Niche Guys Finish Last (?)

If I ever wanted proof that our life’s work calls us, rather our choosing it, I wouldn’t have to look too far. In both my career and my personal life, I seem drawn to things that tend to appeal only to niche audiences. (See The Reluctant Reformer and Missionary Positions for related rants on this subject.)

In some cases, this is a minor to moderate inconvenience. For example, the fact that I’m passionate about singing early and contemporary music means there are relatively few opportunities and relatively small audiences—which means, of course, that those choirs often struggle to make their budgets. While this is occasionally frustrating, for me it doesn’t detract too much from the experience.

Where it really hits hard, this niche habit, is in my passions for Sudbury schooling and Zen. There aren’t nearly as many Sudbury schools as there ought to be, in my opinion, and those that exist are often quite small. On the one hand, there is some benefit in the constant incentive to streamline budgets, but far too few families even know about this model or have a school nearby, and far too many schools have closed in the years I’ve been part of this movement.

To some extent this is inevitable, at least for the foreseeable future: not that many people in our culture appear ready to leap to this not-so-new paradigm, to extend full trust and responsibility to school-age people. To find those who are, I long to develop better ways of spreading the Sudbury word, and then supporting those people and their schools. Hence my creating the organization now known as Friends of Sudbury Schooling (though here again, having a niche appeal means it’s that much harder to find the financial support to do the actual work).

With my Zen practice I face a similar challenge, in that the number of Zen communities is relatively limited. More than that, though, I often wonder how to extend the benefits of mindfulness to the broader population when that population seems anything but inclined to sit in stillness for extended periods, or contemplate the essential interconnectedness of things. Our need for antidotes to frantic lives and materialistic values seems at least as great as people’s resistance to those very remedies.

I don’t want to accept that because some of my strongest passions have relatively limited appeal, I’m destined to spend the rest of my life in small communities regarded by society at large as more or less crazy. Both Sudbury and Zen, I deeply believe, can serve a much-needed role as models of what’s possible and desirable, templates for people dissatisfied enough with the status quo to explore other possibilities. I feel driven to spread mindfulness, compassion, and joy, to reduce suffering and harm, and these two areas are very well suited to furthering that cause.

There are costs to being a niche guy, no doubt about it, and not just those of the literal variety. Beyond the mundane struggles of attracting like-minded people and garnering support, my niche friends and I find ourselves more or less vulnerable to feelings of isolation and defensiveness. It’s very easy for us to see ourselves as virtuous and/or embattled. And naturally, this tends to distort our view both of ourselves and those who disagree with us; it colors our interactions with supporters and detractors alike.

All the more reason for us niche-niks to take great care of ourselves and each other, to guard against becoming mired in the sort of circle-the-wagons, us-versus-them mentality that just makes things harder for everyone. We must cultivate patience and a sense of humor as we fight the good fight(s). As Suzuki Roshi said so eloquently, “What we’re doing here is so important we had better not take it too seriously.”

I don’t know why I’ve found myself immersed in the niche lifestyle, compelled to promote causes that are more or less marginalized. But this is where my passions have led me, and it’s good work, and regardless of my prospects for widespread or conventional success, I am very happy to be here.


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Filed under The Apostasy & the Ecstasy

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