There was a time in my life when I regularly attended church. It was a liturgical church with a small, dark sanctuary decorated with beautiful stained glass windows. The services were quiet, solemn affairs — not like the loud, clapping and shouting services some churches offer. I enjoyed this quiet, calm interlude with a predictable routine.
Then came the awkward part. Suddenly, the service would be over, and noise and chaos would erupt like a volcano. The instant the pastor dismissed us, people would jump up and start shuffling about, gathering coats and children and heading out into the aisles. There was talking, talking, and more talking as people gathered in little groups. They wouldn’t walk towards the door; they would just stand there talking, talking, talking.
I was the only one walking, mumbling “excuse me” as I tried to maneuver around them towards the exit. I hated being the first person out. I didn’t know anybody, but still, would they think I was a snob for not stopping to talk with them?
The pastor would wait outside the door to shake everyone’s hand as they left. What did he think of me, dashing out first like that while everyone else loitered? Did it look like I was unhappy with the service, or with him?
But what was my other option — to stand around in the middle of all those little groups with no one to talk to? Maybe if they had been discussing the sermon or other ideas about what their faith meant to their lives, I would have mustered the courage to join in. The conversations, however, were nothing like that. They were all small talk and empty banter.
Walking back to campus, I wanted to be able to relish the experience and think about the sermon. Reflecting on these kinds of things was like a party in my head. I couldn’t enjoy it much, however, because I was worried that I had offended the people at the church.
Little Terrors Everywhere
I don’t attend church now, but I still find myself in crowds every time I attend an event alone. They’re either waiting to get in or hanging around afterwards in little groups, talking, talking, talking. And I’m just standing there by myself, sticking out like a flashing red loser. Because that’s what being alone says, isn’t it? It says I have no friends, or that nobody wants to talk to me. There’s no greater stigma than that, right?
Even when my office books a conference room for a meeting and I know everybody there, I still find myself alone in the crowd. Waiting for the room to become available, we all stand in the hallway outside the door in little groups, talking, talking, talking. One group will be discussing recipes and the details of every dish they’ve ever had at a local restaurant. Another will be doing a deep dive into car insurance and meander off into driving stories, complete with hand illustrations.
Oh, the horror.
But it’s a choice between enduring this empty talk or standing alone, looking like a loser, or worse — a snob. So I used to try to push my way into a circle of talkers, or stand at the border of a group and try to fake like I was actually participating in the discussion, all the while wishing I could disappear. Sometimes I would spot another circle with a bigger opening in it and casually meander over to that space, hoping nobody saw me do it. I had to blend in, to look like I was included somewhere.
I could not be seen standing alone.
The Prison in My Mind
Then one day I had enough. I was tired of trying to fake it in the crowd of talkers that was standing around on the grass during a fire drill at my office building. One circle was deep into a TV serial I didn’t watch, another was shrieking and joking about an ant hill, and another was being held hostage to one man’s story that was not going to end any time this century.
This time, however, instead of trying to push my way in and fake it, I just stepped back and stood by myself. And nobody noticed. Nobody was looking at me with pity or disdain. Nobody pursued me with the dreaded, “Why are you so quiet?” or “Are you okay?” They were too busy talking.
In fact, they seemed to be so oblivious to everything around them that the guy calling us back into the building had to scream at the top of his lungs many times before anyone even looked up. Further observation revealed that while I stood by myself, I was not alone at the back of the crowd. A few other people were standing back there, too — by themselves. Nobody saw us.
I now understand how a pickpocket, unseen, works a room. I understand that the parishioners of that church were not offended by my exit — they didn’t even notice me leaving. I realize that all that time I had been cowering before a phantom.
And even if they do notice me, so what? This is who I am. As an introvert, I’m not a casual talker, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I have no desire to fill every idle moment with talking, and that doesn’t make me rude, a loser, or a snob.
Who makes those rules anyway? Who says standing alone is a stigma? Whoever it is, I think it’s time I stopped listening to them.
I Now Stand Alone and Proud
I’ve now made a standard practice of standing away and alone and making a bee-line for the exit as soon as an event is over. Nobody notices me. Some people even follow my lead.
I refuse to be embarrassed or ashamed. My faking conformity to the prevailing extrovert ethos is not going to help society become more inclusive and accepting of other personality types. If I accept and cower to the stigmas attached to being quiet and differently social, I can hardly expect others to change their minds about what’s normal and acceptable. The first step to acceptance by others is acceptance of yourself.
The prospect of being alone in a crowd no longer fills me with dread. I now stand alone and proud.
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