The lid on my soda cup cut my finger during lunch today. I was sitting down with my pastor, Tony Overstake, and having a very different conversation than our normal ones. Normally we talk about Scripture, inerrancy, struggles of the internet, or about life in general. But today we talked about, well, talking.
It’s my tendency to isolate myself from everyone else. It’s the “alone in a crowd” feeling, but more of an action. Whenever I’m in a big crowd I not only feel alone, but I try to be alone. I close myself off to any potential conversations and simply stick to my own little world. When Tony and I were talking about this during lunch, I didn’t really see what the big deal of it all really was. Honestly, I felt slightly attacked; that I had to defend my tendency to be alone and be left out of the conversation. But what I didn’t really consider until after I had left Big Town Hero, where we had lunch, was how I might offend someone by not talking.
I struggle with engaging people. I write about it a lot, but that’s because when I’m writing, I’m not talking, nor am I depending on someone to respond to me in order for meaning to be delivered or received. I write what’s on my mind and heart and that’s the end of it. But when I’m talking to someone, I struggle with articulating my thoughts. This is why I never wanted to give presentations in high school or in college for that matter. I know I’m not good at talking in front of people and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by stuttering in front of everyone. So it’s really a mixture of lacking the skill to articulate my thoughts and the fear of being judged for my inability to express my thoughts. And yet, I think there is something deeper.
As my last post talked about, this past weekend was an awesome, refreshing weekend. But today Tony pointed out how I seemed distant to everyone, how I seemed cut off from whatever they were talking about. Someone would ask me a question and thereby invite me into the conversation, but I’d pretty much end my involvement by giving a one or two word response and letting things continue on from there. Thinking back through the weekend, there was a lot that I was thinking about, but I didn’t really feel the need to share it. I didn’t think anyone would really care about the things I was going through – as I’ve felt quite often in the past. This, I think, is the issue; that I don’t really expect people to care. I don’t believe anyone genuinely cares about what’s going on in my life.
Even if I was comfortable in telling you why, I couldn’t because I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with my dad not being there, my mom rarely being there, or something else, I don’t know. But what I do know is that more often than not, I like to be left alone and kept to myself. And the challenge I’m now faced with is engaging others when they’re around me. A passage that we read through today in Matthew narrated how Jesus, moments after hearing of John the Baptist’s death, went away to pray alone, but was interrupted by the crowds that followed Him. Instead of feeling annoyed and sending them away, Matthew says, “He had compassion on them. …And he healed them.” Instead of remaining isolated, He engaged the people before Him and helped them out.
It’s harder for us to do merely because we aren’t Jesus. And yet that cannot be any excuse to remain isolated and cut off from the rest of the world or the people around us. Why can’t that be an excuse? Because we’re called to “Be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect,” – Matthew 5:48. And looking throughout the Bible, it’s clear that God engages His people.
Tony pointed out to me that my constant distance from the group made people wonder if everything was alright, if there wasn’t something wrong with me or my life. I wanted to reply, “Well, it’s not really any of your business to care what’s going on in my life,” but that is only a vain attempt to justify my arrogance. If I were to take that stance, I would be implying to everyone around me that I don’t need anyone, that I’ll be fine on my own. And I can honestly tell you that’s how I feel about 80-90% of the time. But thinking back over the weekend and the things I was thinking about, there were some things going on.
I knew what this trip to Gold Hill was going to do; it was going to remind me of painful things, things that I still tear up over when I think about them. Seeing Darrin Ratcliff was going to remind me of my own father issues, because I know that he has never met his dad either. And from there I would be reminded of Shawn Phelps and his passing and how close I once was to doing the same exact thing that he did. This last weekend was wonderful in that it got my mind off of some recent worries, but at the same time I still tried to bury some painful issues, issues that I don’t think anyone wanted to hear about.
The last twelve months have been emotionally painful and challenging. My confidence in writing was rocked pretty hard core last fall, many father issues reemerged last winter, Shawn’s death was difficult to bear last spring, and this summer has been pretty stressful with finding a job and paying for stuff. My life feels like a constant sob story and while I tend to feel better off alone, afraid of talking in front of people, or not feeling confident in talking to people, I hate burdening someone else with my issues. Yes, there are plenty of times when empathy and sympathy are needed from others, but I don’t think it’s a constant thing. I don’t think people want to hear about how my life is a constant struggle and how there seems to be little that’s hopeful going on. And as I’ve already stated, I often feel like people don’t really care about my problems.
I don’t write all this to gain people’s sympathy. Like I said, sometimes it’s necessary, but this isn’t one of those times. I write this only to emphasize that a part of community, a part of fellowship, a part of relationships is engaging people through conversation. And I have failed at that. I’ve been so wrapped up with my own pain, my own issues, that I’ve disregarded or ignored the struggles of the others around me. The absolute worst thing that any of us can do is think that we’re alone in this world. And the sin that Genesis describes as the fall of man is our feeling that we don’t need anyone else, that we can handle our own issues alone.
My finger was cut because it was a difficult conversation to work through and a difficult challenge to accept. Talking about my inclination to be alone makes me nervous because it pulls me out of my shell. And when I’m nervous, I fidget. That’s why my index finger is a little sore at the tip. But just because I get nervous when talking about difficult issues doesn’t mean I should reserve them, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t open myself up. Something that I thought about on my way to Starbucks after lunch was if I continue to isolate and distance myself from the conversation, things are only going to get harder. I really want a wife, but a marriage where one spouse is emotionally and conversationally distant is going to be a difficult marriage. Communication is essential for any strong relationship and what’s essential to communication is the ability to engage people. It’s an ability that I don’t lack, but I’m not very good at exercising. There are many friends who can’t shut me up on certain topics because I just love to talk about them. But I’m not very good at putting that ability of engaging people to work.
I can’t tell you why, but I want to believe that it’s an issue that only I struggle with. It might be because I have some major trust issues that I have yet to work through or it could be something else I’m not aware of yet, but whatever is, I feel alone in this struggle. And that is exactly the problem; I believe the lie that my emotions deliver. The truth is that I am not alone in this; there are many others who struggle with the same issue of engaging people. I think it’s a matter of allowing people to help. There is a song we sing occasionally at Calvary that starts out with, “I’m too proud to ask.” When it comes to dealing with my emotional problems, this is exactly my problem: I don’t want people to be burdened by me and my issues.
Humility is not a natural practice for the most of us. But in order to grow with Christ, it is absolutely essential. The fact that it’s not natural indicates that it is not easy. But if we consider the alternative, if we look at the side effects of our pride, we see very lonely lives. We might be surrounded by hundreds, thousands, millions of people, we might be celebrities who appear to be very social and talkative, but if we don’t admit all of our problems and seek help to work through them, we end up very alone. Engaging people, truly engaging people, counters loneliness. In fact, it goes a step further; engaging people enables us to receive Christ, receive His Spirit, and act as the kingdom of God to where “loneliness” almost seems like a foreign concept. But we must take that step; we must make the effort to change – even when we don’t want to.