Several years ago when I was living and working in Scotland I happened upon an elderly woman, formerly from Newfoundland but by this time a long term resident of Scotland. An eccentric person she had come to Scotland as a nurse and was, at that particular time, in the midst of writing a thesis in the hope of obtaining her PhD. This thesis was related to crofting and the deep attachment crofters and farmers have to the land. She had completed a Masters Degree several years before based on the herring fishery which for many years had entailed a migration of men and women around practically the whole coast of Britain. This was a similar piece of research in that it related to fisher-folk and their attachment to the sea.
In this thesis she was struggling with a concept, perhaps the main reasons for her research and studies. She had little sense of acceptance or belonging in Scotland although she had spent the majority of her life there. In fact, she felt a stranger in the place where she lived. We became friends and had many discussions about her thesis and life in general. She suggested that I assist her with her thesis by writing an essay on being a stranger. Perhaps, because of my sense of belonging in Scotland at the time or at least a feeling of “fitting in”, the essay was never written. She eventually completed her thesis, achieved another Masters Degree instead of the desired and hoped for PhD and moved from the community in which she and her husband had lived for many years.
I subsequently moved to Quebec in Canada and did have contact with her for quite a time. Eventually the connection ceased.
Then for some reason today the muse has appeared and reminded me that the context of being a stranger needs exploration. What has brought this subject to the fore at this point in time is a mystery but I can speculate. I have, for some time, been contemplating the feelings of many Newfoundlanders who feel undervalued in Canada, receive little respect and often strangers in the country they have adopted. Beyond that are the feelings of growing up in Newfoundland where fit and a sense of belonging eluded me. Having spent more than twenty years as a migrant this has also had an impact on my current thought process. Five years spent working in Quebec, a French province in Canada as a unilingual English “Newfie” certainly left impressions. My journey to Ukraine has given me a whole other perspective on the context of strangers.
It appears to me that in Ukraine many people seem strangers, not necessarily to me but to each other. The mix of “ethnic” cultures, the territorial divisions and re-alignments over the centuries and control and suppression by a number of different empires provides for the most interesting observations and speculations. To compound this is the various languages and dialects spoken. Yet, in this country most people have evolved from the same set of roots that of a Slavic nature.
In Scotland, where most people were warmly greeted and received it was common knowledge that you were only partially accepted, you needed to earn your place. One prominent colleague and mentor, when we first met, reminded me that his family had lived there for three hundred years, he told me the first seventy five they were tourists. It was apparent that the warm welcome lulled most into thinking that they had been invited into the living room when, in fact, they were only in the porch. Yet, perhaps because of my roots, the feeling of belonging and home were stronger than anywhere else I have been. That feeling was prevalent on my first visit in 1972 as it felt I had come home.
In Ukraine people appear more reserved. You know that you are different and it takes time for most people to warm to you, despite the fact that they are very caring and most kind even when you have been just introduced. Even in larger centres people without hesitation will extend an offer to help. But, most likely because of their history and experiences there is an apparent reservedness. The language barrier often makes you feel not fully engaged. Acceptance and belonging take on a different feel. One could feel just outside the porch in such an environment.
I am writing this as a preamble to the context of being a stranger. There are many reasons to feel strange or estranged; the way one looks, talks, thinks, and acts. Being a stranger is all about feelings. The way one feels has many causes such as health, experiences, perceptions and the response one gets from others. One thing is certain that it your own and intimate feelings that influence the aloneness which is the major factor in being a stranger.
Most of my life has been lived as a stranger despite having family, friends and acquaintances. This feeling was prevalent as a child, in school, with religion, in my volunteer work and in my multiple jobs and vocations. My own family recognise this strangeness and despite less than close ties during my married life have remained loyal and close. In fact, the bonds have become stronger as the years have passed. My many dear and loving friends accept this difference and are always caring and supportive despite the distance often between us. With them there is never a need to feel alone. Yet, there are times when this aloneness and sense of difference is all pervasive. The sadness of loss weighs heavy, even though as a spiritual person I realise we are never alone. A greater power provides a steadying hand even in our darkest moments and times of greatest need.
Part of this weight, the feelings and the heaviness is transmitted from others, their needs and uncertainties. The concept of such connectiveness is much diminished and often scorned in this modern, scientific and technological world. In other “less developed’ societies it is still very much prevalent and accepted. One has to question who is the most “developed” if this term is even applicable anymore.
Many of these sensitivities come from uncertainties, inhibitions and levels of confidence, which always fluctuate. But, most people consider me very confident, sure and steady, even when inside, I am a stranger to myself.
Some of this angst comes from the lack of attachment to the soil, the sea, or some other aspect of natural environment; I know the sea is important to my soul. It has long been accepted in most rational societies that a connection to nature is a fundament aspect of human belonging.
Then the depth of spiritual nature has to be considered. There is an awareness of a sense of interconnectedness and the connectivity to a greater power, perhaps beyond our knowledge, but not our beliefs. That has always been part of my being. The elevated arrogance of modern education has eclipsed even the context of human intellect and such beliefs are now considered naïve by most. The colonizers felt the same way when they overwhelmed aboriginal people. How could such uneducated people have knowledge, much less wisdom? The same patterns are at play in the world today.
The fact that I am less driven by money or power, although in my life I have pursued both, has added to my strangeness. This is a puzzle to others caught up in materialistic world. I do recognise my own materialistic ways and try and temper them.
The feelings around being a stranger are complex in thought but simple in nature. One becomes a stranger by just contemplating these feelings and in analysing these thoughts. Most people are much to preoccupied and busy existing and forget about living. Living is a much different concept, as living requires one to fully engage life and to explore, experience and reach deep within our own being. The various environments, different ways of living and spiritual feelings provide insight and direction for a life to be lived. The feelings of aloneness and the emotions of sadness are just counterbalances to the happy moments and sensation of contentment we also experience.
In my life I have experienced the hurt of the estranged, the scorn of those who fear difference and the wrath of those who resent passion. Being a stranger to oneself and to others is but a pre-requisite for a life filled with the richness of family, the warmth of true friendship and the encouragement of many. I am always amazed at the expressions of wonder, gratitude and recognition that are shown when one dares to be different and is willing to share this difference with others.
Most people appreciate those that would be strangers. It is often the stranger that is required to be the catalyst for change especially in a world becoming full of sameness. The rewards of being a stranger are significant even though in ones aloneness that may not be apparent.
Written by William W. Pardy
December 3rd, 2005