My thoughts about culture and our present conditions. As Dianne Moore says in Learning to Love a Wounded World, "This requires a willingness to feel everything…. the horror and the beauty of what is here…. the fear and the Love.”

Being Different

I was having a discussion with a friend about the idea of being "different." It’s not an easy concept to get a grip on, really, what is it to be different, what does it mean?  For her it seems to mean that she is exceptional, gifted, and that her giftedness got suppressed somewhere in her life process and she went through a phase where she tried to be "normal" like "everybody else." 

That brought out my interest what Marti Olsen Laney calls in her book The Introvert Advantage.  I’ve never doubted I was an introvert, and the book offers me a handy
dandy explanation for what seemed to make me a kind of outsider to groups, which is always nice when you haven’t really had much of an explanation for that sensation
most of your life.  As a rule, introverts are not as common in our society as extroverts.  Here’s how Laney describes us:

Introversion

Introverts are often misunderstood. They can appear
to be shy and aloof, or calm, or even unfeeling. In actuality,
introverts are driven and energized by their own inside equilibrium.
They are the calm, collected group. Introverts work within their minds
and excel at such tasks as writing, composing, engineering, and
researching, and in disciplines such as design, diagnostic imaging,
psychiatry, and radiology. Introverts feel the most energized and
complete when they are peacefully thinking or working in their minds,
or by being calmly stimulated by the outside world. Large, loud
parties, thrill-seeking, and too many people drain introverts.

Introverts
have reactions to two neurotransmitters. They have a low tolerance to
dopamine, the thrill-seeking neurotransmitter. Essentially, introverts
need way less of this than do extroverts, and too much dopamine makes
them anxious and eventually drained. For introverts, outside
stimulation which increases dopamine levels is much like being tickled:
not so bad at first, but it can escalate and become very stressful and
uncomfortable. Introverts prefer the neurotransmitter acetylcholine,
which produces a feeling of calm and wellbeing. This neurotransmitter
is raised during calm, reflective activities like reading or drawing.

Introverts
have a longer brain pathway from initial stimulus to the brain’s
reaction to the stimulus. Perhaps this is why introverts are "slower"
in their talking, walking, thinking, and socializing. What’s the rush?
For further reference: The Introvert Advantage by Dr. Marti Olsen Laney
(Workman Publishing, 2002.)

Read more: extraversion/introversion

I’ve mentioned that these cognitive questions about memory and how our minds work are
endlessly fascinating to me; that I’ve always wondered why some are curious
about how their own minds work and others aren’t. One commonality with
those who aren’t curious, I’ve noticed, is a sense of judgmentalism about the
mind itself, about looking into it and trying to understand it, about a kind
of reversion in their references to the stigmas of mental differences,
some of which are seen as illness by society, almost any of which may
be looked at in a kind of causal way to explain fearful things. There’s
also this sense of seeking a sheen of normativity combined with a fear
of being labeled "other" in their lack of curiosity about themselves.
And in some ways I have to feel a little sorry for them and how they
shut themselves out of one of the richest areas for exploration in the
world, one’s own mind. In some ways they scare me and I’m prone to avoid them because I’ve seen them get violent when provoked with questions.

That’s when she said she didn’t feel particularly sorry for those who fear being labeled "other" and lack curiosity about themselves, and she explained that she didn’t much care what their opinions are.  I thought it was interesting that she felt an urge to say that, but I didn’t make any comments.  Instead I told her a story.

I was teaching gifted kids back in the late seventies and I had this
one kid, a fifth grader, extremely shy and unsocial who would crawl
into shelves in some cabinets in the room to get away from the other
kids — not that they were bothering him, he just wanted to be out of
their line of sight. I started working with him a little more to see if
I could discover what interested him, besides hiding, and we talked
about different things he likes, his collection of dust, other things
that might be considered weird by "normal kids." Then he spontaneously
started telling me about transactional analysis. He’d just finished the
book I’m OK, You’re OK, and
he had a pretty good sense of how the "tools" in the book worked to
solve personal issues. Pretty good sense of abstract understanding
about them as tools, just not quite sure how they related to him.
Turned out he could be very articulate once you got him going.

It
was really helpful that he did have this abstractive understanding of
the tools in the book, it gave me something to work with. If I wasn’t
working with so many unusual kids, unusual in their range of interests
and mental vibrancy, I might have been amazed at a fifth grader reading
and understanding that book. But I wasn’t. And I found it helps to just
work with their gifts as simply normal potentiality in the course of
life to get them to open up to themselves and to others. That was
really what our program was geared to do. Almost all of them had a
tendency to hid their gifts because it’s automatically not "good" to be
different. This particular kid had an exaggerated desire not to be
noticed, was all. After all, we get plenty of social normative
"control-oriented" messages telling us that. There’s a whole self
destructive set of mechanistic rebellion responses that can come out of
that. I’m OK, You’re OK was
one set of tools that could help this one kid, at least, overcome that
feeling of being controlled by that sense of normative expectations
most people exhibit in their behaviors, which can be interpreted as
control. That sense of control may then result in some of the hiding
behaviors, which is a feeling of not wanting to be different and thus
noticed.

Getting together with others like themselves was an
absolution for those feelings of difference that just naturally
inhibited their drive to explore what interested them. When I left the
program to deal with a personal family crisis (which really derailed my
own path), he was doing pretty good, interacting with other kids and
actually like a normal kid. I wish I could have followed his path
through school. And all the others, of course. They were all
fascinating kids.

That brought out a story from her, about how when she was a kid she had this ability to "see" the answers to math questions without working them out, and then how she suppressed her abilities and her differences, eventually going to a point where she tried to be just a normal mom raising son to be a normal kid.  She said it was through her rebellious son that she finally reconnected with her original sense of being different.

So I asked her what can be different about her life, knowing she is different? I mentioned that it seemed to me like the Buddhist monk who became enlightened, and was asked, what did you do before you became enlightened?  He replied: "I chopped wood."  And now what do you do?  "I chop wood," he replied.

I think we kind of hit an impasse of sorts for her.  Instead of giving me an answer to that, she went back and told the story of raising her son and what she learned through that.  I didn’t want to be directly confrontive by restating the same question, so I brought out another narrative on my thinking, hoping for maybe a way of making some contact with what I was reaching to hear from her.  I mean, I really wondered what she thought this idea of seeing herself as different and special might mean to her in her life.  But it occurred to me I might be treading on some dangerous psychological territory, maybe some deep seated feelings of regret she had rejected her difference, and I didn’t want to make that a part of my concern.  I really just wanted her to feel OK about it.

So I said, I’ve always considered being different to be kind of a personal
challenge. Something you find to be challenging maybe without really even having to consider you are different, it’s just, well, what you have to deal with every day, every moment. And because I also consider that each of us is
unique, then I figure it’s not likely that a handy formula can be
shared for how each one of us can deal with the challenge of being
different.

I wonder if I formed myself to become introverted or
if introversion is really a part of my genetic inheritance. Anyway,
whatever, it works for me as part of dealing with being different
because I find that being noticed for my differences often involves
feedback I don’t enjoy dealing with. So I do what I like to do and
pretty much get away with it without anyone noticing. I don’t think
that works so well for extroverted types of people who need a lot of
feedback. So the personal challenge for people who need feedback will
involve different factors than my personal challenges involve. See what
I’m saying about it being something that the individual has to deal
with and solve for oneself?

I was asking a question about that individualized problem when I asked:

What can be different about your life, knowing you are different?

For
me, what could be different about my life?… well, I developed a life
where I have a lot of personal freedom, or "space" is how it feels to
me. My project kind of began about ninth grade when I was required to
do an assignment mapping out my future, college, career, all that stuff
to get you ready for taking your place as a cog in the machinery of
civilization. I concluded I wanted to be an educated bum and not map
out a future. That didn’t go over too well. Anyway, I kind of stuck to
it, despite the lack of community support — in fact, I received quite
the contrary to support from any so-called community. It turns out
doing what I wanted to do involved simplifying, because my family is
not wealthy, quite the contrary, and simplifying is not as easy as I
hoped it to be. But it’s necessary.

It’s actually quite a
challenge to be an educated bum. Simplifying awakened me to the whole
issue of perceived needs that people are burdened with on a daily
basis. And the whole issue of perceived needs awakened me to what
civilization was about, which I think was the whole impetus behind
wanting to be a bum in the first place, I wanted to go out and see what
the world was really all about. And all that’s kept me pretty busy
being different, you might say.

Turns out I did find a few
people along the way who find some of the same kinds of interests and
we sort of have a large, extended, ongoing set of relationships that
might even be called an art community, or family, or tribe. We are
extended to places like New York City, where my niece (the one we home
schooled) is now using her fabric design skills to "build costumes"
(her words) for the NYC ballet. One of my brother’s is finally in Santa
Fe, NM, where he’s wanted to be for years, and he’s opened up a gallery
for his own work. And I have another brother in Oakland doing his
artistry, creating an art compound of his own, where he’s networked
with the largest concentration of artists we all still connect with.
And of course I’m up here in the Willapa Watershed, now, being my
reclusive self. I figure everything I’ve done up to now has been part
of the process of becoming an educated bum. I don’t know if I’ll ever
achieve the final product, or goal, of my conclusion from that ninth
grade assignment. Probably not. I keep finding new things to explore
all the time.

Thing is, even if I was so very different from
other people, I don’t know if I’d do life any differently than I have.
I’d still be "chopping wood" as the Buddhist once said.

So that’s kind of what I was asking about with "what can be different about your life, knowing you are different?"

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