the baby dies.
We too need to be loved in order to live. As we grow we learn the rules of who we need to be in order to survive and be loved and most of these rules involve conformity. The kid who dyes his hair purple in school is suddenly isolated because others will not talk to him. He receives less love and appreciation.
There is tremendous pressure to conform. If you are not working at, or towards a certain profession, if you are not working a middle class job, if you are not doing what is expected of you, you are not conforming. As a result you will be afraid that you might not be loved. And being loved is one of our most powerful basic human needs.
My message for you is very simple: The need to conform may be controlling your life. The need to conform may be controlling your career and the decisions you are making. How long are you going to continue this madness? In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke, the characters were in prison and had to conform to what others expected of them. You, however, are not in prison and can choose to be whoever you want to be. Explore and embrace your individuality. It is your strength.
Your career and your life are too short. Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks about you, and worry about what you think about you. Avow to no longer be imprisoned by others’ expectations for you. In order to be happy you need to make sure that you are everything you want to be–your own person. Then, amazingly, love will come to you. In Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the main characters were loved and respected by their peers because each was his own person. In the real world, we often come to respect and endear people most who have learned to let their originality and true selves flow outward. So do this: Let it flow. Let the world see what you have to offer, and it shall embrace your uniqueness.
Embrace your individuality, and fight the human instinct for consistency and sameness in your self-image. Appreciate all of your personality’s many facets, as they make you unique and desirable; see your individuality for the strength that it is, and embrace it.