I hope none of us has become so adult that we have forgotten how we behaved as children; such as if there was something we wanted badly, maybe it was a new bicycle, even a motorbike, or new fashionable clothes, or perhaps it was permission to stay out late at night, go to adult movies, and many other things. We would just say that: everybody does it, everybody else has it; nobody has to ask for permission to do simple things that “I am old enough to do now”.

We would like to flow with the tide, we would like to be like everyone else, and if possible, we might even like to be best in our peer group, be popular and leading.

As we come of age, it is important to find belonging and be acceptance, especially by our friends. The worst that can happen to a young teenager is to feel excluded. Even the love of our parents cannot take the place of the peers; we need both, the acceptance and recognitions of parents and peers. On the coming Sunday, it is Father’s Day; and all fathers will be reminded of how important the father’s role is.

True, many fathers are trapped in conventions and traditions, perhaps more than mothers, simply because the father’s role is less analyzed and discussed. That is part of being male, I believe; we seem to do things rather than talk about it, or explain why we do what we do. Yet, with fewer words, fathers still have thoughts and worries about bringing up children. Perhaps, too, fathers may understand at least as well as mothers the importance of young teenagers having to conform and flow with the tide. We all know how important that was, not only when we were young, but also later, indeed in order to get into jobs, start and develop a career.

I have a Danish friend who lives in Islamabad. He is a retired economist, having the luxury of staying at home while his wife goes to her well-paid job. Since he is in that privileged position, he can follow news and current affairs on TV and newspapers, read magazines and journals, reflect on issues, observe and think.

Sometimes, when we are so busy in our jobs and careers, or as homemakers, we just flow with the tide. We do what we think is expected of us and we don’t find time to think about what we do, whether it all is really important and right. That lack of self-awareness, and social and political understanding, would be a key reason why so many get burnt out in their forties, the prime of their lives.

Midlife crises and stressful everyday life aside, let me tell you about a concept the Danish economist explained to me: he called it ‘conspicuous consumption’. That means that we consume goods in order to be accepted by the ‘right’ classes and groups, those that we want to be seen together with because we think they are like us or, because we want to be like them. Economists, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists would say that we buy goods because of prestige rather than for their real value and utility. We buy a jacket because of its label, a car because of the emblem on the bonnet, a house because of its location and neighborhood, and so on. I am not talking about teenagers only; I am talking about adult and generally rationale men, and women, too. They all flow with the tide.

Is it worse today than before? I don’t really know. In one way it is, I think. When I was young in the 1970s, we were anti-establishment, not entirely, but in many ways. We didn’t want to be like the middle-aged and the middle-class, those who rule everything and made so many mistakes that affected others negatively. However, when we were thinking like that, we also conformed to that antiestablishment movement, without really knowing how the peer pressure worked.

Often, we would not have deep convictions about what we were against or for, what we wanted to change and do differently. Yet, it is true that we tried to ask questions, and that is sometimes missing in today’s more competitive world, making alternative-thinking a risky enterprise. Better then to just flow with the tide. That worries me today.

Last weekend, when launching his new book entitled ‘Knowledge and Beyond’, the lawyer and author Muzaffar Mumtaz discussed philosophical and spiritual issues related to asking questions, and to see ‘beyond’ what we know into the un-explored and un-experienced. That would be a recipe for not flowing with the tide. This might not always be easy to do so, living in societies and communities that are quite static and traditional, we all need a fair amount of acceptance and approval. “If Christ or Buddha had been with us in our time and age, would they not have had to pay a price for their originality?” the author asked. And I am certain they would. To go against the stream is always done at a price. Many writers have discussed that, such as Henrik Ibsen in ‘An Enemy of the People, ‘The Pillars of Society’ and ‘A Doll’s House’.

I began my article by talking about how we try to convince parents about what we want as children and youngsters, how things and status are important to all of us, at any age. Often, the things we surround us with define ourselves and they tell others who we are or want to be. ‘Kleider machen Leute’, the Germans say; clothes make the man - and woman, probably even more.

I have for decades had the opportunity to observe how diplomats behave - and I have been one myself. It is quite astonishing how they (we) somehow manage to fit into to such outdated roles and styles, remembering, too, that most of the diplomats today are just middle-class and middle-level civil servants. Gone are the days when ambassadors and senior diplomats were related or friends of kings and queens, presidents and wealthy business men. But most of the diplomats I have seen over the years, in different countries, have conformed to the behavior of days gone by, just because they think that is right and proper.

Unfortunately, those who haven’t conformed, because they want to keep more of their true identity, may seem out of place or ‘undiplomatic’. Unwittingly, we may want diplomats and others to flow with the tide and play the expected roles.

But keeping up appearances and play roles is not all. Independent thinking and action are important, not least in a conservative country like Pakistan. We must learn to turn all stones, see what is under them, find out if they can be placed differently, and not be intimidated by those who say we are wrong. Even if we are wrong, even if the old traditions and ways are all right, we have explored what lies under them. That is what we must do. Then we will not only flow with the tide, the fashion, the trend; we will also help direct the course, the stream, even the tide, and play a more significant role shaping our everyday life and the future.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com