Perspectives, Pt. 4 - In Defense of Standing Out

Perspectives is a series about just that - perspectives: how we view the world; how we process the information and events we experience in everyday life.

In order to self-correct we must first be self-aware enough to know what needs correcting. Self-awareness entails an objective view of how we personally think and operate, which leads to a greater empathy and understanding towards others with whom our views and perspectives differ.

The heart behind this series is to examine the power of perspective through blog posts, to help illustrate and open our eyes to the power perspective can bring. At some point, your perspective and mine will undoubtedly differ... and that’s the point. This is my take on it, what’s yours?

The history of hipsters is fascinating.

With roots extending back to the beginning of the 19th century, the word “hipster” contains many layers of cultural formation. It is a term that has been shaped by an array of people and places, from the Jazz reformers in the 40’s, to hippies in the 70’s, to the modern-day version seen today in cafe’s and local goods stores across America. While this is a captivating subject and one that could take much of our time here, that’s not the point of this post. So feel free to read all about it here, here, or here.

The point is this: the culture of “hipsters” is pervasive. It has been around for a long time (probably much longer in form/function than the 19th century). Hipsters are characterized by non-conformity to mainstream culture, progressive views, and a dogged individuality. At the heart of being a hipster is the desire to go against the commonly accepted way of life, bucking the traditional norms and expectations of society. At it’s core, this is the desire to: stand out.

What Standing Out Often Means

Standing out is individually desired but corporately scorned. This is equally true within the “hipster” subculture. Even those who want to be known as first-adopters, economically-savvy, and ahead of the trends - they still don’t enjoy being labeled as a "hipster”. 

(I promise this isn’t a post solely about hipsters.)

Standing out often means you possess something that makes you different than the majority of everyone else. Transfer this mindset to the social media world and it's easy to spot the pervasiveness of this desire. People will go to extreme lengths in order to be “seen”, to stand out among the sea of images and profiles that fill the vast expanse that is now social media. But the root of what "standing out" stands for isn’t tied to modern society, it’s tied to the human condition.

Whether it involves social media, socioeconomic status, or simply personal intellect / ability, we all want to elevate above the crowd, to rise above the common existence of humanity. We want to stand out. But what standing out often means is only an appearance. Standing out is based on the external state of a person and not the internal reality. It is evaluating a person outside-in instead of inside-out. It is putting the emphasis on what is seen by others, not by what is experienced within you and through you.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

If you have never heard of the Tall Poppy Syndrome, it is another interesting ideology within social psychology. It is a phrase common in Australia and New Zealand that describes a culture where people of high-status or class are resented and attacked. The tall poppy’s - the successful and talented outliers - are “cut-down”.

This cultural phenomenon can be seen as the opposite side of the hipster-coin. It is the societal stance against standing out. In it’s worst form, this is the culture of envy: where anything that isn’t shared by the whole of society is opposed and removed. In it’s best form, it is a view that sees each human being as just that: a human like the rest of us.

The good within the Tall Poppy Syndrome is the understanding that no human is ultimately “taller” than the rest, and when certain humans start believing or acting like they are taller than the rest, the society will help remind them that they aren’t. The bad within the Tall Poppy Syndrome is that achievement, progress, and the pursuit of excellence are devalued and discouraged, at the very least passively if not actively.

I bring up the Tall Poppy Syndrome to highlight the tension within this desire to “stand out”. There are opposing views on each side, and there is merit to be found on both sides. Yet, I believe that both sides are only telling half the story… and it’s the other half of the story that really matters.

The Other Half of the Story

Most of what has been said thus far has addressed the external reality of standing out. The other half of the story is the internal reality, and this is the half that matters most. Instead of thinking about standing out from the outside-in perspective, we should be viewing it from the inside-out.

Integrity is often defined as: who you are / what you do when no-one is around - and more specifically, doing the right thing when nobody is watching. Integrity is concerned with the internal, not the external. It is concerned with someone’s character from the inside-out point-of-view.

This is the most-telling point-of-view, because the external will never tell the full story. What stands out to people, the thing that truly stands out, is less in what you do and more in who you are. Your actions flow out of your true identity - who you are at your core - who you are when no one is looking.

Why Standing Out Matters

Standing out matters because it’s hard. Truly standing out, from the inside-out, takes more than just a new habit, lifestyle, or mindset. It takes a transformation of the heart, a supernatural act of God. Because if we are honest with ourselves, who we are at our core isn’t often the person we wish would be. The evil that pervades this world is found within our hearts - it is a heart-issue. It could be categorized as: natural.

“Wrong is easy; gravity does the job. Right is difficult and long, but it frees our mind to move from shadow to light.” - Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is saying that entropy is the norm. Left to ourselves with our natural bent, we will decay and self-destruct.  Degradation simply happens, we don’t have to do anything to help it out - gravity does the job. But to flourish, to create that which is beautiful, to make things new and good - that is “difficult and long”. We see this with the things we build constantly needing repair and maintenance, and we see this within our own bodies that will slowly and surely lose functional ability without exercise and training to build it up and make it stronger.

Yet, this reality does not just apply to the external world, but also to our internal selves, our inward being. The natural state of our being as humans is toward that which is harmful for us, and if you make no efforts to strive against it, we will live in bondage to the desires of our flesh, what our heart truly wants… and most of the time it isn’t something we wish to expose for all to see. Pursuing that which is good, that which is honorable, noble, worthy, and true - pursuing the intent and instruction of God’s original design -  that is the thing that “frees our mind to move from shadow to light”.

Wendell brings up another powerful point in the last part of that quote - the power of light...

The Power of Standing Out

The night before I wrote this post, I decided to go to the local park to do some reading at dusk. After situating myself on a vacant bench, I settled in to enjoy the fading colors of the evening, the cooling of the temperature, and the bliss of learning from the book in front of me.

As I immersed myself in the text, I subconsciously increased my proximity to the words, closer and closer as the light continued to wane. What started as a leisurely reading, quickly turned into a squinting interpretation as darkness settled in. But suddenly, lo and behold, I found I had been blessed with foreknowledge! To my surprise, I had chosen to sit on the bench that was 20ft. away from a nearby streetlight. And through the trees and foliage, the rays of light were able to reach the page in front of me, and continue to illuminate the words I longed to consume.

This is the power of standing out - the power of light over darkness.

Darkness can be understood simply as “the absence of light”. Light is the thing that darkness has no power over - zero, zilch, none. The smallest ray of light can overcome the darkest black of the night. It pierces through with incredible strength and power in a way that can shock the mind when we pause to think about it. Even through limbs and leaves and a sizable expanse of darkness, the light from the lamp shown upon the page of the book in my hands, and darkness couldn’t do anything about it.

Standing out, from the inside-out, is the pursuit of being a light in this world of darkness.

The fact that we live in a dark world is hard to deny. The news testifies to this fact daily. The harder thing to admit is that we all possess this capacity in our hearts. Take away the light and we all have the capacity to morph into monsters. This is illustrated even more by the fact that the majority of crime takes place at night, in the darkness. There is something about the absence of light that takes away the accountability for doing what is right.

To me, what truly "stands out” is: a person who, from the inside-out, is striving to be a light in this world - striving to share the love of God through the person of Christ and the transformation of the heart that He brings.

Why does this stand out? Because it’s so rare.

Andy Crouch makes this point in his book “Culture Making” with the stark comparison of Princess Diana (the celebrity) with Mother Theresa (the saint). He says:

“For nearly all of us, becoming a celebrity is completely, categorically impossible. For all of us, becoming a saint is completely, categorically possible… So why are so many trying to become a celebrity and so few trying to become a saint?”

… outside-in vs. inside-out.

The Light-Giver

Jesus, the Son of God, who lived and walked on this very earth just over 2000 years ago, had this to say about being a light: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14, ESV)

The way our light “shines before others” is only done from the inside-out, because those are the works that truly stand-out. There is a clear and apparent difference. Yet the only way to accomplish this in a lasting capacity is through the one who is the ultimate Light of the world - Jesus Himself.

"Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, ESV)

Jesus is the light-giver, the one who unlocks our individual ability to shed light in the world of darkness. This is the power of light. This is the power of truly standing out. This is the reason why the world needs us to stand out, to be forces of light that a world of darkness desperately needs.

Perspective on Life and Death

I want to give one last illustration to close on.

A few months ago I was running through the hills behind my former residence. It was a beautiful evening and nature’s beauty was on full display.

As I ran through the trees and prairie grass, through the valleys and up on the hills, I was struck by an image that caught my eye. In the midst of a field of live (albeit dormant) grass, there stood one tree that was completely dead. This was a stark contrast that stood out to me - to see something that was dead in the midst of all this life.

Yet this contrast sparked another thought in me. If this dead tree could stand out so abruptly in the middle of a field full of life, how much more-so would a live tree stand out in the midst of a field of death? The first scenario makes sense, the second would prompt awe and wonder. Death always occurs - it is a natural part of life. But for something to be alive while being surround by death on all sides - THAT is a powerful perspective.

My plea to stand out is based on Jesus’ plea for us to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light set on a hill”. My belief is that this can only be accomplished through faith in Jesus alone, the faith that transforms our heart of stone into a heart of flesh, the faith that unleashes our ability to pierce this world of darkness with unquenchable light.

Now it’s our duty to go forth and shine.


That's my take on it, what's yours?