In the beginning, the questions came with surprising consistency:
What do you mean, you’re not Australian? I thought you were from England. You sound like a Scot.
It’s noteworthy that I didn’t fool anyone into thinking I was one of them. The Aussies knew I wasn’t Australian and the Brits knew I wasn’t English. Oddly enough, the Americans believed I wasn’t American. But few were able to successfully place me or my accent.
I hadn’t planned it that way, although my newfound cultural ambiguity did give me a certain amount of pleasure. There was something romantic, adventurous, and egalitarian about being a Citizen of the World. There was also something reassuring about being an anonymous everyman, without the baggage of preconception and the insult of stereotype.
The explanation wasn’t complicated. I had been traveling for a year, living out of a backpack and bunking in youth hostels across nearly a dozen time zones. And although Americans did make use of these collective accommodations, they were more frequented by Europeans and English speakers who actually spoke proper English. Even in America — especially in America — I found myself in the company of expats from the Greater Commonwealth far more often than Americans. And that suited me fine.
Unconsciously, through simple immersion and osmosis, my patterns of speech began to change. My a’s flattened out, my r’s softened, and I began picking up subtle quirks of intonation and vocabulary. Eventually, my origins became unrecognizable.
My style of dress added to the air of mystery; after a year traveling by thumb and rail, I looked distinctly more outback than metropolitan. Without even opening my mouth, I stood out in sharp contrast against the monochrome default of the talmudic seminary into which I had innocently wandered. Add in the cream-colored fedora I had purchased in Austria and the eight-foot long crimson scarf I picked up in Greece — together with the stories that began circulating about the unorthodox path that had carried me to the study halls of Orthodoxy — and I soon became an object of whispered conjecture and curiosity.
Like the patrons of youth hostels, the yeshiva student body also comprised the gamut of English speaking cultures. Unlike hostels, my current residence was home to an overwhelming percentage of Americans. My newly carved synaptic pathways survived for about six weeks, after which my speech reverted back to that of homegrown USA and my stamp of verbal distinction expired. Before long, my outer trappings began to blend in with my new environment as well.
Alas, I was just another American once again.
As Judy Collins once sang, Well something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day. It’s a peculiarity of the human condition that we want to simultaneously blend in and stand out. Too much of our time is spent trying to live on both sides at once.
From the time we’re children, we desperately long for the approval of our peers even as we seek to assert our individuality. We try to gain acceptance to groups and cliques, then chafe as they try to mold us in their image. As adolescents we fight against the authority of our parents, frantic in our efforts to define ourselves as individuals but terrified by the prospect of independence.
As adults, we want to stand out as exceptional without drawing the scorn or envy of others. And so it goes throughout our lives, as we try to be different but the same, strive to be unique, like everybody else.
Talmudical seminary was like that but even more so. The optional but essential uniform of white button-down shirt and dark slacks, the black hat with its brim not too wide but not too narrow, the sing-song chant and rhythmic shuckling back and forth that accompanied biblical exegesis and analysis — these were obligatory for anyone who wanted to be considered a true insider.
Some embraced the sameness wholeheartedly, eager to check their egos, or their sense of responsibility, at the study hall door. Others sported subtle signs of individualism — cocking their hats to one side or draping their suit jackets over their shoulders during prayers.
But as time went by, I discovered that the outer sameness actually paved the way to inner freedom. Without the superficial judgments of the secular world pressuring us to conform to arbitrary social norms, we could more easily recognize and aspire to substantive moral standards. True, some of us might have found a home in any cult and worshipped any god. But for many, our self-imposed discipline was like Special Forces training for the elite military corp. Routine, repetition, and exhaustive mental exercise built us into a finely honed commando unit in the army of the Creator.
We were not jihadists: our enemy was neither infidels nor foreign soldiers. Our ultimate adversary was the baser part of ourselves, the animal soul that manifested in the form of jealousy, lust, self-indulgence, and rationalization — all of which sprang forth from the source of all evil — human ego. The study hall was our training ground; the world at large was our battlefield.
Conformism and anti-conformism are two sides of the same coin. Whether I fashion my thoughts and determine my actions in alignment with others or in opposition to others, either way I’m letting others define who I am. Like the chameleon who blends into his environment to avoid predators, we human beings hide among our peers in hope of physical, social, or psychological protection; like the peacock in mating season, we preen and posture to retain our sense of self within the identity of the collective.
Most embarrassing of all is when anti-conformists band together to be different in the safety of a group, like a company of chameleons pretending to be peacocks.
When I’m secure and confident in my identity, then my style of self-presentation becomes an expression of my true self, not an attempt to define myself in comparison or in contrast to those around me. When my outside is consistent with my inside, and my inside has been formed based on values rather than imitation, others will respect me, no matter what I look like. And I will be more likely to respect others.
Is there any greater symptom of madness than the superficial reasons we find to set ourselves against one another? Color of skin, style of speech, manner of dress… all the outer trappings that have so little to do with who we really are distort into battle lines that turn man against his fellow. Political and religious ideologies as well are too often excuses for division rather than sincerely-held convictions. Worst of all is when we consciously exploit appearance and identity to incite hatred, instead of looking for how we can combine our respective strengths for the benefit of all.
The heart and the lungs don’t hate one another because they aren’t the same; if not for their cooperation, the body would quickly die. Each one knows what its purpose is and what its purpose is not. But with people, purpose is less obvious. And we don’t know who we are, anyone different represents a threat. If he is not like me, I wonder, then perhaps I should be like him. And if I don’t want to find out why he is different, it’s much easier to hate.
The revered Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wisely said, “All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist.”
There are days I still miss my white fedora and crimson scarf. Even more, I miss my short-lived ability to escape being labeled, and the consternation I caused by defying easy classification.
But it doesn’t really matter. To be part, or to be apart, it is the way we see ourselves that ultimately determines how others see us.
Published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine.