A sure way to strike terror in the heart of a parent is to tell him or her that their child is not “well adjusted.” In this country, in particular, we seem to regard “adjustment” as one of our supreme national values. But, as Morton Kelsey points out, what if the group or idea or lifestyle to be conformed to is not healthy? What good is it adjusting oneself to the group if the group is off course?
It seems to me that making a fetish out of “adjustment” is a sure way to encourage mediocrity. Greatness in any way, shape or form is usually accomplished by people who are a little bit different than the rest of the herd.
Albert Einstein, as the recent series on television has made clear, was always considered on the fringe of both his profession as well as the norms of society. As an example of the latter, when he went up to receive his Nobel Prize, he wore a nice tuxedo, but he forgot to wear socks or tie his shoes. Was he “well adjusted?”
When we talk about artists, it is difficult to find a “well adjusted” one among the group. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Paul Cezanne, James Joyce, Andy Warhol, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. etc., have all been characterized as eccentric or worse. But what an incredible contribution these “maladjusted” individuals have made to our world.
In ways of the Spirit, too, greatness has often been accomplished by people who were considered a bit strange or worse. The saints and mystics, of whatever spiritual tradition, were not usually the type to conform to established ideas and lifestyles. They were the dreamers and visionaries who pursued the inner call no matter what people happened to think of them.
Psychologically speaking, it is crucial to separate oneself from the herd and be true to one’s belief. Failure to do so can get us caught in a bind, trying to be true to a belief that no longer, if ever, rings true to one’s experience. Forgive me this rather long quote from Thomas Merton, but I think that it addresses the situation eloquently. Merton says that, “It can easily happen that a person loses his Christian faith as a result of forcing himself to try to accept a view of the Church, or of God, or of life in Christ, which is so distorted that it is practically false. Yet, he may be under the impression that this view of the Church is the right one, since it appears to be the view actually held by most of the Christians with whom he associates.”
Merton goes on to say, “In such cases, the effort to cling to a deficient and imperfect concept of Christianity not only does no good, but actually contributes more quickly and effectively to loss of faith. What is necessary in such a situation is not force, not self castigation and confused efforts to conform to second-rate Christians, so much as clarification of true perspectives.”
Sticking with Christianity for the moment, where would it be without Thomas Aquinas, who tried to reconcile reason and theology? Or Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Sienna or Martin Luther who called for an end to corruption within the institutional Church?
It should be noted here, however, that non- conformists must pay the price of being misunderstood, ridiculed, and often ostracized from their communities. But certain people, who follow the road less traveled, will never settle for mediocrity and inauthenticity no matter what price they have to pay.
Finally, just for the record, it should be clear that many “maladjusted” individuals are just “maladjusted” and may never contribute anything noteworthy to the world. But it is to say that greatness of any magnitude is seldom accomplished by what society calls “well adjusted.”
Next posting: “Religious Growth”
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