I love eating alone. Aside from the fact that it gives me a chance to catch up on my reading, it just makes more sense. Yes, eating together is a social tradition dating back to our cave-people days, but let’s think about this for a second:
1) Being “social” generally entails talking to another human being.
2) Talking when you have food in your mouth is considered rude.
Okay, so how exactly are we supposed to do both at the same time? Seriously, I can think of few activities that are as mutually exclusive as eating a meal and chatting with a friend. And yet, we love to mash the two together.
That’s why we end up with those inevitable awkward moments. You know, when someone asks a question at the exact instant you’ve stuffed a giant piece of food in your mouth. So, you make an exaggerated chewing motion as you nod along like a bobblehead, telegraphing the universal sign for, “I’d be delighted to answer your question as soon as I finish chewing!”
Really, eat by yourself. Then meet with a friend and catch up. It’s just more practical.
But this isn’t a treatise on why we should all eat alone. Instead, it’s a story of how I used to be afraid to eat alone – and how my high school English teacher was the one who instilled that fear in me….
I was always an independent kid. I had friends I would play with, so I wasn’t a loner by any means. Yet, I was just as happy doing my own stuff. In grade school, if none of my friends were free (or not grounded), I’d ride my bike over to the nearest shopping center, about a mile away. There was a burger restaurant there called Knowlwood that I loved, partly because they had awesome cheeseburgers, but mostly because cheeseburgers weren’t exactly on my mom’s list of Asian recipes. I’d order a burger and a shake, grab a booth, and scarf it down excitedly. Afterwards, I’d wander through the stores nearby or catch a movie.
I lost count of how many times I did this between the age I was old enough to venture out on my own (or rather, the age my parents determined I was old enough) and that fateful moment when I developed my fear of eating alone….
It was 10th grade English, and we were reading Catcher in the Rye. The class was taught by “Ms. Birch,” who was one of the more popular teachers at the school.
We got to a scene where Holden Caulfield sat down at a restaurant by himself, and we started discussing his solitary life. In an effort to help us sympathize with Holden, Ms. Birch asked the class, “Has anyone ever eaten at a restaurant by themselves?”
I was about to raise my hand. But then, I remembered that I was 16 years old. And when you’re 16 years old, it’s not who you are that matters – it’s how everyone else sees you. A nagging feeling crept into my mind that this was one of those moments that would taint how my classmates saw me.
So, I hesitated. And I waited to see if anyone else raised their hands first.
No one did.
Crickets might as well have been chirping. Tumbleweed might as well have rolled by.
After an ungodly long silence (at least, to me), Ms. Birch continued:
“I’ve only had to do that once in my life, and it was really uncomfortable. You’re just sitting there, all by yourself, while everyone else around you is talking to each other. So, you can imagine how Holden must be feeling at this moment….”
A part of my still-emerging identity wanted to scream, “What? I eat alone all the time, and I’ve never once felt uncomfortable. What are you talking about, Ms. Birch?!?”
But, I was a self-conscious 10th grader, facing a teacher I respected. So, I didn’t stick up for my own introversion. Instead, I reassessed myself. And in that instant, I had an epiphany. I realized that eating alone was a freakish thing to do. It was something only weirdo loners with no friends did. And I didn’t want to be a weirdo loner. For the first time in my life, I actually felt ashamed that I liked doing things by myself.
For the next 10 years, I never again ate alone at a restaurant. Or went to see a movie on my own. Instead, I became firmly convinced that the measure of my character was in how many people I had to share activities with at any given time. It was a hang-up I clung to for over a decade. It may or may not be a hang-up that still colors my decisions every now and then. (On an unrelated note… party at my place this Saturday!)
It’s only in the past few years that I’ve felt secure enough to unleash my inner introvert again, to admit that I like to do things by myself, and to actually enjoy my alone time without feeling like a social outcast. I know now that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be alone. In a world where extroverts dominate, it’s not easy for an introvert to be comfortable with that.
Looking back, I’m not bitter at all towards Ms. Birch. And I totally understand that she was only trying to make a point. If she felt awkward eating alone, that was her insecurity, not mine. And yet, because I looked up to her, her insecurity became my insecurity. In trying to make a point, she unwittingly made me ashamed of my introverted tendencies. I wasn’t traumatized by her comment, but it certainly made me second-guess myself. For over a decade.
And I think that should say something to those of us who work with kids – not just teachers, but anyone who interacts with kids on a regular basis….
If we’re dealing with kids, and especially if we’re dealing with kids who respect us (but really, isn’t that what we all should strive for?), I realize now that we have to be so careful with what we say. We have to think about the lives we’re shaping with our words. Even a comment made in passing can be internalized. We may only be relaying our personal opinions and feelings, but these may be taken as gospel by a kid. And this kid may end up clinging to these newfound opinions and feelings like a… well, like an introvert clinging to his alone time. And before we know it, we’ve planted the seed for a lifelong insecurity.
I mean, who knows? Maybe some teenager reading this will start to feel ashamed to be an extrovert. And man, if that happens….
Karma, baby. Karma.
No, seriously. Extrovert… introvert. You’re totally fine either way.