Last Wednesday evening, I skipped a congregational meeting during which we’d planned to continue reading and discussing the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes. Prior to joining (several years ago) the congregation of which I am now a member, I routinely skipped congregational meetings and almost never attended those scheduled midweek because I had a strong sense my contributions in terms of presence and participation were meaningless. In turn, I experienced no learning from them save a growing dissatisfaction and unease when present with that group of people in its various activities.
Experience (although I don’t consciously seek “religious experience”) in the congregation of which I am currently part is vastly different from what I knew previously as a member of that other local church. The congregation’s meetings serve as frameworks within which learning occurs as scriptures of Old and New Testaments are discussed, as opposed to a framework for upholding social and denominational norms.. Even in this setting, though, sometimes I observe a tendency toward groupthink – probably an unavoidable sociological condition. I bridle against it because I am incapable of conforming my mind, nay, my self, to group norms that do not seem reasonable to me. I cannot or will not color within lines that I haven’t drawn, myself, that don’t make sense to me, or weren’t drawn by an authority I recognize as greater than myself – the hand of God.
This all sounds grandiose, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, it’s my honest evaluation.
Think of a graph depicting multiple bell-shaped curves radially extending from a central point (think of an X or an asterisk drawn with squiggles) – on any of these bells (which may represent interests, enthusiasms, intelligence, aptitudes, personality styles, and so forth) most people fall between the lines which are defined by one standard deviation above and below the mean. I would guess that most people can be “found” only on one or two of the radial arms. I can be “found” well beyond the mean on most of the arms that serve to capture data pertaining to whatever it is that I am. On some of those graph arms, I’m almost the only data point I can perceive. All this to explain why I am incapable of conforming mind and self to group norms – while rules of ordinary decency and courtesy do apply to me, as do those laws that protect the rights of individuals from one another individually or in aggregate – most human-derived and agreed upon strictures and systems of meaning mean not much at all to me. I don’t see the value in them nor can I affirm the ‘truth’ of the perceptions they for some serve to enshrine.
I think this is simply basic, rational understanding. In other places, possibly even in a post here, I’ve remarked that the road to self-understanding is a dead end street because insight (about one’s self, others, circumstance, etc.) does not always or even often provide of itself the power to alter or better what is understood of the self.
In practical terms, what this means for me is that I experience frustration when my insights and, to use a hackneyed term, the ‘box’s’ inability to contain my thought and those of my thoughts, themselves, are not understood (agreement is unimportant or without valued meaning – to me). I feel this most intensely when that occurs while interacting with people who matter to me – like the people who are part of my congregation or the family of my birth.
A related problem I experience is when I join groups that form around shared interests in activities, such as kayaking or cycling. What I find is that, while interested in, engaged in, and engaged in thought about the activity and things related to it, such as gear and conditions of use, other people are not interested in the same way that I am interested. While in one sense, I have something in common with other club members, in practical terms, I really do not have much at all in common with them.
In conjunction with (or it may arise from the foregoing) a social awkwardness you’d have to be me to understand, this makes any kind of participation in group activities potentially unpleasant for me. Oddly enough, I haven’t experienced this unpleasantness in relation to my current congregation. But I did experience it last Wednesday, the evening I skipped the usual congregational meeting for scriptural and theological reflection in favor of a cycling club activity.
That cycling club activity was a local Ride of Silence – a slow four mile or so ride through town on busy streets with police escort. I wore normal street clothes because it was only a slow, four-mile ride, and showed up early. That’s one way to manage social awkwardness – show up early and strike up conversation with one or two people I already know. Also, being late means finding a place to park and possible difficulty hearing what’s going on. I said hello to one guy I know slightly and he completely ignored my greeting – jackass? didn’t hear? preoccupied? Who knows. I didn’t really know anyone else and my attempts to converse all proved abortive. I felt unpleasantly like the only one of my kind in the group, even though there were several club members present I genuinely like.
Most of the other riders wore what cyclists call their “kits” – matching lycra shorts and jerseys, etc. Some, to be sure, rode from their homes, however distant, to the assembly point. I wore the same pair of baggy shorts I wore the day I bought the Miyata 610 in Louisville two or three years ago, and a faded red Dickies t-shirt. No sense in wearing Lycra and chamois for a four-mile ride – if my nads are so diseased as to go numb on a short, easy bike ride, there’s something bad wrong with them.
The ride leader gave a short talk about Ride of Silence, the police sergeant’s SUV rolled out ahead of us and police on 29’ers brought up the rear. I thought it was cool that the police chief, himself, rode along.
I rode the Jamis Supernova, a cyclocross bike with heavy, slow commuter tires, because the tube I’d patched for the Miyata’s front tire didn’t hold air. Mercifully, for me, the ride of silence is silent, so no conversation is expected or wanted. Some of the guys on racing bikes in full kit ahead of me pointed (as is courteous to do on group rides) at gravel and road surface irregularities. On a cyclocross bike equipped with Continental Tour Ride tires, I several times caught myself thinking, “That $#!+’z not a hazard for me.” But I likewise pointed out the hazards for those behind.
When the ride was over, I pedaled right up to my car, loaded up the bike, and left immediately. Back home, it felt good to sit on the livingroom couch with my wife and son. In the warm embrace of my family, I felt wanted, accepted, understood – that I belonged. Later, I sent an email to my friend, our congregation’s pastor:
I guess I’m just not bikey enough; won’t skip another meeting for a cycling activity. During the entire ride, I found myself thinking, "I could have been discussing Scripture with my favorite people." The Ride of Silence had no emotional or spiritual impact on me and only served to remind me how little I have in common with most people, even cycling enthusiasts.
Returning to practical matters, how does one cope with one’s own awkwardness, being out of step with and occasionally feeling unpleasantly alone in when in the company of numerous others he might reasonably expect to have something in common? A constellation of maladaptive strategies fueled by feelings of grief and anger are available to the sufferer, but I’d like to list here a few methods that have worked for me and enabled me to function in a world largely constructed by and for the masses:
- I acknowledge my feelings identifying and categorizing them without feeling ashamed of having them, then make a conscious decision not to let them curdle my spirit and mind. This is something that’s only occurred to me here in the past several months. Difficult it is in the moment and when experiencing unpleasant emotion to become aware that the choice is one’s own whether to become overwhelmed by feelings of shame, anger, grief or to function in a way that does no harm to self or others and does not preclude positive interactions with others of the group at some future time. There’s no sense in self-crippling by allowing oneself to become embittered and twisted.
- Related to the foregoing is making a decision not to say anything unkind to others when experiencing unpleasant feelings. In Alcoholic Anonymous the cliché This Too Shall Pass is used to remind the recovering alcohlic that the irritant of the moment or the difficult circumstance inhabited will change in time and with patience may be got through without resorting to use of drink.
- Complete the mission, accomplish the goal, carry out the task – if there’s no harm in it. For instance, last Wednesday, although I felt like, “What the hell am I doing here?” the condition was one that could be got through by simply participating in the activity in which I’d come to participate and then leaving when it was over, as opposed to hitting the “Screw This” button and bugging out early. I mean, really, unpleasant feelings are simply feelings and part of the human task is learning to master one’s feelings.
- Think about the feelings – dissect them – their utility, what causes them, what they signify. By intellectualizing one’s feelings, one can become attenuated from them and this can be a useful to prevent acting impulsively according to their dictates. I don’t usually enjoy experiencing emotion, but it sometimes does serve to inform me that there is some problem in my circumstance that requires my attention. Sometimes I experience pleasant emotions, such as those I experienced while I was sitting on the couch with my family after I got home last Wednesday, or those I experience when applying my mind to and discussing scripture and theology.
- Don’t look down on those who are different – in their own ways, they may be well beyond the mean in ways you are not. Take other people seriously and respect their mastery of or competence in what matters to them. Ask intelligent questions and learn from people who are different. Wish them well and try to take pleasure in their successes.
- Recognize that most people experience in some instances something like the unpleasantness you’re experiencing. Like you, they may be wondering, “What the hell am I doing here?”
- If circumstances warrant aborting the planned activity, feel free to leave. Try to do it without making some kind of unkind, conclusive statement that may serve as a barrier to you in some unforeseen way, later on. Leave quietly and draw as little attention to yourself as possible. Unwanted attention is worse than that unpleasant aloneness you’re leaving behind when you leave the situation.
- Remember what Christ said about casting pearls before swine – you don’t have to and should not share your insights, perceptions, values, thoughts, and self with those who are incapable of understanding or who are malicious twits who should simply be completely avoided.
- Invest your time, effort, thought, love in people who matter to you. Just one friend, even if he or she does not completely understand you, may provide an oasis of peace in what often seems a hostile universe. Love your family, cultivate friends if there’re people with whom communication and understanding is possible.
- The apostle, Paul, enjoined his readers somewhere the letter he wrote to the church at Rome, “So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” That’s good advice.
- Prioritize, although sometimes this takes trial and error (as I learned last Wednesday night), and participate in or expend effort in or for what matters to you to the degree that it makes sense to you.
- Never stop learning