The fadeaway, the tongue, the shrugging of the shoulders. Sound familiar? Such were the many iconic moments of one Michael Jordan, a great basketball player who revolutionized the game. Despite his “retirement” many years ago, his popularity has not waned one bit. His popularity is so great that the birth of the slogan, “Be like Mike” came to fruition. Since then, many aspiring professional players have modeled their games after the legend, most notably Kobe Bryant, another great player but I digress. At any rate, so immense is Jordan’s influence that he has both young and old playing a game of monkey see, monkey do on the playground. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but at the same time, it can be a deterrent to originality.
Now before you jump into conclusions, I think the attempted imitations of Jordan’s game is somewhat necessary and I myself am guilty of trying the same thing, naturally resulting in embarrassment. To be more specific, this post relates not to basketball but to something much deeper, namely conformity and the self. I was trying to think of a great opener to discuss one of my favorite essays “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emmerson and I felt a basketball reference would suffice and grab your attention with a controversial title. It worked didn’t it?
To briefly describe “Self-Reliance” in one sentence, it is an essay that addresses and stresses noncomformity and individuality. I once read this essay as part of a curriculum for a English literature course, and I was pretty blown away by its thought provoking points concerning the individual. There are so many quotes I want to reference but for the sake of not becoming overly monotonous, I’ll just go over ones that stood out to me personally. Just a warning though, the language may sound somewhat archaic so I’ll do my best to properly translate the meaning.
“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say “I think,” “I am,” but quotes some saint or sage.”
Everybody has an opinion on a variety of matters, whether it be politics, sports, movies, etc. The difference is whether or not the individual will make their opinion known or hide them out of some kind of fear that their true thoughts will cause them to be ostracized by society. Emerson addresses the latter, calling out those “individuals” for hiding in the shadows of their contemporaries. Instead of providing their own unique response to a question, they respond with a canned and popular opinion that was already manufactured by someone else. Therefore, their words and actions are scripted and not spontaneous which clearly irks Emerson.
“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, were misunderstood. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Wait, that makes no sense! Who would want to be misunderstood and why? When an individual acts or speaks in a way that is unprecedented, people have a tendency to become uncomfortable. Why the apprehension? It is what people don’t know or understand that causes fear, the fear of the unfamiliar. Now, the individuals that Emerson mentions are those that have become immortalized for their unique way of thinking during their time. But it is important to understand that these individuals were not initially accepted by their peers, and in some extreme cases they acted out of fear. Jesus’ crucifixion in particular, was a product of that intense and irrational fear of the unknown. Nonetheless, he stuck by his convictions to the very end, and despite dying misunderstood by many, he nevertheless died an individual and future generations later acknowledged this and eventually accepted his beliefs as canon. Being misunderstood can be rough at first, but in the end it may pay dividends.
“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face.”
Being a nonconformist is never easy and can come with growing pains. Most folks will see it as a me against the world mentality, and at times allies who share your train of thought will be few and far between. At any rate, Emerson urges the reader to push on despite the heavy resistance and pressure to conform and learn to deal with those sour faces of commonality. The individual does not owe anyone the suppression of their thoughts and feelings. This in turn leads him to write this final thought:
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
In conclusion, Emerson is urging the reader to live by their own principles and values and that this in turn will result in a kind of inner peace that nothing else can provide. Essentially, do not conform to anything but individuality and find those that will stimulate and encourage it. On the other hand, although “Self-Reliance” sounds very anti-social in its tone, Emerson never promotes dissenting for the sake of dissenting. In other words, if you have a belief that is in consensus with the majority, there is no need to be a contrarian otherwise you’re cheating yourself, missing the whole point of the essay, and will come off as straight up pretentious. Always have a balance in perspective and embrace not only your individuality from the norm, but the qualities of your individuality that you share with those around you. I’m going to close by quoting a sage but I do so to promote individuality so Emerson can’t call me out here!
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – Dr. Seuss