Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How One Man's Loneliness Inspired an Intense Debate

On Thursday night and into Friday morning, a comment I posted on Facebook broke a personal record when it inspired at least 71 comments. Amazing! I had no idea when I posted it that my status update would do such a thing. Most of my status updates usually don't inspire such a response. I'm lucky to get one or two, but many have none. That's okay, though. Its always interesting and educational to see what inspires debate.

Here's the story behind what inspired the controversial status update. On Thursday evening, I had just returned to my apartment complex after seeing the excellent film Inception. On Coast to Coast AM, the topic of conversation was going to be about dreams and if we have the ability to plant an idea in someone's subconscious while they are dreaming. That began at midnight. So, that left me about an hour to check my email and write my blog post that was supposed to be posted a week ago (the Flashback Friday on Spain). Since I don't have Internet access in my apartment and the apartment complex has free wi-fi in the lobby for residents to use 24 / 7, I headed down to the lobby area to hurry and write my blog post and check my emails.

As I'm deep in thought, writing my memories of Spain, an elderly man (I'd say he was around 70 years old) walked into the building and looked like he was headed to the elevator. He said "hello" to me, so I said "hello" back. I continued writing and he started talking about his life and life story (I caught that he was from Minnesota and finds city life to be strange because people keep to themselves). He noticed that I was focused on what I was writing and then ranted about our generation being more interested in computers than a real conversation. He sounded angry and basically trashed our generation and thanked me for "proving" his point. He left, ranting all the way. I was stunned. All because I didn't give him the attention he was seeking?

Such an act invites commentary on my Facebook wall. This is what I posted:

Nicholas..."was sitting in the lobby of his apartment building, writing on his computer and reading articles online when some old guy tried to start a conversation. I said 'hello' but wasn't going to stop doing my reading or writing to have a conversation. He got mad and started complaining about young people today not wanting to talk..."

and, "...I felt like saying to him, 'what, do you feel lonely? Ignored? Need attention?' Do I exist to give needy people the attention they crave? I consider it rude to interrupt people when they are reading. There are times to be social, too. That's why our apartment complex has brunch every Sunday morning. I'll talk then. When I'm writing or reading, though, I just don't have time to engage in a conversation with strangers."

Those comments above essentially inspired a verbal lynching of yours truly by people I would never have suspected...one friend I've known since Junior year in high school 22 years ago. Another, a fellow church member. I stayed in the lobby longer than planned, just so I could explain, clarify, etc. until I realized that they weren't getting my point and I decided to return to my apartment to catch the rest of the radio program. I did not expect such an immediate response. I simply posted, expecting that I might get some responses to read by morning.

When I did check in the morning, the dialogue had grown, with more people jumping into the mix. Including my dad, which was a surprise. He took responsibility for my "introverted" personality through his genetic contribution. A future post about what I inherited from both of my parents might be interesting, but for now, I want to respond to unfair criticisms made by someone I thought was a friend. The hostility in some and the defense from others was truly surprising. Jenet asked what lessons were learned from the debate. For me, it was definitely that I learned who my "true friends" are. If someone sides with a stranger they don't know over a "friend", they probably aren't a true friend in the first place. I know for me personally, I always side with my friend. If I feel that he was in the wrong, I'd talk to him privately, but in reality, that just doesn't happen. What is a friend if they can't trust that you'll be there for them in support? One of my favourite quotes about "true friends" is that a true friend is one who would be right there with you in hell. That shows commitment and loyalty, when you value your friend enough to endure the worst together. Everyone else is merely "fair weather friends."

Anyhow, I'm sad to say that once again, the church member friend has proven that he doesn't know a damn thing about me, even though he thinks that he does. His comments against me were the worst of the lot, because he was siding with a guy who got angry at me for not indulging in the conversation he wanted. If anyone knows anything about me, its that yelling at me is definitely not the way to get me to do what you want. It actually makes me more defiant. The church friend saw my posting of the situation on my Facebook wall was unfair to the elderly guy and that I was making false judgments about the guy for being "lonely and needy for attention."

I am truly baffled, though, that such a "friend" would take the side of a complete stranger in a situation he did not witness, and saying essentially that I should have indulged the guy's need for conversation because that's what being a Christian and a community advocate does. Ignoring people, in his view, is rude and hurtful. That's all fine and dandy, but I will say right now that he is being hypocritical and I have no problem saying so on my blog because there have been times when I've tried to engage him in conversation and he was non-responsive, so I got the hint and moved on to someone else. Other times, I've had a conversation with him and he was more interested in Texting (while driving). So, he has no credibility in my view to attack and criticize me for not wanting to indulge a stranger's need for conversation when he has done the same to me several times, and I'm not a stranger! If this is how you treat "friends", then you will likely never be anything more than just a church acquaintance. What is so hard about admitting that we are two different people and just because he would have handled the situation differently than I did does not mean that I was "wrong"?

It annoys me when I make an honest comment, revealing something about myself and then get harped on it. I have never made the claim on Facebook or on my blog that I'm perfect or holier than thou. My regular readers can see that I've written angry posts before. I'm fully human and therefore real. I don't pretend to be some pious, holier than thou saint who's perfect and just the embodiment of Jesus on earth. A person who can criticize my actions when he is guilty of doing the same thing to friends or people he knows is just ridiculous in my view. I don't treat friends that way. If a friend wants my attention or wants to talk, I will more than likely make myself completely available. If I don't, its because I am unable to for reasons beyond my control, but a raincheck for the soonest available moment is made. I value my friends enough to sacrifice writing time, reading time, or any other personal time. I won't even check my cellphone if it rings. I believe in being completely present for my friends, focusing the full weight of my attention on them and what they are saying in conversation.

This post isn't meant to criticize someone I consider a church friend, though. Instead, his accusations towards me on Facebook inspires what President Obama likes to call a "teachable moment." There have been several times where something I've posted on Facebook have sparked a "flare up" between him and I. I've sent him a lengthy email expressing my thoughts, but his response ignored the personal revelations I shared in the hopes that he would understand where I'm coming from, and emphasized once again that I was "in the wrong."

The first time I noticed his "out of proportion" response to something I had posted was when I had mentioned that writing wasn't stressful. The second time was when I had written about my disappointment that South African singer Johnny Clegg wasn't selected to sing the official World Cup song for the 2010 World Cup that was hosted by SOUTH AFRICA. He angrily debated my knowledge of South Africa. The response proved that he doesn't know me like he thinks he does, and that pisses me off. My friends from high school, college, and the Navy would all say the same things about me: my best talent is writing, I'm a huge fan of Johnny Clegg, and I'm passionate and knowledgeable about South Africa and its history. I don't understand why its an ego thing with him. There are things that he knows more than me, such as Country music, church politics, and the Pacific Northwest. I don't go around trying to strip that away from him.

On a more important point, though, I am the type of person where I seriously do not care if you like me or not. I've lost interest in the popularity thing back in high school when I realized that it was unattainable for me. I have my close circle of friends and most people don't know that I have a "ranking system" for my friendships. Its a "three-tiered system", though it should probably expand to four.

This is how I view friendships (this ranking system goes back to high school). In the top tier of five, are my two best friends (Nicholas, whom I've known since 7th grade and Nathan, a church member I've known since 1994, even though our families met in 1984), and my close friends Frank (another church friend) and Matt (my fellow BYU intern and roommate in D.C.). The fifth slot is reserved for whoever becomes my Lady Love / wife. What being in a "first tier" means is that they are on my Christmas and / or birthday gift list, they are people that I try to visit at least once every three years, and they have my loyalty for life. All four of these friends have had some kind of bonding experience with me that makes it unlikely that we'll ever have a "falling out". I treat my friends in this upper tier like royalty. Think of First Class service on an airplane or in a five star hotel.

The next tier is made up of college friends, Navy buddies, some friends from high school and various offices I've worked in, and a few church friends. Friends in this category usually make my Christmas card list and might get the occasional letter or phone call from me. I'll visit them if I happen to be in their area. The third tier is made up of acquaintances and new people I've met. Because I know them and consider them part of my friendship circle, I still make myself available if they need someone to talk to or need my attention or help. Think of this as the coach class of an airplane or a three star hotel. A "fourth tier" would be everyone else on my Facebook friends list who aren't part of the first three tiers. These are people who are unlikely to receive a Christmas card from me due to the sheer numbers (I try to keep my Christmas card mailings under 60, and I currently have 235 friends on Facebook).

I am the kind of person who believes that there are "benefits" to being friends with me and one of those benefits is that they have "the right" to get my attention whenever they want or need a conversation. A stranger does not have that right, though. If I feel like giving someone attention, that's my prerogative. I'm naturally guarded, though, thus why I don't understand how someone could get angry when the other person won't give in to your narcissistic demands. It is an imposition for someone to expect a stranger to drop whatever they are doing to indulge your need for conversation because you're feeling lonely. It sounds cruel and heartless to some, but some people don't understand a basic truth, which is this: a person who has a lot of needs is ALWAYS going to be at the mercy of the person who does not have a need. The person with little or no needs is going to have the power in any situation with the needy person.

Its a matter of energy. Needy people require other people's attention because they receive a dose of energy from the person who gives them attention. There is a reason why the most spiritual people on earth tend to be solitary people. They don't "need" a lot of human contact or other people's attention to give them energy. They receive energy from the spiritual source. This is also part of the introvert / extrovert dynamic. Introverted people feel their energy level drain when they are around people for too long (because the other person is taking the energy from them), whereas extroverted people feel their energy level increase when they are around people (and they feel drained when they are alone too long). This dynamic is not something I've made up. Many spiritual books say the same thing.

Therefore, its ludicrous for someone to blame a person for not wanting to indulge a stranger's need for conversation. I'm not naturally prone to small talk. In fact, I hate it. As my best friend Nathan often pointed out to me, I have a tendency to go "too deep, too quickly", which scares people away. I can't maintain a superficial level of conversation for very long, because I get bored. In group situations, when people finally notice that I haven't said a word, well, there's a reason why I'm quiet. Most people know me as a quiet person. The ones who find me talkative are likely my closest friends, because I feel comfortable having conversations with them more than anyone else.

Was I wrong to "judge" the elderly man as "needy" and "lonely"? I don't think so. Was it a wrong "judgment"? Well, what I am I to think when I'm sitting in the lobby of my apartment complex at 11 p.m. typing away on my computer and he approaches me to start talking about himself and his life? That's a bit narcissistic, isn't it? I can tell you that I certainly do not approach people who are writing or reading and start talking about myself and my life to them. When I do strike up conversations with people, I'm usually more interested in them and rarely talk about myself. In many conversations with strangers, the other person will finally realize that they know nothing about me. Well, its because they didn't ask and I'm more interested in their life stories than I am about sharing mine. This elderly man wasn't interested in knowing me. He just wanted someone to listen to him.

Here's something else I've noticed throughout my life. In several places I've worked, when I'm in the breakroom eating my meal, co-workers usually don't strike up a conversation with me. The times that I've tried to make better use of my time by writing in an old journal, such an act is 100% guaranteed to start a conversation. When I worked at GBI a decade ago, the lady who worked in the snack bar / break room was so "threatened" by my journal writing that she wanted to know if I was writing about her. People are weird about those who dare write in public. I get it all the time. I've learned not to write in public and prefer not to because of this phenomenon. I don't know why people get paranoid when they see a person writing in a journal. You're not that important enough to make my journal! (But piss me off and you might make my blog!).

Another interesting experience happened when I was at BYU. The first semester when I lived in the dorms, I ate in the dorm cafeteria due to my meal plan. Most of the time, I ate alone. One day, I got a letter that I couldn't wait to read. So, I sat down at an empty booth and read the letter while I ate. Amazingly, a young lady appeared and asked if she could eat with me. Of course, I was a little annoyed, because I was excited to read that letter, but I indulged the lady and put the letter away and had a conversation with her. Its amazing that in all the times I ate at a table alone, no one bothered to sit down and have a conversation. The one time I had a letter in hand, it acted as a magnet.

Once at work in my current job, I decided to read a news article I had printed from the Internet during my lunch. One lady got offended and actually asked me to stop reading. She was having a conversation with other people, but that wasn't good enough for her. She apparently required my attention as well. The times when I ate in the break room and did not read anything, people ignore me. When I decide to read a book or article with my meal, then they're interested in me all of a sudden. Its weird, but obvious to me. Needy people don't like it when people's attentions are elsewhere (in a book, a letter, writing). They want people to pay attention and listen to them. Frankly, I'm tired of it. My time is valuable and if it offends people because I don't want to be bothered, well, tough shit! Deal with it. Your neediness does not obligate me to pay attention to you.

So that's why I think that man was needy and lonely. He did not like that I was more interested in what I was doing than his life history. A petty officer in the Navy told me once: "You have no right to get angry over how another person spends their free time." That is true. Time is a precious commodity and its up to each individual to decide what they want to do with. People who are needy for another person's attention aren't an introvert's problem. That's what books are for and why man domesticated dogs and cats.

Another example of why I'm hesitant to indulge in a stranger's conversation, even when I'm open to it, happened a couple years ago. I was at the apartment complex's Sunday brunch in the lobby. I had worn my Navy flight jacket. An elderly man in a wheelchair struck up a conversation with me and found that we agreed on politics. After ten minutes of a political discussion, he changed the subject to ask a huge favour of me. He was looking for a young guy to help him get out of his wheelchair and into bed each night. That request FREAKED me out! For one thing, I hate ulterior motives and "bait and switch". Don't pretend to have a pleasant conversation with me if you're secretly wanting something from me. Its happened plenty of times. When it happens enough times, I become hugely skeptical when people approach me, because in my mind, I'm always wondering what they really want. Is that wrong of me? I'm a naturally guarded person. Always have been. I don't let just anyone into my life. I have to trust you on some level. Secondly, there's no way I would put myself in a situation to help some guy into his bed at night, special needs or not. That's not my interest or talent in life. That's why God created nurses.

In a followup post on my Facebook wall, one lady had asked if my hypercritical "friends" would view a similar situation on an airplane with the same criticism. However, I explained that my "rules for engagement" is different on planes, because I absolutely will not write on a plane. There's no privacy at all. I always have a book to read, but if a seatmate indulged in a conversation, I would put the book away and have that conversation. I actually enjoy meeting and talking to people while I travel. That's not an issue for me. The only issue is when I'm in my "writing space" and someone demands my time that they have no right to make. Here's where having the title of "Best Friend" comes into play. On Thursday evening, while I was busy trying to write my blog post so I could return to my apartment by midnight so I could listen to Coast to Coast AM, if Nathan had called me and wanted to talk, I would have stopped writing the blogpost, taken the call and talked for however long he felt like it, even if it meant missing the radio program I was looking forward to hearing. Nathan earned the right to have my undivided attention, as other friends have as well. The stranger I've never seen before does not. If any of my blog readers still do not understand the differences I've presented here, well, then you simply do not "get" what I'm about and probably aren't likely to make my close circle of friendships.

Remember..."Friendship has its privileges."

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