“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
I came across this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche last semester when I was browsing the Internet, probably procrastinating on some assignment. I had to read it a few times to really let the message sink in, though, because I was in Facebook/ Tumblr mode, not contemplate-Nietzsche mode.
The more I reflected on the words, I realized that, to some degree, they ring true in my life. I’ll mull over this more later.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I love weird people. “The mad ones,” those who have a fire inside of them, something special to offer…and aren’t afraid to own it and live it out. Those who embrace their personalities, their quirks, their flaws, their experiences, and actively mold them into something unique that only they can be.
Expression of existence seems to be hugely important to both my peers and me. I can’t decide if it’s a characteristic specific to my generation or of 20-somethings in general, but either way, I’ve noticed how much it plays out in our everyday lives. I suppose I can’t speak for everyone when musing about individualism and self-expression, so I’ll share my opinions based on my experiences.
Since piercing my nose and eyebrow about a year ago, I’ve gotten all sorts of responses. My mom refers to “all the holes in my face” and my dad jokingly calls me his “little pincushion.”
I’ve gotten unwanted male attention on the train from strangers who obviously perceive my piercings to convey something very different than I intend, and others in my life have even asserted that I’m “ruining my natural beauty” with all the metal.
To be honest, I don’t care what other people think about my piercings. I didn’t get the jewelry to please anyone, to create some type of image, or to try and prove anything to anyone. None of my piercings were acts of rebellion; I thought they would look good, I wanted them, and so I got them.
Another common and sometimes controversial form of self-expression is tattoos. While these are by no means a “new thing,” I feel like every day I meet more and more people my age with ink or plans to cover their body in art.
I used to be one of those people who swore I’d never get a tattoo. I didn’t want it to look crazy when I got old, saggy and wrinkly. But, then I thought, if I’m going to be saggy and wrinkly whether I get tattoos or not, I’m just going to go ahead and get them and enjoy them while I can.
I’m hoping to keep my sense of humor into my old age so I’ll be able to laugh off the deformity of my tattoos instead of hating them.
If you’ve read my column much before, you can probably gather that I love learning people’s stories. While small judgments can be made based on one’s appearance and your interactions with them, I always look forward to hearing each person describe himself in terms of the events and transformations that have brought him to his current place.
In my mind, this is the exact purpose that tattoos serve. They are stories. Some people’s tattoos have deep, personal connotations attached to them. Others depict words or images that they are drawn to, for one reason or another. I know a few people who have their arms covered in tattoos just because they appreciate the artwork.
No matter what the reasoning behind tattoos, I think they say something unique about the person. I’m not trying to insinuate that someone without tattoos is boring. He might be just as interesting, but it can be more difficult to strike up a conversation with him because, literally, he isn’t wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Maybe you’re wondering how all of this ties into the quote from earlier. In my mind, tattoos and piercings are ways to “own yourself.” They can declare parts of heritage, personality or quirks that you are proud to possess, or can champion a particularly difficult hurdle you’ve made it through, be that the death of a loved one, an illness, or, in my case, sexual abuse.
When Nietzsche writes of being “overwhelmed by the tribe,” I envision an ocean of people who all look the same, talk the same, and act the same. A world without self-expression seems like the most boring world imaginable. I think it’s important to know yourself and be able to express that, before you get mashed into a mold that is more like everyone else and less like the true you.
I’m not advocating individualism to an extreme. I absolutely believe that collaboration and community are necessary for a life well-lived. In fact, I think that a group of diverse, strong-minded, aware and driven people is more likely to impact the world than those who agree on everything, think the same, act the same, but are merely clones of each other.
This “best of” column originally appeared in Feb. 9, 2011.