At a gym where I go, there’s another member who makes me very uncomfortable.
The guy is about 30 years old and he has no apparent understanding of social boundaries. He talks to everybody in intrusive ways. He’s constantly repeating things that don’t seem appropriate to be talking about in public. He’s been known to open curtains in the showers to randomly talk with people.
Employees at the place tell me that people have complained about him and his family has been warned that people find him creepy and intrusive. He makes me very uncomfortable.
After he came through the locker room when I was in there Thursday morning — stopping to talk with people as though each were a trusted old friend — I found myself talking to a couple of guys after he was gone. We were speculating about what his issue might be — something on the autism spectrum was our best guess — and one of the guys mentioned that he had grown up across the street from him. He said the guy’s parents were strange, so maybe it was some sort of family lunacy.
After that brief chat, I walked into the shower feeling a deep sense of relief. I was surprised to realize that I felt relieved simply because I’d had another conversation with people who validated my feelings about the guy. The unspoken subtext of the conversation was, “That guy is weird. He’s not normal like we are. There’s something wrong with him. We’re the ones who are OK.”
And while I couldn’t disavow those feelings, they also left me very uncomfortable. I was judging someone for being different — as I constantly worry about people judging me for being different.
I’ve always felt badly alienated from most of the people around me. There have been times when I’ve tried to blend in, at least to some extent, but I’m less and less willing to do that these days.
More and more, I feel as though I’m a stranger in a strange land, to use the phrase that Robert A. Heinlein used for one of his most famous books. The older I get, the more I realize that all of my biggest fears are about being judged and rejected.
So how could I be so uncomfortable with this guy who was so different from me? How could I judge him and feel so relieved when others judged him as creepy, too?
I think the problem is that most of us truly want to be “normal,” but we think normal is whatever we happen to be. This isn’t literally true, of course, because I’m very aware that I’m the one who’s different in society. The people who are considered normal terrify me. But deep down, whether I like to admit it or not, I feel that others should be like me.
Other people should think as I do. They should have my values. They should come to my conclusions, at least in broad strokes. In areas where my thinking is conservative, they ought to be conservative. In areas where my thinking is comparatively liberal, they ought to be liberal-minded, too.
In other words, I’m still asking — to one extent or another, despite my best efforts — “Why aren’t you people more like me?”
Society is more tolerant than ever, in some respects, but I wonder if it’s more a matter of society simply changing what it’s intolerant about.
Just 40 or 50 years ago, it was considered a mental illness to be a lesbian or a gay man. Laws and societal norms conspired to “cure” gay people in very ugly ways. Today, the tables are turning entirely. Same-sex orientation is generally considered acceptable and normal. In fact, anyone who believes that such an orientation is wrong — even if the person doesn’t want to legally stop it — is considered socially unacceptable.
Society was intolerant of gay people not long ago. Now, there’s a general intolerance of those who believe homosexuality is wrong.
My purpose isn’t to argue which position is right or wrong. I’m only pointing out that society arrives at what it considers a “normal” position — and it punishes people who believe something different from the norm.
When you’re in the minority on some issue that has been chosen as a key indicator of normalcy, your life can be miserable. You will be pressured to conform. But when you’re in the majority — especially an overwhelming majority — the rightness of what you and others believe can seem so obvious that it doesn’t even deserve explanation or defense. It’s just obviously normal — and deviation from that norm is obviously wrong.
I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that this is simply a part of humanity that isn’t going to change. I don’t think we’re ever going to be tolerant. Yes, we’ll be tolerant of certain things and we’ll pat ourselves on the back for tolerating certain things we don’t like — but there comes a point at which we simply want other people to agree with us.
We want other people to be like us, because that’s what “normal” is.
Some people believe that humanity is perfectible and that we can all one day learn to get along and live together in peace. I don’t think so. I think we’re always going to find excuses to subdivide ourselves and hate others who aren’t like us. Even when it’s not outright hate, we’re going to find reasons that others should be like us.
What if the guy from my gym is the normal one? What if there’s something wrong with the rest of us for not acting like him? How would we ever know?
The more I think about such things, the more certain I am that we need ways to separate ourselves from each other. We’re not going to all agree. We’re not all going to get along. We’re not all going to tolerate the same things.
We need to find ways to group ourselves with others who find our ways of thinking normal or acceptable. Despite great hopes for universal tolerance and unity, we’re never going to have that — and someone is always going to be willing to use government force to ensure that others act like them.
I feel different enough that I feel as though I belong on another planet — with other weirdos who are like me. I suspect we’re all going to be better off if we have the political and social freedom to group ourselves with others who seem like us — although I’m betting the group of people like me will always remain vanishingly small.