Friday, January 17, 2014

On Being Social...And NOT Being Social

It was the summer of 1995.  Bill Clinton was in the White House, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was insanely popular with kids all over America, and I was only seven years old.  My sister, however--the one who is still living, that is--was graduating from high school.  To celebrate the end of her twelve years of school, my family had a graduation party for her.  It was quite the big affair; we had it at my aunt's house, because ours was too small, and many of our immediate and extended family members, as well as my sister's friends, came and had a grand old time.  Even though it wasn't my party, I was allowed to bring my best friend at the time.  I don't remember much about it, but, from what I do recall, it seems like a blast was had by all.

Fast forward eleven years to 2006, the year I graduated from high school.  After what you just read, you'd probably expect that my graduation party was also an extravaganza of sorts, right? Well, you'd be wrong.  Instead of having friends and extended family over, I was given a "surprise" party where no one was in attendance other than me and my immediate family members.  (I said "surprise" in quotes because I figured out what they were up to, albeit only a few minutes before the surprise was revealed.)  No extended family members nor any of my friends from anywhere--church, school, etc.--even knew about it until it was over and done.  Just last year, upon thinking about that, I asked myself a rather disturbing question: Why did I have more of my friends at someone else's graduation party--that is, my sister's, which is the only other one I've ever attended--than at my own?

Since I wasn't the one who planned that party--it was supposed to be a surprise, after all--I asked my mother about that, and she had no idea why my graduation party lacked friends.  My brother-in-law probably doesn't remember either--he and my mom both worked nights during that time, which makes one forgetful--and I'd rather not ask my sister, so, that means I can only make guesses as to why.  Did they just want it to be a family thing? Possibly.  Would inviting all of the people I considered friends require more space than my sister and brother-in-law had? Maybe.  However, I think the most likely reason was even more disturbing: Despite what I might have believed at the time, I really didn't have any true friends.

You may be thinking, "What? You not having any friends? Siobhan, that's crazy! You had so many friends in high school and at your church, it's not even funny!" Well...that depends on what your definition of friend is.  Of course I had plenty of people I talked to often, but, when it came to actually "hanging out" with a crowd, that never really happened.  Even during lunch period at high school, I often ended up going to the school's library to go check the sole online forum where I was a member, and then waited in the classroom all by myself until everyone else arrived.  My junior English teacher understood that I did so because I didn't "have anywhere else to go."  When it came to doing things with my friends outside of school, church, or wherever I knew them from...that pretty much stopped after a while.  There were two kids in my neighborhood who liked to play Nintendo GameCube with me, but they ended up moving.  Another kid my mom was taking care of stopped coming over just as my freshman year ended.  If I did do something with people outside my family, it was either a pre-planned outing with a general invite--i.e., "We're having a game night, and the whole church is invited!"--or it was with older friends, not people my own age; even the latter didn't happen all that often.  Even in the years since high school, people who had previously invited me to social outings now won't even talk to me anymore, only because of my incorrect actions towards them, and, after what I did, I doubt I will ever be friends with those people again, which just breaks my heart.

It's no surprise that I spent most nights with the computer and television as my only companions.  It's not that I didn't get invites; even in the past half-decade, I've had people ask if I wanted to go somewhere and do something, and I sometimes had some dumb excuse: "I already saw that movie." "I'd rather not." "I'm not in the mood right now." "You know I don't like theme parks." Sometimes, people got really offended by my refusal, as polite as it was; they were trying to do something nice, and I declined without really any good reason.  There were several incidents where I realized afterwards that I shouldn't have refused; even if I'd already seen the movie or the activity was something I didn't think I'd like, going somewhere with friends and/or family sure beat sitting by myself doing essentially nothing, whether at home or elsewhere.

Even when I did attend "social" events, I acted in a way that prevented socializing.  I was once at a game night at my church, and chose to sit there with headphones on my ears and my face in a book.  My sister and brother-in-law reprimanded me for doing that, saying that I could sit and read a book at home; I countered with the fact that, at the first game night at our church, some people did nothing but sit and read the paper.  For a while after that, I still believed I was right...but, today, I realized what those immediate family members of mine were saying: If you attend a social event, but send off signals that you don't want to interact with anyone, that makes people feel like you don't want to be friends with them, which could be potentially offensive and upsetting.

So, what's the lesson to be learned from all of that? If I want more social interaction with people, I have to act in a way that shows that I want it.  That means that I have to be interested in what other people have to say, instead of just dominating the conversation; I can't just hole up and refuse to talk to anyone; if someone invites me to something, I shouldn't refuse without a good reason; and, I can't use the actions or excuses of others to defend my own missteps.  Maybe that way, I will make more friends and spend less time feeling lonely and despondent.

I do want to make three things very clear.  First off: I do realize that I need to branch out.  Most of you probably think that, if you invited me to a sporting event or a theme park, the answer would be a solid, strong, non-negotiable "NO!" However, you might be surprised to know that I actually have attended sporting events with friends, ranging from a hockey match featuring a local team to a high school football game, albeit not one where my high school was playing.  Even with theme parks, there was a time where I couldn't shut up about going to the ones in my area, but, I later claimed that my tastes had changed, and I "hated" such places, which made it sound like I had some traumatic incident at one...but I didn't; in all honesty, it was easier just to not care about such places, plus it made me different, if only for the sake of being different.  As for my other well-known dislike: Just as much as I've always liked computers, celebrities, and entertainment--in various forms, anyway--I've always strongly disliked beaches, pools, and similar places.  At first, I attended outings to such places just because others were doing so...but, after a while, I'd had enough, and decided I just couldn't do it anymore.  I even got mad at my mom for buying me a pair of swimming shorts, because I couldn't believe she would expect me to ever participate in such an activity.  Over the years, I've used everything from a phobia to a religious conviction to supposedly being uncomfortable with the exposure required as the reasoning behind why I wouldn't do it...when, really, the only reason was just my attitude.  Of course I'm not going to like something if I go into it thinking it's going to be horrible! My mom told me that I just needed to give swimming a chance, and then, I might like it; though I thought that claim was ridiculous when I first heard it, now that I think about it, she is actually right.  That said, the refusal to consume morally offensive entertainment is part of a religious conviction, and, therefore, won't change.

Second off: I realize that the situation I am currently in can hurt my chances for being invited to social events.  It's not just the previous actions described above; the fact that I lack a car or a driver's license also causes problems, because who wants to go well out of his/her way just to pick up someone? I'll make efforts to change that in the future, though I still have my doubts.  Beyond that: Believe it or not, being single also has the same effect.  You may be thinking, "But...if you don't constantly have someone tagging along with you, doesn't that make it easier?" Not exactly.  Let me explain it to you this way: In the southern US--where I live--it's a tradition to get married young.  Many of my friends, friends of friends, and family members, whether coeval, elderly, or anywhere in between, got married well before they were my age, sometimes even when they were still technically teenagers.  Though it's not that big of a problem when hanging out with significantly older folks--who tend to see me as one of their kids--it is when I try to befriend young couples, because I can be and have been a "third wheel" at times.  Some years ago, at my church's annual fall picnic, I spent most of the time hanging out with my fellow young adults, all of whom were married.  Well after the fact, another church member told me that someone told her during that outing, "[Siobhan] won't leave the young people alone!" Though I probably will never know who said it, I have two problems with that person's statement: One, am I not included in "the young people"? Does my lack of a wedding ring exclude me from being considered a young adult? I think not! Two, I'd always thought that one was supposed to hang out with coeval people.  Of course, I have friends of all ages; I know people in high school and others who are old enough to be my parents that are still just as much my friends as those around my age.  Still, during a social outing, I thought the unwritten rule is that one hangs out with those with whom one has things in common, and usually age is first and foremost.  If I can't hang out with those around my age just because I have no wife...that's actually quite disturbing to think about, given my likely romance-less future.  Still, lacking wheels and a significant other is a double hindrance to social interaction.

Third off: I can't let my social life take over everything else.  I once heard about a young lady who botched an interview for an internship somewhere because she told the interviewer that she was afraid getting hired there was going to negatively impact her social life.  No doubt you've heard similar stories of other interview mishaps; still, my point in mentioning that is such a mistake is an example of mismatched priorities.  Even beyond the working world, time by ourselves is something we all need.  You've probably heard the old story about a married couple who have children not long after saying, "I do," and, when the kids move out, the husband and wife don't even know each other anymore, because they spent most of their spare time with their children.  It's true that married people--whether they don't have any kids or have a whole dozen of them--need their alone time.  However, I would wager a guess--and this is just me--that even married folks need time to fly completely solo, without their constant co-pilot.  Jesus was very much a people person; the crowds followed Him around (Matthew 4:25), and He never seemed to mind.  The kids even liked Him (Luke 18:16), and they wouldn't have if He weren't sociable and personable.  However, even He needed time by Himself, and he got that while wandering in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2).  He also sought time to be alone after the murder of His cousin and friend John the Baptist (Matthew 14:13).  If the only perfect and sinless person who has ever lived needed time on His own...why wouldn't we?

In conclusion, I will say this: Back in 2009, my father wanted me to come along with him and a family friend to go see the Star Trek reboot in theaters.  I declined, telling him that I'd already seen it in IMAX with some other friends--which he already knew--and told him I'd rather go volunteer at my local library instead.  He was not too happy with me, and neither was my mother; even an employee at said library criticized me for not joining in, saying that she herself had seen it in the cinema more than once already.  For a while after that, I couldn't see why I was in the wrong; how could that not be a valid excuse? That way of thinking actually was because of multiple past incidents, at least one of which I may have been remembering subconsciously:
  • In 2005, a college kid who always hung out with the high school group at my church was invited to see Revenge of the Sith at the theater with us, but declined, saying he had already seen it.
  • In 1997, I was on an outing with a friend, and we were talking about Flubber, which he and I had recently seen at the theater, albeit not together.  We both liked it, and I talked about getting the movie on video, but he wanted no part of that, saying, "If I already saw it, why would I want to see it again?"
  • In 1995, I was in the now-defunct store Hills with my sister, when I saw that they had Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie on video, and wanted to get it.  My sister said I didn't need it because I had already seen it. (It was true; I had.)
However, really, none of that should have mattered, because I'm sure my father's feelings were hurt when I said I'd rather sit around and process discarded books than do something fun with him.  Other people--including some of you who are reading this--have likely felt the same way towards me at times; how could your friend or family member decline an offer to do something special with you, only to sit at home and do the same stuff he can do anytime? I can't do that anymore; such actions have done nothing but made others feel bad and lessened my chances of those people inviting me to do something with them again.

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