There will be times in your life when you feel like an outsider. When it looks like everyone around you, the people you admire and the ones you dislike, belong somewhere. They have this life thing all figured out. They are needed, respected. They matter. Their opinions and insights matter. And they have their ranking systems, their awards programs, their contests and grants and fellowships. They all seem to know how to work that system and be recognized—whether it’s for years of toil on some obscure invention or a brilliant essay dashed off after a flash of insight.
Don’t fall for it. It’s a trick of the light, a smoke-and-mirrors deception. All of us are outsiders and wanderers. The only real lasting sense of belonging has come from cultivating a strong relationship with my inner world. The degree to which you feel exiled, out of place, shunned, is the degree to which you are estranged from your own core of being, your own heart.
Paradoxically, our belonging is not contingent on acceptance into human communities—schools, neighborhoods, workplaces. Our belonging is a given, from the moment of our birth. More accurately, from conception, and, the mystics tell us, even before that moment.
David Wagoner has a marvelous take on this in his poem, “Lost.” If you’ve ever gone into a forest and felt acutely the outsider, this poem is for you. It forever changed how I see myself, both in forests and in the world of buildings and streets and cities.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
It’s a mystery to me why I need this reminder again and again. Maybe that feeling of being an outsider has become an ingrained habit. As alienating and lonely as it feels, there’s also a kind of safety to standing on the sidelines and watching.
Still, during those periods when I wade into the arena, when I show up and submit work or give talks or run retreats, there is no guarantee that anyone will respond. I used to worry feverishly about whether anyone was “out there,” reading my stuff or feeling the least bit affected by whatever I was offering. That sort of anxiety can be paralyzing, but maybe there’s a healthy reason for it. I do not always feel up to sharing my more precious insights. I might tell myself it’s because the work isn’t “good enough” yet, that it needs more polishing. That I need to hone my craft. These may all have truth to them. But the real reason is that I am comfortable in my distance. My alienation suits me even as it traps me in isolation and separateness.
This world can be accommodating and welcoming. It can also be indifferent and cruel. That’s the challenge. Wade in or sit this one out? The only litmus I’ve come across thus far is a series of questions that go something like this: Am I in love with this work? Do I feel compelled to do it, even if I don’t understand why? Am I willing to stick with it though no outside recognition or encouragement has been forthcoming? And, will I keep working without any certainty of its outcome?
To answer “yes” to any or all of these questions is to commit to a path into the unknown. I do not answer lightly, though I also do not understand all the implications of such a commitment. In some sense, we are all rootless wanderers at the mercy of our inner promptings. The least we can do is be true to what’s in our hearts.