To be a Contrarian

 Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

One must trust in one’s own sense of things. Far too many people readily sacrifice their autonomy for a sense of belonging, opting for the cheap affirmation on offer to those who are willing to conform. A conformity comprised of selecting from the shelf of society one of the pre-packaged labels and adopting without forethought the opinions such labels demand. This is the antithesis of the examined life; this is the broad way, the wide path that most people take. A time comes though when we must go deeper, as Simon was directed to cast his net into the deep. To move beyond superficiality, to where we can be released from the fetters of others’ expectations, to no longer envy another, nor seek to imitate, but rather to furrow one’s own path. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” The life worth living is one in which we seek a clear and honest awareness, being present to now, seeking to know our depths, and being true to ourselves. Who is willing to follow such a path, who is willing to pay the cost?

When we are young and begin to navigate the complex social world, we discover the invaluable art of lying. We begin as toddlers being very bad liars, telling our mother that our visibly dirty hands have been washed, and that our dishevelled beds have been made. As we grow older and develop the art of deception, we lie only about what cannot be easily disproved. ‘Have you cleaned your teeth?’ ‘What happened in school today?’, our parents ask, and the lies roll off the tongue. Before long we are utilising deception with effortless finesse. In conversation, our focus is never upon being true to ourselves, but rather upon crafting the image of ourselves as we imagine it to be within the minds of others. Who others think we are matters far more than who we are. Knowing to whom we speak, we emphasise what we imagine to be agreeable, and downplay where discord may arise. We convince even ourselves, believing that this is not really lying, but a social necessity, which if used appropriately doesn’t in fact cause harm within our relationships, but can improve them. White lies and lies of omission that on the surface of things seem to strengthen our affinity with others and enhance our social bonds. If we’re willing to bend the truth a little with one another, how much more do we contort our image to make sure our belonging to the particular label or tribe we have chosen is never in question. In this way, we are never concerned with the truth of things, but only ever the appearance of things.

As a sage once said, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No” (Matthew 5:37). How are we able to find our true self when we must, at the same time, contend with this world of reputation management? I can see no other option than to let reputation be damned. This commitment to truth, though it sounds deceptively simple, does in fact completely re-orientate us away from an image management model towards a focus upon what we as individuals truly think and believe – a commitment to being authentic to ourselves. Every time we mislead a person about what we believe to be true, we undermine the trust another person could possibly have in us. Even if the white lie apparently does good in the short term, it’s ultimately corrosive, and arises from a fear of losing the other’s respect. It’s a natural fear response which we allow to modify the content of our speech. We detect discord arising, and we subtly shift our language accordingly. We do this often without thought, as our focus is not upon communicating clearly what we believe, but rather upon managing the image of ourselves in others. This is a betrayal of the self. If on the other hand we resist the temptation to modify our language, we should take the disagreement or disapproval of others as an invitation, not to obfuscate for sake of appearances, but rather to reconsider if you clearly communicated what you believe to be true. Often this means going in the instinctual opposite direction; instead of back peddling or softening your words, you often find yourself asserting what the other had a problem with even more clearly. Obviously, this is going to cause upset, but if our primary commitment is to the interior search for truth, it is a worthwhile cost to pay. Perhaps it is a cost which will ultimately pay back in that relationship, and result in their appreciation of your genuine authenticity, but it may do the very opposite. It could result in your being ejected from relationships, tribes, and labels alike. Either way, this is the cost required.

If one furrows such a path, rejecting all conformity, how can we be anything other than contrarians? Our intellectual autonomy is a gift, and we must not betray it for anyone or any cause. You are either authentic to yourself, or you are not. There is no middle way; every “house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Every word can be taken as a true expression of what we believe, or as the prattling of a façade, and then every word must be weighed by others, weighed in this present moment. For being true to ourselves is a presently orientated exercise. It’s not, what does some ideal ethereal version of you believe true, or what did you believe true, but what do you believe true now. A commitment to clear and honest awareness, being present to now, seeking to know our depths, and being true to ourselves, should entail inconsistency. We are not who we were yesterday. As Emerson famously put it, “Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood. Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? …To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Commit yourself to be true, commit yourself to now, for it is always now. The reality of our life is always playing as a conscious experience in the now, but so often we forget this. Our thoughts are constantly lurching back into our memories, or forward into our cravings. But rather we should practice mindfulness, clear awareness, this two-fold intentionality, away from reputation management, the superficiality of life, and towards the present awakened state of now in which we can quite simply say, ‘I am’. Two words repeated in our minds that jolt us from our automatic every day going with the flow – ‘I am’. We have been trapped within the currents of life, but now we are free. ‘I am’ present to myself, present to my thoughts, and present to this time. This two-fold intentionality should make us both an unanxious presence to others, and equally, paradoxically, a disruptive force to others. In this way, we might be in the world, but not of the world. Not conforming to labels, or the ways of our tribe, but being authentically, disruptively ourselves within the world. Being, in other words, a true contrarian, and revelling in that fact.


Lewis Connollyliar, truth