Humans are social animals -pt 1
Humans are social animals, so they say.
I am a very social animal, I think. I like having lots of people around me. That’s one of the things I like about California. There are simply more people to be around.
Being a teenager is a time when you are especially concerned with the social aspects of life. Boy, I sure was. I was like a throbbing antenna, aware of every shift in social winds.
When I was forced against my will to be homeschooled, I knew my social status would plummet and never recover. My parents, excited about how great teaching me at home would be, didn’t believe me. “You’ll be fine!” Mom said.
Thus began my four years of jockeying for a position in the tight cliquey circle of teenagers from the small private school I had left. Any position. I had to make sure not to lag too far behind when the group was lining up to file into rows of chairs at events or in church. I felt humliation and self-loathing as I pushed my way forward in the line so that I did not get stuck on the end of the row. You could not hear anything or be included when you were on the end.
Teenagers can smell self-loathing like wolves smell fear. My insecure position did not go unnoticed.
Since my days were long and empty, the catty comments and cold-shouldering doled out by my “friends” were constantly on my mind. Which were intentional? What did they really think of me? How could I win back favor and be respected?
Once, after a few years of this wore on, an occasion arose. We were going in to a church event. I say “we”; in reality, my group of friends were already lined up with a few new people to make things lively. For some reason, I had been left behind the group. I stood at the door of the auditorium and looked at the girls lined up in the pew. They were already sitting down. I was filled with shame at the thought of squeezing in, unwanted, to be tagged on at the end. I would inevitably spend the time looking at the back of some more fashionable shirt as its wearer turned away from me to talk with the rest of group.
I hated feeling this way. I wanted nothing more than to be included. But experience had taught me that I could only expect humiliation.
Suddenly, I was mad! Those girls had no right to treat me this way. I might not be able to be included in the conversation, but as least I could be excluded with dignity:
I COULD SIT ALONE.
The idea was as revolutionary as the apple falling on Newton’s head. Fear and excitement shot through me–my heart was pounding. Did I really dare to be alone? If I sat alone, would the girls then be so relieved to be rid of me that they would forever more exclude me?
But the idea gave me so much more self-respect. I did not have to walk in and take the blows to my feelings. NO! I could be alone.
I marched down the aisle, past the group and sat alone near the front. I felt my back prickle, sure that they were all staring at me. I stayed for the service. I watched everything, finally able to notice what was going on. Once the absorbing distraction of my friends was gone, I realized that a lot of other things were happening.
I felt somewhat exposed, as if I were naked. Like a hermit crab rushing from one discarded shell to a new larger home. At the end of the service, I felt renewed. I learned that there was the option of being alone.
Humans are social animals -pt 2
In November 2000, I had a chance to visit Manhattan. It was for work, and no one else wanted to go. I was thrilled at the chance to spend what amounted to a week in New York City, on the company tab. They put me up in a Madison Avenue hotel, right below Rockefeller Square. While I was there, all the Christmas decorations were put up. The streets were bustling and beautiful.
But I was alone.
I got off the airplane in JFK and made it to the taxi line alone. Me and the cab driver talked as we drove to the hotel, and I checked in alone. My beautiful hotel room was filled with only me.
I found dinner alone, and I walked to the office building where I would be working. The dark streets were lit and the tall mirrored building waited for me.
It’s easy to work fast when you work alone. After I did my day’s work, I went alone through the subways and stopped to hear the street musicians play. I could stay and listen as long as I wanted.
I went alone to the empire state building and looked out at all those millions of light across the sky.
I went to the U.N. just to see. I went to Central park, and bought a knish, and later a hot dog.
I loved Manhattan. The kinetic thought-energy was electrifying. It helped that I knew my time was limited, and I had so much I wanted to see.
But it was very strange to be so alone in this huge mass of people. I wanted to strike up conversations with strangers, just to hear the sounds of my own voice, and to know that I was still there.
People were streaming all around me; passing on sidewalks, sitting on the subway–people seemed to be piled up on one another like iguanas in a pet shop. I breathed the air that millions exhaled, and walked through the space their forms had blocked milliseconds before.
New York is a big city.