Am I a chameleon or an island? Or neither.

I’ve been thinking for the last couple of days about community, and belonging. Kristen’s post about whether certain perspectives are too familiar to push her to expand her thinking triggered it. Some of the comments, which referred to a community of bloggers who share a certain attitude about the world, made me think more.

I’ve spent my life feeling like I don’t really fit in anywhere. There are myriad places where I feel like I have one foot in the space, but nowhere I feel I really belong. I often have the sense of hovering around the perimeter of any group that I am with, of being a pale ghost floating over my own life, observing rather than participating. This no doubt contributes to my assumption of the role of photographer: some degree of remove helps in that position. At least with a camera in my hands there is something specific to do, a concrete task with which to busy myself so I don’t dwell on how awkward I feel.

I rarely feel comfortable to be fully myself, to reveal the deepest fears of my heart, to trust my affiliation with a group or even an individual. When I do find someone – and the truth is, there isn’t a group I can say this about, and only a tiny handful of people – with whom I can truly breathe and speak from my heart, the startled relief I feel can be overwhelming. I feel I am coming out of Plato’s cave, realizing that all of those other relationships and experiences were shadows, blinking my eyes in the dizzying, blinding sunlight. And then what follows is intense fear that this person, this key to a world of both glorious color and deep comfort, will leave me.

I’ve taken harsh, harsh criticism over the years for trying too hard to “fit in” to various groups. For being a chameleon who becomes what others want me to be. But what was – and still is – my alternative? To be lonely all of the time? I suppose I should be strong enough not to need or seek relationship or identification with a group or community. Yes, that is what I should be, but I’m just not. I am not an island. I wish I was. I wish I was confident and strong enough to not need a sense of belonging, but I’m not. Of course what I know now is that to be in a group and not feel engaged or fully present is actually more lonely than just being alone.

A desire to belong – to fit in – has haunted my entire life. I have ached, for years, to truly fit in somewhere. And I don’t. I guess I’m starting to accept that: I am perhaps too much of a kaleidoscope, too multi-faceted but also too fragmented, to really have a single place I “fit.” But it’s time for me to be gentler myself about this need, and to recognize it as a human impulse. Over the years I have emphasized certain things about myself and de-emphasized others in an effort to “pass,” and I’m mortified by some silly choices I may have made, but I haven’t ever done anything truly hurtful or amoral in this effort.

I suppose it’s all about recognizing, as Toni Morrison said, that “you are your own best thing.” If I could know that, maybe I’d long to belong a little less. Perhaps recognizing it is the first step. At least I hope so.


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9 Comments

  1. Jen
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    How do you pull all of these wonderful quotes? I love that Toni Morrison quote. You ARE your own best thing. You ARE you ARE. Of course, knowing so is the first step. But it's also just the beginning. Being the best thing is so much harder.
    Don't deny yourself belonging. Because you do belong. Probably more than you know. You are welcomed in different spheres, but maybe they don't all work like a Venn diagram.
    I love your writing and your thinking. I love seeing myself in you, even in your times of sad self-reflection. I understand a lot of your words and the emotions behind them. And I thank you for reminding me that I am my own best thing, too, even when, many many days, I disappoint myself.

  2. emmajames
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I, too, love the Toni Morrison quote you highlighted. And I relate completely with your dilemma. In fact, I am in a place where I'm suddenly realizing that so many of the beliefs I have held for myself – what I want, what I like, etc. – aren't based on satisfying my own best self but rather what I thought SHOULD satisfy me, or satisfy "you" so that "you" would be satisfied with me. Adaptability is a commendable trait, as is empathy. But sometimes the journey toward the best self isn't on a much traveled path. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  3. Aidan Donnelley Rowley
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I think this longing for belonging is part of what it means to be human. I think (to some extent) we are all chameleons and all islands. There are times when we all morph to fit our surroundings and there are times when we pull away and shrink inward. I've been thinking a lot about this recently and I think that he more we think, ponder, and question ourselves and our world, the more distant we feel from ourselves and our world. That's the rub, isn't it? That we spend so much time and energy and emotion trying to fashion a way to fit and the very thinking about this is what makes it impossible for us to fit.

  4. Kristen
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely agree with Aidan that the desire to belong to a community larger than oneself is a basic human quality. I share your dilemma over how and when to manipulate myself to fit into groups. I worry about being liquid when I could be solid. When I'm feeling generous, I compliment myself on the ease that my "passing" gives to others. But I think it's more fundamental than that and maybe there's even a connection to what you discussed in yesterday's post: just as the different blogs you read connect to different parts of your identity, perhaps the different groups you mold to highlight different aspects of you – and you're still being you when you're with them, just illuminating some parts and putting others in shadow.

  5. Heather of the EO
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    "I am perhaps too much of a kaleidoscope, too multi-faceted but also too fragmented, to really have a single place I "fit."

    I think this is true of many people. There are some people that are pretty straight-forward, they can sum themselves up in five words or less. And then there are those of us that have so many facets, we do that chameleon thing and it's actually authentic. It's just that we have so many sides to us that we haven't gotten them all figured out so it feels like faking or not being present, when actually it's a true part of ourselves we haven't gotten to know yet.

    Holy rambling sentence. I hope that made sense :)

    I have such a variety of groups of friends, and I only feel I fit in to an extent for these same reasons. The friends I'm closest to are probably the most like me in this way, this multi-faceted way. So we can just relax in all of our selves, any of them, and know we'll be understood.

    Now I sound like I have multiple personalities. I'll stop now :)

  6. Nicki
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    "I rarely feel comfortable to be fully myself, to reveal the deepest fears of my heart, to trust my affiliation with a group or even an individual."

    This sentence jumped out at me. It is a fear I have had all my life. Can I say what I am thinking without everyone leaving? Can I write what I am thinking without losing someone?

    It also brought back a sentence a dear friend said to me just a few weeks ago. He is sure I am not telling him something but that I may not even know what that is. That comment brought on a lot of soul searching, as your blog entry will, and many confessions.

    While I agree that we are both islands and community-seekers, I have come more and more to realize we must have the connectedness to go forward.

  7. wholly jeanne
    Posted December 7, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    your words are like salve for my soul. i feel like i've lived most of my life on the fringes looking into all these different circles. not exactly wanting to take a seat in the circle, and yet wanting desperately to at least be able to converse with somebody and have our words reach a level of excitement and passion that i just vaguely remember.

  8. Goldfish
    Posted December 7, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    …I just linked over from Motherese. And want to sit and read and read. But the two-year-old is fussing and the preschooler is complaining about something and I don't have the time to give you the attention you deserve. But you'll be calling until I have a few minutes' peace and quiet.

  9. becca
    Posted December 7, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    i started to highlight parts of this to show where I can so relate to what you're saying and then I realized I had highlighted nearly the entire thing. My whole life I've felt like I chameleon, changing my "colors" to fit in. Wanting so badly to be part of a "group". I've always been afraid to feel like an island. It's only recently that I've started to not care so much. If I don't fit in… I don't fit in. I'm ok with that now. I now PREFER feeling more like an island, where I am true to myself. I try to think of myself as "interesting" instead of "different" in situations where I think I don't belong. Sometimes it works, other times I leave situations feeling awkward and uncomfortable but again, at least I know I'm being "me" and there are enough people who I know love me for me. Like Jen said, I see so much of myself in you through your words and I also thank you for bringing these thoughts I so often have to the surface.