21 August 2012
I wanted to be like him when I grew up.
Or like one of Louis L'Amour's many heroes.
It's a simple formula: You have skills and wisdom no one else has. You travel alone. Because you don't have to fit in. You come upon underdogs who are in need of a hand. You help them with those invaluable skills and wisdom of yours, endearing yourself to them and branding yourself forever in their remembrance and admiration but all the while remain aloof and emotionally unentangled. And you do it alone—or if not alone, then you certainly stand out as the gifted one in the pack of good guys.
Then, when the antagonist is dead or shamed or sent packing, you saddle up, make sure your gun is loaded, tip your hat and ride off again—alone. And the people you helped watch you disappear into the horizon; perhaps they shed a tear or two. Perhaps a small boy runs after you begging you, his hero, to stay. But you travel on. Alone. You never put down roots. You fight attachment as much as you fight bad guys. It keeps you independent. You are one of the lucky few who don't need people.
You just ride. Help those in need. And ride some more. You do it alone; because you're good enough.
It seemed like such a romantic way of life—the enigma that would become you. The raising of your status because you refuse to join the pack; instead you save it. The not-needing to be accepted. It seemed like such a superior existence to that of the farmers and homesteaders and small-towners you meet in these kinds of books.
I was an adolescent. And like all adolescents, I felt like I just didn't fit in.
So I combatted the system.
I managed the Shane existence all through high school and two jobs. I came, I studied, I got higher grades than the others, I did my work and made one or two acquaintances. Then I left, and hardly anyone the wiser. I slipped through the halls, into school and church activities and out of them again, all through my teenage years. I took to writing because (aside from me being shy) it seemed that the written word left more of that subtle influence on people than did speaking a lot and having your words forgotten five minutes later.
It was the existence I'd planned for myself. And I prided myself on succeeding at it so royally.
But it was lonely. Achingly lonely at times. I shrugged it off and took deep breaths when I felt that way, knowing that this must be a sacrifice those Western heroes made for their greatness. I was one of them. Not a kid who just didn't fit in; a kid who just didn't need to fit in.
Some of the hermitess drained out of me in college, mostly because I was away from home and needed to have meaningful relationships with somebody.
But while I improved in my social skills and made friends with my roommates, I still kept a lot back. I didn't get involved at the university. I strode through the campus by myself and wrote my way through my classes, sitting in the back and never speaking, writing my best in the essays and getting top grades and the respect of my professors and classmates. I smiled and silently relished the fact that they saw me as different, that they noticed me because of that.
I graduated with honors, came home, and the hermitess returned in force. It took me months before the needier college girl in me could make myself enter my church peer group. And then I sat in the back so I could observe, crossed my arms so no one would approach me.
The bishop (the ecclesiastical leader in charge of our geographical area) requested that I get involved and gave me an assignment to reach out to other girls who might be having a hard time likewise becoming integrated into the ward (our church group). I agreed to do it, thinking that here was my chance finally; not only to stand out and stand apart, but to officially help people while doing it. Maybe the fact that I could make people happy would alleviate some of the ache that kept giving me fits.
I did the best I could, making visits, delivering treats, sending notes, smiling and visiting in church on Sundays. I still didn't feel like I fit in, and the ache came and went. But I worked through it; I didn't withdraw as I had so many times previously.
Because my bishop is a wise man, and he knew something that I didn't in all my Western hero wisdom: when you extend yourself to others, you become emotionally invested in others. You grow to love them. And you find that you can no longer be alone. That, really, you don't want to be.
That, wonder of wonders, people have something to give you in return—something you realize you need and (really) have always needed. Help, friendship, care, concern, companionship, love. And with that realization, suddenly the misanthrope knows he/she's only been feigning the independence (or at least most of it).
I had begun to make friends within my group. They reached out to me.
This was not how it was supposed to be. My Western heroes had needed no ministering to (maybe when they were pumped full of bullets during the second act of the story, but that was beside the point). But I loved it. This was an entirely different kind of attention from the kind I had previously allowed myself. This was real and warm and friendly. And I craved it. Craved to receive it and craved to return it. Despite my best efforts, I had become involved with something—with a group of people, nonetheless. Invested. Shared. Valued and loved. And, horror of horrors, I needed it. I didn't want to be independent of it.
It didn't happen all at once. In fact, parts of it still never happened. Social situations remained painfully awkward, and I reverted to my Shane/L'Amour persona then, watching and wishing I could join in but not badly enough to actually do it.
Because of those social experiences, I figured I was still safe; that I hadn't become too involved in this group of people, and that if I left I wouldn't be the one crying over it.
Until this weekend.
My last weekend in the ward. A weekend of end-of-summer festivities that I attended even though that Shane part of me just doesn't like parties.
I went because I needed to see these people again. Needed to interact with them before I moved. Had gotten to know too few of them while I'd been among them; hadn't spent enough time with the ones I did know.
Then, when the time came to leave, I felt the ache again. But differently. Not the ache of deliberate loneliness but the ache of leaving friends and a family you've found, however haltingly or imperfectly; the ache of stretching relationships across distance and time.
I had helped solve problems within the group. But the group had invited me in; and I had pell-melled it inside. Despite myself (or that one stubborn part of myself). I had shared my own problems with willing ears, had opened myself up to people, and had found that they had answers for me too. I had shared myself with others, and part of me was now spread throughout this lovely group. Involved I had become; I finally belonged. And now I must extricate myself.
I know why Shane rode alone and helped without involving himself. Because it hurts to love. Perhaps Shane kept himself so aloof because he had a bigger heart than is normal, and thus a greater capacity to be hurt, to struggle with goodbyes and unfaithfulness. Perhaps he needed people more than he felt other people need people; and the need scared him. So he fought it.
But he couldn't guard himself completely; he had to reach out in some way. So he reached out alone. And stayed alone. But still reached out.
But now, having seen both sides of the horse, I know that Shane missed out on a lot. And even if, in moments, I wish I could substitute the ache of extrication for the ache of self-imposed separation, I remember the faces and hugs of my friends, the texts in my phone, the notes of thanks I've sent to them. I recall the way each person reached out to me, had faith in me, smiled at me, encouraged me, improved me as myself and made me a little happier. A little more loved. Despite myself.
And I know which ache I actually prefer.