On Being Outsiders…and Not Quite Bulletproof

Just wanted to let you know you can all calm down: I figured out the […]

Stephanie Phillips / 11.29.16

hildonJust wanted to let you know you can all calm down: I figured out the Election of 2016.

Okay, maybe I didn’t “figure it out” so much as “choose the theory I find least disquieting among all the ones being thrown around right now.” The narrative of this election, after all, is being told and retold all over social and traditional media. There seems to be no escaping the countless voices clamoring to be heard, the opinions on why the winner won and the loser lost. One of the refrains that caught my eye early, though, and still sticks, is that so many votes were born of a sense of marginalization. Of feeling unheard and unrepresented. Of being an outsider.

This word, outsider, appears to have positive connotations solely within the political world: the title “Washington outsider” is bandied about like a gold star on someone’s resumé; the idea of being connected with “the establishment” was clearly cause for suspicion and, on November 8, the basis for an unexpected outcome. But in my experience, being an outsider has meant something different. And I think it carries that same weight for many voters, for many citizens, for humanity in general; in fact, I think the outcome of the election had a lot more to do with segments of our population feeling like outsiders than it did either candidate’s credentials, really. When I say “segments of our population,” I mean…well, just about everyone. Almost all of us feel ineffectual or unnoticed in some way, whether from the halls of the Capitol or inside our own homes. The psychology here is fascinating because the implications are, obviously, monumental. But the individual stories resonate most deeply.

trevorTrevor Noah was recently profiled in The New York Times Magazine, and his comments on growing up biracial in South Africa paint a picture that is the polar opposite of my own American suburban childhood. But when he talked of feeling alone–of being a disconnected outsider–my heart and ears perked right up:

My life began in a solitary fashion because of the world I was in: I couldn’t play in the streets because my grandmother and mother could get arrested. I couldn’t be known. I became used to being an outsider, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy what is on the inside, but it means you always maintain a mindset that keeps you within your own space. 

Then there was this profile in The Atlantic, an explanation of sorts from an objective observer of the rise of Trump as it played out in small towns across America. Especially prescient is this quote:

Sociologists call that “valid social capital.” The elites control the valid social capital—what’s cool and what’s not cool, the in club and the out club. Oh hell yeah! Part of Trump’s appeal is the fact that he isn’t supposed to be appealing. I met people who were voting for him because it wasn’t acceptable to vote for him. It was insiders versus the outsiders and it made them feel much more like, “Hey, I’m an outsider, [now] I’m part of a group. Now let’s go take this over.”

As an introvert, 1 on the Enneagram, and recovering “weird kid” (see: moments of solitude in the lunchroom, on the school bus, on the playground), I’m familiar with disconnection, whether self-chosen or circumstantially inflicted. And I get how deep that disconnection can go–how it can penetrate the core of our selves, can change the way we relate to the world…and the way we vote, apparently. Political scientists are going to have a field day with the Election of 2016 for years to come, but psychologists have their work cut out as well.

If you travel to D.C. and take a hard left, though, you land in Hollywood, which has its own myriad and conflicting representations of being an outsider. In regard to the election, there were several videos that left me laughing and cringing in equal measure, their appeals to vote morphing over the months into urges to vote like they do

If you have an extra three minutes and tolerance for the rising rhetoric, don’t miss this:

Well-scripted videos notwithstanding, Hollywood has a hard time maintaining a balanced sense of humor for longer than three minutes when it comes to politics. Indeed, if there is one thing celebrities love to subtly (or not) preach about, it’s government. And if there’s another, it’s religion. 

The Good Place has been a reliable source of laughs for a few months now, and my husband and I have watched every episode. Ted Danson? An absolute delight. Kristen Bell? Appealing as always. Supporting cast: Scene-stealers! Message? Umm…

kristenLet’s not all clutch our pearls/rosaries in shock over a network comedy that reduces the point of the major world religions into one message: be nice or burn in hell. Let’s do, however, talk about how Christianity defies that idea, because apparently that’s not the truth with which Hollywood–or some believers–maintain familiarity. When the key to salvation lies in the dichotomy between rescuing orphans in Uganda and being a neglectful housesitter, one must wonder how “good/bad, in/out” has become the most common takeaway from Jesus’ message. Those who know the Gospel can see that The Good Place‘s portrayal of being a heavenly “insider” isn’t so much a self-aware jab at the actual Gospel as much as it is an unintentional mockery of how the Gospel is misunderstood. [Psst! Hey, showrunners: We’re in on that joke! The simplistic idea that good deeds raise you to paradise while bad ones put you on a train to the other place? WE ALSO KNOW IT’S RIDICULOUS.]

Not so with Speechless, one of my favorite fall offerings (only partly for sentimental reasons). The story of a quirky family of five including a wheelchair-bound, nonverbal teenager with cerebral palsy, Speechless takes any and all conventions and skewers them. The helicopter mom parenting both fiercely and falteringly? Check. The loving yet resentful siblings? Check. The black man with a soulful voice? Check. No one is excluded from the laughter, or from the being laughed at. It’s beautiful. Turns out this little group of outsiders has a story to tell.

While feeling like an outsider seemed an affliction growing up, little did I know that being excluded from a slumber party or suffering from social anxiety would grant me unseen gifts, like that of the type of observation that leads to writing. Despite that realization, though, I still fear for my own children’s futures and am reduced to a puddle of fear any time potential ostracism down the line is revealed. For God’s sake, much of my older son’s therapy is geared toward helping him “fit in” by reducing uncommon behaviors. I agonize over many of the things that were placed by design, and try to control what is already held and determined. I want to prevent my children from feeling some of the hurt that actually made me who I am. Why would I do that?

CS Lewis had a lot to say about the Inner Ring and being an outsider, and how it motivates our behavior. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it,” he wrote, then added:

If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.

I don’t think we were meant to feel disconnected and lonely; the Trinity itself is evidence enough to debunk such a claim. The very nature of God is embedded in community. But I do know, and have experienced, that life in this world will lead to moments of deep isolation. Of feeling adrift and alone. Of not feeling connected. Yet even in this, grace shows a greater hand, gives a better gift. 

That gift isn’t our being bulletproof, sadly. But we have as our advocate and Creator one who is. Whose scars come alongside our own and spell a better end that is really just a beginning. I know, and cry often over, the fact that I cannot save my children from every hurt they will suffer. But I also know that they will be saved in those moments, because that’s how redemption works. It can’t be contained within, or summarized by, a mantra or anthem, catchy as Katy Perry’s exhortation for me to “Roar” may be. What I need is not a theme song or a new president but a savior: the ultimate insider who became an outsider for me.