Dare to Be Different (and other relevant clichés)

Clichés are like bright headlights. They’re annoying when coming at you, but useful if pointed in the right direction.

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One of the prominent cultural messages many of us got growing up was: Be different. Get noticed. (And, by the way, also fit in).

It’s great for selling stuff, but not so great for impressionable young minds.

The cover of my junior year high school yearbook.

With respect to humanity’s current predicament, however, I find this slogan to be quite poignant. How else might we gracefully step into a different way of being, as the times demand, if not with some degree of daring?

What’s your daringness quotient?

Are there aspects of your life that could be considered outside the mainstream? Maybe you:

  • don’t buy a lot of new stuff
  • own some resources communally
  • eat mainly whole or local foods, or grow your own
  • have taken on organizational or political leadership roles
  • got rid of your smartphone, are using it less, or never had one
  • aspire to live a slow sweet life, as opposed to the default fast-everything one

These are just a few of countless possible examples of non-conformity relevant to some of the socio-environmental issues I think a lot about.

Maybe you’re not bucking any dominant trends yet, but you want to. The wanting itself is a form of deviance and a good starting point for action.

Whatever the reason (you’re a rebel, a visionary, a worrier, an idealist, a planner, or some combination of traits that have you not going with the flow) these sorts of departures from the norm are cause for celebration. Not because being different is inherently valuable or these activities will have a discernible impact on the world, but because when the times are calling us away from the beaten path, this is an aptitude to be encouraged.

In a world where “normal” is a destructive force, the willingness to be different is an adaptive trait.

All indications suggest that in the not-so-distant future many of our basic modes of operation will change significantly. Where we live, what kind of energy we use and how much, the ways we produce and procure food, and more.

The question is whether we’ll manage to proactively transform our systems enough to mitigate or prevent certain known dangers or will stay the course until it dead ends and people are forced to adapt on the fly to conditions as they change.

The first is preferable. The second, at present, is more probable.

In either case, increasing our ability to accept and embrace a different way of being would be an enormous help.

But it’s not easy.

Most of us are well aware of the built-in resistance of vested interests, sunk costs, and the inherent momentum of the status quo. We’ve become more systems-savvy than we used to be.

We hear less, though, about the powerful resistance coming from within ourselves.

Even if we understand the situation well, it can still be difficult to go against the grain. We will likely question our choices to do things that require us to forego pleasures or take on additional work when we really don’t need to—at least not yet.

Consider how hard it can be to do mundane activities like get out of bed, balance our checkbook, or work on that project. When it comes to doing things that are unfamiliar, feel scary, or give others cause to think we’re weird, the resistance is much stronger.

Recent happenings on our fledgling farm offer a good example.

Remember Noelle? Since she had her calf a few weeks ago, my brain’s been tossing out endless worries and objections as I try to rope it into learning yet more skills, facing new fears, and committing to daily obligations while I watch friends come and go on their dreamy summer vacations. (And this is only one of my new ventures.)

On a near daily basis I have to overcome tsunamis of doubt, dread, and anxiety in order to do what needs to be done. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of great stuff too.

The point is that if you’re pursuing big bold goals, chances are you experience similar types of resistance from time to time. What we are liable to forget, or may never have been told, is that this is normal.

Nothing has gone wrong.

You and I have a human brain, after all. It’s oriented toward avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, and exerting as little energy as possible. Achieving goals, executing plans, and preventing problems almost always requires us to overcome the resistance these base impulses offer in the moment.

We’re perfectly capable of doing so, but it takes concerted effort.

We know some are more naturally inclined in this way. (Think ant and grasshopper or “one marshmallow” and “two marshmallow” kids.) Still, virtually every human with a sufficiently mature brain has some capacity to think ahead, make plans, and overcome impulses in service to some perceived greater good.

I’m less interested in the differences between people as I am with the opposing energies in all of us, and how to strengthen this power.

It helps to have support.

When my wonder and awe at the blessed bovine event gave way to worry it spread like a contagion, infecting thoughts about every other aspect of my life. My confidence oscillated even more wildly than usual. The slightest setback or annoyance would provoke tears. I wanted to give up at least once every day.

The mental drama was, well, dramatic.

It may have done me in were it not for the calming effect of wise mentors and the awareness and self-coaching skills I’ve developed over the years.

Thanks to the aid and example of many teachers, I’ve gotten good at noticing when my brain is freaking out and not taking it so seriously. I can shift my thoughts and feelings relatively quickly in ways that allow me to take the needed action—in spite of the internal terror and temper tantrums screaming at me not to.

Without this, my lows would be lower and last much longer.

Not everybody worries. Some people get angry, some run away, others shut down. Fight, flight, freeze.

Whatever our habits, knowing and being able to rein them in prevents so much needless suffering—for ourselves and others.

All this applies at the collective level too.

The coming transition—whether intentional or unplanned—won’t be the first time entire societies will need to adapt to transformed contexts. What’s unique about this moment, as Dougald Hine puts it, is that:

“we’ve never had a situation in which so many of us were so far removed from having the skills necessary to meet each other’s needs at the levels of communities and households.”

[1]

Imagine almost everybody at once needing to learn and do lots of new things to get by in radically altered circumstances.

That’s potentially a lot of fearful and frustrated brains freaking out. Unchecked, they’re likely to cause some serious trouble.

Getting used to different and managing our minds around that is critical work we can do right now.  

And it’s invaluable no matter which collective choice we end up making. We can begin changing our lives and communities in ways that both align with the world we want and help us live well in the world that is.

The sooner, the better.

As I’ve mentioned before, neglected or abused land will yield food, just not tomorrow. The same goes for our willingness to be purposefully different and the capacities of mind supporting action in that direction. It’s wise to cultivate both.

One way is to practice. This seems to be the real value of the advice to “do one thing every day that scares you.”

You could start today.

Pick one form of “different” pertaining to something you care about. It could be something you want to learn to do, start doing, or stop doing. Something you want to create. A new direction you want to move in.

  • Whatever it is, however large or small, think about why it matters. Write that down.
  • Imagine the future you who achieved it. What steps did you have to take? What skills did you need? What helpful qualities did you attain?
  • As best you can for now, anticipate the obstacles you’re likely to encounter along the way and the voices (including those in your head) telling you it’s unnecessary, too hard, or too scary. What kinds of support will you need to get past them, to do the thing anyway?
  • All of this helps inform your initial to-do list and generates a kind of roadmap. Use that to identify one first step. Make a plan for doing it. Do it. See what’s next and repeat as needed.

Re-visit your “why it matters” often. Celebrate your accomplishments, big and small. Note the changes taking place, inner and outer, and build on them.

We can all do this. Together, we can do it better and have more fun in the process.

Our efforts to be different, even if just relative to ourselves, may seem trivial given planet-scale problems.

They’re not.

In fact, to give a nod to one last overquoted line, this work of becoming is literally the only way of bringing about the change we want to see in the world.

References and Notes

[1] Interview with Nate Hagens on The Great Simplification podcast. “Food & Community in the Ruins: Dougald Hine, Chris Smaje, Pella Thiel.” October 15th, 2023.

*About the t-shirt image: The tagline, from The Chosen series, says it well. Photo credit, author.


© Copyright Debbie V.S. Kasper All rights reserved.