Be Different [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Inadvertently, 20 did me a great favor. On the day Kerri and I married, he carried a concealed camera and captured conversations and special moments of our ceremony. In his footage is a short exchange he had with my dad. My dad said of me, “He’s his own man.”

To that point in my life I’d wondered what he thought of me, my winding career path, my free-form seeming-feral existence. “He’s his own man,” brought me peace.

Once, during a conference that we led, Alan told me I should dress differently. “People would have more respect for you,” he said. Once, trying to fit in, I wore a suit to a facilitation and Rich told me I should dump the suit and dress as myself. I’ve awarded him the blue ribbon for best advice.

In my consulting life I wore clogs. I hated shoes with strings. The first thing I did at every job was kick off my clogs. You’d be surprised how invested people in power suits are in their footwear. You’d be heartened how human they become when they unlace and kick off their shoes. It’s like removing a mask.

People hire me because I am different. Because I see differently. My difference is my gift, the epicenter of what I bring to the world – and that is true of all people.

In a culture that prides itself on its individualism, it’s always been amusing to me how invested we are to “fit in.” Shopping at the right store, wearing the right clothes, we gush about our wild nature while synching tight the corporate tie. To “dress for success” means to fit a prescription, to NOT stand out. Business casual. The real real. All houses must look the same. Revealing behavior betrays the swaggering rhetoric.

Our individualism is at best a thin veneer. In truth, we fear difference. I dare the court of Supremes to uphold a coach’s right to pray before the big game on the 50 yard line if he’s Sikh. Or Muslim. Or Hindu. Or Buddhist. My son is gay. He lives a constant, never-ending battle to defend his difference. Why?

“But the truth is, I am different,” I said to Kerri who was red-faced with anger at the email from the concrete sub-contractor. He turned down the job to replace our bit of sidewalk, broken out during the waterline repair. Among his reasons, “…and he seems a little different.” He was referring to me.

“I’ve dealt with that my whole life,” I said as she furiously typed a reply. “It’s not a big deal. I’m an artist.”

“It is a big deal,” she snarled, typing harder, faster.

Listening to her ferocious key-pounding, I had a sweet wave of appreciation for her. In a lifetime of “different”, it is a rare and precious moment that someone vigorously defends your difference. Rather than hammer you into creased dockers, lace-up shoes or the right haircut, a furious defender was unfamiliar. She, too, is different and knows the bruise of the shame-hammer. I suspect we’ve all experienced its sting.

In my head, I heard my dad say, “He’s his own man.” Peace. I am what I am and the people who love me wouldn’t have me any other way. That makes a difference. All the difference.

This I know: it’s nice – so nice – not to be alone in my difference.

read Kerri’s blogpost about DIFFERENCE