Life with an Outsider Mentality

For much of my life, I have thought of myself as an outsider, at least in some vague sense of the word.  I feel like this perspective has often made me different from many of my family members, though it often seems to be shared among my friends.  At a very young age, I had weird interests, an unusual personality and parents who did not know how to pick clothes for me that did not stand out in undesirable ways.  I did not mind this, too much, as I was often the type who kept to myself, and I didn’t much care if people who had little interest in me had little interest me.

Later on I befriended other people with a similar tendencies.  Often that meant punks, rockers, art kids or nerds in general.  In my high school years, I went to a large suburban school with tons of people in each class, and though my friends and I were generally accepted by our classmates, we were by no means popular by any conventional standard.  We generally hung out with our own group, and were more likely to be invited to parties thrown by people outside our school than our classmates.  Even among my closest friends, I still felt a bit different.  They were into cars they could race; I drove a rather cumbersome four-door.  Additionally many of my hobbies and weekend activities were different from theirs as well, though this was never a problem in any way.  I’ll also mention that I was not completely down with many of the prevailing trends in culture, fashion, language and music from that time.  Much of which I thought was stupid, and in many cases, general opinion has shifted in my favor.

As I got older, I started being so comfortable with my self-perceived outsider status, that happily did things that alienated many of the people around me, such as giving up meat, and becoming an outspoken atheist, and holding unorthodox political and cultural views.  All these things were quite taboo, considering the background I came from.  In fact, despite the turbulence that these decisions often caused, I often felt a need to do things or vocalize positions that clash with the values of at least some of the people around me.  I would probably be slightly uncomfortable if I were in a position where everyone agreed with me about most things (or perhaps, I’d just be bored).

Strangely though, in this day in age, it has largely been some of my more unusual positions or interests that have put me into situations where I have felt like more of an insider than I ever previously had.  For example my involvement with organized atheism, has given me many life-long friends and often has allowed me to feel like I was part of an important cultural development.

I often feel like my self-perceived outsider mentality has made me open to many things I would not be otherwise, and being able to view the world from an outsider’s perspective is not something I would like to give up.  I believe it has made me more concerned about people in outgroups, such as those who face racial discrimination or that based on sexual orientation, not to mention poverty and other forms of social alienation.  It has also given me a strong distrust and distaste for large authoritarian organizations or movements of any kind.  This may be where much of my dislike for religion, big business and mainstream politics of all kinds, comes from.

I am guessing, that some if not all aspects of the experience I am describing here, are quite common (at least in our culture).  A huge percentage of our movies feature a newcomer or some other form of outsider as the protagonist, and a huge amount of the popular music out there deals with social isolation of some form or another. Often it is done badly (as in the case of Staind’s blatantly, intentionally vague song “Outside”).  However, I would say that punk rock, which may the branch of music/youth culture I most strongly identify with, seems to have been built largely on the idea of giving outsiders a voice.

All this leads me to wonder, do most Americans have a similar outsider mindset?  Is such a mindset accurate or are we really more alike than it suggests? How engrained in our culture is it, and is it a good thing?  Part of me suspects this mindset and some of its related media tropes reflect the fact that humans are becoming increasingly atomized, and for better or worse, social bonds may not be what they used to be.

At the same time, I know quite a few people, that I suspect have rarely had this mindset, and have almost always been part of the ingroup. They have developed a clear ingroup mentality.  Then again, I could be wrong about this. Overall, the outsider experience has been my experience and I’m curious to know if it has been your’s.

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