If you’re normal, you often feel like an alien. Unless you’ve been clinically diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, this is probably (I’m going to wager here) due to a heightened sense of individuality; that you’re different, that you don’t quite fit in, etc. It’s a sensibility I will annex as “extraterrestrial.” It stands to reason to name it as such given our theme. I’m not talking about the science fiction “take me to your leader” or “phone home” kind of extraterrestrial. The awareness of feeling other, a traveler, a perpetual tourist in your own surroundings is more like it.
If this description doesn’t cut it for you, you’ve proved my point. I apologize for further othering you. Rest assured, though, that my intention is to signal rather than define something. If you’re a reflective person, you’re probably aware of it already, perhaps all too aware of it. And if you perceive it as a problem, you’re probably looking for a solution rather than a description. I’m afraid I offer neither here. Perhaps what I’m looking for is a way to approach it—a way I’ve come to approach it, that is. Hopefully, reading this won’t be a complete waste of time.
Alright, then. So, if you follow this blog, you know that I’m prone to see this sensibility in terms of an interstice, an intermediary, liminal state, something that’s always present. It functions like a motor driving the cart of the self to integrate or dissociate. Depending on your personality, you can see this as indispensable for growth and change or as something undesirable, a means of stagnation and … alienation. It can and often does function in both ways: we are talking about an interstice, after all!
But isn’t seeing it in these terms too subjective, an issue of personal volition rather than what it actually is: coercion? Yes, yes it is. Let’s face it, feeling like an alien is not to be in a position of privilege or comfort; ask any refugee! Against the background of what we take to be an ideal state of being, feeling other disrupts our identity. If you’re like me, such a sensibility is often disheartening. And did I mention complicated? Wearing a hijab in Iran and wearing one in France doubtless incites different senses of alienation; being a minority amid a majority forces another kind of alienation; a metalhead in a room full of “gangsta-type” rappers may surface another type of self-awareness, unsettling to both perhaps and with an oscillating intensity. And what about social media? What a bewildering array of awarenesses that creates! Examples can be multiplied but the point remains the same: our otherness is effected by the presence of others.
The experience has its extrinsic causes, to be sure. However, our reactions, based on our sense of individuality, will vary—I cannot say definitively in accordance to what: our mood perhaps, at a given point of time, our level of thinking, our training, our socialization, and so on? That, practically speaking, is an issue of subjectivity. And subjectivities will process the sense of otherness differently. My vote is for negotiating that “dissociation,” our being other, in constructive ways; to see this sensibility as an opportunity for growth and integration. It may be too much of a cliché to add “celebrating our difference”, but perhaps acknowledging our difference is the place to start; to move toward assimilation productively, humanely, self-critically, self-lovingly.
For my part, I don’t see the moment of displacement, our sense of otherness, as being bad. In fact, I believe it’s necessary. How else would we move out of our navel-gazing infancy to the expanding horizons of adulthood? Not that being an adult guarantees authenticity, of course. We all have to contend with retarded growth and narcissism in one way or another, in ourselves, in others. Which is why this interstitial space of tension, between integration and dissociation, is a necessary stop in the path toward self-development. It’s a personal negotiation with others, in deference to them, all of us aliens, in a world desperately in need of good will and mutual respect.