My Stranger/My Self

Paul Gabriel L. Cosme

Everyone knows the feeling of being alone.

You lie in bed after long hours of classes, and you realize how engrossed you are on your work, your academics, and your career—almost too much—that you forget about everything else. But now, you lie in bed, you have time to think, and you realize:

You are alone.

There is not a single soul around you, and you have detached yourself too far away from your friends and family. You have alienated yourself from almost everything. This self-alienation is common among students; it is socially and mentally unhealthy, but it is inevitable, especially during those days when exams and heaps and loads of homework are thrown at you. It is important to talk about this, but I want to put your attention on something insidious. There is another type of alienation that people, at least in my circle, barely talk about, and because it never reveals itself to the surface—it always operates from within—it is as insidious as self-alienation and perhaps even more.

I call it double estrangement. This is when you feel out-of-place in a social group, say your friend group, but you still choose to remain at the cost of your self-image—your identity, for this matter. Consider this example: you are not an alcohol-drinker, but the rest of your friends are. You do not intend to drink ever, and you feel estranged in that group, but you choose to remain, believing that they are the friends that you only have, and besides, they are the cool kids. This estrangement creates a widening gap between your identity and the image that you make for yourself—your created image—but at the same time, you are estranged from your friend group, thus the doubling. This is a huge problem that I and my friends faced when we were studying in Germany. This is especially a common problem in multicultural settings such as Macalester, where you are constantly drowned in your search for your identity and for your friends and people. There are several questions that arise from this matter: why would I stay in a friend group that I feel that I don’t belong to? Why does staying with them harm my identity? Can’t I freely shape my identity how I like it to be? Why am I stuck there in the first place?

When I first left the Philippines for Germany two years ago, I lived in a place where no one knew me except me. It came to the point that I questioned who I was—and I felt the need to find the space that defines me. I searched for myself in other people, in friend groups and their random activities—such as engaging in some sport—that I barely liked but did anyway for the sake of friendship and a sense of belonging. However, it came to the point that I forgot about myself and stopped doing the things that define me, but I was already too deep into the group, that it was hard for me to let go. At the same time, it would be hard for me to find other friends, who were enclosed in their own small bubbles already. I was in a lockdown dilemma. I thought that I was either going to be estranged in a group or stay isolated for the rest of the semester at least.

At Macalester, many students, in my view, are at risk of such double estrangement—especially those whose cultures do not align with the mainstream—they are the most vulnerable. They cut and strip their own stories so that they can fit and feel that they belong in the mainstream, but in the process of doing so, they lose an essence of who they are—not at their own will. If you are doing this at your own free will and wholeheartedly accept it, then you are fortunate; this is not estrangement—you are searching for yourself at your own will. Nevertheless, we all have to be aware that there are people in this college who may feel doubly estranged, because their views do not fit in and fear persecution from the mainstream.

Double estrangement is an insidious phenomenon, because it capitalizes on illusion, both on the estranged and the estranger. The estranged thinks that there is no escape from this lockdown dilemma, and the estranger is oblivious that the estranged even exists. The estranged wears a mask to fit in, and the estranger sees no real faces. The danger for the estranged is that they may see no need to remove the mask, and they are now totally estranged from themselves and by their friends, and broadly speaking, the community.

This is not a universal truth, however. This is an attempt to add to the discussion about identity, relationships, and the feeling of belonging and depression. I felt double estrangement once, and I will be frank—no one deserves the pain of being in one and left alone to resolve the lockdown dilemma. But how did I face my own estrangement? I chose to be isolated, but I chose to use my isolation to find myself. It was hard, but it was fundamental to my formation. Only then did I search for my people and found them, and there I found home—both within and outside. But not everyone can tolerate isolation for such a time, and it is our responsibility in this community to foster a place of safety, dialogue, and understanding.

Tackling double estrangement needs the estranged to escape the lockdown dilemma and the estranger to help the estranged escape. The question is how to do it and how to strike the balance between the estranged and the estranger. Despite this conundrum, whoever you are, no matter what, at this moment: I hope that the world is treating you well, if not, I hope the you are treating yourself well. I hope that the Earth kisses your feet, if not, I hope your feet still kiss the Earth. I hope that you find light in the dark, if not, I hope you will be the light in the dark.

Find yourself.

Find your people.

Find your home.

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