A pervasive question I was preoccupied with over the past 24 hours: have I really impacted the life of anyone in a significant way? Or, what does my “It’s a Wonderful Life” scenario look like–what would the world be like today if I had never lived at all? This is probably at best an exercise in vanity and at worst a hopelessly self destructive activity. Of course, I can never know what my parents’ relationships with my older brothers would have been like if I had never come along. Would they have even sought to have a child around the time H was conceived, if I hadn’t been there? So, in all likelihood, someone else would have come along shortly after the time I was born in this reality, and who knows what decisions my dad might have made regarding keeping the family in Colorado or moving us to Missouri.
A better exercise would be to ask: how can I do a better job of connecting with more people in a deep and meaningful way? How can I get past the banal formalities that often stall any future attempts at more conversation? How can I come up with interesting topics of conversation beside the weather and sports (which I don’t really follow)? Obviously, politics and religion are verboten in most casual circles. But, some of my journey into seminary and a pastoral career may alleviate some of this burden. People who are reluctant to talk about religion will continue to be so, but perhaps others may be more inclined to open up a bit when they hear that I am a pastor.
Putting aside the pointless exercise of asking what the world would be like if you had never been born, you come to a more sober analysis of the myriad of human connections that remained superficial, professional, ephemeral. You see people connecting with each other in deeper ways all around you, but you don’t know what the magic dust or secret sauce is to engaging someone in such a way that they will at least correspond with you for a few months after you or they have moved on.
I think there are probably two ways in which this problem needs to be continually addressed: the superficial mechanics of human interaction that I have simply been slow to learn due to my stunted social emotional growth–learning to better read and understand body language and verbal cues that are invitations to keep the conversation going; then, there is a deeper problem to be worked over–the fear of me losing some valuable piece of myself if I get too deeply involved with another human being. This revolves around a really primitive, unmet place of ego that carries perhaps an illusion of being an intact entity who must remain protected and isolated from most humans. In short, I am afraid of losing my soul if I become too enmired in secular human activity.
This is something more deeply felt than even a Christian sort of take on staying out of worldly affairs. It probably hearkens back to millenia of human civilizations that wreaked utter havoc on souls who chose to be a part of them. You could live on grubs out in the woods or in a cave and be free, but have no benefit of human camaraderie, or you could go down to the town or village and become a member and abide by rules that saw you giving up so many freedoms and personal preferences and characteristics. You also risked getting killed in many human civilizations that placed little value on human life, but stringent consequences for one who was even accused of some wrongdoing.
I carry this kind of mentality with me today. It is why I refused to join very many groups during my school years, and balked at trying to join the Army. Eventually, I became comfortable enough to get somewhat involved with others at work, because of the benefits that came with socializing. But, I was very slow to advance, and often found myself stranded and at home, watching my coworkers party on Facebook at events I wasn’t invited to. I think that our present culture fails to recognize the positive side of being leery of committing to group activities. Americans for centuries now have made it their pasttime to voluntarily submit themselves to any number of community, religious and professional groups.
The negative aspect of getting too involved with a group still persists, though you are more likely to be bullied or teased in some low grade way by adults who find you not conforming, rather than getting stoned or drawn and quartered.
One of the chief reasons so many of my forays into group involvement felt awkward and uncomfortable was due to the fact that I hadn’t really taken the time to get to know my own self before setting out on my quests for social involvement. Because I had no clear boundaries where I could definitively say: yes I am this and will be willing to do this, and no I am not that, and under no circumstance will I do that. So, when it came time to take a hit from a bong or jump into a mosh pit, I was full of anxious uncertainty as to whether this was really me or not, and couldn’t possibly make a comfortable decision in that split second — inevitably, I found myself caving in to peer pressure.
The problem I see with our culture is that the healthy benefit of getting involved in group activity seems to be assumed and unspoken. Of course, you should go to the school dances and join the chemistry club and the chess club–it will look good on your college application (something my parents never impressed upon me). But, these are always superficial arguments for the benefits of getting involved. Someone who has developed a modicum of self identity in their teenage years will not see “doing it for college” as a good enough reason. They will want to have a more fundamental argument for how this group involvement will develop their character and lay the groundwork for complex social negotiation later in life that means the difference between an average job and a great career.