Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/25/2012

Hey, what am I, chopped liver?

Red Carpet Trivia

Red Carpet Trivia

Last Saturday evening I went to the monthly party of a loosely-organized group of gay men. Mostly nice folks. The group has the normal percentage of loud-mouths, gossips, and sarcastics, but they are basically a quite civilized bunch. It’s mostly old guys; some have belonged since the group began thirty or so years ago.

I’m a Johnny-come-lately. I’ve attended most of their monthly parties (pot luck dinners) for the last year. I have much in common with most of them: I’m old (67) but lively, I’m gay, I’m opinionated, I’m liberal-left politically.

I self-identify as a shy person.

I’m basically terrified (terrified? perhaps) to carry on a conversation with a stranger longer than how-are-you-I-am-fine-thank-you, but I was determined to get to know some of the old guys. I went with a couple, friends of mine, who were the only partiers I know well. I was determined not to hang with them for the entire evening.

Three times I mustered the courage to introduce myself to a stranger and strike up a conversation. Three times someone else rushed up in that excited way gay men greet each other. Each time the two kissed, and the second man positioned himself between me and the first, forcing me out of the conversation. I wanted to say, “Hey, what am I, chopped liver?”

When I told a good friend later I felt like saying that, he immediately said I was putting myself down by calling myself “chopped liver.” I may be wrong, but I think that phrase is a positive expression meaning, “Hey, don’t treat me like something as unimportant as chopped liver.” But there’s a whole lot in this world I misunderstand.

However, the same friend who misunderstood “chopped liver” helped me see these experiences in a new way. The problem was not with me. The problem was that the other two guys (especially the second) are rude. They have no manners, and I am lucky I discovered that before I had much of myself invested in becoming friends with either of them.

Perhaps my life-long self-identification as a shy person is wrong. Perhaps I am simply—not when I write, but in social situations—an overly-polite person with very little ability to rush in where angels fear to tread. Yes, I mean to imply that rude people are fools. I do not suffer fools lightly. (Once again, I need to explain: I am aware of my use of clichés, and I use them intentionally to indicate how trivial it seems to me that I feel the need to explain any of this.)

Well-meaning friends tell me that I must learn to make myself “vulnerable” to other people. Usually when I hear that, my eyes glaze over.

I am willing to be vulnerable, to take risks in relationships. Too willing. My terror at speaking to strangers is, in fact, rooted in my extreme vulnerability. (There, how’s that for self-justification?)

Going to parties and chit-chatting about the movies I’ve seen this week interests me for approximately three minutes. Then I want to know who you are. Going to department meetings at my university and talking over lunch about teaching methods or students’ foibles interests me for approximately four minutes. Then I want to know who you are. Going to organ concerts sponsored by the American Guild of Organists and listening to you talk about the size of your organ interests me for about one minute. Then I want to know who you are.

And, of course, in any of these situations I want to tell you who I am, too.

Fear of strangers is not my problem. An understanding of the value of time is my problem. I want to cut to the chase, to get right to the emotional connections that are possible between people, of the pain and the joy we all share that hides under our gay babble, our academic avoidance, and our professional grandiosity.

What am I?

What am I?

I really do not have a clue how to respond to the stuff that keeps other people from admitting their loneliness, their pain, their need for true friendship. I understand the sadness of the condition in which

We tend to deny the very loneliness that is likely responsible for many of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. People seem to feel ashamed when they do admit to loneliness—which is socially stigmatized and is seen as a weakness in the western culture. As such, it is widely believed that loneliness should not affect normal, healthy, and strong people. We tend to identify it [with] those that are considered marginal to the mainstream of our society, namely the elderly, the poor. . . and the criminals. . .(1)

Now I’ve set myself up to fit another clichéd description: I am an ego-maniac suffering from an inferiority complex. Because I have (perceived) low self-esteem, I pretend to be better than everyone else so I have an excuse not to make friends and—pathologically—to be so often alone as to be psychologically unhealthy.

The psychological literature is replete with studies of the deleterious effects of loneliness. We have been taught to believe that the word

. . . solitude expresses the glory of being alone, whereas the word loneliness expresses the pain of feeling alone. Millions of people suffer daily from loneliness, a debilitating psychological condition characterized by a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of control, and personal threat (2).

I’m not pretending to know more than psychologists who carefully study people who are alone to find ways to help those who miserable and socially deprived. And I understand there are millions of those folks who need care and help. This is not about them. It’s about me (see, I’m an egomaniac). Those who are not marginalized or pathological deny loneliness, and

Despite our denial. . . it is evidenced everywhere. All one needs to do is look around oneself, or inside oneself, to see the painful evidence of loneliness and alienation. . .  One can be alone . . . in a crowd and still not be lonely. . . being alone, as a state of being, is neither positive nor negative. . .  (3).

The height of self-deception and ego-centric baloney: I would rather be in solitude than figure out how to chit-chat about Newt Gingrich or Kim Kardashian, or the Super Bowl, or my next trip to the Riviera. That, of course, limits the number of people I can expect to be with. My loneliness is often painful. It most likely contributes to my depression.

But that’s better than having maxed-out credit cards and lots of socially acceptable stuff in my head to gossip about. It takes a long time to make a real friend. Or does it? Well, it might if what you have to talk about first is the gowns of the starlets on the next red carpet to deny your loneliness.
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(1) Rokach, Ami. “From Loneliness To Belonging: A Review.” Psychology Journal 8.2 (2011): 70-81.
(2) Cacioppo, John T., Louise C. Hawkley, and Ronald A. Thisted. “Perceived Social Isolation Makes Me Sad: 5-Year Cross-Lagged Analyses Of Loneliness And Depressive Symptomatology In The Chicago Health, Aging, And Social Relations Study.” Psychology & Aging 25.2 (2010): 453-463.
(3) Rokach, op. cit.

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Responses

  1. As usual, Harold, very well said. I enjoy your writing a lot.

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  2. Thank you, Jon.

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  3. You may be an egomaniac, but I doubt it because the situation you’re describing doesn’t allow for the obvious answer: those other people don’t have anything more than trivia on their minds. They may be lonely, even tragic figures, but very few of us invest the time and thought required to develop into the kind of sensitive, introspective beings you want to associate with. This may sound like elitism on my part, or some other kind of superior attitude, but I actually suffer from the same syndrome and have been very reluctant to draw the conclusion I’ve expressed here. But it’s really not about who’s better, it’s about who’s put in the time and effort. Are you an elitist because you can play a musical instrument and someone else cannot? You put in thousands of hours on it. They didn’t. The same holds true for everything else, including the cultivation of one’s soul, for want of a better word.

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  4. […] think—although I don’t know for sure—my friends wouldn’t believe I am a “shy person.” That is, however, true. Even though I talk all the time. I stand in front of groups of 15 college students 12 times a week […]

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