Who Am I?

The Art of Being in a Crowd When Alone

Posted: June 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Art of Being in a Crowd When Alone

I’ve been mulling my thoughts from my earlier post, The Art of Being Alone in a Crowd, off and on in the back of my head all week. I realized there is another shift under way. It’s actually been developing for some time now. I have a hard time telling if it is or will be as dramatic a shift as the one that originally shaped me and which Putnam and others have explored. Nevertheless, I do believe it’s significant. Further, as I consider my own children (who range in age from 12 to 27), I realize that only my younger two have been more or less fully shaped on the other side of this latest shift.

Much has been written, of course, about the advancement of communication and technology. Whereas we used to call a place hoping to find a person, we now expect to be able to call a person directly without any concern for that person’s location. We are ever increasingly interconnected in ways that break down some of the barriers of distance. “Social media” and “Web 2.0” are two of the most frequently overused labels for this enabling technology. I’m quite familiar with all of the technology. It is my field, after all. And I’ve been utilizing it in one form or another as I choose throughout much of its development. However, I’ve mostly considered the technical and the social aspects of the technology. I’ve not paused much to consider the cultural ramifications.

After I wrote about cultural adaptation or perhaps maladaptation of those often labeled “postmodern” I realized my younger two children largely do not share the same formation. Oh, many of the same forces are present. Large extended families still tend to be absent from their daily lives and the lives of all whom they know. They tend to physically live in communities of strangers who do not largely share awareness and care for all the children of the community — at least on a day to day basis. People remain highly mobile and move in and out of their circle of connection. Much remains the same. But much has changed as well. They’ve never known a time without a computer with an internet connection. Cell phones, even at times when they have not had one, are simply a part of the fabric of their reality.

And so their manner of dealing with the realities of postmodern life is different. They’ve established and rely on interwoven and multilayered networks of interaction. They do not necessarily have the depth or physical solidity of the older ones, but there is certainly more tangibly present and available than through the first half or more of my life. They rely on the constant feedback of those interconnections. In some ways, their lives are less me and more we. And this has altered their cultural formation in ways I’ll call the art of individualism within the context of the crowd. This network is not defined by school, by sport, by neighborhood, by club, by church “youth group” or by any other readily visible grouping. Rather it incorporates what it can take from any and all sources forming a different network for each child, though often sharing much in common with others. Where they attempt to interact in settings that have few connections and which resist their efforts to construct them, I’ve noticed they tend to be less comfortable.

Now, I’ve taken those technologies and incorporated them pretty effectively (I think) into the structures of my life. But that doesn’t really significantly alter my core formation. It reshapes it some, just as any significant shift will. But I’m still completely comfortable “Bowling Alone”. I’m not sure those shaped by this latest sociological shift would be. But their’s is not really a return to the structured bowling league of old or the fraternal organizations or the like. It’s more dynamic and shifting. Visible groups form and change and dissolve as needed by their members. Groups are dynamic and easily created. And that’s natural to them in ways that it is not natural to me.

There is no real point or conclusion to this post. It’s mostly just an observation that led to a little greater awareness on my part. It’s an open-ended thought which is still developing in my mind.

The Art of Being Alone in a Crowd

Posted: June 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This weekend I helped chaperone an end-of-year 6th grade band outing to Schlitterbahn. We got everyone loaded onto the buses, to the park in one piece, set up in our central location, divided into their groups, went over the rules one more time, and then turned them loose. I hung around and chatted with some of the other adults for a while, applied my sunblock, and then went to ride some of the rides myself. I came back to eat my gluten-free lunch, chatted with the other adults some more, and took off again until it was nearing time to gather the kids in and head home. Over the course of the day, I would encounter and chat for a bit with adults or kids from our group, and then head back to whatever I was doing.

Somewhere during the course of the day, it dawned on me that I was perfectly comfortable alone in a vast crowd of people. It gave me time for my thoughts or for no thoughts if I desired to exist in the moment. I enjoyed the rides. I might find a moment when it seemed fitting to quietly pray the Jesus Prayer for a bit. But I slipped easily from interacting with others to not and back again. And as I reflected on that, I realized I could not recall a time in my life when that was not true. I’m not a loner, in that I don’t seek to separate myself from others. I enjoy being around people and doing things with them most of the time. But I have no stress if that doesn’t work out. I don’t often try very hard to make it happen.

Like many, I’ve read Putnam’s Bowling Alone and similar sociological works. I’ve recognized the truth in it on a lot of levels. I’ve come to accept that I’m shaped by a culture different from those older than me (and many roughly my age). And yet small things are still capable of surprising me. It’s true that our culture fits us like a second skin. We have an extremely hard time actually seeing our own cultural shaping rather than perceiving and sensing the world through it.

I think back on my life to when I was as young as sixth grade through eighth grade. I was always perfectly comfortable going to a movie, to the mall, to the skating rink, or Astroworld by myself. I was a bit of a flirt, so if I saw a girl or two at the skating rink, I might try to get to know them better. And I loved doing all of the above and more with friends or girls if the opportunity presented itself. But if not, I was always OK with that as well. I think of myself in my early twenties. I loved to hit various dance clubs with friends. But if I wanted to dance and nobody was available at the moment, I often went to my favorite clubs by myself and danced by myself in the middle of the crowd. It’s never bothered me to eat alone in public. Again, I don’t mind company. In fact, I enjoy company while eating. But it’s no sweat if I don’t have any. (Of course, as a celiac now, I have an entirely new set of issues with eating out, but they have nothing to do with being alone in a crowd.)

I look at that and I do see the ways in which it withers social capital. I do see how personal interconnections become lighter and easier to shed with all but a very few. I can see the things people decry and I can see them reflected in myself.

But how else do we live? Like many, I grew up without much in the way of extended family contact or other tribal connections. I guess we knew some neighbors. And there were some family friends. But people came into and left my sphere of interaction regularly. If I were culturally shaped in a way that required those connections, it seems to me that I could not have functioned at all. I grew up the only way I really could. I’ll confess there are problems with this, but I don’t see any easy solutions.

I do perhaps see hints of a way forward in Christianity, which holds the view that all human beings are connected and that only by deepening that connection can we truly be saved. I’ve heard it said that the most reclusive hermit among the desert fathers was still connected to and aware of all others. Rather than masters of being alone in a crowd, they were ever among a crowd even when they seemed utterly alone. However, I don’t know how to move from where I am to where they are. How do we shed our cultural skin without heading to the desert? It’s a question worth pondering.