Verse of the Week
I tripped over a song stanza below, written by Bob Dylan in 1980.
Have you got some unfinished business?
Is there something holding you back?
Are you thinking for yourself
Or are you following the pack?
Many people take great comfort in mimicking what others do, even in joining a surge, a movement. It’s the perceived safety of staying within the herd, and then not appearing to be the weakest one in it. Doubt or earnest inquiry might be interpreted as criticism, unbelief, or betrayal. Behave just so, and speak just so. I think that following the pack is often done to feel good without the bother of having to consider anything carefully. One mantra is replaced by another. One formula is replaced by another. We’re often looking for someone to follow, a perceived leader who seems to say what we want to hear.
We think only of politics in this, but it also works on social and personal levels. Seeking leadership is okay, but too frequently, their appeals are emotional and not thought through, and the goal of their call is simply to use us to get what they themselves want: the perks of leadership. Idealism and banner-waving are fine, but if that idealism is not intertwined with reality – if our own idealism is not grounded in reality, events will play out to our disappointment even while we celebrate victory in achieving our goals. We tend to think only of the good points that come along with any choice, and ignore or even fail to recognize the drawbacks, the side effects, and the bad that inevitably accompanies it. Actions have consequences, and although we may mentally filter them out in our thinking, the full range of consequences follows, whether anticipated or not, wanted or not. Reality often violates our formulaic picture of the world, and sometimes fills in the harsh voids of what we consider to be unimaginable.
Rather than sink into a hopeless dread of making any choices at all, which is no more helpful than thinking simplistically, the key of this particular song stanza for me is “are you thinking for yourself, or are you following the pack?” We naturally prefer to associate with like-minded people, and we often develop a sense of identity by how we think about things. Our thoughts help to define us. The problem comes when that free association develops into a kind of group identity, and that free association gels into a protective “us versus them” mentality where there can be no middle ground, and no dissent. The group, even a group formed to change or drop out of the status quo, becomes a new herd to conform to and follow. Those not in the new herd might be derisively called “sheeple”, referring those supposedly mindless humans still stuck in the herd that they themselves broke away from. Empathy and understanding are replaced by name-calling. Once a leader emerges, thinking for oneself becomes problematic, since the leader’s self-assigned task is usually to shape thoughts and perceptions. Welcome to the new pack, where careful consideration is elbowed out of the way to make room for simplicity of thought, and conformity. It’s tough to maintain one’s sense of individuality when there is pressure to avoid raising difficult questions, and where all you need to know has already been spelled out for you.
I often find myself getting suckered in by rallying cries, by policies, doctrines, mantras and things that sound appealing on the surface. Sooner or later, further research usually yields a showstopper, where my deep personal conviction on some point would have to be subordinated by the party line on something that I can’t yield up for sacrifice. It becomes a bad fit on something significant to me, and the pressure for conformity would do more than chafe. I’m sometimes considered to have a combative tone about me, since I will sometimes challenge a way of thinking that is different from mine. I stand up for my point of view, sure, but in my challenge is also an assumption – a hope, really – that the other person will stand up for his/hers. Disconcerting as it can come across sometimes, I find this to be invaluable in practice, because it boils down to being an opportunity to learn. People can raise some very good points or even put weight on values that I had not considered or realized. I don’t learn much from arguing, but I do pick up valuables from people who have considered something carefully and can back up their point of view with something more than a party line they’ve been fed, a “group-think”.
I consider that all that we will have at the end is not how many herds we joined and got along with, but how true we stayed to ourselves and our core beliefs, even as we slowly changed through the push-back of life’s challenges. So wherever you are, are you thinking for yourself, or are you following the pack? If you are part of a pack, is it a good fit in which you can still be you?