Gated Communities

You know how some memories really linger with you…sometimes for years? And, in my case at least, it’s usually not life’s big moments, but the really quiet (and frankly forgettable) incidents that stick with me. 

I have this one vivid, somewhat uncomfortable memory of a late evening in early spring during my sophomore year of college. I was feeling particularly gloomy and self-pitying that evening, and terribly alone. (My whole life, all my worst moments of self-pity have been brought on by that awful sense of being alone.) Since the weather was particularly lovely that evening, I took my books to a bench outside, near enough to the student center that I could watch people come and go, but far enough away that I wouldn’t be dragged into conversation and distracted from my studies.  But I was distracted from my studies. I was distracted by my own self-pity and loneliness, mostly, and by the noise of my peers coming and going from the student center, talking and laughing and taking in the beautiful evening. I remember watching them all together and wondering what makes for belonging.

I guess I’m thinking about this memory in particular today because I found myself wondering the same thing yesterday. I attended a baptism at St. Mary’s in Old Town Alexandria, and as I sat alone in my pew and watched my acquaintances mingle and smile and clearly enjoy being together before the ceremony began, I wondered what makes people belong, and I think by this I mean, what makes people belong with other people. Some people settle into all their relationships with such delightful ease. For myself, I’ve always found new relationships a bit like new braces or glasses: really, really uncomfortable, to say the least. Growing up I could fall back on the safety of my family and all the comfortable relationships in my life where I knew I really belonged. In a way, I was more willing back then to make the effort to reach out, because if it didn’t work out I had a place to return to.

But that’s not really a luxury a single twenty-something has when she’s living out on her own. It’s back to that community question: in order to have it, you have to get out there and build it, and that process involves a lot of standing awkwardly at the back of the room, trying desperately to think of something (anything!) to say to engage these virtual strangers in conversation and thus continue the painful task of building relationships with them. The process does get easier as time goes on, and I’m grateful to be at the point where I know that from experience. And as I come to find myself actually belonging (it’s always a surprise) in more and more places, I find that my role in these community-building moments is changing. I’m not always coming into new situations as the stranger who has a certain social responsibility to make herself known or risk being overlooked. Now, in many cases, I am known; now it is my responsibility to seek out the newer strangers who may be standing with their arms folded in the corner, just longing to be involved in conversation.

It really is just that: a responsibility. I always thought that if I could just get to that point where I really felt like I belonged somewhere, then I could finally rest. But this isn’t a “me-only” project. Belonging is wonderful,but those who belong can’t sit back and say, “Well this is great. I have friends and an active social life, and I’m happy.” We really need to be willing to look around and see who needs to be reached out to. If you feel comfortable in your friendships and your social sphere, remember that your job isn’t over. Keep an eye out for that newcomer sitting in the back corner. “Gated communities” aren’t true communities–don’t be afraid to expand. You never know what new and wonderful friendships God might have in store…

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4 thoughts on “Gated Communities

  1. Always a good reminder, especially for those of us who love our “comfort zone” and have been privileged to remain in it longer than others – thank you!

  2. I really appreciate this post as I have been having this discussion with Trena as regards my work and the lack of welcome from the people my age whom I would have expected to fall in with. I used to be shy and retiring and proud when I was young. It is most often pride that holds us back, that fear of the humiliation of overtures being rejected and of everyone knowing we don’t belong and we are not wanted. One day I realized that everyone is in some sense an island and the only way to overcome this is to be willing to build bridges whether they ever reach completion or not. I also discovered that being open to other people often catches them off guard and renders them open to you, almost without their expecting it. People only want to be delighted in. No one, except someone really lonely and really afraid, is going to reject friendliness. The people who do reject friendliness are actually weaker than the one’s who are rejected, and they deserve pity. Because they do not recognize how amazing it is to meet other consciousnesses. This is becoming a long post but it is because I feel strongly about it. Here at work I have tried to sit and make friends with the other women my age, I can only imagine that I am very intimidating or they have all entirely lost their sense of adventure and curiousity, because no overture has been met. I do not mean that they’ve outright rejected me. I do mean that there has been no effort on their part and no response to my attempts. I don’t mind terribly – but it is foreign to me, this aloofness, since I believe that the more you welcome people into your life, the fuller your life is. I don’t mean that everyone has to be your best friend, there’s not enough time for that, but it is delightful to be surprised by the people you meet and it is lovely to discover them, all unique and all alike. So it is good to remember when approaching people and when being approached or when spying a person across the way, that everyone wants to belong, everyone wants to be loved. There are some people who are always initiating friendships. I observed this in high school. I used to wait to be asked by other people, then it struck me, why shouldn’t be the one to invite too? It is harder to be a seeker, it does require more effort, but in the end the effort really seems to be, to think of caring for the other person more than oneself, to risk rejection in order gain a friend. To affirm that relationship is worth the risk of rejection.

  3. Thanks for the blog post MB. Speaking from my experience over the last few years, I’ve felt so welcome by certain people in circles we are both familiar with, while others make little/no effort to reach out to newcomers. I have found, as you mention, that once you find a circle you are comfortable in, with some amazing friends, it’s easy to be complacent. That is not what God wants from us though, complacency is a perfect environment for negativity.

    A few of my friends have pointed out how, to them, it seems so easy for me to make new friends and put people at ease. It’s a priceless gift that God gave me, but I think anyone can learn to do it. Sure, it’s harder for some, but it’s just a matter of showing interest in what is important to prospective friends. Opening up a little about your feelings, NOT your opinions, but your feelings also puts people at ease.

    It’s one of the few benefits I got from going to public school, the ability to relate to many people from many backgrounds. My mother also exposed me to cultures from every part of the country, from the well-to-do to the rednecks, from the urban streets, to the beach scenes. Everyone is different and puts different value on aspects of life. But, if you ask questions and listen, you will find there is plenty to talk about and many, many, many prospective friends.

    Oh, one more story to share, when I ‘broke up’ with a old group of very secular friends; I was more alone that I have ever felt. I had recently moved to Alexandria and my girlfriend at the time broke up with me shortly after that. So, I took myself out to dinner (yeah, it does feel weird the first time you eat out alone). Then I went out to a bar by myself. I was very uncomfortable, but I met people and learned new things about Alexandria. Not anyone I’m currently friends with, that didn’t start until I went to ToT, but it was a learning experience and though it was one of the hardest things I’ve done, it was worth it.

  4. I have gone through this, and as Merry Lady said, the only way out is to build bridges each and every time you interact with someone new. For me it helped to realize that to a certain extent, I won’t “belong” anywhere until I (through Grace, God-willing) reach the Beatific Vision.

    MC

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