Is there anything more universally coveted than the Empty Seat Next to You? The flight attendant announces that the doors are closed, there’s nobody else coming, and the middle seat is still vacant. What’s a better feeling than that? The Queen could be coming up the aisle to knight you and you’d still be thinking Oh man I hope she’s not gonna sit here.
On the Metro North train into NYC, every seat is taken, every morning. You don’t even let yourself hope for an empty seat.
But the crowded commuter train is different. The crowded train, unlike the crowded airplane, represents comfort. The crowded train is my thunder blanket. The crowded train means, in short, that I am not the only sucker making this crazy long commute. Psychologically, that keeps me stable, every day. If the train were empty, I would feel alone. And that Alone Feeling is at the root of my insecurities. That Alone Feeling hacks at my self-worth like a machete through the rainforest. If I’m not careful, I can stumble into those alone moments without even realizing it.
Social media can make me feel alone.
Of course it can, right? Because everyone is happy on social media! Everyone’s family is perfect and life is perfect. Meanwhile I’m over here yelling at my kids and forgetting to pay our heating bill and spraying mustard on myself.
Now, I’m not ignorant. I’ve cautioned myself against those Alone Feelings when I’m on social media.
“Y’all be careful of that ol’ Social Media, Conor!” I shout huskily at myself, like a toothless grandma in a rocking chair warning folks about the swamp creature from down the Bayou.
But there’s a problem with my demonization of social media – it shifts the blame, preventing me from facing my own insecurities. It allows me to avoid the deeper issues.
Here’s how I typically practice that avoidance:
A few months ago I hurt a muscle in my back and couldn’t exercise. At first it was frustrating. Then I just got complacent. So when my back was healed, I still wasn’t exercising.
The appropriate response to wanting to start exercising would have been this: “I’m going to find the time to exercise because I’ll look better and feel better, mentally and physically. I’m getting older and have to take care of my health.”
I did not do that. This is what I did do.
First, I made excuses. “Too busy!” I thought. “No time! Work! Puppy! Family obligations!”
That helped a little bit.
When that started to wear thin, I beat myself up over not exercising. “Just make the time, Conor! How lazy are you, seriously? Do you have no interest in living past the age of fifty? Are you proud of yourself? Are you?? Answer me!”
That turned out to be a lot of noise but didn’t actually accomplish anything, sort of like an episode of the Bachelorette.
Then I discovered the Blame-Social-Media solution.
“Why are all these people running?” I shouted at my iPhone, waving my arms over my head like Kermit the Frog introducing his next musical guest. “Why do they have to tell the world they’re running all over the place? Why can’t they just run if they’re going to run?”
It didn’t matter that it’s marathon season and that marathons involve a lot of running. It also didn’t matter that tons of comments on those runners were from people getting inspired by their friends running. It didn’t matter that the updates from the runners were focused on encouraging others. It didn’t even matter that I was close friends with those runners and that they are wonderful people.
No, this was about me.
“Don’t these runners have families?” I bellowed, stomping around the living room like a North Korean soldier passing Kim Jong-un on the dais. “Do they not care about their kids? They could be feeding the poor but NO, they’d rather RUN.”
It was easier to blame social media than to examine my own sensitivities about feeling out of shape. The notion in my head was that everyone else had figured out how to balance their perfect lives, complete with exercise, except me.
It was triggering that Alone Feeling.
That Alone Feeling is always lying in wait for me, like a trapdoor with a weak latch, right under my feet. It opens under me before I even recognize what’s caused it. All I know is that I’m falling and flailing and helpless.
That’s why I’m grateful for the craziness of Grand Central. The presence of those thousands of other commuters remind me that we are doing this commute thing together. We are all figuring it out together. I am not alone.
I’ll just conclude with this. (It’s a moment from our bible study, just FYI, but my non-Christian friends can skim and get to the larger point…)
In the book of Matthew, there’s a story of a rich young ruler. He asks Jesus what he has to do to get eternal life. Jesus rattles off a bunch of commandments and the young ruler is like Yep, already done those. Then Jesus is like Listen, you REALLY want to have eternal life? Then you need to give all your money to the poor and come with me.
And this rich young man, who believed that he was literally talking to God in human form, was like “Huh…yeah, I’m not going to do that.” And he left.
(A quick aside, lest this be taken out of context: Jesus wasn’t saying that because He cares if we are rich or poor – He doesn’t. He was noticing that this rich young ruler was doing all this “good” stuff but was missing the MOST important thing – he was still clinging to his money to save him. He was valuing his wealth above everything else. That’s a dangerous spot for any of us.)
It’s worth repeating here – this dude believed he was talking to the ACTUAL SON OF GOD and still he was like Nah, man, You go ahead, I’m keeping my stuff.
So this was the question we discussed in our group: What would you do if the person you believed was literally God told you to give everything away?
We hesitated. Giving up everything you have? It feels impossible, right? Even when it’s God-in-human-form asking.
But then we tweaked the question to become this: What if we decided to do it together? To give up everything, but sticking together?
Suddenly it didn’t seem so daunting. Suddenly, you weren’t the sucker. Suddenly you weren’t alone. Suddenly it felt possible.
That was what I discovered that night. Things go from impossible to possible when you realize you can’t do this on your own.
All that is to say this, my friends: I can’t do any of this alone.
Just to be super honest for a second – putting out a blog every week is daunting. What if it’s terrible? What if nobody reads it? What if I ask people to share it and nobody does?
I really, really wrestle with putting myself out there every week.
BUT! You don’t leave me alone. You are here for me. You leave comments and you share it and you encourage me. It means everything to me. So thanks for letting me do something I love. (And letting me be uncomfortably open for a minute there…)
Anyway, I should probably tell you about…
The Top Five Things I Really Prefer Doing Alone:
I’ve exercised my whole life. But never with other people. I mean, I get why people do that – they encourage each other and keep each other company. But if you are normal human then you’ll agree with me that you should exercise only when there are not people within a half mile of you.
2.) Watching Virginia basketball games.
I get nervous watching UVA play basketball. Like, hyperventilating nervous. So unless the other person in the room is also prepared to pass out from fear and anxiety over a basketball game, I’m doing it alone.
3.) Eating ribs.
I don’t really know how to eat ribs. You’d think I’d have it figured out by now, but instead I just look awkward, like a manatee trying to knit a cardigan.
4.) Riding an elevator.
There is nothing like the joy I feel when an elevator door opens and there’s nobody in it. No eye contact. No shuffling. No small-talk-with-that-colleague-I-only-sort-of-know. (“Boy, where did the summer go, huh?” “I know, right? Time is really flying!” and then you have to laugh even though there wasn’t a joke in there.)
5.) Baking with my kids.
God love you folks who bake with your kids. I wish I could do it. I just get too stressed out about getting eggshell in the cake mix and stuff. And don’t tell me to chill out – I’ll chill out about other stuff. You bake with your kids. I’ll bake with them when they’re thirty.