Do you ever feel like you don’t belong? Like you’re out of place? I know I do. Most of the time, in fact. My usual coping mechanism is to pretend the opposite is true. As if the role I’m playing, or the mask I’m wearing isn’t a role or a mask, but that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, at my rightful place in the universe… wherever that is at the moment.
Largely, I did it to escape from my humble Polish upbringing. It helped me make my way through life, so I didn’t let it bother me. Until a certain encounter in Dublin.
The first thing I did after arriving in Ireland was finding a pub and ordering a pint of Guinness. (Don’t judge. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?)
I walked up to the bar and used my best attempt at a London accent.
“Could I have a pint of Guinness, please?” I thought I even got the drawl on the stretched out pleaase right.
“Sure,” the barman said.
Next to me, a man with his head resting on his hairy forearms suddenly stirred.
“Are you Polish?” he asked.
I laughed. “What gave me away? Was it my nose or my accent?”
“The accent.” Speaking of accents, this man… Let me just say I must’ve found the source of all stereotypes of Irish men.
“And I thought I was doing so well trying to hide it.”
“What? Hide it? Nooo! Why would you try to hide it? You should never be ashamed of who you are.” He beat his chest. “Never be ashamed of your Polishness, you hear me?”
I swear to God, barman be my witness, that’s the conversation we had, word for word.
I knew the man was being… well, himself, but what he said to me felt like a revelation waiting patiently to happen for the last thirty years. Like all it needed was a proper moment.
Never be ashamed of my Polishness? What a novel thought! Could it be that I spent my entire adult life pretending to be someone else, an educated middle-class European who knew the difference between pronunciation and enunciation, and all the while, it was okay to be simply me? Even when I felt out of place?
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And only recently did I realize that this feeling of being out of place is nothing but a healthy reaction of the mind to being outside its comfort zone.
Sure, some people just belong. Look, for example, at a daughter of a Harvard professor. That she should end up teaching at Harvard hardly surprises anyone. We could even say that her life went according to plan. That she fits.
But what about everybody else? People who want to grow into someone they’re not? Like—oh, I don’t know—a writer?
We are a gregarious species. A part of the package seems to be devoting a lot of our attention to status. Ours and of those around us. And while “know your place” is the sort of thinking that belongs firmly in the past, we all, at least on a subconscious level, feel the need to know our place in the tribe.
Only then can we struggle against it.
By doing things you’ve never done before, defying expectations and following a path different from the one laid out by life, you enter new territory and encounter foreign tribes.
Uneasiness is a part of the deal; after all, you really are out of place. But that feeling—if you don’t let it consume you—must be good, yes? It means you’re right where you should be, striving to make good use of your life.