IMO: Alone in the Crowd

 

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?

 

Work Vacations 

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.

Academic Vacations 

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.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO

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.

Educational Traveling 

 

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.

The Military 

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? 

38 thoughts on “IMO: Alone in the Crowd

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  1. Great post. Interesting that some are with people who you share a common interest, and some are with entire different cultures. I was a TV journalism major, and have always been able to revert to the “interview” method – ask someone a non-“yes or no” question and just work to get them to talk about themselves….look for something in common or a passion they discuss…you add a whole new layer of complication when it’s a foreign language!

    1. A higher angst layer, too. You strike me as someone who has few social anxieties. Your profession is such that talking to strangers and being in strange places isn’t a big deal at all! So where have you been, alone, away from home and loved ones?

      1. Well, i travelled extensively for work, and usually alone or supervising a team that was working for me…I’ve been to Australia, France, South Korea and Japan – and in all cases spent extra time on my own…I’m comfortable traveling solo, and yes, my profession calls on me to do a lot of “interviewing”, but I also have NO problem being on my own

        1. John, I’m not surprised. You come across from your blog as a very happy man. Your career is fascinating and atypical and your interests are quirky and fun. I’m good with 96 hours by myself, then I get bored. You could strike up a conversation with anyone. That’s a gift!

  2. I cannot equal your varied experiences Cindy, but I did use to spend a lot of time away from home in hotels. Mostly as a union organiser, going to places far from London, and having to integrate with lots of people I would not usually encounter. I think I spent too much time talking crap in hotel bars, half-drunk, and spending a lot of time feeling lonely in dismal hotel rooms.
    Not something I am in a rush to repeat, I assure you.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Pete, I love your honesty. I am sure we’ve all been there. Union organizer. That counts. Our experiences shape us, that’s for sure. Even the exotic locale of London (Funny how one’s normalcy is another’s exotic location) would get old if I were alone and forced to be in a room of strangers.

  3. Blimey Cindy, you do get around. I would say all travel is an education, I can’t wait to go on a road trip through Europe at the end of October. I don’t have trouble being alone in a crowd as I always take a book to read and someone always asks me what I’m reading, and off we go!

  4. Most of us humans don’t like change. We avoid it. I understand that, but I think it’s also a sort of Spiritual death. We don’t learn much. It takes an unusual Soul to venture beyond the ‘Comfort Zone’ and grow in often unexpected ways.
    Good on you Cindy.

    1. The Spiritual Death. Hmm. Interesting phrase, JC. I remember how easy it was to turn eighteen and jump into the ocean of life and swim away; as I get older I’m not so fearless and my stiff limbs and foggy mind keep me wanting that cozy blanket that blocks out the outside. I try for a happy medium. Thanks, JC, for commenting.

  5. What an interesting life, and I can see I have a further affinity with you. I’ve run some really large organizations in my time, made speeches to hundreds in auditoriums, lectured and attended all the business gatherings expected of my positions. I could put on a good show. But I hated it all. I could deal with crowds effectively but shrank from that one to one personal encounter outside of business or teaching. I like study, research and to appreciate the beauty of life quietly.

    1. Hi, Soul Mate friend! Ha! A good show. Yep. I do enjoy working at the party. That is, I grew up in a kitchen and have bartended in the Navy and hosting a holiday or party is the best way for me to interact at parties. I don’t have to sit and chat–I serve and clean. Doing something is the way for me. Large organizations and speeches to hundreds. Working your way from point A to B with thousands of interactions and trying to remember names — ugh!
      As a thespian in high school, my favorite role was the stage manager behind the curtain. Appreciating the beauty of life quietly. That’s a gift!
      Thanks, Ian!

  6. I spent two or three days in hospital in a bed next to a poor man with sleep apnea. What a disease! He seemed to die about every 20 seconds and then be pulled back to join us again.

    1. John, ah, that was my roommate! I was worried the entire time she was going to strangle herself. Hospital stays are lonely, foreign worlds, aren’t they? Thank heavens for morphine.

  7. A good, honest, post. My main experiences of being alone in a crowd have been when suffering bereavement. Instinctively similar to you, I have always felt more comfortable in role. Only in my later years have I felt really comfortable when not so. That is because I know most people will be responsive.

    1. Hi, Derrick. The responsiveness of others, or the lack of them, is a fear generated in my own head. Growing older, it gets easier to engage in conversations. Suffering bereavement is the worst situation of human emotions. When one shares time and space and love with another, it is a great comfort. Alone time takes on a whole new meaning.

  8. This was was a wonderful read! You’ve had so many wonderful experiences and you are still not giving up. Good for you! Anyhow, I’m a (closet?) introvert too! Socialization tends to drain me, but I have learned to hide it well. But you are so right, “you must be willing to step outside your comfort in order to grow as a person …” 🙂

    1. Hi Eric, yay! Another closet introvert. Isn’t it funny how most people see our smiley faces and think we like to socialize, but we’d rather retreat to the quiet sanctuary of home? I was talking to a friend the other evening and he was lamenting how if he made it Paris, he’d never go visit Versailles or the Eiffel Tower because of the crowds. I understood his sentiment–oh, my gosh, what a sardine can–BUT I feel like a better person because I did go. I just looked up and avoided a thousand faces. I’ve appreciated a lot of ceilings in my day! 😉

  9. Insightful post. I am a 100% introvert (you cannot find a person more introverted than me! lol), and it has always been that way, so I understand you completely. I actually often find myself “alone in the crowd”. After reading that great book by Susan Cain – “Quiet”, I am actually proud of being an introvert now hehe. I also try to “get out of my comfort zone” as much as it is possible. I have lived alone in Florence, Italy and in Brussels, Belgium and these experiences kind of taught me to get out of my shell and explore things and meet different people. I will not say it has always worked out well, but it I won’t have it any other way, and am still kind of learning to embrace the outside world, so to speak.

    1. You picked mighty fine places to hold up by yourself! Yes, I have learned how to socialize. It is easy for me to be part of a group if I can move about and serve and host. I’m a great hostess because I have a job to do–make sure everyone has a full plate and a glass in their hands. The action part is what breaks down my barriers. I’m very happy you stopped by to share yourself today. Thank you!

  10. I’m alone pretty much anywhere. I actually prefer being in a location where no one knows me. If I’m alone in these situations, I actually enjoy it. Watching other people interacting with each other is always instructive. I can also e more extroverted in these situations. There isn’t anyone to please in these situations. I can be myself, because I’m not trying to be the person that other people think that I am. I’m odd. lol

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