Last week, in celebration of our twenty-seventh anniversary, my wife and I spent a couple of nights at a bed and breakfast in Black Mountain, NC. The whole town treated us like home folks and we really needed it. We experienced car trouble as soon as we arrived in town, so we had to find a car repair place. Fortunately, we could walk everywhere we needed to go and folks kindly pointed us to the perfect auto shop. We felt like old friends in nearly every encounter.
After we checked out of our B&B, we traveled west to Mast General Store in Asheville. We were struck by the cultural differences in these neighboring towns. Both towns are full of friendly people, but Asheville seems to be a magnet for unusual folks. We found a T-shirt declaring: “If you are too weird for Asheville, you’re too weird.”
Having visited Asheville on numerous occasions, I know what Asheville-weird is like. Alternative lifestyles abound. Walking through downtown one sees walking combinations of the hippie, yuppie, pierced, tattooed, green, back-to-nature, artsy, casual, pet-friendly, organic, spiritual, and New Agey.
To fit in, in Asheville, one may do almost anything that does not fit traditional customs. People go far out of their way to express their individualism. They celebrate diversity because it is…different. Asheville arithmetic says “different equals good.” And so, an atmosphere of tolerance pervades the city. Everything goes. They even tolerate nonweird people.
I cannot help but analyze this city of diversity. What lies beneath this culture? What is their philosophical motivation? Is there a common understanding of life among the planet-savers, the health-foodies, the peaceniks, the performance-musicians, the pet-caterers, the fair-traders, and the tolerance-evangelists?
Looking through my own lenses and biases, my analysis is: These folks are pursuing some meaning in their lives. Unless they have some offbeat cause to promote, they feel unimportant. And it is not enough to support a cause. They must display their passions for the world to see. The attention they receive from their efforts validates them. They are worthy. Their lives have importance. Their existence has value.
It is not enough to blend in and quietly live an ordinary life. Life must be seized. One must live for a cause.
I think of this as Ashevillian Existentialism. In the quest for significance, one must stand out. It does not matter how you stand out, as long as you are different. You may have different ideas, different skin, different markings, different hair, different clothes, different music, different attractions, different diet, different waste management, and different customs. These differences define who you are. They become the point of reference for everything in life.
Now, I like the commitment of living boldly, seeking to transcend the ordinary, and making one’s life count. I like living for a cause. I like making a difference. “Ordinary” can be a synonym for “mediocre.” However, I wonder about the motivations of these cause-driven people.
In the spirit of existentialism, restaurants openly boast about their green practices: “We use solar powered hot water heaters. We recycle all our trash. We don’t even have paper napkins. We really care about this planet. We matter because we are saving the planet, unlike all those trash mongering fast food joints.” I want to keep the Earth clean, too, but I try not to pat myself on the back for it.
Merchants also boast: “We believe in fair trade. No slaves produced these products. Your purchase lifts people out of poverty. If you want to make slaves with your dollars, go shop at the big warehouse store.” I applaud fair trade and lifting people out of poverty, but supporting fair trade does not make me a superior human being.
I sense a spirit of pride and self-satisfaction with all the in-your-face diversity. “Look at me. I’m different. Deal with it.” The applause erupts. Their existence is validated.
Maybe their differentness is actually motivated more by a selfish desire for significance than an altruistic commitment to their cause. No doubt, one could also level the same charge against me and my cause—Jesus.
Uniqueness alone is a poor point of reference. Truth matters more than diversity. Some causes look noble on the surface, but serve as excuses for selfishness and rebellion. I do not want mediocrity, but bold, spirited life. This life must be based on more than a desire to be noticed. It must be based on truth. I believe Jesus is the Truth.