Taking Things Impersonally

Years back, I posted a reminiscence — “Saltines” — in which the object of a childhood hurt became my one-word term for the consequences of naive, misplaced trust.*

My takeaway from that event (back then, takeaway was not yet a corporate buzzword) was that other people are uncontrollable agents harboring unknowable motives; many of them, indifferent to your humanity, can arbitrarily decide to do damage to you.

The experience of having rocks thrown at you — one did hit its target, missing my eye by a rock-width or so — by boys you thought were your friends while you were doing something nice for them (or, as I mistakenly thought, for all of us boys) … in any event, the incident rewired me and, as I now belatedly recognize, hardened me.

I built internal defenses against future betrayals.  I grew to not automatically trust people.  I started withdrawing, ever on the lookout for some signal of caring from the other person before I ventured an emotion myself.  Self-protectively (and probably encouraged by my parents), I distanced myself from classmates who were different from me, which I am sure many sensed and so responded likewise.  (On the other hand, many didn’t sense anything and didn’t care, and so reinforced my detachment from them, there you go.)

As a young man, I came to adopt a bad news slant on life:  self-preservation lay in avoiding people who are bad news, those who would trigger your defenses and drain your energies.  “Spare me from people with problems!” was an oft-quoted song lyric (penned by a friend) that became my mantra.

I developed a kind of litmus test for other people’s otherness —  I would keep track of the number of times (if any) a person asked a question or expressed interest in me, divided by the number of times I asked a question of them.  This ratio was often so embarrassingly close to zero that it made me wonder what I was doing wrong and how it was that I could be the dullest person on Earth.

In the end, I have protected the hell out of myself for decades, but at what cost?  Let’s take stock.  I’ve lived in this city 16 years and 98% of my interactions are either with my spouse or supermarket cashiers.  The people I count as my friends (the ones you share everything and nothing important with) remain the people I met in college.  The sad part, they all live travel-distances away and we don’t interact nearly enough anymore.

It has been my habit to suggest to my spouse, or to anyone who takes personal offense at a random harm or slight, to just get on with it, that the offensive person is just someone who happened to cross your path and wasn’t out to target you.  I often invoked the metaphor of a dog across the street barking at you — the dog doesn’t know you or even care about you, it is just doing what stupid angry dogs do.  So the logical thing to do is just avoid them and don’t take their barking personally.

Well, I thought all that until recently, when I reflected that, given how things have turned out for me, I’m in no position to be giving advice about how to manage expectations and disappointments in human relationships.  In fact, I’m probably a poster child for how to mismanage them.

I’ve been taking things impersonally, while others around me have been living richer and yes more risky but in the end more emotionally-full lives.  There’s a reason I have few friends and the reason is, in fact, me.  Not the dog across the street.  It may be too late but I finally know better, for whatever it’s now worth.

______________

* I searched long, hard and ultimately in vain for a word that expresses the idea of “the shorthand name adopted by an in-group for an important event or shared experience.”
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6 Responses to Taking Things Impersonally

  1. Rob says:

    I remember similar childhood scenarios when I was very young and one of the younger kids in the neighborhood, never able to break through to accepted status with older kids. Fortunately, when I started playing music, the social dynamic changed and there was a circle of others interested in music to be drawn toward. That helped me establish confidence. The college group of which you speak was cemented with music, the ever-present background of dorm life. Co-creation by “chickens who think they’re in studios” was a great bonding element. That music still means a great deal to me. Music remained the basis of my life, in Bradford in Rochester, in Los Angeles, and in Nashville, and allowed me a circle. Sometimes we made music, sometimes we reported on it, sometimes it was simply the industry we were in. There will always be those who engage with us and those who stand off. The lessons, though, the knowing better, are always worth gaining, I do believe.

  2. Dan Acker says:

    Your description of yourself is very different than my experiences with you. I have found you to be delightful to be with and incredibly personable. I’m sorry with the distance between us we just don’t see each other with great frequency, but all my recollections are VERY positive and I consider you a friend! … Dan

  3. Bruce says:

    This is a very moving and insightful essay, Craig. I can relate to feeling like an outsider and being wary of people. I recall a few early childhood incidents with “mean kids” and some where I was made fun of by kids I thought were friends. I think this is pretty common but it sticks with you. Growing up in a rural area with just 30 in my grade, I was the only one interested in things like science and math, so I was the class nerd. Skipping eighth grade made me the youngest in a new group of peers. That didn’t help. The first time I ever felt “normal” was when I met you and the others in our little circle of musical CMU friends who were smart, artistic, funny, and good at science and math, and not embarrassed about it. That was a revelation and a gift, though I have remained wary and less than confident when it comes to new relationships all my life. Music has always been the icebreaker for me, and though my circle remains small, it has helped to keep me (relatively) sane. It’s still true that Friends Help, my friend.

  4. Eric says:

    Hey, buddy – I can also relate to some of those feelings. Some days, my “social interactions” are limited to an acknowledgement of a passing car with a 3-finger wave when I’m out walking. Like Bruce, I also skipped a grade early on, going from six weeks in 1st grade into 2nd grade. I use that as an excuse for my poor handwriting! That never caught up to me until 7th grade, where my hometown elementary schools all merged into one common one: I was pretty decent at sports as a kid, but I was still eligible for playing Little League baseball while my new classmates were playing Pony League! And then, when I was somehow Class President and being “expected” to attend and kinda “lead” the Prom, when I was a year away from being able to drive with a learner’s permit! But, yeah: meeting up with you & all the guys in college, and then buying my 1st guitar, figuring out a few chords, and jamming with everyone drew me out of a shell and into a great community of friends. And the fact that we’re still in touch after so long is a true gift.

    • Craig says:

      Thank you, friends, for your supporting/supportive and enlightening/enlightened comments. Hope you did not misinterpret this piece as a “feel-sorry-for-me” appeal — I look back and see possibilities I missed, but I look forward to being more engaged and less self-protective — once this damn pandemic wanes.

  5. Enrique says:

    I love this quote in particular: “I’ve lived in this city 16 years and 98% of my interactions are either with my spouse or supermarket cashiers.”

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