Most Indians have grown up in a culture that has trained them to meet the expectations of others, to keep everyone happy by toeing the line, by worshiping at the shrine of Social Approval. At school you should be respectful, keep your head down, butter up the powerful teachers, get sentimental about your school, and say the things everyone wants you to say. You have to get good marks in your tenth standard exams, get your name on some kind of Topper’s List, get into the Science stream in Junior College, and then of course move into Engineering or if you’re REALLY smart, Medicine. Well, maybe MBAs are okay too. Everything else is substandard and a disappointment to your family.
If you’re a woman, you should spend most of your time at home, make sure you’re not seen alone with a guy, and don’t try anything too far out of what most Indian girls do. After all, what will people say? At the right age, you must find the right spouse to marry (fair, earning a large salary, from the same community as yourself) and spend the right amount of money on your wedding because that is what the God of Social Approval demands. Let your parents decide for you because Indian Culture. Get the kind of house and job that everyone in your world expects. Have your two children (one boy and one girl) and leave them with their grandparents because that’s what everyone does now. If you dutifully do all that this god demands, you will be rewarded by the love and approval of the world in general.
It may not look exactly like this for every family or culture. There are variations. But usually you should conform to the things that your family and culture cares about. You should have their prejudices, hate the people they hate, mock the things they mock. The same thing happens at school, at college, in church, in your established social circles. Don’t rock the boat. Be a Pleaser. Say the things that make people happy. Fulfil their expectations. That’s what makes you a good daughter, a dutiful son. Pleasers struggle with anxiety, right? Because you are constantly striving to win the approval of everyone, because everyone has an opinion about your life, and if you want their love, you have to win it by heeding their advice. You lose your sense of identity and self-worth as you desperately try to keep everyone in your life happy, and fail anyway.
If you don’t conform, if you choose a career or lifestyle very different from your family, get married too early or too late, have more than two children, marry someone from the wrong community, have an odd hobby or interest, choose to homeschool, convert to a different religion, or support the wrong political party, you will face the consequences. The God of Social Approval will take his revenge—you will be criticized, rejected, ostracized, gossiped about, and held up as an example.
This society and culture is a perfect recipe for the creation of a generation of Rebels. The Rebels have had enough. They reject people-pleasing with such vigour, that they will go out of their way to make sure they don’t accidentally please the older generation. They reject everything to do with tradition and traditional morality, and the religion of their forefathers, and they burn the idols of Social Approval in public at every chance they get. They’ll share posts that often seem defensive or reactionary- ‘Love yourself first!’, ‘Haters gonna hate!’, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner!’, ‘You do you!’, ‘Buy those shoes! Go on that trip! Pamper yourself!’ and will applaud and support everything that challenges the way things were. Rebels will usually identify as agnostics or atheists (perhaps because the expectations of old were usually connected with religion).
Rebels get to taste the freedom of doing their own thing, and boy, it tastes sweet. Sometimes it means leaving your city or your country, starting anew far from family in a more private culture where nobody knows you and nobody cares what you do with your life. Sometimes it means always being in fighter mode, ready to defend your choices, and show people why you’re right. It can be pretty tiring to live life as a rebel.
Or sometimes the Rebels have stopped defending themselves or their choices. You just quietly live your life on your own terms and just stop caring what the aunties said about you. Maybe you stop caring about everything except what you feel like doing at any given moment. Eat that donut. Flirt with that guy. Read that erotic novel. Take what you want. Go on that expensive vacation. Nobody has the right to judge you. The New God is You.
[Sometimes Rebels aren’t real rebels - you leave one form of people-pleasing for another. Instead of the older generation of your family, you are now trying to win the approval of your new social circle who have pretty stringent rules about what a rebel can and can’t do. Rebels must be down with party culture, with getting drunk, with sexually permissive behaviour (or are they really rebels?). Rebels may not associate themselves with any one traditional religion. (Cults, communes, new age practises are all okay though.) Rebels must not believe in objective morality. Rebels must laugh at anything associated with tradition. These rebels may reach the same state as the Pleasers of feeling stifled and inauthentic, forced to follow arbitrary rules. And then maybe they re-rebel, and choose to stop caring about those rules too.]
Often real rebels reach a point in their life where they have to question whether ME is a satisfactory or worthy god. Maybe you find that ‘you doing you’, an untrammeled life, free of any expectations or restrictions or demands didn’t bring the satisfaction it promised. And that’s when you get to choose what foundation you want to build your life on.
I propose today a new identity for the Pleasers and the Rebels. And that identity is based on a foundation of Love and Truth. No longer must you do things because that’s what is expected of you. No longer must you do things just because they’re NOT expected of you. Set down your cudgels. You don’t have to please everyone, neither do you have to challenge or convince everyone. Even better, you no longer have to worship at the shrine of the changeable, fickle and selfish god of You. You are hereby set free.
Instead you may choose the Real God—the God of love and truth. There are real demands when you choose this God, but not demands that crush you or drain you of your identity. Instead, you are simultaneously set free from your own ego, and are transformed (slowly) into your truest self.
Pope John Paul II said “Love places demands on us. Modern culture says that anything that places demands on us limits our freedom. “How can I be free if I have responsibilities? How can I be free if I have obligations to others?” However, we become most alive when we live for others. Anyone who has fallen in love knows they are most alive when they have given themselves completely and exclusively to the one they love; forgoing all other loves. Love brings inner freedom.”
What does this new life look like? It is not marked primarily by ‘doing your own thing’. Instead it is response to each situation with the question ‘What is the wise, truthful and loving thing for me to do?’ It is no longer a reaction to people’s expectations. People may applaud your choices, or they may criticize them, but that is no longer the defining or weightiest factor in your decisions. Mother Teresa didn’t start serving the poor on the streets of Kolkata because she knew that would make people look up to her. She did it because she heard God calling her to do it. She did not stop doing it because people accused her of corruption and ulterior motives. She instead gave one of the wisest and most peace-filled responses I have ever heard: “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway… In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” She was a Lover par excellence.
A Lover can live a sacrificial life without resentment. A Lover can draw healthy boundaries and stick to them without anger, fear, or guilt. A Lover can be open to reconsidering old opinions in the light of love and truth. A Lover can both respect and love the members of their family without having to agree with everything they believe. A Lover can choose to treat people who identify as LGBTQ with love and respect, and yet not support same-sex marriage, which will most likely make both sides mad at them. They can make counter-cultural choices not because they are counter-cultural but because they believe they are doing what is right. They can choose the truth of the Church, and still call out the crap they see in the human structures that are part of the Church.
Let go of people-pleasing and rebellion. Neither will bring you true peace or freedom. Choose instead the God of love, and become a Lover.