I Haven’t Learned Anything.
When I was a kid, the thing I wanted most in the world was to be popular. I wasn’t. I was a strange kid. Smart, defensive, depressed. And I was tiny. I was in the 3rd percentile of height and weight until I was about 14. Scrawny as a child, I never passed through a fit stage. I went straight from tiny to pudgy. Physically, I still think of myself as short. I’m not short. I’m right about 5’10″. But I feel short. I vacillate between feeling pathetically small and stringy, like I was as a child, and ponderously fat and bloated, the way I was from puberty to 35. As a kid, though, I always used to think: “If I were a bigger guy, I’d be popular.”
I was aware somehow that I had a “big” personality. I take up space. In part that’s because I’m loud. My eardrums ruptured a lot as a child. I needed tubes but never got them. As a result, my eardrums are scarred and I don’t hear very well. So I talk too loud. I try to pay attention to it, but it gets exhausting. My sisters know to remind me: “Dr24, you’re shouting.” Or my older sister will make a pinching motion with her hands to remind me to lower my volume.
But it’s not just that. At the dinner table, when I was a child, I stood up whenever I was talking. I’ve always needed to be heard. Needed people to acknowledge me. I talk loudly because I’m afraid people aren’t listening. I rarely stop to wonder if I have anything worth saying.
And so I was an unpopular child. Unsurprising. I tried to learn to fit in. I found places I fit. But there were never that many people in the groups I fit in with. We weren’t in the middle of the gym at the homecoming dance. The grownups always liked me. I was a good kid. Almost never got in trouble. Always did my homework. Never quite lived up to my potential. Showed up early to school. Sat alone on the playground. I watched the kids playing and I wondered how it worked. I didn’t know the rules to the games. I couldn’t stand anyone knowing that I didn’t how it worked.
As time went on I found a few more groups I fit into. I fell in with the “smart kids” in college. I was the dumbest of my group, by a wide margin, but I basically belonged there. Having a bunch of friends that were smarter than me drove me to work harder to be smart. But I wasn’t as advanced as they were. I was a year (at least) behind in math and physics compared to the full-ride scholarship kids. I ended up making a lot of friends with the freshmen when I was a sophomore.
Alcohol helped me let go of the anxiety and relate to people. I didn’t notice as I began to relate only to people who drank like I did. Then no one drank like I did. One might expect that I didn’t fare so well with romantic relationships. One would be right. When I got sober, I discovered that there were a lot of drunks in AA that I related to pretty well. Shipwreck survivors always find things in common.
Then I found twitter. Finally, finally, here was a group of people that I felt like I fit in to. Where I was a popular kid. But I still have that “big” personality. I still talk too much while feeling isolated. I still need acknowledgement. I’ve tried to run with the popular kids on twitter. But I can’t do it. I’m not smart enough. I’m not cynical enough. My jokes don’t work. I’m not clever. And I’m not willing to be anyone’s punching bag anymore, just to fit in.
Cynicism and meanness are funny. Often. Sarcasm can be an excellent way to connect to people. But too much viciousness becomes a snake eating its own tail, to me. I feel sad at the same time as I feel wounded. I wonder why people are so hurtful to each other. And then I catch myself doing the same thing.
I’ll never be one of the cool kids. I haven’t learned a thing about fitting in. I don’t understand the rules. I just wish I didn’t care. Because I think not caring about fitting in is one of the ways people fit in. But I don’t have that nonchalance. I’m pretty sure I never will. I’ve been told, over and over, that it’s better to have a few good friends than to be popular among many casual acquaintances. And I have my few good friends. It’s time I learned that people who become popular by being cynical and mean aren’t going to accept me when I try to approach them with sincerity. And everyone has the right to decide that I don’t have assets that they value.
It’s time I took to heart my own oft-repeated advice: what other people think of me is none of my business.