How David Bowie Helped Us Learn to Treasure Difference

David Bowie put being different out there with grace, and we all benefited from it. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The world mourns today with the news of pop star and culture icon David Bowie’s passing after an 18-month long battle with cancer. Most were surprised to hear the news, because his diagnosis was not public, and there has been an outpouring of shock and grief on social media, with people sharing the songs, images and writing about him that means so much to them personally. 

His embrace of the avant-garde and normalizing of the strange, like wearing dresses and make-up in a time when men did not do such things, was impactful and changed society as a whole as well as offering solace to people who felt a sense of being outsiders.

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“People suffer from hidden feelings like shame, fear of being different, and fear of being judged. When you take ‘different’ and embrace it, putting it out there with grace, poise and prize, you glorify it. That makes it possible for people to identify with [being different], to hope and feel better about themselves. He had an impact in that way, that was psychologically very freeing for people,” explains Dr. Carrie Barron, MD and psychiatrist/psychoanalyst on the clinical faculty of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, who also has a private practice in New York City.

There is a reason why Bowie is so important to so many: he was an iconoclast, a disruptor and a creative visionary whose influence did a lot to change culture. Barron notes that before his heyday in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was a culture of conformity, where fitting in with the norm very important. 

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"He was instrumental in encouraging people to embrace diversity and difference. He helped people learn to treasure difference. Seeing a celebrity or person with a large persona do that makes change possible, which psychologically is profound for people. It’s profound to identify with a celebrity embracing that.”

Bowie’s impact and legacy are not limited to the times, however. The ability to identify with and be shocked by him extended to generations past his own, well into the present day. 

“There’s almost a chronic anxiety that’s part of the human condition that some very evolved people can get over, but most of us are very fearful of being harassed or judged, not fitting in. Bowie hit it on all cylinders in terms of addressing human issues,” Barron says.

For those feeling the impact of Bowie’s loss today, Barron recommends taking time to reflect on what you loved about him, just as you would for any figure in  your personal life or consider an “ego-ideal.”

“I pause to think about what his music did for me, and he goes on living through what he’s created,” Barron says.

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