“Y’know, the internet has kind of jacked us up.” said the sage-like 30-something year old whom I overheard at Starbucks, “People won’t commit to anything anymore. It’s like they think they’ll get a ‘better offer’ at the last minute. You’ll say, ‘Do you wanna meet at McDonald’s sometime and catch up?’ and they’ll be like, ‘That sounds great. So, maybe.'”
Those words hit me like a welcome punch in the mouth. They’re so relevant – for me, at least.
Humans are inclined to be noncommittal with personal relationships. In my experience, it’s because (among other reasons) we believe that there must be something better to be had elsewhere, with someone else, and perhaps for some people, as someone else. As though we’re hanging on for dear life to the idea that our life might be better if only we were connected to a different community, had a different set of obligations, etc.
But it’s a cover. It’s a sneaky sort of blame-shifting technique. And it’s convenient. It gives us a tail to chase that can occupy us for life and get us off the hook from admitting to the fact that our reluctance to grow close to people, to commit to a certain life course, to really live our lives is rooted in the fear that we’re gonna get life wrong.
A lot of people are terrified of real relationships and struggle to make basic life choices. They have trouble committing to any path in particular because they have no idea who they are or what they are doing. They feel as though they have been thrust into adulthood with no real preparation, like somebody signed them up to be a grown up but never bothered to teach them quite what that meant. Most of us have felt the pangs of this, but have struggled to find the words to describe it.
Although I generally try to forget my Junior High years, I have at least one vivid memory from my days as an awkward, pimpled-faced teenager:
The year was 2008, and I was sitting in a certain teacher’s classroom (whose name will be changed to protect the innocent). We were doing a practice TAKS test. Now, or those of you who didn’t grow up in the Republic of Texas, the TAKS test was an end-of-year test that that a lot of kids could take with their eyes closed (I wasn’t one of them) which measured the student body’s comprehension of the core materials for the year. And since state funding for each school was partially tied to their TAKS scores, my school made sure to put us through a couple of grueling practice tests throughout the year before the real thing came around each April.
So I was relaxing at my desk in a classroom filled with students whose last names began with letters that show up early in the alphabet: Ellington…Delgado…Gately…etc. A little timer on Mrs. Cruella Deville’s desk went off, and she told the class to put our bubble sheets into our test booklets and pass them up to take a 5 minute bathroom break. I did not hear this, because I was spaced out, thinking about frisbees or something, and I tucked my bubble sheet and booklet into the small cubby under my desk.
After the break was over, Mrs. Cruella Deville picked up the booklets and began passing them back out to each student. When she had passed out the last booklet, she noticed that my name had not been called.
“Did you not pass your booklet up?” She asked.
“Oh…uh, no.” I replied, a little embarrassed.
She paused for a moment, as though unsure of what to say. She was a sarcastic woman, and generally had a clever quip for each situation. At this moment, however, her wit failed. As she turned around and walked back toward her desk, she said to the whole class, “Have you noticed that when we have to do something as a class, Ryan is always the one doing it wrong?”
The class laughed. I joined, half because I’ll laugh at almost any joke ever (that’s still true today) and half because I figured that I’d rather laugh with them at my own expense than be laughed at. But beneath my happy-go-lucky disposition, her words stuck. Not because I especially valued her input, but because it was something I was used to hearing. All throughout the earlier years of my life, I was told by teachers and other grown-ups that I couldn’t do anything right. Eventually, I started believing it.
And so a pattern sprouted up: nearly every time something I was involved with really began to require me to commit, to lock-in, I would bail. I would keep everything – friends, commitments, goals – at arms length, because I was convinced that if I ever got deep into anything that I would mess it up. I fundamentally believed that I was a screw up.
Now, I’m not recounting this story to have some kind of pity party. The point is this: for the longest time, I was horrified to commit to anything, or anyone, and I thought that I was the only one who lived this way. As far as I could tell, everyone else had their lives together, and that I was the odd one out. But as the years went on I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who had let my insecurities run my life – not by a long shot.
I’m an introvert, but I’m your friendly neighborhood introvert, so I have a lot of one-off conversations with people that I meet in coffee shops and bookstores. One thing I try to gather in each of these chance encounters is how does this person see the world? What I’ve found is that although every person that I meet is unique and vibrant, many share one thing in common: terror. Most of the people that I meet seem terrified to be alive. Just the other day, I asked a guy what time it was and you’d think I was interrogating him at gunpoint.
I don’t blame them.
A lot of people, like the guy I quoted at the beginning of this post, blame the internet for my generation’s anti-social, anti-commitment bent. I don’t. I’m not convinced that having all of this technology and information at our fingertips has made us more anti-social and noncommittal; I think it’s given us an outlet to retreat into a “safe” place. A place that isn’t real. A place where nobody judges us, and we can’t mess up our lives. The Facebook versions of us are stable, funny, and safe. Even when the Facebook me ‘can’t even’, he’s doing just fine. Not so for real life.
And it’s in this fear of marching on into the future, this uncertainty of whether we can handle the weight of being present in our own lives as adults, in the messiness of community with other, equally uncertain people, that most folks collapse, and choose to retreat into themselves rather than muster up the courage to be.
Stop looking for a better offer. Take hold of the life that you have, the family you have, the you that you are. Stop looking for an escape route. Commit yourself to be an active participant in the life that is happening around you. Don’t retreat into yourself, or your smart phone, or your books. This is all there is. Reject the urge to sleepwalk through everything. Be present in your own life. “Do not be afraid.”