Sunday, August 1, 2010

Alone in a crowd

You tried so hard to understand them
You wanted to be part of what was happening
You saw them having fun
And it seemed like such a mystery
Almost magic.

--Henry Rollins, I Know You

During Summer there are many fireworks displays all across Japan, and attending them is a popular pastime. The Japanese have been doing this for around 300 years now, and even today, many of the people who attend don traditional Summer clothes, yukata for women, and jinbei for men. Couples, families, groups of friends will wander down to the parks, beaches, and riversides of Japan, eat, drink, socialize, fan themselves with sensu or uchiwa, hear the cicada sing and watch the fireworks.

Recently I was invited to watch some fireworks. Our group was probably about 15 people altogether, and I knew two of them. The story of this night, at least from my view, is pretty much the story of every large social event that I have attended since childhood.

I tend to find most social situations uncomfortable, but especially those with large groups of people. In Japan the language issue makes things more complicated, as my level of Japanese is not anywhere near as good as it should be after four years here, and of course, when I am not confident, it gets worse.

But to put too much blame on the language misses the point. The way I feel, and the way things tend to play out, have been the same for decades. I tend to have a couple of people I feel somewhat comfortable talking with, and spend a lot of time, too much time, talking with them when they'd probably much rather be talking with other people.

I have brief, uncomfortable conversations with people I don’t know so well, or don’t know at all, and after exchanging pleasantries and making some small talk the other person tends to find that they need to be elsewhere. They sense something wrong and move on. As the time goes by I feel increasingly uncomfortable.

I watch the other people talk with each other, telling jokes or stories, seeing the charismatic ones hold court, see people mingling, watching strangers gradually become comfortable with each other, find things in common, see friendships begin, watch people click with each other.

I know all of these people have their problems. We all do. Perhaps they have problems with money, or alcohol, or gambling. Maybe they are unhappy at work, or they can’t find a job. It could be they have problems with their family or their sexuality. Maybe their relationship is not going well, or maybe they don’t have one. Maybe they are trying to get over a broken heart. Perhaps they have some kind of serious illness, or are worried about their future. We are all struggling with something.

But they seem to manage, and put things to the side, at least for the moment. I don’t. For as long as I can remember, the times when people come together tend to be the worst times. I often tend to find myself alone, feeling that I am so lonely that I could die from it. Or, I tend to find myself in social situations that are excruciatingly painful, waiting for it to be over, wishing that I had not bothered, and just stayed at home.

So, I find myself between a rock and a hard place. And I can’t really see any way this will change. I used to blame the world, blame other people. And I still do sometimes. But for the most part I have come to recognize that I am the cause of my unhappiness. I think I have always tried the best that I could, whether at a backyard party or family Christmas in Australia or under the glow of fireworks in Japan. But unfortunately, my best is not good enough.


  1. It sounds like you're an introvert, much like myself who struggles with wanting to be social, outgoing, but it's not me...And at the same time, I'd rather be alone than in a miserable relationship, romantic or otherwise. That's why I have my cats, a good therapist, a few close friends, my blog and of course a good book. It's not just you, we live in an extroverted society no matter where we are, except perhaps Buddhist monks which believe me sounds appealing some days. Hang in there and know you're not alone.

  2. Yeah some people always feel uncomfortable around big groups I guess it all depends on preference. Maybe it's just not your thing. But the video above had some good points even though it was a 'little' dark. If you start talking like that I swear I'll slap you in the face haha. Anyways in reference with what you said earlier about people sensing something wrong and then eventually going away I think that it's normal for a person to lose attention and then have it drawn to something else. I sometimes listen into other people's conversations and if they don't interest me I move onto the next. It doesn't mean that I felt something weird, it just means there's something more shiny and sparkly somewhere else that's distracting. Don't expect so much from other people, they can only give you so much. You gotta give some in return. And you gotta communicate what you want clearly...I need to follow this as well!

  3. Looks like Wendy beat me to what I was going to write. Just seems, like me, that you are an introvert. I also despise large groupings, especialy with new people, and prefer smaller, closer relationships. Sometimes it even takes years for me to get over exchanging pleasantries and find that I actually like a person and can develop the relationship further. I read somewhere that for an introvert, social exchange is literally exhausting, mentally and physically, but not so for an extravert, so we run out of steam quickly.

    We live in a society, social exchange is necessary for our self-esteem and development. But for an introvert small doses are much healthier. So don't be ashamed that you are uncomfortable around people. All it means is that when you do make friendships, though it may take time, they will be deep and lasting.

  4. Johnny Appleseed's twin brotherAugust 2, 2010 at 9:38 PM

    Noodlefingers makes an interesting point, "I sometimes listen into other people's conversations and if they don't interest me I move onto the next." Looks like Noodlefingers is definitely an extrovert! Sometimes I listen into other people's conversations, and even if they greatly interest me I stay silent because I feel I don't have a close-enough relationship with the speakers to join the conversation, or at the time I just don't have the energy to deal with the dynamics of conversation. So there seems to be some conditions - 1) I know the speakers well and 2) I feel like talking. If neither of these conditions are met the conversation will probably be akward and the other person will move on. Sucks being an introvert, but hey, we get a lot of reading done don't we?

  5. " I am the cause of my unhappiness."

    I relate to much of what you wrote, but I don't blame myself for it. As I see it, different people simply thrive--or not--in different situations, and it's simplistic to set the perceived behavior of others up as a standard for oneself.

  6. You know, I used to feel the exact same way as you describe when I was younger. I feel I put myself under a lot of pressure to try to fit in at these type of social gatherings, and I used to think that my lack of ability to communicate easily with strangers. I guess now, when I look at things, I'm really no better at it than I used to be, it's just that now I don't particularly care.

    The way I see it, there's room in this world for all types of people, and there is no point in trying to be someone you're not. There's no wrong or right way to be a human being - despite pressures from society, the final judge of us as a person comes from ourselves. There's no universal rule saying "Thou must befriend everyone you meet", in fact, there are no rules at all.

    That being said, I think it's a natural thing for human beings to desire companionship. It's up to us as individuals to decide where that companionship comes from, and choosing a form of companionship that we feel comfortable and suits our personality.

    Anyway, to conclude the preceding (probably incoherent) ramble, don't beat yourself up about it. After all, in the end we're all just worthless clumps of dirt on an insignificant planet orbiting around a puny star at the edge of one of the infinite-ish galaxies in a universe that doesn't care :-)

  7. Hello everyone, thank you very much for your comments. You all had a slightly different take on my post, but you all had something of real substance to say.

    Just as Wendy said, I am an introvert, and I push myself to be outgoing, "the life of the party", mingling and networking. But it isn't me.

    And as Noodlefingers mentioned, others can only give us so much. Expecting too much from them is futile. Other people can help us, but no one can save us. We have to do that for ourselves.

    Johnny Appleseed and his brother gave a good job of explaining what it is like to be an introvert, and until I read your post, I never really thought about how much energy social interaction takes for me, especially in large groups. And yeah, being an introvert sucks sometimes. But, like you say, it does mean we get a lot of reading done!

    Snowbrush makes a good point about it being simplistic to set up the perceived behavior of others as a standard for ourselves. We are all different, with different abilities and personalities. Such comparisons seem to be unhelpful.

    But "post of the week" goes to Nick. Nick, I don't know what to say about your comment, except that it made perfect sense to me, and really helped cement some of the ideas from the previous posters.

    As your prize, please enjoy Monty Python's The Galaxy Song!