“Contact with another human. Herb Asher shrank involuntarily. Oh Christ, he thought. He trembled. No, he thought. Please no.” – Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion
“You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone.” –A Course of Love
It’s true: there are a lot of people in the world. And like Herb Asher, I’ve had a hard time with that. I have felt the tightness in my stomach when sitting in a group, worried that I’m not saying enough or that I’ll say the wrong thing, worried that no one likes me as much as they’re pretending to like me, worried that they may have liked me at first but will like me less and less the more they talk to me.
I have skulked awkwardly around the edges of clusters of people talking, looking for a space to insert myself. I have quietly given up and left, going home to nurture my embarrassment into defiance. I am not like them, and I don’t need them anyway. I don’t need that person, I have scoffed, or that person. It’s the superiority complex of the shy, a defense mechanism against hating yourself.
I don’t want to be Herb Asher, alone in a pod on an alien planet, thinking I’m happy as long as I can be alone and fantasize about this or that celebrity. Instead, I want to learn to be alone with other people, alone in a way that means being centered and calm, unshaken by anxiety about what anyone thinks.
I want to forgive God. I want to be the social creature I was made to be. Plus, I want to do what I’m told, whether it’s to forgive God or be nice to others. I want to be good. I (“You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver says. But what does she know of life’s pressures, a lone poet and her wild geese?)
Geese are never alone. I want to be a goose, to travel with others in lovely symmetry without having to think about it too much. Just be a goose doing my goose thing with other geese.
“Therefore, ‘come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’” –2 Corinthians 6:17
There’s something here beyond social anxiety, something to do with Bible verses like the one above, something instilled in me about the nature of difference and oneness. What’s going on here? What is the real fear?
Possibility 1: Fear of touching everyone inappropriately.
What if I relax so much that I lose my sense of self and lean into someone? Worse, what if I snuggle in close? I want to touch and be touched, and I guard myself against both, afraid it will go too far. It’s like the fear of crying because you might not be able to stop.
What’s too far? Sex, I suppose. In moments of panicky self-analysis I’ve wondered if I’m the kind of person who has to have sex with people to feel comfortable around them. But on a less weird and more practical level, I’m afraid I’ll misread cues and make everyone uncomfortable. Or maybe I’m afraid that if I lean into someone too long, I won’t know how to return to myself. So don’t go losing yourself with everyone, I tell myself. Pick one person. But what if that’s a catch 22? What if my fear of intimacy with the world keeps me from intimacy with the one person I’ve picked?
Last weekend, I attended my boyfriend’s uncle’s funeral. One of the family members sat next to me, crying. I wanted to express my sympathy with more than a look or a sad smile. I wanted to comfort her with affection. The women in the pew in front of me were patting each other’s knees. Could I reach this person’s knee without sliding forward in the pew? Would my touch be an intrusion on her private moment? I quickly reached out and rubbed my hand up and down her leg. She jerked a little, probably startled, and it took some quick thinking on my part to not snatch my hand away in embarrassment. Instead, I switched to her shoulder, but the damage was done. My ego grasped onto that leg rub and tortured me with it the rest of the day. That’s something a lover would do! Why rub? Why not just pat? Why such long strokes? Why are you allowed in public?
All of this is to say that I think my deepest nature is to connect and to comfort, and I’m afraid that if I let that part of myself free, I’ll be trespassing boundaries right and left and lose myself in the process.
Possibility 2: Fear of being like everyone else.
The fear of touching, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of looking stupid—these are but shadows of another fear: if I join the world, nothing will distinguish me or make me unique or special or better.
As a kindergartner, I learned that being separate—being preternaturally obedient, in my case—won me admiration from my teacher. Since (and even before) then, I’ve (mostly subconsciously) sought distance from the crowd of my peers. Whether by getting good grades, following rules, adopting a restricted diet, or simply being my genetically thin self, I have separated myself from the pack.
Self-help books and Myers-Briggs would label me an introvert. It’s easy to buy into this label and imagine myself deserving of special understanding. But labels are part of the separation that we imagine we must maintain in order to survive this world. Introverts can write as many books as they want, trying to get people to understand them, but in the end, that just creates further separation: us v. them.
If I stop separating myself, if I stop trying to be different or better, then what am I? And who do I think is going to love me more for my separation? God? That’s what I used to think, at least. Trying to be good separates you from the majority who don’t try so hard. And shouldn’t my sacrifice, my noble struggle for goodness, warrant special love, whether from God or people? If I give up that struggle, then what?
Possibility 3: Fear I’ll get stuck in illusion.
If I give up my struggle toward enlightenment so that I can ‘hang’ like a normal person, I might get stuck in the illusion instead of being able to transcend it. I’ll get caught up in other people’s problems, complaints, gossip, negativity. And because I still want to connect with people despite my competing desire to be different and better, I sometimes default to complaining a lot to try to make myself seem ‘down-to-earth,’ to make myself seem real. Which brings up my ongoing complaint: why all of this sitting and talking anyway? Why can’t we just play a game instead? Dutch Blitz, for example, is vonderful goot fun, and I can never get anyone to play it with me.
My new trick for handling social situations, adapted from this book by my friend Peter Santos:
Before a social engagement, protect yourself energetically. After a brief meditation to calm and center yourself, imagine your aura pulling in close to you and then imagine a circle of white light surrounding it. In this egg of light, you are perfectly safe. In this egg, you can relax and interact with people without fear. In this egg, you can look past people’s ego-driven behavior to their true nature. You can see that you are One with everyone.
Does it work? Sometimes. When it doesn’t, when I do something awkward like rub a crying person’s leg, I tell myself, “let it be.” I tell myself to stop punishing myself for my awkwardness. Instead, just allow it. Accept it. Trust that I will be forgiven.
And finally, here’s the full paragraph from which the beginning quote is taken. I love it for how it knocks the wind out of me.
“You must forgive reality for being what it is. Reality, the truly real, is relationship. You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone. You must forgive God for creating a shared reality before you can understand it is the only one you would want to have. You have to forgive this reality for being different than you always imagined it to be. You have to forgive yourself for not being able to make it your own, because you have realized the impossibility of doing so. You have to forgive yourself for being what you are, a being who exists only in relationship. You have to forgive all others for being as you are. They too cannot be separate, no matter how hard they try. Forgive them. Forgive yourself. Forgive God. Then you will be ready to begin learning just how different it really is to live in the reality of relationship.” –A Course of Love