The Cost of Being Different
May 5, 2019
There is no such thing as affirmative identity. What people try so hard to qualify as a static metric of unyielding personal uniqueness is in fact an incoherent amalgamation of disparate experiences, memories, beliefs, and conflicting emotions we often mistake for cultivated ideas. It is not a categorized self-imposed label. It is certainly not one’s status as an antagonistic or antithetical force. The notion of a genuine sense of self found in difference is a voyage that will run one afoul of its own shallow waters, but is likewise a shipwreck one must fathom to know the degrees by which identity’s true shores are found. Acknowledging difference is a necessary step in laboring for this elusive quarry, but does not provide one with it. If selfhood were to be achieved by difference – that is to say meaningful distance from a thing – it would dissipate in absence of that thing and yield nothing on its own, and all that which it was not would yet be eternally bound to that selfhood by mere association of the thing it was distant from. It would contain superfluous details, non-critical to the person it was meant to define. It would lack self-containment. What is the anarchist without the state? What is the teacher without the student? What is the Christian without Christ? “I am unlike the G-Man. I am unlike the unlearned. I am unlike Christ.” Identity cannot be that which one labors in difference to because success in this sense means accepting permanent distance relative to that which gives said identity meaning. It is insane to function this way. Observing distance between oneself and something else is a means of acknowledging beauty, not becoming realized. We want to be close to the things that make us who we are.
Difference functions as a compounding cancer. It metastasizes and invades faculties of one’s life increasingly so as it continues. Real difference goes beyond the petty celebrations of diversity and quirky idiosyncrasies that have become so popular to pronounce to the world. It has nothing to do with gender identity or brand allegiance, and it is not a lisp or a lazy eye. Difference in people, functions as meaningful distance from other people. It exists as an obstacle to shared meaning, empathy, and communication. Harebrained social exercises meant to discover the cute inconsistencies between coworkers, classmates, and fellow mental patients, do precisely the opposite of what real difference actually does. These casual interpersonal inconsistencies create an excuse to communicate, converse, and befriend. We are all the same because we are all different. It’s fake.
In actuality, sincere difference is crippling and regressive. It compels disassociation, compulsive introspection, and a degree of self-awareness only the hardiest of people can actually be made stronger from experiencing. Most people are horribly maligned by difference. It causes horrible grief – incommunicable sorrow – that grows in proportion with one’s own acknowledgment of it. It often begins young, and secondary school is an oppressive incubator for sincere and often severe difference. Children are especially prone to being victims of difference for obvious reasons. Children lack experience, often assume the best of people, and lack the behavioral coping mechanisms necessary to ward off ill thoughts. Moreover, school exists as an enforcement institution. School prepares children far less for success than it does taking orders and falling in line, and most do. As such, it makes the ones who don’t especially juicy targets. The first acknowledgment of one’s difference is likely to come at this age and in this environment. The charlatan status of difference celebration is revealed mostly by the school shooter phenomenon, and one would think that this would be the surest sign that these sorts of charades do little more than insult those legitimately disaffected in their youth by both their peers and the faculty meant to harbor them into adulthood. Alas, we live in Clown World.
In the schooling environment, real difference is ridiculed and investigated, often with the ironic intention of averting yet another episode of mass murder. Students who serve as outliers see their differences further illuminated as they are interviewed by school psychiatrists. They are examined in their normal classrooms by a person whose presence is unacknowledged or unexplained by the teacher, who sits in the back and watches and writes on a clipboard. Outlying students are then subjected to a battery of examinations meant to narrow the scope of their difference into the realm of clinical diagnosis. Their peers might catch a glimpse of them walking into the office of the “Child Development Study Team” one day. After their examination, their parents are assured by school officials that their special star can be placed into classrooms in which they are surrounded by students who are different in the same way. A single student, who has been assured by those he trusts that they are looking out for his best interests, instead observes people he correctly surmises to be utterly…different from himself. One of them drools on his desk and makes odd noises. Another student seems to have trouble reading, and can’t distinguish between lowercase Bs and Ds. A third student compulsively masturbates, and has an accompanying aid that makes sure his belt stays buckled.
The experiences of all of these students are entirely unknowable and unsympathetic to the one who has just now found himself dropped into a class that looks like an old SNL sketch where Adam Sandler plays all the characters. He begins to understand that his difference is as impenetrable to his parents and his peers and his teachers as these students’ differences are to him. He begins to relent, and despair, and bend, and break. He is not different, he is different. This is the only way hundreds if not thousands of students can be conditioned at an efficient pace, and it only serves to exacerbate the difference in those it disaffects. An official stamp of difference embroiders itself on his mind, and the sense of alienation already implicit in adolescence magnifies to dangerous levels.
This feeling of disillusionment increases in volume as the afflicted person becomes older. Meaningful relationships become more essential, but less realistic. The repeated failures in fostering relationships with others takes a toll that incentivizes seclusion and inward retreat. All of the problems of the real-world, most often made easier with company, are amplified by the sheer lack thereof. The feeling of difference is not new, but the consequences are. Denied avenues of meaningful human interaction, difference forces the afflicted to acknowledge dead ends in almost every aspect of life. Difference creates an observer looking in, a schizoid. It does not build people up, it breaks them down. Being genuinely different is like living in a lifelong boot camp. The expectation is conformity, but is impossible for someone suffering from real difference to abide.
Yet, there is one gift that difference provides: empirical knowledge of the futility of an oppositional identity. Learned experience ignites human sobriety, and creates some semblance of clarity otherwise lacking; it eradicates existential anxiety. The only huzzah of difference is the realization that one of many rabbit holes offering the potential for selfhood can be filled in. If one knows that sense of self does not come from difference to other people, then perhaps they are slightly closer than most to discovering where selfhood actually resides. No longer interested in the juvenile exercises of difference celebration, those truly affected by difference know that identity is a state. The closest we can get to identity is a sense of ownership over one’s own thoughts, born of his own experiences. It is a sense of being confident in what one knows and feels because he has lived it, and so those are the things most fundamental to his being. That grief is uniquely his, more so than anything else he could ever own. No one is owed it and no one can take it from him. So he maintains absolute dominion over it, not in spite of difference, but because he understands it implicitly.