“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American author, poet, and philosopher from Massachusetts. Liberal in his thinking, he was an abolitionist and advocated civil disobedience to an unjust government. His views often separated him from mainstream American thinking of his day, but Henry David Thoreau had the courage of his convictions. He was prepared to go to jail rather than back down from his beliefs – and he did.
As I ruminated on his opening words, quoted above, I pictured a man who follows the group or the crowd in order to fit in. We humans are social beings; we need other people to help satisfy many of our emotional and psychological needs. The goal of ‘fitting in‘ to the society which spawned us becomes a priority. This is natural, and for the most part, a good thing. In part, we define ourselves according to the company we keep. This allows us to be accepted by others and contributes to our sense of self worth.
What if we don’t fit in? Thoreau goes on to focus on the man who does not “keep pace with his companions”. What if I don’t agree with some of the beliefs held in common by my society – even my nation? Some will be pressured to abandon their thinking as unacceptable or wrong. As Thoreau might put it, they are tempted to abandon their own drummer. Of course, the reference of the drummer is to the military custom in those days to control the pace of a marching army with the beat of the drummer – not unlike the ancient battleships whose slave rowers were coerced to keep pace with the ship’s drummer by means of the lash.
Thoreau is describing a man whose inner drummer plays a different beat to that of the larger society. So, he marches to that inner beat and becomes out of step with his fellows. What is this man to do? Let’s consider the circumstances of his period. People were far more dependent on their neighbors for their basic survival than are we in our modern society. Too many of us don’t even know the names of our neighbors! Thus, being out of step, and being obvious or vocal about it, could have dire consequences in Thoreau’s day. The man would be labelled as socially unacceptable, which would reflect back on his family. For example, how would you find suitable marriage partners for your sons and daughters? How safe would you be if some obnoxious members of that society decided to teach you a lesson by damaging your property or personally attacking you and your family?
There are risks today when you speak out against mainstream thinking on controversial issues. Many people take advantage of online social media to express their views, and sometimes face cyber-bullying if their views are unpopular. And while this is not easy to live with, becoming unpopular or unacceptable to those closest to you is far worse. Thoreau was a brilliant man who knew first-hand the price you must pay in society for marching to the beat of your own drummer.
Clearly, Thoreau called for tolerance on the part of the greater society. Society should be prepared to embrace people whose views are somewhat different from the group or the majority. This willingness to be respectful of opposing views can enrich a society and speed its growth. Tolerance was not a key characteristic of the society of his own day, but it was individuals like Thoreau who prodded America to become a more liberal democracy.
The real lesson here is the unspoken message to the divergent thinker. We are taught to think for ourselves and not to accept everything we hear from others. Within the context of the beliefs and morals of the greater society, we gather information, digest it, analyze and evaluate all of it against the evolving set of personal beliefs that we have formed. We judge by our own internal drummer. It is difficult when we arrive at conclusions not commonly shared with those closest to us. We can compromise to fit in, or we can reach down and find that courage to stand up for our own beliefs. Not an easy choice in any day or age. I salute those who march according to the beat of their own internal drummer!