Why is it so difficult to make connections with other people?
I have fought with this problem for many years. The last time I can remember having people with whom I really felt comfortable — truly, self conciouslessly comfortable — was when I was twelve years old.
I was in sixth grade and I wore baggy shorts and oversized band T-shirts. I sat on walls, hacked computers and bantered with the smartass boys in school. I was a dancer, but I wasn’t friends with the dancers. They were always too popular for me, spending their time wearing makeup and having boyfriends. I had a best friend then, too.
My best friend was much, much richer than I was. She collected San Rio stationary and we would practice trying to draw our own versions that were as cute as the original characters. I got somewhat decent at a Pochako. In science class we would massage each other’s palms to pass the time and stay awake. I think for me it went extremely far in keeping me out of fights with the teacher. He was dimwitted and boring. Taught out of a textbook, but did it so poorly that we couldn’t cover half of the material in one year. Instead of frogs, we dissected raw chicken wings in class. He wouldn’t let me participate because I had forgotten to get a note from my mom saying it was ok. So I sat in the corner and ate the friend chicken wings I had brought for lunch, making sure to pull apart each muscle group and lay it out on the table before eating. I thought he was a moron.
When middle school ended I went to high school. Some of my friends went with me to the special arts school I got admitted to, but my mom pulled me out soon after that because the school’s curriculum was so intense that it was destroying my health. I went to two more high schools after that and in my junior and senior year, I had gone from having something around two dozen humans that I was moderately to extremely comfortable with, down to knowing no one. Of course I tried to make friends, but I remember very distinctly that I spent the majority of my high school years watching other people having friends, studying how they interacted, learning about their relationships like a scientist watching insects through a magnifying glass.
College was a similar story as high school. I transferred into Yale University as a sophomore. I immediately went in search of my people, who I thought would be hanging out at the campus Christian clubs, but they weren’t there. A devout Christian my whole life, only intensifying when I passed through puberty and into young adulthood, I fully expected to be loved and accepted if not because that’s what Christians are supposed to do, but at least because the other people who were there would be like me. What I realized, however, was that the people who were there weren’t so much like me as they were busy being Christians. That meant that they were busy praying, busy quoting the Bible, busy seeing His Work all around, busying having faith and busy being reborn and stuff. What they weren’t doing was loving, experiencing the moment in which their whole lives were occurring, or seeing me for the whole, complete, raw and vulnerable human that I was.
I remember the moment I quit organized Christianity. I was sitting with the campus Christian group one evening. It had been a rough day for me mostly because I was still adjusting to all the newness that college life, specifically college life at an elite Ivy League university which was isolated from the outside world and far away from home. I remember I said the word “shit” in a sentence expressing my frustration over something. Actually, it wasn’t even frustration. It wasn’t even that important. I just like using cuss words. And this one girl, a black girl with an evangelical streak, looks me in the eye and says, “how can you call yourself a Christian when you use language like that?” It was then that I realized that Christians, whether or not their beliefs were aligned with any kind of universal Truth, were not my People. The strangest part of the entire scene was that I didn’t get angry at her. I simply got up and left. I didn’t make a scene, I didn’t argue, and frankly I didn’t even feel compelled to. It was like a switch had turned and a window had opened and I could see it clearly as the bright morning sun: These are not my people.
I’ve been searching for my people ever since. They are not the dancers. They are not the Christians. They are not the type A studious over achievers. They are not the academics. They are not the rock climbers (though there was a time when I was sure they were). They are not the hippies, (though there was a time when I was pretty sure they were, too).
When I came to Japan I left everything I had behind me. The only things of value I brought were my weasels and my bikes. Everything else that came with me was purely out of utility: having it would be easier than having to buy it all fresh when I got here. I brought no friends, no family, no lover, and I had none waiting for me. I thought to myself that in order to be Free, I couldn’t let the fact that these things were not here prevent me from taking a chance, going on an adventure and perhaps finding the People that I had lost twenty years ago. I determined that I would find my people no matter what, and if I couldn’t find them, I would make them.
I found some people when I got here. They were fellow mountain bikers and at first I was sure they would be my People. I poured my heart into loving them. I made myself available for any chance there was to hang out, to help them, or to have them play with me. I went so far as to rearrange my work schedule to coordinate our days off in the vain hope that that would mean we might get to spend time together as friends. When they upset me, even though it was against my habits, I made sure to tell them because if you never fight it only means that you don’t love each other enough to want to fight. No one gets along all the time.
But in the end I realized that these people, too, were not my People. I think in the beginning I believed they were my people because the times when we couldn’t hang out, when they couldn’t pay me attention, or I otherwise didn’t feel wholly comfortable around them, I had an excuse to explain it away. In the beginning it was language. Then my language got better, but my relationships didn’t. Then I thought that it was the work schedules. They were busy overworked Japanese and so I moved my commitments around so that the time was available, should they want it, but no invitations to dinner or to ride ever came in. I wondered to myself if maybe the distance was propriety: a customer cannot have a close relationship with staff. I asked for a job (for no pay) in the hopes that becoming staff would both ease their schedules and make me part of the group that was allowed to have close relationships, but I was turned down with no explanation. Out of ideas and out of explanations, I finally had to conclude that I had been pouring my heart into a receptacle that simply drained it out again onto the dusty dry ground underneath.
Why is it so hard to build connections with other people? My ex husband used to say that if everyone around you seems to have a problem, the most likely explanation is that the problem is you. I tried believing that for a while. No doubt that kind of thinking is what led me to drain myself so thoroughly trying to establish a meaningful connection with people who do not love me. Other people like to say that if you have to work so hard at a relationship, it’s not a relationship worth having, or that the other person doesn’t deserve you. I don’t like to talk about what people do and do not deserve. None of us asked to be on this earth, so since we’re here, why should we not all deserve to be loved? I don’t think desert is a very useful concept for understanding people. No, the people who I wanted desperately to be mine did not fail to deserve me, they simply do not love me.
As an economist I am trained to look at systems. Most specifically, I am trained to look at the systems built by people that form the environment in which we operate. I look around me and I see people doing similar things and being in the same places, even wanting the same things, but it is as if each and every one of us lives our life inside a sphere of isolation. We pass each other on the street and perhaps we give a nod to the other’s existence, but do we really see that person? Could we start a conversation with them if we wanted to, and what would we say? We each do our jobs and then we go home to our cages where our entire world shrinks to the size of the house we live in. Those of us who are lucky enough to have found a family by the time they reach adulthood can go home to theirs. The rest of us? We have to build a reason to see anyone, talk to anyone, touch anyone. And the reasons, so many of them are impolite, inappropriate or shameful.
I want to be touched. I want you to touch me. Please, just touch me.
I want to see you, just you. I don’t really mind what we are doing, I just want you to be around.
Please, let me show you my heart. Let me show you my fears and my desires. I want you to help me carry them.
I want to show you my joy. I want you to smile and celebrate what I have. Please, be happy for me.
I want to swim in your glory. I want to know you down to the synapses of your nerves. I promise I will be kind. Won’t you share yourself with me?
Humans were never intended to live alone, be independent, or survive without touch. The evidence is written all over our bodies and even our brains. Yet, the world that we live in, it builds walls between us. Glass walls. Touch screen walls. Walls through which you can see but never touch. Our world makes it incredibly difficult to build connections with people.
I often wonder to myself, am I the only one who suffers the pain of this isolation? Do the others around me, shuffling glassy-eyed down the street, do they not desire to touch another human? I think they do. What baffles me is that if we all crave the same thing, and it is such a simple thing, why is it that we all live our lives starved for it?
Why in my own life do I feel like I will suffocate from loneliness?