Friday, August 15, 2008

Thinking of What to Say

A man in his 20's says:

I fear the herd mentality. I avoid Top Forty radio, don't bother with New York Times Best Sellers. If everyone likes something, I'm convinced I won't. And yet, secretly and unbeknownst even to myself for the longest time, I want the same things everyone else wants. This internal dichotomy makes me feel like a fraud. To the observer, I appear to be an easy-going sort of person who can easily engage with people. The reality is that I feel no connection. The one thing that seems so obvious to others has been eluding me all my life. Relationships are a puzzle, a crossword in a script I'm unable to decipher.

Lust, yes! I understand the mechanisms of lust, the machinations of desire. I've been in lust several times. But love? I don't think I've ever been in love. I so desperately want to join the game before it's too late. But the older I get, the more emotionally immature I feel. And I know that all the isolation I have ever felt has been due to self-sabotage. For example, I waited until I was 25 before I told my parents I was gay. Can you believe it? The irony of it is that I knew they would accept me as I am, but told myself not to risk jeopardizing it. "All that wasted time," is what my mother said that night.

Will I continue to be my own enemy? I feel like 'How Soon Is Now' by the Smiths was written about me. I'm passionate, and authentic, and kind. I don't consider myself unattractive. People like me and tell me I'm fun to be around. So when is it going to happen? How soon is now?

The Conversation:

Jason: Evening!

Good evening!

Jason: How are you? Have something good to drink?

I've got a frosty ginger ale here, just slightly adulterated with some Tanqueray....

Jason: Ah, sounds good. I have a little pinot grigio. Although, it's warm.

Isn't that supposed to be served kinda warm anyway?

Jason: I hope so, because then I got it right.


Jason: Are you ready?

Ready as I'll ever be. Let's get started.

Jason: I'd like to start with your friends growing up. Can you tell me a little bit about your friendships? Who were they? What were they like?

Growing up was...interesting. We moved around a lot, so I had to say goodbye countless times.

Jason: How often did you move?

Let's see. I changed cities three times, and went to six schools, all told. I would say I only really felt close to people in college.

Jason: What was the course of an average friendship growing up? Let's say around 13 or 14 years old.

Oh God. Thirteen was the most miserable age. I had no friends for the entire year I attended that school. I couldn't stand it! Ironically, I won a prize at graduation for being the most versatile student. Go figure. I guess the way I perceive something and the reality of the situation is not the same thing.

Jason: Why didn't you have friends?

I didn't want to intrude. Everyone else seemed kind of clique-ey, like they had a good thing going without me. It's a character trait I got from my father, I think. This desire to please others and not make waves, to the point of pathology. Plus, I felt like I didn't share any interests. There was no point of connection, no common ground. I felt like I wasn't like anyone else, that I couldn't understand. How do you strike up a conversation with someone you don't know? It seems contrived, talking about the weather, fake, and so I don't do it. And rather not say much at all.

Jason: Did they tend to disappoint you?


Jason: Put myself in your shoes at age 13. What was it like walking up to someone? Or probably more realistic, what was it like if you were around these kids while they were talking to each other? What would be going through your head?

To be honest, I don't really remember any particular scenario. Obviously, it must have happened. But I guess not enough to be memorable. That changed when we all went to high school. It was a bit like a second chance. Everyone was new. And you had to strike up friendships in order to survive the older children.

Jason: Were you good at altering yourself to fit a friendship? Did you feel a couple steps ahead of people? Shaping the relationship how you wanted, and for the goal you had?

Oh very. That's why I was popular with everyone in high school. People still recognize me in the street, and then I have no idea of who they are! And I think it's so damn artificial--these silly little conversations about what everyone's doing now. I actually don't care. But would never tell them, of course. I was steps ahead of people. I could blend in very well by then--talk to anyone, about anything. Very rarely did I gain any sort of satisfaction from it, though. I didn't belong to a group. I chatted to geeks, jocks, and posers alike.

Jason: Did you sometimes wait for an opportune time, maybe the right vibe, the right topic, the right moment, to mention something that you cared about? Did you do it to see how they would react? If they would be interested or care?

All the time. I don't think my interests were instrumental in anyone's formative years though, haha! There was a lot of pretending. Pretending to share interests: music, fashion, pop culture.

Jason: You didn't find that others were interested in what you were interested in? I'm thinking that your interests were unusual, more advanced, older. Did people sometimes claim you were weird or put you down in some way when you spoke about your interests?

People were seldom interested in the same things I was. I guess my interests were more mature, thinking back, less transient. I don't think people considered me weird or an oddball. They always thought I was funny. And that annoyed me. Sure there's wit, but there's more to it. I often felt like I was seen as a diversion, some sort of entertainment. Not something to engage in. Just something to passively watch.

Jason: Being entertainment is fine when it seems to be leading to something. That maybe you'll find some common ground, but when it ends there, or it ends in an insult or dismissal, the whole effort becomes very anger inducing. Would you agree with that?

It's rather unfulfilling. Not anger, really. It just makes you tired. Tired when it doesn't seem to be working, and you have no other way of being.

Jason: Don't you feel cheated, sometimes?

I actually sometimes feel like I get what I deserve. Very little human warmth.

Jason: Why don't you think you deserve human warmth?

Because I don't put in the effort. But I don't know. And don't understand why it has to be such a game. Before the real connections start.

Jason: Why would you put in the effort if you get stung for it? Isn't the entertainment a kind of effort? Aren't you trying to appeal to people to find common ground? And demonstrate your mental abilities?

I guess. But after a while, you have to hope the other party starts to reciprocate. And they seldom do.

Jason: That's right. They seldom do. Is that your fault, or their fault?

I may have unrealistic expectations. It comes with being a perfectionist. If it doesn't go exactly as planned, we'd rather just forget the whole thing.

Jason: Were you forced into a position of responsibility in your household? Did your mother or father rely on you for more than childhood things?

Not at all. I was always granted the space to do more or less what I wanted. But having an older sister who screwed up and disappointed them a lot...that made me take on those extra responsibilities of being the "good kid." Without it being expected of me. I just did it to compensate in some way.

Jason: What you mean by "space?"

Space = opportunity.

Jason: Does space also equal not a lot of direct attention? Accolades, but not involvement? Praise, but not understanding?

No. I think you're reading too much into the word (bad choice in hindsight). I have virtually perfect parents. Very close, very involved. But I don't tell them everything.

Jason: What sort of things do you keep to yourself?

I try not to bother people with talk about feelings too much. I don't recall ever having a conversation with my parents about how I feel socially inept, for instance.

Jason: Did they ask you how school was going when you were having a horrible time?

They did, all the time. And academically it went fine, so I'd steer the conversations towards that, and not what I did during break time.

Jason: Why weren't you honest about how you felt?

I didn't want to bother anyone. No one died. I wasn't suffering academically, so it was silly. Not something worth sharing. I didn't need close friends, I was fine. Even I believed it after a while.

Jason: Were you afraid that they would feel responsible? And feel badly for making you move?

Hmmmm. I've never thought about that. No, I don't think so. I think they would have assumed I was capable of coping.

Jason: They would have downplayed your feelings?

No. I think at that point I had led them to believe that I was emotionally stronger than I really was.

Jason: Imagine yourself telling them at age 13 how you felt in school. What is the reaction that you imagine that makes you want to not say it? To avoid the conversation?

I only told them how I felt at 13 once I started college. What had made me not say it at age 13? The imaginary look of sadness and empathy in my mother's eyes.

Jason: How would you feel if your mother was sad?

Upset. So it's best to just avoid it.

Jason: Would being upset be an immediate reaction? Kind of like a reflex?

It's a reflex, I guess. I have very strong emotional ties to all my immediate family. They mean the world to me. Always have.

Jason: How do you feel when a quasi-friend, maybe someone at work, becomes upset by something you say? Do you immediately become upset? Do you try to remedy the situation, and if you can't, to avoid that person?

An acquaintance? Well, no. I wouldn't be upset then. Obviously I would try to be courteous, but I wouldn't go out of my way. I definitely wouldn't actively try to avoid someone I've wronged.

Jason: A friend. What if you yourself said something that ended up hurting a friend?

That has happened with friends, and it does make me feel miserable. In such an instance, I would go out of my way to remedy the situation. But I've also drifted from people I once perceived as friends, because of such scenarios. They need to also be accommodating. If not, they must stay the hell away from me. These days I'm very wary of "toxic friends" who become all-consuming. A friendship should be natural and easy. No maintenance required.

Jason: Do they need to be accommodating because you would be accommodating for them? Would you help them feel better about hurting you?

I don't hold grudges easily. But I can think of three people I don't want to see again. Ever. And I actively avoid them if I can.

Jason: Do you not hold grudges, because you empathize about how awful they must feel about making a mistake?

I'm not a psychopath. I do feel empathy, sometimes even for people I've never met (or fictitious ones in novels, even!). However, there comes a time when the whole relationship, that whole engagement, becomes immensely tiring, an artificial assemblage of things left unsaid, things to skirt around. It is not worth the effort for me if it's that damn delicate.

Jason: I'm in no way judging or pushing for a solution here. I'm just getting into how you feel in discrete situations. You seem to feel a bit cheated when someone you've hurt isn't accommodating to you. You can even feel angry about that. I'm thinking that even if you're hurt, you will help the other person feel better about their mistake. However, it has limits, like you say.

True. But I think this is it: friends shouldn't make you feel tired by their very presence. And most people do. Anyway, that's how I see it.

Jason: Have you ever felt equal with someone? Someone who is at least remotely a peer?

I have a couple of good friends I'd give my life for now. And the best is that I do believe that they would do the same. It has taken me an awfully long time to find and connect with people who feel and think more or less as I do. Which makes me feel very fortunate. However, I still feel entirely awkward when meeting strangers. It takes me a long time to build up enough courage (or is that trust?) to initiate the whole thing. And the first couple of weeks (or months, sometimes) still feel very fake and uncomfortable and artificial. I hate it. If only there was some sort of recipe. But people are too unpredictable.

Jason: Are they your equal?

New persons, or my handful of good friends?

Jason: The good friends.

I don't understand what you mean by equal, I guess.

Jason: Do you find yourself more the leader, having the ideas, being the more dynamic? Do you find yourself doing more, taking on more responsibility? Or, is it balanced? Or, are they more the leader?

It's balanced. We think up stuff to do together, and are equally accommodating. They don't make me tired! I listen when they speak, and vice versa.

Jason: Do you find yourself being wholly yourself? Or is there still a little posturing? A little thought going into it rather than totally natural?

With me, friends are total comfort. In new situations, posturing absolutely. I've been working with a new group of people since moving to this town about a year ago. After six months of sheer agony and hardly speaking to anyone, I can finally joke around and chat to people. But I still feel slightly like an impostor. I'm doing it to survive. I have to make new friends or perish. And the process is therefore unnatural and awkward and uncomfortable. I'm more skilled at it than at 13, though! It only took me half as long this time around! But there is no joy in meeting new people for me. Although others seem to like it quite a bit. Otherwise all those dating agencies would go out of business, I think!

Jason: For you, what does it mean to be alone?

On the whole, I don't have much of a problem with being alone. The constant twitter of other people leaves me bored and under-stimulated. There's always something interesting happening inside my own brain. And this suits me fine, for the most part. But there are those quiet hours of the night when I want, no, desire that input from outside myself. I realize now that we weren't meant to be alone, even if people are such an irritating species. I have a lot to share, more than I'm allowed to with those few precious friends. And it seems like such a waste not to.

Jason: Why is it limited with those friends?

Surely there are things you share with your wife you've not shared with anyone else?

Jason: Emotional support? Emotional sharing? Safety to voice those things?

I get emotional support from friends. I complain about the absence of love constantly to those who wish to listen! God, how sad does that sound?

Jason: What is the extra piece that falls into the category of love that doesn't exist in friendship? Beyond the physical part. That's clear.

It's a closer kind of connection. One where there finally are no secrets. Are you telling me that this is all there is? I don't believe that. There's a very intense core that I've not shown to anyone, not even close friends or family. And it burns when you keep it to yourself this long.

Jason: That's the core I'm trying to get to. The emotion it feels. The disappointments. Can you identify a trait that your lover would have that your friends do not?

I want to show someone the world in my eyes. But so far, the initial connection to get to that stage has eluded me. Maybe it's because I can't identify that distinguishing trait. It seems easy for others, but I really don't know what to look for. And I'm afraid of looking like a fool. So I end up doing nothing. I have often thought that there are no sins, but there is one sin, and that is fear. Fear leads to all the others: jealousy, greed, murder. And fear is what keeps you back. Yet knowing this does nothing to lead me to action. Welcome to the dichotomy that is my life.

Jason: If I put a new person in front of you, what percentage of you would have hope that this person would be a kindred spirit? Who wouldn't be tiring? 5%?

Interesting question.... From my experience so far, not a lot. Most people have nothing to offer me.

Jason: 1% or less?

I wouldn't be without hope. Everyone deserves a chance. But I'd be extremely careful about letting my guard down. Assume that all snakes are poisonous before electing to handle a new specimen, I say.

Jason: What is the nature of your fear in this situation I've presented? Is it that one more failure is another nail in the coffin? That you might not be able to stand the disappointment of one more? That it might prove once and for all that it won't happen for you?

I think the fear in this scenario is a mixture of the fear of disappointment, and also the fear of being taken advantage of. The first is fear of something passive, a lack of connection. The latter is a fear of something active, malice or vindictiveness. Strangers are not to be trusted. I don't think anything specific would prove to me that it's not in the cards for me. But my life taken as a case history so far, has not been very reassuring.

Jason: Why would a person take advantage of you? In what way?

Since I don't seem to be as plugged in to what everyone else thinks is important or interesting, I'm afraid of being misunderstood, of looking foolish, of being derided or patronized. And condescension is the one thing I can't handle. It really pushes my buttons.

Jason: Being looked down upon by someone who has no right or basis for that opinion is hugely galling, isn't it?


Jason: I'm going to type something longer. Give me a minute, okay?


Jason: Although it doesn't seem to be rooted in your family life, there have been times of great upheaval in your childhood. Being moved around is very traumatizing. It places you in inferior situations, being the outsider. It makes you hyper-aware of what it means to be included or excluded. You learned to be watchful and cautious of others, because to get it "right," could mean the difference between the comfort of friends, or being truly ostracized. On top of this, you were cursed/blessed with high intelligence. That high intelligence put you immediately out of sync with many or your peers. What turned you on, didn't turn them on. In fact, they probably felt threatened by you. They protected themselves by putting you down or making you feel different. Later, these same traits made you very interesting to be around. To "entertain." However, in the end, these situations could be just as isolating. You are right to be disappointed in people, because people have truly disappointed you. But it's not really their fault, because there are few people in the world who are equipped to be your friend. Especially in the way that you are looking for. Someone to penetrate that deepest core that's you. You've been disappointed and hurt so many times that you've become extremely tired and cautious to the extreme. That, of course, is going to tend to hold you back from making connections, because the truth of it is that you will often be the one who has to lead. You are in more of a position to see ahead, to see into people, than they can see into you. You talked about feeling emotionally immature, and in a way, you haven't had the opportunity to grow in that regard, again, because of how few people are equipped to understand you. When you couple this with your aversion to upsetting people, it puts you in a catch 22. You are very dedicated to making the other person happy, but then are hurt when they don't reciprocate. Fear of upsetting them or being misunderstood paralyzes you, and it's often unclear how to proceed. That's how I'm feeling now, putting myself in your shoes.

I think this is quite accurate, except for the part about being in a position to "see into people." I often feel like I can't tell what they're thinking (about themselves, about life, about me) at all. And I am only dedicated to other people after a painstakingly long evaluation process, once I've let my guard down. Yes, it is a catch 22 and I am unclear how to proceed.

Jason: Thank you for clarifying that point. I was reacting to how you see steps ahead of people, and how you can create what seems like good interactions for them, but empty ones for you. I understand that what's going on in their minds is still a mystery. Yet, you can manipulate them on some level.

Thank you. That's precisely it. On the whole, I'm not an unhappy person. I don't feel ostracized. But a little bit disconnected once in a while, and a bit left out when the lights go out.

Jason: Not having what you deeply want can be just as damaging as being ostracized. It's just a much slower burn.

Slow burn. That's me. I have been hard on myself. But because all this madness inside my own head, I totally have the power to turn it around. And I know I will. I just hope it's soon.

Jason: I hope you've found some good in this.

Thank you for listening. I didn't want to be the only awkward one anymore.

Jason: Have a great night.

I hope you get up in time for work tomorrow.

Jason: I'll be fine.

Goodbye, then.

Jason: Good night.


Sarah Hina said...

Profoundly moving conversation. I was mesmerized by the give and take here.

Because of your obvious intelligence and the depth of your passions, I do feel like you've been burdened by heavy expectations--if not actively from your family, than from internal pressures. And that's bled over to your emotional life. You've assumed a degree of responsibility for relationships that isn't fair to yourself, perhaps. It makes you very guarded, though I'm sure you've had good reason to build those walls. You don't seem to want to burden others (like not telling your parents you were gay), and yet that must lead to some resentment (why aren't they asking?), or at least disappointment that they can't see you and take the initiative, too.

I sense that hunger in you to find your match. But I agree that it won't happen if fear paralyzes you. Assuming that "all snakes are poisonous" will only lead to timidity, suspicion. That's the real weakness--to allow that distance to build and ossify. And this search is too important. I hope that you'll allow yourself to be vulnerable. You might get hurt again, you might be disappointed, but then again, you might find such beautiful understanding that it takes your breath away.

That core in you deserves to be discovered.

Thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us.

Charles Gramlich said...

This is a brilliant idea. I enjoyed this convo.

The Grocer said...

I would echo Charles's comment, great idea and I despite being twenty years older and in another country I found parts of this that echoed and resonated with my own childhood and being. I think it shows we all have a desire to be understood and a part fo us that we feel is not.

Lena said...

when i read it some parts of it seemed to be so very much familiar and really could explain things to me about myself. The ones that i always knew about but pretended not to.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, Charles, The Grocer, and Lena, thank you so much for your heartfelt comments. It's a rare gift to let a person know he or she is not alone. Thank you for bestowing that gift.

SzélsőFa said...

I've read it through in some goes, as it was not an easy one for me, plus sometimes I felt being addressed and answered, too - like some of the commenters above have also said.

This series is a great idea, congrats, Jason.
(I have read all the other instalments as well.)

Leslie said...

It's almost like I know you and you're very much like me.
You say "13" I say "grade 8."
(Except that I wanted to be popular, because they all looked so happy.)
Anyway nice blog :)

Winnie the poohi said...

Ah a lovely conversation and amazing idea

And as lena says... yes I could relate to it and understand completely :)