As many of you know, I am caught between being an experiential humanist and a passive recluse intent on transcribing my convoluted thoughts on paper. If you’ve made it through the first sentence, I know you either have genuine interest in what I’m rambling about, or you feel an obligation to read it. In either case, read on.
A waiter, around 15 or so, hovers above a table of four college-age students and an evident interloper. The dark-clad Chili’s server is a mass of indifference, rolled into coarsely ironed button-downs and a sagging apron chock full of bills and colorful advertisements. He follows the row, taking up drink orders, then meal orders, then odds and ends somehow forgotten. (Did he really think chicken can be eaten without a fork?) From one end starts a conversation on the possible blinding side effects of a designer bottle of tear drops. How better to put the question to the test than passing the bottle around the table, pouring an overdose of drops in a single eye, and moaning with drooling eye lashes as the icebreaker cleansing does a deep clean of the eyeball? It’s akin to a child grabbing a hold of everything in its path, defining it by how it bounces, where it rolls, and how quickly it shatters into small pieces. The rush of it all — for children and college-age students — is the uncertainty of what will happen. Perhaps only one eye will work tomorrow.
And as the uncertainty principle plays out from left to right, the wave of harmonious grunts rippling from one side of the table to the other, I wonder what the interloper is doing. He’s presented with designer eye wash. Maybelline commercials roll through his head. Didn’t his parents mention something about peer pressure?
“Do it. All the cool kids are doing it.” It’s slurred a bit, tossed jokingly onto the table with crumbled napkins soaked with eye juice. I — the interloper — hesitate. And then, go for it.
But I squeeze the tiny bottle a bit too hard. I get the waterfall effect, sterile medication streaming down my cheek. I turn the episode into Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent!” Only, without so many words, and with so many guttural undulations.
The sheer sting subsides quickly. I dab my eye with a napkin — an unsaturated one. As the rest laugh about a new joke out of context, or in context, or despite context, I blink and stare. It suddenly occurs to me:
At 25, I’ve been labeled mature. Bah. I retort with a self-effacing “You don’t know me.” Buried in that is a knowledge that there is much imperfection to one Jeffrey William Thomas More Steen. Much indeed. And only slowly is it turning glorious, only slowly non-malignant.
But while my own tribulations are cause for much reflection, and as you know, much writing, so too are all the words and actions of those I see and live with. What is my creed again? Ah yes, to appreciate the voice and spirit of each individual in their own right, given no contrived context, no forced frame of reference. I put myself into their world to see what they do, and to appreciate it.
Nine times out of ten, I fail. But I try. As I tried tonight. I can be fairly certain that one meeting with three strangers is not going to result in a revelation. And yet, it inspired me to be quiet, to listen, and to participate as they do. Sometimes I forget me. This was one of those times.
Can I say it is a good thing? Certainly. Can I say it is bad? Only insomuch as I lost my own voice in the mix. Part of it truly is me working to be a part of their world. And part of it, admittedly, is me seeking adoration and approval. What else is new? Be a part of the group and you’ll be loved as a part of the group. Do what is outside the definition of that group — however unconscious that definition is — and you will likely see movements toward isolation of the interloper. It’s only human. I’ve done it. And perhaps in doing it and feeling it, I know what I want to avoid. So I remain quiet, and save my words for only moments when I feel confident and sure. These are, as you can imagine, few and far between in first meetings.
But I’m rambling again. The point of this all is: I got to see the inner workings, to some degree, of a group of college friends who I might never have known. But as life provides, opportunities arose, I and others made choices, and I am where I am tonight — sitting at my computer reflecting on the experience of being with them. It is so easy, outside the circle, to categorize and define in strict and simple terms. But I know well that generalizations are tools of manipulation, misunderstanding, and painful relationship. I give myself some credit for dangling my often fragile ego in these waters — as I did tonight. There’s always a chance I’ll be nabbed; I can only hope that my brief time beneath the rippled waves is a time of observation and comfortable interaction.
Which leaves me with this thought. If the dangling bait — myself — is sought after and nibbled on, or gulleted entirely, can you blame the fish? They live in a school, and schools of fish innately know what urges they need to pursue. Hunger is one of them. If they are hungry — because food is not available elsewhere — they will follow the line beneath the water’s edge and take a shot at the wriggling worm. So it is with human relationships. Odd, I know, but it has some sense to it. Groups of people, if lacking in attention within their own groups (their food), will often attack those on the periphery, or strangers who are only stopping by. Is their intent maliciously aimed at the utter devastation of that particular person? Rarely. More often, I believe, it is the instinct that follows from feeling they are vulnerable, even in their own established group. For when the attack comes against an outsider, the default is the immediate cohesive defense of the entire group. The vulnerable member now is brought fully back into the fold and they are once again, fed.
I did not see this, or experience it, tonight. I have, however, been put in these awkward situations before. It proves to be great fodder for my reflections, but also a point of concern. It occurs to me, spelling this all out, that I must be ever mindful of my “survival instinct” in my closest group of friends. I must avoid the gut instinct to push back in anger against someone who is foreign to that group. What does it accomplish? It hides the truth, and perhaps, if successful, enables me to feel confident again and strong in the presence of my friends. The cost is the disenfranchisement of someone I may hardly know. And in my professed spirit of inclusion, how can I possibly turn someone away?
The solution, I feel is be honest. It’s strangely the solution to many problems. But if there is a problem felt with one member of a group, then discussing it with another member might be prudent. Hard as we try, we simply cannot carry all perspectives in ourselves, and I should hope others will balance our sometimes dramatic interpretation of events with candid realism. Back away, back down. You’re not vulnerable, you’re not being dismissed or undervalued. And then, when another voice gives us that confirmation, it is so much easier to embrace the outsider and organically expand the group, than it is to exclusively shun and stunt relationships.
Curious thoughts for a light Friday night. But I hope they are of use to some. Forgive my long windedness. Actually — no. I won’t apologize, as this is the first blog entry in quite a while of any sizeable length. It’s also a rare show of prose; I hope this has not been a deterrent for anyone. Mattaman has had much to say.
I will try to take this to heart — and mind — as I listen to others and continue to experience life and relationships. If you have read this and see me working against my own positive conclusions, please gently nudge me in the right direction. Forgive the initial snap; it will settle into thanks, I promise you.
And so, I continue the journey…