Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Outsider Looking In

There is a popular trope used in fiction of the outsider looking in, or using a character who is not a part of a certain group to make observations about that group. It is generally used as a means of bringing attention to real characteristics that people on the inside take for granted but which don’t appear to make sense if viewed from an outside perspective. The ancient immortal comparing modern society with past expectations; the alien observing human customs and traditions without the mitigating knowledge of the history or context of those customs and traditions; the exile returning to discover what changes have occurred in the homeland many years later. When done well, it is a way to create an interesting character tension while also raising awareness of real issues.

Though we don’t think about it quite the same way, it’s also not confined to fiction. If you do much traveling, you have probably spent time as the outsider looking in. That’s part of the fun of traveling, to be honest, but there are other possibilities as well. Being the outsider is certainly not always fun, and many people do experience the status without the benefit. As someone whose childhood was heavily accented with bouts of harassment and bullying, I know all about being the outsider without benefits. On the plus side, I was an avid reader of those types of fiction, so I also knew all about being the outsider who learns about insiders.

I have an intellectual understanding of many forms of behavior that I don’t otherwise understand. That is, I know enough to know that B follows A without necessarily knowing why B follows A. In some cases I actually do know why, I just don’t believe the why makes any sense. I get it, but I don’t get it, if you can follow that line of thinking. If I do A, Bully B is going to translate that as C and insert Head D into Solid Object E, resulting in unwanted Pain F thru J. Translation: Don’t do A in the presence of B.

We can go round and round all day about whether or not this is the correct translation, whether or not the victim should have to change behavior to avoid being the victim, but when you’re 12-years-old and built like an underweight scarecrow, immediate results tend to be a tad more important than ethical debates. As an adult who knows better looking back on a troubled past, or even observing a troubled present from the perspective of what I have learned, I am very interested in the ethical debate and changing behaviors going forward. As a child with minimal self-defense skills, though, I had a vested interest in not getting locked in a locker. Debate later. Survive now. Sometimes it really is that simple.

We forget that when we’re no longer an immediate part of the picture. We believe that things should be a certain way, and forget that there is often a reason why they are not that way. That is the overlooked downside to being the outsider looking in. Just as the outsider is commenting on behaviors that insiders take for granted, the outsider is also taking for granted that his own observations on those behaviors make sense. Sometimes they do - the benefit of a fresh pair of eyes - but sometimes they don’t. The outsider usually lacks context, and context matters. As an adult outsider, I can tell that bullied child to never change - Be who you are and stand strong! - and in the long run that may even be the better advice, but the short run is not irrelevant. Ultimately the long run matters more, but you have to get there for it to matter at all. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but if the short run kills you, the long run dies with you, at least from your perspective.

Life is messy, and it’s very rarely an either/or proposition. I’ve seen a thing going around Facebook that basically says bullying will never go away so, instead of trying to teach the bullies to not to bully, we should teach the bullied to stand up for themselves. Here’s an idea: How about both? Is there some valid reason why we can only do one or the other? No, there is not. We’re talking about teaching two different things to two different groups of people, and that is something we do every day. That’s a pretty big cornerstone of education. Will the results ever be perfect? Absolutely not. Without a dramatic paradigm shift in human philosophy, the naysayers are correct, bullying will never go away, but the other side of that coin is equally true. You will never successfully teach every victim effective self-defense either. Do we just abandon the ones who can’t cut it because we’re not willing to do anything else? That doesn’t seem like a good answer to me. We can’t get perfect results either way, but we can improve things both ways.

If you are a thoughtful outsider (or if you are an outsider because you are thoughtful), it’s not terribly uncommon that you end up with plenty of time alone with your thoughts. If you put that time to good use, you can end up learning things that might lead to less pain and frustration, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: the average bully is not all that complicated. You can spend time learning tricks and tactics for avoiding the worst of the bullying, and still have plenty of time left over for more involved philosophy. I figured out that I didn’t have to be a defenseless scarecrow, and I learned how to take care of myself, but I also figured out that not everyone can do that. We need options, and we have options. We just have to use them.

The outsider doesn’t always have the right answers, but the outsider can usually be counted on to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions can be more important than having the right answers. That’s how we learn, and learning is how we grow. Maybe someday we’ll grow enough to not need some of those answers, or possibly even to not have outsiders, but the ones we have are valuable while we have them. Some of us have even learned enough to sneak occasional trips inside. It adds to the learning.

If you are an outsider, you’re not alone, no matter how it feels at times, and you are important. Many of the greatest achievements throughout human history have been accomplished by outsiders. Hold onto that thought. It might help on days when nothing else does. I know. If you know an outsider, cherish them. Remember, the most valuable gems are often the most rare. If you are making someone an outsider, these words might not mean so much right now, but I hope they come back to you sometime when you need them, when you can best use them. We’re all in this together, one way or another.

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