When did I start to feel lonely in crowds?
Did it creep up on me? Is it related to the isolation that comes with depression? Am I just less friendly and adventurous than I used to be?
For years, I had a perception of myself as an extrovert. I thought I was fueled by being around people. I thought I feared being alone. I thought that fear might be hiding a fundamental spiritual or emotional deficient, so I did my best to be with people.
Looking back, I can see signs of my impending introversion. I spent every minute that I could with my nose stuck in a book. I calmed my anxious or angry heart by taking long drives along the Mackenzie River. When I finally moved into my own tiny attic apartment, at 24 years old, I relished my solo Saturday morning routine, walking to the Harris Teeter for breakfast or to Fair Grounds for a cup of coffee, reading the New York Times, sitting in the sun and quiet with my cats. No cell phone, no television, no internet or Facebook or laptop.
But last week, at a conference of like-minded Jesus-and-justice people, I found myself feeling very lonely. It struck me first in a crowded meet and greet for conference speakers, which I crashed with a friend of mine who was on the speaker roster. The hotel suite was packed with people speaking animatedly in groups of two or three and I was in a corner, wishing there was a ficus to hide behind, as I watched the conversations happen around me.
Maybe it’s because I find small talk hard to handle. When people ask what my organization does, I don’t want to tell them, “I think we’re having a bit of an identity crisis.” When people ask me how I am, I don’t think they will take it well if I reply, “Oh, you know, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, I can manage to drag myself out of bed at ten am, but most days I feel like I’m walking through concrete.” I don’t know how to fake it, so I withdraw.
I don’t know how to make friends in groups of strangers anymore. This hasn’t historically been the case. I started a new school in the third grade, then in the middle of the year my family moved from Idaho to Oregon. I made friends just fine. Even in high school, when I started as a freshman at a different school than my middle school classmates, I managed.
In fact, my whole lovely high school experience started that first day of school, when I was brave enough to ask two girls if I could eat lunch with them. I had met Sarah once before, at a mutual friend’s house, but I didn’t know Amanda from Adam. They introduced me to their friends, who became my friends, too, and I managed to make it through the four years of high school with nothing but very happy memories.
Could I do that again today? In some ways, I have. I made friends at Circle of Hope and at Palmer Seminary. In both cases, I walked into rooms of strangers and, by the grace of God, walked out with dear beloved companions. So what’s the difference between the crowded mixer and a crowded classroom? Are the people in each space fundamentally different? Do mixers attract plastic people while the real ones congregate in classrooms?
No. I think all of these spaces are probably filled with people like me, who are choosing whether to be their authentic self or to project an image that helps them feel safe.
I think the difference in my experience is me. I choose whether to be real. I choose whether to try hard to be charming and funny or to just be myself (which is still pretty charming and funny). I choose whether to imitate fakery or display authenticity. And when I choose vulnerability, honesty, and openness, I make friends. Sometimes that authenticity might not work for other people. It might cause some discomfort. And that’s okay.
I still don’t know if I’m an introvert or an extrovert. I think that might change with the seasons. But I do know that I’m not the only one who feels lonely in a crowd. So maybe next time I’m standing in corner by myself, wishing for a ficus, instead of focusing on passing judgement on the plastic people, I’ll look in the nooks and crannies for other loners who might also be looking for someone with whom they can share.