The other day one of my best friends brought her boyfriend to Charlotte. He commented on how much everything looks the same in the city. I’d noticed that almost every new building is beige, but he added how shocking it is to see so many manicured lawns and how “standardized” everything is. In truth, it’s sort of boring, don’t you think?
The idea of “alternative people” has probably always been around — the folks who just see things differently. We need them because we too easily can get caught up in the sameness that’s enforced by wanting to be normal, to meet others’ (particularly parents’) expectations, or simply not to stand out. It takes a certain strength and courage to bow-up on the idea of being “normal.” In many ways, it’s the courage to be honest in a culture of dishonesty.
After my mother died when I was a teenager, I felt something like being bored with everyone trying to keep up appearances and worrying about what other people thought. Something about experiencing loss made me not care what other people thought. This was especially true about faith.
Where I grew up, the norm was to pray to God for outcomes that one wanted. If things weren’t going the way you wanted, then you needed to pray harder. If things worked out the way you wanted then it was called “an answer to prayers.” After having had every brand of praying take place over my mom, she still died. It gave me lots of reasons to question what it meant to pray. Seeing the superficiality of the kinds of prayers I was praying was only the beginning, though.
I decided I was done with trying to be normal when a Christian student group, the dominant culture, at my high school started praying for the souls of some of my other friends because of how they dressed, the music they listened to, the questions they asked, and a whole boat-load of rumors, innuendos, gossip and imaginary debauchery. My friends with weird hair, dark clothes, punk music and artistic vision were more honest with me about what I was truly going through than the Christian student group. But because that student group felt normal, safe and the epitome of the kind of life I was supposed to want to live, it meant that I had to be committed to not caring what they thought about me. The truth was evident to me that my “alternative” and “different” friends were better for my soul because they just wanted what was honest, authentic, transparent and real in their lives. The Christian student group really seemed bent on conformity of thinking, dressing, music choices, relationships and life. So when my friends’ names were mentioned judgmentally during a prayer, I just walked out.
This week, I had a conversation with my 14-year-old daughter about Pearl Jam’s “Why Go” that shuffle piped into the car on the way to school. I told her the song was about a girl whose parents had committed her to a mental institution because they couldn’t understand her. The catch is that she’s perfectly fine, just different. While in the institution, she actually gets stronger but realizes that both her parents and the institution they committed her to want her to be weak: “She could play pretend. She could join the game, boy. She could be another clone.” Realizing what the game really is, she asks the main question: “Why go home?” especially when her parents just want to work out their issues through her and can’t accept that she’s different.
My daughter was intrigued and asked if this song is one of Pearl Jam’s big songs. I told her that it’s one of the songs that gets the most energy from the crowd at live concerts. She said she figured that’s because it gives them permission to be different, to just be themselves. She said that the title could easily have been, “Why Be Normal?” It was a proud moment as a father, actually. It also reminded me about how much our world needs people who take a different path, who do things outside of the mainstream, who will one day change the mainstream by being different.
A now-deceased friend used to say that the world needs people who have the courage to look around the corner. Everyone may not appreciate them for doing it, but we absolutely need it. Since doing that friend’s funeral, as a pastor no less, I’ve returned to the notion that conformity for the sake of conformity can be spiritually deadly. And for all of the challenges that being different might present, we are probably all dependent on the folks who refuse to pretend and play the game, the truly alternative folks.
News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.