Sometimes we discover things about ourselves that are, in their very essence, so painfully obvious that the tardy recognition of them leaves us somewhat shamefaced. I had one of these moments recently, when it suddenly dawned on — after 40 years of evidence had piled up in front of my face — that I am not a joiner.
Please don’t misunderstand: I do and always have enjoyed meeting new people and trying new activities. But if you ask me to join your club, I’m likely to balk. Even if I like every single person in the club and place enormous value on whatever the club’s focus is, I will still resist the invitation to immerse myself in it.
This reticence has not always served me well, and has frequently left friends puzzled by my seeming indifference. In high school I was a founding member of our theater company, and yet I maintained something of a distance from the theater people. Sometimes I went to their parties, and sometimes not. No one could have said that I was exactly one of them, and yet I truly liked them and (I sincerely believe) they liked me. Later, as a freshman in college, my sorority at first refused to initiate me with my pledge class, primarily (I think) because I hadn’t shown the proper enthusiasm for the sorority, even though I sincerely and truly adored my sisters and fellow pledges. I had maintained my outside friendships and relationships and probably wasn’t diplomatic about demonstrating that they were equal priorities for me. Finally, when I studied abroad later in college, I invoked the ire of my fellow ex-pats by striking out on my own and spending my time with locals rather than sticking with the group. My apparent rejection of my American classmates made me an easy target for gossip, but I carried on anyway.
See the pattern?
Now that I’m single again, this aspect of my personality has starkly reappeared. Plenty of well-meaning friends and family members have suggested that I join this club or that group, and each time, I can feel myself resist. And, for the first time in my life, I took some time to ask myself why that is so. And that is when I realized that I am not, nor have I ever been, a joiner.
The next step was to examine whether this tendency of mine serves some positive purpose in my life, or does it hold me back from obtaining something important to me? When I looked around my life, I quickly recognized that my reluctance to define myself through a membership in a particular group is largely responsible for the amazing diversity of my friends. You see, I am one of those people that has friends of all different backgrounds and education levels and professional successes. I don’t often throw parties because, not only are my friends far-flung, but quite frankly, most of them wouldn’t know what to say to one another. Can you imagine, for instance, my Buddhist-practicing friend who is covered in tattoos and hangs out with gangsters chatting with my friend the published author who is married to a Broadway producer? But I am so grateful to have so many interesting people with differing viewpoints and experiences to call my friends, and I am constantly appreciative that these people give their advice and friendship and time to me. Each, in his or her own way, nourishes my soul.
Being a part of something cohesive is a very warm and secure feeling, to be sure, and I don’t denigrate those who seek it in the slightest. But I have come to realize that I am less interested in spending time with people with whom I “have something in common” (superficially, at least) than with people from whom I can learn something. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate that wondrous feeling of meeting someone who “gets” me; it’s just that — for me — that person is not necessarily someone who shares the same graduate degree, or is divorced, or lives in my town. Rather, the commonality I seek in people is a sense of striving to be authentic, of valuing personal growth, of an innate curiosity that often involves diverging from the acceptable or obvious path. This quirk of mine means, of course, that I am missing out on some of the social unity that others might enjoy, and that can be isolating at times. But I’ve made my peace with this part of myself and secretly learned to embrace it.
Life is full of “shoulds” — those dictates that others would heap on us because of their own discomfort with our choices. Taking the time to recognize what we uniquely need as individuals is not always easy or popular, but it is , I believe, well worth it. So if joining a club is what brings you peace and a sense of fullness of identity, then I say right on. And if not, then good for you, too. The point is to know the difference.