Alienation at Home

“Who is going to be brave enough to ask where home is, and seek out something else if they don’t like the answer?”

-Hanif Abdurraqib, “Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative,” in “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, 2017.

I remember the moment I decided to leave home. In my seventeenth summer, stocking groceries in a supermarket. I was in the store putting wine bottles on the shelf before the sun had risen. Slowly, working my way to the last item on my last cart, I finished the work, at the mid-point between noon and dusk. Entering the backroom, there were my colleagues, weary men with fortune-telling faces telling of possible futures. Like me, many started stocking in their teens. They were the men who remained, who stayed after the culling of years.

In a twinkling moment, I had a realization. I hadn’t done well in school, and if I didn’t make a radical change that this would be my life. I could see the years roll past and my greatest aspiration would be to become a manager of a grocery department and then of a store.

Looking at it today, a manager of a grocery store seems like honest work. Perhaps not a bad life. I think I may have judged the possibility too harshly. A life revolving around a grocery store didn’t seem big enough to me then.

Within the week, I had sought out a military recruiter. I had completed the military aptitude test as a high school sophomore, partly because it struck me as a more enjoyable alternative than going to my classes that morning. I had scored well.

The next Saturday afternoon, the recruiter took me to the major recruiting station, and I had completed all the paperwork. But, I hadn’t realized that I was not old enough to sign the papers on my own. I understood very little about the process of signing up. Everyone signs for eight years, and the choice is how many of those are active and the number of years you pick — two, four, or six — determines what jobs are available to you. Four is a normal tour. You do six if you want to get extensive training, such as nuclear power, advanced electronics, special operations, and so forth. Two was for reservists. You do two years active and six on reserve and you can get help paying for college. I chose six. But like much in life, you have no idea of what you are signing up for when you sign up for it.

They called my mother and had her come in to give her permission. She came with her boyfriend, not her husband. I hadn’t said anything to her. After some discussion, my mother signed for me. I stayed at home for another year to finish high school. Then, I left ten days after graduating.

A handful of times since, I have returned to the place I grew up. Once after completing my initial military training. Another time on leave. But, each time the visits were separated by more time. The first time I came back, it was after a few months. Then, it took a year, then four. Now, it takes a decade or more.

With more time, “home” has become more alien. But, it was alien from the start. Home was always a place where I never felt like I belonged. It was a place I was always escaping. Either I would disappear into books or later, I would avoid going home, leaving for school on a Friday morning and not returning until Sunday night. Spending the night at the houses of friends that were gracious enough to let me stay. During the week, I did a sport for every season, so I had somewhere else to be in the afternoons. Working at the grocery store, it was easy to fill up week nights and weekends and the dead space of summer. I enjoyed working more than staying up late watching Wimbledon.

No one asked where I was. I had few friends. Anyone interested knew where to find me. But mostly, people weren’t interested in where I was or what I was doing.

As a child, I was frequently thinking of running out the clock, of getting to the part of life where I could make my own decisions without interference. Children are a permanent underclass serving the whims of parents and guardians. No one told me that life is mostly serving other people’s whims. Sometimes those other people are our past selves. Sometimes it’s our family. Sometimes it’s our boss. But, it is rare to be able to make decisions free of social suasion or interference of any sort.

It’s a funny thing about freedom. When you adopt autonomy as a principle value, where your independence is more important than fitting in, and even if you have, comparatively, a great deal of freedom, you’ll always want more. In this life, you can be free or you can fit in.

When you are free not to care about the opinions of your family or peers, free to think your own thoughts, free to violate the expectations of your social environment and go your own way — you’ll never fit in. It starts a cycle as you become more free, you are pushed to the edges, as if there is a threshold to the amount of variation a social milieu can tolerate, and then it ostracizes behavior beyond it, which pushes it further in the direction of variation.

That’s how people become the “crazy one” or “The Other” because they aren’t on the same page as everyone else in a particular social set. It must be how Satan felt in the Garden of Eden, if Genesis was rewritten from his point of view. It’s how Adam and Eve felt after pushed out of the garden. Once you start deciding for yourself, you’re on your own.

It’s one of the advantages of “mental illness” however defined. When you come into contact with it, either because it is a voice inside your own head or it speaks in the voice of a friend or family member, it becomes clear that reality is shaped or created whole-cloth from belief. Belief, more often than not, is socially constructed and serves someone else’s interests.

Illustration: What is the speed of light? In a vacuum, it has the exact value is 299,792,458 meters per second. But, do we know, experimentally, that is true in all areas of the universe today? Do we know that this is true throughout time? We don’t. There are variable speed of light theories. It is entirely possible based on what we know that light varies given different conditions than those where we have tested it in the last two hundred years. But, how do you test for something that may have existed in the past and doesn’t now? And, how would it change our current understanding of the world?

At base, this is the problem of induction. The problem of induction asks, “[O]n what grounds we come to our beliefs about the unobserved on the basis of inductive inferences?” If we did not observe and measure the speed of light 10,000 years ago, how do we know it was traveling at the same speed then as it is traveling now? When you go far enough down this particular rabbit hole, you come to the conclusion of Bertrand Russell that: if the problem of induction cannot be resolved, then “there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity.”

Assigning a value to the speed of light and saying it is permanent is more than convenient in terms of physics experiments. It suggests that some truths are timeless and not a function of an environment. We want truths we can count on, and the temptation is to call beliefs that can be useful true, even when there is reason to doubt.

Pick a conspiracy theory, cult belief system or alternative viewpoint of choice. You’re free to believe whatever you like. What do you choose? The criterion that matters to most people is whether the beliefs they adopt allows them to fit into a social group where they want to be accepted, often the nearest at hand. In most cases, this is what makes a belief useful. Like a diet, it doesn’t matter which one you pick (whether belief system or community since each is tied with the other), just so long as you pick one and stick with it.

Reading Hanif Abdurraqib, he talks about family. He talks about the black community, punk rock scenes, his romantic relationships, his family and his friends. He also talks about living in a society that treats him and the people he cares about as “The Other,” where the intersectionality of growing up as a black person in a poor neighborhood in a small city in the Rust Belt, has impressed upon him a sense of impending doom.

From his perspective, I am privileged. I am white, male, cis, “middle-class” broadly-defined, etc. I am much older than his 22 year old friend, and I have never attended a funeral of someone I loved.

But, from my perspective, there is privilege in having people that care about you at home, belonging to various communities, even if the larger culture in which you are living is designed to oppress those communities and the people you love. In some sense, it seems like a smaller community defined by skin-color might also allow for greater variation of behavior and belief, which may also have the effect of making the black community a source of so much of what eventually becomes mainstream culture. What I wonder are whether spirituals, jazz, rock and roll and other facets of black culture could have existed without white supremacy? Is there black culture without a distinct black community formed by racism? And without it, would humans desire to subjugate others just manifest differently, some kind of other arbitrary distinction like that of between Tutsi and Hutu in the Rwandan genocide?

What of the people that have aren’t part of any community? The elderly living out their lives alone in a nursing home after all their friends and family have died? Or, those with mental illness or a physical disfigurement acute enough that it is impossible for them to pass as normal. Perhaps there is a pass privilege, the ability to be accepted as belonging at a glance, until proven otherwise.

It works the other way too. You can pass and still know you don’t belong. On some level, we all have qualities that don’t belong, vary from some imagined norm. But, some of us feel that difference more acutely than others. Perhaps, this feeling is a form of variance itself.

I left home behind to seek out something else because I didn’t like the answers home had for me. One thing I found was that in a society like the United States, one that supposedly prizes individualism, is that everyone is trying to be different in the same way. Be different. Express your individuality through an acrylic sticker placed upon your chosen Apple product.

If you are going to choose something outside the mainstream, make sure there is a scene around it. It is hard to become a butcher, tailor, or candlestick maker, if you live in a post-apocalyptic vegan, nudist community living in a shelter underground. Different environments require different skill sets and different beliefs. Something singular will have to be made from scratch. Noah was a madman until the rains came. Then, his view was the only game in town.

Ultimately, the central question is: what story do we tell about ourselves? We all want a consistent narrative, to bind our best selves to the present and the future in an uncertain and changing world. Stories are the glue that does the binding. Whether the story is true or a fiction, it shapes us as people and our view of the world. This is always shaped to someone’s benefit. Who chooses? And who benefits?

When you start choosing only for yourself, it is the doorway to madness. God, love, and home can only exist in places where there is a multiplicity, where the “I” gives way to the “We”.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Matthew 18:20

Even the Christian God is imagined as a person, in three aspects. A singular God would be a mad God. One that would offer no redemption beyond changing her mind. And thoughts of home or a heaven would change with the changes of her mercurial mind. First this, then that. Hanging ten until the solidity of the surfboard is pulled from underneath, spilling you into the dark depths, possibly to be pulled down forever, never to rise again.

No board can ride a wave without a fin of belief giving us some measure of control. Diving the depths, we have to keep an eye on the time, a concept socially constructed. We are free to emerge, catch a wave, dive and try again. But, without community and without “The Other”, there can be nothing but chaos. Without chaos, it’s an ordered monotony, one that is serving interests other than most people living their lives in it.

A walled garden or the wilderness. Either/Or/Both. A palm tree can grow in the black iron prison. But do you want shade, dates or coconuts? And who can guarantee the fruit?