Outliers: Contradictions Us All

canstockphoto13625435It’s a strange world in which we all strive so hard to be unique and special and identifiable, but quickly revert to the thems and theys when describing entire groups of other humans. If pushed on our own deeply-held stereotypes, we’d be quick to crumble to the idea of exceptions to every rule – that there are Republicans with compassion and Democrats with morals. That women can be tough, but kind and men tender, but powerful. That people without children can lead fulfilling lives and that large families can be healthy and functional. That someone can dance to Beyoncé, but still adore a good translation of Candide.

Many of us like to believe that we’re so completely different from other humans that we’re outliers. The term outlier can be statistically specific, but in this context, it is more about the mental distance felt between you and everyone else. This is where it gets curious. Talk to any single human being on this planet long enough and you will learn some eccentric proclivity, some lint-collecting hobby, or that they suffered an incredible trauma or god forbid, none at all, or mostly that they feel like they don’t fit in with the mainstream.

Who is the mainstream? Who represents this majority? Is it the media? Is it the mass of consumers that purchase certain products or gobble up celebrity news like popcorn? On an individual basis, we all seem just a little strange. Yet we can’t all be outliers, since it would defy the actual meaning of the word.

I think it is tough to feel like an outlier when you don’t have any recognizable skills. I’m not a genius. I have no affinity for intensive study of a single subject. I don’t have much in the way of material goods or a stunning appearance. It’s easy to justify being odd when you have a talent, or a lot of money or something socially quantifiable and admirable. Without those things, you’re just a weirdo.

I am a weirdo when it comes to the mainstream culture. I usually see movies that are 10 years or older, when people finally shut up about them – but I know the soundtracks. I never read books recommended by Oprah. I don’t pay attention to fashion. I don’t worry about my appearance (oh yeah, you can tell). I like punching more than dancing, mashed potatoes more than chocolate, and I love it when I have to order a book through inter-library loan because nobody the hell else is interested in it.

I can sing most of the lyrics by the Kingston Trio and I don’t watch commercial television. I have a tattoo that I got when I was sober and middle-aged. I think most subjects are interesting, but only if I discover them. If there’s a buzz about something, I won’t take a second look. I’m a purposeful contrarian. My daughter is much the same. Nature or nurture?

As a parent and wife and PTO mom living in suburbia, I look like a stereotype, except that those stereotypes don’t exist except as a superficial way for us to judge and categorize each other. The real commonalities between humans are beneath the outer trappings. It’s those fleeting moments of clarity that remind us we’re all in the same boat, flailing about trying to connect with other humans so that we don’t feel so alone or afraid. It’s the bare bones truth beneath it all. Everything else is just a different color of paint.

There is plenty of advice about cultivating compassion for oneself and ostensibly for others. But maybe it is better to start slow and cultivate curiosity about each other first. Humans are interesting, but we are not omniscient. Nothing can or should be assumed about someone’s intelligence or kindness or intent or background. We can ask questions. We can start a conversation. We can stop baring our teeth at the first hint of disagreement. We can stare wide-eyed, with mindful ears and generous hearts. And maybe we can stop the pretense that we’re not connected, on this blue-green island of misfit humans.

This post was inspired by the post Meanwhile… by Wyrd Smythe at Logos con carne . He had several poignant observations about aging, his sense of being an outlier and floundering about in the blogging world. It reminded me of a message that needs to be said out loud. 

             

36 Comments

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36 responses to “Outliers: Contradictions Us All

  1. You’ve captured the feeling of one who doesn’t know what ‘fitting in’ means, but who doesn’t really care, either. I’ve felt that my whole life. This graf, I thought, was particularly good:

    “The real commonalities between humans are beneath the outer trappings. It’s those fleeting moments of clarity that remind us we’re all in the same boat, flailing about trying to connect with other humans so that we don’t feel so alone or afraid. It’s the bare bones truth beneath it all. Everything else is just a different color of paint.”

    Well done. :-)

    • Thanks! I think it’s interesting to think about what “fitting in” means. So often people talk about the stereotypes of high school and while I never “fit in” with a particular crowd, I always found my niche – usually an odd collection of outliers. Much is the same in adult life. I have always found people to connect with, but it takes time and the ability to see beyond stereotypes – theirs and mine.

      • Agreed. I sometimes wonder if everyone doesn’t have the same experience, even those we thought were in the ‘in crowd’. They might have been feeling trapped by convention just as much, and envied those who seemed more free.

        Or maybe that’s just another rationalization. :-)

        • I don’t think that’s a rationalization – we have enough evidence to support the fact that people, regardless of geography or age or gender, experience similar emotions – even that poncy “in crowd”. I thought, as a rule, that they tended to be less interesting. Conforming likely doesn’t do much for one’s intellect or creative drive. How’s that for rationalization?

        • Pretty good one, actually. :-)

  2. Luanne

    Boy, can I ever relate to this post, Michelle!

  3. I don’t know about ‘fitting in’, but I’ve always marched to my own drummer, even in high school in the early 60s when I was taking science classes and most of the other girls were taking language and arts. I’m sure there are some demographics I fit into, but the more you drill down from the broad categories of age, gender, occupation, the more people become unique to themselves.

    • I approached this from a different perspective in that much of our unique and individual thinking can also isolate us falsely from other humans. If I had continued further, I would also say that it has contributed to the crippling polarization of our public rhetoric and politics. That’s my weirdo brain at work, randomly connecting the personal with the universal.

  4. I make such a conscious effort to remind myself that I’m not the first person to do or be *fill in the blank* that I often forget what a weirdo I (probably) appear to be. You’ve provoked my thoughts and it’s barely 8am!

    • One of my favorite comedians, Maria Bamford, talks about people’s rationalization for suicide, that they had done this horrible thing or that. Her response was “Google it. There’s 7 billion of us. Not only has someone else done what you’ve done, but they are out there on a book tour about it right now.” That pretty much applies to anything we do!

      Oh, and sorry about the morning thought-provoking. I hate that. Especially since I’m out of my mind with this daylight savings time. Good plan, Congress. Keep half the country exhausted for a week or two every year. Really helps with that productivity thing you were going for.

  5. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    I try to erase “them” and “they” from my vocabulary, and it’s hard. We want to understand the world, so we analyze and slot and get comfort from that. But, man, nothing beats that “wide-eyed” moment of “mindful ears and generous hearts.” Thanks for sharing your words with us.

    • I think you’re right about the comfort of them and they – it is certainly an easier way to think, even if it’s incorrect. We’ve become immune to this idea of categorizing people based on only a few characteristics – it’s the era of data and polling and surveys. Flawed research and tilted data gets pitched to us as truth by media outlets and corporate entities. We want to quantify everything, including humans, so we that don’t have to critically think about information.

      Apparently it’s tangent day today. My brain has just gone off on another one…

  6. Your last two paragraphs express a vital concept so clearly and beautifully they deserve to be widely quoted–most especially that final one (the one which “hemmingplay” first pointed out as outstanding). The timing of your post was coincidental with something I said to Phil Taylor in a comment on his blog ( http://thephilfactor.com/ ) just this past Sunday: “So, way back when I chose my [Outlier name], I was basically saying, like a three-year old, ‘look how rare I am.’ (Right now, I hear Joel Grey, in Remo Williams: ‘Pa-tetic.’)”
    .
    Perhaps we think we want to be unique, but what we want more is to feel important–useful–and cared for. If we feel cared for, and useful to someone else, then we are fulfilled, and not so inwardly focused and worried about how special we may or may not be. We have value in the eyes of those we matter to and ourselves.

    • Your last comment paragraph is a truth as bare bones as what I was attempting to get at – beautiful! I come from a long line of people who thought they were so alien or unique that they didn’t interact comfortably with other humans. It’s taken me years to figure out that it wasn’t arrogance, but rather armor against the fickleness of human interaction. It’s the sense that their being was not, in and of itself, valuable, so a lot was riding on them being able to feel unique or special because of their distance from other people. Rather self-defeating behavior, unfortunately.

  7. fransiweinstein

    I think “fitting in” is highly over rated. And, as an aside, I don’t think one needs to have a particular skill to be an outlier. Could be wrong, but I’m just saying … Great post!

  8. Just a thought. I think most artists, and this include writers, don’t fit in. Most writers are people who find themselves as observers of the society we live in.

  9. It feels like you’re dismissing a core aspect of my life as merely “my imagination” or something. You’re aware of some of your own differences from the mainstream, and so you feel like an outsider, but the truth is that you’re not. From where I sit you seem quite normal. In life, I’ve run into many people very much like you. I know three other women in their 50s who’ve gotten first-time tattoos. A good friend of mine from college went into the military to change her life. You really aren’t as unusual as you think you are. The large number of followers and participants on your blog should tell you that plenty of people connect with you,

    • While I appreciate the thoughts that your post provoked, I’m not challenging your status as an outlier.
      I enjoyed your post because it seemed authentic and it was my intent to give credit for the inspiration, not to denigrate your perceptions of yourself. If you would like, I’ll remove the reference to your post.

  10. Hmm – lots of food for thot there. The phrase that stood out for me was purposeful contrarian. Two people with many similar characteristics could choose normal or outlier as their direction. Outliers still like company too.

    • I would guess that most of us would define ourselves as outliers, whether or not we were statistically oddballs (I would really like to see the scale for that!). I like the company of others. Usually on Tuesdays between 3 and 5. And occasionally on a Saturday if they’re really, really quiet and bring me coffee.

  11. Loved this post Michelle. I think you’re onto something saying that we should start with curiosity. I’m sick and tired of people who just assume and judge – without even being curious to learn more, not caring to look deeper.

    • I think that’s a happier approach for life in general. Retaining an adult level of skepticism without assuming we always know what’s what. I’ve caught myself making snap judgments about others and am often reminded how incredibly wrong I can be!

  12. Another contrarian!! I just got a book via ILL – I’m tickled you talked about inter library loan….

    Good points all -

  13. For a time, I have ‘detached’ myself because I felt too much connected and too much available. It didn’t work out. I thought it was simply ‘slowing down’ but that was when things started to go wrong. Aaack! I’m still trying to get back on. I figured that was arrogant of me! And I regret that. But I learned much….(1) That it really is unnecessary to be quick to judge (We don’t know a thing about the life others are living even if we thing we do.) and (2) That it’s okay to connect especially when you find those meaningful connections somehow. But a simple connection with other people, though not deep is alright too.

    • It’s a hard balance to maintain – remaining connected while not tapping out your personal resources. It’s important to take time off from the hustle and bustle to get centered. I think we tend to be much better when we interact with others, if we’ve taken the time to breathe a bit.

  14. Pingback: Meanwhile… | LIVING ON THE GRID, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

  15. It’s a relief to reach a certain age in your life when you no longer even think about your status among the collective. I think there’s a big danger in believing that you’re (the rhetorical “you’re”) special because often, there goes empathy.

    • Sometimes when I refer to myself as average, in this blog or anywhere, people mistake that for some sort of low self-esteem issue. I think we can all be special and unique to those near us, but I do honestly believe that most of us are specks of dust in a universe that cares not. And you’re absolutely right – empathy and compassion are fueled by our connections, while a constant focus on our “specialness” serves to alienate us from others.

  16. To be oneself is, if we are really unique creatures as purported, to *be* an outlier, at least in some ways. And that is a highly desirable state. I am delighted to be an alien among aliens in this way. Thanks for the usual thought prod!

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