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  • Outsiderness
  • Warren S. Poland

Emotionally severely suppressed in a childhood in which there had been little tolerance for her developing a mind of her own, she was always anguished and timidly suspicious when facing the world at large. She had survived childhood by living as if in the underground, and it had taken years of difficult psychoanalytic work before she could consider that the world might ever be other than a pervasively dangerous place. So it was, and so, she had felt, it would always be. Yet in our work together she came at long last cautiously to risk regarding the world from a different point of view. Her wariness was voiced in her words, “All right. I’ll look at reality—but only as a tourist.”

“Only as a tourist.” In some ways, that is as good as it gets. As loving as our childhoods might have been and as secure as our places in the adult world might seem to be, still our mastery of our selves as well as our sense of well being is always at risk. We may feel at ease in navigating the world, but we were born into a strange universe and venture forth as immigrants into an existence in which we live always, at least in part, “only as tourists.”

However, even a tourist can settle, assimilate, and move from immigrant status to full citizenship. One man in his time not only plays but also contains many parts, parts that are simultaneously true even though they may be contradictory, parts that keep alive varied senses of himself and diverse ways of being. An infant can feel at once both magically powerful and terrifyingly helpless. A child can feel at once secure in the warmth of family love and frighteningly vulnerable to the unpredictability of power. An adult can feel confident approaching the world at large and at the same time know that his or her very sense of being was shaped by the strangeness of the universe into which he or she came into being. [End Page 593]

He is not only a respected Latin American colleague but a very dear friend, our friendship sustained on an epistolary level as we meet face to face only infrequently at international meetings. The last time I saw him was at a European biennial Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association where he was a featured speaker and received an award for his work in his area of special expertise. He and I save time to be together on such occasions, despite the pressure resulting from the many others who wish to spend time with him, a demand apparent in the frequency of his being stopped and warmly greeted as he passed through the halls of this meeting.

So perhaps I should have been surprised by what he wrote in his first letter after that last Congress. “Big congresses have a depressing effect on me. Maybe it is the crowd, maybe the two-minute encounters followed by more similar encounters. I get exhausted and feel empty.” Describing the barrenness of feeling detached, he spoke of how the recognition he receives nourishes him on one level but, paradoxically, adds to his sense of lack of real or deep connection, his feeling himself actually to be an outsider at the very moment of his being honored, at the peak of his appearing to be an insider. He also had felt touched, so what he now referred to was something different from obsessional undoing. It was a haunting feeling that persisted behind his being moved. As I said, perhaps I should have been surprised by his letter, but I was not, and not only because I already knew him well.

The timid woman who lived as a frightened loner and the accomplished and internationally esteemed psychoanalyst have in common an uncomfortable sense of feeling themselves to be outsiders in their worlds. The two represent extremes of conventional success in mastering life in this complex world, and they can stand only as illustrations, not proof, of the ubiquity of outsiderness. Undoubtedly, most adult experience of comfort in life leaves the sense of strangeness or detachment beyond conscious concern. [End Page...


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pp. 593-599
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