When I was thinking through what I might want to put up on the blog this week, I had several ideas in my head. I was able to come up with a few and I asked around as to what people might like to read. I hope this doesn’t disappoint, though I cannot help but fear that it will. I was not able to write a step-by-step argument, so what I ended up doing was writing snippets of thoughts and then I tried to edit it together. If it lacks coherence, I think that is symptomatic of where my head is at the moment. I am very grateful to Tanya Marlow who took the time to read a draft of this and offer helpful feedback with great grace, as I had some grave concerns about putting this on the web, knowing who may read it, where there is potential to be misunderstood in the most offensive of ways.
The very short story is that I’m not a fan of people.
But to really get to understand what I mean I need to explain what I mean about the term “people”. Since the overall tone is rather negative, I shall say from the outset that this does not mean I despise each and every person I know. To talk of “people” I think of an amalgam, yet to do so is fundamentally dehumanising. I think of a collection of faces on bodies, either sat/stood on the train or who walk down the street, but I cannot hear what they are saying. The only way I can guess what they are thinking is by looking at their facial expressions, which is, more often than not, blank. Without being able to know how they think, they lose their individuality and become one great mass to me.
When it comes to individual people, I get myself in all sorts of a muddle. The more I get to know someone, the more they get pushed down one of two roads: one road is that where most people go, where I find them interminably dull. They have no interest in things that I consider to be fascinating and are obsessed with things I find incredibly mundane. The other road is more sparsely populated. This is the group of people who share similar interests to me, even if we don’t agree. To this latter group, the idea of having a discussion on theology, politics, science, cricket or philosophy (i.e. things I like) doesn’t prompt them to roll their eyes or change the subject to DIY, mortgages, celebrities, cars and insurance (things I find unbearably vapid). You might interpret this as a lack of empathy on my part; indeed, I have wondered whether I may be slightly sociopathic, which is more than a little worrying. But then, does the fact that I am concerned about that negate the very possibility?
In practicality, I put up with the small talk and occasionally encourage someone along by asking what I think might be a question I think might be pertinent. Whether this is graciousness on my by indulging them or whether this is demonstrative of my being two-faced, I will let you decide.
To get to know an individual is to pull them out of the crowd and to glimpse something of their personality. To do that makes it far easier to have a meaningful discussion on a given topic. The downside to knowing someone well is that the better you know them the greater the chance is that you will discover something you don’t like. Here, I don’t mean their physical mannerisms, necessarily; more like their particular way of approaching certain things. An example might be the ex-housemate who once decided to throw a dinner party for her friends at zero notice and locked me out of the kitchen after a particularly long day. We had gotten on fine until then, but the blazing row that ensued soured that relationship permanently. For another example, you might read my account of a little cabin fever I had on a recent mountaineering trip.
Turning this round, those that know me well will be able to tell you what a capricious beast I can be at times. If you’ve not experienced that side of me, then you really don’t know me that well. Those that do find themselves on the receiving end don’t stick around for long and I have lost a great many friends over the years because of it. Yet I know I am not alone in being capable of such monstrous behaviour. I have witnessed it in others, whether being the recipient or witnessing one friend hurt another.
For the sake of preserving an optimistic view of the other person, it is then a great temptation to push then away before you discover their less favourable attributes. Perversely, it is just this pushing away, often without explanation, that is the harm I inflict on others. If I were to be overly kind to myself, I might describe this approach as unorthodox, though others might call it twisted. This may have something to do with a desire to avoid conflict; rather than have an argument I may fear or say something to someone that may hurt them, I walk away in silence.
It may well be that the difficulty that I have with people stems from my desire to understand as much as I can. The sheer irrationality of people confounds me constantly. Yet at the same time as it is incredibly frustrating, it’s also fascinating. As a mathematician, there are fewer things in life more fun that a puzzle, but there is nothing more exasperating as a puzzle you can’t solve. Not everyone has this driving force in them; this is probably why university was the best 4 years of my life because you are surrounded with similar-minded people. But as the years since then have marched on, those I have damaged and those who have damaged me have grown apart, so wherever I go I am the perennial outsider.
In the workplace, such inquisitive people are harder to find. If the colleagues I’ve had in the years since university have harboured interests in the most fundamental matters of the universe and humanity, then they’ve kept it well hidden. But working in finance, as I do, I tend to work mostly with capitalists and other right-wingers, with whom I disagree on a lot of matters. If you’re reading this the chances are you ‘met’ me via some kind of social media. There, you can have a profile or some sort of statement of interests that allows others to determine if you are of interest before they even speak to you. This allows for a much more circumspect approach when it comes to inter-personal relationships.
It is, I suppose, a large part of the reason behind why I live in isolation. As I finish the first draft of this on a Sunday night, I haven’t left the flat for 36 hours and haven’t physically spoken to another human being since the guy at the supermarket checkout on Friday night. This is the hermit-like existence I have. The lifestyles of other people baffle me. Though herein lies the bizarre paradox: as much as I don’t understand sociable lifestyles, they are utterly intriguing. I wouldn’t like to live those lifestyles as they seem terribly draining, but they have a curious draw about them and I can’t help but wonder what goes through the heads of those who find these ways of life in any way enjoyable or peaceful.
So, having admitted to my anti-social tendencies, the question then arises about my christianity. The trouble is that churches are people. They’re not buildings, not traditions, not a set of beliefs, they are collection of human beings; a rag tag bunch, brought together under some kind of unifying theme, creed or passion. How can such a misanthropic person be part of a church?
There’s a call for us to love (agape) one another. Yet for someone who is perpetually perplexed by people’s peculiarities, it is problematic to be capable of loving people that you don’t comprehend. My energies are spent on trying to observe behaviour, make a guess as to what might be motivating them, predicting how future behaviour might occur and then comparing a not insignificant gap between my expectations and their later reactions to certain situations.
To exhibit love (compassion) for someone is to want the best for them. In order to do this effectively, though, one has to gain an understanding of that person’s needs. In the past I’ve had tried the “do to others as you would have them do to you” approach. This, it turns out, is not always the best approach, particularly if you are an unusual individual, as I seem to be. Sometimes I just prefer to be left alone, but when I leave others to their own devices this can come across as cold and uncaring. I hope that what I’ve said above will help convince you that that is not the case. I try to be compassionate, but I just necessarily get it right most of the time. When people are going through stressful situations, I may offer some practical help but otherwise take a step back.
To try to get out of this bout navel gazing, one might consider the rest of the church, and how a misanthrope may be part of this strange family? If anything, this should be the slightly easier step, given how the church is made up of all sorts of people. Yet within this “all sorts” might be other misanthropes, who view me with as much suspicion and distrust as I view them; it might include those who take my isolationism as a sort of snooty aloofness. Either way, being a misanthrope is not exactly appealing and it’s not easy for the rest of the church. If you have any practical suggestions, then do please let me know.
While I affirm that the church should be a refuge for all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, then for me to be a part of such a church not only requires patience from others, but it requires a greater level of flexibility on my part. The church wouldn’t be the church if we excluded the screwballs, the screw-ups and the losers.
A question Tanya asked of me was, “You touch on churches being places where lots of different people come together all with different needs – how do you see your role in that?” I’m not sure I can really answer that. I guess I’m still searching, but since other people’s well-being is at stake, I’m less keen on ‘giving it a go’ or ‘trying my hand’ – however you want to phrase it. I’ll happily endanger my own life and well-being, but not someone else’s. I suppose that’s a sort of compassion, if a terribly cowardly one.
I hope that has made some kind of sense. I’ve left this quite open-ended. Tanya asked me “how do you want people to respond? What’s the take-home?” I think that really depends on where you stand. If you’ve been patient enough to read through to this end, then I thank you. If you have misanthropic tendencies, then I hope this is an encouragement to you that you’re not alone, nomatter how often you might think otherwise. If you know someone that may be described by what I’ve written, then I hope it’s given you some valuable insight.