Anyone who has known me in passing will think I am making this up. I’ve been a “leader” at many functions and organizations. I am a confident public speaker. I can lead discussions in front of a classroom; and, as a member of the classroom I am often engaging in conversations with lecturers. I put on the persona of a loud, confident extrovert, and I think I fool most people. But talk with folks who have known me for years and you will hear stories of a shy, emotional man. I have lived the vast majority of my life to the side of whatever is going on around me. Only recently did my wife, and long time friend, Kristin, point this out. Of course, it was during the aftermath of an argument.
My family is poor at communicating with itself. We don’t close loops well and we often leave our deepest, most personal emotions unsaid.
We are not remarkable because of this.
However, the argument in question was regarding the plan for food on a weekend trip with my family this summer. I had texted my mother earlier in the week to ask about the meal plan. It was agreed that the plan would be figured out once we all had arrived at a group of family cottages. My mother and I didn’t know which day my only brother would arrive, he has Celiac disease and we would need gluten-free options.
Kristin and I arrived at the cottage we would be using, next door to the main cottage, where my parents and grandmother were staying. Kristin and our toddler son, Oliver, went to greet the family next door. I unloaded. My brother and his wife arrived next door while I was unloading. Oliver had to go down for a nap, so Kristin returned to our cottage with him. I stayed on the couch reading a Western. When she emerged she informed me that my brother had brought pulled pork and plans had been made without us being involved. An argument briefly ensued. I lost my temper because I didn’t think I was to blame for not knowing the plan. I said mean things. I threw my hat on the floor, a huffy, childish action. Kristin asked me to leave.
After a trip to town with my mother and brother, a meal plan was created and I cooled off. Kristin accepted my apology. The weekend went on without another incident.
But my outburst stuck with me. Why had I gone off the rails for not knowing the plan? Why did I violently hurl my hat to the floor? What nerve had been struck?
Kristin later told me it was obvious to her. It was typical of me to assume things and stay uninvolved with what was happening. She observed that my brother was over at the main cottage. He made things happen and is often in the middle of situations. I stayed to the side and waited, like I always do.
Epiphanies rarely happen. When they do, they are unexpected moments when memories of events draped in shadow are flooded with light and one can trace their curves and spikes. When she told me it’s my nature to be to the side of things, my mind exploded into hundreds of illuminating flares.
I am the eldest brother. On a first pass, one may think my standoffish behavior is unbefitting my birth order. Yet, I only have one brother, no other siblings. I had the undivided attention of my parents for two full years before my brother was born. From then on, it was an undeclared competition. He had to try harder to be noticed. He had to get in the thick of things. And something in our past shaped the dynamic we have now, a something I will write about some other time. Regardless of our history, my detachment has much to do with my nature and experience, and little to do with my birth order.
Epiphany flares shot through my head and echoed down long-ignored synapses, I saw how I was content to stand to the side as life happened. I observed things and people. I participated in events, but was rarely the center of attention.
I hated the interpersonal dramas of High School.
I hated being in large groups.
I was, and am, content to wait for the chance to talk with someone alone. Put me in a group of more than two, and the survival tactics of a child born and raised in the military kick in.
I was raised in the United States Air Force. I moved almost every two or three years until college. My brother and I were also home schooled until high school for me, and middle school for him. Friends were hard to come by. To survive, I had to be able to make friends fast; and, grow callouses around my heart from saying too many farewells.
I realized television was our national vernacular. If I knew enough pop-culture references I could turn on the charm to make friends and influence people. If I could act loud and friendly, I wouldn’t be alone.
Hello, good buddy; good-bye, stranger.
The epiphany flares lifted mists from history with my brother. I have never been emotionally involved in his life. I assumed he wanted distance, probably because that is what I preferred. I watched. I annoyed him when my survival tactics made his friends laugh hard or they asked if I was coming along to whatever they were doing. I caught a hint to back off, but I was too immature to know that my backing off as a brother would create a canyon of emotional distance between us. I don’t know what relational donkey I need to use to climb over to his side again.
The funny thing about epiphanies, they show banal details too.
I always loved watching my brother play video games. I was the cautious player always looking for checkpoints or saving multiple times. The 10,000 saves on my level 26 Skyrim character is proof I still play this way. But my brother was, and is, amazing to watch at games. He plows ahead. He learns the optimal system and then abuses the hell out of it. I beat Zelda and the Ocarina of Time using a player’s manual. He figured it out on his own and I enjoyed watching him do it more than beating it myself. I was the original digital sports spectator.
I enjoy video games the most when not actively involved.
It’s no use diagnosing when, where, or how I became this way. An epiphany is only helpful if I can continue to be aware of what I learned. I am a wallflower. I take to the sidelines. At big family gatherings, I’m in the kitchen washing dishes and talking one-on-one with a family member, not around a table with everyone else. In our small house church, unless I am supposed to interact, I usually don’t, other than one-on-one conversations.
My behavior has its benefits. I am an observer. I feel detached, like Stephen Crane’s correspondent in The Open Boat; I am here to watch and report. Even when real-life milestones come like the tragic death of a friend, the birth of a child, an argument where unforgivable words are uttered, or an epiphany, I detach and analyze.
I have assumed this behavior makes me a writer, but really, most of the time, it just makes me an asshole. Primarily because I wasn’t aware of how my distance from people and situations could cause harm. I agree with John Donne, “no man (person) is an island onto himself,” but I really don’t live like it’s true.
My disengaged behavior influences vital networks of my life: my family, my few friends, my career, my doubting and my believing, and my politics. I don’t know where this newly illuminated section of my psyche will go or what I will learn.
I am processing my epiphany and the flares it has set off. I know there is good here, but there is harm too. I will explore what has come to light the best way I know how, through writing.
I’m glad I had a tantrum and threw my hat; but I am more grateful to the woman who forgave me and spoke truth. I think it must be difficult to be married to me. To misuse an old phrase, as I learn more about myself, I’ll do my best to… hold on to my hat.