Sometimes I want to be a sheep, happily grazing in a flock of other sheep and doing exactly what everyone else does. I don’t want to wander off on my own, I don’t want to forge my own path. I don’t want to collect data until I reach the inescapable conclusion that the traditional way isn’t my way. I want life to be easy, all in a straight line, with my only task being to connect the dots. I want to follow the rules, I want to pay my dues, I want to embrace a guaranteed path to success.
Of course, there are no sure paths. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that you can never predict how it’s going to turn out or what opportunities may rise unexpectedly. It’s good to ask questions and reach your own conclusions, because what if circumstances have changed and conventional wisdom is just flat-out wrong? It’s good to take stock and figure out what will make you the happiest, even if the answer is unique and makes your friends and acquaintances shake their heads.
The sad truth is, sometimes people are judgmental. We emphasize the need to fit in during high school in YA novels and movies, and act like this social need doesn’t continue past a certain age. But does it disappear on our eighteenth birthdays? No. Life is not so simple and clear-cut as all that.
The result is, if we decide to be a free spirit, if we make nonconformist decisions or hold nontraditional ideas, we’re going to catch a certain amount of heat, whatever our age. Not only that, but we’ll be making our own road maps as we go, which can be a solitary and scary endeavor. Sometimes we’ll fail spectacularly, and our failures will be all the more visible because we were trying something unusual — something people didn’t think we should be trying, or something people assumed we couldn’t make work. Even when we do succeed, people will try to belittle what we have accomplished.
The conventional advice on this subject is that we shouldn’t care what people think, but sometimes we are going to care, no matter how hard we try to deny it. Therein lies the dark side to living a life outside the normal boundaries. It takes courage and self-respect, and sometimes it will sting in spite of ourselves. Sometimes we may weaken a little bit and wish we could be like everybody else, happily following the Pied Piper and playing it safe.
But we are not like everybody else. We cannot convince ourselves to be. It’s so much more exciting and fulfilling to question, to think, to decide what we honestly want and plot our own route to achieve it. It’s exhilarating to take risks and feel the buzzing, growing vitality of being alive and creating our own life stories. When I falter, I remind myself of how happy I am to have the power of choice, to be able to do what I love so much of the time, and to belong to a network of people who trust me to be me, no matter what choices (or even mistakes) I’m making.
What do you do when you falter? How do you stay strong in the face of judgement?