How I learned to appreciate the struggles of others who don’t fit in

When I was ten I once found myself walking with my brother on a Lake Michigan beach when we came upon a half-empty bottle of beer. Curious, I picked it up and looked inside at the swirling dark liquid. Then, impulsively, I took a sip. It was hot, having baked in the sun for who knows how many hours or days, and tasted awful.

I never took another drink of alcohol again. The reason for this isn’t because I found that first sip so revolting (though I did). It’s for the same reason my wife hates to have her blood drawn—that is to say, not because the needle hurts (she’s voluntarily taken on exponentially more pain throughout her life, most recently when she climbed Mt. Rainier)—but rather because the idea of a needle being inserted into her vein is so utterly revolting to her.

Though I have no problem having my blood drawn, the idea of having my mind influenced by a drug fills me with the same sense of revulsion that she feels when she thinks about a needle puncturing her skin and sliding into a vein. The origin of these feelings? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps they relate to a pathological fear of loss of control. Or perhaps to a subconscious sense of moral superiority that remaining always in control of my faculties gives me. (I feel no conscious moral outrage toward drinking or drinkers—at least, none toward those who drink responsibly.) But when you combine an emotional aversion to feeling even tipsy with the fact that the ability to enjoy the taste of alcohol must, in general, be acquired, what you get—at least, in my case—is a lifelong teetotaler.

Abstaining from alcohol hasn’t always been easy. Especially in college, there was frequently subtle and even occasionally intense and direct pressure to drink. My not drinking separated me from my peers in a way I found frankly—though in retrospect naively—bewildering: I wasn’t just left out of drinking games but also of other kinds of fun they would have. It hurt sometimes to be excluded—but never so much that I ever decided to join them in drinking. I often found myself wondering if my friends felt that my not drinking was my way of rebuking them for drinking to excess. And though I have to confess I never admired anyone for drinking so much that they threw up or couldn’t remember what they’d done the night before, I never once criticized anyone for it.

Being excluded from a group because of choices you’ve made, what you believe, or what you are is painful, to say the least. But it can also make you strong. It forces you to define your boundaries. To know why they exist. To practice defending them. To practice paying attention to your own voice amid the often deafening cacophony of the voices of those around you.

And it does one thing more: it makes you more empathetic. This, by helping you to appreciate the struggles of those others who also don’t fit, who find themselves trying to find their own community. Being excluded because of the choices you make can even make you empathetic to the suffering of those who most stringently seek to ostracize you. In sum, being excluded makes it far more likely you’ll be able to live according to Plato’s admonition to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” For few things, I’ve found, make us as kind as needing a little kindness ourselves.

Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World.  He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

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