Isolated, Together

Many big anniversaries are happening this year. Canada’s 150th, Finland’s 100th, the NHL & Toronto Maple Leafs’ 100th, respectively. The theme of Finland’s is “Together”. What do I know of togetherness? I’m a pretty isolated person.

Many big anniversaries are happening this year. Canada’s 150th, Finland’s 100th, the National Hockey League and Toronto Maple Leafs’ 100th, respectively – and probably more. The theme of Finland’s is “Together”. Fitting enough, I suppose, for an anniversary of what is essentially a community of people. A country is many more things too, but maybe it all distills down to that, even if at times it seems countries don’t function that way in practice (especially of late).

Togetherness. What do I know of it? I’m a pretty isolated person. Though I’m married and surrounded by family, friends and neighbors, some of the time it doesn’t feel much like it. Anniversaries? I can hardly remember my own. I shy away from social obligations, when I manage to hold down a job I come in late because I’m really not a morning person, and usually spend much of my days holed up like a hermit, stuck in my own head.

badger-breaking-bad-i9The human contact I get is typically made of moments like today, when I went to the grocery store and waited in line at the cash. A guy strolled into the store, wearing a hat like mine, kind of like that one Badger wears on Breaking Bad, with the braid things. I looked at him, and he appeared to meet my gaze squarely, cracking an awkward smile and nodding a “werd, my goofy hat brotha” sort of nod. But I really couldn’t be sure; maybe it was aimed at the guy ahead of me in line.

Have you seen any of those documentaries where they discover a person who’s been living in a makeshift cabin somewhere for nigh on 40 years, occasionally sneaking into villages to lift peoples underwear from their clotheslines and cans of brown beans from their cupboards to survive? And when they interview them and inevitably ask why they made the decision to live as they do, they just shrug and act like they don’t know entirely themselves? Of course they know, and you can see it in everything else they say and do. They don’t trust people.

Maybe I’m kind of like that, even if I haven’t made that kind of drastic decision because of it. You see, I still like being around people. Just not all the time, or even most of it. People are generally too demanding, judgmental, and energy draining in some form or another. They hold the wrongs you’ve done over your head forever and exaggerate them greatly, while overlooking the good you do. They have expectations which, when unmet, lead to vastly out of proportion punishments. They tend to talk about a lot of shallow drivel. And worst of all to me is when they pretend to show support but then don’t follow up.

Truthfully I am just as terrible as any of these figurative characters. Once, I was walking the usual twenty minutes to work, head down, when a man asked me for help. It was to lift something into a truck. I was so taken aback by this sudden unexpected situation, that I mumbled “no” and kept right on going. A few moments and 50 or so meters later, when it would have felt stupid to go back, I wondered why on earth I had reacted that way and the guilt ate at me for days afterward.

It’s really not out of the norm, is my suspicion. We are all focused on ourselves, our own troubles. We think that nobody could possibly understand the kind of pain we deal with. We lash out or even just give a cold, dead look which belies whatever softness which actually remains underneath. We’re predictably unpredictable. I’ve long since began to understand the patterns of behavior in those near to me, I would have once mistaken as a personal insult or rejection, but in each case it took years to figure that out and accept it. With every new person I meet and decide to befriend, I must face the prospect of figuring out their unique set of quirks and dealing with it, while retaining the limited mental energies I possess sufficiently for the purpose of carrying out the tasks of daily life I am bad enough at as it is.

But I do like people. Some people. I like them when they’re low maintenance, easy going and balanced enough to keep a conversation going, but still express genuine interest in my life. I like them when they accept me as I am, and make me feel welcome and useful. If all people, or even most, could be like that, what a wonderful world this would be, right? I like the idea of people. Or rather, the idea of a wholesome community. It might be why many of us have fond ideas of the past. Families where everyone gets along and is loving and nurturing, and the children grow up adventurous and confident. Neighborhoods where everyone talks to each other over their picket fences, and offer to help each other where they see a need.

The past isn’t as ideal as that though, and the present isn’t necessarily as terrible as we make it out to be. We’re just ill-equipped a lot of the time to deal with what we feel we should be able to and would like to deal with. And so we escape into our bubbles, whether that be games, fantasy and sci-fi, sports, porn, romance novels, boozing it up, whatever really. We all have something. Some people react with a smirk to the term “safe space”. The same person may seek the solace of a peaceful lake, where there’s nothing but them and the gentle tug of the fishing line – the predictability of no situation more radical than getting bites or not, sunny weather or rainy… what is that, if not a safe space?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that togetherness is mainly, and perhaps always has been, a bit of an ideal. It never has been the full reality, has it, even if it sounds really good and could be wonderful for humanity if we learn to have more of it. We’ve always been in more of a boat where we are isolated, together. Whether on an individual level, or an international one. There are personality clashes, different values, different needs, and that’s just the way it is. What’s been a bit different for the past twenty-ish years is that we’re much more exposed to other ways of life, and movements much larger in appearance than anything mankind has previously been used to. There’s much more of a “global awareness”, for lack of a better term, and set of expectations that we must operate each of our affairs in a way that is acceptable to “everyone”.

But that isn’t togetherness either, it’s just more bullying that pushes humankind closer to madness, and deeper into themselves. You can’t force togetherness, in other words. That’s generally called holding people captive, or abuse or rape or things of that nature. As far as modern society has come, the greatest thing it still has yet to produce is a widespread education of how to talk to each other, without agendas or bullcrap judgments, just as real people – and more than talk, how to listen. As an introvert thrust into a relationship on the other side of the world in a completely different culture, that has certainly been the number one thing I’ve had to learn in order to get anywhere with any of it and it’s taken more than ten years. Think how much greater the need is then, in a socio-political context!

So as we contemplate togetherness this year, let’s remember that to be strong together we must first be strong alone. We must be left alone when necessary, and seek company when the time is right and the company is good. Sometimes, stepping out of the comfort zone is necessary, but we are in a fast changing world as it is. Let’s not place undue pressure on ourselves or each other. Sometimes, it’s okay to be isolated together.