Recently I decided to purchase a new car. I am an avid automobile enthusiast, so this promised to be a most enjoyable experience. I decided to order it fresh from the factory, rather than settling for one on the dealer’s lot. I chose a manual transmission, something which has fast become an endangered species in these barbaric times, along with the various other options I desired. Finally it came to perhaps the most important choice: the color. I paused to consider my options.
When I was first ordained a priest, I purchased a car painted black. It is the official color of clergy, after all, and it is always stylish, always thinning — or so they say. I wondered if I should continue with the official and safe color, or perhaps do something a bit more adventurous.
Today, automobiles come in four basic colors: black, white, beige and silver. Gone are more distinctive hues from the past: soft pastels, bright primary colors and lovely earth tones. Today the selections are limited but safe. Presumably the consumer dictates this, but it is also much cheaper for the manufacturer to offer fewer colors. This is also the case in fashion, furniture, houses and pretty much everything else in our society today. Colors have faded; the pressure to conform has made everything drab and flat. Better to play it safe and to not stand out.
In a classic episode of the excellent and prophetic television series, “The Twilight Zone,” this current phenomenon was well-depicted. Some 50 years ago, in the episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” the power of a culture of conformity was documented. In this science fiction fantasy, people are forced to undergo an operation to make themselves beautiful, handsome and … alike. Only 12 options are possible to choose from, and everybody looks and thinks the same. The protagonist of the episode fights against this and desires to maintain her freedom, even if she is deemed unattractive and different. But in the end, inevitably, she is forced to conform.
She reemerges glamorous, saccharine and — the same as everybody else. The last moments of the episode remain one of the most haunting depictions on network television, with the now predictably beautiful young woman staring vacantly into the screen completely enslaved to this conformity. She has lost herself.
I wonder if this is happening to us again today? The backdrop of the Twilight Zone episode was the 1960s, with its rejection of the conformity of a previous age. How well the so-called baby boomers met this challenge with a desire to be unique is worth debating, although it might be aptly quoted from a then-contemporary comic strip that offered, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
There is, to be sure, a place for conformity. Part of living in a society requires a certain manner of behavior. For us as Christians, to follow the way of the Lord Jesus as his disciples is to be liberated from the terrible enslavement of sin and death. This is not conformity, but an embrace of true freedom. Knowing Christ Jesus and living a life of holiness is truly freeing, never enslaving.
Much of my life as a priest might appear at first to be that of the consummate conformist. My clerical attire is always black with a white collar. A canon lawyer by training, my ministry in the church is to uphold the unity and consistency of its teaching. When I celebrate the Mass I follow the rubrics laid down by the church for two millennia. When I preach, I strive to reflect the Gospel and to pass on the sacred tradition of the Catholic faith, which is almost 2,000 years old.
Within this outward conformity, however, I strive to be myself. I have long followed the motto, “If something is popular, don’t trust it — and if everybody is doing something, do the opposite.” I have found this to be usually true. To follow Jesus Christ is to be truly countercultural. To not follow the crowd is usually the path to sanctity. Loving our neighbor, praying for our persecutors and loving God above all things is far from mindless conformity today or in any age. It is, indeed, radical stuff which our loving Savior taught us. It is liberating and true. St. Paul himself said, “Do not conform yourself to the present age.”
What passes for news today is also predictable. The usual questions are posed by reporters, to which the usual answers are proffered. “What did you think of the terrible explosion yesterday?” “Oh, it was devastating,” is the pat response. “What did you think of the warm holiday weekend?” we are asked. “Oh, it was amazing,” comes the usual reply. The same old conformist stuff. Could there be no other answers? None are forthcoming or permitted. No bright colors, everything has faded to beige.
What does all this have to do with buying a new car? Nothing really, except that I have decided to do something different. In my own small way, I have decided to push back against the banality of our age. It’s a pretty radical thing for me to have done really, but I believe that this world needs more color. Like the color of spring, hope and life, my new car is … green! Why not? In life, it’s always best to keep them guessing.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”