Friday, March 9, 2007

Six Billion People In This World; Not A Friend In Sight

A few days ago, I went to the lunchroom around noontime, only to find that the usual lunch crowd was missing. After waiting for them for a few minutes, I opened a newspaper lying close by and began munching on my lunch. After all, eating alone was not new to me. Besides, this crowd with whom I had my lunch comprised primarily of my male coworkers, who, I knew had a habit of disappearing.

In a few minutes, another colleague came by hastily, carrying an enormous lunch box.

“Where are the others?” He asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I waited for them for a while, but I was too hungry and could not wait anymore. Seems like they are off to somewhere.”

“Oh, but I will have to wait for them.” He said, frowning, and went over to the phone to call and see if anyone was around. After trying for a few minutes he came back and sat restlessly, staring at his lunch box. I watched him from the corner of my eyes as he made two more trips to the phone, hoping to reach someone, but, apparently, without luck.

“So, are you going to start your lunch?” I asked watching him sigh and sit down on a chair across me.

“Yeah, I guess!” He said, opening his lunch box reluctantly. “You know, when I find myself alone like this, I get scared. I feel as if there is some action going on somewhere and I am not the part of it. I feel left out!”

I smiled and said nothing but, secretly, I was amazed. I never expected an obviously popular man like my colleague to harbor this insecurity. In fact, he was one of the people who were always surrounded by a crowd.

Maybe it’s not just me, I thought, as a flood of memories came back. I remembered the bitter, lonely teenage years when I was ridden with social anxiety and self doubt. I remembered how I used to torture myself for not being able the gel in large groups the way I wanted to gel. I would compare myself with the others and inevitably come to the conclusion that they had a rocking social life, while I was the one left out. So much so, that sometimes I would suspect, it was some kind of a cosmic conspiracy aimed at alienating me from the world! I used to think, there are six billion people in the world, and there isn’t a single friend in sight for me.

My evenings used to be spent brooding alone over how pathetic state was. My mornings would begin with a dread of going to the school and facing my peers who were sure to be unkind to me. Eventually, I had built this fear up to a point that it was impossible for me to go out and perform any group activity without judging myself every single time, in every single act. Sadly, while participating in any activity, my focus was more on how I involved myself in the group, rather than how I performed in the activity.

To put things into perspective, I am not a sociopath. I don’t think I have ever had any habits that might have been annoying or disgusting. In my later life I found out that I have reasonably good communication skills and am told that I have a good sense of humor. In fact, I like being around people. I like to observe and help others and even try to lend an ear in their difficult times. When I am in the right mind, I do come across as friendly and confident.

But in all fairness, my fears have not entirely been baseless. There has always something different about me and I don’t mean this in a boastful way. That’s just the way I have been. In my entire life, I have never quite ‘fit in’ anywhere. Consciously or subconsciously, I have always been the one to stand apart from the crowd and not always has this been a pleasant experience. Coming from a family of cultural fence-sitters, I was never cast in a mould. I was neither a traditional Indian girl, nor a modern, westernized one. I was neither studious, nor callous. I was neither a vagabond, nor a conformist. I was interested in arts, but was not an artist. I was interested in science but was not quite logical in my thoughts. I loved to experiment with things, but never had the patience or perseverance to take anything to culmination. I was flighty in my attention and unsure about my destination.

I would tend to get extreme reactions from the people I interacted with. Some absolutely adored me, others considered me distant and conceited. Then there were some who just did not want to have anything with me and others who sought me out. I seemed to make some people uncomfortable in my presence but make others feel secure.

The reason for my distress, unfortunately, was that I never had a panoramic view of my interactions. I would tend to concentrate only on the negative ones. I would blame myself for evoking negative feelings but never appreciated the way I was when I drew a positive reaction. Later in life, when I began my recovery, the first step to accepting myself just as I am, was, in fact, developing a broader view of life.

Now looking back, I realize, even during those difficult times, I did have a few loyal friends who stood by me. In their company I would feel secure and comfortable. I was, in fact, incredibly possessive of them at times. As I remember the time I spent with them, I am amazed how these people could love me in spite of my insecurities and mood swings. I feel thankful that these people are still my closest friends and we still share the same kind of bond.

But, at that time, I did not realize their value. Until much later in life, I never understood that having only a few but loyal friends is far better than having several fleeting relationships. I did not understand that the so-called popularity of many of the people I was jealous of, was, in fact, a mirage. People used the crowd around them as a way to hide inherent insecurities and mutual distrust.

I tried several things to become popular. I tried to be dominating, pretended to be gregarious and outgoing. I took on many masks to impress people. I tried to feign friendships. But somehow, I think, through these pretensions and masks the internal hollowness showed through. I never had any success with being someone I was not. And all this only exacerbated my distress.

So what was it that made me change?

I don’t think it was something as dramatic as an epiphany or a eureka moment that transformed me overnight. But, I do remember one day when I sat brooding, a thought appeared in my mind - this has to stop. This is not a way to live and I am not going to live like this anymore, I decided. Whether this was because the scale of my distress had tipped beyond the point of endurance or whether maturity was finally catching up with me, I don’t know. But I knew, from that point on, my emotional journey from being an insecure, self doubting person to being a confident, secure, independent person had begun. However, from that moment to this was a long journey, fraught with several setbacks.

As the determination to change the way I was living became strong, the first thing I did was to take a long, hard, objective look of the situation. I asked myself a few questions – was I really as pathetic as I made myself to be? Did I have any bad or annoying habits? Was I doing something I should be embarrassed about? Or, was there something wrong with the world that I lived in?

It was then that I realized that there was nothing wrong either with me or with the world. What was wrong was my attitude, my way of looking at things. My habit of focusing on the negative and a lack of faith in myself was creating a domino effect in my mind, leading to extreme insecurity and acute distress. It was me and not the circumstances I was in that were making my life miserable. If I was to have any hope of getting over my insecurities I had to work on internal independence. Only when I was independent emotionally would I be able to treat others and more so, myself, fairly.

A major hurdle to be surpassed was to train myself to stop be judgmental for it was my habit of constant judgment that made me self conscious. This habit of mine was not allowing me to be natural and truthful in my interactions. My self consciousness made me unsure and nervous and I was prone to saying and doing things that annoyed others. Once I started giving myself breathing room, my interactions began expressing my natural charm and loving nature. Even if I made a blunder, I could overcome it quickly. Slowly, gradually, my confidence increased and so did my emotional independence.

As I learned to accept myself just as I was, an astonishing thing happened. I began seeing other people, not as my superiors but as people just like me. I could see them for what they were. I could see that most people shared the same insecurities as I did. What everyone needed was a little love and respect, just as I needed it. I learned an important fact of life – you would receive unconditional love, only when you are able to give the same to others. Slowly, I was learning the maxims of independence and interdependence and how they were mutually related.

There is a long way to go and I still fall into the trap of self judgment once in a while. The insecurities raise their ugly head sometimes. But then I remind myself a song I heard many years ago

Tum besahara ho to kisika sahara bano
Tumko apne aaphi sahara mil jaayega

(If you don’t have someone to lean on, be someone on whom others can lean. You would get support automatically)

I hope my ability to love transcends all boundaries so that no one amongst the six billion people in this world can say that there isn’t a friend in sight. For there will always be at least one – me.