When codes of conduct conflict
When middle school principals urge their graduates to know themselves and be true to themselves, what they mean is their graduates will be joining lots of groups. And when they do, groups will sometimes pressure them to put what’s important to groups ahead of what individuals know in their minds and hearts is right. And being true to themselves means being true to what they know is right. That’s not always easy. In lives dominated by groups it takes concentration, character, and effort to stand up for what’s right. To keep personal integrity and self-respect intact.
What groups need to succeed and survive isn’t always compatible with what individuals need to love one another without competition and conflict. Groups need power and wealth to compete. They’ll fight for domination if they have to, even the ones who seem the nicest. And they’ll treat us like captive soldiers if they can get away with it. Being “good” doesn’t come first with groups if they have to do what’s necessary to survive. If they have to do what’s bad.
An Italian diplomat and historian named Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that the moral code that applies to individuals can’t apply to groups. The advice he gave political leaders was very different from what they were being told by the Church, but it applied to all groups. He was just stating the obvious, yet it caused a sensation. That was in the 16th century, and it still upsets people today. Middle school principals are warning their graduates not to get caught up in groups’ “Machiavellian” behavior when it conflicts with their moral code.
The taste of inferiority
High school does its job by testing our character so we come out of it more experienced with group pressure. So we’re more aware of what’s required to resist it when we know it’s pulling us in the wrong direction. When we’re pressured to “fit in,” to “go along to get along,” to be one of the “crowd.”
Middle school graduates with the right stuff won’t let themselves be compromised. But while they’re going all out with the excitement of high school, while they’re getting involved and having fun, they shouldn’t take their strength – their individuality – for granted.
For some adolescents pressure to be more like “others” can be dangerous. It can make them feel so bad about themselves they don’t even want to be themselves. They just want to disappear. That’s how it was for me at boarding school. I had nightmares about it over thirty-five years later. It even tasted bad. I never want to go through that again. Some of my classmates had the same experience and told me later. If high schools had cemeteries, their tombstones would all be marked “Self-Esteem.”
The test of performance builds confidence
If this happens to you, you can try to win the respect you crave from others and risk your health. Or you can take a different tack: look to yourself for self-respect. And learn that self-respect is a daily test of character that’s never done. Being true to yourself means taking nothing for granted. You may be confident that you’ve already learned self-respect, but confidence is just the beginning. Only performance, through high school and the world beyond, every day, lets us know for sure.
High school is a foretaste of the pressures you’ll be exposed to out in the world. Groups that provide us with the essentials and pleasures of a good life – jobs, causes, belonging, entertainments – can exact a high price in return. Many individuals just as confident as you have had to make serious compromises. To stay true to themselves many have had to say No to their groups and had to do without their benefits. You may have to face the same situation someday. I have, many times.
How your individuality and high moral code handle group pressure in high school could determine whether it’s easier or harder later. It’s good practice, good training. Take it on with enthusiasm because it’s all for your benefit and you’re getting off on the right foot. Because while you’re demonstrating confidence, you’ll also be building it.