Peculiar People

January 9, 2012

There are many “celebratory” days in January (Fruitcake Toss Day, National Bird Day, Bean Day, Houseplant Appreciation Day, Blame Someone Else Day, and Penguin Awareness Day, to name a few), but my favorite has always been today, Peculiar People Day.

Perhaps that is so because I may very well be one myself. The most interesting people I know, have known, or know about certainly are. This is not in any way a derogatory assessment in my view. After all, just what does “peculiar” mean?

Various dictionaries offer the following synonyms: unusual, eccentric, odd, curious. I, for one, do not consider those adjectives to necessarily be problematic. Okay, so I left out strange and queer. The connotations for both are fraught with negative associations too ingrained to overcome. However, being someone who departs from the ordinary is, after all, so often considered to be a good thing.

Think about it. Some of the icons of our society who are most revered are, well, peculiar. Unusual. Eccentric. Odd. Often we love them, sometimes we may not, but in either case, they are hard to ignore.

Examine the evidence just in those who passed to the Great Beyond in 2011. Steve Jobs was nothing if not peculiar. It was his unusual way of thinking that produced such dynamic results. Those musicians who did not succumb to the pressure of replicating the “same old thing” to be successful such as Amy Winehouse, Poly Styrene, Bert Jansch, and Gil Scott-Heron contributed to their art because of it. The silver screen benefitted from the eccentricities of Sidney Lumet and Elizabeth Taylor as did television from the likes of Jack LaLanne and Andy Rooney. The culture could not help being aware of Jack Kevorkian and Christopher Hitchens who, agree or disagree with their ideas, provoked thought.

Why then are so many made to suffer for their peculiarities? It is ironic that in a country that purports to be the champion of individual freedom and respect for others that such a high premium is placed on conformity. Those amongst us who are different either by nature or by choice provide the diversity which most, in theory, accept as desirable. In practice, however, too often it is scorn and mockery that is their reward.

I am particularly reminded of this now because of one of the actors we lost last year, Cliff Robertson. He played the lead role (and won the Academy Award for best actor doing it) in the 1968 film Charly. For many years I used the story “Flowers For Algernon” (on which the movie was based) and selected scenes from the film to teach about this idea. In the story, Charlie Gordon was disdained and rejected at first because he was mentally slow, and then after an experimental operation on his brain, because he was brilliant. It seemingly wasn’t the reason he was different that caused his treatment; it was simply that he was different. Much interesting discussion usually followed, and my students always had some salient experiences of their own to relate in the follow-up composition they wrote called “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Even those who were the perpetrators of — or silent witnesses to — the  mistreatment of someone who was different recognized the moral shortcomings of their actions. Hopefully their reflection led to change for the better, but only time will tell.

So this is the day to perhaps reconsider your thoughts about all the peculiar people in our midst. Chances are, you may find something peculiar about yourself if you look hard enough. Even if you can’t, it might be time to acknowledge and appreciate your quirkier friends and family members. That is, of course, if they’re not off somewhere celebrating Measure Your Feet Day.


One comment

  1. sign me up, I’m in the group also put Lisa in too.

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