I remember a visiting pastor coming to my church in rural Michigan when I was a kid. He was George Bernard, the man who wrote “The Old Rugged Cross,” by some statistical reckoning, the most-sung hymn ever written.
That evening, the church was packed to see this famous author and to hear him preach. Bernard had been born and raised in another small town across the county, and he had been inspired to his hymn while driving a horse and buggy between the two towns, where one sees in the distance the highest hills in Michigan’s lower peninsula.
Of course, we all knew this landscape well, which made us feel more intimate with the hymn and somehow a part of its author’s greatness.
Bernard was a good speaker, though frail with age. What I, 10 years old, remember most about him though, was his hair. It was pure white and long, hanging over his shoulders. In the early 1950s, I had never seen long hair on a man before.
After the service, I asked my Dad about the Rev. Bernard’s strange hair, and he smiled and said that when people get old they often don’t care very much what people think.
“Is that a good thing, not to care what people think about you?” I asked.
“You’ve got to be yourself,” he said.
Thus I was introduced to one of life’s most perplexing problems. While growing up, a child has innumerable rules and regulations to learn in order to please adults. Yet to never get into tangles with adult authority means a deeper kind of trouble: that the child is not developing an individual self.
Surely it becomes easier to care less what people think as we mature, if only in that we get bigger and have fewer people “above” us to set us straight. And perhaps as we get old, we realize that we’ve got nothing to fear if someone younger is displeased by us. But what my father couldn’t tell me (being my father and thus the authority most responsible for my adaptation to society) is that to grow in individuality, some tough risks have to be taken when we are young and unformed, and thus prone to error through inexperience.
As a kid, I frequently got into trouble for not conforming. Sometimes it was bad trouble; sometimes it was good trouble. I got kicked out of ninth grade English for disruptive behavior. That was bad trouble. But I also didn’t judge persons by what they had, and made friends on “the other side of the tracks,” and that was good trouble. I once stood up to the school hood, who was within two years of Jackson State Prison, and that was very good trouble. And I publicly protested America’s involvement in Vietnam, for which my father was disappointed in me. But to this day I think that was good trouble too.
Learning when to please ourselves and when to please others is the sensitive issue in forming our depth individuality, which doesn’t simply arrive with old age when we have little left to lose. If we have strong individualistic qualities as old people, we will have earned them in the school of hard knocks as young people, by displeasing others sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way, and sorting out the difference through experience—often painful experience, for, as Emerson says, “For your non-conformity [good or bad] society will whip you with its displeasure.”
In other words, the part of each person that is different, that doesn’t fit in, has to be developed too, as we live—has to ripen through experience, in order that in our maturity we conform to the group when the group’s genuine well-being requires working together, and that we stand out against the group when conformity is harmful or merely robotic. There is no need for every man to have the same length hair, any more than we should all worship God in the same way.
In the third line of “The Old Rugged Cross,” Bernard refers to the cross as “the emblem of suffering and shame.” By society’s standards Christ died a shameful death. He was crucified between a thief and a murderer because mainstream society couldn’t distinguish between the non-conformists who fell beneath normal from the one who rose above it.
Mainstream society still can’t make that distinction. History teaches us that we should be always suspicious of what society applauds, as well as what society condemns or discredits. For every one poor soul who errs on the side of excessive or misguided nonconformity, there are scores who have not risked society’s displeasure enough, and thus have lost their souls altogether.