Taylor: The loneliness of the non-conformist

In the garden, rhubarb thrusts up through last year’s rotting leaves.

Spring should be here. In the garden, rhubarb thrusts up through last year’s rotting leaves. The first crocuses flash their white, mauve and yellow exclamations at the sky.

But what’s coming down from the sky as I write this is not spring. Neither snow, nor rain—more like dollops of slush.

At times like this, I tend to seek comfort from the wise ones who have preceded me. By chance, I turn to futurist Harding Vowles’s self-published booklet on the invisible icons that shape our society.

By chance, I open to page 61, and read: “How dependent we are on the support of the community around us is not very apparent to us, as long as we stay within the community of consensus and the community is supportive of us.”

Like temple bells of Thailand, which make a hollow clunk when struck in the open air but which resonate deeply within the temple itself, Harding’s insight resonates within my experience. Now and then, all of us have found ourselves outside that “community of consensus.” Certainly I have. We thought we belonged; to our surprise, we discovered we didn’t.

Somehow, we found ourselves outside, looking in, wondering what happened.

I remember seeing a cartoon once, of proud parents watching a military march past. “Oh, look,” gushed the mom. “The whole army’s out of step but our John!”

It’s an uncomfortable experience, being out of step. Being right doesn’t keep anyone warm on a frosty night.

“For most of us,” Harding continues, “the sturdiness of our inner personal icon is related to the positive assurances we receive from others. If we review our daily activities and interactions, we soon recognize how heavily we rely on the positive feedback we get from relatives, friends, fellow workers, the public, even from bosses.

“The flip side of this is noticing how severely our self-image is shaken up if these suddenly become non-supportive or hostile.”

Every immigrant will understand Harding’s image. Instead of a familiar environment where you know how your contemporaries think and react—even if you disagree with them—suddenly you struggle with new language, new values, new patterns of thinking.

“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” asks Psalm 137.

Should exiles play Thai temple bells in a society devoted to heavy metal?

Should expatriates speak English among people who understand only Swahili?

Is it worth achieving Grade 8 piano if your contemporaries are content listening to iPods?

You don’t have to be an exile to understand the psalm’s lament. It happens even if you merely move to a new neighbourhood.

And although we don’t often recognize it, it happens when your faith evolves too.

How does one sing of cosmic holiness in a society that seems unable—or unwilling—to imagine anything beyond a private and personal God?

As I ponder that question, I glance out the window again. The sun has come out. Buds are swelling on the forsythia.

Spring is almost here, after all. A new consensus beckons the lonely ones.