by Michael Maciel
The trick to living in society is to be predictable. It helps when people can look at you and be able to tell instantly if they can trust you, at least to a minimal degree.
By conforming, we communicate to those around us that we are willing to cooperate and to join them in making sure everything works to everyone’s benefit.
But if we’re too much of a conformist, no one will respect us. Our desire to get along has to be there, for sure, but it is absolutely essential that, for the sake of mutual civility, we put everyone on notice that our cooperation is strictly VOLUNTARY. They have to know that we are “going along to get along,” not going along because we are afraid not to.
I have often been amazed at how much damage a 5 mph collision can cause to today’s automobiles and how expensive it is to get them fixed. For a while, I thought we should all drive the equivalent of bumper cars, the kind you see at an amusement park. There would be far less damage and far fewer costs.
But then I realized that if cars were built that way, everyone would drive them as if they were bumper cars. There would be total mayhem on the roads. If someone was blocking your path, you would simply push them out of the way. Road rage would become shoving matches with drivers bashing into each other, until one of them conceded the right of way.
Similarly, it seems as though the most dangerous stretches of road, such as those that have steep drop-offs but no guard rails, are paradoxically the safest, because the obviousness of the danger commands everyone’s attention and keeps them on their toes. There are so many areas of social life where the danger is equally obvious. Danger and civility go hand-in-hand. Either, without the other, can only lead to incivility.
If we want to be well-respected as an individual, we too must possess a degree of imminent danger, either by virtue of our personal abilities or by virtue of our alliances. Because unless there are real consequences for violating our personal boundaries, those boundaries will steadily erode, and no one, not even ourselves, will honor our right to exist as a free and autonomous individual within the social sphere.
We become a fully integrated person when we use love as our primary mode of being, but we use it with extreme prejudice, as they say in the military, meaning that we give of ourselves freely and abundantly but take NO crap in the process. This is the hallmark of an adult social being.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use patience and forbearance in the face of verbal or physical abuse or that we don’t need to exercise mature self-restraint by keeping our egos (and our tongues) in check. But unless it’s obvious to those who want to violate our personal space that there will be serious costs if they do, then no amount of love will change their minds. If love is to be the ground we stand on, then that ground must be solid. Otherwise, no one benefits by our presence. We might as well not even be there. Weakness is never a virtue.
Our strength has to be real in order to be effective. It doesn’t have to be unleashed, it only has to be obvious. And, of course, “strength” is not limited to physical force. In fact, physical force is the least effective of our long term recourses to abuse. The highest form of strength is moral strength—the strength of our convictions. It’s not enough, however, to simply know what is right. We have to BE what is right. Our righteousness has to exude from us so strongly that no reasonable person would challenge it, at least not casually. This kind of strength is impossible to fake. It has to be genuine. It has to be pure. And purity is forged in the fires of self-restraint.
Conformity is part of that fiery process. We have to voluntarily submit ourselves to something greater than ourselves, such as a civil society, before we can become an autonomous person, one whose strength comes from within and does not rely on physical force to win the day.