Guest Post: Hal O’Leary
Hail to the Nonconformist
Let me say at the outset that I am proud to consider myself a nonconformist, if for no other reason than the exceptional company I find myself sharing–such marvels as Confucius: “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” And Socrates: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” Jesus: “Put your sword back into its place; for those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Galileo: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Albert Einstein: “It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
Yes, my friends, these men along with so many others were the nonconformists of yesteryear. While now we celebrate their wisdom, we are even reluctant to think of them as the nonconformists they were; in their lifetimes they were ridiculed for their insane ideas and strange behaviors. But, as has been said, truth will out, albeit belatedly. As Arthur Schopenhauer, the great German philosopher reminded us, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” But herein lies a great irony. Have these truths really been accepted as self-evident? Let’s examine them.
Are we ashamed of our wealth in a badly governed country that allows for the redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, as Confucius says we should be, or do we revel in it? Has the wisdom of Socrates been lost on a generation that has ceased to wonder about or question the meaning of our existence? What would Jesus think of our policy of perpetual war? Has Galileo’s ability to reason given way to an acceptance of authoritarian dictates? Can we not hear Ben Franklin whispering, “I warned you” when Congress passed and the President signed the infamous Patriot Act? Do we not continue to suspect and fear Thoreau’s different drummer? Have we become so fearful of change that we can ignore Darwin’s proven necessity to adapt? Hadn’t we better champion Einstein’s incorrigible nonconformist rather than to ostracize him, thus acknowledging him as the man Emerson envisioned? To pretend to hold these great minds in high esteem while ignoring their teachings seems to me the height of hypocrisy.
Why then do we continue to pay lip service to that which we so obviously refuse to practice? My nonconformist reasoning tells me that the explanation must be unreasoned fear. It is the fear of loss that leads us from need to greed in an attempt to insure financial security. It is a fear of failure that stymies dreams and aspirations that should carry us on to bigger and better things. It is a fear that, if we were to wonder, we might doubt ourselves at the expense of a bit of peace of mind. It is a fear manufactured, manipulated and imposed by a pathological few to guarantee the continued support for unneeded and illegal wars. It is the fear and doubt of one’s own reasoning that results in the submission to peer pressure. It is the fear of mostly imagined external threats that causes one to submit to unreasonable control by any who might promise security. It is the fear that a different drummer somehow represents a distinct threat to the very peace of mind found in adherence to a status quo. In summation, I find that Einstein’s incorrigible nonconformist becomes the man Emerson envisioned. It is in this sense that I find that the truth of FDR’s admonition, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is expanded to become a universal truth.
Of course, the only solution to all of these fears is courage, but where or how is it found? I reject any idea that one is born courageous or cowardly. Developing courage is a lifetime process of consciously undertaking risks, small ones at first. Slowly we begin to realize the world is not going to end should we fail. In fact, it is those small failures, with the lessons we learn from them, that enable us to take increasingly greater risks. I have, at times, offered the young in particular my advice on how to be absolutely certain that they will never fail or make a mistake: “Don’t do it.”
All human progress can be traced to the very few nonconformists who have found the courage to risk failure. Many of them will have been ridiculed and violently opposed, but in the end vindicated. The sad irony is that even though they may have been vindicated, their truths for those who are less enlightened will not have taken root. If we are to progress, it will remain for the very few nonconformists to somehow overcome the immense drag caused by the all too many conforming fearful.
As a means of beginning to think of a life that is meaningful and without fear, I would ask that we ponder these inspiring words of Robert F. Kennedy, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.
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