Alone in a Crowded Room

I have what I think of a very Lake Wobegon love for my nieces and nephews: each is strong, good looking, and above average in their own way. One of them, the eldest, is in college now – or was until Covid and will return after – and has been writing for her college paper. I received a link to her latest article, an opinion piece about how everyone at her college says, “Let’s do Lunch” and then doesn’t; and how disappointing that is to her and to students that she interviewed; and how she has actually found more connection one on one through Zoom.

It was, of course, beautifully written. And I was impressed by her skill at such a young age to be, at once, eloquent and vulnerable in public. Her work often strikes me this way.

As a recovering introvert – and someone who displays strong introverted tendencies on the Myers-Briggs scale, which is BS, because I definitely take my energy from being around others; as the child of two introverts, with an introverted sister and an introverted husband – I often reflect on the pain of introversion.

My latest thought on this is that part of the problem lies in the expectations that introverts have about friendships. There is an assumption that friendship will happen spontaneously, that you will start talking to someone and you’ll hit it off and want to spend time together and tell each other secrets and stand up for each other and be that way forever.

Sometimes friendship does happen like that.

Just like sometimes love happens at first sight.

Many friendships don’t hit that level – and that’s ok. Many friendships don’t start as friendships – I have two friends that, the first time I met them, I took an instant dislike to them. It was only after spending weeks and months and being forced into proximity that I came to appreciate them and treasure their presence in my life, and seek them out to spend time with.

There are other friends that I love spending time with and we never go below the surface, and that’s ok. We enjoy our time together and that’s fine.

Other friends I keep in touch with casually, from year to year, or month to month, as opposed to the friends that I chat with daily or (Zoom) watch football with on weekends. And that’s okay.

And it’s also okay to walk into a cafeteria or a large dinner at a conference, by yourself, and look around at all the tables crowded with people, and feel alone, and think you’re the only one who feels alone, and to feel like you should be able to walk up to anyone and start to chat and be accepted; you should… Only it rarely works out that way. To tell the truth, many people come to these crowded dinners with people they plan to sit with, people they ran into on their way in, or people they encountered during the day and – instead of saying, “let’s do lunch sometime” – said, “let’s sit together at lunch today.”

My husband and I attended a wedding once; the only person that we knew at this wedding was the groom. When we exited the chapel, a bunch of guests – strangers to us – were milling about, waiting to move on to the reception. Inside my chest, my inner child started to retreat into shyness and whisper that we’d be wallflowers, sitting alone while everyone around us danced. So I turned to the woman next to me and started making small talk: how did she know the bride and or groom, etc. That turned into a conversation and, as the guests all started to walk toward the reception venue, more small talk with other guests. By the time we arrived where we were going, we had all agreed to sit together. As I went up to the bar or the buffet, I made small talk with other people, and it just snowballed, and my husband and I had a great time that night. Did we make lifelong friends? No, but we had a good time. And, if we had found more interests in common or lived proximately to any of these people, maybe we would have gone on to form friendships.

Relationships take work.

Relationships – whether at work, or with your kids, or with your domestic partner, or with strangers, or with friends – require time, energy, the courage to push past the idea that you may not always say the right thing, the humility to be sorry when you don’t, commitment.

And all of these things start with the idea that sometimes you’re going to be alone when you walk into a crowded room.

And that’s okay.

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