Outliers: Contradictions Us All
It’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.