By Sheila Graves
How many of us grew up outside of the popular group…or any group…seemingly on the sidelines for some reason?
Maybe most of us have stories of how we didn’t belong, and how that affected our sense of self. Maybe we remember the Janis JopIan song of decades ago…At Seventeen…about those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball.
At seventeen, there are so many ways in which to be inadequate…appearance, grades, athletic ability, coolness, family wealth. As adults, we’re judged on our jobs, car, paycheck, neighborhood and children.
And there are a lot of sources of this message of inadequacy. I’m sure we all know the usual suspects: parents, school, society, church, magazines, not to mention some of the more subtle sources: the looks, unspoken words of praise or acceptance, silent cultural preferences that exclude us. And worst of all, there’s our perpetuation of these self-diminishments long after the original trigger has passed, as if they’ve made nests in us that keep hatching little hurts about not being enough.
In short, some of us, in one way or another, were misfits in the early, middle, even more recent days of our lives. There are parts in all of us that feel we were orphaned, switched at birth, or born to the wrong parents.
To be honest, there are disadvantages to belonging. Belonging is seductive. And how willing are we to risk losing that? Being part of the “tribe” can make us unwilling to jeopardize the apparent social security.
We all want to belong, but in ways that don’t hold us in place. And this feeling of restriction is no small matter. When we’re held in place physically, we’re prisoners. When we’re held in place emotionally, we’re prisoners of our own device, inclined to stay put, be good, and mind our manners. But if we, or the world, is going to change, someone has to break out.
So, let’s return to the advantages of being one of these misfits.
One of them is that being an ugly duckling allows us to be less restrained by the current vision of…anything. When we’re less dependent on staying within the boundaries of some circle, it’s easier for us to rebel as we mature.
And having felt like an orphan, or however we might describe that to ourselves, we learned ways of taking care of ourselves emotionally…soothing ourselves…building the capacity to stand up for ourselves and our beliefs…setting ourselves on a path that isn’t easy, but has some ‘grit’ to it.
Then there’s this: losing the cocoon a bit earlier leads to earlier opportunities to discern what’s truly important, hearing the Voice within. These experiences of mis-fitting can compel us to look right at our fears, consciously, and know how powerless they are to define us.
Finally, we develop in other ways. Author Malcolm Gladwell has offered the concept of desirable difficulty, challenges that cause frustration but, at the same time, force us to develop better listening and creative problem-solving skills.
In a way, then, we (misfits) can be among the heroes, heroines, pioneers and trailblazers. Those that develop the fiber to go where no one has gone before. Those that create paths where there were none. Those that stand up and move forward when the need arises.
I’m not suggesting we hang on to emotional baggage that led to early negative self-definitions, especially if we find ourselves moving beyond them. But we can make friends with them when we feel them ready to pounce, and consciously re-define ourselves to include our strengths.
For instance, would we have grown in our lives in the same ways if we’d always been part of the pack? Without our early challenges, would we have been as willing to think differently in some way…rock the boat…shrug our shoulders instead of being wounded…walk away and start again…leave situations that were stable, but stifling…stand up to what isn’t right…create in ourselves an openness and acceptance to others who’ve struggled in their lives…listen and accept without judgment, though maybe with a chuckle of self-recognition?
Could we have done as well as we have if we’d always been satisfied? Loneliness, struggle, and questioning contain elements that can trigger just those experiences that prepare us for deeper purpose and growth into our larger self, like a burr under our saddle, or a grain of sand in a pearl.
The answers to such questions aren’t obvious, but the work to find them can be productive. Understanding our inherent swan-hood won’t happen without giving up our victimhood, our “suffering” for those earlier emotional hurts of being on the outside. Maybe we’ll never lose it all, but the attempt and the certain growth carry their own rewards, which means either we release the bad feelings, or we find ways that the experiences have strengthened and refined us, and use them to our advantage.
There are no accidents. If we were one of these little ducklings, we agreed to an important role. And the universe thanks us for having said yes. For where we’re most wounded is where we’re able to touch with compassion, understanding and deep unity of experience.
The expression of these experiences gives voice to others in their unhappiness or rebellion. That’s where we call upon the wounded healer that abides in all of us ready to rise and serve, and where those deficiencies that we felt were so glaring, so clearly set us apart…have created in us pockets of grace.
As an emotional ‘orphan’ we carry a fear of abandonment. But as we confront this fear, one experience at a time, we’re able to see and embrace the hurt of others, and we come to understand that we are abandoned only if we abandon ourselves, only if we turn our backs on God—which is the source of the deepest sense of abandonment.
These are essential roles to be played if we are to participate in the creation of a better world. Our ugly duckling-hood has set us up to make harder choices. It has also set us up to help others.
What experiences have you had that empower you to help others thru the same experience? Where can you say I made it through and so can you? How are you part of the infinite line of souls reaching hands to the next one behind? How has your sense of being different made you stronger, more compassionate? Where has your life experience increased your understanding and capacity for love and grace?
So we might not have been beautiful, interesting, adored, bright, or cool enough in the eyes of others. But we are strong, useful, attractive, essential—definitely more than enough—in the eyes of a loving universe. We are beautiful in the ways we can serve because we see and feel things differently. Look at Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer…ridiculed by others and called names…suffering all sorts of taunts and insults and put-downs. But it was Rudolf that carried the Light within him that led the others Home. Where has your ugly duck-hood led you into dark places in your own soul, then invited you back out to be the Light to guide others?