Sunday, April 21, 2013

Friends, Cliques, and that Sense of Belonging

Being part of a group and feeling a sense of belonging has always been a bit confusing for me. When I went to a 2-week theatre camp (not overnight) during high school summers, the students automatically divided into 2 groups: students who were really serious about theatre, and students who were just there to have fun. I was very serious about theatre, but for some reason, I always hung out with students who were less serious. The same was true with my friends in high school drama club - even though I was serious about acting, I just never found my place in a group of actors. I had great friends in high school, but I couldn't help wondering why I didn't fit in with any serious theatre groups. Did that make me less of a serious actor? I found the answer in college.

My first year of college, I signed up to live a substance-free dorm. I figured we would do all the same fun things, just without having to get drunk. But I found that being chem-free at my college was like being part of a clique.  There was an expectation that if you didn't drink, you cared more about academics, wanted to have intellectual conversations outside of class, and cared less about having fun on the weekends. I was weird for loving pop music and teen movies, for enjoying dances, for wanting a big birthday party, for wanting to go clubbing as soon as I was old enough, for not being outdoorsy, for not liking tofu, for not calling myself a geek or a nerd, for being hedonistic, and for having fun as a priority. These things that are not weird at all in the real world made me not fit in to the chem-free world of my college, even though they have nothing to do with drinking.

A group at my school held discussions about issues once a month which, supposedly, welcomed everyone. However, every single talk that I attended turned into a conversation about how we don't talk about these issues enough in our personal lives, that not enough of the student body attends these discussions, and we should be pushing people who don't like to come to talks to come to talks. I am against pressuring people to do stuff, I am not interested in attending a lot of discussions, and I am not okay with being told what I need to talk about with my friends on my own time. When I attend a discussion about cyber-bullying, I expect it to be about cyber-bullying, not about the fact that it's the same group of people at every discussion. We spend more time talking about that than about the topic. I would never have attended a single discussion if I knew that they would be full of pressure to go to more talks and would encourage us to pressure others.

The problem here is that, while clubs claim that their events are for everyone, everyone assumes that the attendees are the same people who go to every discussion and who pressure other people to go. When you attend a talk about issue A, people make assumptions that you also care a lot about issues B, C, D, even if they aren't really related to the first issue. People assume that you want to join a club or go to more events about issue A, even if you only wanted to attend that one event. They also assume that you care so much about issue A that you support pressuring or even requiring people to talk about it.  Just like living a substance-free dorm, there are always extra associations. That's why I don't fit in to groups that are about something - because it's never just about that one thing. Even though I had always identified as an actor, most groups of actors have other things in common besides just a love of acting, and I wouldn't necessarily belong in those other ways.

But beyond these extraneous associations, I think I just don't like my relationships with people to be based on anything. I've met many high school friends through clubs and activities, but our friendships weren't really based on the activities. We enjoyed spending the time together and having the common interest, but if either of us had quit (not quit like, "I really want to do this, but I'm too busy," - quit like, "I'm not interested  in this anymore," or "I don't care about this issue anymore") it wouldn't have made a different in our friendship. Nothing like that really mattered. But in college, I didn't get that sense. If I met someone at an event and we started talking and getting along, the person might ask me if I was going to the next related event. When I would say no, they wouldn't accept it. They'd start asking why and really try to push me to go, and then ask about the event after that, or the next one after that. Now, I understand that asking about the next event might be a logical way to see a person again. I would probably ask the same thing. But if the person said no and I still wanted to be friends, I would ask if they wanted to do something else, like going to lunch together. Or I would at least say that I hoped we could get together some other time. The fact that they weren't coming to the next related event wouldn't really matter to me - it just would have been a place to see them. But in college, I could tell it wasn't that way for other people - they had bonded with me because they thought I would be at all of these events. They didn't like that the event was just a one-time thing for me. They didn't want to pursue a friendship outside of the issue or activity that the event was about.
It used to be common to ask friends about things that were going on in their lives, but there were some friends whom I couldn't safely do that with. There were friends who would never talk about their clubs or events or causes without pushing me to join. And I don't mean a casual, "You should come check this out tonight." I mean, it was a very big deal to them and it was really taking a toll on our friendship - they had a problem with my not joining and I had a problem with their pressuring.

I understand that some people like to be pushed because it helps them to do what they really want to do - I know lots of people who want to exercise more and like to have a work-out buddy who pushes them to do what they wanted to do in the first place. And I can understand how a friendship between people like this would work out just fine. But everyone isn't like that. Everyone doesn't want to be pushed. I actually stop enjoying something if I feel pressured to do it. Even though I love acting, even though I would love to have someone to practice with and exchange tips and advice, I would never get along with someone who pushes me to practice my lines when I don't feel like it, or makes me feel like I need to attend the play when I'd rather not.

In answer to that question I had back in high school - not fitting into a group of serious actors, athletes, musicians, or whatever does not mean that you are less serious or that you can't identify yourself that way. Where you feel that sense belonging is very personal and is not always related to a common interest or passion. The only groups I've ever felt at home in are groups that don't have a purpose or a basis. Groups of people who just happen to be friends.  My friends aren't all part of one clique. They'll never all be in the same picture. But they are all where I belong.

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