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Don’t Steal Hockey Cards

Published in Blog.

“Almost every person feels happier when they’re with other people.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

When I was younger – much younger – my dad would often take speaking engagements, filling in at various churches throughout the city we lived in. It was never a regular thing, and up until rather recently, he never held a long-term ministerial position; he graduated from seminary school and became an ordained minister early on in his life, but his passion for community development quickly took precedence. To this day he loves to preach, and despite my religious reservations he’s quite good at it, but more than anything else I’ve taken away from those all-but-forgotten Sundays is how formative they might have been in terms of my interacting and relating to other people.

At an early age I began to develop what I’d consider a social survival technique which has remained a crutch for many years. Having been a judgmental and cruel little monster myself I’m going to go out on a limb and say that many, if not most, kids can be judgmental and cruel little monsters. They might seem like outstanding young mini-citizens on the surface (especially if they’re your kids), but when an outsider arrives on the scene, threatening the core of their pack, the transformation is almost instant. I’m not sure at what age kids make the transformation from an accepting, welcoming, and generally open-minded species, but once it happens it’s a frightening thing. Especially when you’re the outsider. No matter where we attended church, or how frequently we attended, I was constantly reminded of this through the ever-tedious tradition of Sunday School. The core of the groups were either made up of kids like me, who seemed to approach it as a chore, or the rare few who appeared genuinely interested in learning about The Bible. Either way, the sessions always seemed to drag on, with each faction eventually counting down the minutes until we could have our compensatory juice and cookies before being set free to let the sugar rush run its course. No matter which side I tried playing to though, I rarely felt like I connected with kids my own age at the churches we visited, and after a while it seemed useless to keep trying. You can play the Nice Young Man card countless times with elderly congregation members, but dimples don’t do shit when interacting with kids your own age. I showed up, played the New Kid role, and disappeared.

There are so many pieces to each of the puzzles of our lives that it’s tough to really identify which of the crudely stamped shapes has affected us the most. It’s not the single piece but the connection between them that begins to add up, and as the picture starts to take shape of who we are, each of the smaller pieces slowly gain significance. For example, from when my parents were married to when I was born, they moved six times across two countries. This bouncing-around act, though largely done out of necessity, has only evolved further in my life as I’ve moved nearly 30 times (with and without my parents). That’s a piece. The Sunday School-thing might be another. When I was in the fourth grade I lost my best friend in a car accident; certainly that has to be a prominent piece. Shifting interests from athletics and popularity to underachievement in school, yet another. And maybe even a lack of hard-wired identity due to an unsure nationalistic allegiance leaving me feeling a foreigner in both my native and adopted countries, another. So many pieces have been added over the years but when combined together the larger picture identifying how I tend to relate to other people depicts something of a social-chameleon, capable of blending in with many while sincerely relating to few. Or at least that’s how I’ve felt for much of my life.

I can’t even begin to count how many times my parents have told me, “You need to be around people more,” or “Get out and socialize,” or even “Did you leave the house today?” My mental health, and physical for that matter, has often revolved around simply being in the presence of other people, and when I close myself off (intentionally or not) I’ve suffered for it. It’s pretty clear that this isn’t just a personal matter, but something built into our larger genetic makeup: Everyone seems to do better when they’re around other people; even inmates in prisons do, and they’re locked up with those considered the worst among us! We’re all human, we all need other humans, point taken. But the connection to and importance of those early childhood interactions really stuck with me. Not just because of the weird emotional callus that I believed to have developed, but because of the larger pattern of social compartmentalization that was nurtured. To this day – and it remains a great source of disconnect between my parents at times, discussing how they should get out and socialize or how they should meet more people is immediate cause for argument – work is for work-people, church is for church-people, and home is for (select) family members. I’m not the only person in my family who’s a bit of a loner is what I’m getting at.

On the surface, my self-imposed alienation from people used to seem a smokescreen for some sort of grudge that I held with myself. It made sense that I couldn’t forgive myself, or be my own friend, which I suppose might have been partially true – I used to burden myself with a lot of silly guilt for a variety of youthful indiscretions. For instance, when I was in elementary school I remember accidentally breaking a lady’s window with an errant golf ball, and similarly a pane of glass on one of our neighbor’s garage doors. I fessed up to neither. I flipped off a friend and lied about it when he told on me, making him look both a fool and a liar. I refused to offer thanks to a family friend who made a habit of giving me money (“Loonies,” the Canadian dollar coin: a rather lucrative prize for those not having yet mastered arithmetic) when we’d visit, and somehow severed an important relationship before I knew it even existed. I stole hockey cards from both faceless department stores and people who were friendly to me, and I greedily snuck what I could from my behind my parents’ backs, too. That sort of thing. But upon closer inspection, forgiving myself hasn’t really been an issue. Not even for really harmful things that I’ve done the past decade or so: I don’t really hold on to that stuff either.

I’ve so desperately tried to make a connection between being a loner and not being able to make friends, but the truth is that I’m rather good at making friends, actually. I’ve always been able to meet people no matter where I went; maybe not the best friends, or maybe just drinking buddies, but friends all the same. When it comes right down to it, closing myself off and latching onto an inability to experience the honest sense of happiness that comes from genuine friendships isn’t because of some Sunday School drama that I’m making up in my head, stupid mistakes I made as a kid, or even because I’ve moved around quite a bit in my life, it’s because I’ve given myself permission to be a bit of an asshole along the way and write other people off because of my own rigid limitations. Chalk it up to something far more harmful than being insincere with others: being insincere with myself.

Here’s what we know: As Confucius said, “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own” (though giving doesn’t “count” when you’re giving something you don’t really value); if you can take focus away from your own happiness and direct it toward that of others you’ll be better off for it; altruism is a cornerstone of satisfaction; one must be able to be as stubborn with accepting a friend as they are with offering their friendship; we’re a tribal people, we need others; practicing forgiveness and managing anger both increase one’s ability to find more meaningful friendships; and the way we treat others might ultimately be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Equally dandy: The effect of other people on us is palpable, revealing how simple interaction and community is vital to not only the human experience, but how basic social circles might impact our levels of happiness: “A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by [Edward] Diener and [Martin] Seligman found that the most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” Again, point taken. If you’re anything like me you look at all this evidence of what makes for happiness within the realm of friendship and think to yourself, “Yeah, it all adds up.” But the distance between friendship and happiness will be eternal unless you’re willing – and I understand how entirely corny this sounds – to cut the act and be an honest friend to yourself first.

Kate Fox’s previously mentioned binge drinking report explaining how social norms dictate behavior indicates a far deeper issue at hand than simply acting idiotic while drunk because it’s socially permissible. Yes, if getting crazy is the expectation when drinking, craziness is likely to occur. But might it also be true, then, that if the world being out to get you is the expectation, seeing reality as such might occur? Once you give yourself permission to act a certain way – drunk, sober, high on life – this leads to interpreting other actions and circumstances so as to reinforce your beliefs, and before long it becomes so incredibly easy to justify your stance on any given matter that it’s literally impossible to see reality for what it is. Again, let’s go back to Sunday School for a moment, shall we… The perspective of someone looking back through a hazy memory of a then-child’s eyes is going to be entirely flawed, but I can’t help but think that this period of my life still had great influence on me; just not in the way I had initially imagined. Moving in and out of awkward and largely-closed off social structures is hard for anyone, but allowing that to justify not making an effort to find people who I could identify with was on me. I was too young to understand it then, but it’s a fault that I allowed to snowball with each new school, job, or move. I’m a wild card when I drink, it’s who I am! I fine being alone; people don’t get me anyway! Not too far of a stretch, all things considered.

In addition for searching for blame within my past, I’ve wanted so very badly to make a connection between my parents’ own passive-aggressive social butterfly position, but I simply can’t. It’s not there. I haven’t devalued friendship because the inherited blueprint for relationships was so vague, but because I allowed excuses to dictate whether or not I would be a friend to others. I haven’t moved all over the country because I wasn’t accepted for who I was, but (many times) because I rejected the notion that whatever I’d found was good enough. The cyclical nature of friendship, or avoiding friendship, is such that it tends to lend itself as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy however: Others are only likely to make the same effort that you do. Trust and acceptance go both ways, and what is the likelihood that those who’ve planted themselves in their communities, be it a church, a neighborhood, or even a job, are willing to extend a hand when your personal history suggests that you’re not bound to stick around too long? Unlikely, right? And what are the chances that this appearance of rejection begins chip away at a person’s sense of self-worth? Likely, right? I didn’t perceive that others were making the effort to be my friend, regardless of whether or not I made the same effort myself. It has to be my parents’ fault because they don’t have friends, or because of kids when I was growing up, or because… or because…

Or because I wasn’t honest with myself.

No one says you have to have friends, or have to invite people over for celebratory cookouts or movie night. And being a loner really isn’t so bad, all in all. You don’t have to put up with other people’s bullshit, and get to dedicate a lot of time to your own interests, hobbies, and passions. But the flip-side is that because you’re not actively dealing with others, you’re going to constantly be up in your own head. The issue then becomes how not to get outdoors and interact with others, but to step outside of the mental constrains that will forever shackle you to certain ways of perceiving yourself and the world around you. It’s fine to be alone, and at times oh-so-necessary, but not when the byproducts include misplaced blame, artificially fabricated feelings of self-righteousness, or a delusional perspective on why friendship, or basic human interaction, doesn’t matter.

How this plays into the continuance of depression and dependency is simple enough: Being alone is key to feeling lonely, and in my past loneliness has often led to justified binging. With or without the foggy haze of a booze-soaked mind, the more closed off you become, the easier it is to revise history to fit a social construct that you believe to be the victim of. There are very few people who will stick it out with you in life, and above all else I wouldn’t still be alive if it weren’t for my family (a term which I find silly to be defined by bloodline alone) who were there to ensure that I’d regret making the decision of turning my back on them. If friendship is happiness, it would seem that sometimes we are the main roadblock standing between ourselves and a better way of living. The hard part’s not seeing that, but actually getting out of our own way.