Going the distance

The other day I was listening to Pandora and the song from Disney's Hercules, "I Can Go the Distance" came on.

The line that stuck out to me at the time I listened to it was "I would go most anywhere to find where I belong".  (Of course, I also find it ironic because he spends the entire movie trying to get to Mount Olympus and then decides not to stay when he finally gets there.)  The reason it stuck out to me was because I find this to be true.

I have noticed that I do many things in order to find out where I belong.  I loved being a Mormon while I was growing up because I felt like I belonged there.  I did all of the things that a good Mormon was supposed to do and said all of the things that a good Mormon should say because I got social acceptance from doing so (and I also sincerely believed that that was the right path to take).  I loved being accepted and admired by my leaders, friends, and family for being faithful to my church.  I was respected for being a good missionary, for giving good talks in church and doing many many other things in the service of the church.  And fitting in was one of the big motivating factors in that.

I do many things to fit into the math community.  I try to find math that other people are interested in and work on that for my research.  I work hard on my homework and writing my dissertation so I can create something which is valuable to my teachers and colleagues.  I want to feel like I fit in in the world of academia.

There have been many other groups of friends or communities that I have, at some point in my life or other, wanted to fit into, and have done things just to feel accepted and welcomed into the group.  And I see other people doing precisely the same thing.

We are social animals.  Social behavior is something that has existed for quite a while (not sure how long, but I think it's fairly safe to say millions of years).  There are actual evolutionary psychological reasons why we yearn for this sense of community and acceptance.  But I think that it can sometimes be a negative thing.  I think that there are times when individual identity is lost or blurred in the search for acceptance.

I believe it is good to make sincere efforts to belong in a community.  But I believe that in order to be a contributing member to the society, one must have some sense of individual identity.  Know yourself and what you have to contribute--the things that you enjoy doing, things you don't mind doing, and things that you feel are unethical to do.  This is important because we have seen time and time again how this sense of community can be abused, making people do unconscionable things.

For example, war.  Killing another human being is something that I believe to be unethical.  So I won't do that, even if it means losing acceptance of other people.  And it can be seen that there is strong social pressure to engage in war--in the USA, we often call members of the military "heroes" and laud their bravery and patriotism.  This is rewarding them with social acceptance for doing something that the society (or at least those in power) want them to do.  But what they are being asked to do is unethical.  It is murder.  And it has been seen that so many war veterans have developed psychological disorders because of the extremely traumatic experiences they have had while serving in the brutal wars that we have asked them to serve in.  In a way, I believe that many of these veterans have (or had) lost or given up their individual identity in order to fit in to society.

Of course, there are many other examples of peer pressure--every day examples.  There is a long list of things that people do in order to fit in that they may not otherwise have done.  Sometimes these are positive things, but all too often they are negative things.  This is why it is important to understand yourself.  Understand who you are, and what you want.  Know the gifts and skills that you have that you can use to contribute to make society a better place.  Know the things that you feel are unacceptable and don't let other people pressure you into doing them.

I know that I will not do "most anything" to feel like I belong.  Not any longer.  I may have felt that in the past, maybe not.  But I know that now I want to set boundaries.  Some things are okay to compromise.  Some things are not.  Some things that my peers ask me to do are things that I enjoy and don't even need to compromise--they're actually things that I want to be doing anyway.  And those are the best.  But insisting "my way or the highway" all the time would make me very maladjusted and unfit to be in society at all.  There must be some things that I am willing to yield.  The important thing is knowing which.  In other words, I will "go the distance", but not the entire distance.  I expect you (the general you) to meet me partway.