Have you spent a length of time in a completely foreign environment with strangers?
Here’s a paradox — feeling alone in the crowd. I am naturally an introvert. Yet, several times in my adult life, I’ve thrown myself into situations where I’m alone with strangers away from home. It’s painful for me to stand in a crowd and make small talk. Surrounded by strangers, it’s painful to work as a team. Worse is trying to find a seat in a dining room and be a good conversationalist with strangers. My natural instinct is to take flight and take my meal anywhere else. After an 8 hour shift of working around others, all I want is to be alone. But what to do? For it is painful for me to eat in a restaurant by myself. I find it hard to go to a movie, a bar or public event by myself. Surviving in the group dynamic for a week or months or years is a life skill I’ve practiced for decades. Whether spoiled in luxury or in dubious settings, anxiety accompanies me throughout and threatens to shut me down. So why do I do it?
For 8 days, this past June, I went to Tampa, Florida to grade AP US History essays. Away from my routines and loved ones, I sat at an assigned table grading. Two breaks and a lunch later, we were free to head back to the hotel. We were assigned a roommate, and I prayed she wouldn’t have sleep apnea. There was a lot of free time to explore and eat out if we chose. Visit the local museums or soak in the hotel hot tub on the fifth floor, I’d consider this a work-vacation.
Once in 1995, I spent weeks in Dorset County, England studying Thomas Hardy. For three English graduate hours, I was surrounded by a Thomas Hardy scholar and sixteen other college students who enrolled in the class to read six novels, a book of poetry, and live in Southern England. The evenings were free for pints and discussions. This was more of a vacation than a chore. Reading, writing, and discussing books is like blogging about movies. It was emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
The other academic environment was an all immersion German graduate class in beautiful Taos, New Mexico, run by the University of New Mexico. With 40 other students, we stayed in the ski resort condominium and our roommates and the class vowed to speak only Deutsch. For three weeks we went to class, ate together, and studied in our rooms. A discussion panel or a German film was shown in the evening. It was a painful three weeks. I muddled through with good grades and credit. Surrounded by others who spoke better Deutsch than I and listening to philosophical seminars in German was daunting. I couldn’t wait to get home.
It might seem strange to consider traveling across the globe with a group you’ve never met before. Maybe you know one or two people–the travel buddy, me the facilitator, or other students. Yet, you are sharing an experience. They bring their perceptions to the discussions and you share what you found interesting. Inevitably, you begin discussions and develop surprising friendships.
Everyone is on their best behavior as we share the hotels, the famous sites, the excursions, and the food. With my trips, there is free time built into the itinerary so one can simply stop, sit, have a glass of wine or coffee, and people watch. Evenings are free to pursue preferences. Some like to crash and hang out in the hotel. Older couples go out and check out the stores and bars. Every time we return home, couples, grandparents, parents, students, and I marvel at the adventure. Forgotten is the plane ride, the hot temperatures, the rain, or the grumpy traveler on the train. I always look forward to next year’s adventure. I feel blessed I’ve been able to escort people far, far away.
In 1981, I joined the U.S. Navy after graduating high school and was sent to Orlando, Florida to boot camp for eight weeks. Other than my first trip to London and the countryside while in high school, it was the first time I had voluntarily separated myself from family and friends. Oh the calisthenics, the screaming by company commanders and never-ending marching and standing at parade rest! I survived and was pretty proud of myself. Off then to San Diego, California to an “A” school to learn how to be a Radioman which means how to establish ship shore communications. I specialized in the teletypewriter and learned how to read tape. While there, I was asked where I wanted to be stationed. I said anywhere in the United Kingdom. I was stationed at the Northern tip of SCOTLAND and lived up there for three years in the early 1980s.
Why do I do it? I try to get out of my comfort zone. I’m no fool–these opportunities I’ve described were gifts. I knew the trips would be worth the discomfort of my social anxiety because I thought of them as adventures. Despite fears and loneliness, in each experience, there were strangers who turned into friends. Only when I push myself out of my comfort zone is when I accomplish anything in my life. It would be so easy to be a recluse and shrink in all ways a person can by avoiding my fellow man.
I have an assignment at school where I’m mentoring a neophyte teacher. He told me that Arizona State University rewards mentors by granting them college hours. So what did I do? I looked and sure enough, there’s a summer total immersion program in German at their sister-city in a part of Germany I’ve never been to before. I know it will be painful. I know I will feel lonely. I know I will crave the comfort of my own surroundings, but how can I resist the adventure of gathering with a group of strangers and practicing the German language even if I’m not very good at it?
How about you? When have you been alone in the crowd?