It’s a paradox, but the more things break down, the more people cling to old forms, and the greater the pressure to conform to them. As the black sheep of my family, I know how destructive the demand of conformity can be.

I didn’t need a tattoo to be a non-conformist, since my non-conformity wasn’t just skin-deep. Besides, you’re a non-conformist now if you don’t have a tattoo.

Black sheep can either be bad offspring in a good family, or good offspring in a bad one. I’m not sure there’s actually much difference, since there’s good and bad in all of us, and which side prevails depends on where you sit and whether you take a stand.

Besides, black sheep are always seen as bad people, no matter how dark and dysfunctional the family that labels them such. And no matter how good the black sheep may actually be, if a family sees them as one, often so does society.

Are black sheep born, or made? A black sheep doesn’t decide to be one, but is born the way they are, and declared black sheep because they’re a different color than the white ones.

I treated the black sheep thing as a joke; even a badge of honor (two favorite uncles, one on each side, were also black sheep) until I realized the rest of my clan was dead serious about it. It became serious to me after my mother died at the end of last year. You would think the dynamic would change with the death of the matriarch, but the white sheep just herded together even more.

A few years ago I went back to the Midwest for a visit. On my first night there, I went to basketball game of my youngest sister’s youngest son, who has now become quite the all-around athlete. My oldest sister’s husband attended the game, and had a message for me from his wife: “Get back in the loop.”

Of course, the very fact that this communiqué came from a brother-in-law rather than my sister herself epitomizes why I’m not in the loop, and never will be. I shot back with a rather barbed message in return, which may or may not have been apt.

Telling my youngest of three younger sisters about the incident the next day, including my response, I was both surprised and not surprised when she said: “Wow, that must have really bothered her, coming from the blackest of the black sheep.”

Dorothy Malone portrayed the quintessential bad black sheep in the 1956 classic “Written on the Wind,” with Rock Hudson. Malone won the Oscar that year for best supporting actress by playing a jealous, scheming, nymphomaniac daughter of a Texas oil baron, in a family riven by the misplaced affinities for a surrogate son.

But there’s another kind of black sheep, one who is compelled to speak the truth when a family believes they can only live by lies; one who wouldn’t buy into money and respectability as the arbiters of worth and the good life; one who couldn’t, by conscience, character, and disposition go along and get with the program.

Though ‘diversity’ has become a cliché word, I think what people really mean by it is embracing genuine difference. Not ‘differences;’ not the shallow dissimilarities that cover an underlying sameness.

Ultimately conformity isn’t about going along with the programs of family and society, but of accepting and resigning to the patterns of consciousness within oneself. The vast majority of people believe they would be completely lost without their programs of belief, opinion, and habit. But in fact they are increasingly lost because of them.

To my mind, not to have a moment during the day when the machinery of socialization and self is operating is a good definition of hell.

Stillness of thought is the silence of being. When the observer ends, the movement of negation begins. When psychological time stops, one leaves the stream of content-consciousness. Leaving the stream of consciousness, one is immersed in the infinite wellspring of life and death.

Doing that on a regular basis, one may be the blackest of the black sheep. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world, or the illusion of belonging.

Martin LeFevre