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On the Feeling of Outsider
By not belonging we strengthen our perspective of community and self
I was on a train to Chicago when Anna Karenina threw herself on the tracks. I slammed the book shut and rested my heavy head into my hands. She chose love and it killed her. Society cast her as an outsider. Her child was taken, her network shriveled, and the love she did it for rotted away leaving her with an empty life. The feeling of being an outsider is something I have grappled with my whole life. A younger me desperately wanted a community. I’ve learned, though, that only by seeking to understand yourself can you find a meaningful community. A sense of being on the outside is not only one of my strongest traits, it’s what I value in others as well, and it is a trait that can be sharpened through practice.
The origin of my own outsider-ness stemmed from being a 3rd culture kid. An upbringing where I was straddling two cultures, that of my parents and the one I lived in, along with a hidden third culture, one I shared with others that also lacked a sense of identification.
I grew up in the midwest. Indoors, there was the brimming warmth of family. Colorful fabrics from a foreign land I had never seen were stuffed messily everywhere. On newspapers and holy books the ink curved gracefully representing letters from languages read right to left. But, when I stepped into the snowy outside it knew nothing of my world. The letters stood with straight posture in elegant English, the fabrics came in seemingly standard colors, the spices black & white. I balanced the two, loving and despising parts of both.
But this is not the only way to be an outsider. To be an outsider is to lack identification with the larger community you are immersed in. Put another way, to be an outsider is to be yourself first. This is a muscle that even those who thrive in a community ought to strengthen. Seeing yourself with higher fidelity will improve your relationship with your community. If you lack an identity then, in fear, you will cling to your community for familiarity. This clinginess is ripe for abuse. By being an outsider, you find a community that more aligns with your true self rather than an incongruous group of people.
A village is necessary, of course. A meaningful community will open a world of opportunities. Here we find our network, our friendships, and a shared world view that we can connect on. But to find an authentic community comes first from making the trip into the unknown on your own. A weak community is one that parrots shared views and does not tolerate dissent. A strong community is one that respects differences and finds strength in them.
So how does one find the right community? You find it by committing to something. This is the most important element. You must search for a connection. It doesn't matter what it is as long as you feel tied to it. When you've chosen it you must also choose to stick with it. Build a little bit on it every day. Dwell on it. Mull it over. Be impatient with the little things you can do to grow your skills. Be patient with long term results.
If you are seeking a deeper sense of self, it is worth your time to pursue adventures into the unfamiliar. Reading allows you to connect with ideas I’d otherwise never have access to. It is a slow deep connection that occurs between you and the writer when reading a captivating book. Travel is important. If reading lets us move through time then traveling expands our understanding of space. All of a sudden we are no one in a crowded city. That sense of insignificance is essential to finding your character.
By repeatedly pushing yourself into the unfamiliar, you will find the rarest of qualities: discipline. The effects of discipline are profound. As you go deeper into your passion you will find your voice, that very thing that makes you the outsider. Paradoxically, your pursuit of individuality will lead you to your community. You will find others running in the pursuit of their own meaning and you will celebrate and contribute to each other's growth.
When we are perpetual outsiders we find the underlying thread that connects humanity. We find strength within ourselves and a sense of power that comes from within. So that when we are with our people, we are leaders that can give what we have journeyed to find. Some of us naturally lean towards one or the other, either the comfort of community or the comfort of solitude. It is essential to strengthen whichever is your weakness and also find new elevation within your strength.