On the morning of June 26, 2013, I was about 30 seconds into the opening introduction of a six day training seminar, when I realized I had a serious problem. I was a co-presenter for the Mississippi Department of Education’s second year of Common Core trainings, with the brilliant Lindsay Kerstetter by my side. We had trained for days, decided who would present which parts of the material, and were set up for a fantastic series. Because of my theatre experience at MSU, I had performed in front of literally thousands of people before- maybe tens of thousands, and here I was with a head full of knowledge to share with a room of 29. Everything was fine.
Then, half a minute into my welcomes and introductions, unannounced, the room pulled a strange Hitchcock camera zoom on me and I lost the ability to breathe.
I went back somehow to my voice training- I pulled hard on my lungs and I spaced my words to attract the least attention I could. But my mouth was bone dry and I could feel my face and neck flush with a panicked heat. I no longer had the ability to gauge the passage of time. I could hear words coming out of my mouth as if from a stranger in a fog. I struggled to look at the projector screen to figure out what I was talking about. I could see blank faces, Lindsay looking on, Trudy Cook, my boss, in the back of the room. Was I saying words that made sense? Was I even speaking English? This was an off-the-rails disaster. Trudy must be too shocked to say anything. Having me do this will be her undoing. Are all these people as mortified for me as I am for myself?
As I struggled to put words together, I stared at the open doors in the back of the room. I wanted to run. I wanted more than an-y-thing, to run, through those doors, apologize to everyone along the way, and just leave. I was willing to find a new career. I could imagine such a disaster, such a scandal, that I would accept this job, be trained, and then jump ship on Day 1, leaving them high and dry, but I didn’t care. I wanted so very desperately to get out of this situation. But I couldn’t. So I did the next best thing: I turned to Lindsay, asked her to take over, and I walked over to our resource table, where she was waiting “on deck.”
I still remember the shock on her face, and her stammering to pick up where I left off… but I’ll always be indebted to her for it. She saved me, without a doubt. I picked up a bottle of water, focused on my breathing, and recovered. We didn’t have another such problem the rest of the six days.
What I was dealing with was an anxiety disorder I didn’t know then that I had. I can analyze it now with a couple more years’ experience to see the predictability of how it dropped down on me that morning. I’ve even been back into “the Fog” a few times since then, but it gets less scary the more I understand it. Among its many lessons, one thing that story teaches me is the futility of pitting oneself against groups.
What made me anxious at the time was the inability to see those people as individuals. I made it like this: me vs. a roomful of humanity. I was impossibly surrounded. Alone, I had no way to tap into the energy they were readily trying to give me. It was only through connecting with an actual human being that my wounds could be healed and I could connect with the larger community. This is probably pretty simple stuff for you social types. For us folks with social anxiety, it’s a tougher lesson to learn.
A similar thing happened to me earlier this week, with one of my colleagues who had been sitting in that very room two years ago, no less. She posted an opinion about the confederate flag controversy to her Facebook page, and taking it as an invitation to discuss the ideas- which are basically the the glue of people groups- I tactlessly approached her page with that same me vs. “them” attitude. Disconnected from real humanity, I succumbed to the pressure of playing the idea defenseman, and my words were more destructive than productive. No matter how passionate or joyful I was at what I perceived to be the “exchange of ideas,” I neglected to check the pulse of what mattered most- our relationship as human beings. I apologized to her later on, but not soon enough to keep from pushing her away that day.
Sadly, we see this in our social media all the time. Our devotion to the ideas we hold dear shows us deep divisions between “us” and the objectified “them,” and we mock, ridicule, or full-on attack the other side without careful enough effort to see the human beings behind the ideas we’ve set out to defeat. And so we tend to destroy the human beings instead. I’ve been there myself: There’s a hilarious meme making its way across the Internet. Willy Wonka, Tea-Sipping Kermit, or the Skeptical African Boy totally NAIL the sarcasm you feel about THEM- the OTHER side. Or perhaps you find the perfect article, which captures your message perfectly. Congratulations! You’ve found motivational banners for your side to point to. Everyone can shout “Yes! This! This sums up what we think!”, while your opponents need not even bother to read or digest the ideas, before loading up the cannons for the response.
The truth is, beyond team-building, the social media sniping accomplishes nothing. Why? Because human beings simply do not care about the best made explanations when those ideas are thrown at their heads from behind shields and battle lines. This social media culture warfare is a dysfunction no less painful, no less jarring to the self, than was my battle with anxiety on that morning two years ago. As it turns out, my battle with anxiety shared all too much in common with my battles against competing ideas. In both cases, I was simultaneously in conflict with other people and in conflict with myself.
We all have disagreements with everyone- even those we love the most. So why should we continue to define our relationships with other people by what divides us? Just look past the ideas to find the human being beyond. Buy her lunch. Tell her a personal story about a time when you were really embarrassed or scared. Share some of your precious time together.
I guarantee before it’s all said and done, you’ll end up agreeing on something.