What I Learned by Going as a Hipster
THE MORNING’S PRESENTATION in my histology class having ended, I commenced donning the entirety of my costume for the rest of the day. Presenting on meningitis while dressed like a hipster, while being delightfully ironic, might not have led to my best performance. Sliding the knit hat into a sufficiently slouched position onto my head, the thought occurred to me that the sounds emanating from the nearby stall were nowhere near as disgusting as what gradually took shape in the mirror.
I don’t recall the precise moment when the overwhelming sense of ridiculousness set in, but sometime between removing my sweater from over the too-tight v-neck t-shirt—which revealed the extent of my few-too-many pounds—and putting on the thick-rimmed clear sunglasses, I began to have second thoughts. Looking back, it might have been the facial hair modifications that signaled the first vestiges of doubt. I’ve done some stupid things in my life, like self-attempting haircuts and going with the blond highlight look while in high school—heck, my first semester of college I dyed my hair black and topped it off with red highlights!—but I have never before that day felt so very stupid.
I headed for the door and realized that I was shaking. Halloween is supposed to be about fear, and so we dress up in costumes of vampires, ghosts, zombies, and monsters of all stripes. To that list, I now add hipsters. The one day of the year when we can stare down the fear of death and mock it is Halloween—and yet, not all fear is the fear of death. My fear of hipsterism—or of becoming a hipster—is a fear related to something more elusive. Usually the sight of a knit hat wearing, bicycle riding, steely-eyed and sardonic hipster who talks way too much about things you’ve never heard of elicits reactions of annoyance, disdain, and, in the better of us, pity. Before I in my hipster costume hit the light of day, it occurred to me that much of my own disdain originated from fear. That day, the fear became more personal. I was afraid more specifically of being seen as a hipster, of being someone or something entirely different. More mundanely, I was afraid of being embarrassed. Some combination of the bare chin and the sausage casing-tight shirt over a hefty gut ensured that I felt totally naked.
The looks from my peers made it worth it though. Laughs, good-natured jeers, expressions of stunned silence. A good friend said of me at first sight, “Oh [expletive], I hope you can feel the hate radiating off of me right now.” Another, as I stood in the Catholic Student Center kitchen drinking a glass of water, said hello and tried to welcome me to the CSC until she realized that it was just me. For all my fear and nervousness, it sure was a lot of fun.
At least it was, until I had to go to my next class. Walking out of that bathroom was one thing, but walking out of the front doors of the Catholic Student Center was another. Inside I was among friends, acquaintances, and people who were in on the joke. Outside, I had no guarantees. Certainly some people would get the joke, but the vast majority of people I did not know, who did not know that what they saw was a costume and not a lifestyle, these people would really think that I was an overweight hipster.
I have a confession to make that might come as obvious by now: I worry too much about what other people think of me. I hate being embarrassed. My usual style of dress—polos, collared shirts, sporty sweaters, and plain jeans—might be considered by some as “conservative,” “preppy”. In truth I rarely buy clothes not on clearance racks and have been known to wear clothing I’ve had since high school, providing it still fits. But presenting myself well—not slouchy, not frumpy, well groomed and presentable is something that, here in the South, is simply a sign of good manners and respect. To dress myself as semi-barbarous idiot seemed to be something very anti-social and maladjusted. Stupid as I felt, I asked myself constantly that day “What would bring a person to present themselves like this day in and day out without a hint of embarrassment?”
The longer the day went on, the more I understood the weight of this question. I had, whether I fully intended to or not, put myself in the position of walking a day in a hipster’s white canvas slip-on shoes, of seeing through his thick-rimmed Ben Folds lenses. Some hint of the interior attitudes of such a person came to me as I walked the campus past the sneers of the down-home cowboy types, and even the visible disdain of some of the faculty. While the easy temptation is to conclude that some people just don’t care how others see them, I realized that for those whose styles represented this hodgepodge of subcultural fashions with none of its substance, there is a deep and pre-existent sense of not belonging to the larger culture.
Yeah, I know, “Duh,” that’s obvious. But I think it’s also deeper than we tend to imagine. For a generation living in a particularly shallow, material-driven, consumeristic, and deeply dissatisfied culture, the hipster is something of the sentinel of the no-man’s-land between frustrated passion and quiet despair. They know, on some non-verbal level at least, exactly what is wrong, but have no idea of what is right. The same can be said of every counter-culture, of every disaffected person, whether hipster or beatnik, punk or hippie. Sneer as I might, and heap my disdain in righteous libations as I have been accustomed, an uneasy realization would eventually take hold through this experiment.
What can Christ offer to those very disaffected with this culture? How can Christ meet these souls in their angst and provide them with that ground, that deep and personally compelling identity to help negotiate that terrible no-man’s-land? When the name of Christ Himself becomes an object that, like any other thing to a hipster, can only be appreciated through a sense of irony, this is a task of evangelization requiring the abandonment of disdain and caustic attitudes.
Hipsterism, along with most other forms of counter-culturalism, is like a stutter. It develops in its initial stages for reasons not fully understood, but the way it becomes overriding is by being treated harshly. Getting impatient with a stuttering child is bound only to make it worse, but a deeper patience on the part of those dealing with it and by those afflicted by it is essential. By sneering at counter-culture and asserting the dominant paradigm, the insecurities within that give rise to outrageous behaviors and fashions assert themselves ever more strongly, and the behaviors and fashions become ever more outrageous. Counter-culture feeds off the dominant culture in the way a furnace feeds off a bellows, and the harder the bellows blows, the brighter and hotter the furnace.
What Christ offers is far different. Christ doesn’t see a person and think, “Hipster,” “Punk,” “Beatnik,” or “Hippie,” but instead, sees and person and knows their name. He sees the true self, the one hidden from our view by the outrageousness presented to our senses. While we are apt to shout at the stutter, or to blow the bellows, Christ simply ignores it. That’s right—to Christ, all that matters is His beloved, made in His image, and He refuses to give the false image the satisfaction of even being recognized. It has no right to exist. When Christ encounters the outcast sinners in the Gospels, His treatment of them is in speaking to that inner sanctum of authenticity and reality, where the heart longs for Christ but distracts itself from this longing through sin. When a person identifies with the false image, he feels threatened, discarded, and ignored—but through Christ he comes to learn to identify with Christ Himself, the true image.
For us, this is a difficult realization. I for one struggle with the tension between the false image and the true image, between the deep, inner longing and the distractions that take my attention away from the void. For those living in such a way that this condition exists without being known, without the acceptance of hope, this can only move me toward empathy and a deeper patience. Treating a stutterer harshly does no one any good, whether the stutter is verbal or spiritual. All of us have this stutter as a part of our lives in some way—we might just not dress accordingly.
Perhaps we actually have an advantage here. The Church is at once culture, subculture, and counter-culture, and how one sees the Church accordingly is very telling of that person’s relationship to the Church. The Church has a mission that will always, no matter how accepted it she in the wider culture, ensure that she has a counter-cultural side. Catholic teaching on human dignity, on living a life based on deeper things than shallow consumerism, on the infinite and unimaginable love God has for each and every individual are all things that the Church has to offer in an authentically counter-cultural way. The Church is able to say, “We have something for you that, chances are, few people have actually heard of. We have something to give you that answers your fears of living an unremarkable life, of living a life buried in impersonal coldness robbed of dignity and identity. We have something to give you that grants you the freedom to pour out your entire nature as an individual into something expansive, meaningful, and, difficult though it is, very fulfilling. You can reclaim your soul from the impersonal forces in our world and offer it to something far from impersonal, far from crushing. You can be in on the greatest irony ever offered, the irony of God becoming man. And yes, you can still listen to the Fleet Foxes, though you will have to give up those skinny boy capris.” (Okay, so that last one is my own thing.)