Friday, March 23, 2012

On the Pressure to Fit In

Dear Mackenzie,

You’re way too young to have studied Shakespeare, but by the time you read this letter Polonius’ famous admonition to his son in Hamlet that “to thine own self be true” may be familiar to you.  As I recall, Polonius was actually telling his son to look after his own interests, but fortunately the phrase has evolved over time into something more profound.

These days, being true to yourself means following your own path rather than the path others would have you follow. More importantly for you as you head into your teens, it means holding on to your core values even in the face of pressure to do otherwise.

Our core principles are important.  They guide how we live our lives, how we comport ourselves, and how we interact with those around us.  Honesty. Kindness. Loyalty. It’s all pretty straight forward.  

Fitting in is important too. The need to belong is universal and hard-wired. We all want and deserve to be part of the in-crowd, at least once in a while. And whether we like it or not, we all feel like outsiders once in a while too.

So what is it about group dynamics that so often pits belonging against our principles? I don’t know the science behind it, but I bet that deep down it has something to do with how our Cro-magnon ancestors stayed alive.  The Cro-magnons were warring peoples and the various tribes were constantly fighting with each other, at least when they weren’t busy fighting the Neanderthals.  In short, being different got you killed.

Today being different doesn’t necessarily get you killed, but it often gets you ostracized, especially as a young adult.  In my high school days, one was susceptible to being made fun of if you wore glasses (four-eyes), or if you wore braces (metal-mouth), or if you were strait-laced (dork), or if you did well in school (nerd).  And those were the more innocent ones!

I wish I could tell you, my sweet daughter, that you’ll never be tempted to compromise your values simply to fit in. But in truth you certainly will.  What’s worse, life and the human condition being what they are, you’ll probably be tested when you’re at your most vulnerable and when your need to feel accepted will be the strongest.

I wish I could tell you that if you hold firm to your principles in those moments, the group will embrace your fortitude, realize the error of their ways, and hold you in high esteem. Unfortunately the opposite is far more likely. You may find their guns re-trained on you as the target of their ridicule.

And I wish I could tell you that if that happens, the courage you’ll have exhibited will at least make you feel great about yourself. That you’ll realize those who would ask you to compromise your values are not real friends, and that you’ll also realize those who would have you participate in making someone feel bad are not worthy of you.

Well, that actually will be the case, although it won’t happen right away.  First you’ll feel alienated and betrayed. You’ll wonder why you stood your ground and you’ll wonder if it was worth it. You’ll feel certain that no one would have done the same for you. Though those dark thoughts will seem very real to you at the time, they are not. They are fleeting impostors.

In those difficult moments you must have faith in and hold tight to your core beliefs.  For if you do, after a while your spirit will once again take flight and you’ll understand that not fitting in can sometimes be a blessing.  But you’ve known that from a very young age, Mackenzie.

A few years ago when you were in second grade, you came home from school one day and told us you had learned about cigarettes and the health dangers they pose.  You were both articulate and passionate on the subject, and your mom and I were duly impressed. 

Being the willful young person you were, you set about on a mission of pointing out every smoker you saw, whether you knew them or not, and urging your mom and me to discuss their unsafe habit with them.  Even your sister Jamie, who hopefully will not be a smoker by the time you read this (hint, hint, Jamie) started sneaking around to steal her puffs lest she incur your wrath.

You went to such an extreme that your mom and I started to worry you might take matters into your own hands.  We didn’t think an adult would take kindly to being chastised by a seven year old, irrespective of your good intentions.

One night around that time period I had a business dinner at the Havana Club, a well-known restaurant and cigar club in Beverly Hills. Over the course of dinner and drinks everyone indulged, and when I arrived home I apparently reeked of cigars.

You were outraged, and asked me if I had smoked as well.  The easy answer was “no”, but I didn’t want to lie to you so I admitted that I had.  You were very disappointed in me, which I have to say broke my heart, and you asked me why I had done it.  The truth is that I enjoy a good cigar now and again, but that answer clearly wasn’t going to cut it with you just then.  So I said that since everyone at the table was smoking I had a cigar as well. 

“That’s no excuse”, you countered, as indignant as any seven year old I’ve ever seen. “And if you were getting peer pressure from your friends you should have gotten up and left the restaurant”. 

Shakespeare himself couldn’t have said that any better.

All my everlasting love,


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