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On Being A Social Identity Outlier

When I was a teenager I remember hearing a great quote attributed to Groucho Marx that I never forgot: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” At the time I thought it was funny, but it had a ring of truth that I didn’t fully understand…

I’ve always found the idea of basing one’s identity on being a member of a group very foreign, and at times I’ve almost felt as though I was missing some essential gene that would compel me to do so, since it seems as though most of the rest of the world finds this concept very comforting. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense – humans on their own are not very strong, whereas in numbers they are much more formidable. Therefore being part of a group (or in this case, tribe) was essential for survival. And yet, I wonder if there was also some benefit to having a few members who didn’t think this way?

I identify with being human, but that’s about it. When I was a kid, I used to somewhat identify with being an American, but not really from a nationalistic “exceptionalism” perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am all too aware of how lucky I am to have been born in this country, and I’m grateful for all of the privileges that go along with that. But I was disavowed from nationalistic “pride” very early on – I was 12 in 1969, and only those of us who lived through that period can fully appreciate how violently divisive this country was back then. The U.S. is still shockingly divided, but we don’t have the national guard shooting and murdering middle class kids on the campus of a state university – for demonstrating against the Vietnam war.

The whole religion thing has been a total mystery to me my entire life (I’ll save more explanation for another post). Sports? The same. Politics? I have a very definite set of personal ethics, so back when I thought our government at least somewhat worked, I would vote according to my principles. But tellingly, as soon as I registered to vote when I was a teenager, it was as an independent.  I wasn’t going to join any goddamn party, I was going to think for myself! Ah, the hubris of being young…

The thing is, probably at least partly because of the way I was raised, I’ve always felt the only person I could really trust was myself. It’s not that I had a pathological deep mistrust of everyone else, it’s just that as a kid, when the people who are supposed to be taking care of you are hurting you instead, you realize you are on your own in this world. And when you see these people behave one way in public, and another way entirely at home, your child’s mind just assumes everyone is hiding something – that no one is what they appear to be.

One of the pivotal moments in my life was meeting my wife at the age of 27. I had really been living on my own my whole life, she was the first person I felt I could really trust on a deep level. Her family accepted me like a son from the beginning, but it was probably another five years before I realized that they really were who they appeared to be…

All of this dysfunction was long ago dealt with (therapy works folks!). The only remnant that remains is that I still don’t identify with groups.