The kids are back in school, which means they’re spending time with peers. Youth culture is amusing, the way kids dress like each other, talk like each other, and begin valuing the same things. Peer pressure is a real phenomenon, for good or ill, and it plays out in our schools. Don’t smirk too much, because adults aren’t immune. It plays out daily at work, with friends, family, and through the influence of pop culture and the news. We never outgrow it.
A very holy man I dearly love, Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, is a perfect example of standing up to peer pressure as an adult. He was an Austrian farmer conscripted into the German army in 1943. He thought the war was wrong but was willing to serve in the army as a hospital orderly. However, he was firm that he would not swear personal allegiance to Hitler. While every other man in his village made the oath, Franz’s lips never moved. For his courage, he was executed.
Leading up to that pivotal moment, Franz is peer pressured. His friends warn he’ll leave his children orphaned and is abandoning his family. The mayor says he’s shaming the entire village. Friends and neighbors mock and shun him. He’s told his moral stance is meaningless, that he’s losing his life for nothing, and the world won’t remember him.
We’re subjected to constant peer pressure — to have a superficially perfect marriage, perfect children, a big house, a fancy new car. There’s pressure to go with the flow and not cause a fuss. Anyone who expresses a moral or religious opinion is in danger of being canceled. How can we resist?
Be aware of how peer pressure works. There are actually two factors in decision-making. First, a process by which we logically process decisions, and second, an emotional component directly connected to our sense of well-being. When we decide to go with the group, our brains release a chemical that makes us feel calm. This provides strong motivation to ignore logic, take the easy way, and irrationally follow a crowd.
Understanding how peer pressure changes our brains, we must work to form our conscience and remain true to it. How many times do we make up our minds to do one thing only to be swayed by someone else to do the opposite? Franz took time to think, knew his decision was right, and refused to be pressured out of it. He wasn’t obstinate — he got advice from his wife and his priest — but never allowed the crowd to overcome his conscience.
There’s no escaping peer pressure, but Franz Jagerstatter shows we can stand up to it. He died a martyr’s death, but contrary to what everyone told him, he was not forgotten. Today, he is admired and honored all over the world. It turns out that doing the right thing and maintaining personal integrity are winsome qualities. Those who resist peer pressure are the ones who will change the world.
Father Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.