The cost of adapting

I’m re-reading Anthony Storr’s Solitude. It’s a better choice than WikiHow for sensible thinking on alone-ness.

In chapter 5, he writes,

If the individual regards the external world merely as something to which he* has to adapt, rather than as something in which his subjectivity can find fulfilment, his individuality disappears and his life becomes meaningless or futile.

It occurred to me that in writing about my approach to clothing the other week, I was seeking to adapt rather than find fulfilment. I hesitantly entertained the idea that maybe this was my approach to life.

Adaptation as a way of life has merit as an evolutionary strategy, but I think Storr is right: it’s not the best way to find fulfilment.

To one degree or another, I’m sure most people find themselves adapting and conforming much of the time. It’s how we get along. But it’s one thing to adapt one’s behaviour to oil the machinery of society and work, and quite another to adapt one’s whole sense of self and identity in order to conform to some other-imposed ideal.

Where I find myself overly adapting is the bigger question about how to live my life. It astonishes me how frequently my friends use the phrase “you should…” when talking to me. (I made a conscious effort years ago to banish “should” and substitute “could”. That one consonant makes a big difference.)

I am not entirely sure what it is I am doing that makes other people think they are in a position to to tell me how to live my life. I remain unclear on why I “should” join a golf club, go for drinks after work (when I’ve been asked, and declined), get out more, join a dating site, wear different clothes. What I hear them saying is, “you’re not okay the the way you are, you need to be more like us”. And the implied threat: if you don’t change to be like us, we won’t like you any more. [All of life’s big confrontations reduce to the playground.]

I seem to be particularly susceptible to this kind of pressure, no doubt as a result of a lifetime of being subjected to it at home (be how we want you to be or Bad Things Will Happen – nameless bad things, but nameless bad things are the worst because there is no limit on how bad they could be). On the plus side, I am now alert to this, and my ‘should’-alarm rings loudly. But even though I hear the “should” for what it is, the threat of “bad things” is much harder to ignore.

Bad things take many forms. I fear being ostracised. I fear that if I search for my own subjective fulfilment in the world, I will be mocked, spurned, ignored, cast out into the wilderness, cut off, exiled, rejected, scorned. The world will say “no, you’re not entitled”.

I’m not wistfully pining for the courage to dress flamboyantly, ride a unicycle and communicate only through interpretive dance. I just want to go about my business—reading books, thinking about things, drawing, looking at art, walking, running, enjoying a cup of coffee—on my own.  That’s all. I want to feel entitled to enjoy what appeals to me that the world has to offer, without feeling like I must first justify my existence let alone my choices.

That would be how I obtain my “subjective fulfilment” in the world. But if the world isn’t going to allow me to do that, you can’t blame me for staying home.


*Anthony Storr was born in 1920 so I am prepared to forgive his use of the male pronoun exclusively, although by 1988 when this book was first published, he should (!) have known better.