On Being an Outsider


In a world where being “in the majority” is so important, lots of people feel themselves to be outsiders in one way or another. Rather ironic. Perhaps it is due to the simple fact of being alone in our own skin, fully conscious only of what is going on in our own head.

It would seem that nearly everyone can claim some sort of “minority” status. Starting with the most recognized minorities, one thinks of ethnic and national groups as well as those defined by religion and sexual orientation. Then come the left-handers, the very short, the very tall, the old, the redheads, tambourine players, the celibate, people with cancer, those with learning disabilities, vegetarians, intellectuals — I could go on.

Still others find that their interests or opinions do not fit into the mainstream. Are you a “shape note” singer? That would make you a minority. Do you listen to opera? Same answer, especially if you don’t listen to much else. Are you a Republican who lives in a community of Democrats, or a Democrat who lives in Chicago’s politically conservative western suburbs? A sense of marginalization would pretty much be guaranteed.

Those who do best with their marginalization look for a like-minded group of people, perhaps moving to a more congenial community. If you are a Democrat living in DuPage County, Illinois, this might mean moving to Chicago or a suburb like Evanston.  Or, it could mean searching out others in DuPage County who are also Democrats.

If you are an opera-lover, on the other hand, moving to a different suburb is not likely to put you into immediate contact with tons of similarly inclined fans of Mozart, Rossini, and Wagner. But, attending the opera, taking courses on that subject, and participating in opera “newsgroups” on the internet might move you in the direction of more familiarity with those who share your passion. Moreover, if you are persuasive, you can try to capture acquaintances with your own enthusiasm, exposing them to some of the music you like. Conversions do happen.

"Fugue" by Kandinsky, 1914

“Fugue” by Kandinsky, 1914

The experience of being marginalized usually doesn’t feel good. Human nature appears to include an inborn desire to affiliate, to feel a part of something bigger than we are — “to belong” to a group that accepts us. When that does not happen we tend to feel shut down and shut out, watching the parade of life pass us by at a distance without even a nod or a wave in our direction. As Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1880:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way…

Self-portrait, Van Gogh, 1887

Self-portrait, Van Gogh, 1887

In a world where acceptance seems to require rooting passionately for the home sports team, listening to whatever music is at the top of the charts, wearing clothes that are thought to be fashionable, spending lots of time mindlessly surfing the net, and keeping up with popular movies and TV shows, a disinterest in such topics and activities can make it harder to connect with others and feel a part of things.

If TV “events” turn you off and if shopping isn’t the most exciting part of your life, perhaps you are more interesting than most. It takes at least some strength of character to unashamedly proclaim a set of proclivities, beliefs, or hobbies at odds with the masses.

To my way of thinking, the most captivating people are those who have novel ideas or a different slant on life, the men and women from whom one can learn something new. For example, great artists, composers, and writers are, by definition, different. Who else but Pablo Picasso could have painted Guernica (the top image), his anti-war response to the bombing of the Basque town, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War in 1937?

Great painters, sculptors, composers, and authors see the world in a unique and enlightening, often revelatory way that tends to marginalize them, set them apart from the rest of us. Others cannot imagine the world as those masters do — see it through the lens of their special perception and transformational talent — however much they might admire their artistic product. Creative geniuses are not simply “Joe and Jane Six-Pack,” who are neither very individual or exciting, even though they might be good and decent people.

Perhaps those brave souls, the great creative minds of history, can serve as a guide to making the most of whatever sets us at distance from our fellow-man. Have courage. Are there people out there who would be excited to know what you think and how you feel, even if you are not Picasso or Shakespeare or Beethoven? You cannot find out by hiding your uniqueness behind a rock.

The anonymity of fitting in with the masses may be comfortable, but it doesn’t contribute much to the world; or, quite frankly, to an interesting life.

Marginalized? It could say some good things about you.


Perhaps you needn’t be.

2 thoughts on “On Being an Outsider

  1. I felt marginalized in the country of my birth as a person of mixed ethnicity amidst Indians, Africans, Portuguese, Chinese, whites, and indigenous peoples. I had to learn to relate with all racial/ethnic groups, while being a part of none.

    I no longer feel marginalized. We are all one. Planet Earth is our home.


  2. drgeraldstein

    A hopeful and optimistic message, especially considering your background and experience. Thanks for commenting, Rosaliene.


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