My ancestors were nomads and refugees, and I have carried on that tradition. Sometimes I think I was born packed and ready to go. I no longer speak the language of infants, so I can’t quote my exact thoughts, but I have the distinct impression that the synapses that fired when I first opened my eyes in the bosom of my family spelled out this message: “Whoa! Look where I landed! Get me out of here!”
By the time I was old enough to actually move out, so many things had happened to reinforce that initial impression, my identity as Outsider had been firmly set in place. When I left home at 17, I knew I wasn’t going to plant my tent in a beloved patch of ground and raise a family. I knew the place I would always feel most at home is in the energy-field of words, images and ideas embracing this planet, reflecting human experience the way snow reflects light, sending it back to us so that—if we choose—we can learn and grow.
I had no idea how my story would unfold, of course. But I had plenty of desire: to awaken and remain awake, to live fully, to seek, to learn, to see and be seen, to give and receive, to love and be loved. When I look back, I wonder at the source of my own energy, which has been abundant (some might say relentless). Like other humans, I suppose the sources have been multiple: the drive to heal old wounds; awareness of the brief span of our lives and the magnitude of our task; the tantalizing possibilities I have been privileged to glimpse. I suppose I should be grateful for them, as they mostly kept me from succumbing to the pervasive human impulse to pretend to be something we are not, trading authenticity for approval.
This has been an especially tough passage of letting go, moving on, starting again—so much so, that for a time now, I’ve had trouble connecting with an inner anchor. Instead of embracing my Outsider, I keep seeing the price I’ve paid for a life in which I prized my own freedom of choice and my own search for truth above all else: the lack of family ties; uncertainty that far surpasses the remarkable degree of not-knowing I’ve taught myself to tolerate; being viewed with the uneasiness that those loyal to a particular set of institutions attach to whomever fails to demonstrate the same loyalties.
I think (I hope) I finally got sick enough of torturing myself about all this. I’ve spent days now writing personal inventories under guidance from every wise teacher on my bookshelf, consulting every sort of oracle and mystic I can reach. It may be magical thinking, but like looking at the world through any new lens, it can lead to something quite real. Yesterday, at the close of a ritual designed to realign my frayed circuits, a lovely friend told me it was time to once again embrace my identity as Outsider, rather than focusing on the toll life has exacted from her. Like most truly good advice, once it was offered, it seemed entirely self-evident and correct. And it has got me thinking about the massive ambivalence of our common culture toward the Outsider, and how Outsiders had better avoid paying it too much mind, because it can contaminate self-understanding.
The most obvious (and of course, often-noticed) manifestation is our use of the Outsider icon in advertising. There’s little need to explain the irony of the lone cowboy, the hero who marches to his own drummer, freeze-dried and marketed with the aim of stimulating in multimillions an identical desire that can be satisfied by purchasing the same product. We adore the Outsider as symbol, so long as we can exploit the symbol to produce lockstep consumption.
But with actual human beings instead of symbols, the reality is more complex. I see it in artists all the time. From the raw material of profound alienation so many of them experienced in childhood, they manufacture beauty and meaning. For those whose gaze is trained on society and its discontents, there is often the opportunity to walk a fine line. If their project is to épater la bourgeoisie (shock the middle classes, as the French Decadents put it), titrating just the right amount of shock-value to titillate but not to repulse, they may be richly rewarded for their mild transgressions, photographed regularly at openings and parties, sipping cocktails side-by-side with their patrons to lubricate the steady flow of cash for as long as their flavor remains in favor.
But then the art world is littered with the sad stories of deep Outsiders who couldn’t sustain the deception required for this type of feeding the hand that bites, spiraling into fatal addictions, dangerous company or suicide. Their lives are smashed between the plates of their own Outside vision and their desire to be accepted by those whose secure position on the Inside, in effect, propelled them Outside in the first place. No one is an Other except in relation to whomever claims the center.
We are moving through a moment marked by growing feeling that the old ways will not serve the future, producing a great thirst for fresh perspectives and novel ideas, the Outsider’s stock-in-trade. But the same ambivalence persists.
Bite-sized new-thought bonbons are being snapped up as fast as they can be produced. Consider the popularity of TED talks, quick, entertaining and often illuminating 18-minute presentations by people chosen for their fresh perspectives or unusual experiences. The most-emailed TED talks are from bona fide Outsiders. It goes without saying that the fish out of water will be far better able to encompass the ocean that the countless little fishies meandering wetly below. (If you’ve been on Mars for the last few years and somehow missed brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s account from her far journey to the right hemisphere, you will enjoy spending 18 minutes entirely outside consensus reality.)
TED’s strength is the absence of a specific instrumental agenda: there, outside ideas can be offered for their own sake, standing out from the rest like a sprinkle of pepper on a blancmange. But in most contexts—innumerable professional and academic conferences, for instance—the trouble is, as with artists walking the line between integrity and acceptance, the degree of Outside thinking that can be fully welcomed is pretty mild. Even for many smart people who genuinely want a way out of our present dilemma, the contest between the appetite for new thinking and the commitment to old ways is heavily weighted on the side of the past.
As the uncannily apt James Baldwin wrote, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” Who can stare that in the face? Who wants to?
Full-on Outsiders need a little bit of the daredevil to survive intact, whereas domesticated Outsiders tend to keep one foot inside the line: someone who has risen over decades through institutional or corporate ranks, for instance, demonstrating bona fides of obedience and loyalty, who then launches a second career as teacher, consultant or commentator, knowing exactly how much to say to flatter the audience while lightly stirring the pot. Someone who is careful not to contradict the core assumptions and orthodoxies of a field, confining out-of-the-box observations to matters that don’t disrupt whatever is inside. Someone who has a knack for drawing the line between the sacrosanct and the subject to reconsideration, and never crosses it.
All good and well—and entertaining— in moments of relative stability. But this is one of those times in history when it is widely evident that something is dying and something new is being born. In general, those loyal to the old order, even if they suspect things will not hold, will cling on. I am pretty sure that whatever is coming next will be met most fully by a willingness to turn the box on its head and root ruthlessly through the contents, discarding, repurposing, renewing—and inventing—as needed.
“Most of us,” said Baldwin, “no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
Artist, teacher, adept of social imagination or personal transformation—whatever the specific category, it is unlikely that the box will voluntarily embrace the Outsider, which at the moment is too bad for the box. But now that I’ve been reminded, I can. And if you want to, so can you.
If you have extra time on your hands while the world is out to lunch this holiday season, here’s a rather remarkable film about a band of Outsiders, offered for your edification and entertainment: The Ritchie Boys.