Professorteaches musicology and cultural studies at the Hochschule fur Musik Koln [University of Music in Cologne], Germany. From her hometown in Berlin, she shared her thoughts and encounters with conformity and nonconformity in her life and work. The Sentinel's had the following conversation with her via e-mail.
Let's start out with one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, who is known for his free spirit and nonconformity. Talking about himself he said, "It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed." Do you think nonconformity is a springboard to creativity and great accomplishment?
It is interesting that you mention Albert Einstein, who was certainly one of the great thinkers in the 20th century and is often quoted as a model for nonconformist thinking and acting. Yet recent biographies have also brought out that he undervalued women as thinkers and that his insights into politics were often not as brilliant as his insights as a physicist. So evidently when his thought would move freely into "open territory," he could detach himself from traditional modes of thinking and act as an unsurpassed visionary.
Annette, you live in Berlin, a city that was known in the 1920s for its avant-garde thought, and that since the fall of the Berlin Wall has become known again for its individuality, its artists, and its cutting-edge development. What does it feel like living in a city with that reputation?
Well, in between, Berlin was the capital of the Nazis and the center of communist East Germany. So Berlin has experienced and survived a lot. Creativity is the most rapidly growing sector of Berlin's economy. The city is unfinished in many ways, moving and developing. People say it is the place in Europe where Paris isn't that much to the west and Moscow isn't too much to the east. Berlin is still a place where East and West meet. But a city is the result of millions of individual choices and people.
In your field of music, where do you see examples of nonconformist thinking?
I feel that artists, writers, musicians often look at society with amazement, finding food for thought in daily life and small events, where others might simply conform to daily routine. You can run through the rain and try catching a bus — or you can stop and watch the artistic play of lines and colors in the puddles to be inspired for a photograph or other artwork. A musician might listen to the sound that rain makes, incorporating it into her next composition. In an artistic moment you are very much in the present. You might say that an artistic or creative moment is a moment of nonconformity. In this sense children are great examples of nonconformity, too. They live in the moment. The German philosopher Schopenhauer felt that genius was coupled with childhood — in a more modest sense you see nonconformity linked to childlikeness. The question is: Can one grow up and still remain a child?
Music is basically about individuality. About an individual style in performing, in composing, in "thinking musically." I am very much interested in the music of our time, the avantgarde music. There you see a lot of nonconformist thinking. But I also see struggles between conformist and nonconformist thinking. The music world is not just about ideals and creative activities, but also about fighting for place and power and dealing with trends and strategies. Sometimes it seems that artists have to decide between individuality and conformity in order for their art to survive. But true individuality leads to nonconformist thinking, and to me, that takes the prize.
A good example is the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who received her musical education in Korea and started to compose at an early age. She moved on to Germany, where she became a pupil of one of the most famous avant-garde composers of the 20th century, Gyorgy Ligeti. It took her years to break away from Korean as well as German ways of musical thinking and to find her own voice, but this patience and courage were valued. A few years ago, her violin concerto won the world's most important prize — the American Grawemeyer Award. And this year her opera Alice in Wonderland was premiered in the Munich Opera House. In her music I hear integrity.
What do you think tends to stifle people's freedom of thought and integrity?
To me, Mary Baker Eddy answered this question in Science and Health, when she said, "At present mortals progress slowly for fear of being thought ridiculous" (p. 68). We all don't really like to be moved out of our comfort zone. But this is what must happen. The adventure starts when we prefer progress over staying put in a particular comfort zone.
In an artistic moment you are very much in the present. You might say that an artistic or creative moment is a moment of nonconformity.
Sometimes people feel they have to go along with a group thought. They may feel embarrassed to be seen as oddballs or outsiders, or just plain afraid of losing their jobs, their friends, and their peace, if they speak up. What gives you the courage to stick out from a crowd?
I don't have the feeling that I can lose anything if I trust God. I try the best I can to conform to good. This gives me spiritual independence, strength, and persistence.
In my current workplace, I'm one of 150 professors with about 1,500 students. A university offering courses from bachelor degrees to a PhD program is a place of constant interchange of thought and action—and it can be very political at times. My prayer often was and is: "God, if I'm right, sustain me, and strengthen and inspire me. If I'm wrong, show me, and move me aside." I have found tremendous strength in learning to let go and yet also, at other times, learning to be patient and follow through with a divinely inspired idea and plan until it is realized.
In one case I felt that we should accept a certain student who had almost failed the entrance exam. I saw a potential that the panel, my colleagues, didn't see and agree with. I felt driven in an unselfish way to pursue the support of this individual. As a result, I had to deal with dismay and even open conflict with my colleagues. This happened two years ago. But he ended up being accepted, and he's since developed into one of the best students of his year and has become an example for others.
I think that integrity, honesty, and open communication are very important, as is daily growing in grace. In a text dictated to her student Adelaide Still, Mary Baker Eddy expressed it this way: "The deepest hallowed intoned thought is the leader of our lives, and when it is found out people know us in reality and not until then" (Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority, p. 356).
Do you think one needs to be a conformist, though, to be a better team player and consensus builder—for example on a sports team, or work team?
I think the best team player is a reformer. The better you understand that there is one Mind only, not many minds, the better you understand the dignity and worth of each individual expression of God. Our relation to God is important above all, and this relation outlines all good. As Science and Health states, "In the scientific relation of God to man, we find that whatever blesses one blesses all, as Jesus showed with the loaves and the fishes,—Spirit, not matter, being the source of supply" (p. 206). So individuals who understand that God is the source of their intelligence and abilities are great team players.
In his letter to the Christians at Rome the Apostle Paul wrote: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2, NRSV). Have you ever felt this spiritual transformation taking place in your life?
This has been my favorite Bible verse since I was 12 years old! I feel that Paul summarized here what Christianity is all about—and what Christian Science is all about. To me, Christian Science expresses the timeless truths of the Bible in a timely form. This verse strengthened me throughout my teenage years by turning me to God to set the standards for my life. For example, it gave me the courage to ask for nonalcoholic drinks whenever group-think suggested that champagne or other alcoholic drinks would make a festive moment perfect or would help teens to be "adult." It encouraged me to rely on Christian Science healing and to explain why I did so.
About a year ago, a student of mine told me that somehow I was different and asked me about it. He felt there was clarity and poise in my daily work that had to come from a spiritual strength. To make a long story short, he ended up ordering Science and Health for himself and was freed immediately from a longstanding health problem. You could say that living "a life conforming to God" makes you more visible to other people and able to help those who are yearning for individuality and guidance.
A few years ago, I broke my arm and was taken to a hospital where I was given a dire diagnosis of permanent damage to the arm. At first I was afraid and consulted several more doctors, until one day my mother, a Christian Science practitioner, tenderly asked me when would I wake up and take a stand for healing. In a sense, she was asking when would I be ready to stop conforming to what the world was telling me and be ready to be transformed "by the renewing of my mind."
I realized that I needed to turn completely to God for answers, and as I did, I slowly, but consistently, regained control of my thinking so it was aligned with how God saw me. Healing of my arm came, and it was a complete restoration. This proved to me that indeed I was spiritual and whole. We all are spiritual expressions of Love. And Love's will for us is to be "good and acceptable and perfect." Today this arm is as strong and whole as my other arm.
In a way, when you experience a spiritual transformation and your mind is renewed, you become an ideal conformist—one who is "conformed to the Science of being" (Miscellaneous Writings 1883—1896, p. 60).
Mind's possibilities are not lessened
by being confined and conformed
to the Science of being.
—Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings, p. 60
Absolutely. That is the only conformity we can wholeheartedly agree with and aim for. When you align your thought with the divine Mind, you have a great guideline for living and acting, and the promise of healing. But for the world this kind of thinking is very nonconformist.
To me, it's all about individuality. I'd like to see my and everyone's spiritual individuality expressed better and more clearly every day. And as a result, we can expect to see less sickness connected with certain age groups, fewer problems spilling out of certain types of work, less fear growing out of traditional and orthodox thinking. Since our individuality is spiritual, it's rooted in Love. And Love is impartial and universal (see Science and Health, p. 13). Now there's food for thought.
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