“It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares.” ~ Marilynne Robinson
It carries a certain cachet for me, and maybe for everyone else, too. There’s a rakishness to the label of ‘outlier’. I realize that could come entirely from my own partiality to non-conformity, but I’ve come across other references to outlying lately that make me wonder if it’s not becoming better understood, more accepted, and in fact perhaps revered. That would, of course, be its death-nell from the point of view of its usefulness as a way of life. One can’t remain a champion of difference while embracing the crowd. I suppose I’ve wondered, as you might be now, how an outsider’s mentality can contribute to a successful life vision, but I’ve become more and more sure that is so when developing survival skills in a world of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Isn’t it interesting how our youngest adults, while appearing to crave acceptance and belonging through the personally disconnected world of social media, are living lives that would qualify them as the amphibians of our planet? As Op Ed columnist David Brooks pointed out in a recent article in the NY Times called The Rise of Amphibians, “Amphibians have to master two or three different ways of being in the world, and often they do not fit perfectly anywhere.” We’ve learned from Mr. Darwin, Mastering different ways of being is the most necessary survival skill of all.
I’ve often wondered if I’d be able to hold myself together split between many different ways of being, longing for the imagined ease of ‘fitting in’ where you feel you belong entirely. But then I know my artist’s soul would never be happy without the possibilities connected with other worlds and varied cultures. Translate that to mean I get easily bored and my nerve endings don’t feel alive when challenges are no longer paramount. Mr. Brooks extends his analysis of human “amphibians” to describe their core as being fueled by difference, and therefore creativity, and follows that up by saying, “They have that semi-outsider mentality that forces them to observe everything more closely.” Close observation exists when truly alive, or perhaps in order to remain so. The jangling neurons are there for a reason.
But if the adaptable “amphibian” seems too much of a stretch for you (especially if your tight in your maturity), then can you picture yourself as a dog instead? In a Feb. 14 PBS mini-series titled Animals with Cameras (still available online to stream), Episode 3 of the documentary shows how the age-old battle between sheep farmers and wolves is being won in France in a most unexpected way. It’s fascinating to watch, so I urge you to follow the link above to see it with your own eyes. But the gist of what the cleverly placed animal cameras discovered was this: the attribute most admired by both sheep-farmer and sheepdog is a canine machismo exhibited by a large number of these guard animals making them capable of facing a wolf pack to protect the sheep they’d bonded with over a lifetime. A few of the dogs did not, however, display that required level of courage, so they were pushed to the outside of the circle, with the others literally ‘insiders’ who slept cozily in the middle of the herd. The ‘outsiders’ were understandably warier, less accepting of the status quo, and always tuned to changes in the atmosphere around them. When the wolf pack started to move toward the sheep at night, the cameras showed it was the ‘outliers’ who sent out the alarm to wake the unsuspecting sheep and their ‘insider’ dog friends remaining clueless of the danger. The cameras showed that far from being useless misfits, the outliers kept the herd safe, proving there’s more than one way to use the skills and proclivities of being different. Whether you’re a dog, an amphibian or a human who doesn’t fit in, staying tuned to the changes in atmosphere around you could be lifesaving, and it certainly makes living a lot more interesting. Vive la différence!