Thursday, February 10, 2011

Risking Failure is Sometimes the Only Option

Valentine's Day will be upon us shortly, so I thought I'd give voice to something that has been my mind recently. This past week I've been reflecting upon the challenges of communication between people. I attended a party last weekend, whereby I silently observed the behavior of those who showed up. What I found particularly interesting were the ways in which flirtation and sexual interest manifested themselves. The gathering was comprised of young, educated, socially conscious, progressive, slightly socially awkward, frequently introverted men and women. We usually seek company with people who are like us. And even though the sample size may not be particularly broad, I think some of my conclusions have universal application.

To wit, I was once again profoundly aware of the difficulties and challenges that social anxiety and internal fear produce for us. Still, many braved their insecurities and reservations in search of a good conversation, platonic or otherwise. And, taking in the full scene, I was also reminded of how the Internet has changed the way we see ourselves and each other. Many, myself included, have used it as a means to make interpersonal contact much easier. But it is also true that Internet confidence only goes so far. For example, I've mentioned things about myself here that I would never feel comfortable sharing with many in real life.

Returning to my larger point, I know many people, both male and female, who one would assume up front to be strong, decisive, and forceful. When these adjectives are applied to academic achievement or their career, they could not be more appropriate. According to many of society's benchmarks, they are very successful. However, when the subject of romance and dating is raised, this cocksure, fearless attitude dissipates. They are keepers of a particularly heavily guarded secret. Sometimes the solution is unknown to them. Sometimes the solution is too painful to actively contemplate, so it goes underground.

The fear that seems to have many in its grip is the fear of intimacy. To some, the thought of being vulnerable in the face of the unknown is utterly terrifying. This proves to be a contradiction in terms, but humans are often contradictory beings. This is unfortunate, because, taken to an extreme, one never finds true love or lasting satisfaction. Before I go any further, let me also point out that I recognize that some people simply aren't interested in being part of a partnered relationship. And, on the subject of sex and sexual desire, I don't need to forget the asexual community, either. My intention is not to shame or harshly judge women (or men) who have made deliberate decisions of their own free will to remain single. What is true for some is not always true for all. I am instead merely responding to people I have met who are actively seeking a relationship and seem to be stuck in neutral. Since I associate mostly with women, I know their stories and background better.

To start out, be it known that in my own life, dating was not something that came particularly easy. This is an extreme understatement. An anxious, fearful, neurotic child, I became an even more anxious, fearful, and neurotic teenager. Routine conversation regardless of the context was challenging, and seeking out company with others was always very scary. Even to this day, if I'm in an unfamiliar setting, the same terror regularly returns, though I have developed tools and strategies with practice and therapy to at least take the edge of of them. And as concerns dating, in particular, when I first tried my hand at it, I was in a state of mind so far outside my comfort zone that I had to give myself private pep talks just to approach those who I found attractive. It still embarrasses me to think about how many times I tried and failed and tried and failed.

But, as Oscar Wilde put it, "experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes." I wish I could dispense the same wisdom to the friend who quite vocally longs for a boyfriend, but keeps the boxing gloves on at all times, jabbing away, seeing an instant enemy in every phrase and person. I wish I could reach the friend who has devised an elaborate way of channeling her desire in safe, evasive, labyrinthine, complicated ways that allow her the ability to entertain the possibilities, without possessing the actual intention to ever turn them into reality. It is easy to live in fantasy, because we control the plot development and the outcome. To surrender to the unknown, however, is a thought too painful for far too many. Sometimes I think this phenomenon has swelled to epidemic proportions.

What are we all so afraid of, really? Ourselves? Each other? The agony of possibly being hurt or rejected? Even though I am not female, nor was I socialized as a woman, I am aware of the need for protection in a world where violence and trauma are very real possibilities. In Feminist spaces and communities we are good to draw attention to those injustices when they are neglected by others. Yet, I do nonetheless know, based on my own experience, that it is entirely possible to find an adequate balance between cautiousness and trust. If finding love or basic human connection is what we seek, one cannot study for it like the GRE or a final exam. It is not a question of having good references and an impressive resume. Nor is one guaranteed of seeing immediate results. Faith is what is needed most, which promises us only that we will eventually receive what we need. What we need may not be what we think we want. May we all have the courage to fail, as many times as we must.

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