Even as a person who majored in the English language through my post-secondary education, I’m still a little fuzzy on the term “ironic,” so I’m not sure if it’s ironic or not that, as a co-creator of a website known for having developed a strong, tight-knit and supportive community, I myself feel that I’m generally terrible at being part of a community. Ironic or not, it does entertain me in a somewhat depressing, emotionally self-flagellating kind of way. [Ed. note: This is, of course, the True Way of the English major.]
We get questions sent to the podcast all the time from people who don’t know how to insert themselves into our GWJ community. From the outside looking in, this group of online strangers seems so comfortably close that it can seem impenetrable. While we say, “Just dive in and you’ll find a place,” which is very often true, I’ve also seen people who I know are trying to take that advice and yet seem to at the same time immediately either come off as trying too hard, or too aggressively, or too meek and self-deprecating, or who just don’t come in with the right tone. When that happens, I think a lot of people immediately feel, “Oh no. That didn’t work at all.” And more often than not, we never hear from those people again.
I sympathize with those folks, because in an odd way I know what they feel like. I look at the community for this site that I’ve put so much passion, energy and effort into over the years, and realize from time to time that while I was focused on all that stuff, what I forgot to keep doing was being part of the community. And now, in a very weird but tangible way, I look at the GWJ community and think to myself, “Man, looks like they’re having fun. I wish I was part of that community!”
I think of myself as really good at being an acquaintance, and pretty bad at being a friend. There are things about being a friend that just don’t come naturally to me, and while I do have friends (and I think they would largely say good things about me), I think every single one of the them has probably at some time thought to him or herself, “I wonder if Sean has forgotten I exist?”
This is, I think we can all agree, a pretty bad thing for your friends to think.
It’s not for lack of valuing friends, colleagues or communities. Part of the problem is that I spend a lot of time thinking that no one wants to hear from me unless I have specific value to offer. It is virtually impossible for me to say to someone, “Hey, let’s just chat because we haven’t done it in a while.” I need to go into that conversation with specific meaning and context. I need to be able to complete the sentence: “I want you to pay attention to what I am saying, because … .”
If I can’t get to that place, I operate from the assumption that my friends, despite the fact that I know they are my friends and therefore have provided evidence that suggests they just enjoy my company, only want to hear from me if there is important or specifically entertaining information to be conveyed. For example, I might say to my good friend Julian Murdoch, “I couldn’t help but notice your house is on fire and I thought you’d like to know.” That feels like an acceptable reason to trouble Julian with my presence.
This may seem oddly incongruous from someone who writes weekly missives for a publicly visible site. Here I am offering, unbidden in most cases, an array of barely credible thoughts on topics too many to name. The difference is — and I don’t entirely know how to break it to you — for most people reading this, we’re probably not friends. Doesn’t mean we couldn’t be if we knew each other (again, for most of you, we don’t). Which brings us full circle, because I feel like it’s that kind of perspective on the situation that is part of why I feel disconnected from the community.
In some ways, the only way I can share this kind of somewhat personal information with you, particularly since you haven’t asked me, is by having you be anonymous or at least detached. Wrap your brain around this conundrum: There are all kinds of things I would and have said in an article — things that are deeply personal and mean so much to me — which I wouldn’t trouble my friends with. In some bizarre and deeply troubled way, because we are not explicit friends, you have the opportunity to know me better than my own friends.
All that takes me to an even weirder place, where I know in some ways the best, perhaps only way, I can successfully participate in the community of GWJ, is by convincing myself that I’m not actually part of that community.
I don’t like this thing about myself, mind you. And before you assume this is all related to some lack of self-confidence or undervaluing my worth, I wouldn’t recommend wasting a ton of time going down that road — There’s not a lot of meat on that bone. I just have a kind of eff’d up way of thinking about how human relationships work. I always figure people have a certain well of interest in being part of my life, and every interaction is either an opportunity to fill the well more full, or take something out. I’m well aware that just staying in touch and involved with people is part of filling the well, but in my backwards mind I always think of that kind of interaction as me hauling up a big, overflowing bucketful of water from an ever dwindling supply.
Disengagement reproduces parthenogenetically (Writers Note: the ed. is responsible for this word, I had to look it up). The more you disengage from people, the more likely you will keep disengaging from those people. Eventually the choice to not reach out to friends, colleagues or communities doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like the thing everyone has agreed to do, and suddenly I feel not just that I shouldn’t reach out to these people — who still by the way mean a lot to me — but that I can’t.
It’s a messed up way of thinking about interaction, and I work to get past it where I can, but it does provide me room for sympathy and understanding when people talk about feeling like they can’t join in with a group. I have this group, right here, where arguably you could say I had a key role in helping the community to exist in the first place, and I don’t really know how to be a part of it. Which is funny because I respect it so much, appreciate its existence so much, and marvel so often at how generous and kind its members are.
It’s just that when I say that, there’s a part of me that feels like I am speaking as an outsider.