Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold. ~Johnny (The Outsiders)
To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with others. ~Mark Epstein (from Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychology from a Buddhist Perspective)
Recently a friend and I were talking about how we never seem to fit in. We’ve had this conversation before. She also works from home, makes her living as a writer, and prefers other solitary activities such as running. Like me, she imagines other people feel a sense of belonging to a certain group – whatever that group might be – that allows them to feel accepted, normal, and grounded. Like me, she has wondered when she might find her own group – a place where she belongs – and why it has eluded her thus far.
This is a familiar feeling for me. Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, I felt like an outsider. My earliest recollection of feeling like an outsider was probably in elementary school when I skipped a grade and entered a peer group where friendships and cliques had already been established.
Since then, my membership in various groups has been peripheral, not central; more observatory than participatory. I joined many groups (cliques, sports teams, other activities) but none too closely. I identified partially with many, wholly with none.
Occasionally I found a group and thought “these are my people,” only to realize soon after just how different I was and couldn’t therefore fully identify with them. Even when I decided to stop drinking, I couldn’t call myself an alcoholic and therefore was in a class of my own.
During the last couple of years – specifically since I stopped drinking and started meditating – my idea of what it means to truly belong has evolved. I realized that my not fitting in isn’t a matter of not having found the right group yet; it is just the way I am, how I engage with the world. That this way of engaging was largely shaped by early life experiences seems likely but beside the point.
A year ago I moved to Manhattan, the original Island of Misfit Toys, and observed millions of other outsiders, for lack of better words, “working it.” These are people who probably never felt they quite fit in at home, people who wanted to take a big risk and experience something extraordinary. To lean into their differences and embrace them rather than conform or hide.
This is very much in line with my fledgling understanding of the Buddhist path and why discovering Buddhism felt like coming home: each of us is in fact alone, on a unique path, yet we can participate as part of a larger community of individuals on their own paths.