I’m learning something about myself, that shouldn’t have taken me nearly four decades to learn:
I don’t actually hate people.
In fact, I love people. I find them fascinating subjects of study. I find their stories interesting, and their quirks amusing. But for much of my life, I have been beating myself up over the fact that much of the time, I find other people incredibly annoying in inexplicable ways.
For example, I don’t ever find my students annoying during class, or even between classes. I don’t find my children annoying on long car trips or at the park, or during dinner. I fully expect to be 100% emotionally and intellectually available to 30+ kids every hour, for 7 hours a day. I fully plan and expect to engage with my 11 year old while I’m making dinner. Those types of interactions don’t bother me a bit.
Well, let’s say that I’m in my classroom and all of my students are doing group work and you come into my room and see me walking around, not exactly in the middle of actively “teaching” at the moment and you want to talk about the thing you’re planning for next weekend. Or I’m making dinner and you drop by and expect to fulfill your VT assignment by inviting yourself to help me peel potatoes. After all, I’m not really busy, right? And in fact, you’re helping me be less busy?
Sometimes I fantasize about moving to a third-world country where I don’t know the language and nobody knows me, and living in a small hut with no outside communication. Ever.
This puzzled me. How can I like you so sincerely, and yet wish you out of existence so often?
Until I realized that I don’t actually find you annoying. I find the fact that you’ve interrupted my train of thought annoying. Maddening. And then I feel guilty about being annoyed, and I try really hard to swim back up to a social level of consciousness, and I engage with you in my kitchen or classroom, and then you leave and I’m exhausted and feeling more annoyed and more guilty and the next time you call or drop in unexpected, I’ll probably pretend I’m not here, simply to avoid that same cycle.
I’ll probably even move my desk into the corner where nobody can see if I’m in my room, and I’ll eat lunch in the dark, and put my earbuds in, even though I’m not listening to music, just in case someone pounds on my door for 15 minutes straight and then turns out to be someone with a legitimate reason for needing access, and they get a key and lets themselves in, so I need an excuse for not answering.
Not because I resent the fact of your existence in any way. I don’t actually care if you chew loudly, snort when you breathe, or walk on your heels. You could probably drop a jar full of marbles on a tile floor and I wouldn’t notice–as long as you don’t expect me to respond to any of those things.The problem is, the vast majority of people expect a response–an acknowledgement of their existence. Fair enough. It’s been said that feeling invisible is one of the worst experiences for mental and emotional health. That most people crave acknowledgement. Expect friendly engagement.
And if that’s what I have planned, I’m up for that–totally.
But if it’s not? If I was planning to physically buy groceries, or wash my dishes, or spend my lunch-hour thinking through a lesson plan or a problem, and you “pop in” and expect me to even recognize your face, let alone the syllables coming from your mouth as English?
You’re probably going to annoy me.
More than you can possibly know.
I think I’ve figured out why I get along so well with strangers (and other people who know how to conduct 20 second phone calls and, say, borrow a textbook without doing anything else except borrow the textbook) and yet experience so much inner conflict over other, more important relationships.
You see, I can smile and say hello to every person I meet in the grocery store, but on the same day duck six different aisles because a friend or acquaintance is down every stinking one of them. It’s not that I don’t like those people. I’m just doing something else right now, and I don’t want to be interrupted. That little old lady who needs help reading the ingredient label? Not annoying. A friend? Duck. The young mother who needs someone to watch the cart while she cleans up vomit? Not annoying. A family member who wants to make comments about the number of milk jugs in my cart? Duck.
Because that other thing I had planned? It wasn’t the groceries. That’s just an alibi. Something to keep this ridiculous bundle of nerves and muscle cells, these hands and feet, otherwise occupied. What I was really doing was inside my head.
I used to think that something was wrong with me, when I looked at the caller ID, and would ignore calls from people I really do love, or would take the long way around at a social function in order to avoid truly delightful acquaintances.
But I think it’s about emotional and intellectual engagement. I don’t have to authentically engage with the half-blind woman or the young mother. I’m just a serviceable body, mindlessly performing a function. On the other hand, someone I care about? You are going to drain every bit of energy out of me if you walk up to me right now and demand interaction. Because I care too much to be a robot with you, ever. If I’m going to talk to you, I’m driven to make it meaningful, which there isn’t time for in a grocery aisle. And I’m not necessarily prepared to plunge into a meaningful conversation every time you are. As a matter of fact, most of the time I’m not. You may think I’m just cooking dinner, or filling my shopping cart, or washing my white board.
But actually, I’m not even in the room.
Unless you force me back into it–compel me back into the confines of mortality to satisfy your ever-present need for being seen and heard and acknowledged at every moment.
And try as I might, I can’t help but resent you for doing that.
Is this wrong?
Is this a symptom of selfishness at the most fundamental level? This craving I have to escape the room?
I think I used to believe I was selfish.
I used to believe that I had to be fully present, all the time, for every person. Totally forthright and transparent, and acknowledge your existence, every time.
But I’m starting to question that. I’m starting to wonder just how available to everyone I really need to be. Maybe some of us really are introverts. Maybe some of us just aren’t built for the kind of social interaction Western society values.
Actually, I’ve always known that.
But I’m starting to think it’s not something to be ashamed of, or to fight against, or apologize for.
Or try to change.
Maybe some people don’t live inside their own heads enough or ever. Maybe they have no self-awareness and constantly need to leech energy from other people in order to feel alive themselves.
And maybe that’s totally normal and fine for them, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed of that, or fight against it or apologize for it.
But maybe I don’t have to allow myself to be leeched.
Maybe if you ask me a question I don’t want to answer, or don’t want to answer right now, I don’t have to worry about your feelings if I prefer to raise an eyebrow but otherwise ignore your inquiry. Maybe I don’t have to allow you to sit at my bar and peel my potatoes. Maybe I can tell you that now is not a good time. Maybe I don’t have to explain to you why I do or do not do certain things that you think I should or should not do. Maybe I shouldn’t believe that the happiness and well-being of every person I interact with is contingent on my interaction or lack of interaction with them.
Maybe I should just live my life and trust that you’ll live yours and if you still like me the way I truly am, we’ll still be friends, and if not, well… I’m sure you’ll find symbiosis in another ecosystem.
Maybe if I did that more often, I wouldn’t get to the point where I want to move to Zimbabwe.