When I was in 5th grade — I was different. Raised by a single mother (and her mother) for a better part of my life, I was a bit effeminate. I didn’t want to dress in the clothing that other kids wore (flannel shirts and blue jeans with cowboy boots — we lived deep in the Idaho panhandle countryside). I was well-read and smart — not endearing qualities at that age, during that time period and certainly not in that location.
I was also bully magnet.
Not a day went by where I wasn’t abused, tormented, teased and occasionally beat up. I assure you that being “cyber-bullied” on Facebook is nothing compared to my daily ride home on the school bus.
One day I was chased from the bus stop to my home — as a latch-key kid, there were no parents at home for me to turn to. Five kids stood outside my house wanting my blood because … I was different.
This was the Potato State. Everyone has a gun. Everyone has a gun loaded and laying around. In my house, there was a loaded .22 rifle above the front door.
Decades before school shootings were happening on the average of one per week, I took that rifle down and went outside to make my stand.
You would think having a gun pointed at them — one by one — would act as some sort of a deterrent. It didn’t. The horrible filth coming from their lips increased, if anything.
I pulled the trigger.
Fortunately, the gun wasn’t aimed at anyone at that particular moment. When the report echoed across the fields, the tyrants got it in their heads — finally — that I might just put a bullet in one of them.
I never told my parents; though they certainly would have missed the cartridge in the gun. They knew I was different. They even wanted to help me change who I was so that I would be accepted. I was the one that refused.
I wasn’t going to conform. I wasn’t going to be who they wanted me to be. I wanted to be me. It almost led me to take my own life at 11 years old.
Life wasn’t always roses and wine, but I did eventually figure some things out.
It is okay to be different.
The rules of engagement on being different vary by time and place.
There are times in one’s life where being different is practically a death sentence (for you — or the five bullies that chased you home). This is one of the reasons why there are school shootings; people that don’t conform aren’t accepted — they are bullied, tortured and eventually they can snap.
Now, I don’t condone the shooting of your bullies — but Lord knows, in some strange way I understand it.
The traits that made me unacceptable in elementary school suddenly became great assets as I was finishing up high school. As I got older, women appreciated my sensitivity. My intelligence was envied. My ability to be “me” was admired.
Bottom line — it is okay to be different but the time and places you do it can dictate how different you’re allowed to be.
This is called “game face” in my vernacular. There is a time to show your differences; there are times to integrate with other people and be at least somewhat be able to interface on the same plane of existence.
For some people (my mother included) this is unacceptable. “Love me or don’t”. That is definitely one way to go but it isn’t my recommendation.
Truth is; the game face is part of life. It isn’t a “lie” or “compromising who you are”. It is just part of being accepted within a larger social order. It is also possible to “game face it” without giving up who you are.
While I didn’t really enjoy the seven years I served our great country in the U.S. Navy, I did learn some very valuable social skills.
Basic training — or boot camp — is an excellent example of how the military gives you a crash course in social integration. They strip you of any identity. They remove your choice of clothing. They shave your head. They take away your hobbies and activities. You’re all just little clones. For six to twelve weeks? You’re all essentially the same person. You have no choice but to co-exist. To find common ground. To unify.
Guess what? It works. Your ability to work as a unit depends on being able to integrate and grow together.
There are countries where military service is mandatory — two years in the service or two years in jail — and the older I get, the more sense this makes.
Contrast this to our social order of isolation, labels, cliques, shaming and division. Hard to believe that we’re even still around as a species with social media as popular as it is.
Want to be accepted for being different? Here is where you start.
Get past the cliche of the word; “walk in another man’s shoes” and all that. In the real sense of the word, empathy isn’t about “feeling someone else’s pain” — it is about understanding who they are and what makes them tick. You are struggling to be accepted for who you are — try to find a way to accept them for who they are.
But even more important is learning to take empathy to the next level; relatability. (I swear that’s a word. Look it up.)
Relatability. This is the number one skill I learned in the Navy. The number one skill I’ve learned in life. If you take one thing from this article, it is this:
Empathy can be faked. Relatability cannot.
I learned the skill of relatability during my Navy tenure. Even someone your polar opposite has common ground to stand on — if you’re willing to find it. Common ground is safe ground. Safe ground promotes equality, understanding and oddly enough, acceptance.
When you have the skills to pick anyone out of a crowd and be able to find common ground, differences fade away — even if the other person doesn’t share this skill. It may take “two to tango”, but in my experience it only takes one to create relatability.
By the way, this isn’t just useful in school. This is useful at the workplace. It is useful in social settings. It is even useful in day to day encounters you have with people that perform services for you. Being nice to the waitstaff at a restaurant might get you better service. Rapport with your dentist might benefit you when it is time to get that cavity filled. Empathy and relatability go a long way to close the gaps between human beings when it is real.
Survive your individuality — and take joy in your ability to relate to others. After all, we’re all in this together.